Universal Translator

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Problem With Scapegoating in a Global Age

Ever notice how only the weak and the powerless, the most marginalized of people, are the ones with the ability to wreck an entire nation’s or even the world’s economy?  Listen to the right-wingers in this country, for example, and you’ll learn that the global – let me repeat that, the global – financial meltdown was caused by a bunch of poor black and brown people buying homes they couldn’t afford.  These people were just too much for the harried, powerless gazillionaires working on Wall Street, who were outmatched and overwhelmed by the might of this great, dusky-hued horde, and now look where we are.  It’s just too bad that rich white people don’t have any real power in the United States.

Krugman has a depressing (ha!) column today titled “Depression and Democracy” that indicates a similar kind of blame game may be shaping up in those European countries hardest hit by the economic crisis.  In it he describes how Europe’s increasing demand for greater and greater economic austerity policies has coincided with the rise of right-wing, anti-democracy populist parties:

Right-wing populists are on the rise from Austria, where the Freedom Party (whose leader used to have Neo-Nazi connections) runs neck-and-neck in the polls with established parties, to Finland, where the anti-immigrant True Finns party had a strong electoral showing last April. . . .  Matters look even more ominous in the poorer countries of Central and Eastern Europe.

Last month the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development documented a sharp drop in public support for democracy in the “new E.U.” countries, the nations that joined the European Union after the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Not surprisingly, the loss of faith in democracy has been greatest in the countries that suffered the deepest economic slumps.


One of Hungary’s major parties, Jobbik, is a nightmare out of the 1930s; it's anti-Roma (gypsies), it’s anti-Semitic, and it even has a paramilitary arm.

Krugman then goes on to describe Fidesz, Hungary’s governing center-right party, which apparently is intent on establishing a permanent one-party authoritarian government by suppressing opposition, controlling all media, criminalizing the leading leftist party, packing the courts, and gerrymandering districts to make it impossible for other parties to form a government.

Lord, but this is an old story in the human saga.  When economic times get tough a lot of people look for an outside group to scapegoat and, somehow, it’s always the groups with the least power that everybody else decides caused the problem.  Only the marginalized minorities, it turns out, have the power to destroy an entire society.

In truth, Europe’s economic woes are directly attributable to the financial crisis brought on by gross banker mismanagement, made worse by some inherent problems in the way the Eurozone is structured, made even worse by Eurozone leaders misinterpreting the problem as one of fiscal imprudence by European governments and not of uncorrectable trade imbalances between the Eurozone nations. 

But that’s kinda complicated and – besides – beyond the control of all but a handful of people (Draghi, Merkel . . . I’m looking at you).  So, naturally, some bright, ambitious, hateful people will suggest that everybody ignore all of that and focus instead on the real problem:  all these immigrants, gypsies and Jews.  The bright, ambitious, and hateful people then try to use the resulting public anger against the scapegoated minorities to either seize or hang on to political power.  It can work out great for the bright, ambitious, hateful people; it rarely works out well for the powerless, demonized, scapegoated minorities. 

So predictable is this shabby little human trick that in his book The Long Emergency James Howard Kunstler just naturally predicts social conflict breaking out along racial lines in the American Southeast (white/black) and Southwest (anglo/hispanic) as we start to experience tremendous economic disruptions caused by the world’s cheap energy running out.  But Krugman’s column today reminds us that we don’t have to wait for Peak Oil to see this happen; even man-made economic problems like the current depression (Krugman’s word) can push cynical, hateful people into running this same tired play.

In fact, I’ve been wondering whether the economic collapse and financial crisis that started three years ago might not be responsible for the draconian anti-immigrant laws we’ve recently seen passed in Arizona, Georgia and Alabama. 

Of course a lot of the populations of all three states had demonstrated a willingness to demonize Mexican immigrants in the past, and regardless of the “neutral” language contained in these laws it is Mexicans at whom these laws are aimed.  But I wonder how much political calculation and cynicism played into the enactment of these terrible ideas: 

Boy, things sure are getting tough out there and the voters are getting plenty mad, but we can’t start raising taxes on our rich campaign donors to actually help all those suffering voters.  Hey, I know!  Let’s get ‘em riled up against the Mexicans!  That’ll make it look like we’re doing something and distract ‘em for at least for another election cycle.  Maybe things’ll improve by then and we can keep our jobs.

And so, for example, Georgia enacted strict anti-immigrant laws, many farm workers left the state as a result, and Georgia’s crops were left to rot on the ground.  Notwithstanding Georgia’s horrific experience, Alabama followed suit by enacting its own strict anti-immigrant law shortly thereafter, to the complete bafflement of the president of the Georgia Agribusiness Council, Bryan Tolar:  “It was like, ‘Good Lord, you people can’t be helped.  Have you all not been paying attention?’”

But I suppose scapegoating the poor and the powerless to distract the rest of the electorate is just such an easy, tried-and-true method by which bright, ambitious, hateful people can hold on to power that Alabama’s legislators just couldn’t resist its siren song.  And yet there is a bright spot, or at the very least an amusing aspect to this sad little spectacle, in that it turns out that in the age of globalization and international investment it is not so easy to isolate the weak and the powerless for scapegoating as it has been in the past. 

As most people know by now, Alabama’s strict anti-immigrant law already has resulted in a German executive for Mercedes-Benz and a Japanese executive for Honda being arrested and hauled before the courts for the crime of driving in Alabama without papers.

Needless to say, this hasn’t exactly endeared Alabama to these two very large, very wealthy corporate employers.  Nor has it endeared Alabama to other international companies that --prior to the enactment of Alabama’s anti-immigrant law -- had been thinking of setting up shop in the state.  And so now Alabama finds itself pleading with the car companies and with other international manufacturers not to forsake it for other states that haven’t spent their legislative sessions working hard to earn the title “regional capital of xenophobia.” 

Boy, it sure does suck when you can’t scapegoat the marginalized without also attacking the significant.  Kinda takes the fun out of kicking the weak and the powerless if you know that you’re then likely to start getting kicked by the strong and the powerful, doesn’t it Alabama?

 Ah . . . sweet, sweet schadenfreude. 

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