Conservatives, Immigrants, and the Romantic Imagination

by Samir Chopra

13340183_10100452167025613_3237593709031880791_oOnce upon a time in America’s not-too-distant past, immigrants of the first and second generations were reckoned a safe vote for the Republican Party’s brand of conservatism. It was not just immigrants with log-sized chips on their shoulders from communist countries—Russia, Hungary, Poland, Cuba, for instance—who were willing and enthusiastic consumers of American conservatism; immigrants of all stripes often showed marked allegiance to important conservative causes and claims. This history should still feature in explanations of why immigrants have not always been successful in building multi-racial alliances with African-Americans, and thus, why American anti-racism politics remains handicapped by a lack of solidarity between its demographic components. It will show how the Republican Party found a rhetorical appeal to divide anti-Republican coalitions of minorities by attacking them at one of their most vulnerable points—the divide between the ‘immigrant’ and the ‘resident,’—by appealing to a sense of immigrant virtue, one cast as a conservative ideal.

The immigrant’s imagination, tinged with a hint of the romantic, bears some explanatory responsibility for his political predilections. The romantic imagination sees man pitted alone against the awesome, stifling forces of nature and society; the immigrant considers himself confronted by the formidable foes of unfamiliar languages and cultures, class relations, and sometimes political forces that colonized his former home. Modern revisionary descriptions of conservative intellectuals as a species of romantic reactionaries suggest immigrants—who tell stories of transformative journeys of arrival and accomplishment—and conservatives are united by a species of self-conception in which they are outsiders who subvert and master a dominant system that has inflicted a heavy and painful loss upon them. Like the conservative, the immigrant suggests the ladder be ‘pulled up’ now that he has been hauled aboard—in his mind by an effort whose credit is solely his. The immigrant sympathizes with an unsympathetic conservative vision of others ‘like him’ because, like the conservative, he sees himself as an outsider who has ‘made it’ despite suffering a terrible loss.

I should know, for I was one such ‘loser.’

The Immigrant as Romantic Loser

The immigrant crosses the black water; he leaves family, home, and friends behind; he leaves behind a language, a sense of humor, a cultural space, a way of life; he leaves behind the familiar to seek out the unfamiliar. On arriving, on settling into his new ‘home,’ he sinks to his knees in despair at the memory of the home left behind, at his realization of the extent of the horrifying dissonance that is his lot for the foreseeable future; there is no easy return from this exile. He resolves to make this new life a happy one; he gets to work—the simplest way to bend reality to his wishes. Far away, back in his home, the gaping maw of his absence is filled with remembrance; something has gone out of that older life; a light has been extinguished. In the old days, the immigrant’s journey was a kind of death; the new world, which held out threat and promise alike, was both heaven and hell.

The immigrant is keenly aware of the loss he has suffered in making his journey; nothing is more significant to him than this vital, transformative absence of familiar, formative, lands and peoples. When the immigrant hears talk of loss—no matter what kind—he can instantly empathize, responding at a psychological and affective level not consciously accessible for inspection or introspection. The immigrant understands death better than others; he has already died once. He suffers from nostalgia, a painful affliction, the hankering for a lost world; and the conservative imagination is a species of nostalgia for an older world.

Tales of, and told by, immigrants are almost always tales of unrelenting hard work, of a lonely climb up from the bottom of the ladder, painstakingly surmounting one social, economic, and cultural rung after another. There is the early rising, the late sleeping, the self-abnegation, the sending of money back home to take care of others, the ascetic denial of pleasure as vital personal needs go unmet, all subservient to greater causes of family and culture. Underwriting this exhausting existence is the premise that to make one life—that of the second generation immigrant child, another one, that of the immigrant parent, must be sacrificed. Immigrants thus speak of how they put their lives on the altar for the sake of the generation to follow: this life may not be redeemed, but the next one will be. Such a self-conception lends their toils and losses a religious air; it is the normative foundation of their autobiographies.

Unsurprisingly, tales told by immigrants are romantic stories of survival, redemption, and overcoming: this new world, a strange one, did its worst; but the immigrant survived nevertheless. They are tales of individual striving, of solitary effort, of the expression of a singular will against the legal, political, social, linguistic, cultural, and monetary forces arrayed against the migrant. Immigrants are grateful for their new lands and homes, but they never miss an opportunity to talk about the losses they suffered along the way to the Promised Land. The ‘in-my-day’ stories of the immigrant speak of grim times and hard work; they elide, all too often, all else that made their success possible. Their villains are not always recognizable as such; loss brings some things into focus and not others. Some political realities are only dimly glimpsed in the new, narrow political vision the immigrant acquires in his new home.

My Journey Across The Black Water

I am an immigrant and I suffer from the migrant’s characteristic afflictions: I describe my first days in the US in a language that speaks to my ability to overcome adversity. I speak of immense distances traveled through space and time even as my distinct, mongrel accent serves as a reminder I have not traveled too far. I had flown to the US on an airliner, suffering tedious flights across continents and oceans visible far below; the separation afflicting those who came over on ships, sailing on the forbidding deep-fathomed oceans of days gone by, was undoubtedly worse.

In my early days in Newark, New Jersey, my first home in the US, across the river from that haven of immigrants, New York City, my racial politics were shaped by peculiar personal patterns of understanding and resentment: I saw my handicaps as a foreigner as markedly different from the other unfortunates—black Americans—who were visible in that blighted inner city. An early manifestation of this understanding of my place in American society was simple: I had an accent, and black Americans did not; therefore, they were fortunate in a way I was not. I did not see ‘Black English’ or ‘Ebonics’ as a marker of racial difference and a social handicap; to me, suffering from the humiliation of repeatedly having my accented speech pointed out to me, of having to ‘speak up’ or repeat myself again and again, or being told—in tones of patronizing ‘admiration’—I had mastered English very quickly even though I had been speaking English all my life, black Americans enjoyed a special dispensation, the luxury of speaking in the way they wanted. They were able to coin their own terms, their own lingua franca, in culturally acceptable fashion; their accents were not pointed out to them; they were not subjected to humiliating requests to speak clearly. They were more fortunate than me; they did not need my solidarity or sympathy; they did not challenge my capacity to be empathetic.

On one occasion, after once again having had to repeat myself, or on having being told I spoke with a ‘cute’ or ‘strong’ accent, I thought I would rather be black in America than an Indian—if only I could get rid of this accursed accent that marked me out as an outsider, a resident of the margins. Perhaps that night, I scrubbed myself a little harder with soap and water. I was echoing—in my thoughts of self-effacement—blacks who wished they could rid themselves of the color of their skin, the curliness of their hair, their particular facial physiognomy. I did not consider that the history of black people made them outsiders too; all I cared to notice was that they fitted effortlessly into social domains that appeared closed to me, which I sought, desperately, to enter. The usual tales of Indian success in America left me cold; those successes in academic and business domains were not visible in the dimensions and domains most important to me in my daily life—Indians were not funny, athletic, artistically talented, and we were not sexy, not at all. Indian men were diminished, emasculated types; the women were exotic oddities, treasured only for their ‘dusky’ beauty. Being Indian in Newark, an international student, was to be another badly accented, brown skinned person, a social misfit redolent with ‘curry spices.’

The popularity of black culture, the visible signs of African American achievement in professional sports and arts and entertainment, their vital role in the American sensibility as cultural icons, these social facts told me ‘hard working’ blacks had made it, while the ‘lazy’ ones—the drug dealers and streetwalking prostitutes lounging about outside Newark’s grim housing projects, selling drugs and their bodies, or just being homeless, diseased, and derelict—had not. As they should not have; they did not work as hard as I did; they did not want to climb up the ladder like I did. I saw myself as a battler; I saw them infected by a defeatist disease that had crippled their ability to resist. If I could leave my family and home behind, bravely absorbing that loss, and still be prepared for ‘battle’ in these distant, foreign, lands, then why could not they, the ones who lived here, and therefore had not suffered the losses I had? The Koreans in Los Angeles who worked their fingers to the bone in their twenty-four hour grocery stores and who resented the African Americans who subjected them to racist abuse perhaps reasoned along the same lines.

Despite my knowledge of the history of slavery, of the civil rights movement, of the long and dishonorable history of racism in America, I did not think the victimhood of the African-American community was unique. For I considered myself a victim of racial discrimination too: the hostile graffiti in libraries and bathrooms and lecture hall desks, the mockery of my accent, the straightforward verbal abuse to my face all told me so. Away in Jersey City, where a growing population of Indian immigrants had sparked a resentful pushback from local residents, young Indians were beaten—sometimes to death—by the so-called Dotbusters. Despite my education, my knowledge of English, my so-called immersion in American culture, I was a pariah on campus; and yet the ones complaining about social discrimination were those who had it ‘easier’ than me. The local residents had everything—families and childhood friends and a local sense of ‘place’—I lacked. They should have made it, or given the impression of trying. I did not see that the loss of history I bemoaned, the absence opened up in my life, was present in theirs too.

Because, I reasoned, African-Americans were part of local mechanisms of ostracism, because they were bigoted and prejudiced against me, they could not be discriminated against themselves. It was thus easy to take a resentful stance—ripe for conservative indoctrination—toward a group whose members did not appear to be treat me warmly. Once a black man called me a ‘white bastard’ because he thought I was staring at him; on another occasion, thanks to my constant abrasive interactions with female co-workers in the university cafeteria—whose brusque joshing with me, a quasi-hazing ritual of sorts, felt like a literal rejection—I decided my most despised American demographic was the black woman. These resentments were easily misdirected by the acute sense of loss and longing I constantly experienced.

My struggle was hard; engaging in it granted me nobility. I was brave and venturesome; black Americans were safe and complacent. The romantic contrast between the staid social order and those who accepted it and the distinctive individual who fought against it—in my case, by studying while I kept myself financially solvent by working menial jobs on campus—was given a new shading in my mind. I saw my struggle, that of an outsider immigrant struggling against forces greater than me, cast into the wilderness and left to fend for myself, as an essentially individual one. I saw myself fighting a lonely battle against racist prejudice, student poverty, homesickness, and sexual frustration. I ignored the supporting systems and casts that propped me up: roommates, classmates, helpful professors, on-campus jobs.

So I invented a story of my arrival in the US; it included an inventory of my pitiful belongings and possessions. But I was not empty-handed and barefoot when I walked through the immigrations and customs checkpoints at John F. Kennedy International Airport on 15 August 1987; I had a check for the first semester’s tuition—a little over two thousand dollars—and another check for sundry personal expenses amounting to a thousand dollars. Three thousand dollars is a staggering amount compared to the pittances impoverished immigrants—arriving sometimes from war or famine stricken lands—brought to these shores. To be sure, my mother’s life savings were denuded; there was now little left for her. But she had saved those monies for me; she had been able to tell me that if I could find a reasonably priced university she could pay the first year’s tuition, after which I would be on my own. I found, all too soon on arrival in the US, that I was an unfortunate nevertheless. I rarely ate well, living off cigarettes and coffee because I could not afford cafeteria food and had to wait to return home to eat a cheap home-cooked meal. I spent considerable time consumed in envy, gazing at those considerably more fortunate than me in having female companionship; my sexual denial lent ‘my struggle’ a keen edge and made it religious in its chastity and absence of physical and emotional satisfaction. The germs of a classic immigrant tale had taken hold.

Aid was not absent: I was helped by roommates, a friendly landlord, the international students who taught me how to navigate the complexities of the school system, but I forgot them all. Other immigrants pitched in; my roommates and I were gifted a car—which facilitated driving from city to city to look for apartment rentals—by a friendly Indian professor at a nearby university. No matter; in later versions of the story, this gift became a ‘piece of shit’ we had to use for commuting, even as others continued to rely on the trains and subways of New Jersey’s transit system. I told stories galore of how the car’s floor leaked water, how it broke down at inconvenient times in inconvenient locations. I replaced tales of good fortune and generosity with stories of how landlords turned us away because we were international students (brown ones) whose food smelled, and who would sneak in others to come share their living spaces. We were regarded as hustlers on the legal margins; I took on the hustling part of that identity and made it my own.

In such a context, an ostensibly ‘classically conservative’ political message, one that stressed the virtuous qualities of self-reliance, economic frugality, personal responsibility, and their application in that zone of merit and hard work, the free market, fell on welcoming ears. The libertarian fantasy contained within it, that all was possible without the aid and cooperation of others, was an appealing one. After all, my life instantiated the ‘conservative virtues’; I was a skinflint miser, saving and scraping every cent, focused on my path upward and out of campus on to a brighter and better American life—visible ‘outside’—that was my due. Conservative rants against the welfare state and affirmative action fell on eagerly listening ears; I did not want either. I spoke, read, and wrote well in, English. I was self-confident even though persistently racked with sexual anxiety and insecurity. I thought I would find my way through this land and resented those who by dint of being here before had claimed an advantage not due to me.

My Indian middle-class background was one of social, not economic, privilege. I had never considered myself affluent in my old life, and had only taken comfort in the fact I came from a ‘good family’ and thus had access to middle-class India’s not-inconsiderable blessings of education and cultural privilege. But that privilege was gone now, and my brooding over how I, the resident of one of India’s greatest cities, a male member of a proud family, the son of a war hero, had come to find himself living in a dingy apartment in a grimy post-industrial city, subject to constant racial humiliation, only enhanced my sense of loss.

The Conservative ‘Outsider’ and His Loss

Daniel McCarthy writes that “before it became conflated with right-wing populism, conservatism was very much a movement of outsiders.”[1] These outsiders included immigrants and members of other marginalized groups for “of the twenty-five conservative intellectuals whose photographs appeared on the dust jacket of George H. Nash’s The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945…four are Roman Catholic, seven are Jewish, another seven…are foreign-born…only five are…of the historically dominant Anglo-Saxon…Protestant strain.” These named groups—Catholics, Jews, the foreign-born—had all been, at some point in American history and culture, vilified and consigned to the margins. (In a vivid demonstration of the old saw that nothing unites men like women, none appear in the conservative group whose photographs are noted above.) The American conservative “convention” of welcoming immigrants is usually traced back to its supposed intellectual forefather, Edmund Burke, an Irishman born to a Catholic mother who served in the English Parliament. But conservatism and immigrants belong together not because some immigrants have been conservatives but because they are united by a common sense of loss.

Corey Robin writes in The Reactionary Mind that “real social loss, of power and position, privilege and prestige—is the mustard seed of conservative innovation.”[2] Without such a location of loss in conservative thought, we fail to comprehend a distinctive and ironic feature of conservatism, “a ruling class resting its claims to power upon its sense of victimhood,” one which underwrites its flirtations with fascism. Conservatism thus becomes “a tribune for the displaced.”[3] An immigrant, someone who is ‘displaced’ literally and figuratively, hears the conservative call clearly.

Robin points out that conservatism appeals to a “victim…who has lost something of value, as opposed to the wretched of the earth [who] never had anything to lose” and provides us “an ideology promising that that loss…can be made whole.” The immigrant, as a potential target of this call by the conservative, is painfully aware that “nothing is ever so cherished as that which we no longer possess;” he is particularly susceptible to messages from the political right which claim to speak to his understanding that nothing quite “disturbs the idyll of inheritance as the sudden and often brutal replacement of one world with another.”[4] My world too, had been replaced with another; in the way I experienced my first days in the US, I could not blame myself for the dramatic change in my life’s fortunes. Instead I had sought, and found, scapegoats among those who were already condemned and sentenced in America.

While conservatives are capable of playing “victim and victor with a conviction and dexterity the subaltern can only imagine”[5] migration brings the conservative sensibility to the subaltern—especially those who, like me, were only too ready to turn an incipient self-hatred into an outwardly directed resentment. In my case, restoration of, and reparations for, my losses were ambiguous. I did not want to return to India; I wanted my old comforts, my sense of belonging back; and I knew who to blame for the loss. While conservatism spoke to me and my sense of loss,[6] the American Left asked me to empathize with others while I was too busy feeling sorry for myself. My departure from home was all the evidence required of my victimhood. Conservatives artfully turn “their particular narration of loss [of power] into a more universal and cosmic notion of loss” by “seductive” claims which “people on the bottom can identify with because they feel like losers.” [7] As an immigrant I saw myself as a loser, even though in the minds of those left behind I was a winner. I had, after all, departed on a jet plane, leaving for distant lands only fantasized about previously. That fantasy ended the day I entered a poverty and crime-stricken inner city not yet recovered from the race riots of the Sixties.

As Robin notes, conservatives upend the notion of political correctness because they are able to claim that “it’s actually the beneficiaries of power who are being persecuted.”[8] My demographic, that of international students, considered ourselves more righteous, more virtuous than the poverty-stricken African American community we saw around us. As such, we sat rather easily in judgment of them, taking on a conservative perspective and finding it suited us in enabling a greater sense of political and personal virtue. I did not understand why racial profiling was not an acceptable method of policing: in my daily life, it made perfect sense to cross the street when I saw a black man coming my way. I became a soldier on the rhetorical front of the War on Drugs: yes, the death penalty for drug dealers—who I had been convinced were all black—was a good idea. (I held this view even as I continued to smoke pot recreationally; my hypocrisy was par for the course for drug warriors.) I thought welfare recipients were cheats lining up for handouts; the welfare mom was a type I had seen too many times in Newark, idly hanging about its grim housing projects. Those on welfare should learn from us, I thought; look at us, we had nothing, and we sought to make something of ourselves. We were at the bottom, and we sought upward movement. Animated by our own efforts. We were role-models, our lessons not heeded by those who complained the most.

There is great political wisdom then in the conservative’s appeal to the outsider, to the loser, to convince him that spoils await him if he can subscribe to the dominant political paradigm. By his overt and expressed subscription to its surface principles, the immigrant becomes the best advertisement for the conservative movement. Like the conservative, the immigrant is prone to forget the social fabric that sustains him; his romantic self-conception bids him forget the ties that bind him; the social services and the federal and state aid that immigrants often draw upon is easily elided in immigrant autobiographies—though the lucky ones do often make note of how local family members, who might have immigrated before them, came to their rescue. This passing over the resources an immigrant can draw upon is vital for the sustenance of the immigrant myth among the generations to follow; this romantic myth sees the migrant storm the ramparts of citadels denied him. The immigrant forgets that his new home and its peoples made his success possible; that no one can remain an outsider for too long, that he succeeds precisely because he does not remain on the margins and is welcomed in. The libertarian of conservative bent forgets the social ties that build the rich web of society around him; he—that pronoun is especially apposite for such a love of autonomy and the mythology of the loner is typically masculine—similarly imagines himself a lonely pioneer, an immigrant in a strange land.

I was primed, even before my arrival in the US, to be seduced by American conservative thought in my old home, India. I was an uncritical reader of American military history and thus susceptible to the Right’s militarism, its valorization of the military, its frequent calls to deploy armed American power. I adored Ronald Reagan’s muscular patriotism from afar and disliked Jimmy Carter’s flaccid do-goodery; America’s aggressive international stance provided an acute contrast to India’s seemingly diffident and apologetic foreign policy vis-à-vis its old foe, Pakistan. Moreover, as a pre-teen, I had read the Readers Digest—a bizarre low-brow literary passion of the Indian middle-class—where story after story, conservative fables each and every one, informed me of the absurd sentencing of criminals under permissive legal regimes, about prisoners of war abandoned by an uncaring administration, about welfare cheats who deprived honest workers of the fruits of their labors. These unambiguous recountings of a black and white moral universe were told in the old-fashioned homely style typical of the Readers Digest. I stopped reading the Digest because I found its articles unsophisticated and crude in their transparent hectoring and ideological bent, but they left their mark; the stories of striving and self-reliance they told were aspirational, ideal fuel for a young boy dreaming of distant lands.

Part of my American dream was not just to be an American, but to be an American immigrant, one with a success story trailing out behind me like a comet’s tail. Without the glorious, difficult, redemptive struggle of the immigrant, my life’s tale would not be dramatic enough; it would lack a crucial romantic frisson. It would especially lack such coloration if I accepted hand-outs; so I resolved to either not accept any or to not regard the ones I did as such.

In my many conversations with Indian immigrants to the US the theme of romantic overcoming is ever-present in their descriptions of their American lives: their privileges had not transferred overseas; they spoke of a loss of home, of a ‘comfortable space’ in which—for instance—their accents, their behavioral mores, would not be misunderstood. Most prominently of all, for a particular demographic—the urban middle-class Indian with servants and domestic help at home, the Kshatriya or Brahmin still proud of his caste—there was a loss of power. The acute Indian sensitivity to positions on a totem pole told them an older position of privilege had been lost. This sense of loss overpowered any political affinity or sympathy or empathy they might have felt with minorities, immigrants, peoples of color. Now, they had to repeat themselves; they had to make nice; they had to engage in hopelessly contrived formal behavior; they experienced debilitating social anxiety; they were racked by insecurity about personal appearances; they felt exposed and self-conscious in wholly novel ways. And yet, they had overcome this adversity. That Nietzschean word is used advisedly; the immigrant had asserted himself against the forces that would continue to deepen his sense of loss. In doing so, he often lost compassion for those he saw unwilling to struggle like him, unable to see the structural forces of racism and history that acted on them.

I was looking for a new home in America; I would find one later, in the simplest of ways, by falling in love and making a home for myself with my partner. But at one time, anything that promised a return to an older, safer time, was grist for my mill. Anything that told me I belonged, once again, to a dominant class, that I was no longer at the bottom of the heap and could rise back to the top again. The conservative vision offered precisely one of those; it appealed to losers like me by telling us we were winners.

My distancing from conservative and right-wing visions was prompted by identity politics: conservative writers and politicians were white; though they beckoned seductively, they did not welcome me directly, they were content to appeal to the converted, to construct the narrowest of electoral and political platforms by racially coding their discourses, and by not relying exclusively on the language of virtuous striving and effort. It was the briefest of honeymoons; my romance with the right-wing and conservative visions continued with domestic politics at ‘home’ before eventually spluttering out; in the US, I ran into American liberal thought, which increasingly made more room for me, especially when I began to discover resonances between post-colonialism, Marxism, feminism, and Black American thought. There I found a new intellectual and political home; there, I discovered—largely due to their literary productions—that the black American experience and that of women spoke to me rather more directly than conservatives ever did; they tapped into deeper recesses of my being. By the time of the 1988 elections, I did not cheer for a Republican win, and mourned instead the Democrats’ loss. Within the confines of the Democratic Party’s platform, I found more political principles that appealed to me; my conversion had begun, and moved far enough to start to command my electoral sympathies.

But I knew what the Republican faithful wanted; I had wanted it too. The conservative cry appealed to my virtuous self, one that I thought was being forged anew in this furnace away from home, where new demands were being placed on me, and where I was responding to them so nobly. It was a political message designed to match with my assessments of myself, limited and narrow though they were. If the modern Republican Party could find it in itself to pitch that older romantic message of self-reliance, hard work, and striving to the immigrant it could divide the multicultural, multiethnic, multiracial alliance built up against it; it could convince the immigrant it recognizes his virtues in contradistinction to those who ‘scrounge’ off others; it could tap into the mythology of the immigrant, one that still continues to animate their lives. More to the point, it could restore that crucial romantic aura to the immigrant, convinced at the best of times that he has traded away something of great value in the course of his adoption of a new home. It’s the easiest of political pitches and only an extraordinarily incompetent party, one hijacked by racial animus, would disdain it. Surrendering white privilege is the hardest political task confronting the Republican Party and American conservatives; it is a price they are unwilling to pay but perhaps they will not have to, if they can continue to appeal to such romantic self-conceptions, whose appeal might override the solidarities to be found in other political coalitions.


[2] 247-248

[3] (58-60)

[4] 47-48

[5] Robin, 98

[6] (58-60


[8] TRM

* * *

Samir Chopra is Professor of Philosophy at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His academic interests include pragmatism, Nietzsche, the philosophical foundations of artificial intelligence, philosophy of law, the legal theory of artificial agents, and the politics and ethics of technology. Samir blogs at The Cordon, ESPN-Cricinfo, and at He can be found on Twitter as @EyeOnThePitch.