America: stop being stupid; or, Teddy Roosevelt knows nothing about immigration policy

I am long since used to my family and friends in Missouri forwarding me emails like the one reproduced below, without modification, in all its boldfaced glory:

The year is 1907, one hundred years ago….READ PRINT UNDER PICTURE

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Theodore Roosevelt’s ideas on Immigrants and being an AMERICAN in 1907 :

“In the first place, we should insist that if the immigrant who comes here in good faith becomes an American and assimilates himself to us, he shall be treated on an exact equality with everyone else, for it is an outrage to discrimin ate against any s uch man because of creed, or birthplace, or origin. But this is predicated upon the person’s becoming in every facet an American, and nothing but an American…There can be no divided allegiance here. Any man who says he is an American, but something else also, isn’t an American at all. We have room for but one flag, the American flag… We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language… and we have room for but one sole loyalty and that is a loyalty to the American people.”
Theodore Roosevelt 1907

Every American citizen needs to read this!

PLEASE KEEP THIS MOVING

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Independent of its political content, this email and others like it epitomize an historically American of sloppy thinking. Set aside Teddy Roosevelt’s ignorance and narrowmindedness, which is excused by history as a product of his age (set aside, that is, the political dispute over immigration that inspires emails like this one). Set that aside and we still have a ridiculous argument being made here: You should believe such and such because a person (dead or alive, usually long dead) whom we respect or respected in some respects believed such and such. As though it makes any rational sense to substitute the judgment of a man, any man, from 1907 for our own in evaluating massively complex, global social issues like immigration, problems that are themselves products of postmodernity! To put the matter strictly in terms of being clear: “immigration” doesn’t mean in 2008 what it did in 1907, and to endorse Teddy’s “argument” is to implicitly make the absurd assumption that the two are in any way the same thing when scrutinized. They are not. Seeking Teddy’s opinion on this matter makes about as much sense as asking the captain of a 1920s ocean steamliner for advice on how to free the U.S.S. Enterprise from a gravitational eddy. Which is to say it makes so little sense that anyone who suggested it would probably be sent to sickbay for a few psychiatric scans. Ulysses S. Grant’s diagnosis: “It is preposterous to suppose that the people of one generation can lay down the best and only rules of government for those who come after them…. We could not and ought not be rigidly bound by the rules laid down under circumstances so different….” [1]

Yet this sort of absurd “reasoning” simply pours out of conservatives in places like Missouri, which is why it’s increasingly difficult for me to take anything political I receive from (most, certainly not all) people I know in Missouri seriously. That someone would earnestly send along that Teddy graphic with that text indicates at best an intellectual laziness on his part and at worst a disregard for rationality, perhaps a malicious disregard. I don’t think it’s malice, but rather the tendency to passively receive and mindlessly forward nonsensical emails like this one, the tendency to take rhetorical husks like this email to be any sort of evidence of of anything.

Yes: I understand that this particular email might well have been meant to be nothing more than humorous. But how distinct is the line between humor and earnestness here? And where precisely do we locate the humor? In the funny picture? In Roosevelt’s historical ignorance? In the naivete of whomever put it together in the first place? Where? I’ve been listing ways of finding humor in this that mock the email and the original maker—rather than ways that find the email or its maker funny—because I honestly can’t see how else it, that is the email as such, could be in the least funny. Of course we can’t say objectively why this or anything is funny. But I am confident that if you asked most people who forward this to people what precisely they find funny about it, it would not be the feebleness of the email’s message or the thickheadedness of its creator. I imagine that most people who forward this to family and friends don’t find it at all funny—more likely, they find that Roosevelt’s sentiments mirror their own. They don’t think it’s funny, they think it’s correct. But whether or not Roosevelt is “correct” isn’t at issue here; we can’t even speak of “correctness” in this context—Roosevelt has never been to the 21st century, he has no opinion, valid or otherwise, on our current immigration situation. This Roosevelt email is pernicious not because Roosevelt’s sentiments are “wrong” in any grand, atemporal sense, but because it encourages readers to jettison their critical judgment and take Roosevelt’s opinion on this matter seriously as a guide to political and moral engagements with the questions of immigration policy. I do find this dangerous to our ability to seriously address immigration (a political and policy concern); but I find it even more dangerous to the intellectual fiber of our country (a moral concern). Every time someone forwards an email like this one, we all get a little dumber.

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NOTES

[1] Vollmann, William T. Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Freedom, Violence, and Urgent Means. New York: Ecco, 2003. 307.

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