Last week, the immigration issue told voters a lot about the men leading Great Britain and its erstwhile colony, the United States. Unfortunately, most of it wasn’t very good.
Hapless British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s re-election campaign was shaken to its roots when a live microphone broadcast him calling Gillian Duffy, one of his constituents, a “bigoted woman.” The basis for Brown’s claim? The grandmotherly Duffy had asked him, “You can’t say anything about the immigrants, because you’re saying that you’re… but all these Eastern Europeans what are coming in, where are they all flocking from?” That was all.
Here in the United States, President Obama has been lucky enough to evade open microphones. Even so, he’s made his views clear when it comes to those who favor stemming the tide of illegal immigrants into the Southwest. After Arizona passed a law empowering state and local police to determine people's immigration status if there is "reasonable suspicion" they are in the United States illegally, Obama immediately denounced the law as “misguided” and slammed the “irresponsibility” of the Arizona legislature.
He went on to assert that the law will not only “undermine basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans,” but that it might also mean that “if you are a Hispanic American in Arizona . . . suddenly if you don’t have your papers and you took your kid out to get ice cream, you’re going to be harassed.” Not to put too fine a point on it, the President clearly believes that the people who passed the law (and those who will enforce it) are . . . bigoted.
It’s worth noting that Brown and Obama lead political parties – Labour and Democrat, respectively – that take pride in characterizing themselves as representatives of “the common man.” Why, then, are they so quick to impugn the characters of regular, everyday people who simply disagree with them on immigration issues?
Of course, fingering others as mindlessly prejudiced flatters the moral vanity of the accuser, who condemns from Olympian heights of tolerance and large-heartedness. But there’s more to it than that.
Being able to dismiss as ignorance or bigotry the wishes and opinions of one’s constituents relieves a leader of responsibility for acting. That’s convenient, especially in the immigration debate – where “inclusiveness,” that Holy Grail of political correctness, can conflict with hard truths on the ground.
In fact, an influx of Eastern Europeans into northern Britain has placed severe economic pressure on working class people like Gillian Duffy. The high-tax, growth-suppressing policies embraced by Brown’s Labour Party certainly don’t do much to solve the problem. Paul Waugh, deputy political editor of the London Evening Standard – and a native of the same town as Brown’s interlocutor – characterized the entire exchange between Brown and Duffy as “a cry for help from working class Britain.”
In many ways, the Arizona law reflects the same kind of desperation. My hairstylist’s sister-in-law bought what she thought was a wonderful new house in Arizona – only to find that, every morning, her front yard is a well-traveled byway for illegal immigrants entering this country. In southwestern states, overcrowded schools, jam-packed emergency rooms, teeming prisons and congested highways have become the norm, all as a result of the federal government’s ongoing refusal to enforce the immigration laws on the books. It’s unreasonable – and unfair – to believe that everyone who objects does so only for invidious reasons.
Ultimately, perhaps the greatest failing of Brown and Obama – and those in the governing classes more generally – is one of imagination. As governments in both countries grow by leaps and bounds, every new layer of bureaucracy further insulates and isolates the rulers from the everyday existences of those they rule. If the Prime Minister and the President honestly can’t discern any reason but bigotry for their fellow citizens’ concerns about immigration, perhaps it means they’ve been living a life of privilege, courtesy of the taxpayers, for just a little too long.
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