In the runup to the 2018 midterm elections, US President Donald Trump insisted that what was happening at the border should be thought of as an invasion. Hesitating between employing a metaphor or a simile, Trump said, “Some people call it an ‘invasion.’ It’s like an invasion. They have violently overrun the Mexican border.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
1. The movement of a group of organisms into a territory that it had not previously occupied
2. A term used selectively to judge and condemn the natural or unnatural movement of animated beings from one point to another, where the idea of a boundary as a barrier to movement exists. An example of natural movement is the migration of people in search of security in the face of danger or swarms of insects in search of food. An example of unnatural movement is the displacement of troops to sovereign countries in a quest for power.
Trump’s selective use of the term is particularly egregious. The term “invasion,” when rhetorically applied to humans (rather than, say, locusts), carries with it the connotation of malicious intent. Armies invade; migrants travel. Locusts have no malicious intent but, when swarming, they do serious damage as they fail to respect human notions of property, making it reasonable for humans to think of them metaphorically as invaders.
In contrast, migration — even when its effects are aggravated by poverty — reflects not only the natural human tendency toward cultural and commercial exchange, but it is typically accompanied by a positive attitude toward the place and the people of its destination. Far from signifying malicious intent, it most likely includes a disposition toward gratitude.
Migration is a natural and necessary phenomenon in human societies. Even when the number of immigrants to a community increases to the point of making some people — especially those suffering from a certain level of insecurity about their own cultural identity — feel uncomfortable in the presence of groups with different cultural codes, there is no justification for comparing their presence to an invasion. The United States is one of the rare nations of the world never to have been invaded by another group of people, though Native Americans may perceive that question a little differently.
War, on the other hand, is an unnatural and unnecessary act consisting of the violation not just of another group’s territory, but also its well-being and its culture. The intent of war is by definition malicious. Throughout its history, the US has cultivated the art of invasion. From the persistent “Indian territories” of the 19th century that eventually permitted the establishment of the 50 states to Afghanistan and Iraq in the 21st century, military invasion aimed at conquest has been a permanent feature of US history.
But invasion can take other forms. Military invasion more often than not leads to economic and cultural invasion. Over the past century, nations across the globe have witnessed the invasion of American businesses who have altered their way of life, from Goldman Sachs (in Greece, for example) to McDonald’s and Starbucks virtually everywhere.
Is their intent malicious? It focuses on money, marketing clout and financial power. Compared to migrants who are simply seeking an environment in which they may individually survive, prosper and even contribute to the community, for businesses the pure greed that motivates them along with the desire to influence other people’s behavior could be called a kind of malice.
The rousing partisan chant of the Italian “bella ciao” that became the anthem of Italian resistance against the fascists during the Second World War tells the story of a man who wakes up to find “the invader” in his village. Clearly the invader is a powerful, pitiless army. The singer senses that, overpowered by the murderous force of the fascists, his fate is to die. But he remains committed to resistance, as he requests his fellow partisans to bury him on the nearby mountain where a beautiful flower (bel fiore)will grow over his grave to remind future generations that he died for freedom.
Matteo Salvini, Italy’s populist, ultra-nationalist leader, rose to his current prominence by claiming in 2017: “You can’t any longer speak about immigration but about an invasion organised, funded and planned by Brussels with the complicity of Rome.” One is left with the impression that Salvini doesn’t expect imminent death, especially while enjoying his political success, and could care less about being buried on a mountain in the shadow of a bel fiore.
An article in The Atlantic reminds us that The New York Times “reported that more than 2,000 Facebook ads from Trump’s reelection campaign have amplified his message by using the word invasion.” The article traces to a book published in 1873 the idea of characterizing as “an invasion” the arrival of poor people willing to work in a foreign country to improve their lot. It warns good American citizens that the Chinese people who had been recruited to build the transcontinental railway were now preparing their takeover of not just of San Francisco but of the entire nation.
The author of the book described the dire situation: “[T]he Chinese in California are the advance guard of numberless legions that will, if no check is applied, one day overthrow the present Republic of the United States.” This is doubly ironic when we remember that, 25 years earlier, California belonged to Mexico. It was the East Coast Americans migrating west who had begun the takeover of California from the Mexicans.
Invasion has thus long been the standard paranoid fantasy of Americans. But Trump and the Republicans are not alone. At the recent, much-publicized congressional hearing of Robert Mueller, Democratic Congresswoman Jackie Speier from California reacted to the claim that Russia had intervened in the 2016 presidential election by calling it an invasion. “You said in your report … that the Russian intervention was sweeping and systematic. I would quibble with that because I don’t think it was just an intervention. I think it was an invasion. And I don’t think it was just sweeping and systematic. I think it was sinister and scheming.”
Trump wouldn’t have been elected without raising fears of an invasion by “criminals and rapists” who speak Spanish. Many Democrats think they can turn things around by appealing to the same type of paranoia and using the same rhetoric. They have each produced their preferred devil incarnate.
This language reflects the automatic thought processes of a declining empire that desperately needs to fabricate enemies and endow them with imaginary malicious intentions. Those with a claim to power need these fantasized foes to continue believing in the integrity of the empire as they seek to incite the population to defend an identity that has become too fragile to maintain itself on its own.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
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