Living in Weimar 9: Shadow on Your Doorstep

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Laurie and Debbie say:

In May, we publishing Living in Weimar 8, about the Trump administration’s threat to separate families at the U.S./Mexico border, and the Israeli government’s slaughter in Gaza.

In June, the threat transmuted into fact. As most of the world knows, the United States government separated thousands of children from their parents at the border, and kept no records. The children were put in cages (“those aren’t really cages, they’re just rooms made of chicken-wire fencing”), and guards were forbidden to touch them. The parents were, frequently, turned back. A baby was ripped from a breast-feeding mother.

Let’s be clear: the United States has separated children from their parents before: slave children, Native American children, and (in smaller numbers) immigrant children.¬† If the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice, it has a long way to go.

Public outcry was immediate, loud, and lasting. The administration “walked back” the policy in less than two weeks, replacing it with “family detention,” an almost equally vile practice. Money poured in to organizations on the ground. Hundreds of Spanish-speaking lawyers and support staff are working at the border now, bringing families together while they can.

Meanwhile, the attack on immigrants continues on many other fronts. The Justice Department is hiring lawyers to “catch citizenship cheaters,” whether or not they have committed any crimes or been brought to the attention of law enforcement since they got their citizenship. Green-card (legal immigration before citizenship) holders are under attack if they receive any government benefits. Asylum seekers are being returned to the imminent dangers they were trying to escape. And the U.S. military is discharging immigrants who were promised a path to citizenship.

Immigrants to the U.S., especially if they are from the global south, are under immediate threat, not just of being deported, but also of being targets of hate crimes. Undocumented immigrants, of course, have been under immediate threat for decades if not forever. Many U.S. citizens have first-hand visceral experience of unsafe lives, especially black and brown U.S. citizens. Homeless people never even experience the minimal safety of a locked door between themselves and the world. People like the two of us, who grew up internalizing the Jewish genocide of World War II never quite settle into feeling safe.

The family separation policy, and the news about it, is widening the circle of people who don’t feel safe. As more and more people are directly threatened, and more and more news shows direct threats, people who have historically felt safe in a country stop feeling safe. The U.S. has historically been very safe, especially for middle-class white folks, fear levels rise, and lots of Americans don’t know what to do with these feelings. The Republican Party, of course, thrives on white people feeling unsafe; they’ve been feeding this frenzy forever, and they ramped up on September 11, 2001. That’s one of the factors that helped¬†build Trump’s base.

Note that this is really different from Weimar, because in Weimar, the entire country had just been through an extreme economic depression–the famous wheelbarrows full of money to buy a loaf of bread depression–and was living with big, frequent, armed clashes between Nazis and Communists in the streets. We are living in a (manufactured) economic boom, and armed street violence is rare indeed in middle-class white neighborhoods.

But the anxiety is still real. If you are a reasonably progressive, reasonably safe white person, right now in America, what can you do with your fears? We don’t have answers, but we do have a few suggestions.

1) Acknowledge your fear, to yourselves and the people around you.

2) Never acknowledge your fear without simultaneously acknowledging that it’s a privilege to have gotten this far before experiencing it; many people in your community and in the world have never known what it was like not to live with those fears.

3) Watch yourself. It’s very human to move away from fear and towards safety, and that frequently means making compromises, finding yourself willing to say and do things that go against your sense of right and wrong. Too many people will find themselves sucked into the dark side, because it’s safer there.

4) Do something constructive for a group with more reason to fear than you have. Do this by finding out what that group wants and needs from you, and following their lead. Find the courage to make change where you can. Working towards change matters, even if you can’t see how the change can happen, or don’t believe it’s possible.

5) Repeat 4, until and unless things get better.