If you want to see how extremist-right talking points work their way into the mainstream of our political discourse and eventually attain "conventional wisdom" status, watch how Lou Dobbs' phony leprosy statistics continue to be repeated and given official media imprimatur.
Last week, on MSNBC's Scarborough Country, host Joe Scarborough had the following exchange with Patrick Buchanan (whose descent into unreprentant extremism has already been remarked):
- SCARBOROUGH: Now, Pat, let me stop you right there, and let me ask you this question...
SCARBOROUGH: ... because Lou Dobbs has gotten in trouble talking about leprosy and all these other issues.
BUCHANAN: He's right about leprosy! I can give you the numbers!
SCARBOROUGH: If these -- if these are the facts, though, how do we verify it, and how do we get out government to act on these type of issues without people calling you and Lou Dobbs and other Cassandras that are sounding the warning bigots, people who just hate Mexicans?
BUCHANAN: All right -- all right, let me tell you the source of one of my things. Seven hundred thousand East Asians are believed to be in New York. "The "New York Times" -- and it's in my book -- said 100,000 of them carry hepatitis, hepatitis B. This is right there in "The New York Times." There are reports by all kinds of doctors and others on the increases not only in Hansen's disease, which is leprosy, where they found 7,000 cases in the first three years of this century, only 900 in the last 30 years before it.
These are documented, Joe. They're all in there, all manner—chigesis (ph) disease kills 50,000 in Latin America each year. Something like 19 million have it. It is now appearing in the United States. There are bed bugs back in 26 states. All these figures were documented in my book. Not a single one of them has been challenged by anyone!
SCARBOROUGH: All right, Pat Buchanan. We're going to have a lot more talk about this not only because of the issue with Lou Dobbs and leprosy and that fight, but also this TB case. TB is coming back in the United States, and it could have deadly, deadly results for all of us. Thanks so much, Pat Buchanan.
A quick review: the figure of 7,000 cases of leprosy that Dobbs touted and Buchanan defends here reflect all the cases reported over the past 30 years -- and not, as Dobbs reported -- and Buchanan repeats -- over a three-year period this century. Claiming as Buchanan does here that it leapt to the 7,000 total only recently is baldly false.
What really stands out about this exchange is the way it throws into stark highlight the way the larger theme at play here -- namely, that immigrants bring disease to our fair shores -- is not about illegal immigration per se. Rather, it's about immigrants generally. It's about depicting all immigrants as disease bearers and, indeed, vermin themselves.
Remember this the next time you hear nativist defenders of Dobbs and the rest of the anti-immigrant pack (who increasingly come bearing claims of being progressive these days) complain: "Dobbs isn't against immigration! He's just against illegal immigration!" Right.
More important, perhaps, is the way Buchanan makes clear that the leprosy statistics are simply part of a larger smear against immigrants linking them to all kinds of disease. It's one we've been hearing a lot lately.
For instance, there was the Texas Republican legislator who claimed that illegal immigrants were bringing "polio, the plague, leprosy, tuberculosis, malaria, Chagas Disease and Dengue Fever to the United States in alarming numbers." The Washington Times has also done more than its share to spread the notion, including a report that listed sickle cell anemia among the imported diseases -- though neglecting to observe that sickle cell anemia and sickle cell traits are not contagious, but passed genetically. The report also got a big assist from Michelle Malkin, who in backing up her point linked to a Canadian anti-immigrant site that also specializes in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.
This sort of rhetoric, of course, is classic eliminationism:
- It always depicts its opposition as simply beyond the pale, and in the end the embodiment of evil itself -- unfit for participation in their vision of society, and thus in need of elimination. It often depicts its designated "enemy" as vermin (especially rats and cockroaches) or diseases, and loves to incessantly suggest that its targets are themselves disease carriers.
And there's a long history of it. An excerpt from Elmer Clarence Sandmeyer's The Anti-Chinese Movement in California (1991, University of Illinois Press), pp. 37-38, describing the agitation against the Chinese in California in the 1870s:
- In addition to the stench, filth, crowding, and general dilapidation with which Chinatown was accused of afflicting the community, another serious charge was made that the Chinese were introducing foreign diseases among the whites. For instance, it was claimed by both civil and medical authorities that Chinese men and women were afflicted with venereal disease to an uncommon degree. The Chinese prostitutes were accused of luring young boys into their houses and of infecting them with the disease. A medical journal charged that the blood stream of the Anglo-Saxon population was being poisoned through the American men who, "by thousands nightly," visited these resorts. A cause of rather frequent concern to the officials were outbreaks of smallpox. The Chinese were suspected as the source of the disease, since cases appeared among them while they were still on shipboard. They were condemned especially for not reporting their cases of the disease. "It [Chinatown] is almost invariably the seed-bed of smallpox, whence the scourge is sent abroad into the city.
The most exciting charge under this head, however, was that the Chinese were introducing leprosy into California. The very strangeness of the disease made this charge all the more ominous. It was claimed that wherever Chinese coolies had gone leprosy had developed, and that purchasers of Chinese goods were likely to contract the disease. Dr. Charles C. O'Donnell, a politically minded physician, discovered a case in a Chinese warehouse, placed him in an express wagon and drove through the streets, haranguing the crowds on the street corners concerning the dangers to which the community was being exposed. The contention of some physicians that it was not real leprosy but rather a "sporadic case of elephantitis" did not help matters a great deal. During a period of less than ten years the Board of Supervisors of San Francisco arranged for the deportation of forty-eight cases.
The same kind of charges of being spreaders of disease appeared early in the campaign against Japanese immigrants, at the turn of the century, as I describe in my book, Strawberry Days: How Internment Destroyed a Japanese American Community. From Chapter 1:
- All along the Pacific Coast, rumors were running rampant that the Chinese Exclusion Act, up for renewal in 1902, was going to be undermined or done away with completely by insidious legislative forces from the East Coast. Combined with continuing alarms over the arrival of Japanese, sentiments were ripe for a resurgence in anti-Asian fearmongering. Leaping onto that particular stage with gusto was San Francisco’s mayor, James Duval Phelan.
A banker and native son, born in San Francisco in 1861, Phelan was elected mayor in 1896 as a Democrat and his tenure was largely undistinguished. But in 1900, he caught national attention when the city’s Board of Health "discovered" an ostensible victim of bubonic plague in the Chinatown district. Phelan declared a quarantine and blamed conditions among the Japanese and Chinese. The "plague scare" was widely reported in the nation's press, and Phelan had to scramble as local businessmen descended on him to protest that the scare was ruining their trade. The mayor quickly backed down and blamed the health board’s overzealousness. In fact, the only problem a health board inspector had been able to observe among the Japanese was that he found three Japanese men in a single tub in a local bathhouse; evidently, the inspectors were unaware that this style of washing was common in the men’s homeland.
The "plague" rhetoric associated with the Asian immigrants was interwoven with the language of eugenics common to the time, which made "racial hygiene" into a public-health issue:
- Underlying all of the anti-Japanese campaigns of the early 1900s were the bedrock principles of white supremacism. The widespread belief that white people were the consummate creation of nature, and that they were destined to bring the world civilization and light, went essentially unquestioned. It was supported by popular literature and self-proclaimed "scientists" who used the questionable methodology of the day to lend an academic veneer to longstanding racial prejudices.
Among the most popular of the time were Lothrop Stoddard and Madison Grant, who boasted credentials from Harvard and Yale universities, respectively. They approached the matter of race ostensibly from anthropological and biological perspectives, but in fact did little more than clothe white supremacism in pseudo-scientific language. Wrote Grant, in his 1916 tome The Passing of the Great Race:
- We Americans must realize that the altruistic ideals which have controlled our social development during the past century, and the maudlin sentimentalism that has made America "an asylum for the oppressed," are sweeping the nation toward a racial abyss. If the Melting Pot is allowed to boil without control, and we continue to follow our national motto and deliberately blind ourselves to all "distinctions of race, creed, or color," the type of native American of Colonial descent will become as extinct as the Athenian of the age of Pericles, and the Viking of the days of Rollo.
And as Stoddard would later write in The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy -- a 1922 work complete with admiring introduction from Grant --the real threat was not blacks in the South, but Asians: "There is no immediate danger of the world being swamped by black blood. But there is a very imminent danger that the white stocks may be swamped by Asiatic blood."
Both books were national bestsellers that underwent multiple printings. And their core arguments -- which became entwined with deeply cherished beliefs about the nature of race -- became the heart of the battle to exclude the Japanese. Ultimately the issue was couched, like many racial issues of the preceding century, in the terminology of eugenics, a popular pseudo-science that saw careful racial breeding as the source of social and personal good health. Thus many of the campaigns against nonwhites cast the race in question as not merely subhuman, but pernicious vermin who posed a serious threat to the "health" of the white race. As James Phelan, arguing for exclusion in California, put it: "The rats are in the granary. They have gotten in under the door and they are breeding with alarming rapidity. We must get rid of them or lose the granary."
In Washington state, the campaign against the Japanese raised similar concerns:
- As part of the general anti-Japanese agitation, the sanitation and general operation of Japanese owned hog farms was also called into question. A letter to the editor of the Seattle Star penned by King County Health Officer H.T. Sparling complained that "The condition of some of these (Japanese owned) ranches is indescribable." Nevertheless, Sparling went on to describe rat infested conditions and filthy meat being taken to the market for human consumption. In closing, Sparling stated, "I am strongly in favor of the ordinance introduced by Councilman Tindall and recommended by Dr. Bead, as it tends to centralize the industry and will make supervision easy."
The animus ran unabated, resulting in a bevy of "Alien Land Laws" intended to prohibit Japanese farmers from owning land, as well as a string of court rulings preventing them from obtaining citizenship. As I explain further in Strawberry Days, the "plague" rhetoric finally was elevated into lawmaking:
- The final blow came in 1924, when Albert Johnson, using his offices as chair of the House Immigration and Naturalization Committee, introduced a bill that would limit immigration to a 2 percent quota for each nationality, but further prohibiting the admission of any "aliens ineligible for citizenship." The bill easily passed the House, but once in the Senate, the provisions were altered to allow for a Japanese quota as well. However, Republican Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts then stood up in the Senate and denounced a letter from the Japanese ambassador -- which had warned of "grave consequences" for relations between the two nations if the measure were to pass -- as a "veiled threat" against the United States. Lodge led a stampede of support for the House version of the bill, and the era of the Gentlemen's Agreement was over. Signed shortly afterward by President Calvin Coolidge, complete Japanese exclusion was now the law. Officially called the Immigration Act of 1924, it became known popularly as the Asian Exclusion Act. ...
Taken in isolation, these little acts of racial mean-spiritedness may have seemed of little moment. But in fact they had consequences that eventually exploded into the history books. In Japan, the public had been closely watching the passage of the alien land laws with mounting outrage. And when news of the passage of the Asian Exclusion Act was announced, mass riots broke out in Tokyo and other cities. As Pearl Buck would later observe, the then-nascent movement for American-style democracy, which had been slowly gaining momentum in Japan, was effectively wiped out overnight. The military authoritarians who would control the nation for the next 20 years gained complete political mastery, and one of the cornerstones of their rule was a bellicose anti-Americanism that would finally reach fruition in late 1941.
Nor were Japanese the only people included in the assumptions of the "filthiness" of nonwhite races. It extended as well to Mexicans, as a new history text by David Dorado Romo makes clear:
- A brilliant new book by a Mexican-American historian documents how, in the Twenties and Thirties, the Nazis were inspired by what the United States had been doing to their Mexican neighbours since 1917.
In Ringside at the Revolution: An Underground Cultural History of El Paso and Juarez, David Dorado Romo establishes the US Immigration Department's systematic brutality along the Rio Grande border.
Mexican visitors were forced to strip naked and subjected to 'screening' (for homosexuality, low IQ, physical deformities like 'clubbed fingers') and to 'disinfection' with various toxic fumigants, including gasoline, kerosene, sulfuric acid, DDT and, after 1929, Zyklon-B (hydrocyanic acid) -- the same gas used in the Holocaust's death camps.
The ostensible reason for the US fumigation was the fear of a typhus epidemic. Yet in 1916, the year before such 'baths' were enforced, only two cases of typhus had occurred in the poorest El Paso slum.
In light of similar "epidemics" involving Asians at about the same time, it's probably safe to assume that the scares were utterly groundless and existed only as a pretext to treat nonwhites as subhuman. And as Romo observes, the Nazis actually were inspired by the American example:
- Romo (right) quotes Hitler writing in 1924, "The American union itself... has established scientific criteria for immigration... making an immigrant's ability to set foot on American soil dependent on specific racial requirements on the one hand as well as a certain level of physical health of the individual himself."
In 1938, three years before the first death camps of the Final Solution, Nazi chemist Dr Gerhard Peters published a full account, in German science journal Anzeiger fur Sahahlinskund, of the El Paso 'disinfection' plant. He included two photos and diagrams of the machinery which sprayed Zyklon B on railroad cars. (Peters went on to acquire Zyklon B's German patent.)
It should be noted that while the Americans sprayed their victims with toxic chemicals, they restricted use of Zyklon B to freight and clothes. As the Nazis understood, spraying it directly on a human caused almost immediate death. We can only guess what effect it had on the thousands of Mexican men, women and children who, after a 'bath' in DDT or gasoline, were sent away in clothes drenched with Zyklon B.
So when Pat Buchanan and Lou Dobbs begin railing phony statistics and horror stories to whip up fears that immigrants are bringing deadly diseases en masse to our shores ... well, just remember that it's been done before. And we've seen the results, too.