I See Ghosts

A few weeks ago, Republican Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona signed into law SB1070, which originally required peace officers in Arizona to stop and question people “where reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien” about their citizenship status. No definition of reasonable suspicion was given, and the day after the law was signed, an American Citizen of Mexican descent was arrested for failing to have his papers birth certificate on his person.  “The legislation would require … force public service employees to report suspected illegal immigrants.” This meant that the police could be sued by citizens who felt they weren’t enforcing the new law to their satisfaction.  Subsequently, she signed a second law that withholds funds from schools which offer classes that “… promote resentment of a particular race or class of people, are designed primarily for students of a particular ethnic group or advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.” “The bill was written to target the Chicano, or Mexican American, studies program in the Tucson school system,” said state Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Horne.

A few days ago, Republican (Tea Party) candidate for the United States Senate from Kentucky, Rand Paul stated that while he is against and “abhors anything racist”, there are parts of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that he finds overreaching because they infringe on the “individual liberties” of racists who own restaurants to discriminate the race of their clientele.  This is the same man who shouted to his supporters on the eve of his primary victory that he is on his way to Washington to “take our government back!”

In Texas, where Thomas Jefferson has been replaced by Newt Gingrich in high school history textbooks by an avowedly vocal and active conservative Christian block of Republican school-board members, they are now attempting to change the language of the books so that the next generation of students doesn’t learn about the slave trade which was the economic foundation of the United States, but rather they learn about the Atlantic Triangular Trade of which slaves were simply one component.  Add to this the Alabama math teacher who tried teaching his geometry class angles by hypothetically assassinating the (first black) current President of the United States, Barack Obama, and these isolated incidents of racism, violence and oppression begin to define an ugly pattern in American civic life.

The problem with being a history teacher is that I see ghosts. Watching Senator John McCain say the “economy is still strong” in 2008 echoed to me President Hoover’s response to the Great Depression; watching Senator Obama be chastised for youth and inexperience during that same campaign reflected Governor Clinton and Senator Kennedy’s treatment during their campaigns for the presidency; and watching Governor Brewer sign racial profiling into law and codifying ethnic erasure in schools sounds to me like the breaking glass on Kristallnacht (“Crystal Night”). The Night of Broken Glass was an anti-Jewish pogrom in Nazi Germany and Austria from the 9th until the 10th November 1938. (Kristallnacht was part of a broader racial policy of Nazi Germany, including antisemitism and persecution of the Jews and it is viewed by many historians as the beginning of the Final Solution, leading towards the genocide of the Holocaust.)

This comparison, though, was greeted with trepidation by friends of mine.  I had invoked “Godwin’s Law“, one argued.  I was giving in to “leftwing holocaust hyperbole”, said another.  Neither grasped the larger frame of my comparison.  Adolf Hitler is the modern boogeyman for the United States, probably because as a nation we were complicit in his atrocities through our actions and inactions, from sending the US Olympic Team to Berlin for the Summer Games in 1936 fleeing Nazi Germany.  Be that as it may, the steps taken by Hitler and the Nazi Party that moved them and their nation from defeated and downtrodden to The Third Reicht are being echoed today in the United States.

Let us examine these facts:

    • The Nazis began their grip on government with a two-pronged strategy: 1-the Jews are bad, and 2-elect Hitler to lead us back to glory.  Today in Arizona “illegals” are bad, though they don’t know what they look like (except they look illegal, i.e. brown and not from “here”), and Rand Paul is going from Kentucky to “take [his] government back!” from the “un-American” President Obama.
    • The Nazis began as a third political party, running candidates with staunch conservative, anti-Jewish, pro-Germany propaganda riding a wave of national dissatisfaction. Today in the United States, from the healthcare debate to clean energy to the lies about the tax code and the false tales of cancelled National Days of Prayer, the Tea Party is running candidates (and defeating Republicans) whose full-throated persecution of illegal immigrants takes place in states with Southern borders and more dark immigrants than not, legal and illegal. In Arizona, and California, and Kentucky, persecution of “the Other” is coupled with Sarah Palin‘s uber-nationalist “feel good about us and never apologize” national tour, endorsing candidates (Governor Jan Brewer) who share her views or at least bark at her command (Carly Fiorina).  And politicians hoping to ride the wave are going further faster in hopes of grabbing power for themselves (Steve Poizner).
    • Finally, the Nazi’s began their Final Solution to “the Jewish problem” with legislation that targeted German Jews specifically.  They passed laws against the Jews for years before the death trains rolled, and the non-Jews in Germany complied.  Each law, or bundle of legal segregation and oppression, appeared a reasonable reaction to a real or imagined woe of the people.  Arizona’s laws, targeting phantom illegal criminals and demonizing inclusive education, are following the Nazi’s goose-steps in perfect time.

Obviously Jan Brewer and Rand Paul and Sarah Palin and the Texas School-board and the Alabama math teacher are not rounding up darkies and shipping them off to Manzanar.  However, they are laying tracks toward that racially segregated, oppressive Us v. Them state of constant emergency with their calculated words and deeds just as surely as the Chinese and the Irish did when building the Trans-Continental Railroad.  With each law passed, they are reaching out from beyond the grave to drag the United States back in time.  And all that stands between the sad history of segregation and oppression, of marginalization and genocide, is the full-throated rebuke of evil from people of conscience, whether that is writing blogs and letters, being informed and informing others, getting out in the streets to organize, or running for the local and national offices which have the power and authority to squelch the hate that fear produces.  Pastor Martin Niehmoller, writing in the midst of the Holocaust, put it more simply, “when they came for [someone else]/ I did not speak . . . [and] when they came for me/ there was no one left to speak.”

The problem with being a history teacher is that I see ghosts.  In the last several weeks, the backlash against progress and inclusion, against the embodiment of the American Ideals of Liberty, Equality,  and Opportunity has been staggering and shocking.  But beyond being shocked, the need for Americans of Conscience to speak up and to act, to fight back in the name of the country we cherish and the humanity we struggle to embody is pressing and immediate.  Marcus Garvey put into words my thoughts, the firing of my synapses which drove me to speak of Arizona’s laws in Nazi terminology when he too was attempting to rally his people, and so I leave you with his words.  They are as pertinent in 2010 as they were when he spoke then in the 1920s, in the same country, fighting the same battle with a different face.

“Up You Mighty [Human] Race!  Accomplish What You Will!”