Racism, xenophobia, and fear already smolder in our country; all the Alt Right needs is a leader with the right kind of fascist rhetoric to fan the flames.
MY MOTHER was a refugee, and my father is also an immigrant. So whenever I see refugees coming to the United States–especially from a fascist state–I identify with their plight.
Even though this is a country made up mostly of immigrants, xenophobia — like racism — still lives deep inside all of us. Many won’t admit it, but it’s true. Hard economic times tend to fan the flames of racism and xenophobia. So does inflammatory rhetoric by politicians. Certain types of charismatic leaders — like Hitler and Mussolini, for example — were very successful at sowing fear and hatred into millions of ordinary citizens during the 1930s and ’40s. What resulted was unspeakable suffering by millions of innocent people: Bloody world war, and a genocide we call the Holocaust. We refer to those leaders as “madmen” today.
Does the average American know enough history to recognize the face of fascism on the rise in our own country?
There’s no reason why it cannot happen here. American history also includes genocidal land grabs, as well as our own brutal slavery and Jim Crow laws. Such brutal policies have already caused prolonged suffering by countless millions right here. Racism, xenophobia, and fear already smolder in our country; all that’s needed is a charismatic leader with the right kind of rhetoric to fan the flames.
In other words, all we need is another madman.
A Trial by Dictatorship – and Human Decency
At the start of World War II, my mother’s Jewish family was displaced by Hitler from their home in what was then Yugoslavia. While my grandfather joined the Yugoslav Army’s hopeless fight against Hitler, my very young mother and several relatives escaped into Italy and were taken in by very kind people — ordinary people who, living under a fascist dictator, still risked their lives and their homes to take in a homeless family of “illegal” immigrants. In Italy, the laws at the time of Mussolini were so anti-semitic that any ordinary Italian would be shot for sheltering a Jew. Fortunately for my mother and her family, many of the people in that town had the bravery — and common decency — to thumb their noses at the fascist nonsense coming from the pompous, self-aggrandizing Mussolini.
My mother’s family was allowed to hide out in Italy with false identities while the war raged on. They were never reported to the authorities. In 1944, Allied soldiers liberated the town.
As it turned out, my mother and her family were lucky in other ways, too. Toward the end of the war, her father (my Jewish grandfather) escaped from his Nazi POW camp. Leaving no stone unturned, he was able to successfully hunt for his wife and daughters in Italy. By then, they were living in a displaced-persons camp (which the Allies had set up in another part of Italy entirely); they continued living there, reunited as a family after the war, in search of a new home and a new life.
The United States was not the only country that would take in refugees displaced by World War II. Other surviving members of mother’s family ended up in Canada, Israel, even back in Yugoslavia. My grandparents, however, and a few others as well, saw the great promise of this country as a haven that would take them in, a land of opportunity. When their father had secured a prospect of employment along with passage on a steamship, along came my teenaged refugee mother and her two refugee sisters to begin their new life in the USA.
Immigrants Find a Place in a Land of Opportunity
My mother and her family’s unusually fortunate story continued to unfold here in the United States. Unlike their chapter during wartime in Italy, here they didn’t have to rely so much on the decency of courageous strangers. It was the 1950s, in the Boston area, where both my mother’s parents, and her uncles and aunts as well, found meaningful employment, decent housing, and schools for the children. They found themselves part of a community that respected, if not welcomed, them and provided them with the tools and opportunities necessary to contribute to society and to become full-fledged citizens.
There are as many refugee/immigrant stories in this country as there have been people arriving on our shores. Most of them were not as fortunate and fulfilling as my mother’s story. All too often, religious and racial minorities faced discrimination and hatred here: the millions of West Africans, kidnapped and brought against their will to a life of bondage; the Irish who arrived here half-starved and who then were treated like dirt. Think of the millions of peasants who travelled here in steerage, to live in filthy tenements and whose labor was the cheapest in town.
Fast Forward 60 Years: What do we Want to become, as a People…as a Nation?
It’s been decades since my parents’ journey, and it’s unfortunate that for many, the world is not much happier. Families are still being torn apart by devastating strife in many parts of the world, including the Middle East and Latin America. Individuals, fragments of their former families — sometimes unaccompanied children — find their way here in the United States. They hope they might find help in this wealthy, powerful country.
What will they find here?
How we treat “the other” says a great deal about our humanity, both on the individual level and as a society. We all know people who are suspicious of those who are different from us. On the other hand, just as many people (or more) welcome and even celebrate the differences that other people bring to the country. Enjoy the Olympics? Great example of how different cultures actually help make this country great.
But that’s the Olympics. Donald Trump is a very popular populist. The segment of our society that resonates with his message of hate within a segment of our society that fears those who are different by race or religion, or simply journalists who report on his words and behavior, then I am deeply worried. I am worried not only for the countless refugees for whom we clearly should have room–and after all, wasn’t America founded by refugees? I am also worried for what those of us already here will lose, since nearly all our immigrants end up contributing greatly and enriching us all.
Hundreds of thousands are imprisoned in detention centers each year awaiting either deportation or a hearing. I hear the truly ignorant talk of building a wall on our southern border; there is also vicious talk of keeping out people who either follow the Muslim faith or who come from countries that do–contrary to the First Amendment of the Constitution, of course. These un-American activities are fomented by the GOP’s jingoistic populist leader, Donald Trump, who’s only too happy to sow the seeds of hatred among those who only know anger and are in search of a scapegoat for their problems. He’s pompous, self-aggrandizing, and frankly, narcissistic (not to be confused with egotistical–this is much more virulent). Trump’s big draw is the siren call warning us that immigrants are out to take what we have and destroy us. And, like all populist sociopaths in search of power, he’s pitching himself as a savior of us ordinary people (we former immigrants who managed to arrive here first), by keeping out the present-day immigrants, who are only doing what our own forebears naturally did.
Here’s the thing: This is 2016, not 1933.
My mother and the rest of her family came here to escape the fascist state, not to be part of one. If this so-called “leader” stands any chance of winning the election, I will cast my vote strategically this November. I will not sit passively if mass deportation or the other promised police-state crackdowns actually begin in this country. Will you?
In 2016, I would like to believe this hateful, pompous, self-aggrandizing madman is thoroughly unelectable, but now I’m not so sure.
Just take a look at history.
GINO PALMERI consults about and manages nuisance vegetation as the proprietor of Palmeri Land Care.
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