“Godwin’s Law” is, of course, a reference to the ironic observation by Mike Godwin in the 1990s that the longer an internet conversation goes on, the more inevitable it is that someone will draw a comparison to Nazi Germany. The overuse of this iconic moment in world history as a reference point does not mean that all comparisons are invalid or inappropriate, but does make the utilization of legitimate comparisons problematic. (Godwin himself emphasized that this is precisely the problem, legitimate comparisons getting lost in the flood of meaningless ones. Thus, the invocation of his “law” to reject out-of-hand any comparison made to Nazi Germany accomplishes exactly what he thought needed to be prevented.)
We are at a moment in our own national history when one such legitimate comparison is of particular salience. In order to invoke its legitimacy, I’ll preface my remarks with an important qualification: The American mass hysteria to which I’m referring does not appear to be on the brink of a genocide, and is not characterized by widespread physical violence. That is a major distinction, which renders it highly unfair to paint the adherents of the American mass hysteria I am about to discuss as the equivalent of Nazis. They’re not. My point only is that there is a certain salient core similarity between the underlying logic of German Nazism and a highly popular modern American political ideological belief.
I am referring to the hostile attitude among many highly vocal and passionate Americans toward undocumented immigrants. For the purposes of this discussion, I will focus only on the attitude toward undocumented immigrants living in our country, not toward their employers, or toward any concerns about lack of enforcement of immigration policies at our borders. Those individuals who criticize the latter aspects of our immigration policy, but accept the presence of those who have already immigrated illegally and integrated themselves into our economy, our communities, and our society as de facto members of our society are excluded from this comparison, without my implying either agreement or disagreement with their positions by doing so. But this conversation is only about our national attitudes toward a population living among us.
First, it’s important to distinguish between law, morality, and reality. We pass laws to order our lives and arrange the framework for our mutually secure and beneficial coexistence as members of a society. Our laws may be moral or immoral in any particular instance, and they may be more or less well-attuned to reality. For instance, our laws prohibiting slaves from escaping from their masters, or others from assisting them in doing so, were clearly, from our current perspective, highly immoral. Similarly, if a law were to be passed making it illegal to be unkind, it might not be immoral, but it is simply unrealistic: We are not capable of legislating kindness. Taken as a whole, our laws are neither perfectly moral, nor perfectly attuned to reality.
One reality to which they are not perfectly atuned is the reality of patterns of human migration. We all implicitly know that our immigration laws and the reality of immigration into our country are at odds. Some believe that this can be rectified simply by enforcing our immigration laws. Very aggressive and expensive attempts to rectify the gap between our laws and our reality have proven that this is far easier to demand than to accomplish. Fences are tunneled beneath. Comprehensive human and technological vigilance of a 2000 mile long border is a practical impossibility. Gaps are found and exploited. People continue to flow across.
Some believe that since the exploitation of the impossibility of perfectly sealing our border is labelled “a crime” according to American law (though this is technically erroneous), those who do exploit it are simply “criminals,” and, as such, are fugitives to be rounded up and either locked up or deported. But this, too, is not perfectly attuned to reality: Humans throughout world history, and around the globe, have migrated away from destitution and toward opportunity, whenever and wherever such migration is possible. In the Biblical story of the Exodus, for instance, the Hebrews with whom we empathize, who escaped Pharaoh in Egypt, had come to Egypt uninvited in the first place, fleeing drought and famine in their homelands. I have never heard anyone condemn these authors of monotheism as uninvited intruders on Egyptian civilization.
We pass our laws to order our lives, which is all well and good. And we are a world carved into nation-states as a by-product of world history, convincing ourselves that the lines we have drawn in the sand (and in our minds) have some fundamental reality, have become a part of Nature itself. Therefore, a violation of the laws which violate those lines is an offense which merits disdain and antagonism.
Let me now turn for a moment to Nazi Germany. The lines drawn in the minds of Nazis was a racial and ethnic one, separating out those of pure German-Aryan blood from those of “impure” or “inferior” blood. Laws were passed making that border inviolable. People were punished for crossing it, and, eventually, for living within the geographic borders of the nation. They were marked as criminals, as a threat to the welfare of the German people, as unwanted foreigners within the German homeland, and thus to be rounded up and removed.
Some will argue that in America today, those who are hostile to undocumented immigrants are not drawing any racial or ethnic lines. We will return to this question shortly, but let’s, for the sake of argument, accept for the moment that it is a purely legal distinction between those who had permission to enter and those who did not. I contend that that is a distinction without a difference: In both cases, a sub-population comprised of ordinary human beings pursuing ordinary lives in an ordinary manner is seen by a major ideological faction as being defined by a nation’s law as “criminal,” as a threat to the welfare of the nation, as a foreigner within, and, therefore, should be rounded up and removed. The similarity in attitude and ideology, even devoid of any racial component, is certainly striking. I would say, in fact, that it is jarring.
We all know, of course, that there is at least some racial component to the modern American anti-undocumented immigrant hysteria, since Arizona passed a law which explicitly targeted one particular ethnicity for exceptional scrutiny. Those who read comment boards and blogs know all too well how many comments decry the degree to which “they” speak Spanish rather than English, or fail to assimilate to an acceptable degree, or, in some other way, keep themselves apart, and are thus the foreigner within.
These people probably do not know that that was a large component of the Nazi complaint against the Jews, clearly exaggerated, just as it is in America today. Jews kept apart, maintained their own religion, used their own language (“Yiddish”), and, in general, were the foreigner within. In both cases, factually false claims of parasitism were (are) repeated endlessly, claims divorced from the economic and political reality of the coexistence of the culturally distinct peoples involved.
Some might argue that a major distinction is that the German Jews persecuted in the Holocaust had been established in Germany for many generations, whereas American anti-undocumented-immigrant ideology targets only those who themselves physically crossed the border without permission. The two things that would make this distinction at least somewhat salient are: 1) Differing extents to which the members of the “foreign” population are integrated into the host society, and 2) the responsibility that comes with volition, having chosen to cross a border without permission.
However, in many cases, both of these distinguishing factors are absent: 1) Many undocumented residents of the United States are fully integrated into their communities and our society (some, in fact, speaking only English, having been brought across in infancy), and, in many ways, German Jews kept themselves more “removed” as a separate people within Germany than undocumented Hispanic residents of the United States do today (rendering the comparison just that much more poignant, since that separateness was a major rationalization for the Holocaust, and is in America today a major rationalization for current bigotries here and now); and 2) people brought across the border in their infancy or childhood exercised no volition, and thus can’t be held responsible for the choice they made. (I want to emphasize that I am not legitimating the belief that these considerations justify the harsh attitudes toward any undocumented immigrants, but merely pointing out the limited reach of this particular distinction from Nazi German attitudes toward Jews.)
As Sinclair Lewis once sagely noted, “when fascism comes to America, it will come wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.” It comes as no surprise, therefore, to note that the core of the mass hysteria of which I speak is to be found among those wrapped in the flag and/or carrying a cross. The anger, belligerence, and irrationality consuming America today in the form of The Tea Party and its fellow travelers is not a mere voice of civic discontent, or respectable ideology engaging in healthy public discourse. It is the antithesis of what reasonable people of goodwill desire for our country, and for humanity.
Discussions about the balance between growth of government and containment of public spending, of optimal taxation and spending, of how best to define and articulate the responsibilities of the public and private spheres, are all legitimate topics of civil discourse. But the disdain of the foreigner within and of the impoverished and destitute, of those less fortunate, that infuses this discourse is not. Our growing denial of our interdependence, of our co-existence as members of a society, of our social responsibilities to one another, is not part of legitimate civil discourse, because it denies the existence of a civic dimension to our lives about which to discourse. It is literally “incivility,” often in form but always in substance, because it is dedicated to absolute individualism, and the destruction of the bonds of being members of a society, of a polity, that gives that individualism its vehicle of expression and realization.
America is at a cross-roads perhaps more consequential than any it has been at in well over a century, since perhaps the Civil War. As many have noted, sometimes figuratively and sometimes literally, we are on the brink of another civil war. Few, however, have correctly identified the sides in this new civil war: It is not liberty v. socialism, or even conservative v. progressive, but rather is reason and goodwill v. irrational belligerence. It is the civil war that Germans fought and lost prior to World War II, because it is a civil war that is lost, to the detriment of all, when irrational belligerence prevails, and reasonable goodwill is defeated. This is not a trivial incarnation of that perennial civil war which recurs so frequently in World History, in so many times and places. Lives are at stake. Our decency as a people is at stake. Humanity is at stake.
This is a war that is fought within the heart of each of us, across the dinner table in our homes, in taverns and meeting places and on internet sites. It is a war for our minds and hearts, not just that our minds and hearts are convinced of one thing or another, but for our minds and hearts themselves, whether we are people whose minds and hearts prevail, or people whose basal ganglia (or “reptilian brains”) prevail. And this is the crux of the comparison I am drawing: In Nazi Germany, it was clearly the basal ganglia that prevailed. In modern America, it is clearly the basal ganglia that is in control when we define ourselves by our hostility toward perceived “others.”
This is not a war we can afford to lose.