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The Power of the Powerless: The Rise of the Economic Scapegoat

12/24/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In Europe during the Middle Ages, lepers and vagrants were often assumed to have nefarious supernatural powers. The thinking was that too much exposure to the riff-raff would cause your hands to fall off, or your baby to die, or your wife to go mad. And if the local burgermeister couldn't get it up with his mistress-wench, it must have been because that withered crone who begs outside his door had placed a hex upon him.

The reason for this odd logic, according to some historians, is that as cities grew, a permanent underclass developed that freaked out the respectable people. The upper classes feared these cretins who dressed in rags, and to deal with this dread of the unknown (or to assuage their guilt for not helping those less fortunate than themselves), they claimed that the wretches only appeared weak. So the myth grew that some manic with no teeth and gangrenous limbs could take you out if you weren't careful.

We're much more civilized today, of course, and we don't blame the poor for our calamities - well, except for all those homeless guys who are making downtown unsafe... and the welfare recipients who continue to sponge the system... and those illegal immigrants who are stealing our livelihoods... and...

Wait a minute.

Yes, we do indeed go after those who can't possibly compete with the middle and upper classes. If we're fortunate enough to achieve a certain level of comfort, but that final rung on the economic ladder is too slippery to grasp, we blame our distress on the equivalent of Middle Age witches.

This blaming necessitates the really nifty trick or assessing that someone has no power, and therefore won't fight back, and then ascribing enormous power to them. The tactic is especially common in prosperous societies, where people have more possessions and, therefore, have more to lose.

A crazy homeless guy ranting about God reminds us of our potential to bottom out more than it would in say, Sierra Leone, where poverty is a widespread fact of life.

Similarly (and most importantly from this blogger's perspective) a team of illegal immigrants clambering over the neighbor's roof, laboring mightily in the summer sun, invokes a fear in middle-class Americans that these hard-working strangers are willing to do whatever it takes to get ahead - and that means they're coming for our nice cars and fancy televisions and 80GB ipods and crème brûlée torches (by the way, this last item is real and exists solely for people who have way too much disposable income).

It's been pointed out that immigrants are often the boogeyman for societal problems. Just look at Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York" to see how despised the Irish were.

So now it's the Latino's turn to be scorned and feared.

Naturally, there are clear objections to the idea that illegal immigrants are modern-day scapegoats. Foremost among them is that undocumented workers are not cost-free to the economy. And of course, they are as capable of criminal behavior as native-born Americans are. So negative reactions to illegal immigrants are not solely based upon made-up superstitions.

However, the depths of hatred for these individuals, and the vast influence ascribed to them, boggles the mind. Any sensible discussion of immigration reform is doomed once it's declared that a guy making sub-minimum wage who lives in constant fear of deportation is really the secret strongman.

And such loathing is more likely to erupt in times of economic distress or uncertainty. So it's a good thing that we're going gangbusters prosperity right now, otherwise I would be worried.

As for me, I'm going to try to take more responsibility for my issues - unless of course I can turn this around and blame someone much, much more powerful than me, like the government or Wall Street or the Bavarian Illuminati.

OK, now I'm on to something.