In that same issue of the Transylvania Times, the Republican candidate for Sheriff in the county—who won, incidentally— attributed the rising crimes of domestic violence, theft, burglary, armed robbery, assaults, rapes and homicide to “the influx of drugs into our community that had been increased substantially. . . [because of] the number of illegal aliens that have moved into our community and were acquiring fake ID’s, drivers licenses, social security cards, forming gangs, driving illegally, drug dealing—forming a “very organized part of the local drug trade.”
Another candidate for county commissioner—also successful in his election campaign—announced that one of his main planks was opposition to the existence of what he called 1,500 illegal aliens in the county, “which means there are 1,500 felons.”
Needless to say, he did not try to estimate the number of “felons” who were obviously employing these individuals.
Now regulating and controlling immigration is a critical and growing problem around the world. It is a problem brought on by a combination of easier transportation, porous borders and a tremendous, and growing, disparity between rich and poor nations. I’ve read much of the literature, or certainly summaries of it, that attempts to measure the economic of immigration on this and other states and it’s clear that it is mixed and extraordinarily complex picture. State and local governments do spend more on illegal immigrants than they receive in revenues and it is a heavy burden for some local communities. On the other hand, the federal government receives considerably more in revenues from undocumented aliens than it spends for services for them. And there are other benefits (lower costs to the consumer) and costs (a downward pressure on entry level wages) to illegal immigration that are difficult to measure.
That is a debate we need to have, but that is not the debate I’m talking about.
For what I in much of the rhetoric over immigration is not a rational (or compassionate) discussion of these complex issues. Instead, it is simply the latest episode in a long and painful history in which the majority of Americans have demonized groups on the basis of race, ethnicity, sexuality and political views.
And that is what I’d like to talk about today: how we have historically cast our own demons onto the other.
A sense of nationhood—what it means to be American, English, French or a Japanese—springs from many sources: usually a common language and a shared culture and history with deep roots—often a common religion. But nationhood for the United States—in the 18th century at least—hardly shared these characteristics. Although we came to settle upon English as our common language, on the eve of the revolution well over a third of the population was German, Dutch, French, Spanish, African and Native American and as late as 1913, a quarter of all Americans spoke a non-English language. If we were a predominantly a “Christian” nation, it is also true that there were deep schisms that divided Christians.
We even lacked a shared history—except that which was forged in the revolutionary struggle. Identification was with the colony or state or even the local community. Creating a sense of cohesive national identity was a process, not a given.
It seems to me that there were two powerful—and often competing—ways of imagining what it meant to be “American.” One was embodied in a powerful series of state papers and documents: the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the Constitution, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Franklin Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms.” Most eloquently it was expressed by Thomas Jefferson. When he wrote of “the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle [us]”; when he declared that “all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights,” he was opening a new door in human history. In the fullness of time, that ideal was expanded to include not simply white men but women and people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds. This is the America that has had such a powerful appeal to people around the world.
But there has also been another way of defining who we are as a people and that is by the construction of a dark and sinister mirror image that allows us to proclaim our own political, moral and spiritual superiority. Everywhere we see bumper stickers that proclaim: “God Bless America.” Isn’t the subtext really “God Bless America because we deserve to be blessed because our conduct, our history, our past, our moral superiority sets us apart from the rest of a sinful and fallen world?
And even though there are moments when America has lived up to its promise as a “City upon a shining hill,” there are darker episodes in our history.
In the years leading up to the American revolution, some of the most eloquent voices defining, explaining and defending the concept of “freedom” were the very same men who created and defended slavery, a system of labor that denied the most basic elements of human liberty and dignity: Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Patrick Henry, George Washington; in fact, more than 80 per cent of the signers of the Declaration of Independence from Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia were slave-owners, most of them substantial slave-owners at a time when fewer than 10 per cent of Southern whites owned more than 3 slaves.
Some of these men were troubled by that contradiction; most wrote and spoke and acted without any sense of hypocrisy. They did so because they had managed to convince themselves that the black men, women and children in their midst were the “other:” a people who shared their human form, but not their common humanity. Slaves brought many of the founding father profits and made their lives easier, but in their enforced degradation, squalor, ignorance and utter lack of freedom, these African-Americans helped these early Americans see more clearly the consequences—in the most extreme form— that flowed from a failure to defend their own freedom.
If we look at the history of race relations in this country we can see how black people became screens onto which white Americans projected their fantasies and their fears. During slavery, blacks were generally portrayed as childlike, ignorant and docile, lazy and improvident: the Mammy, the Coon, the Tom, the happy-go-lucky pickaninny. In that make-believe world, slavery was a totally moral institution in which masters and mistresses could act as quasi-parents to a race of children that were suited to a life of servitude.
And after the civil war? Suddenly blacks were not just lazy and improvident, they were insolent, dishonest, immoral—and worst of all—sexually abandoned and animalistic. In the fantasies of white men, black women were licentious and sexually free in a way that white Victorian women could never be. Sexual exploitation was understandable, even defensible—for these black women were born seductresses.
The sexuality of black men was something altogether different—they were the beast, the dark side of human nature. Freed from any of the constraints of civilized people, they lived as animals seeking sexual pleasure from the forbidden fruit—white women. Instead of the harmless Mammy, the Coon, the Tom, the happy-go-lucky pickaninny and the kindly Master and Mistress there is a new set of characters: the black male brute, the helpless white female and the avenging white male.
Now I’m not going to go into the complex story of lynching, but it is clear from the work of historians, sociologists and social psychologists that lynchings were highly structured mass rituals in which dominant whites exorcised their deepest fears by projecting onto blacks their darkest nightmares about themselves—and then casting them out—literally destroying them in the most brutal acts of torture and murder.
For the last few weeks I have been working on a series of lectures I’ll be giving in Germany on the role of religion in American politics—something that baffles most Europeans. In particularly, I have had to grapple with the role that the powerful and divisive role that abortion plays in our political life. I don’t have time to explore the extraordinarily complexities of the issue and its relationship to national politics.
I’ll just say that I have become more and more convinced that one of the reasons for the intense passions of the right-to-life movement is the emotionally gratifying way that they are able to depict themselves as morally superior. The very intensity of the condemnations of pro-choice advocates—“my enemies are murderers; they are worse than murderers, they are baby murderers”—is one more way to prove their own moral and religious superiority and the wickedness of their opponents.
Now the casting out of the wicked is hardly new—
Since this is taking the place of a sermon, I felt a little Bible-quoting was desirable and so I rambled through Numbers, Isaiah and Deuteronomy. the people of Israel, much like Americans, claimed for themselves the place of the chosen people. As the scriptures record (Deuteronomy 7:6), the “Lord thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, above all people that are upon the face of the earth.”
I discovered that on numerous occasions, God had ordered the Israelites to slay strangers—particularly if they got to close to the tabernacle; that he was particularly incensed whenever Israelites married foreigners.
Time after time, the chosen people were given complete license to murder men, women and children who were considered to be “different.”
As we learn in Numbers, Chapter 31, after the Israelites had defeated the Midianites and slaughtered all the adult men, they had taken the women and children captives. But Moses, presumably acting on God’s orders, was furious and he told the soldiers to “Kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.” And we just thought it was only the Muslim fundamentalists who were promising virgins to their warriors.
In Isaiah, Chapter 18, we learn how David slew 200 Philistine men, then cut off their foreskins and brought these trophies to Saul to prove he was worthy of marrying Saul’s daughter.
That one was a little to close for comfort for me and I stopped reading.
I don’t mean to be flip about this. There are powerful admonitions in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament that urge God’s people to welcome the stranger and to show mercy to the weak. After all, the story of the Good Samaritan is one of the central stories of Christianity. And we certainly have moved beyond the point of stoning individuals to death—or lynching them.
But have the underlying dynamics really changed? The U.S., which has five per cent of the world’s population, has nearly a quarter of the world’s prisoners in jails and penitentiaries. And who are these prisoners? Even though African Americans made up only 13% of the population, half of the state and federal prisoners were African American. They are five times as likely to have come from one family homes; they are six times as likely to have grown up in poverty as the general population.
It is now accepted—even by a Supreme Court that refuses to intervene—that the death penalty is carried out in a racially discriminatory manner; race plays a decisive role in the question of who lives and dies by execution in this country. As we learn from one of the many reports of the Death Penalty Information Center: “Race influences which cases are chosen for capital prosecution and which prosecutors are allowed to make those decisions. . . . [R] ace affects the makeup of the juries which determine the sentence. Racial effects have been shown not just in isolated instances, but in virtually every state for which disparities have been estimated and over an extensive period of time. Those who die . . . are not the kind of people who usually evoke the public’s sympathy. Many have committed horrendous crimes. But crimes no less horrendous are committed by white offenders against black victims, and yet the killers in those cases are generally spared death. The death penalty today is a system which vents society’s anger over the problem of crime on a select few.” And that select few is overwhelmingly black and poor.
I have talked a great deal about race, but any historian could catalogue a long list of examples in which ethnic and religious and even political groups served the same functions. In 1798, the Federalist-controlled Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, a series of laws which, on the surface, were designed to control the activities of foreigners in the United States during a time of impending war. The real intent was to destroy Jeffersonian Republicans, the opposition political party.
When World War I began, the congress adopted the “Sedition Act” that imposed “a fine of not more than $10,000 or imprisonment for not more than twenty years, or both …” upon anyone disposed to “utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States.” In World War II, it was the Smith Act which allowed prosecutors to charge, try and convict individuals—not for what they actually did or even said—but simply for being members of “alien” and “un-American political organizations, notably the Communist Party.
And the law was only the final result of a process in which these individuals—defenders of the French Revolution, anarchists, labor leaders, assorted radicals, Communists and dissidents–were described in language as nightmarish as any used against racial and ethnic minorities. Think of every war in which we have been involved: our enemies are invariably depicted as cruel, despicable and diabolically evil. These individuals, home grown and particularly foreign, are described in language that essentially dehumanizes them—depicts them as monsters without morals, without scruples, willing to engage in any form of deception—and thus we feel empowered to use the same tactics against them. Can we think of many wars where that dehumanization has not been central?
And how else did Abu Ghraib and all the other Abu Ghraibs happen?
The process can be extended. These remarks could have been totally focused on the way that Lesbians, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered people have become scapegoats in American life.
But alas—I don’t think that any of us—conservative or liberal—are completely exempt from this process at some level.
A couple of years ago, as I was driving back to Brevard from Columbia, I listened to a National Public Radio report on hearings held in Connecticut on a bill that would have required that rape victims be given the opportunity to take emergency contraception or, as it is more commonly known, the “morning after” pill. The morning after pill prevents or delays the release of an egg or its implantation in a woman’s uterus. It does not cause an abortion. But speaker after speaker—acting upon their religious conviction that conception begins at the instant the sperm fertilizes the egg—came to the microphone and passionately opposed the measure. One young woman, a victim of a brutal gang rape described having to sit and listen as several speakers insisted that it was better to have a rape victim bear a child from her rapist than to allow the availability of drug.
I was so shaken with rage by the time the report was over that I had to pull over to the side of the interstate for a moment. What kind of monsters, I asked myself, would condemn a woman to months of purgatory on the basis of such fanatical religious views? Would they do that to their sister, their daughter. . . .?
And then I thought back to a book I had read the previous month. In Absolute Convictions, the liberal journalist Eyal Press tells the story of his Israeli born father, Shalom Press, who performed abortions in Buffalo, New York. I met Eyal about five years ago, but until I read his book, I knew nothing of how, as a teenager, he experienced a life under siege in Albany, New York. After a sniper killed Dr. Barnett Slepian, the only physician willing to perform abortions in Albany, Eyal’s father reluctantly agreed to take his place as part of what he felt was his duty as an obstetrician-gynecologist. Protesters under the banner of a group called “Operation Rescue” blockaded the entrance to Dr. Press’s office, stormed his waiting room and picketed his home. Radio ads labeled Dr. Press a baby killer; FBI agents arrested an armed man on his way to kill him; activists harangued Mrs. Press in the supermarket and on the street for having married a murderer; demonstrators showed up at their house and shouted “murderers,” “murderers,” whenever one of the members of the family had to leave home; Mrs. Press received death threats on the telephone; her husband had to wear a bullet proof vest whenever he left home.
When Eyal decided to write about growing up in the midst of this confrontation he began interviewing many of the men and women who were the shock-troops of “Operation Rescue.” He found some who fit his stereotypes of hate-filled fanatics obsessed only with protecting the sanctity of the fertilized egg. But he also met others who were totally different from what he anticipated; individuals who were deeply committed to protecting all life—opposing the death penalty, struggling for decent support for infants and the poor, opposing war. . . .
When he asked one woman who served as Operation Rescue’s spokeswoman in Buffalo whether her angry rhetoric might have inspired Dr. Slepian’s assassin to commit murder, she began to weep and told him that the possibility haunted her every day of her life. In the end, Eyal had to come to terms with his own anger, his own tendency to embrace a mirror image of the monsters they had created in their crusade.
I am often accused of looking at the dark side of American history. And, in a sense, I suppose that’s true. I don’t believe we can achieve our greatest hopes unless we recognize where we have failed.
But it is not true that I look only at the shadow side of our past. For I am inspired by those moments—those individuals—who have helped us live up to the hopes and dreams that form the best of our history.
Some of them are little known; others are central to our national history. I think particularly of Abraham Lincoln. In the late 1850s as members of his party angrily turned their frustrations upon the Catholic Irish and other recent immigrants as “culturally alien,” Lincoln steadfastly refused to bend. The men and women who came to our shores were a “replenishing stream” that brought new vitality and strength to our nation. Lincoln saw them as “true Americans,” just as if they were “flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote . . . [the] Declaration [of Independence].”
But this is a larger issue than undocumented aliens or ethnic, cultural and religious division. I believe it goes to the very heart of what we affirm as Unitarian Universalists when we insist we believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person. And ultimately it is the foundation for our very survival. No one said it better than Martin Luther King. There can be no “other,” for all of us are “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
And so it does.
[The preceding is a transcript of an address by Dan Carter, Educational Foundation Professor Emeritus, University of South Carolina. Dr. Carter delivered a somewhat modified version of this address at the Columbia Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship on Sunday, February 15, 2009. We are reproducing the address here with Dr. Carter’s kind permission. AEK]