Moving Targets

To move is to invite suspicion. For the period I study — and perhaps especially in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries — perhaps no word captures the variety of phenomena that exposed marginal people to the scrutiny of observers and the machinations of the state so much as “mobility.” Homelessness, vagrancy, wandering, roaming the streets, running up and down the country, the state of being “unsettled” (the title of Patricia Fumerton’s extraordinary book on the subject): all of these and more constituted grounds for judgment and interdiction. In a society where identity and livelihood were still quite locally grounded, where “country” could still mean “county”, people who were mobile lacked a place. Often, they lacked a master, making them “masterless”; or they lacked an occupation, making them “idle”; or they lacked a home, making them “vagrants”, subject to arrest and punishment.

The mobility of multitudes connoted various kinds of decay, deformation or, to use a period term, “degeneration.” As Thomas More (in Utopia) and many others observed, the process of rural enclosure and the conversion of land from labor-intensive tillage to pasture for sheep forced husbandmen and their families to wander for work and sustenance, turning valuable labourers into worthless beggars or dangerous vagabonds. Mobility brought mixture, spawning new and monstrous forms. In the minds of Elizabethan writers, at least, wandering produced a counter-culture of canting cutpurses, horse-thieves, pretenders, and prostitutes with a hierarchy, customs, and even institutions of their own. With mobility went mixture, with mixture deceit; in London especially, crowds, markets, theatre and fashion fostered dissimulation. Stable types known by place, function, and appearance became fluid, mingled, and merged. As with the debased coinage that writers of the time also decried, people became counterfeit, their looks no guide to their nature.

Remarked at the metropolitan centre, similar processes went on at the margins. The drawn out and partial colonization of Ireland since the twelfth century had led the Anglo-Norman “Old English” to mix with the locals, degenerating into “mere Irish” — or so it served the newly mobile, grasping planters of New English Protestant stock (decried in their turn as deficient upstarts, risen above their station) to argue. Farther afield, sojourns in exotic landscapes and exacting climates, the ingestion of unfamiliar foods and liquors, and exchange, cohabitation and intercourse with non-Europeans raised fears of decay — even as the often violent, serial transplantation of people and things (and slavery’s programmatic violation of that very boundary) underpinned the promise that empire would pay off. At the very moment that the notion of a closed, integral body politic composed of functionally distinct, interdependent parts in balance reached its most elegant articulation, it became utterly implausible as a picture of the society it purported to describe: a society bent toward growth, built on mixture, exploiting mobility in the interests of profit and power in radically new ways.

Historical analogies are never perfect. I suspect that a historian worth her or his salt is likely to spend far more time exploding false appeals to precedent, critiquing misleading comparisons, or undermining dubious “lessons” for the present than minting new ones. But, as I mentioned in my last, elements of my present work came to mind as I argued with a defender of Trump’s Muslim ban. And so without attempting to turn echoes into instructions or resemblances into equivalences, I’ll say a little more about that here.

As I noted last time, the occasion for the argument was US Customs and Border Patrol’s handling of a Moroccan-born Canadian woman, which included a grilling on her feelings about Trump as well as invasive questions about her religious worship, prompted by going through videos and images on her phone. No actual evidence of wrongdoing, much less any threat to national security, was found; moreover, as a Canadian citizen and as someone not born in any of the seven countries excluded by the Muslim ban anyway, she should not have been subject to the ban — even forgetting for the moment that it has itself been found to be unconstitutional. But CBP being CBP, she was questioned for four hours and denied entry. And Trump apologists being in the frenzy many of them are, reasons were quickly found not only to justify the whole proceedings but even to fabricate further reasons for suspicion from the meagre details of her story.

The questions, explicit and implied, breathe suspicion of this woman’s mobility, past and intended. What kind of person waits four hours to cross a border? Who crosses a border for a day trip? What’s there that she couldn’t get on her side? (Her side being Canada, presumably, and not Morocco; but forget about that.) Four centuries ago one might have feared the appearance of a vagrant as the harbinger of crime or as a drain on the parish purse; in that sense little has changed. One might wonder if unfamiliar clothes and incomprehensible language marked an “Egyptian” full of deceitful, thievish practices. One would have been warned — by writers on charity from Erasmus and Luther through “rogue” pamphleteers — not to believe stories peddled by wanderers of lost ships or sick children. On the other hand one would be familiar with other kinds of flight — the flight of refugees from religious repression, in particular, the movement of exiles driven by conscience or simply self-preservation. Or, perhaps, one might see in such mobility only the devious circulation of heretics and the secretive slithering of king-killing Jesuits, sworn servants of the Roman antichrist.

Echoes of these different attitudes are audible when a headscarf is read — as it is among white Quebecers quite as much as among white Americans — as a mark of divided loyalties, a gesture of rejection, or a token of oppression, or when four hours spent at the border is interpreted not as the product of an overgrown and under-supervised American bureaucracy but as inadvertent evidence of surreptitious Muslim zeal. Not just anyone can cross a border, of course; not just anyone can settle in the parish, either. Then as now laws, passports, and papers governed such movements. But the manner of this woman’s crossing was as important to my interlocutor as the legal matter of her identity. Indeed the legal matter of her identity and the rights and freedoms that conveyed was of no interest to him at all. Her past mobility defined her real identity as a “foreign Muslim” looking for a way in — and, as such, as angry (or likely to be); dangerous (or likely to be); deceitful even if silent and positively inflammatory when she divulged details at odds with his suspicions. As in the era of religious war, such figures are unassimilable beneath the surface (or in the case of the hijab, even superficially) to the gelid, narrow, unloveable historical nonsense of the white Christian body politic that Trump’s fans fantasize, four short words at a time. Now as then, attempts to police inner beliefs through outward signs and to conjure “love” by command defeat themselves by the very terms in which they are posed. And perhaps, as in the seventeenth century, paranoia and stupidity will again find their critics even among those in power, and a woman going shopping with her son in Vermont will no longer seem a threat. One hopes it won’t take so long this time.

3 thoughts on “Moving Targets

  1. Pingback: On Not Calling Trump Apologists Racist | memorious

    • That’s interesting — thanks for the link. For what it’s worth, the guy I was arguing with freely admitted that he had little experience of crossing the border, and seemed willing to believe that CBP might overstep the letter of the law. But he would not budge on “foreign Muslims”; and yet any idea that racism or xenophobia played a role in the policy or its enforcement was met first with lectures on the evils of BLM, then with statistics on the small size of the Klan, and finally with “so you’re calling me racist?”


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