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“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.

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(The following is my last post in an exchange on The Denver Post comment board for Tina Griego’s column on Sunday April 10. The discussion in its entirety might be more informative:

dlprobert wrote: Look Steve, I am really not trying to be an a__

Fair enough. Then let’s have an informative discussion about all relevant considerations and factors.

First, it’s important to note that this conversation didn’t begin as a blanket defense of “illegal immigration.” My personal view, for a variety of reasons, is that the more open the borders (here and elsewhere), the better. This is beneficial to humanity on several levels: It leads to greater global wealth (by removing barriers to the free flow of the factors of production); it increases global distributional justice (by openning up opportunities to earn a larger piece of the pie for those currently with smaller pieces); it creates more cross-cutting ties among nations and peoples, thus preparing us to better deal with our proliferating global rather than national problems and challenges; it reduces the increasing disparity between the wealthy enclaves in the world and the impoverished mass of humanity, almost entirely by raising up those who are somewhat poorer rather than by bringing down those who are somewhat richer, which is not only more humane, but also helps avert a future that is otherwise guaranteed to be full of horrible violence aimed against those rich enclaves, which will be increasingly unable to stem the tide of humanity demanding global structural changes.

But one doesn’t have to agree with this view to agree that we have a practical problem concerning how to assimilate (or remove) the 12 million or so undocumented residents of this country. Removal, as I’ve already pointed out, is simply too expensive (even ignoring the inhumanity of it). By any calculation, the costs far, far, far exceed the benefits. Fiscally and economically, it is simply completely impractical. Added to that is the fact that you would witness something akin to the Nazi round-up of Jews in 1930s and 40s Germany if that were the path we choose to go down. We would, indeed, become a global villain, and would be historically remembered as such.

That’s what happens when people think primarily in terms of “nations” rather than in terms of “humanity.” The Germans of that epoch, you might recall, justified their actions by recourse to nationalism; they were concerned with the welfare of the German people, and with ridding Germany of a foreign element that they considered a burden on their national welfare. It was irrational of them; they couldn’t have been more wrong. And it is irrational of us; we couldn’t be more wrong today.

The reality is that we have a deep historical link to the people you misidentify as mere invaders. About a third of our contiguous territory was a part of Mexico before it was a part of the United States. Many Hispanic residents of that third are descendents of people whom the border crossed rather than of people who crossed the border. We have purposefully exploited the porous border to the south to our benefit, and have created a population that we consider inferior and disposable. “Legally” or “illegally,” they are a part of our nation and our society, and we have a moral oligation to them.

More importantly, for the purposes of this conversation, our own self-interest depends on assimilating those undocumented people. If we want to improve our control of the flow, so be it. But the notion that we should control it by punishing those who are here in order to make our country less attractive to those who aren’t is sheer folly, both because it turns us into something we should not be striving to be, and because it breeds an angry, rebellious, opportunity deprived shadow population that will only, as a result, impose a real cost and burden on our nation, rather than the imaginary one of today.

dlprobert wrote: America cannot continue with it’s handouts to people that are not in this country legally

The notion that those who come here illegally are greater recipients of “hand-outs” than other members of this society is not only mistaken, it is backwards. Yes, some social services (e.g., public education and emergency room treatment) are not withheld from undocumented residents of this country, but most are. They cannot collect on social welfare and economic security programs (e.g., medicaid, unemployment, welfare, social security, etc.). As a result, unlike American citizens and legal permanent residents, if they’re not working, they simply leave. There’s no point in being here, paying for a higher cost of living while receiving no income. So they are virtually all employed, always paying sales taxes and usually paying income taxes (since they generally need to use fake social security numbers to work) for programs that they can’t collect on. They make a vital contribution to the economy, which is why the labor market places such a strong demand on them.

dlprobert wrote: but it’s still ILLEGAL

There is legality, and there is morality, and there is reality. It was once illegal for a slave to escape from his or her master in this country, or for anyone, in any part of the country, to harbor such an escaped slave. In the name of that law, slave owners could send out slave hunters into non-slave states to recapture escaped slaves, and, abusing that law, those slave hunters often captured free African Americans living in free states and sold them into slavery in the south. Legality clearly is not the final word on “right” and “wrong.” So, those of us who recognize moral defects in current laws have a moral obligation to struggle to change those laws in order to cure those defects.

Beyond legality and morality, there is reality. The reality is that humans have always migrated away from destitution and toward opportunity, regardless of the nature or legal status of the invitation they may or may not have received. Jews ended up in Germany as a result of a diaspora, not a German invitation; does that justify the Holocaust?

We create our nations, give them geographic definition, and create laws by which to govern them, but we do not dictate the underlying dynamics of human existence. We live in a world of far greater global interdependence than nationalists would like to admit, in which the plight of others is and will be our own, and violently so tomorrow if we do not recognize it as morally so today.

dlprobert wrote: Those that won’t even try to assimilate…I have a real issue with that. I’m a veteran and when I went to a foreign country, I made it a point to learn the basics of the native language, not only to get along, but to also fit in.

Good for you. You are the exception among Americans, but not among those of other countries. I’ve lived and traveled abroad for over eight years of my adult life (including two stationed in Germany with the U.S. Army). I’ve known ex-pat Americans, and travelers and tourists, as well as those of other nations, and we are by far the most disrespectful, imperialistic sods out there. Many Americans abroad not only don’t know the language of the country they are in, but are downright offended when citizens of other countries, in their own countries, don’t know English. “The Ugly American” is a term that evolved in light of this dynamic.

As a veteran, I’m sure you recall the phrases “back in the world” and “going back to the world.” That’s how American service members refer to the United States, denegrating other countries (including European allies) by implying that they aren’t even a part of “the world.” America is the whole world in this formulation; other places are unreal, inferior, less worthy of recognition or acknowledgement. So, let’s not decry the imagined cultural insensitivity of those who come to this country and continue to speak their native language (or continue to speak the language established here before we forcefully anexed this region).

And, lets’ be honest: While some first-generation Hispanics who reside here don’t know much English, the impression that that is the  norm is reinforced by selective perception. Most learn more than “the basics” of English. I detect a bit of an attribution and confirmation bias in your above characterization: You didn’t claim fluency; might it be that your “basics” of those other languages, of which you’re so proud, represents a comparable level of language proficiency to the failure to learn English you detect in others?

There are basically two ways to see the world: In terms of “us” v. “them,” or in terms of humanity. We will all benefit in the long run, enormously, the more we gravitate toward the latter orientation and leave the former one on the dust heap of history, where it belongs.

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Colin Powell spoke out on immigration reform recently ( He said what every reasonable person knows: That we have to provide a road to legal status for the roughly 12 million who are here illegally, and that we have to recognize that fairly massive immigration is still part of the life-blood of this country.

As Powell recognizes, leaving intact an underground undocumented population that constitutes over three percent of the entire population is simply untenable. Identifying, detaining, and removing a significant portion of that population is prohibitively costly, inhumane, and destructive to our own economy. The only reasonable course of action, by any measure, is to provide a path to some kind of legal status, and to make it more attractive than remaining undocumented.

Also, as Powell realizes, those millions of undocumented immigrants are fully integrated into our economy,  into our culture, and into our society. Simply removing them, even aside from the incredible inhumanity involved, would send shock waves through all three. It would undermine our economic vitality, disrupt our social systems and networks, and impoverish our culture.

Virtually everyone agrees that some kind of immigration reform is necessary. The argument is over what form it should take.

A few quick facts to keep in mind:

1) The United States has historically exploited the permeability of our southern border, and the relative poverty south of it, to create a membrane through which cheap disposable labor can pass (sometimes assertively imported) when it is convenient for us, and can be blocked and removed when it is inconvenient for us.

2) The true economic impact of illegal immigration is far more complex, and far less large, than the xenophobes contend. Most analyses conclude that there is either pretty much a net nation-wide economic wash, or a small net nation-wide economic gain due to illegal immigration, though the distribution of costs and benefits does lead to real strains on local social services. Illegal immigrants pay far more taxes, and are far more obstructed from collecting the benefits funded for by those taxes, than some people realize. Most importantly, they are paying into social security to support current retirees, but are not accruing social security benefits upon which they can draw. 

3) Human beings have always migrated away from poverty and toward opportunity, and always will. Any responsible parent would place greater weight on their children’s future than on the prohibition to cross a line drawn in the sand by historical (and opportunistic) military conflicts. To villify people for doing so is simply reprehensible.

4) The more factors of production can flow freely, which includes how open borders are, the more global wealth is produced, and, in this case, the less inequitably it is distributed.

5) We rely on massive immigration demographically, with a burgeoning retired population and a shrinking working-age population supporting them. Immigrants come to work, redressing that imbalance.

Here’s my analysis:

From a global economic efficiency and distributional justice point-of-view, the ideal is the free flow of people and goods across borders. From a global leadership and fairness in distributing the burden point-of-view, the US should be in the lead on moving the world in the direction of that ideal.

I’m both a global humanist and a realist: I recognize the ideals we should be striving for, and the current realities that force us to compromise our efforts. One of the realities of the world is that people are locally and immediately biased: costs and benefits closer to home and closer to the present are weighted much more heavily than costs and benefits farther from home and farther in the future.

I’m less sympathetic to the reactions of people who resent (though are only marginally burdened by) the unstoppable flow of people from poverty and destitution toward opportunity than I am cognizant of its inevitability. For that reason, more than any other, we need federal laws that are enforceable, and that are a reasonable compromise between who and what we should be, and who and what we are.

The history of immigration law in America is a lot uglier than a lot of people realize, more often racist than not, and still somewhat brutal in the fierce protection of what’s ours, even against the most innocent and vulnerable victims of a cruel world. It’s hard to admire that, when the vast majority in America are walking around with i-phones, and pay cable subscriptions, and live comfortably and eat well. And here’s one of my objections to some in my own party: the branch of American labor that does not recognize any international responsibility beyond protecting our own wealth against foreign intrusion is as odious to me as any aspect of right-wing ideology.

Furthermore, we are capable of restructuring our priorities, and investing in our future, in ways which will provide native-born Americans with better opportunities to fill higher-paying, more information-intensive positions in our national (and the global) economy, leaving those eager souls from beyond our borders with the opportunity to fill the lower-paying, unskilled positions that Americans no longer want. This is, to a limited extent, the nature of illegal immigration today; in reality, the demand for low-paid foreign labor exists because Americans want, and can usually find, better opportunities (and the demand for highly paid, highly skilled foreign labor exists because we are failing to educate our own children to be able to satisfy it). But to the extent that there still is some competition for jobs between those born here or here legally, at the bottom of our economic ladder, and those who are newly arriving illegally, a greater commitment on our part to robust and effective public education, and provision of affordable, varied higher educational opportunities, will mitigate this problem, by moving those already here up the economic ladder, and leaving the rungs at the bottom to those newly arriving. 

Even so, the use of immigrant labor to depress wages and to displace higher paid American labor still exists. Despite our relative wealth and comfort, the pressures and anxieties of an uncertain economy, of an uncertain future, of family responsibilities and assumptions about what we will be able to give to our children, all make our protectionist reflexes understandable, if neither ideal nor admirable. I’m not unsympathetic to the worker whose livelihood is made less secure by the competition of desparately poor people elsewhere, nor to the folks in border states and communities whose local resources are strained by undocumented waves of humanity pouring in.

But I’m a human being first, and an American second. The problems and stresses of Americans are nothing compared to the problems and stresses of those against whom we are protecting ourselves. And our mythologies and rationalizations with which we reassure ourselves that that is just and right do not in any way actually make it just and right. Furthermore, our own long-term interests are best served by including massive immigration in the equation, and creating a context in which those who enter fill positions that those who are here no longer need to settle for.

So that’s the nature of the challenge, as I see it. How do we negotiate all of those imperatives, all of those needs, all of those legitimate concerns? I don’t know. But the first step is to achieve a higher degree of honesty about the nature of the world in which we live, and the nature of the role we play, and could play, in it.

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