Demonize This!

In the grand tradition of the loopy conservative patriarchy, right up there with Ronald Reagan's 1981 comment, "Trees cause more pollution than automobiles do," we now have Homeland Security Chairman Michael Chertoff arguing that "illegal migrants really degrade the environment."

Speaking on Monday in defense of the loathsome Mexican-American border wall, he said, "I've seen pictures of human waste, garbage, discarded bottles and other human artifact in pristine areas. And believe me, that is the worst thing you can do to the environment."

Ah yes. Pristine areas. Being defiled. It's almost like... dare we say it? Rape? Aieee! Do they want our white women, too?

While it's hard to take any conservative Republican seriously when he talks about preserving the environment (words that come easily to mind are big oil, destroying the Alaska wilderness, burning coal, nuclear power and auto emissions), this one takes the cake.

I'm not saying that liberals are always the good guys, but why do conservatives need to feel virulent hatred for some other group before they can feel good about themselves?

Is it penis size? Is it an inherent personality trait? Is it massive insecurity? Is it guilt over the enormous damage they've caused over the years?

It would be easy to say they're just narcissists who feel that they're better than everyone else. (Dick Cheney springs to mind; Bush only feels better than everyone else because he's a spoiled rotten rich kid, but Cheney's arrogance is of an entirely different nature and degree.)

It's true that most tribes, at the dawn of their individual civilizations, call themselves "us" or "the people." Everyone else becomes "the other," or possibly "the enemy." But wasn't Western civilization supposed to have moved beyond that a long, long time ago?

I first heard the word "demonizing" in regard to what happened - deservedly - to Richard Nixon's presidency, but hatred has a long and ugly history in America. The many outrages of slavery made it easy to demonize African-Americans. It happens even among the incredibly wealthy. In the Gilded Age, Mrs. Astor built a ballroom that could only hold 400 people, and so "The 400" became the social elite who excluded all the rest. The Chinese were demonized in the West when they came to build the railroads. In the East, it was the Irish. In my grandparents' time, Eastern European Jews were demonized. In fact, Jews have been demonized for most of the 5,768 years we've been around. (That Jews have turned around and demonized the Palestinians is a topic for another column.)

When I was growing up, Jews and "coloreds" were the targets - remember the iconic photograph of Southern water fountains labeled "white" and "colored?" Perhaps African-Americans, however, have finally escaped their chains. Just recently, Bill O'Reilly visited Sylvia's, the famous Harlem soul food restaurant, and he couldn't get over how the patrons were acting. "There wasn't one person in Sylvia's who was screaming, 'M-Fer, I want more iced tea,'" O'Reilly said. "They are just like us now."

The great chain of demonization continued when, thanks to Betty Friedan, we realized that women weren't being treated all that well. Soon after? Enter the "feminazi." And when the conservatives weren't raging about uppity women -and, although I dislike Hillary Clinton's politics, I do enjoy watching the conservatives having apoplexy while talking about her - they were ranting about welfare mothers.

Next up to be demonized were homosexuals. The white Christian conservative patriarchy got a lot of brutal mileage out of hating them. However, homophobia, outside of fundamentalist Christian thinking, Congress and, possibly, the U.S. Supreme Court, seems to have calmed down. The gays have become mainstreamed. Instead of wearing thongs, wigs and feathers and parading down Fifth Avenue, they started getting married, raising children, and even joining the Republican party.

Who can be demonized next? Who must the conservatives hate to make themselves feel better and reaffirm their superior status?

Illegal immigrants, that's who. They are "degrading the environment." They are corrupting our economy! (In my mind, at least, they may be the only ones holding it up). They're brown-skinned! They don't speak English! They may get sick and use our hospitals! They have too many babies! Oh my God! Hate! Hate! Hate!

Eventually, this becomes a zero-sum game because every newly-identified and stigmatized group in America ultimately becomes mainstreamed. (Hasn't Chertoff seen "Ugly Betty"?)

Demonization has become a national way of life. It's also become the national way of death. Everybody hates somebody somewhere, to paraphrase Dean Martin. The conservatives demonized Saddam Hussein in order to invade his country. Now they're in the process of demonizing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad so they can invade his. They can't really win a war with, or even occupy, these countries. They're just striking out blindly.

Exporting our hatred has becomes an ugly and bloody American reality that will kill hundreds of thousands and destroy our national soul.

Whether we quote the Lord as he spoke to Moses, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself," or the Beatles - "All you need is love" - if America doesn't soon find its heart and extend its hand, the world will demonize us and we will be doomed.

Joyce Marcel is a columnist and journalist living and working in southern Vermont. A collection of her columns, "A Thousand Words or Less," is available through Write her at

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