Great Books for Summer Reading 2016: Insurgent Migrants

Amarasingam, Amarnath. 2015. Pain, Pride, and Politics: Social Movement Activism and the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora in Canada. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.

Zimmer, Kenyon. 2015. Immigrants Against the State: Yiddish and Italian Anarchism in America. Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield: University of Illinois Press.

Mobilizations around issues concerning migrants, refugees, and stateless persons have intensified since the turn of the decade. Across Europe and North America, citizens opposed to asylum seekers from Syria have deployed narratives and visual tropes that signify the erosion of cultural integrity and territorial security of nation-states. From Port-au-Prince to Boston, Haitians have protested the arbitrary deportations and violence perpetrated against their co-ethnics in the Dominican Republic, where hundreds of thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent were stripped of their citizenship. Last month, the U.S. government’s use of the term “Rohingya” to describe the persecuted Muslim population that has lived in Myanmar for generations generated massive demonstrations from Buddhist nationalists in Yangon and Mandalay. These mobilizations highlight the rigidity of national identity amid the porousness and fluidity of national borders in the age of globalization.

Identity claims and category formation are at the core of migrant mobilization, wherein activists—through their strategic framing—simultaneously challenge and reinforce hegemonic state discourses on belonging and the ideological power of nationalism. Amarnath Amarasingam’s Pain, Pride, and Politics and Kenyon Zimmer’s Immigrants Against the State analyze the tensions that accompany these processes, among other things. While the former focuses on the ways by which migrants and refugees participate in nation-state building, the latter looks at the abrogation of it and the creation of an alternative “transnational imagined community.” Both, however, highlight the discursive construction of migrant identities based on the experiences of uprooting and resettlement.

In Pain, Pride, and Politics, Amarasingam, a scholar in religious studies, explains how a Tamil identity crystallized among Tamil Canadians during the 2009 protests against the escalation of the Sri Lankan Civil War, with particular focus on mobilizations between December 2008 and May 2009. On January 2008, the Sri Lankan government unilaterally withdrew from the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and intensified its operations in the rebel-held territories in the northern part of Sri Lanka. Both parties were responsible for the killing of thousands of civilians (figures by the U.N. and newspapers ranged from 7,000-20,000), most of them located in the safe zones. The military operations led to the death of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and the defeat of the rebel group. As the level of violence against civilians increased at the height of armed confrontations between the Sri Lankan Army and LTTE, Canadians of Tamil ancestry held public demonstrations in Ottawa and Toronto to denounce the brutality of the conflict and to ask the international community—including the Canadian government—to intervene diplomatically.

Using data from interviews and participant-observation, the book does an excellent job in explaining how the protests became a politically socializing event to second- and third-generation Tamil youth that comprised majority of the protestors. The demonstrations functioned as “sites of learning in which the youth were introduced, albeit selectively and emotionally, to the history, politics, and suffering of the Tamil community in Sri Lanka” (Amarasingam 2015:133). The debates among protestors over the interpretation of events in the homeland and the production of memory signified the existence of alternative discourses that inform the collective identity of the diaspora. Young Tamil Canadians were rarely exposed to these conversations, and their participation in the 2009 demonstrations prompted them to reflect on the past and look into the future as they searched for the relevance of Tamil Eelam in their individual lives.

An interesting finding of Amarasingam that could be further explored in studies on immigrant activism is the conflict between identity claims and framing strategies. Disagreements over the use of the LTTE flag in public claims-making highlight the difficult task of communicating strategically to an undifferentiated external audience while maintaining a distinct identity. To reduce the complexity of the Tamil issue, activists used a “genocide frame,” given the ubiquity of the Holocaust in popular consciousness. While the familiar and straightforward frame tapped into the Canadian common sense and opened opportunities for engagement with the Canadian state, it failed to capture the complexity of Tamil political and identity claims in Sri Lanka. On the other hand, for Tamil Canadians, the LTTE flag represented their grievances as an oppressed minority in their homeland and their demands for self-determination. The upheavals of the Tamils, as symbolized by the jumping Tiger—an emblem of the Chola Empire, are central to the identity of the Tamil protesters. In the end, the use of the LTTE flag alongside a genocide frame made the narrative fidelity and credibility of frame promoters tenuous and problematic, since LTTE was considered a terrorist organization by a number of states.

But while waving homeland flags during demonstrations of migrants and refugees is controversial due to the conflation of identity and loyalty, for immigrant anarchists in the early twentieth century, “All flags look the same to us.” Immigrants Against the State is a historical account of how first- and second-generations Jews and Italians disavowed any form of loyalty to nation-states, rejecting the political systems of both the U.S. and their countries of origin. For them, while love for one’s place of birth is natural, the need to exercise authority over that place through the state is a false abstraction. Rather, affection for the nation as an imagined community encourages the forging of diverse voluntary affiliations. Thus, anarchists were “‘rooted cosmopolitans’ with attachments to their native cultures and languages, but were not ‘cosmopolitan patriots’ who supported their states of origin” (Zimmer 2015:8). Like in the spread of nationalism, common vernacular and the printed word were central in the dissemination of anarchist ideology and creation of collective identities.

The book utilizes a prodigious amount of data—mostly consisting of anarchist newspapers—and focuses on the dynamics of local and transnational connections in New York City’s Lower East Side; the Italian district of Paterson, New Jersey; and San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood. Zimmer rigorously demonstrates how anarchism is inextricably linked to the immigrant experience, highlighting, for instance, the role of immigrant sites and enclosures (e.g., sweatshops and tenements in Manhattan and Brooklyn) in providing a free space for the development of Jewish American radicalism. In these spaces, immigrants translated anarchist ideology based on their existing social realities. Like the Tamils in Canada, the identity claims of immigrant anarchists are rife with antagonism within and outside their ethnic communities. Among Yiddish anarchists, stripping the Jewish identity of its doctrinal origins and right to a territory often led to the politicization of religious traditions such as Yom Kippur and Passover, wherein activists carelessly framed religious orthodoxy as opposed to secular revolutionary thought. At the same time, to foster a distinct type of Jewishness rooted on the yidishkayt that identified Jews as a people (folk), Yiddish anarchists became fully ingrained in the ways of life of their community, preventing them from coalescing with and translating their cosmopolitan ideals to non-Jews.

The chapter on immigrant anarchists’ engagement with anticolonial, anti-imperialist, antimilitarism, and other revolutionary struggles beyond America’s borders—aptly titled “‘The Whole World Is Our Country”—is particularly useful in theorizing transnational activism, especially since cross-border ties endured despite the absence of an international coordinating organization. Zimmer provides a compelling analysis of conflict and negotiation among anarchists in maintaining their antistate principles, while still extending support to national liberation movements. The dense networks and identities that arose out of transnational exchanges and circulation of ideas through informal meetings, newspapers, and overseas travels give evidence of how “anarchism was a movement in movement” and “a movement of movements” (Zimmer 2015:2 [italics in the original]).

I read Pain, Pride, and Politics and Immigrants Against the State consecutively. While I am not an expert on Tamil diaspora and anarchism, the themes in the books have given me a better sense of contemporary debates on immigration issues, especially those around national identity and loyalty—topics that will most likely be raised frequently in the run-up to November 8, 2016.

Read the full article on Insurgent Immigrants