Anyone remember the old Chevy advertising jingle about "baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet"? Did you know that apartheid-era South Africa had its own version? No, really, I found it on a site commemorating Springbok Radio, the now-defunct broadcaster that once filled the airwaves with happy talk and pop classics while Nelson Mandela wasted away in brutal captivity.
It is more than a little jarring to hear a chorus of peppy white South Africans singing about "braaivleis [barbequed beef], rugby, sunny skies, and Chevrolet" back in 1973, fully three years before the Soweto uprising at last focused world condemnation on the minority government in Pretoria. Could life in the "good old RSA" (as the jingle goes) have really been this normal? It is hard to listen to this cheerful little time capsule without thinking of Hannah Arendt and the banality of evil.
Except that most of these people weren't really evil. They were simply born and raised in South Africa and this was their life. Parents worried about keeping their kids out of trouble. Children chased puppies and puppies chased tails. Teenagers clumsily struggled with their burgeoning sexuality, wasting nary a thought on the incarcerated Mandela. Sigh, the beloved country.
We like our bad guys to be caricatures, Hitler gesturing spasmodically from a Swastika-draped dais, Osama sourly mumbling fatwas from the bleakness of a death-cold cave. We do not want to recognize ourselves in the faces of those we despise. To acknowledge them as human is to concede our own capacity for oblivious transgression and animal violence.
When I was very young during the 1960s, I wondered what life must be like in Alabama or Mississippi. I imagined a daily routine of protests, water cannons, police dogs, and especially angry people, everywhere angry people, jeering, hissing, spitting, and cursing. I never considered that the day to day existence of a middle class white Mississippi schoolchild might be no different from my own. But everyone knows that Cap'n Crunch tastes just as sweet in Yazoo City as it does anywhere else.
It could not have occurred to most southerners of the 1960s just how severe and unflinching history's judgment would be. They were simply born and raised in Dixie and this was their life. Their world consisted of football, sweet tea, humid nights, and Chevrolet, even if nobody had yet composed a tune to match the lyrics. Even today, millions of them—millions of Americans—harbor nostalgic, if perhaps conflicted, memories of a time and place where tire swings and nooses hung from the same trees.
In the end, of course, the Old South died for all our racial sins. The Watts riots shook Californians from their laid back smugness as early as 1965. Detroit, Newark, and Washington would soon follow. New Englanders would find their own faces, contorted with rage, beamed around the world after a federal judge dared to suggest that school integration was as right for Boston as it was for Birmingham. To this day, the celebration of Dr. King's birthday is as much an act of national contrition as it is the recognition of the heroism of a fellow citizen, one of us.
I bring this all up because I fear that we are once again drifting toward the wrong side of history as the debate over illegal immigration turns increasingly ugly. There are plenty of progressive reasons to be wary of open borders. When employers claim that immigrants fill positions that American workers don't want, the unspoken coda is that Americans don't want these jobs given the paltry wages employers are willing to pay. If cheap labor could not be so easily obtained, wages would simply have to rise for working class citizens, a goal for which liberals have struggled since the industrial revolution.
But these are not the grounds on which the battle is being fought. Instead, thanks in large part to the regrettable Lou Dobbs of CNN, we have allowed the term "illegal alien" back into our lexicon, carrying with it the baggage of decades of bigotry. Immigrants, we are unceasingly reminded, are breaking the law, as though seeking a better life for one's family were a criminal, rather than technical, violation.
It gets worse. Children born in the United States to immigrant parents are now "anchor babies", their very birth an offense against our nation. Each crime committed by an undocumented Mexican or Central American is tallied as a mark against an entire race of people. The grandchildren and great-grandchildren of dirt-poor Irishmen, Italians, and Eastern Europeans demand that the same indignities endured by their own ancestors be visited upon this latest generation of would-be Americans. Dobbs himself uses his national pulpit to spread the falsehood that illegal immigrants have brought leprosy—leprosy!—back to our shores.
Someday we will have to explain all this to our own grandchildren, just as earlier generations had to explain Jim Crow and apartheid. History is already drawing up the bill of indictment. But demographics is destiny: when the trial finally comes, the jury will be predominantly Latino.
Enjoy your high ratings, Lou.