Western nativism has a rotten odor


Back in my railroad days, we often said that something had "a bad smell."

"I smell a bad order!"— lingo for a car that was rolling wrong and needed to be removed from the train. The alarm was shouted down from the conductor up in the "angel's seat" in the caboose, back when a person actually had a job riding the caboose. The kid brakeman, who, back then, was inevitably me, would trudge up in the snow and dark to find the offending car, called a "hot box." These days, there's a different kind of bad odor here in the West, and I'm ready to shout the alarm.

Each time I read a letter to the editor calling for a stop to immigration, the smell gets stronger. Lately, I've seen letters to the editor calling for Islam to "grow up," or agreeing with politicians like Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump that we need to stop "Muslim immigration" the the United States altogether. Some small-town publishers are saying the same thing.

I cringe at this kind of talk. Many of us have friends and relatives who are Muslim. Some of our kids marry those folks. Some of our grandkids grow up in Muslim families — even though the kids may end up as Buddhists or atheists or Evangelical Republicans, for all we know. It smells bad enough that I'm ready to call the reaction what it is: a resurgence of nativism.

Nativism is no stranger to the West. The belief that those of us already here are superior to immigrants is part of our history. The Native Americans felt that way when the whites invaded. The Latino farmers in the San Luis Valley were unhappy when Anglo gold-seekers appeared. The Ku Klux Klan tried to keep out Catholics and "Slavs" in the 1920s. To some degree, it's a feeling that isn't surprising: Old-timers feel threatened, and some of them react fearfully. But when intolerance is touted as public policy, we deny the best in our Western heritage of hospitality.

It's never possible to keep out a targeted group for long. Anyone who thinks there are hardly any Muslims in the Rocky Mountain West needs to talk to my goat-farmer acquaintance. His place in southern Colorado sends off a truckload of meat goats to market every week. Some of those animals are destined to become Mexican cabrito, but most are for Muslim consumption. During Eid, one of the Muslim holy days, he'll send off even more. It's sort of like raising turkeys for Thanksgiving.

Muslims in San Antonio, Texas celebrate Eid, the end of Ramadan, at Incredible Pizza.

To be fair, not all the concerns about Muslim refugees are caused by nativism. Perhaps better vetting of immigrants is needed, though their vetting already takes a couple of years. But when writers in Western newspapers warn of dangerous "Muslims," with no qualifiers such as "radical" or "terrorist," I smell a bad odor.

Western folks at our best have always welcomed immigrants, and I love the vision of Colorado's first territorial governor, William Gilpin. Though one of his books, "The Cosmopolitan Railway," is full of the usual booster fantasies about the abundance the railroads would bring us, I appreciate his image of railroads "debouching" (his favorite verb) the peoples of the world to help build the West.

He lauded the Chinese for their culinary and laundry skills. He was grateful to Mexicans, who taught us about their system of acequia ditches, which diverted water from rivers for farming. He was probably no more racist than most in the mid-19th century, when he welcomed the musically talented "Africans," who, he said, were suited for working in deep mines because they were able to tolerate the heat.

Gilpin went so far as to argue that our wide-open spaces and mountain air would encourage a new kind of humanity to emerge, with a "hy-brid" vigor based on mutual respect. He didn't quite say all the children would be brighter and all the dogs behave, but he came close in some of his speeches.  True, he did have land for sale, but sorry, writer Wallace Stegner, he never said "rain follows the plow."

The bad smell of nativism can be overcome if we stay true to our tradition of hospitality. Welcoming all has made us what we are. Old Gov. Gilpin was probably right about how our willingness to welcome whoever had the good fortune to get here has strengthened our Rocky Mountain population. We've never gone it alone in the West; we've needed everybody to create a society. This is no time to get on a high horse and tell some people they don't belong.

Forrest Whitman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an opinion service of High Country News. He lives in Salida, Colorado.

High Country News Classifieds