Of Swine and Scapegoats: Reflections on Racism and Right-Wing Nuttery

In ancient times, when plagues or widespread epidemics would descend upon a community, it was somewhat common for those in the vicinity of the crisis to offer up a sacrifice, presumably to the gods, in order that the problem might dissipate. Often, the sacrifice would be a lamb (thus, the phrase sacrificial lamb), or a goat, from which practice we derive the concept of “scapegoating.” To scapegoat means to lay blame upon something or someone, for some ill effect in the community, for which the one blamed is not, in fact, responsible. To seek to transfer guilt to the goat, ancient communities sought to escape what they thought must be divine punishment for some wrongdoing on their part. The fact that sacrifices rarely brought about the cessation of whatever crisis the people were facing–and if it did, ever, this was only a matter of coincidence–never seemed to much faze them. Again and again this ritual would be repeated, joined with the fervent hope that if the people were perhaps a bit more contrite to the gods, a bit more pious, or the goat a bit fatter, all would be right with their world. But of course it never was.

I was reminded of the dangers of scapegoating recently when listening to one after another reactionary commentator explain the link, existing only in their minds of course, between the recent swine flu outbreak and the flow of undocumented migrants into the United States. The bloviations were especially choice coming from the talk radio set: folks who have long been relieved of any and all responsibility for actually doing their homework before engaging their mouths.

From Michelle Malkin to Neal Boortz to the perpetually unhinged and borderline-psychotic Michael Savage, the right was spewing the line that the outbreak of H1N1 flu was yet more reason to close the border with Mexico. To hear these folks tell it, “illegal aliens” were flooding the nation, perhaps intentionally, with the goal of making us all sick, even killing us. Savage even suggested the whole thing was an al-Qaeda plot, in which Muslim terrorists planted the virus in Mexico, knowing that soon enough, immigrants would bring it with them into the U.S. That such a scenario ignores the basics of virology (flu does not stick around forever, and if one is sick, the likelihood that one would feel well enough to crash the border is pretty unlikely), and geography (the town where this flu pandemic was thought to have started is hundreds of miles from the U.S. border) mattered not to Savage: a man whose wholesale disregard of facts and reason are matched only by the insecurities that caused him to don such a manly stage name, to replace the rather nebbishy one with which he was born, Michael Weiner.

To the right, swine flu has become exhibit A in their anti-immigrant, nativistic arsenal as of late. Which is why it’s of particular interest to note that, as with the ancient scapegoaters, they have it completely wrong. Turns out, this flu didn’t originate in Mexico at all. In fact, its origins have been traced to the United States, to hog farms in North Carolina, among other places, and it dates back to 1998. According to Ruben Donis, chief virologist at the Centers for Disease Control, “these Midwestern viruses were exported to Asia,” and then mutated into new forms, which found their way back via an export-import chain, linked directly to the pork industry. Mexico, apparently, had very little to do with anything in the larger international drama.

Of course, even were the flu determined to have come from the small town in Veracruz that was initially identified as ground zero, advocating closing the border in response would make little sense, not that the otherwise human desire to make sense ever stopped a talk show host. According to any epidemiologist you can find–hint: Glenn Beck is not one–air travel is the most common source of disease transmission over and across borders. In other words, conservatives would have to advocate the shutting down of international trade and business altogether–something they are ideologically loathe to do, and which would be impractical in any event–in order to really hope to halt the spread of viruses. They cannot point to a single case, not one, in which a disease was brought across a border initially by an undocumented migrant. Yet this fact didn’t prevent Michelle Malkin from braying about how she had been warning about this threat “for years.” Yes, and parents have been warning their kids for years that if they didn’t get to bed early on Christmas eve, Santa wouldn’t come too.

This rush to scapegoat immigrants for every problem under the sun–high taxes, stealing “our jobs,” and now disease–is just like the ancient ritual of animal sacrifice, in that it offers to the pliant and easily manipulated public a reason for their problems that has nothing, in truth, to do with those problems’ sources. If you can make the average American think their economic troubles are the fault of those who are ethnically and culturally different from themselves, and if you can make them believe that now their very survival is imperiled by these dangerous dark-skinned others, then you can control them, politically speaking. You can turn them into an angry mob for your own purposes. And you can keep them from identifying the real culprits in their malaise: a global economy that depends on cheap labor and cares not a whit for the human costs of markets and bursting bubbles; an economic order beholden to large industry–including, in this case, the factory farm racket–in which order the search for profits crowds out the concern that might otherwise manifest for the health consequences of raising pigs in crowded, fetid pens until time for slaughter.

Along these lines, for instance, New Scientist magazine points out that crowded factory farms make viruses that would otherwise be contained “spread like wildfire.” And in 2003, the American Public Health Association actually called for a ban on factory farming because of the risks of global pandemics such as the one currently underway. The link between factory farming and disease has also been noted by Dr Ellen Silbergeld, Professor of Environmental Health Sciences at Johns Hopkins University, among other experts in the field.

One of the little-appreciated links between such farms and the spread of disease is the overuse of antibiotics in such places. In order to keep pigs, chickens, and other animals alive long enough to slaughter them and begin to process them for market, factory farms pump the animals full of antibiotics, without which the crowded and unsanitary conditions would cause massive die-off, and a serious blow to corporate farm profits. Although antibiotics have no effect on viruses, they do cause bacteria to try and mutate in ways that, in effect, trick the drugs deployed against them. By using drugs to keep the animals alive (ironically just long enough to kill them in especially violent ways), factory farms increase the risk to humans, by contributing to the production of drug-resistant, pathogenic, bacterial diseases.

Yet to the bellowing minions of the right, none of this matters. By nurturing their racism at the expense of both common sense and science, the right has shown itself to be utterly unconcerned with the well-being of the public. Only those with no regard for the people could, after all, seek to sell those people a solution for their problems, which they must know has no actual hope of fixing those problems. They are the modern-day snake oil salesmen, and like those earlier con artists, they will opt for falsehood, bigotry and fear over truth and logic, thereby putting us all at risk. Not only from the swine flu, but from their own piggish bile, spewed daily via the airwaves. And the risk posed by the latter, has long surpassed that of the former, however much we might not have noticed.

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