Friday, October 12, 2007

Of Whores and Their Children, and Immigrants and Their Licenses

In 1772 Justus Möser, a German official and fairly well-known historian, wrote an essay entitled, “On the Diminished Disgrace of Whores and their Children in Our Day.” Möser argued that back in the old days, when people took their societal obligations seriously, the children of out of wedlock births were simply shunned and lived their out their pitiful lives in disgrace—bastards, after all, are bastards.

But in his day, with the rise of orphanages and foundling hospitals, there was a new attitude afoot; some argued that the children of whores and other low class and caste products of short-term liaisons had done nothing wrong themselves, and did not inherit their parent’s guilt. For Möser this attitude was unacceptable. The reason the children of out of wedlock births should inherit a stigma was to discourage unacceptable behavior. If illegitimate children are treated as legitimate, as the bleeding-hearts wanted, he argued, prostitution will flourish and copulation will thrive.

This is a classic conservative attitude (I became acquainted with the essay in Jerry Z. Muller’s excellent historical anthology of conservative thinking, simply entitled Conservatism.) For Möser bad and unwanted behavior can be controlled only by stiff penalties for those that engage in it. Unless there is real suffering, there is no impulse to reform. It is not really individual guilt or responsibility that is at issue; it is need for collective shaming for an unwanted class of persons, including their minor dependants, and others involved with them. It is not the rights of an individual that is at stake; it is the prerogatives of society and social order.

I thought of Möser’s essay reading Rob’s excellent post on the controversy on whether illegal and undocumented immigrants should have the right to obtain New York State driver’s licenses. Oh, there’s a lot of back and forth on terrorism, like all issues of the day, but it is largely irrelevant to the emotional heart of the issue (and to the facts of the case.) For some, if you come into this country outside of the regular processes, you ought to be shunned, basically to discourage others. The other side argues that, once an immigrant is here, what is most important is trying to help them to have useful and productive roles in American society. The analogy to bastardy is really not that far fetched; much of the debate about immigration, now, and dating back to the mid-nineteenth century, was over what might be called “legitimate” and illegitimate” Americans; what’s most important is not who you are as an individual, or what you are doing in this country, but how you arrived here.

We have a long history of second-class citizenship in this country. In many ways the great task of American democracy, from the founding of the country through the 1960s was to make all people born in this country, in the truest sense of the word, citizens. In his best known work, Jesus and the Disinherited, the African-American theologian Howard Thurman makes a contrast between the religion of Jesus and the religion of Paul. Paul was a Roman citizen, born in Tarsus in Asia Minor; Jesus a non-citizen born in the Galilee, who lived his life under the thumb of Roman power, and for Thurman, this made all the difference in their understanding of religion and approaches to life. Thurman, born in the Jim Crow south in 1899, based much of his religious thought on an exploration of the spiritual implications of citizenship, and his conviction that second-class citizenship for blacks was not, in any substantial way, citizenship at all.

As we made progress in this country towards solving the problems second-class citizenship in the 1960s, only to find that we had created a new class of “second-class non-citizens,” illegal or undocumented immigrants. We are still trying to deal with the implications of this. The solution will likely not be in ending this class of American altogether, either by removing them from this country, or granting them all “first-class non-citizenship.” They are too numerous, too important in our society, and too much a part of the way that modern economies and population transfers work. And probably we can’t simply have totally open borders, either.

But one thing that I know is that the approach of latter-day Justus Möser’s, who think that by ratcheting up civil and civic disabilities on illegal immigrants, like denying them driving licenses, that they will somehow make the problem go away are barking up the wrong tree and likely to be disappointed. The debate we need on the economic, political, philosophical, and even religious implications of the new class of immigrant, and their role in American society, needs to be as searching as the one that ended Jim Crow.

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