Is This “Who We Are”? It Depends On Who “We” Is.

“These images are eerily reminiscent of the internment camps for U.S. citizens and noncitizens of Japanese descent during World War II, now considered to have been one of the most shameful episodes in U.S. history.”

—Laura Bush

The pictures and sounds of weeping migrant children that are dominating our televisions at the moment fill most of us with a combination of sadness and shame, as well as a mix of compassion and outrage. We are shocked by the unnecessary cruelty involved. We are horrified that our government is not only engaged in such systematic cruelty, but is actively denying it or lying about it or defending it—or doing all at the same time. In short, we are appalled.

But who deserves our wrath for such inhumane policies? The answer can be found in history, or more conveniently, in a short review of three history books, one book published recently (Broken Lives: How Ordinary Germans Experienced the Twentieth Century by Konrad H. Jarausch), and one more than 50 years ago and recently republished (They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933–45 by Milton Mayer), and one written in 1939 (Defying Hitler: A Memoir by Sebastian Haffner). The review (“It Can Happen Here”) was written by Cass Sunstein for The New York Review of Books.

Sunstein, you may remember, is a renowned legal scholar who once worked for President Obama and was the bête noire of people like Glenn Beck and Wayne LaPierre and Alex Jones. Sunstein co-authored a book, Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, that essentially argued that people, even smart people, frequently make bad choices and can be deliberately “nudged” into making better ones (think: government warnings about smoking). This idea, of course, drove people like Glenn Beck, and even Glenn Greenwald, nuts, especially because people like Obama found it interesting.

The truth is, though, we are all nudged by something or someone, good information or bad, good people or bad, reliable heuristics or faulty ones, irrational thoughts disguised as rational deductions, or confirmation bias in its many forms. The point is, as Tr-mp’s election proved, people can make horribly bad decisions and it is important to try to figure out why they do and, if possible, discover ways to help them make better ones. As Sunstein argued in Nudge, decisions are not made in neutral contexts. Framing is essential. Speaking of which:

In his three-book review Sunstein begins with a brief description of our changing world: “a resurgent Russia” under Vladimir Putin, who “has entrenched authoritarian rule”; a China that “may have surpassed the United States” in global influence, even as it is led by another authoritarian-for-life, Xi Jinping; serious talk of a “democratic recession,” what with the chilling “turns toward authoritarianism in Turkey, Poland, Hungary, and the Philippines”; and, of course, there is Tr-mp. Thus, the purpose of the review:

In such a time, we might be tempted to try to learn something from earlier turns toward authoritarianism, particularly the triumphant rise of the Nazis in Germany in the 1930s. The problem is that Nazism was so horrifying and so barbaric that for many people in nations where authoritarianism is now achieving a foothold, it is hard to see parallels between Hitler’s regime and their own governments. Many accounts of the Nazi period depict a barely imaginable series of events, a nation gone mad. That makes it easy to take comfort in the thought that it can’t happen again.

We must confess that Sunstein is right. Anyone familiar with what Hitler and the Nazis did will find it difficult to make realistic connections between “a nation gone mad” and our own. Those of us who have pointed out some of the parallels are often met with “it can’t happen here” and other such hopeful notions. And to be sure, Sunstein, despite recognizing all of the ominous signs that accompany Tr-mp and Tr-mpism (“the United States has not seen anything like it before”), is quite cautious about predicting a fascistic future for Americans:

With our system of checks and balances, full-blown authoritarianism is unlikely to happen here, but it would be foolish to ignore the risks that Trump and his administration pose to established norms and institutions, which help preserve both order and liberty. Those risks will grow if opposition to violations of long-standing norms is limited to Democrats, and if Republicans laugh, applaud, agree with, or make excuses for Trump—if they howl with the wolf.

This is where I want to get back to my question of who deserves our wrath for the cruel and inhumane policies we are witnessing, policies that Tr-mp defended with disturbing enthusiasm today in front of disturbed enthusiasts (in this case, the National Federation of Independent Businesses). Sunstein’s review was of history books that chronicled the rise of Hitler not by focusing on “well-known leaders, significant events, state propaganda, murders, and war,” but by offering accounts of “ordinary life under Nazism.” You can and should read such accounts and make what you will out of them. But it is incontrovertible that there would have been no Hitler and no Holocaust without the assent, too much of it enthusiastic, of ordinary Germans. Likewise, there would be no Tr-mp and no migrant children in chain-link cages without the assent, too much of it enthusiastic, of ordinary Americans, tens of millions of them.

If you look around you, it isn’t Tr-mp or Mitch McConnell or Paul Ryan or Stephen Miller or Sean Hannity or Kirstjen Nielsen or Rudy Giuliani or Jeff Sessions—abominable actors without a doubt—who are primarily to blame for what we see. It is Matt next door. It is Phyllis down the street. It is Joe at work. It is Tim, your cousin. It is Tom, your dad. It is Pastor Mack. It is your old high school friends who have inexplicably become unrecognizably Tr-mpish. And it is all those you know who, in our peculiar democracy, don’t bother to vote one way or another. We have Tr-mp and McConnell and imprisoned migrant children because of people you know, people you work with and go to church with and wave at as they drive through your neighborhood. When well-intentioned folks say that the way we are treating frightened kids and their asylum-seeking parents is “not who we are,” that excludes millions upon millions of people who insist, “That’s exactly who we are.” 

But there is hope, of course. Sunstein writes about his three authors:

In their different ways, Mayer, Haffner, and Jarausch show how habituation, confusion, distraction, self-interest, fear, rationalization, and a sense of personal powerlessness make terrible things possible. They call attention to the importance of individual actions of conscience both small and large, by people who never make it into the history books. Nearly two centuries ago, James Madison warned: “Is there no virtue among us? If there be not, we are in a wretched situation. No theoretical checks—no form of government can render us secure.” Haffner offered something like a corollary, which is that the ultimate safeguard against aspiring authoritarians, and wolves of all kinds, lies in individual conscience: in “decisions taken individually and almost unconsciously by the population at large.”

We have arrived at a moment in our own history when individual consciences will make decisions, consciously or unconsciously, that may or may not have collective consequences comparable to Hitler’s rise to power. But from now until the November elections, through acts small and large by people who aren’t destined for either praise or condemnation in any to-be-written history book, we can nudge ourselves—and others—in one direction or another. And I think it is fair to say, after what we have seen and are seeing now, that when we wake up on November 7th of this year, we will know who we are, whoever that is.

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16 Comments

  1. Man, this is good writing. Thanks, Duane.

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    • Thanks, my man. You know I sure appreciate it when people pay attention to the craft of writing. Sometimes I wonder just how many do. 

      Duane

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  2. Anonymous

     /  June 19, 2018

    Duane,

    Since the 20th century, there has been at least 10 different immigration acts passed by Congress. The last and most recent being the Immigration and Reform Act of 1986. This was supposed to provide a pathway to citizenship for the roughly 5 million illegals, but only 2.7 million were awarded green cards. Over 2.3 million failed to apply from lack of publicity or were not residents prior to the 1982 deadline.

    The Republicans watered down business penalties that hired illegals by saying the owners only had to believe that status was legal. It didn’t work as the illegal alien status has now increased to 11 million people. I don’t know how to verify unless there was some sort of National ID card, that could be shown to prevent I.C.E. Agents from abducted these residents. It’s been over 32 years since our last effort, it is certainly time for another effort, but not at the expense of separating families to get to the table. Stop the madness

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    • Anonymous

       /  June 19, 2018

      Very well put Anonymous. I could not agree more.

      Kevin Beck

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    • I’m not a fan of the term “illegal aliens.” I don’t like the term “illegal” as applied to people and, lately, I’m not even sure about the “alien” designation.

      In any case, with, I think, the exception of the Chinese (after we were through exploiting their labor on the railroad), throughout most of our history we have essentially had fairly loose laws governing immigration (I omit, of course, our awful history of slavery, a legacy that still haunts us). The 20th-century, as you mention, saw an increase in attention to the issue. On balance, we did alright with not being stingy with American citizenship. People wanted to come here and they helped build our economy and contributed to our well-being culturally. Oddly, even under Tr-mp, there are still people who want to come here, many of them fleeing desperate situations. But as you say, it is all madness. But I don’t see an end to it. 

      Simply put, we have to face the unpleasant reality that white people fear losing their cultural status, as people of color increase their numbers, and are embracing a brand of cruelty that I never thought I would see. 

      Duane

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      • Anonymous

         /  June 22, 2018

        Duane,

        I think Obama got it right. He prosecuted undocumented parents, but he had the decency to keep them together throughout the process. He also was responsible for DACA, where he also got it right. Trump’s racist mind and his minions will never allow it to stand, I’m just not sure whether it’s racism again brown or the scary Negro.

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        • I would say it is a combination of both.

          And to tell you the truth, I am less and less convinced that Obama got it right after all. The problem is I just don’t know what “right” is. I am having a real problem figuring that out for myself. Been thinking about it for a while now. Started and stopped a couple of pieces on the issue. Perplexed at the moral implications of turning desperate people away. Man.

          Duane

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          • Anonymous

             /  June 23, 2018

            Duane,

            I’m sure Obama wanted to help desperate people as well, however he was constrained by immigration law. He certainly wasn’t as drastic as Clinton when his commission on immigration reform reduced legal immigrants from 800k per year to 500k. Obama’s DACA policy at least provided a path for those brought here as children, because the Dream Act couldn’t get passed in Congress. His actions surpassed Clinton and Bush, and now we have Gozer the Destructor.

            The GOP has told their addled followers for years that undocumented immigrants are getting welfare benefits, Snap Cards, free Medicaid, and even CHIP. They have sold many people that this is a fact, although it’s complete bullshit, and dont believe you when you correct them. All I can do is laugh when they tell me Hillary is going to jail. It would take divine intervention to make almost half the country follow the Christian axiom of “Love thy neighbor as thyself”.

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            • Sure, I have no doubt O’s heart was in the right place. He had to navigate through some tough waters and made some tough decisions. I don’t fault him for not getting everything right.

              Obama’s DACA relief may be seen by future historians as the high point of American morals and justice, as we fall into the abyss of Tr-mpism. My problem, in thinking about all this, is what moral grounds do we have to justify turning people away who are fleeing from a form of domestic terrorism? Especially turning away, and making enemies of, the kids? I am at a loss, morally speaking, for coming up with a way to justify closing the door on the desperate.

              Duane

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          • Agreed, Duane, there must be some kind of immigration policy that would be workable. I think it must be found in something Anonymous said above:

            The Republicans watered down business penalties that hired illegals by saying the owners only had to believe that status was legal. It didn’t work as the illegal alien status has now increased to 11 million people. I don’t know how to verify unless there was some sort of National ID card, that could be shown to prevent I.C.E. Agents from . . . (abducting) . . . these residents. It’s been over 32 years since our last effort, it is certainly time for another effort, but not at the expense of separating families to get to the table. Stop the madness.

            I for one would be perfectly happy to embrace a national i.d. card. I have lived all my adult life being thoroughly documented and tracked by the U.S. Navy and the government. I submit that transparency trumps (small “t”) privacy in a modern society. When faced with the loss of undocumented labor I have a feeling that the business community would sort it out for us.

            Plus, let’s face it, living in this country without some form of government i.d. is already pretty darned impractical.

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          • @ everybody,

            What do you think of this analysis by Real Clear Politics? Seems to make sense to me.

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            • Anonymous

               /  June 25, 2018

              Jim,

              The article makes sense to rational people, however there is nothing rational in Trump’s base. Even moderate Republicans have acquiesced to his irrational policies including separating children from their parents. Public shaming, shunning, and public contempt have no effect on them, nor does compromise. I feel our only hope is to present a candidate that can reach the “Never Hillary” independents, that most identify with as a party. We need another Obama.

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              • A reminder that Jeff Merkley is NOW considering a run for POTUS. He has courage and a SOLID progressive pedigree. Independents like him. Democrats like him. He’s been criticized for not being charismatic enough, but we nominated Hillary in 2016 and I would NOT call her charismatic — at all. No baggage. He’s twenty years younger than Biden and Sanders. Just sayin’ —–

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                • You are right about the lack of charisma. I don’t have a problem with Merkley, if he can find some way to express the outrage that I feel. That’s what I’m looking for. A combination of passion and compassion. Obama was a once-in-a-generation figure and I don’t see anyone like him on the horizon.

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              • You are right. Trump’s take-no-prisoners, never-back-down tactics are working. I wouldn’t have believed it possible. I fear he has changed politics in this country forever. It’s a whole different meaning for the adage, “anyone can grow up to be President.”

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            • Carl Cannon is hard to follow, Jim, given the big thing he gets wrong: that both parties are to blame for what we see. I am sick of such bullshit. And he slanders Democrats by embracing Tr-mp’s nasty analysis “that Democrats have no interest in addressing” the issue. I almost stopped reading after that ridiculous, and absolutely false, declaration. Anyone who watched that DACA meeting at the White House a few months ago, in which Tr-mp appeared to be willing to compromise with Democrats and then stabbed them in the back two days later, would know Cannon is full of shit.

              Then Cannon claims that “neither party acknowledges…that a comprehensive solution would require compromise.” What a load of bullshit that is. Democrats have compromised, over and over again. A comprehensive reform package passed the Senate in 2013 with as much bi-partisan support as is possible these days. And clearly that bill would have passed the House. Except Boehner wouldn’t bring it to the floor because he did not want the damn thing to pass because the hard-core dickheads in his caucus would have handed him his ass. Obama lobbied hard for that bill and it was after that point that Obama realized that House Republicans had no intention of doing the right, decent thing and he moved in with DACA. Recently, Democrats compromised on the idiotic border wall, agreeing to some of its funding. And on and on.

              So, to be blunt about it, it is hard for me to pay much attention to someone who can’t get basic facts right about what has happened around this issue since the rise of openly racist politics in the GOP (“No amnesty for the brown people!”). Having said that, though, the *key* problem to fix, as far as I’m concerned, has nothing to do with the things Cannon mentions. The problem right now is desperate people who live in dangerous societies. The problem is moms and dads who are willing to send or bring their children on awful journeys to get here, to a place they believe, apparently mistakenly, is the same welcoming place it used to be. Thus, the problem is helping fix what is wrong with the societies from which these people are fleeing in manic desperation.

              I don’t have a complete answer to that problem, obviously. But I know that this administration is not interested in even trying to find an answer, a solution that would necessarily involve foreign aid and law-enforcement assistance to countries where brown people live. I hate to be this blunt about it, Jim, but, dammit, I am sick of the Cannons of journalism telling us “both sides” are to blame.

              Duane

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