Wednesday, March 11, 2015


In a course I'm taking on Italian fascism, we watched the other day a famous Holocaust film, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1970) that affected me unusually strongly-- as in, it left that feeling that my stomach had been partly squashed and my hands were lightly trembling. After it aired, our professor said something particularly apt about the source of its power: "It's so understated," he remarked. It is. The film, which comes from the same director who made that classic of postwar Italian social protest, The Bicycle Thief, is only in a loose sense a Holocaust movie. The Jewish protagonists live out for most of its run a life of dramas and losses that are basically separate from the unfolding backdrop of Hitler's rise and the start of the war. It is only at the very end that they are torn from one another and deported to their likely murder in the death camps.

And because of this, it is more unsettling. Other Holocaust films might be more gruesome than this one, but for this very reason the events they depict are likely to seem alien. The emphasis in such films is on the incomprehensibility of the Holocaust, on its unimaginable brutality, and these are, of course, important things to emphasize. In watching them, however, though we may feel differently about humanity, we are not likely to think differently about ourselves. We may ask ourselves, "If it happened here, what would I do?"; but we are not likely to ask the more disturbing questions: "Is it happening here? Am I doing anything about it?" Because of course, genocide is not happening here; that is plain.

Garden, however, does not show us a genocide-- we are left only to imagine it on the horizon of the film's ending. All we see are Italian and German police with their backs turned to the camera as they -- almost politely, certainly with much throat-clearing-- tell Jewish people to leave some public space or guide them by the arm out of their homes or strike off their names from a list or push them into train cars. The absence of physical brutality in these scenes struck some of my classmates as dishonest-- maybe even as an apologistic portrayal of the Italian side of Fascism. I don't agree-- I find something much more obscene about violence that is done with something like restraint and good manners. It is like the nice meal prepared for the condemned person the night before the execution. One rebels more deeply against this vision than one would against a spectacle of sheer force -- If the world still contains such kindness and goodness, one asks, why is someone being executed? If the accomplices of violence (and aren't we all that?) are still capable of thoughtfulness and solicitude, why are people being deported to their doom?

Because of this persistent understatedness, Garden had me asking the second-- and much more troubling -- of the two questions mentioned above. Instead of seeing a strange and ghastly horror and wondering "Can it happen here?" I saw a much more "normalized" level of violence and asked: "Is it happening here?"

And the answer comes back to me that it is. The extent of violence that we actually see on the screen in this film is in fact happening here. People -- namely undocumented immigrants-- do live in this country under the shadow of the possibility that they will be rounded up and deported away from their loved ones. They have to rest their hopes that they can stay with their families on the evanescent promise of a benevolent decree from the same President who has touted his own deportation numbers in the past as evidence of his "seriousness." And little more than a single judge in Texas can put them all at risk again. It is happening here. And what am I doing about it?  Thus came that squished somatic feeling I mentioned at the outset.

One has to be very cautious making these kinds of comparisons, because one can so easily be mistaken for drawing a moral equivalence. This I do not mean to do. Deporting people across the border is not the same thing as putting them in death camps, to make a baleful understatement. But what upset me so much in watching Garden, again, was that the characters on screen do not end up in death camps, so far as we actually see. In the part of the story we view directly, they suffer no worse fate than do a lot of undocumented people in this country today (or with which they are threatened). And that fate proves to be quite horrifying enough,  even without what we know of the characters' ultimate destination. The violence in Garden may be less graphic than in other Holocaust films, but for this very reason, it is more terrifyingly familiar.

The usefulness of comparing the violence of historical Fascism to contemporary politics, then, does not so much lie in showing that "it can happen here," with "it" being understood to be precisely the same "it" as then. I do not imagine the United States will be carrying out a genocide within anyone's lifetime. Besides, "Can it happen here?" is really a sort of self-congratulatory question to begin with. It assumes "it," whatever it is, has not yet gotten to us. The question might even serve as a dodge of the more frightening levels of self-examination, because it inquires only after crimes one views as too monstrous to see as familiar. Perhaps some good German Protestants in 1938 once sat perched over a book about the Spanish Inquisition and comforted themselves by asking "Could that happen in our country some day? I wonder how I would respond if it did..." Not realizing, of course, that the test they were imagining was already upon them.

What studying the history of Fascism can remind us of is the fact that many German and Italian people in the '30s came to see anti-Semitic persecution, deportation, and discrimination as in some sense "normal." Even those who might have regarded it as regrettable, deplorable, accepted it as a part of their world, as an option on one side of the available political spectrum. And they came to do so in a mere blink of an eye of historical time.

The act of comparing this past to our present makes us wonder whether we too have violence around us that we think of as regrettable, but basically within the norm -- violence that is really deeply horrifying, but that we fail to see as such. And it seems to me that we have to come away recognizing that we do. The deportation of undocumented people is a potent example.

Again, deportation is not genocide, and there is no American Holocaust unfolding. But we do allow something to happen in this country that we know at the deepest level to be horrifying -- deportation, exile, and all that goes with it. It is a fate we would never tolerate for an instant for ourselves or our families. But we accept it for others because we have set aside a particular group of people as acceptable targets of violence. And make no mistake, deportation -- done however politely-- is violence. Garden conveys this truth well, if we ever needed to be reminded of it.


Ah, but our violence is legal, right? It is based on real things, like borders, rather than false things, like racist ideologies.

In truth, however, I know of few things more fictitious than nations. (I would also note, of course, that this same fiction had an awful lot to do with the history of Fascism.) If the United States exists now as a "nation," whatever that is, I do not see in what sense it would be any less of one if it had basically open borders and a considerably larger Spanish-speaking population. Unless of course our "nation" gains its identity from having a majority of English-speakers? Or because whiteness and Americanness are closely interrelated? If we start answering yes to these questions, it is not long at all before we are dealing in concepts very similar to those that fired up Mussolini and his neighbor to the North. I am not at all convinced that the ideologies that want to deport undocumented people or build walls across the border are based on anything more sane, more real, more tangible or rational, than the great bullying abstractions of the Fascist age.

Thus it goes with every justification for having closely patrolled borders and deportations I encounter-- so soon as I chase after it, it melts into absurdities. I try to grasp it as something actual, and it turns out to be just one of the savage group clichés. You know the ones I mean -- those fictional markers of identity by which we map out one group from another, and not because anyone within these groups feels any real kinship for each other -- identity politics has never been good at designating friends. It has always done far better at marking out enemies -- the people who are to become the acceptable targets of violence. "Kulaks" and "class enemies" and Masons and bolsheviks. The "mind-forged manacles I hear."

I've expressed before on this blog pragmatic concerns about a policy of mostly open borders-- concerns along the lines of: What would we do with all the new people? Would they not be forced to live here in tremendous poverty? Would there be enough work for them and the people here who are already unemployed?

But of course, that's much the same fallacy that has dogged the labor movement throughout its history -- the belief that the fragmentation of our work force, the reign of pauper wages and so-called "flexible" labor markets, can somehow be blamed on the people forced into exploitative labor contracts by their poverty, rather than on the economic conditions that dictate the terms of those contracts. Corporations hoping to lower wages (and they too are bound by structural restraints-- they usually lower wages not because they are greedy, but because they face the threat of going under to their competitors, or losing, say, a contract with Wal-Mart, if they are not constantly cutting costs) already do not recognize the existence of borders. They can move their factories to Asia or recruit people here at home who, precisely because they are undocumented and vulnerable to deportation, are all the easier to exploit and all the more difficult to organize.

This is why the most progressive elements of the union movement have always recognized that labor must become as international as capital if it is to survive. If companies do not recognize borders, then neither should labor. The solution is never to banish some even poorer group of people from the workforce. In addition to being manifestly unjust, such a policy also happens to be a dead end. It simply changes the color of the faces getting the lousy contract. The solution can only be to organize the undocumented, and this requires getting them documented. Suppliers, organized labor, and undocumented people all stand to gain by the same changes -- If all employers are compelled to raise wages, and none can rely on a pool of unskilled laborers who are constantly faced with the terror of deportation, then they will not be afraid to do so at the risk of being submerged by their competitors.

What they all stand to lose by taking a discredited nativist tack, by contrast, is their soul, and not just their shot at a living wage. A labor movement that does not want to organize everybody, that wishes simply to push certain groups off the payrolls, is purely an interest group. Worse than that, it becomes the embodiment of an all-too-typical style of chauvinism. In an article in Ha'aretz, Zeev Sternhell once warned the Left of his country against focusing on social justice within Israel's 1948 borders to the exclusion of the issue of human rights in the Palestinian Occupied Territories; such an approach risked becoming a "socialism of the masters," as he termed it, rather than of everyone. And in his view, "the socialism of masters, and on behalf of masters, is no less ruthless and despicable than the neoliberalism of the rich on behalf of the rich[.]" We might add what Sternhell only implies, namely that there have been people before in history advocating just this sort of socialism. I won't mention them by name -- again, I do not wish a comparison to be mistaken to imply moral equivalence. The point here is just that a labor movement that draws a sharp distinction between documented and undocumented workers is well on its way to becoming a socialism of the masters.

This is not the only reason I have come to doubt the wisdom of my earlier "pragmatic" objections. Similarly troubling to me was a review I read recently of an old book-- Eric Foner's The Fiery Trial, his famous account of the evolution of Abraham Lincoln's views on slavery. The reviewer notes, following Foner, that Lincoln was clearly disgusted by slavery from a young age. However, he doubted the feasibility of immediate emancipation until well into the war. Why? Well, what were we to do with all the freed slaves? he wondered. Where would they work? Would they not live in poverty? Would not the rest of the country prove incapable of getting along with them?

Of course, borders and bondage are not the same thing. There is no equivalence between slavery and deportation. But Lincoln's reasonings-- which were not at all uncommon at that time -- show just how much one era's "pragmatic common sense" becomes another's moral cowardice. Lincoln accepted a type of violence, lifelong hereditary slavery, that he knew all the time to be horrifying-- of which he expressed his horror in earnest and sorrowing prose on many occasions -- all because it seemed to him socially necessary. Few of us today would accept his logic.

We are all too lamentably quick to assume that whatever is, is necessary. We assume there is not enough room in the lifeboat, that in close quarters with those people we'd just start fighting anyways, etc. And maybe at times that cynicism has been vindicated. But it seems to me that everything we recognize as good in human history (like, say, the abolition of slavery) has proceeded from people who began with precisely the opposite set of assumptions, and kept to them, even through times when they seemed most rudely tested. It has come from people who insisted we do better, who called us to be more generous spirited than we thought we were able.

It is true that opening our borders would change this country considerably. Would it lose in the process some of its indefinable "Americanness"? Well, I ask in reply, what is this "Americanness" that we should fear to lose it? So often it seems, like most group labels, to do much better at designating who's outside it than at defining who or what is in. If "Americanness" is just a word for a linguistic bloc of majority English speakers and ethnic Anglo-Saxons who happen to inhabit the middle strip of North America, then it certainly is imperiled by open borders. But in such a case, "Americanness" is just another of the savage abstractions, and is no more worth saving than pan-German Volk-ism.

I'm not entirely sure what more than this it means. I certainly think of myself as an American, and there is a reason why this country is a home to me in a way others would not be, beyond the bare fact that I live within its borders. Yet any attempt I could make to specify why I am at home here would have little to do with the flag or with the war of 1776 (which, by the way, my ancestors would not have witnessed-- they had not yet migrated, after all, from Scotland and Wales). It would end up appealing to things that are far more local and personal, even happenstance, than that. Probably the most I could give you would be a list of events and people in my life who made me myself. Vladimir Nabokov was probably overstating matters, but not by much, when in response to a question about what "community" he properly belonged to, he replied: "I can mentally collect quite a large number of individuals whom I am fond of but they would form a very disparate and discordant group if gathered in real life, on a real island."

This is the truth of all our group identities; they don't actually figure in our lives the way we pretend they do. Nobody on Earth was really cradled and nursed by the Confederate Cross. Nobody was ever loved by the Stars and Stripes, or by the Marines, or by "the People," or by "Black Power." What sad, unreciprocal relationships we establish with our concepts and abstractions! We claim to care for them, but they cannot care for us. No wonder the best we can do is use them as cudgels against various foes. The flag probably would mean little to many people if it didn't mean a chance to bait "flag-burners."

But even if my "Americanness" were a coherent thing, rather than being what it is, i.e. a nebulous development out of the particular people I have met and cared about in this country (not all of whom are white and many of whom come from immigrant families) -- even then, I would not be willing to deport people to try to preserve it just the way it is. More than that, I would say that as soon as you start using violence to preserve something, you have already lost whatever it was about it that was worth holding on to. Whatever harmless good kernel was once inside it has by that very action been transfigured into something ugly, miserly, and cruel.

I am reminded of a moment in the novel Khirbet Khizeh, the moment that finally transforms the narrator's perspective on the role he has been playing in Israel's 1948 war. It comes when he finally makes the mental connection between the exile that he and his comrades hope to escape by coming to Israel-- and the exile to which he is subjecting the Arab people in the book's eponymous village. When he confesses these doubts about the morality of their actions to a fellow soldier, he is told not to worry about it, and to look forward instead to the glorious future in which that village will be populated by Jews. The narrator finds he cannot accept the vision, however. No matter how appealing it might be, the guilt of having sent others into exile from their homes in order to establish it spoils the prophecy.
"The people who would live in this village," he thinks " -- wouldn't the walls cry out in their ears? Those sights, screams that were screamed and that were not screamed [...] would the new settlers not sense that the air here was heavy with shades, voices, and stares?" (De Lange & Dweck trans.)
So too, I wonder how long any of us could enjoy our "Americanness" once we put all the undocumented people in boxcars or sealed the borders so that we turned away hungry and terrified women and men fleeing drug traffickers and kidnappers, or drove them to their deaths in the Arizona desert by the relentless pursuit of our border patrol. Would not we too be haunted by the screams?

Maybe there wouldn't be screams, but I don't know what other sound people are likely to make when they are forcibly separated from their families. Especially when they are being sent back across the border to face potential torture or death. Our deportation bus lines may not end at the gates of Auschwitz, but they do return people to unknown violences in Mexico or Central America. Many migrants already on their journey north face kidnapping and torture from gangs trying to extort ransom from their families back home.

And again, all of that would likely still be going on even if a liberal package of so-called "comprehensive immigration reform" ever passed, because it would almost certainly include heavier border enforcement in order to get through Congress. People even in this "best case" scenario would still be getting turned away from the border to return to poverty and violence (for some of which our own government bears partial responsibility, as many have noted). Such are the terms in which the "immigration debate" is conducted in this country. Such are the terms in which for too long I limited my own thinking on this subject.

History will remember the screams of the deportees and judge us for it. History has remarkably little patience with justifications of violence on the grounds of pragmatism and social necessity, and it has none at all for those made on the grounds of chauvinism. It says to all of us: "It did happen there, and what did you do about it?"

It was a film that put this question back into my mind, and I have been shaking ever since. Because I'm not sure I have a good answer.

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