Immigrant Rage

A standard psychological theory of rage and anger is that it is a response to frustration at having been denied something that is very important to well being. The rage of Achilles arose because he had been denied his trophy, Brisias, which was an insult to him as a warrior, and so he raged and sulked in his tent, and the outcome of that classic legend was that his best friend was killed in battle. Rage leads to bad things and so we should do something to deal with its causes. Freud, of course, had a very different view of the matter. What happened to people when they did not get what they felt entitled to because they are drawn to it is that they became fearful of those who were enforcing the frustration, and so they turn upon themselves rather than lash out at people. Let us try to sort out the dynamics of rage by looking at both fictional and real life, large scale examples of the phenomenon: what happens to immigrants when they come to this country.

“The Godfather” recounts a story of immigrant rage. Michael is the tragic figure in this saga which reverses the usual immigrant arc of proceeding from stranger to assimilated citizen. Michael is preoccupied by his rage at the fact that he had to reverse his own upward course and not become a United States Senator, having the intelligence and cunning to do very well at that, but instead become a professional gangster because there was no one else in the family who was equipped to take on that line of work when his father got sidelined. So, after a year or so apart, during which a lot had happened, including the killing of his new bride by a botched attempt on his own life and his becoming head of his mob, he shows up at an old flame’s school to reintroduce himself to her. He has a chauffeured limousine and wears a Homburg hat, not at all appropriate attire for a date or at all becoming in a young man. But he is beyond all that now. The old flame, Kay Adams, a good WASP girl, should have run away from him at that point rather than wait to do so when, to express her rage against him, she aborts their third child. He never admits to his rage to himself, only containing it, and letting it out, usually, on appropriate objects, but sometimes going overboard so as to deliver what seems to him justice but is really fierce unhappiness, a rage he does not understand, about his situation in life. In this case, and in so many others, the rage of immigrants is expressed as violence and an inability to channel the rage into more useful directions, even if some would say that the anxiety of the immigrant child may turn into a rage to succeed in a career.

Immigrants, in general, feel rage because they never lose sight of what they have given up for what they now have, whether that is a materially better life or just a new life, where a person does or does not achieve the status they held in the old country, in order to make a better life for their children. Immigrants are always aware of what they have given up as well as what they have accomplished. My neighborhood grocer gave up his career so he could bring his children to this country, and he always seemed to me angry. But my mother was not angry about having gotten out of Poland just before the outbreak of World War II. She had no desire to visit, much less, like Thomas Mann or Theodor Adorno, to return to the old country. She liked being in America. And so, what should we say? That she was a newcomer more than an immigrant? She spoke English at home. She remembered Poland only through gatherings of people who had come from her Polish city either before the war started or as survivors after it ended. I think she qualifies as a newcomer because there was no great sense of loss in having left Europe. It did not deprive her of opportunities or a settled place in the community because the only thing she cared about were family connections and there were plenty of those over here.

There is no escaping the connection between immigration and rage. One of the consequences of immigrant rage is violence. Crime rates go up in the generation following a wave of immigration.That may be because immigrants are disaffiliated from their communities and so do not have people around them who will intervene or otherwise pressure them not to engage in violence. Or perhaps the gangs that form in this period during which people do not have normal social institutions to surround them are themselves the source of violence, people loyal to their gangs and so engaging in the violent behavior expected of them to carry out their criminal ends and to express their contorted psyches. These circumstances settle down when people get secure jobs and secure families, and so their children are not afflicted with immigrant rage-- except in such special cases as the Corleone family.

Immigrant rage is also met by the rage of those who find the immigrants distasteful because of their strange ways and also because of their penchant for violence. The rage of the right wing is understood, and has been since studies in the Forties, of downward mobility. People whose fortunes rather than just wealth have declined and they take it out by hating immigrants or Communists or other people they regard as responsible for their condition. On the other hand, sociologists can also identify upward mobility as the source of rage. People who have just found their footing in the respectable classes, in steady work and a stable family, will resent those people who have not elevated themselves and tend to blame them for not having the virtues that would also take them to a better life. Those still poor or still unassimilated people don’t deserve welfare because the people recently out of the conditions that might lead to welfare make a moral claim that they are better people than their newly found inferiors because those still in need of assistance should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, while well to do people mind government charity less because rage against the unworthy is not relevant to their own status or their own motivations.

It might be that the residents of immigrant communities are enraged by their lack of opportunities and so seek to objectify their sense of violation by engaging in violence. That, along with gang behavior, might explain much of inner city violence among African Americans, because they are a few generations removed from the internal immigration of African Americans from the South to the North. It is hard to put aside that pattern if there are not the structural tools provided whereby immigrants are able to be upwardly mobile, such as poverty or job programs that were abundant during the New Deal but not there in the volume needed during the War on Poverty, which was when the Northern Migration took place.

But there are recent books that suggest that current frustrations are not the cause of immigrant rage. “Hillbilly Elegy” is a recent book that portrays another internal immigration: of white trash families into the upper working class. Their shared ethos makes them somewhat like immigrants. But the thing is that they have been upwardly mobile. They have had long careers in working class factories and send their children off to college. What they retain from their backgrounds, however, is a penchant for violence, something not easily shed because it has been with them since childhood, part of their ethos every much as violence is also a penchant of disorganized ghetto families. So the source of the rage is an atavism, a residue rather than a present circumstance. They are not raging against what the world has done to them but retaining the habits of their youth.

And so one can take the optimistic view that the next generation or the one after that, whether African American or poor white Southerner,will grow out of their rage even as there will be new unsettled groups and new immigrant groups which will bequeath the unfortunate inheritance of rage unto another generation. Hopefully, sooner or later, the rage will be burnt out of these groups but that is not because it happens on an individual level so much as because subsequent generations will not have become inured to violence as a custom. Most of the Italians in Michael Corleone’s generation did in fact work their way out of an admiration of violence or exposure to it as a practice of neighborhood life. Michael’s problem was that he was an atavism, drawn back into the old ways by circumstances though not by necessity. For some groups, the road to being middle class, the road away from violence, is harder than it is for other groups, and so we may suggest, by analogy, that rage is a function of frustration only on an individual level, and that rage on a group level is a function of culture: whether a group selects, as a collectivity, to use this as the way to express frustration or learn to give up their rage as part of the package of other customs they have to give up so as to become middle class. There is nothing essential about rage at all.