I've received quite a few comments on my recent post about the Arizona Immigration Bill (as usual with my readers, none of them thought to post these comments in the comments section that follows the post itself, which I should think would be a very convenient platform). Most of these comments provided supplementary analysis about the economics of migration from Latin America to the US, about the impact of the drug wars on migration, and so on. I find very little to argue with in these observations, but I want to stress that my point was rather different, and implicit in my point was a desire to get away from the sort of analysis which attempts to explain why there are so many Hispanicized Mestizos in the American Southwest. I instead wanted to address the question: What on earth could have made anyone expect that they should not be there in the first place? And the answer is very simple: ethnic cleansing.
One hopes that a generation from now commentators will not be offering similar, economic explanations for why there are so many Palestinians in the West Bank. Again, the real question in need of explanation would be: What brought it about that the world came to see their presence there as foreign to begin with?
Now I happen to think that ethnic cleansing simply is the default activity of the human species. This is something that is perfectly easy for archaeologists to acknowledge when attempting to explain why the pottery shards of one civilization are found at a certain depth in the ground, and those of another civilization at a lower depth. Let's not play stupid: it's because the lower guys were driven out or exterminated. Why? Because their land had stuff the higher guys wanted. That's human history in nuce, yet for some reason people prefer to pretend that the human present is governed by different rules than the past, and this generates the illusion that present-day ethnic cleansing is the result of some exceptional moral lapse away from the way that human beings ordinarily and for the most part are.
This sort of naive progressivism, the belief that human beings just keep getting nicer and nicer, is in itself dangerous, because it enables us to carry on witnessing processes that look very much like ethnic cleansing but that are carried out with the ornamentation of civilized legality --documents signed, acts enacted, groups of people declared 'illegal'--, and to tell ourselves while bearing witness that these processes could not possibly have anything to do with the barbarism we are supposed to have overcome. But beyond blind faith in progressivism, there is no good reason to think that human behavior today is driven by fundamentally different motivations than those of the Bronze Age raiders of the steppe who left us so many layers of lovely hairpins and brooches, all of which were once just as beloved of some steppe-dwelling idolater as the Jimmy Choos of a Scottsdale housewife are now.
Because I'm not at all a progressivist, in the sense I've described, I hope it's clear that I'm not picking the Euro-American settlers of the Western frontier out for any special scorn when I use this charged term, 'ethnic cleansing', which polite society tries to reserve for moments in history of exceptional evil. Of course, not all attempts at usurpation are as successful as the usurpers would like, often because the settler population is too small (in the end the European presence in Zimbabwe might look like a historical anomaly), or because the terrain is too inhospitable to people who have not spent several generations adapting to it (thus Western Papua was successfully Austronesianized, while the highlands of New Guinea remain Melanesian). When either of these two conditions obtains, the settlers might leave, or they might adapt. Thus I stated things a bit too dichotomously above: in addition to extermination and expulsion, there is also hybridization, where the settler culture comes to terms with demographic reality, and adapts itself to the life-world of the people it might have wished, had the demographic balance been different, to replace. As far as I can tell, hybridization is really the only choice for the American Southwest, but for the moment Arizona politicians prefer to deny demographic reality and to fight to defend their little ethnic enclaves at the distant periphery of the European colonial world.
Hybridization is scary: you have to give up some of the basic reference points that make your community's collective life meaningful ('We are like this, whereas they are like that'). But there's always a new kind of collectivity waiting to be born. History shows it happens all the time.