August 10, 2023
My mother was an immigrant. She and my grandmother arrived in New York City after the end of World War II to join her father who had come to this country years before, fleeing Russia and the prospect of being forced to serve in the Russian army. They found a community of relatives who had come before them; found work; learned a new language; and, in time, became citizens.
My life and those of my brother and sister are what they are because my mother and her parents were able to settle here. Because they were here and not in Russia, they did not have to live through the continuing pogroms of Eastern Europe or Stalinization and its virulent antisemitism of the Soviet Union. They were not in Europe when Hitler rose to power and the Jewish world was devastated by his evil. When my mother arrived, she sailed into New York harbor, passed by the Statue of Liberty and its raised arm that was greeting those, like these modern-day newcomers, who were seeking “to be free.”
I got to thinking about my family history a few weeks ago as an angry crowd gathered outside Chicago’s Broadway Armory, just blocks away from my home, to protest a decision by Chicago leaders to displace some of the building’s regular users in order to house some of the thousands of asylum seekers who have been shipped north with little pre-planning for their health or welfare after they arrived in this country seeking the same things my grandfather and grandmother did more than a century ago.
I was angered at my neighbors who were greeting these new arrivals with a cold shoulder and a request that they go so place else.. Even in a city as “blue” and diverse as Chicago, the prospect of having to make room for new arrivals touched a raw nerve of people who feel they are being overlooked and forgotten. The prospect of making room for others in need was bringing out the worst in people.
Chicago is just one of the many cities across the nation which have been challenged to meet the needs of the tens of thousands of folks seeking to escape from danger or to just find a better life. According to the Chicago Sun-Times “since last August, more than 11,500 migrants have arrived in Chicago, according to the latest figures from the city, and about 50 are arriving in the city, on average, every day. There are over 5,400 new arrivals housed in 13 city shelters, including more than 1,400 minors. Over 950 are being housed at police stations and at O’Hare and Midway airports. The city is still in need of more than 1,500 beds.“
As I thought about this, I wondered what was so upsetting that these people would be standing in protest with signs that read “Don’t replace us?” Yes, the protestors in my community could go as far as recognizing that the families were in need but they were not ready to accept a temporary inconvenience as the price. The needs of these new neighbors were somebody else’s problems and the protestors demanded that they not have their park programs be temporarily moved to another location. “Not in my backyard” is a little better than “Don’t come at all.”
Why was the prospect of making a small sacrifice for men, women, and children in distress so provoking to these otherwise “liberal” folks that they would be mouthing words that could be coming from MAGA spokespeople??
What has made so many in our nation seem to be so heartless that they have so little empathy for those in pain?
The easy answer is to blame the political leaders who have found it beneficial to use immigrants as a way to arouse the fears of voters. The President of the United States described people like those arriving in Chicago, as former President Trump did in 2018 in harsh words, “We have people coming into the country or trying to come in… You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are…These aren’t people. These are animals.” Amplified by the magic of modern communication media these words have an impact. When leaders deny the humanity of those who are hurting it gives permission to be insensitive.
I think it is having such resistance now because we are living at a moment where the nation is not working for more and more of its citizens. Those with great wealth are living in the best of times. For the rest of us things are more difficult. As the nation’s wealth has grown decade by decade it has become more and more concentrated in the hands of a smaller and smaller slice of the population. Many still find paying for the basics of life is a struggle at best.
In a Zoom meeting just last night I saw how easy it is to play on these fears of being left out. The meeting was focused on combatting police violence. In reporting on some neighborhood canvassing work that she had done just days earlier, a woman reported how she was hearing concern that the city was providing emergency housing for newcomers and suggested that they be just given tents and sent out into the parks because the already unhoused population of Chicago should be first in line for any help that was available. One group in need is being pitted against another!
And so, I should not be surprised that there are protestors in my neighborhood, I should not be surprised that cynical politicians like Texas’ Greg Abbott or Florida’s DeSantis are ready to play upon this division. They would have no compunction about loading men, women, and children onto buses and shipping them off to another state with no plan in place to have them greeted or helped. They deserve this because they are just “illegals,” not humans in pain and in need of a helping hand. And in sending them to “blue” cities they can create ripples of dissension in their political opponents.
As life got harder and the future less bright more and more of us began to feel somehow, we had gotten left out and passed over. Then we got angry.
While I am upset that I have neighbors who are not willing to make a small sacrifice at this time of need, I am more concerned about those who are using this moment for their own political and economic benefit. For the politicians like former President Trump and Governor DeSantis, stirring up this anger is designed to give them what they want, enough votes to win the next election.
One of the reasons that there is so much angst afoot is that we have been living through decades of work to make government smaller and less effective. The goal of this effort was to protect the wealth and power of those who had it already. It effectively turned into an excuse for our country to turn its back on the majority of its citizens. Conservative Icon Ronald Reagan told the nation very clearly that, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’ and that “Government is the problem…government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”.
Great effort has been placed in undermining concepts of a shared future and collective responsibility for our welfare. Great effort has been placed in telling us that we each get what we deserve, and that success comes only to those who work hard and failure to those who do not. Great effort has gone into undermining any thinking that there are structural problems that cannot be solved individually and that require collective action and societal responsibility.
To make this stick it was important to convince people that the Government is not trying to help them. Rather, the government is trying to help someone else at their expense. To protect wealth and power, an enemy is needed. African Americans have provided one easy target.
“Foreigners” now provide another. They are trying to push themselves in front of the line and they need to be stopped. They are not like “us”, they are criminals and really bad people who do not deserve help. Any attempt to help them or rectify the ills of the past is just unfair and must be stopped.
That is the cynical game being played by politicians like Trump and DeSantis. Deflect the public from real problems and real solutions and provide an available target.
Fear of others becomes a powerful tool for those who see themselves fighting to keep their fortunes and seeking to control political power in order to protect themselves from it. These are the men and women who have built the Conservative infrastructure of Think Tanks and PACS that fuel these fires.
For them the risk is high. Consider that when, at the height of the Depression, Social Security emerged as one of the steps to combat the widespread poverty of that time it quickly became a valued and very popular feature of government. Its effectiveness in lessening economic distress for millions served as an example of how government could benefit its citizens. And this effectiveness was a spur to those who feared an effective, people-focused government. What if that feeling actually took hold and there was broad-based national attention on the ability of government to make health care affordable to all, or quality education universal or housing become a right and not a privilege? With those demands would come a demand that those who have horded wealth pay their fair share.
Rather than fighting this battle on a field of ideas and strategies it was easier and more effective to fight on a field of fear. It was easier to build up animosity against others, to stress the differences that divide us over the things we should share than it was to actually make life better for us all.
It was profitable to focus on Willie Horton or the fear of an immigrant invasion and use them to divide and turn one group of people against the other while protecting the wealth and power of a small minority of our nation. Taking on the big problems that are affecting people’s lives like structural poverty, racism, immigration reform or climate change would bring about the need to reform our economic system and focus on those who are hording wealth.
This strategy of deflection has worked. My “liberal” neighbors don’t want immigrants in their backyard. Affordable housing should go somewhere else. Government should just keep its hand off their social security. And tax rates should stay low; tax havens must stay legal; inheritance taxes must stay low.
Wealth and power are not to be shared. What’s mine is mine. And immigrants, refugees, and those who we stepped on and stole from in order to get what is now mine be damned.
Is that what we are really all about? Is that really how we wish to live our lives?