08 July 2010

Feeling a Little Creepy

It's the Arizona thing. I do get it, that they and others are frustrated with the apparent inability or unwillingness of the federal government to prevent unlawful immigration. Such laws are a form of saying, "Well, if you won't clean up this mess, I'll do it myself," followed by much stomping about to make the point. We've all had those moments, and many of them are righteous.

What makes me feel creepy is how much this reminds me of the uptick in official antisemitism during the Great Depression. I found myself reviewing the history of the rise of Nazism, which grew partly in response to the Depression in Germany.

People there, suffering immense unemployment and financial uncertainty, saw "The Jews" as responsible for their problem. Not only the famous 'cabal of international financiers' imagined in the fictional "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," but ordinary citizens like themselves who because they were different were still felt to be outsiders. These Jews, ordinary people sometimes believed, were taking jobs away from them, meaning real Germans. They used things like schools and hospitals and other tax funded services.

In short, Germans saw Jews as outsiders who were a threat. Hostility to Jews was already there, mind you, although much reduced from medieval levels. But the economic crisis helped rekindle it when people needed a 'villain' to explain their woes.

I see uneasily similar attitudes behind the Arizona law, which like the Nuremberg laws, turned emotional anxiety into official policy. This law is directed at those who 'look' illegal, meaning Mexican. There are unlawful immigrants from all around the world, including blond Canadians and blue eyed Swedes. But is the the Mexicans who are the threat now.

Even after 9/11 states did not pass laws to address racialized xenophobia, so this willingness of local government to make laws based on fear, to put the power of the state in service to something bordering on racial paranoia, is truly distressing.

At least for those of us who know what happens when fear and xenophobia combine. We may not be heading down the road to fascism yet, but this may well signal a return to nativism, Know Nothing politics, and the simplistic tribalism that lay behind Jim Crow for a century. They all had their day in our history, and unless we remember those days more consciously we shall, as Santayana opined, surely repeat them.


Bill Baar said...

Do you have any evidence? English descreating Iglesias, boycotting Mexican owned business e.g. English beware this is a Mexican owned restaurant? A Pheonix Kristol Nacht on Mexicans?

Otherwise, this is a pretty weak analogy...

WFW said...

Bill, I was not making an analogy so much as noting a resemblance in tone - that an easily identified group can be called 'the problem' quite easily when economic times are tough. And when government goes along with it, we go from a rumbling feeling to a sort of policy.

Of course we have not had the examples you cited. But once government legitimates a group as 'the problem' we may see acts like that. I hope not, but the potential is not purely imaginary.