During Ireland’s Great Potato Famine of 1845-52, one out of every eight people in Ireland died of starvation or disease. The famine resulted in more than a million deaths. Because potatoes were the nation’s staple food, untold numbers were reduced to eating grass or nothing at all when every year’s potato crops failed. Those who ate the rotted potatoes pulled from the ground became ill. And yet, British landlords made peasant farmers gather their wheat crops and send them to Britain while the Irish became walking skeletons, or ceased to walk at all.
Many who could gather together enough money to leave came to America, resulting in nearly a million poor Irish immigrants arriving on American shores during the famine years alone. These huge masses of desperate, often uneducated Irish made up the first large migration of poverty-stricken people to the U.S. This caused an upswelling of nativist hatred, bigotry and violence toward the Irish that took decades to abate.
Back in Ireland, British landlords evicted the starving Irish farmers and sharecroppers from their modest huts and houses when they couldn’t supply the promised number of bushels of produce from blighted land. Landlords kicked starving children, disabled elderly people and everyone in between out of their homes. They took every grain away from dying Irish babies and threw families out into the harsh elements, where hundreds of thousands of children died.
Why? Because rich landowners convinced themselves that vulnerable people were worthless people, that affluence is next to godliness, that some people are just born dirty and disgusting and disposable.
We have recently seen men kidnap tiny victims of war, call their parents murderers and rapists, and send them back to the countries that killed their family members and threatened their lives. Powerful Americans prey on victims of war, legal asylum seekers. Poor, battered, sick and exhausted people offer themselves up to our mercy, thinking the great and powerful United States will keep them from dying. They think we will shelter them from the gangs that torture and murder their loved ones in their home countries. They hope to get jobs and work hard and have a chance to be safe and stop their nightmares. Because they thought we meant it when we said that our nation reveres liberty and justice for all.
Treating the Irish like nonentities was made easier by the prevalence of stereotypes of the Irish people as stupid, lazy, filthy, obscene, drunken, vulgar and subhuman. They were said not to care about their children the way good Christian English people did, not to mind eating rot, to be too drunk to be aware of their misery, to be innately drawn to sin. Many English (and Americans) were taught that the Irish had earned their state because they were depraved and unloved by God. Their Catholicism was considered vulgar, and was held up as one more reason to despise them. This anti-Irish sentiment followed the Irish to America, so even though many found opportunity here, acceptance was hard-won.
Now we hear so many of those same epithets and slanderous words flung at Mexicans and Central Americans and South Americans who are struggling just to stay alive. The Irish immigrants who flocked to American in the 1840s and 1850s would certainly recognize the degrading and dehumanizing words that spill out of our president’s mouth, and the rough and degrading treatment given to those who drag themselves here asking only to be given a chance to stay alive.
This is how evil spreads—by determining that those who suffer must deserve their suffering, and that those in hard circumstances don’t feel or care or love as much as the affluent do. By turning away from our responsibility to help the most vulnerable among us, we stomp out compassion. By labeling the destitute and distraught as vermin, as innately criminal, as dirty, dangerous and bad for society, we propagate the rot.
We are spreading a new plague. We are setting our own destruction in motion.
Many currently in power preach that the poor are bad and undeserving, and that the foreign-born poor are even more depraved—dangerous, too. This is one of the roots of evil—this determination of the worth of human beings based on homelands or ethnicity.
For a few decades, we seemed to have gotten better about this. Most in the U.S. who still held filthy, bigoted thoughts (and there were many) knew to hide them in public. But the demons of prejudice and hate walk more openly among us now. They continue to spread the lies that some people are innately unworthy of concern, of help, even of life.
A model member of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology community, a hardworking go-getter who regularly works 16-hour days to support his family (which includes two daughters—both U.S. citizens—and a wife who is eight months into a high-risk pregnancy), is likely to be deported this summer. Does he have a criminal record? No. Is he a leech on the public welfare system? No. Francisco Rodriguez not only works full time as a custodian at MIT but also runs a carpet-cleaning company, and he pays income taxes on both jobs.
Did he lie to the government and try to sneak in? No; he applied for asylum when he moved here from El Salvador just over a decade ago. A mechanical engineer in his native country, his success made him a target of gangsters who shook him down and threatened him with murder if he didn’t pay them even more. He has been up-front with the Department of Homeland Security all along the way. The U.S. would not give him asylum, but until recently they would not begin deportation proceedings, either, since it was clear that Francisco was not a risk to our nation—indeed, he was a taxpayer and a job-creator, he supported his family and was active in his children’s school, his church and his union. But on July 13, he will meet with representatives of ICE, possibly for the last time before he is forced to leave his family, his job, his business—everything—behind in the U.S., the country he has served so well for over a decade.
So what changed? Our nation is now led by a man who sees all born outside of our borders as lesser beings, and he sees those who were born in countries below our southern border as especially dangerous and worthless, with inherent violent and immoral tendencies, no matter how clearly the facts prove otherwise.
Francisco Rodriguez wasn’t targeted for deportation because he’s a danger to society; he was chosen because his honesty made him easy to find, and his lack of criminality made him highly unlikely to cause a fuss when he was singled out for removal from his home, his family, his job and his community. If Francisco is deported, he and his wife will not be allowed to travel between the U.S. and El Salvador to visit each other for at least ten years.
The true cost of Trump’s anti-immigrant, anti-refugee policy is this: families are torn apart; honest and hardworking people are forced to give up everything to go to countries where their safety is at risk; taxpayers are taken off the rolls, so the IRS loses out on revenue; and formerly independent families are forced to ask for assistance during and after family crises (in this case a high-risk birth with no father present—a crisis completely manufactured by the U.S. government).
The knock-on effect of sweeping deportations to families, businesses, tax rolls and our culture in general is enormous and devastating. It will soon be felt strongly in the business world and will result in lower income tax revenues as well. The service and construction sectors rely heavily on undocumented labor and are fearful of the increasing costs of hiring citizens who want greater income and shorter hours. The agriculture sector is already feeling the pinch and is worried about how they’ll manage to find enough farm workers to bring in their crops. They can’t find enough citizens willing to work long hours in seasonal agricultural jobs in the blistering harvest-season heat, even as wages rise. Produce will rot before it can be picked and distributed when there are not enough workers to go around. Will our supposedly business-savvy president recognize the folly of his fear and hate then? It is doubtful.
These misguided policies fuel our growing xenophobia and will take a huge economic and emotional toll on our nation. It is never in our country’s interests to treat good, honest, hardworking people like criminals because of an accident of birth. Our moralistic pronouncements about the greatness of our country are hollow when we use our might to destroy lives, to vilify honorable people and to dismantle our social compact out of unearned self-regard based on birth and not innate worth. We harm ourselves as well as others when we let our fears and prejudices overcome reason, mercy and human decency.
Here is a chilling scene from the musical Cabaret by composers John Kander and Fred Ebb. In this first week of the Trump presidency, when our freedoms are already being ripped from us and a dark, xenophobic hatred is settling on our nation, sharing this troubling work of art feels particularly and horribly apt and important.
Kander and Ebb wrote a number of musicals, including Chicago, together. Their biggest hits were stories of darkness and decadence in which the music, though catchy and clever, eloquently underscored the sordid qualities of the worlds in which their stories took place. Their songs (including “Cabaret,” “New York, New York,” “Maybe This Time” and “All That Jazz“) are so pleasing that they can be pulled from their context and enjoyed as great tunes whenever and wherever you like. But in context, Kander and Ebb’s songs enrich and amplify the plays’ messages and power and make them two of the most important creators in the musical theater canon.
As Jews and homosexuals born in the 1920s, both Kander and Ebb had seen and experienced antisemitic and homophobic bigotry personally. One imagines that those difficult experiences can only have deepened their understanding of and sympathy for the characters for whom they wrote.
Please watch this clip to the end to experience its full, chilling power. Far from being a simple musical comedy, Cabaret is the story of life around a Berlin cabaret during the rise of the Nazi party during the early 1930s. It shows how evil infiltrates a cultured and cosmopolitan nation, and how no amount of retreating to the cabaret for distractions can keep the evil truths of the outside world from overtaking a once-beautiful culture.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt made the following statement during a campaign speech in November 1940, just over a year before the U.S. entered World War II:
“We are a nation of many nationalities, many races, many religions—bound together by a single unity, the unity of freedom and equality. Whoever seeks to set one nationality against another, seeks to degrade all nationalities. Whoever seeks to set one race against another seeks to enslave all races. Whoever seeks to set one religion against another, seeks to destroy all religion. “
This is a noble statement, but the president himself made the grave error of rounding up all people of Japanese descent and imprisoning them in internment camps during World War II on the baseless assumption that they would be less patriotic, loyal or law-abiding than people of other ancestries. He was wrong. Not one single Japanese-American was determined to have committed a treasonous act anywhere in the United States before, during or after World War II. Not one.
Indeed, many of those same Japanese-Americans fought nobly for the U.S. and Allied Forces during World War II, even as their families were imprisoned at home. FDR’s words quoted here are right and beautiful, but even he was blinded by fear. He had said at the outset of his presidency that the only thing we had to fear was fear itself, and fear is certainly the source of hatred for people and ideas other than our own. Fear makes us turn inward, and that allows us to remain ignorant, to refuse to empathize, ask questions or try to figure out how it feels to be one of those people who frighten us.
Fear keeps us from facing the humanity of our enemies, and makes us see enemies among our friends. It makes American governors look at orphaned Syrian toddlers and see danger; it makes Trump rally audiences look at a single African-American man who asks to be treated as if black lives matter, and then beat him to a pulp because he peacefully but loudly speaks up about bigotry in public. It is only by seeing others as human first that we can figure out how to talk to and deal with them honestly, honorably and peacefully.