A magistrate is peacefully overseeing the last outpost of the Empire when a state of emergency is declared. Rumors spread: the Barbarians are preparing an attack. The magistrate has seen no evidence of a threat from the indigenous people the empire calls the Barbarians; nonetheless he watches as Colonel Joll from the Third Bureau mercilessly tortures and kills his captive men, women, and children. Thus begins J.M. Coetzee’s novel Waiting For The Barbarians, and thus does the magistrate begin to question: Just who are the barbarians?
“I observed that once in every generation, without fail, there is an episode of hysteria about the barbarians,” he says.
Observing the end of a General Assembly notable for boldly working to marginalize the marginalized, I wondered if we might be in such an episode. Blathering and posturing about imagined threats, legislators managed to pass a resolution aimed at barring Muslim refugees, rejected a bill granting in-state tuition to undocumented students, passed legislation permitting counselors to discriminate, pilloried a social studies unit for “indoctrinating” children with Islam, nearly codified further stigmatization of transgender students, stripped funds from UT’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion, made it harder to remove Confederate symbols from state property, and designated the Bible as a “state” book, all but putting a sign at the border: non-Christians not welcome. Gov. Bill Haslam found his backbone long enough to veto the “Bible” bill but quickly lost it again.
Taken as a whole, these seemingly disparate measures wasted time and energy solving problems that don’t exist and ended up doing the same thing: separating people into who is legitimate and who is not by codifying fear. What concerns me beyond their specific ramifications is the tone at the top.
Soon after Alabama passed its 2006 anti-immigration law, critics cited instances of store clerks demanding papers, of parishioners refusing to “pass the peace” with “foreign” congregants, of high school students banishing brown-skinned classmates to the top bleachers. In answer, the bill’s author—Kris Kobock, Kansas Secretary of State and father to a slew of bills designed to encourage “voluntary deportation”—said, “You can’t legislate what is in people’s hearts. And if people have those twisted ideas of the world and have those ill feelings toward people who have a different skin color, I don’t think you can say that the law has caused that. And I don’t think you can say that the law can ultimately stop that.”
I think he could not be more wrong. I’m talking psychology 101 here. Context is everything. If you prepare a field for cotton, you’re growing cotton. If you create a climate where “the other” is dehumanized, people will be dehumanized. When you fuel hate, you get hate. And when politicians ignore evidence to champion legislation based on sweeping generalizations of a group of human beings, there are consequences.
Nobody I know is actually afraid of Syrian terrorists rampaging through Tennessee, or of some illusionary “gay agenda,” or of the demise of Christmas, but we do fear the recent rise in local hate groups (see Clay Duda’s March 2 Mercury article), and we are extremely wary of homegrown fundamentalists whose narrow definition of their faith includes a long list of things to hate. We have some legitimate fear of people working night and day to force their values onto everybody else because our state Legislature is full of them.
Lawmakers interested in improving the health and safety of Tennesseans could actually increase health-care access, do more to keep guns away from children, or enact any number of bills that would solve actual problems and save actual lives. They might try using evidence and statistics to assess risk.
In Speaker Beth Harwell’s sunny wrap-up of the Legislature’s accomplishments, she conveniently fails to mention refugees or the discriminatory counseling bill or any of the other measures aimed at marginalized people. Is that because she knows it’s embarrassing? Are we to be fooled into pretending nothing ugly happened this year? Too late. The image that sticks with me is the unfurling of the Confederate flag over UT students peacefully demonstrating for diversity and inclusion. The legislators can’t pull off the “pay attention to what we say, not what we do” routine. We know what they meant.
Who are the barbarians? How about the sons and daughters of immigrants who, safe in the new world, callously pull up the ladder? Which is more barbaric, to flee from violence or to foment hatred in the name of false security? How is it not barbaric to condone discrimination? Some legislators claim they are responding to citizen demand, but responsible leadership does not rely on trumped-up threats and hysteria to divide people. Coetzee’s magistrate says of the Empire’s real barbarians, “I should never have allowed the gates of the town to be opened to people who assert that there are higher considerations than those of decency.”
In the richness of literature I find universal themes that offer perspective for my own time. We have been here before. Turn the globe, pick a spot, name a year and you will uncover a moment when a dominate culture used language to strip the humanity from marginalized groups of people. Violence followed. Violence always follows. You can’t shoot flames from your mouth and then be surprised when the house burns down. As Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank, has said: Accepting all humans as fully human is the challenge of our time.
As we say goodbye to our latest General Assembly, remember that the Legislature we have is the Legislature we voted for. We don’t have to keep voting for these people. Let’s don’t.
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