On Empire and Immigration

Bought the latest (I hate to call it new) Madness album, the two-CD version of “The Liberty of Norton Folgate.” There was a time in my life when I would not have waited three months to buy a new Madness disc, but those days have long passed. It’s a good collection of songs, probably the most interesting collection of the band’s career. Musically, “Norton Folgate” sounds like a cross between “7” and “Wonderful.” In fact, the disc sounds vaguely like a “best-of disc” (not that Madness needs another one of those), revisiting nearly every one of the musical styles the band has recorded in over the last 30 years. Scott Miller did this (not sure if it was on purpose) on The Loud Family’s “Attractive Nuisance,” which had the feeling of a retrospective of his musical career. Which is was.

Madness has always been something of a guilty pleasure for me. I can’t really explain why I like this band (it’s not the words, which aren’t terribly sophisticated), but I love the way their recorded music is put together. “Norton Folgate” does not disappoint in this regard. David Quintack wrote in Uncut:

But none of these stylistic revisits are retreads. “Everything” is infused with some of the best melodies of the band’s career, and everything is enthused, too. The tiredness of Keep Moving and Mad Not Mad has been replaced with an older, but fresher, sound. Songs like “Forever Young” and “Sugar And Spice” sound like singles, and should be. Everything seems to gel – the arrangements are the best ever, the production is thoughtful and smart, and the influences melded perfectly (we all know that Madness were more than the sum of Ian Dury and The Kinks, but we all chose to ignore the huge, conspicuous chunks of Motown and The Beatles also in there).

Based on everything I’ve read, “Norton Folgate” tells the story of the Norton Folgate neighborhood (or area, or whatever it can be called) of London. The title track, something of a 10-minute long mini-symphony, supposedly tells the story of Norton Folgate, especially as a neighborhood of immigrants. Madness has never been afraid to use the musical motifs of the east (as imagined by Westerners) in their music — “Night Boat to Cairo” and “New Delhi” being the two examples which come to mind. The song “The Liberty of Norton Folgate” squishes these eastern motifs together with what I’m guessing is late 19th and early 20th century English “vaudeville” (I had the word I wanted to use stuck in my head until the very moment I needed to use it), telling, in effect, the story of the British Empire.
As the song was winding around me last night (I’d listened to the moodboard version several time, by the actual CD release version is fuller, being three minutes longer and fully mixed), and heard this:

In the beginning I’d the fear of the immigrant
In the beginning was the fear of the immigrant
He’s made his way down to the dark riverside

In the beginning was the fear of the immigrant
In the beginning was the fear of the immigrant
He made his home there by the dark riverside

He made his home there down by the riverside
They made their homes there down by the riverside
The city sprang from the dark river Thames

They made their home there down by the riverside
They made their homes there down by the riverside
The city sprang up from the dark mud of the Thames

Which, for some reason, crystallized a thought the song had already stuck in my head: you cannot conquer and colonize the world and expect to remain unaffected by it. If you are going to have an empire, you must be open to the world. It will come to you, settle in you, and change you. It will colonize you too.
Or, you cannot want an empire — or a “strong defense” forward deployed in more than 100 nations — and then demand the borders stay closed, the immigrants stay away and the culture remain unchanged. Empire means open borders. You cannot have one without the other.
The strongest defenders of American nationalism, the Scots-Irish and their physical and ideological descendants who cannot imagine an United States that doesn’t beat up on foreigners, want empire but they don’t want the immigration. They don’t want to the openness to the world, because empire — for them — is solely the legitimate defense of family, community and culture, a supposed superior way of life, against those inferior foreigners who want to take those things away. It’s all about subjugating those foreigners, even as it claims to better their lives.
You can, I think, have openness without empire, but that requires smallness and a kind-of cosmopolitan outlook that only small and relatively powerless societies that are sometimes (too often?) crossroads for outsiders and invaders. But you cannot have empire without openness. I would rather not have empire, but since I rather like the world outside the United States, I appreciate that one of the consequences of empire is that kind of openness, especially in big cities. I don’t think most supporters of American empire, especially those who want the borders closed, understand that.