Moralpolitik and the Ressentiments of Change

As German and U.S. refugee policies inevitably collide in light of current events, this writer finds herself in the United States. The other writer of this blog will soon be in Germany, taking stock of the so-called “refugee crisis” on the ground. On my side of the Atlantic, a crisis is not yet to be felt… at least not so acutely. This has as much to do with media semantics as it does with history.

According to headlines, the German government has pledged haven – albeit temporary in many cases – to up to 800,000 refugees or migrants applying for asylum in the country. The U.S., despite initial wavering, has signaled that it will work to raise its refugee quota yearly, with the goal of a 100,000 cap by 2017. The Pope, as leader of the spiritual state of Catholicism, has planned to make migrants and refugees one of the few central issues of his travels around the Western Hemisphere this week.

All at once, it seems that moral duty, a college ethics course, and politics have fused into one mandate to assist.

Yet within and around this historical moment of humanitarian crisis and measured political response are the inflammatory words of Donald Trump. He recently roared to a crowd in Iowa that, if elected, he “will deport all of the 11 million illegal migrants in this country.” When asked by Univision’s anchor Jorge Ramos how he would accomplish such a feat, he coolly responded, “I’m a great manager.”

Donald Trump immigration

Source: Charlie Neibergall/AP via The Guardian

One can easily get caught up in the absurdity that is the American campaign season, enjoying its theatrics as a harmless part of the celebrity process. But Trump’s words should hold weight, and they should be cause for alarm.

Trump’s message is not as obtuse, as unnecessarily harsh as it might seem; it reflects not only present sentiment but historical precedent… for both the United States and Germany. With the current refugee and migrant crisis, old tensions are slowly and loudly being unearthed. And the mobility of many of the world’s displaced, traumatized, and poor is not likely to change any time soon.

National Public Radio’s Fresh Air recently interviewed one of the scholars behind the book “Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s”. The volume documents a massive and relentless deportation program at a time when xenophobia and economic distress were rampant. Historians Raymond Rodriguez and Francisco Balderrama document what is nothing short of a terrifying episode in American history – frightening for what right-wing reactionaries in a new age of migration might be capable of.

As Rodriguez shared with Fresh Air’s host, Terry Gross, the 1930s treated Mexican Americans with great malice and abuse. For reason only of their heritage, they were targeted by government programs and private citizens alike. This abuse culminated in the federal government’s campaign to strip millions of Americans of their citizenship. Not all those rounded up in deportation raids were naturalized citizens, though estimates suggest than ½ of those expelled were. Most were visa-holders of some sort, their only crime having been born a member of a demonized ethnic group.

Governmental programs to round up and expel society’s undesirables often begin in cities, according to history (see the American strategy of Japanese internment or Nazi Germany’s institution of the urban ghetto). And so Los Angeles was the primary target of the government’s Mexican American deportation program. Largely as a response to the despair the Great Depression had unleashed across the country, officials systematically sent entire families from the L.A. area back to Mexico, with no infrastructure in place to receive them. From 1929 to 1944, 1/3 of L.A.’s Mexican American population was deported.

Los Angeles Mexican Americans 1932

Source: Los Angeles Public Library/Herald Examiner Collection via National Public Radio

Ressentiments – projection of resentment or fear onto often vulnerable groups in society – were widespread both in the U.S. and in Germany throughout the Great Depression. Xenophobia in the face of severe economic collapse paved the way for Germany’s organized extermination machinery. The U.S.’s internment of Japanese and German citizens, its continued subordination of Black Americans, and its systematic deportation of Mexican Americans demonstrate that this country was in no way spared such a nasty past.

Slowly but surely, such ressentiments have now begun to return. This time, Germany may be more in the right, even despite a few documented attacks on refugee facilities, while America edges closer toward the precipice of wrong.

On my side of the ocean, I have arrived into a complicated sector of the nexus of natural diversity and these increasing ressentiments. Vancouver, Washington, where both my parents now live, is becoming increasingly “Brown”. Separated only by a short bridge across the Columbia River, Southwest Washington has become Portland’s semi-urban/semi-rural extension. Because the northern bank of the river offers families more space for cheaper, better funded schools for fewer private tax dollars, and income tax exemption, immigrants who may have otherwise moved to the Portland, Oregon metro area are now planting themselves on the side of its less expensive neighbor. Portland, as a result, has become increasingly White.

Interstate bridge over the Columbia River, connecting Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, Washington

Interstate bridge over the Columbia River, connecting Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, Washington

According to most recent U.S. census data, Vancouver is now 11% Hispanic, inching closer to the national average. We can expect this number to be much higher in reality, as immigrants will often opt out of participation in the census. There are other ethnic groups represented in Vancouver’s demographic development: For example, 18% of families speak a language other than English at home, and the traditional taco truck has recently seen competition in North African, Japanese, and Thai flavors.

None of this would seem all that significant, if I were not writing about a traditionally conservative county, with once sprawling farm land and a historical military base; a county that has now been converted into a rare blend of suburban developments, strip malls, urbane boutiques, and miles and miles of regional road. The nickname of “Van-tucky”* – something I have only heard used on the other side of the water, mind you – might tell you all you need to know.

The rate of poverty in Vancouver is also higher than the national average. Vancouver’s mayor recently launched a task force to investigate the cause of growing homelessness, rising rents, and increased demand for housing in the city’s most accessible and commercially viable areas. Serving as Portland’s “bedroom community” brings with it numerous tax and transportation disadvantages, as well, such as costly inter-city transit for a significant commuter population and bridges nationally notorious for being structurally unsound.

In a brand-new cocktail bar in downtown Vancouver, which serves only locally-distilled (read artisanal) spirits, I sip my smoky-cucumber-tequila mixture and listen in on the interaction between the unlikely combination of guests who have just joined me on the patio. Three White bikers – two older women with smokers’ cough and one machismo with a mustache – scoff at the price of their beer. Across from them at a nearby table, two women in their mid-20s, both with long black hair, one who speaks English with an accent.

cocktail Vancouver, Washington

Older veterans and cowboy-like characters are scattered across Vancouver’s downtown like curated remains of what was once here. They drink Rainier out of cans – Washington State’s Pabst Blue Ribbon with more local charm – and chain smoke in the park. They inhabit the dive bars with names like “Lounge” and antique neon advertisements. It seems that establishments like this new artisanal cocktail bar threaten to upset a tender balance between familiarity, comfort, and growth.

“$4! Bullshit”, one of the women hollers. The two younger ladies nudge their shoulders closer together, in order to continue a conversation disrupted by the boom of our three new patio companions.

The machismo turns toward the young women’s table, putting his hand on one of their legs. “Where you from, honey?”, he begins his monologue, “I’m a native, been here for more than 20 years, Detroit before that. You know how much this place has changed?”

Neither responds; however, the one whose leg is playing host to the man’s hand begins to shift uncomfortably.

“Where you from honey? You aren’t from around here, I can tell you that!”, one of the older women yells between sips from her can. “When did Rainier get this damn expensive? It’s bullshit, $4! I’ll tell you something…”

One of the young, dark-haired women flashes machismo a smile. “I’m from Panama!”, she says, and extends her hand for a shake. He takes it and squeezes it, returning both their hands to the table.

“I’m American, from here”, the other woman says, her leg now turned as far away from his body as the chair allows.

“But where are your parents from then?”, machismo asks with a chuckle. “That’s what I’m asking, ain’t it?”

She concedes, but stands to use the restroom (or simply disappear into the building) as she does: “Well, I’m Filipino.”

Ressentiments toward the Other can begin and fester in spaces of socioeconomic change. With President Obama’s pledge to take in 100,000 refugees, the question becomes “How will this country prepare its citizens to engage respectfully and kindly with members of a majority Muslim country?” The first step in this process is realizing that we have a lot of work to do, and we need politicians who will help us get there.

Germany has seen a fair share of reporting on the readiness of its population to open its arms to newcomers. It is easy to draw parallels to the past, particularly to Germany’s track record in failing to integrate its guest-worker population and in promoting ethnic-based citizenship until it was almost too late. However, it is Germany the rest of the world now looks to in awe – for choosing a kind of moralpolitik over patterns of the past.

Being so far away from a society I sometimes feel I know more about than my own (society of origin), I can’t help but beam with pride in watching small towns across Germany distribute clean clothes, socks, new toys, children’s books, and warm meals to the thousands of human beings in need who have crossed their borders. Nevertheless, Germany has since issued temporary border controls. Order still wins out over populist charity.

But aiming for a collective solution to the continuous stream of migrants and refugees into Europe, German leaders have worked to reach agreement upon a refugee quota for EU member states. Just this Tuesday this quota became a provisional reality.

Time will tell if all members comply, and if a sense of moral duty is really as strong as images of kind citizens touting bags of donations suggest. Yet I do have the sense that with each step toward welcoming the Other, ressentiments have fewer chances of surviving. When demonstrations of kindness are just so strong, so publicly undeniable, that Trump-esque hate can find no oxygen for its fire.

That is what I hope for America.

At the moment, the U.S. remains crippled and complicated by its multi-layered fears of all the regions of the world it has wronged. As UN Ambassador Samantha Power made clear in an NPR interview recently, the country is not ready to simply do the right thing; it has to be a calculated response, taking security into account.

Overcoming fear is America’s consistent and stubborn challenge. I just hope the mistakes of the 1930s can mean something.

By Kelly Miller

*Van-tucky is a reference to the southern state of Kentucky, the unofficial home of fried-chicken and horse races.


  1. lovely piece, kells. makes me think of my experience in garmisch-partenkirchen – further evidence of a belief i’ll hold no matter how naive the news makes it out to be, that individuals sharing space, kindness and access can resolve problems even of this magnitude.

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