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A Forgetful Nation On Immigration and Cultural Identity in the United States by Ali Behdad

A Forgetful Nation On Immigration and Cultural Identity in the United States


A Forgetful Nation On Immigration and Cultural Identity in the United States by Ali Behdad

In A Forgetful Nation, the renowned postcolonialism scholar Ali Behdad turns his attention to the United States. Offering a timely critique of immigration and nationalism, Behdad takes on an idea central to American national mythology: that the United States is a nation of immigrants, welcoming and generous to foreigners. He argues that Americans' treatment of immigrants and foreigners has long fluctuated between hospitality and hostility, and that this deep-seated ambivalence is fundamental to the construction of national identity. Building on the insights of Freud, Nietzsche, Foucault, and Derrida, he develops a theory of the historical amnesia that enables the United States to disavow a past and present built on the exclusion of others.Behdad shows how political, cultural, and legal texts have articulated American anxiety about immigration from the Federalist period to the present day. He reads texts both well-known-J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur's Letters from an American Farmer, Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, and Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass-and lesser-known-such as the writings of nineteenth-century nativists and of public health officials at Ellis Island. In the process, he highlights what is obscured by narratives and texts celebrating the United States as an open-armed haven for everyone: the country's violent beginnings, including its conquest of Native Americans, brutal exploitation of enslaved Africans, and colonialist annexation of French and Mexican territories; a recurring and fierce strand of nativism; the need for a docile labor force; and the harsh discipline meted out to immigrant aliens today, particularly along the Mexican border.


A Forgetful Nation: On Immigration and Cultural Identity in the United States is an extraordinary work of cultural memory and an important contribution to critical historiography. In writing it, Ali Behdad has established a heretofore unrecognized connection between the culture's mythical representation of itself as an `Immigrant Nation
and the negation of the history of the violence inflicted against immigrants that this self

-forgetful representation necessitated. -- Donald E. Pease * Nations and Nationalism * This book offers a deeply relevant argument in the wake of 9/11 and counter-terror. Ali Behdad provides psychological depth to immigration discourse with a nuanced examination of `forgetting
as a mode of negation that both denies and acknowledges a past built on the exclusion of otherness

. -Russ Castronovo, author of Necro Citizenship: Death, Eroticism, and the Public Sphere in the Nineteenth-Century United States By way of valuable new readings of Jefferson, Hamilton, Tocqueville, Crevecoeur, and others, Ali Behdad has found a new way into established terrain. Neither pro- nor anti-immigration per se, this book traces the cultural workings and productions of immigration politics, an angle explored by few contributors to the immigration literature. A Forgetful Nation should be required reading for all those interested in the long and often hidden history of nation-building in the United States. -Bonnie Honig, author of Democracy and the Foreigner

About the Author

Ali Behdad is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of Belated Travelers: Orientalism in the Age of Colonial Dissolution, also published by Duke University Press.

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Book Info

Publication date

18th July 2005


Ali Behdad

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Duke University Press


232 pages


Physical anthropology



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