The fears about Illegal immigration are a classic expression of the myth of madness at the gates of the city. Seen from the inside, the mad god Dionysus threatens to invade and destroy everything of value. From the outside, however – that is, from outside the bubble of literalized thinking – we can observe a rigid cultural identity in utter denial of both its own madness and the possibilities of healing.
The anxiety, as always, stems primarily from the Puritan fear of pollution by those values and behaviors that evoke our Dionysian shadow. The walls are falling down. As both white, masculine identity and the actual economy continue to disintegrate, the desire to maintain racial purity retains a compelling hold on up to one-third of the population.
In a mythology rife with contradictions, this is one of the greatest, and I’ll say it in the simplest of terms: As a nation, we are devoted to the sacrifice of our own children. I argue in Chapter Six of my book that to keep that shameful thought out of our awareness, we claim to worry incessantly about dangers to those same children.
The gatekeepers ask us: What would happen if we relaxed our vigilance? Won’t the diseases, the drugs, the predators or the sexual images contaminate the children? “Contamination” implies the irresistible power of evil, a deep and pessimistic sense of human weakness, an inability to identify right from wrong without severe restraints, and dread of permanent pollution by the sinful. If Dionysus Lusios – the “Loosener” – opened the gates, “all hell would break loose.” Everything that the soul and the culture have stuffed into the underworld would arise and overwhelm the guardians of propriety and decorum. Accordingly, we look down towards Mexico and see both our fears and our desires.
The emotions that drive our attitudes about immigration are white America’s emotions about Mexicans and Mexico. And it is our mythologies that drive those emotions. What does “Mexico” mean, beyond the images of illegal “aliens,” in the feverish fantasies of American innocence? Banditos with cartridge belts and drooping mustaches, or guitar-strumming gigolos with greased-back hair and pencil-thin mustaches. Greasers. Wetbacks. Drug smugglers. Lazy borachos sitting on the ground, their backs against an adobe wall, swallowing from jugs of tequila while their women silently grind corn in the background. Mariachis in gaudy outfits. Tijuana and a thousand guilty pleasures. Mysterious, exotic, beckoning women, or the men who whisper, “Ay, meester, you want to meet my seester?” The Land of Romance. Sacrelicious!
We are talking about temptation, the lure of the forbidden, appetite, craving, desire, the longing for intensity. The stereotypes point us toward the archetype: The Other. But archetypes always appear in both of their polar manifestations. We are very familiar with one pole: the dangerous pollutant that threatens to cross the boundaries, to seep past the borderlands and infect the pure, clean, Protestant soul of America, to ruin its youth. In other words, “south of the border” means “below the belt.”
But we must follow the images: if one side of the archetypal experience evokes fear of contamination, we can be pretty sure that the other pole lies just below the surface or just around the corner – the shameful desire to join with it, to throw caution to the wind and plunge madly into its (our) most erotic, celebratory, impulsive, bodily, violent, debauched, dirty, unproductive – sinful – natures.
To the Puritan, the ultimate sin is lack of self-control. But the more our culture emphasizes the WASP values of hard work, competition, productiveness – staying busy – especially as jobs themselves become scarcer – the more we long for the “vacation in chaos” that large-scale, Dionysian rituals once provided, most notably in Carnival celebrations. This is why both New Orleans and San Francisco (recall that both of these cities were settled by Catholics and populated by the wildest people in the country) have always enjoyed such a double-edged reputation among the good citizens of the flyover states. And for the past fifty years we have had Las Vegas. As I write in Chapter Ten:
Consumer culture has responded by providing an entire city way out in the desert where “anything goes,” and people can briefly drop their corporate or small-town lifestyles to safely enact the shadow of Puritanism. So a vacation in Las Vegas, America’s fastest growing city, takes on the characteristics of a pilgrimage. A protected environment – a sacred space – to engage in activity that approximates the conditions of liminality, where “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” the entire city is a shrine to the goddess of luck (Fortuna) and the god of intensity.
And this is why Mexico must endure such polar-opposite projections. This is also why she must bear the brunt of the War on Drugs, which has caused 60,000 violent deaths in Mexico alone – and why Americans must endure $40 billion/year in wasted anti-drug expenditures as well as a whole industry of corrections, homeland security and patriot gatekeepers. Ironically, many of the Mexicans and Central Americans who attempt to enter the U.S. do so not for employment but because they fear for their lives and the lives of their children under this madness. Much of the cost of the border protection crusade results from the drug war itself, both in drug interdiction and increased detention and legal expenses.
Cui bono. Follow the money. For once, classical economics can help us understand a problem. It’s not about the supply; it’s about the demand. To lower the supply without changing the demand is merely to increase both the price and the risks people will take to fulfill that demand. All this mountain of human misery and economic waste exists because of the infinite American demand for the drugs and the puritan censors who refuse to accept this basic human need in themselves or allow its expression in others.
Here is one of the most fundamental causes of our national epidemics of anxiety, mental illness and opioid addiction: American culture provides only artificial and unsatisfying forms of access to the “loosened” state, and simultaneously shames those who crave it. And it makes fortunes, for both those who provide it as well as those who promise to withhold it. Cui bono.
If we relaxed our inhibitions, would we all ease our frantic participation in the wheel of production and consumption, which we so poetically term the rat race? Would we work only enough – as we quite inaccurately fantasize that Mexicans do – to ensure our survival and spend the rest of the day sharing stories, doing art, dancing and making love? This is precisely what the conquistadors accused indigenous people of doing, why they envied and destroyed them, and why conservatives are revolted at memories of the sixties, which are evoked more than anything by marijuana (a word that comes from Mexican Spanish).
Haven’t we always been obsessed, for these reasons, with immigration? Certainly. But the fear mongering in its current form is actually quite recent. It has only been since the end of the Cold War, when politicians went searching for a new Other, and specifically since 9/11, that the right wing has successfully conflated the issues of immigration and terrorism.
The Paranoid Imagination does not discriminate between inner and outer. Whenever we evoke one pole of the archetype of the Other (the outer Other, formerly communism, now terrorism), the other, inner pole (race) automatically constellates, with a little help from the corporate media. Since immigration, not a major issue in the 1990s, combines both, it is an elixir of potency for the fear mongers. After a few years of mass anxiety about the new threat of Muslim (brown) terrorism, it was inevitable that Mexican (brown) immigration would surface, once again, on the roiling sea of our anxieties.
By 2007, a Republican activist could say, without being laughed off his stage, “Some of these people may be coming in here to get jobs washing dishes, but some of them are coming in here to hijack airplanes…I can’t tell Jose Cuervo from Al Queda…” He was framing the issue to stress not criminality but otherness. That same year, state legislatures introduced over 1,400 immigration measures – a number that exceeded the total of the previous ten years.