Sunday, August 10, 2014

Purity and Danger: On the Racist Subtext of Current U.S. Debates about Latino Immigrant Children and the Ebola Virus

Some days lately as I read the news, I wonder, "Did Mary Douglas have some kind of crystal ball that allowed her to see fifty years into the future when she wrote her book Purity and Danger in the early 1960s?" So much happening today seems almost as if it is lifted from the footnotes of that classic essay — as if it is being scripted to prove the validity of Douglas's analysis.

In Purity and Danger, Douglas points out that social groups commonly imagine themselves as living organisms or bodies: the nation or state as body politic. As organisms of a sort, social groups imagine themselves under threat from invasive forces that have the potential to breach their boundaries and introduce infection. The body politic continually polices its orifices, its points of ingress, to assure that infectious outside pollutants don't cross its boundaries.  

The more heightened the sense of fear about perceived threats of infection is within a particular body politic, the more stringent the policing of boundaries. In heightened stages of downright hysteria about real or imagined invasive agents hovering around its orifices, those with aspirations to power within a group can seek to consolidate their control by creating the illusion of an infectious presence that has already made its way inside the social group.

Powerful or power-seeking groups within a society experiencing severe anxiety about loss of control can (and frequently do) make scapegoats of vulnerable groups onto which all the fear and loathing of a society (fear of infection, loathing of what is considered dirty and disease-causing) is heaped. When the scapegoat group is ritually abused and then ritually expelled, a social group may gain the sense that it has mastered its enemies, the infectious presences always hovering on its margins, and is once again in control of its boundaries.

This is Douglas's script, and how is it possible to read recent news about children fleeing danger in their homelands and crossing the southern border of the United States, and about people infected with Ebola who have been brought to the U.S. for treatment, and not see her text inscribed in bold letters across news reports about these events?

Carol Schlaepfer, protesting the relocation of immigrant children to a facility in Murrieta, California: "These children bring in diseases that we eradicated decades ago." 
Laura Ingraham on the "Laura Ingraham Show": "who's to blame if, heaven forbid, an American citizen dies of a communicable disease spread by the these folks spreading all over the country? The government spreads the illegal immigrants across the country, and the disease is spread across the country."

And now Ann Coulter ups the ante and inflames the hysteria by speaking of well-meaning but feckless "American Christians" who have been driven out of their own pure and Christian country by dirty folks characterizing them as "homophobes, racists, sexists and bigots." As a result, these American Christians "slink off to Third World countries, away from American culture" to spread the gospel of God's love for everyone.

These "Third World countries" are, unfortunately, "disease-ridden cesspools," and so now the American body politic is faced with the distasteful task of bringing these naive do-gooders back across our highly policed borders, knowing full well that they bear the taints of the dark continent to which they were forced to bring the light of Christ when nasty anti-Christian groups within their own country called them homophobes, racists, sexists, and bigots.

This is Carol Schlaepfer (the photo is from her Facebook page).

This is Laura Ingraham (the photo is by Gage Skidmore at Wikimedia Commons).

This is Ann Coulter (the photo is by Gage Skidmore at Wikimedia Commons).

This is "Adrián," one of many of the many child migrants now showing up at the southern borders of the U.S. to escape dangers in his own country (the photo is by Joseph Rodriguez for Mother Jones).

This is one of many people in west Africa now infected with the Ebola virus (the photo is an AP Picture Alliance photo from this Deutsche Welle article). 
This is the president of the United States (the photo is an official White House photo by Pete Souza at Wikimedia Commons).

These are people who began to shout that they wanted their country back after President Obama was elected (this photo of tea party protesters in a rally in Washington, D.C., in 2010 has circulated on many blogs with no indication of its source). 

Is it coincidental that the meme of dirt and disease grows louder and louder as the 2014 elections approach in the U.S.? And that it's directed against immigrants with complexions darker than those of Schlaepfer, Ingraham, and Coulter, or the "I want my country back" folks? At a point in American history at which the nation has its first African-American president?

So why do you think people like Carol Schlaepfer and Laura Ingraham are shouting now about how  Latino children crossing the southern border of the U.S. are spreading infection in the U.S.? And why do you think Ann Coulter is bearing down on that hysterical text by asserting that "Third World countries" are "disease-ridden cesspools," and the decision made by the current government of the U.S. to bring several Americans who have contracted the Ebola virus in Africa back to the U.S. for treatment may cause disease to be spread throughout the U.S.?

What do you think?

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