Arizona Vampire Patrol
a classic novel and a border wall that is no more
The common English usage of the word pogrom (from Russian for devastation, or storm) began in the 1880s. Hundreds of anti-Jewish riots in the Russian empire, especially in modern day Ukraine and Poland, forced millions to flee, mostly to western Europe and the United States.
At the same time the Russian empire was fomenting the largest mass displacement of people in decades, on the other side of Europe, the British empire’s hegemony was also beginning to crack.
Those factors — increased migration and waning imperial power (a two-spirit cocktail still known for bringing out fuddling nativist truculence) — dramatically changed the way the British saw and understood migration. In 1858 The Times of London had proclaimed the country to be a “nation of refugees.” Within a few decades British papers were decrying the “alien inrush” and the “invasion of foreign pauperism,” calling on authorities to “keep the aliens out!”
Some papers were more explicit: calling the influx “the Jewish invasion.”
(Anti-immigrant and anti-semitic stances have long overlapped. Two US-based examples: the racist anti-immigration laws passed in the 1920s specifically meant to bar people from Eastern Europe had an outsized effect on Jews; a century later, the 2018 mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, perhaps the deadliest attack on Jews in American history, was motivated by the synagogue’s support of HIAS, or the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which was established in 1881 to help resettle Jewish refugees.)
The late 19th-century political context in Britain is key to understanding Dracula, the popular and popularly misunderstood 1897 novel written by Irish writer Bram Stoker.
The etiolated, mirror-shy, long-fingered, blood-sucking night owl has been variously represented in film and literature throughout the last hundred-plus years, becoming a politically utilitarian and narratively malleable villain.
Count Dracula’s origins go back to the Vlad Țepeș, or Vlad the Impaler, a Romanian/Wallachian noble who was hounded by the Ottomans and became a national hero and then, supposedly due to his genocidal cruelty (and his penchant for impaling folks who crossed him) an infamous scoundrel.
My mother is from Transylvania, a land that has been variously claimed, fought over, exoticized, and ensorcelled for centuries. I’ve visited my cousins there a few times and, as a teenager, my mom and I toured the Bran castle, which is likely the inspiration for the formidable bulwark Stoker describes in Dracula. It was mostly empty, overlit, and underwhelming. I remember reclining on one of the beds in a large, undusted room and thinking, No way did Dracula ever sleep here. (Because — obviously — he preferred to sleep in a coffin in the basement.)
The villain version of Vlad remains a useful metaphorical scapegoat: a sort of moral whipcrack ushering people toward Christianity, chastity, or away from the dangers of the night, vanity, and garlic. There have been a lot of popular spinoffs, plenty of which, I gather, sermonize on some of these themes, including Buffy, Twilight, and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.
Director Robert Eggers, who’s made some great films, including The Witch and The Northman, is doing a remake of Nosferatu, with William Dafoe playing Dracula. It’s not coming out until 2024, but I’m already scheming coverage.
The novel that set the fuse on this century-plus of spinoffs, Stoker’s Dracula, is one of the most misogynist books I’ve ever read, and I went through a longish phase of reading second-tier noirs, both of which paint women as little more than milky-skinned, frequently about to faint and sensuously distressed damsels: “A brave man’s blood is the best thing on this earth when a woman is in trouble,” Dr. Van Helsing counsels the paramour of a certain gentlewoman who got bat-bit.
Stoker’s Dracula is also staunchly anti-immigrant, bandies loosely in anti-semitic tropes, and, with its high gothic-style, is hilariously over-written: the sort of lucubrative inspiration that comes to you on lonesome and slightly drunken late nights.
Here’s one of the main characters being invited to a party:
He’s coming, too, and we both want to mingle our weeps over the wine-cup, and to drink a health with all our hearts to the happiest man in all the wide world, who has won the noblest heart that God has made and the best worth winning… We shall both swear to leave you at home if you drink too deep to a certain pair of eyes. Come!
Modern Medieval Statecrafting
Was a lucubrative and slightly drunken late-night the sort of night Doug Ducey was having when he decided he wanted to build his own borderwall?
Though the former Arizona governor Doug Ducey isn’t nearly as eloquent as Stoker, he was basically using the same grammar: reacting to the fear of supposed invasion by relying on gothic tropes and medieval technology.
In the summer of 2022, after stacking up a row of old rusting shipping containers outside of Yuma in an attempt to seal gaps in the Trump-built border wall (I’m almost surprised he didn’t add crenels and merlons on top) Ducey turned his attention to the Coronado National Forest southwest of Tucson, a mostly empty stretch of mountainous desert known more for animal crossings than for migrants.
Then, in mid-October, the Ducey administration began staging the land to build more boxcar barriers across the Arizona border with Mexico.
There were a number of logistical problems with the plan. Here are two mechanical ones, the sort of stuff my toddler is learning to work around with his blocks: one, trying to line up straight-edged containers on a curving surface leaves gaps; and two, people can get over walls pretty easily, especially when they are built out of boxcars studded with handholds and ridges.
Another logistical problem with the wall was jurisdictional: the state was trying to build on federal land, and wasn’t authorized to do so.
None of that stopped Ducey from trying, from offloading hundreds of the junkboxes into the pristine desert, hiring contractors to ride roughshod over protected habitat as they barreled through cactuses and totally flopped at sealing the border.
What eventually stopped Ducey was not commonsense or that other self-checking mechanism, the law, but a ragtag group of activists and environmental defenders that resisted that wall, and actually forced the state to pull it down. I wrote about them for Arizona Luminaria a couple weeks ago.
You have to go back to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 for another example of popular pressure bringing down an international barrier. The folks in Berlin, however, had not only the help of a few million people, the support of the US government and much of western Europe, but also rock-and-roll concerts from Bruce Springsteen and David Hasselhoff.
The folks in Arizona were acting alone, not using much more than a WhatsApp group chat and some tents and sleeping bags.
There was a lot particular to their specific situation: simply standing in the way of construction crews isn’t typically going to stop the US, or any government, from ongoing wall construction. (Despite repeatedly pledging to build not another foot of wall, the Biden administration still has plans to fill in some selected gaps along different parts of the border.)
But, even if the tactics aren’t easily replicable elsewhere, immigrant rights advocates don’t get a lot of victories, and so they have plenty to be proud of. The wall that Ducey built is gone. And though the earth is scarred, it will heal.
“But a stranger in a strange land, he is no one,” Count Dracula says, summing up his plight as an outsider, “men know him not — and to know not is to care not for.”
Is it dangerous to analogize immigrants to a blood-sucking sempiternal monster? Yes, it is. But, much like Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula is more figment of our fears than any reality actually to be feared.
Neither necklaces of garlic, battlements, nor walls will protect you from the other. Only protecting the other will protect you.
So let us now “mingle our weeps over the winecup” and toast to a wall coming down.