Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The Deep Distrust of Place

Because we deserve our place, do we blame the parent for this girl's pain?

A friend of mine speaks truth:

Finally, two haunting questions: What are these families running from, or to, that they are willing to risk so much? And, how far back does their family lineage on this continent go, compared to mine?

And asks the pertinent question in doing it.  What is going on here, that our hearts are so hardened to the sufferings of others?  More particularly, what is going on here that we assert our primacy of place and our supremacy of power against people whose family lineage on this continent goes back to pre-Columbian days?  Is that a factor?

How is it not?

I don't mean the blatant racism of Trump and his talk of infestation, or the subtle racism of his supporters, that we we will be overrun if we don't "control" our borders.  The further from the border you get, the louder that clamor grows.  But on the border they understand the complexity of place; they understand the supremacy of power, and they prefer to deal with both in ways we don't, we who live far from the frontier.  I've told the story about a businessman on the Texas border, a man of obvious Brooklyn ancestry, who broke into Spanish when a customer entered his store during our interview.  He told me he had to know Spanish to live there; he thought nothing of it.  Elsewhere in the country in that decade "English Only" was as divisive and contentious a topic as DACA or immigration is now.  The border makes its peace with such issues, because on the border you can't argue such issues:  it simply won't let you.

So how far back does you family lineage on this continent go?  I know mine goes back barely 150 years; but Europeans have been on this continent for 400 years.  People were were when the Europeans got here; and Europeans immediately asserted supremacy of power to claim primacy of place.  Our racism is rooted in those two claims, and it is what we are defending every time we worry about "border protection" or "border security" or even why we should not feel the heartstring tug of crying children (all children in all cultures make the same cries; have you ever noticed?  They all communicate pre-verbally in one voice, a voice we all understand and respond to.).  Whether we are confrontational racists or just want to assert our privilege to be comfortable and not afflicted, we are asserting our primacy of place and our supremacy of power.

It is no accident that the most virulent and violent racists are the people with the least social and even physical power.  It is also no accident that people who think they aren't even racist at all can still be so concerned with protecting their place, and not losing it to "invaders" and "immigrants" and "infestations." Or just to "illegals," because the law is the law and it must be followed; especially when following it protects their place, in space or in society.  Their concern is based in part on legitimacy:  legitimacy under the laws of this nation, but also legitimacy under the eyes of God.

Which is to say, the broader human society.  Legitimacy in the eyes of God is a contentious issue all on its own:  a battlefield of theology and exegesis and philosophy and competing systems of ethics (not to be confused with competing systems of morality).  Legitimacy in the eyes of humankind, however, is the legitimacy we all ultimately crave.  We appeal to humanity for our "right" to place.  We appeal for "justice," and justice means we have rightly wielded power to get for ourselves a comfortable position, among people and on the earth.  One such appeal is based on lineage; if ours is not long enough, we have to appeal to power to come out on top.  We have to appeal to law.

Law protects us because it is a tool, and we understand that.  We treat it as a power, as an objective standard, as justice itself to which we must all bend, but secretly we know better.  Law is a tool, and those with the power wield it.   It is the law that says those people entered the country "illegally."  Are the laws on immigration the product of racism and racist intent?  It doesn't matter; it is the law that demands a pound of flesh from these immigrants, not us.  That's just fair.  And if the action of the law defends our place, our position, our personal integrity against sharing too much of our space with people with greater historical claim to this land, then so be it.  The law is just; the law is fair; and most importantly, the law is with us.

And that's power.

Being the law, it purifies the racist animus that sponsored it; the dross of pettiness is refined away in the flame of authority to do what we want.  The eugenics that got into the law of immigration is the same eugenics that got into the laws of this land ("Three generations of imbeciles is enough!") and spread like an evil vine across the Atlantic until it came back to us in the foul shape of Nazism and the "Final Solution."  And so we disavowed those laws and cut off our historical memory of them, just as we forgot the stories of how we treated the slaves and the Native Americans and the poor; we forget our connection to great crimes, the better to justify our sense of place and the privilege of power.   But we know it all rests on such a precarious foundation, on such a trembling soil, that we have to remind ourselves, again and again, of just how vicious we can be if we have to:

We feel sorry for them, but it's fake news so really, it's okay in the end.  Our place is re-secured, our power has protected us.  Our legitimacy is assured; not because we have any, but because the crisis doesn't, either.

Where does justice come from?  Where does righteousness come from?  From God?  From human society?  Either basis finds no justice in what we have done.  If justice comes from human society, these people have a greater claim to the land than we ever could, and we have a duty to share it with them, to make the injustices of history right.  If justice comes from God, the God who commanded Israel to share everything with the widow and the orphan and the alien among you, to declare a year of Jubilee and start the whole business of property ownership over again (even Israel wasn't ready for that one, so God tried again, teaching us to be first of all by being last and servant of all), from God who can overturn the power and pull the mighty from their thrones, and raise up the poor and powerless (and where's the justice in gaining power then?); well, then, the question of who was here first is still a legitimate question seeking a legitimate answer.

And we still are no further along in providing one.

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