Arizona: the Other as Enemy

07/02/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On the day the governor of Arizona, Jan Brewer, signed an outrageous immigration law, I was at the JFK airport in New York about to embark on a one-month long trip to Colombia, Italy, Belgium, Switzerland, and Spain. At the check-in, handing over my papers to the airline officer, I could not help but thinking about the privilege for being white, European, with an Italian passport and a green card. Every time I travel abroad, either for business or for pleasure, I do not have to face the ordeal citizens of the South of the world have to go through when they want to travel beyond the borders of their country. No long lines at European or U.S. embassies, no need to provide the details of my bank account, and a letter by my employer with the particularities of my contract and of my salary, and proof of my interest to come back. I do not have to proof my decency. I am a citizen of the first world, therefore by default I am decent and I have the right to enjoy the opportunities of our globalized world. Not so my fellow human beings of the Southern part of the world. They have less rights, less opportunities, less freedom, because, at the end of the day, they are less decent; they need to proof they are neither criminals nor suckers of our privileges and comforts. Millions of people experience this system of discrimination set up by the Western world. It so happens that while any American or European, rich or poor, is allowed to travel almost everywhere in the world, citizens from the so-called developing countries cannot. From the Southern part of the world only people with fat bank accounts can enjoy the privileges of globalization the same way I do as a white and European man: which means reach people and criminals.

This is why the immigration law of Arizona is so appalling. Of course the governor, a republican, is playing a political game. A dirty and indecent one. Leveraging the anxieties of her fellow white citizens, she wants to win elections by engaging in a politics of fear and discrimination while at the same time turning up the heat of the right against president Obama. For governor Brewer as for many others it must be a nightmare to have an African-American and a son of an immigrant from Africa, to be President of the United States! But Arizona's law reveals also a reality that is running deeper; a construction of the Other as enemy, that is, as less human. The different Other is not a fellow human being, but one that because of the color of the skin and his or her cultural heritage, is like a virus that can taint the white and Anglo culture. This was the thesis of the late Samuel Huntington in his book Who We Are: the Challenges to America's National Identity, in which the Mexicans in particular were portrayed as a menace. As if culture were an objectified reality, with fixed and rigid boundaries and not the product of constant cultural borrowing. Not isolation but cultural osmosis allows a culture to live on and to develop.

A few days ago, I read an essay the great Mexican writer Octavio Paz composed fifty years ago on Mexican identity. I read it with Arizona in mind. He mulled over observations he made about Mexican immigrants in the course of his sojourn in the United States. What set them apart, he noted, were not so much physical traits but rather their furtive and anxious manner, of beings who disguise themselves and who are frightened of the alien look, capable of stripping them and leave them naked. The observation of Octavio Paz is interesting, because it recognizes the challenge and the difficulty of assimilation. He seems critical of the immigrants' attitude and highlights that every time a people is inward looking and builds towering walls around its own identity, it radicalizes and deepens the awareness of everything that separates and isolates it from the other. The Mexican writer provides also a compelling inventory of variances between the American and the Mexican cultures and which render assimilation a challenge. But he is also painfully provocative when - besides recognizing that America is a society that strives to fulfill her ideals - he turns the gaze on the puritanism of American culture. The puritan equals purity with good health - he wrote. Every contact contaminates. Races, ideas, customs, and alien bodies carry germs of perdition and impurity. Social hygiene, he affirmed, completes the one of the body and of the soul.

Isn't the immigration law of Arizona an attempt at social hygiene? It is certainly a sign of a lack of confidence. When the presence of the different Other is perceived and experienced as a menace, then a group, a community, a society or a state project their weakness and their insecurities through a tough rhetoric of zero-tolerance; insecurity masked by an delusional firmness. Closing herself in a form of cultural autism, Arizona is showing signs of degeneration and involution.

Traveling to Sao Paolo, Brazil, in the mid-1930s, French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss was struck by the eagerness and the ambition and the curiosity of the people of the New World. Those are qualities that I myself encounter when I travel to Latin America or when I meet with Latinos and other immigrants who live in the United States. There is freshness and an inventiveness that is no more met in Europe and the United States. Our Western civilization is destined to become old and degenerated, unless we are open to the Other with curiosity. The same curiosity that animated, for instance, the journalist Ryszard Kapuciski to discover what laid beyond the borders of his fatherland, Poland. Cultural assimilation and integration are a hopeless aim as long as we criminalize and reject the Other because of his or her difference. Nourishing our curiosity, would be a more efficient and creative method.