Mary Eberstadt has a fascinating article in Real Clear Politics about scapegoats, 9/11 and how the world has and has not dealt with that reality.
Political particulars aside, the ubiquity of that word "denial" is worth pausing over. It connotes that we live in an era of unreality, perhaps even surreality, in which what is said in public is at odds with what is true -- a shortfall invoked now more or less constantly as a feature of political discussion. And so to the obvious question: Why do so many Americans apparently share the sense that we are all being misled, one way and another, about political reality -- and not only about reality in Iraq, but about politics more generally....
One way to begin is to survey the main intellectual and political currents since 9/11, which investigation yields a fact both unexpected and significant. As it turns out, a flight from political reality has indeed been underway on both the left and the right in America in the years since that event, as well as accelerating into more advanced forms in much of Europe. To switch metaphors, in the wake of the 9/11 attack -- and later, related Islamist attacks on civilians, most notably in Spain and Britain -- many Western observers have responded not by absorbing what we now know to be true about our world, but rather by transposing those brute facts into other, safer, more familiar keys.
She then deals in detail with certain manifestations of scapegoating:
In other words, there is something telling about the fact that so far as their critics are concerned, pretty much anything the Mexicans and Central Americans do appears to be a problem. If they work, that's bad because they are taking our jobs. If they don't, that's also bad because they are taking our welfare. Men come to America and live in groups instead of in families: This is bad because men in groups can be frightening and unruly. Men come to America and live in families instead of in groups: This is bad too because it means more Mexicans here. Women come to live with the men: This is worst of all because they are doing it to have what the critics call "anchor babies." Similarly, the workers come here when they're young and healthy and that's bad because it makes them better at physical labor; but they are apparently also full of diseases that make them a menace to a First World community. And so on -- and on and on. One wonders when an environmental impact study of the very air they exhale near the Rio Grande will be waved by Lou Dobbs to show just how far the law-breaking civilization-busters have gone now. Tancredo even manages outrage over the fact that undocumented aliens can apparently use the stacks of the Denver public library by presenting only a driver's license. Mexican farm hands, reading in a library? Dios mio! Will these people never learn to behave like Americans?
In sum, the insistence by impassioned theorists that illegal immigration south of the border is the pre-eminent problem of our time makes perfect sense -- or would, had those been Salvadoreans piloting airplanes on 9/11, Guatemalans bankrolling their efforts, Hondurans plotting attacks on the subways and government buildings of Europe, and Mexicans across the global labor diaspora plotting how to bring down the American government, presumably by poisoning our gardens and toilets. If you do not think that is the way it went down, then Occam's razor dictates this: The sheer volume of emotion on the subject of illegal aliens makes most sense as a manifestation of denial about who would really like to see the end of the American republic -- as it turns out, one form of many now circulating.
In sum, just as the paleoconservative and nativist wings of the right appear to have channeled the anxiety of the post-9/11 years into one relatively safe scapegoat -- largely Hispanic illegal immigrants -- so have the libertarians and some liberal allies fingered their own culprit in the "theocrats," "Christocrats," "Christianists," and "Christian nationalists." At the heart of their case is an obnoxious positing of moral equivalence among "fundamentalists" and "theocrats" irrespective of religious stripe. Accordingly, anyone believing anything based on any holy writ whatever is suspect, no matter whether the message being received is that two hundred babes must die in Chechnya tomorrow or that two hundred trees should be planted in Tel Aviv by Texan evangelicals to hasten the second coming. As with the example of illegal immigration, this rhetoric all makes perfect sense -- or would in a world where Jerry Falwell calls down fatwas on naral, the 700 Club sends suicide bombers into the Key West Fantasy Fest, and Richard John Neuhaus posts death warrants on ewtn whenever he wants the members of Moveon.org decapitated
The author does draw the line between legitimate criticism and scapegoating:
In addition to the ideological scapegoats arising from points right to left, certain other forms of the denial of reality have also manifested themselves in the years since 9/11. Most obvious is the cult formed of disparate theories maintaining perhaps the ultimate resistance: that the towers did not fall because Saudi-born hijackers flew into them, but because of (fill in the blank): an Israeli conspiracy, a Washington conspiracy, a military conspiracy, an industrial conspiracy, a plot ordered by the man in the moon. Of course no one serious -- at least in America -- believes any of this (about some others we shall presently see). Even so, the inside-job men do warrant at least a mention as the most literal incarnation of post 9/11 denial.
But there is one other scapegoat in whom some serious people do believe: George W. Bush -- not the president of the United States, exactly, but his all-purpose totemic doppelgänger.
I think one of the things which has always amazed me about this phenomenon is the seeming amnesia that accompanies it. I remember back in the 90's when Bill Clinton thought Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and ABC was doing specials on Hussein's relationship with AlQaida. It is as if this happened in another dimension. But like other scapegoats, Bush does not fight back.
No, perhaps the anti-Americanism of today is best understood instead as a way of being furious in public with somebody for the insecurities and anxieties wrought by Islamist terrorism in this world, including in increasingly Muslim Europe -- an option made even more attractive by the safe bet that Americans, unlike some other people, are unlikely to respond to this rhetoric, let alone to editorial cartoons, by burning cars, slitting throats, or issuing death threats in places like Paris and Amsterdam and Regensburg and London.
The need to blame
To identify primal fear as the denominator common to the anti-American scapegoating now emanating from some quarters in Europe is not to suggest anything like sinister intent. The same is true of the pundits who have made a different industry of scapegoating in the U.S. All have their reasons, and the overriding reason is an obvious one. There is something deeply human about the desire to find all the things scapegoats can provide: a vessel to bear one's anxieties and outrages, a target that won't hit back, a welcome distraction from the real thing.
Read it all, it really is worth the time.
A CULTURAL ISSUE
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