Epilogue: “A Sense of Loss and Anomie”: Model Minorities and Twenty-First-Century Citizenship
For a while, we assumed that all Indians were geniuses. Then, in the 1980s, the doctors and engineers brought over their merchant cousins, and we were no longer so sure about the genius thing. In the 1990s, the not-so-brilliant merchants brought their even-less-bright cousins, and we started to understand why India is so damn poor . . . sometime after I left [Edison, New Jersey], the town became a maze of charmless Indian strip malls and housing developments. Whenever I go back, I feel what people in Arizona talk about: a sense of loss and anomie and disbelief that anyone can eat food that spicy.
—JOEL STEIN, “MY OWN PRIVATE INDIA”
In July 2010, Time magazine published an op-ed authored by Jewish American cultural critic and sometimes-comedian Joel Stein entitled “My Own Private India.”1 Focused on shifting demographics in a post-1965 Hart-Cellar Act America, “My Own Private India” commences with nominal and thematic allusions to Gus Van Sant’s dystopic film My Own Private Idaho (1991).2 Just as Van Sant’s Shakespeare-inspired production drew its narrative power from a story of two drifters searching for refuge in an inhospitable landscape, “My Own Private India” is shaped by a profound disconnection with Edison, New Jersey, Stein’s self-proclaimed hometown. Divergently, whereas My Own Private Idaho reveals a sense of hopelessness within a homogenous West, Stein’s “My Own Private India” concentrates its less-than-idealized attention on South Asian immigrants, who are the principal source of Edison’s alienhood and Stein’s concomitant alienation.
Indeed, as the opening epigraph underscores and the rest of “My Own Private India” makes clear, Edison is by and large characterized as a foreign landscape, composed of charmless Indian strip malls and housing developments. The alleged foreign takeover of New Jersey’s modest metropole (population 100,000) foregrounds Stein’s paradoxical immigration politics, epitomized by the author’s claim that he is “very much in favor of immigration everywhere in the U.S. except Edison, N.J.” Without a doubt, Stein’s sardonic nativism hit a relevant chord amid a backdrop of increasing population anxiety and regulation, redolent in restrictive anti-immigration acts such as Arizona’s infamous SB 1070.3 Notwithstanding the article’s political timeliness, “My Own Private India” was also incontrovertibly controversial.
Specifically critiqued for its cavalier use of racial slurs, casual references to racial violence, and relatively facile arguments about contemporary “immigrant questions,” Stein’s op-ed drew ire from progressives, pro-immigration activists, and South Asian Americans.4 Putting aside briefly such valid criticisms, “My Own Private India” nonetheless functions as a significant bellwether for twenty-first-century debates over sentimental selfhood, socioeconomic naturalization, and the “making of new Americans.” Written from the perspective of an anti-immigration advocate, assuming the guise of white nostalgia and white alienation, and distrustful of transnational bodies and globalized frames, Stein’s op-ed recuperates past nativist discourses and revises them to fit a conservative multiculturalist agenda. Equally provocative, Stein’s own location as a Jewish American model minority is eschewed in favor of an unmarked white selfhood forged through the racialization of another model minority group: Asian Americans. Indeed, Stein’s racialized and often racist arguments about the changing face of U.S. citizenship tactically use the affective power of immigration to structure feelings of dislocation, defamiliarization, and denaturalization.5 In so doing, “My Own Private India” renders identifiable the contested contours of race, ethnicity, and nation in a supposedly postracial, post–Barack Obama age.
Correspondingly, central to “My Own Private India” is a dislocating sense of loss and anomie forged in the crucible of foreign-born difference. Suggestive of a “social instability resulting from a breakdown of standards and values,” anomie is etymologically embedded in alienation. Moreover, drawing on Stein’s use of the term, “anomie” bespeaks a societal breakdown born out of immigration.6 Stein’s Edison is thus cast as an economic, sociocultural casualty of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act (a.k.a. Hart-Cellar Act), which enabled the en bloc arrival of an estimated twenty million immigrants from Latin America, Central America, and the Eastern Hemisphere (Asia). Satirically rooted, conceived, and produced, “My Own Private India” is strategically forgetful of U.S. immigration history and politics. As Stein problematically recounts, “Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 immigration law raised immigration caps for non-European countries. LBJ apparently had some weird relationship with Asians in which he liked both inviting them over and going over to Asia to kill them.” The flippancy of Stein’s historicization with regard to monumental immigration legislation and costly U.S. foreign policy eschews political complexity in favor of hipster “newspeak.”
Such quick-witted yet nonetheless politicized dismissals are time and again employed in “My Own Private India,” and Stein purposefully uses irony to disremember troubling aspects of past racial discrimination. In the process, the writer puts forth an incomplete, essentialized reading of Asian immigration as an undifferentiated byproduct of mid-century domestic and foreign policy. To that end, Stein reads the Hart-Cellar Act as a paradox of thresholds and limits, situated between inviting Asians over and killing them. With no historical acknowledgement and with little attention paid to the heterogeneity of Asian America, including distinct ethnicities, histories, and cultures, Stein fails to note important transnational connections between “wars in Asia” and Asian immigrants.
In contrast to Stein’s superficial examination of “Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 immigration law,” it is important to recall how cold war imperialism and civil rights activism played key roles in the changing of racialized immigration policy. Indeed, the Hart-Cellar Act was very much a consequence of foreign policy and domestic civil rights, for it was intended to bolster assertions of U.S. democratic virtue abroad and reconcile those claims within the United States. In the face of historicity, the unavoidable transnational registers of immigration policy (revealed in politics “over there” and policies “over here”) are for the most part ignored in “My Own Private India.” Instead, Stein’s consideration of the extant “immigration problem” evaluates modern-day globalization by way of dominant U.S. ethnoracial logics. In establishing the contemporary “foreignization” of a “typical American” city, Stein avers that Edison has become “home to one of the biggest Indian communities in the U.S.” Not only is Edison a significant destination within the Indian diaspora; his modest hometown is “as familiar to people in India as how to instruct stupid Americans to reboot their Internet routers.” Stein irreverently accesses an expansive (and exploitative) global service economy which from the outset pits Indians (and by proxy, Indian Americans) against “stupid Americans.” However, as “My Own Private India” continues, the nativist joke is largely on Indians and Indian Americans. Such ethnoracial hostilities reconfirm and concretize Stein’s homeland alienation.
As important in “My Own Private India” is the role of space in the examination of globalization and race. Accordingly, the Edisonian’s disaffection from his hometown is chiefly mapped via allusions to and acts of consumption. As Stein maintains,
My town is totally unfamiliar to me. The Pizza Hut where my busboy friends stole pies for our drunken parties is now an Indian sweets shop with a completely inappropriate roof. The A&P I shoplifted from is now an Indian grocery. The multiplex where we snuck into R-rated movies now shows only Bollywood films and serves samosas. The Italian restaurant that my friends stole cash from as waiters is now Moghul, one of the most famous Indian restaurants in the country. There is an entire generation of white children in Edison who have nowhere to learn crime.
Circumscribed by multiple levels of “unfamiliarity,” Stein’s examples of spatial and demographic change—evident in reconditioned restaurants, converted grocery stores, and refurbished strip malls—constitute a dislocating “domestic-turned-foreign” narrative. Similarly, recognizable (and purportedly natural) “American” locations (Pizza Hut, the A&P, the multiplex, and the Italian restaurant) are concomitantly denaturalized by Indian immigration, influence, and assimilation.
Concentrated on sites of economic exchange and consumption, Stein employs late-century readings of transnationalism predicated on the unimpeded movement of bodies, commodities, and capital across borders. Equally crucial, in stating that “an entire generation of white children . . . have nowhere to learn crime,” Stein commemorates white criminality while lamenting brown capitalism. In contrast to Neil Diamond’s Jazz Singer celebration of immigration flows characteristic of the late 1970s and early 1980s, “My Own Private India” underscores an acute nativist feeling born in the aftermath of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), in the shadow of September 11 attacks, and at the forefront of contemporary ultraconservative Tea Party platforms. Within this reactionary economic and political milieu, the “corruption” of the U.S. marketplace—made plain in the racialized “colonization” of Edison, New Jersey, by foreign bodies, businesses, and commodities—reinforces Stein’s racialized assertion that he feels “what people in Arizona talk about: a sense of loss and anomie and disbelief that anyone can eat food that spicy.”
Such disbelief that anyone can eat food that spicy further casts Indians and Indian Americans in accordance to incomprehensible geopolitical, multicultural frames. On one level, Stein’s feeling of normlessness highlights an “us versus them” binary and signals a more expansive white sense of anomie. On another level, Stein (like past anti-immigration advocates who imagined a monolithic white past) privileges a homogenous reading of “the way things were” through racial nostalgia. Divergently, Stein’s nostalgic evocation—suggested by a “sense of loss”—undeniably relies on the erasure of Jewish American difference. This ethnic eschewal occurs, to use George Lipstiz’s model, through the author’s “possessive investment in whiteness.”7 Besides, Edison is not just “India” but Stein’s “own private India,” which calls to mind privatization, capitalism, and possession. This individual ownership is grammatically supported by Stein’s use of first-person pronouns and possessives (“I” and “my”). In a more collective manner, Stein’s whiteness is situated alongside an expressed kinship with an entire generation of white children. Such whiteness, antithetically placed against Indianness, bridges (via race and class) the gap between the “Generation X” Stein and next-generation “Millennials.”
Likewise, Stein’s sense of loss and anomie is fixed to a two-sided tension about Indians and Indian Americans, who are both model minorities and perpetual foreigners. Substantiating a reading of “My Own Private India” as native-born complaint and anti-immigrant lament is Stein’s incorporation of a degenerative immigrant succession narrative, which operates in stark contrast to the abovementioned generational whiteness. In “My Own Private India,” post-1965 model minoritized Indian subjects (e.g., doctors and engineers) are quickly replaced over the course of two decades by less idealized, “not-as-brilliant” merchants in the 1980s and their “even-less-bright cousins” in the 1990s. Articulating generational descent, inclusive of subsequent immigration and marked by lessening economic viability, Stein characterizes three waves of South Asian immigration via denaturalized bodies that are no longer model minorities. In turn, these undesirable bodies are symptomatic of a disruptively disturbing nonwhite Edison. Increasingly working class and “un-American,” such merchants and cousins racially legitimate Stein’s confident classed declaration about “why India is so damn poor.”
Returning to Stein’s recollection of the past, the article’s white-focused disaffection belies a violent racial history that impacted New Jersey’s South Asian/South Asian American population. Particularly problematic is the treatment of anti-Asian violence in “My Own Private Idaho,” which resembles a shorthand account of individualized (and physically nonthreatening) racist acts. According to Stein, the mass influx of South Asian immigrants prompted less than tolerant reactions, and his “townsfolk started calling the new Edisonians ‘dot heads.’” A fellow student, as Stein relates, “drove down an Indian-dense street yelling for its residents to ‘go home to India.’ In retrospect, I question how good our schools were if ‘dot heads’ was the best racist insult we could come up with for a group of people whose gods have multiple arms and an elephant nose.” The “Indian-denseness” of the street corroborates Stein’s previous assertions that Edison has become “India,” yet the initial purpose of the passage—to adequately acknowledge nativist declaration and racial slur—is for the most part lost. In the place of racialized victims, Stein privileges white perpetrators, who are verbally critiqued but not morally condemned.8 Instead, Edison’s school system is satirized through “best racist insults,” which fail to take full advantage of religious difference. By conflating two Hindu gods (Ganesh and Shiva), Stein denaturalizes further his hometown’s nonwhite residents via racist name-calling and theologically insensitive articulation. Thus, for white Edisonians like Stein, the en masse demographic shifts that prompted racial attacks nonetheless make “palatable” the nativist sentiment felt by “people in Arizona.”
If Stein relegates racist acts to the educational site (embodied by “fellow students”), then “My Own Private India” also actively disremembers the particulars of New Jersey’s racially violent past, exemplified by a series of bias crimes committed by the self-named Dotbuster gang. As the racist name suggests, the Dotbusters targeted South Asians and South Asian Americans. In 1987, the Dotbuster attacks turned deadly. Tragically, thirty-year-old bank manager Navroze Mody was fatally beaten by some members of the gang, who during the attack reportedly chanted “Hindu! Hindu!”9 Soon after, twenty-eight-year old Kaushal Saran was also brutally attacked and ended up in a coma. Such incidents eventually led to the passage of New Jersey’s landmark Bias Crimes Law in the early 1990s.10 This history of racial violence brings to light the political limitations at work in “My Own Private India,” which eschews social justice in favor of conservative mediations on “white anomie.”
Accordingly, Stein’s reactionary and incomplete examination of Indian migration privileges a hopeless reading of Edison as immigrant-dominated dystopia. Not only is Edison indelibly marked by Indianness. Its South Asian/South Asian American population is markedly (and exceptionally) unassimilable. Distinctively, Stein argues, “unlike previous waves of immigrants, who couldn’t fly home or Skype with relatives, Edison’s first Indian generation didn’t quickly assimilate (and give their kids Western names).” With regard to assimilation, Edison’s first Indian generation is characterized even more negatively than previous waves of immigrants because of global telecommunication technologies (such as Skype), which enable the persistence of transnational affiliations.
Notwithstanding assumed inassimilability, “My Own Private India” closes with an incongruous kinship between Italians and Indians. Noting that “current Facebook photos of students at my old high school, J. P Stevens. . . look like the Italian Guidos I grew up within the 1980s,” Stein contends that such “Guindians” have “assimilate[ed] so wonderfully that if the Statue of Liberty could shed a tear, she would. Because of the amount of cologne they wear.” Inconsistent with the article’s previous conflations of Italianness and whiteness, Stein nevertheless relies on a racialized reading of “Italian Guidos” that assumes a denaturalized register. And, despite declarations of “wonderful assimilation,” these so-called Guindians are by and large “assimilated foreigners” who prompt tears of irritation from the iconic Mother of Exiles. This disconcerting comparison between Italians and Indians bespeaks a conservative multiculturalism which superficially acknowledges difference while insisting on an essentialized sameness.
In drawing to a close, and as “My Own Private India” makes clear, notwithstanding analogous characterizations within the dominant imaginary, at stake in current immigration debates is a conservative politics of white victimhood based on an “understandable” anomie of racialized anxiety. In other words, “My Own Private India” is on the whole an expression of legible nativism against South Asians and South Asian Americans. This empathetic reading of anti-immigration sentiment is substantiated by Joel Stein’s response to the flood of emails and letters that followed Time’s online publication of “My Own Private India.” Apologetically, Stein writes:
I truly feel stomach-sick that I hurt so many people. I was trying to explain how, as someone who believes that immigration has enriched American life and my hometown in particular, I was shocked that I could feel a tiny bit uncomfortable with my changing town when I went to visit it. If we could understand that reaction, we’d be better equipped to debate people on the other side of the immigration issue.
In the face of Stein’s contrite response, what emerges is a reiteration of dominant rubrics at work in “My Own Private India.” Indeed, Stein’s admission of feeling “a tiny bit uncomfortable” with demographic shifts produces a call to “understand that reaction” of “people on the other side of the immigration issue.” With no specific mention of race, with no acknowledgement of anti-Asian racism, and with an emphasis on individual feelings, Stein attempts to ameliorate criticism through affect. Though “shocked” by his own reaction, Stein implicitly issues an appeal to empathize not with victims of nativist, racist policy, and violence but with perpetrators.
In contrast, Sandip Roy offers an alternative identification that makes possible a more progressive coalition politics along the lines of immigration. To be sure, the antibrown frames expressed in “My Own Private India” are not limited to New Jersey’s Indian/Indian American population. As Sandip Roy rightfully contends, for Stein and “Edison’s old timers,”
brown is brown. Too many curry shacks is not that different from too many taquerias. We are all Mexicans now. When Joel Stein goes to Edison, he “feels” what people in Arizona talk about. It’s not about the papers you carry inasmuch as the “I-am-not-against-immigration-just-illegal-immigration” folks would have you believe. It is about the way you look, the food you eat, the accent you have. It is about the sense that you are taking over the strip mall. And, this American anxiety about its browning will not change.11
Focused on the affective dimensions of the contemporary immigration debate, Roy highlights the extent to which the perceived alien body structures feelings of anxiety and unfamiliarity. If “brown is brown,” then Stein’s negotiation of immigration brings to light the tenets of twenty-first-century nativism, which commences with an impending socioeconomic “brown peril.”
Unintentionally, Roy’s response underscores a link between the turn of the twentieth century and the turn of the twenty-first century. If W.E.B. Dubois presciently and evocatively argued that while the problem of the twentieth century was one of the “color line,” then the dilemma facing the twenty-first century is the crisis of the “border line.” Racially determined, and simultaneously focused on distinctions of nativity, illegality, and naturalization, such “border line” polemics—apparent in initiatives like SB 1070 and articles like “My Own Private India”—make visible the volatile and still-unresolved contours of U.S. citizenship. Alternatively, as “model minorities” and “perpetual foreigners,” Jewish Americans and Asian Americans destabilize the dominant discourse around immigration, which evaluates citizenship potential according to frames of exclusion and politicized integration. Such unfixed questions of selfhood underscore the conditional foundations of U.S. nationhood, which time and again returns to immigration and the issue of how “Americans” are made by way of law, politics, and cultural production.