Column: The Public Eye: Barbarians at the Gate: America’s Four Myths By BOB BURNETT

Tuesday June 14, 2005

In a March article in The New Republic, Robert Reich bemoaned the failure of Democrats to control four essential American stories. Two of these are myths with hopeful themes, “the triumphant individual” and “the benevolent community.” The other two portray powerful images of fear, “rot at the top” and “the mob at the gates.” The latter describes how, “the United States is a beacon of virtue in a world of darkness, uniquely blessed but continuously endangered by foreign menaces.” Reich observed that after 9/11 the Bush administration skillfully turned this metaphor to their advantage: al Qaeda became the barbarians at the gates, heathens preparing to pillage the American heartland. 

In the immediate aftermath of the dreadful attacks, the Bushies played to “the mob at the gates” (TMATG) theme and used fear-based propaganda to terrorize the populace. From this emotional platform they bullied Congress into passing the Patriot Act. Then the administration launched a poorly planned military campaign in Afghanistan; one where they employed Afghani mercenaries to do the bulk of the ground fighting with the result that key al Qaeda operatives, including Osama bin Laden, were able to escape. And, of course, George Bush and company re-stimulated the nation’s trauma in order to justify the invasion of Iraq—a country that was full of bad guys, but which had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks. 

Over time, the nature of TMATG image gradually changed. For the first year, the barbarians were members of al Qaeda. In the run up to the invasion of Iraq, the composition of the mob subtly shifted and became in succession, “Wahabis,” “Islamic terrorists,” and then all Middle-Eastern opponents of democracy. Accompanying this broadening of scope was a surge of anti-immigrant hostility directed at those who appeared to be Arabs. Brown-skinned men and women, citizens and visitors alike, were jostled by strangers and hassled by the police and immigration authorities. 

Despite the vitriol generated by this campaign, in the past year TMATG theme lost traction. While al Qaeda threatens Westerners throughout the world, there have been no recent attacks on American soil. Meanwhile, the Bush administration claimed that it was eradicating terrorists in Iraq so that our soldiers wouldn’t have to fight them in the United States. The public seemed to have swallowed this tortured logic, as well as the Bushies’ claim that the total number of terrorist attacks has decreased—that the world is a safer place—even though statistics argue the contrary. 

In the meantime, domestic circumstances have turned against the Republicans: The economy is unstable, millions are unemployed or under employed, one-third of all Americans have no health care, and there is general dissatisfaction with the administration—only 35 percent feel that the country is headed in the right direction, while Bush’s approval ratings have dropped below 50 percent, to historic lows for a second-term President. As a result, the Republican spin on TMATG metaphor has lost its appeal. The average American finally has realized that al Qaeda wasn’t to blame for home foreclosures, plant closings, or reduced health care benefits. 

In response to this setback, the Republican propaganda machine shifted the image of TMATG. Barbarians were no longer portrayed as members of al Qaeda, or as Islamic Terrorists; instead, they became all immigrants. Conservatives launched a new wave of attacks on non-citizens. California governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and former Colorado governor, Dick Lamm, among others, recently gave major speeches where they blamed America’s social problems on legal and illegal aliens—particularly Hispanics. According to this polemic, if an American doesn’t have a job, it’s the fault of newly arrived foreigners. If citizens feel unsafe on the streets, it’s also because of these immigrants.  

This is a sadly familiar conservative strategy: when economic times get tough they blame people of color and non-Christians. At the turn of the century they fumed about the “yellow peril.” During the depression their wrath showered on “Bolshevik Jews” and “colored people.’ More recently, in the Southwest, their ire has been directed at “illegal aliens,” meaning Hispanic immigrants.  

Despite its historic success, this strategy has some obvious shortcomings in the economic reality of 2005. While social conservatives may fear immigrants, business conservatives employ them. From coast to coast, captains of industry understand that they need non-citizens in order to get their work done. For example, American universities do not graduate the engineers needed to fuel our high-technology industry—if we didn’t have immigrant engineers then this sector would slow down. In agriculture, aliens do work that no one else wants to do. 

Conservatives whine that immigrants have filled all the new jobs created since 2000. However, experts such as Georgetown professor Henry Holzer dispute this; immigrant employment is concentrated in a handful of industries, while large job shifts have occurred in other sectors. 

Immigrants are not the root cause of America’s social problems. When conservatives rant about the latest version of the mob at the gate, they are simply seeking to divert attention from the real problem, “rot at the top”—the continued ineptitude of the Bush administration. 


Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer and activist. He can be reached at bobburnett@comcast.net.›