Like a lot of folks around the world, as Jon Stewart announced his "Rally to Restore Sanity" I let out a hearty and appreciative laugh when the comedian/commentator introduced the sort of signs he expected his followers to bring to the Rally. The funniest -- and most famous -- said this: "I disagree with you, but I'm pretty sure you're not Hitler."
Ha! Finally a retort to all those stupid signs that depict Barack Obama wearing Charlie Chaplin's moustache in an attempt to equate our nation's president with the greatest criminal in human history, apparently because, like the German Fascists, Obama bailed out his nation's auto industry by directing the government to buy a controlling share of the companies' stock. (Of course, Hitler's relation to the auto industry has very little to do with why the man is so justly reviled, but never mind).
I appreciate Jon Stewart's passion around getting Americans to disagree with one another in ways that are civil and sane; his is a voice we've been needing for a long time. But what do we do when a person (in this case, me) disagrees with someone who appears to be infected with the kind of racism that made the Holocaust possible?
I had this experience on a recent Sunday night, after I was a guest preacher at a large Presbyterian church not far from my home. My sermon dealt with immigration and the message I intended to convey was this: "whatever a person may think is an appropriate political and legal response to undocumented immigration -- and we will disagree on this -- as Christians we are to welcome all people as neighbors and friends." This is a fairly basic Christian affirmation, and, as far as I can tell, most of the folks who showed up to hear me preach that day agreed with me or tolerated what I had to say.
But not everyone.
After the evening service, an elderly Hungarian man approached me with a map of his native country. He told me about how the downfall of the Austro-Hungarian empire was caused by the demands of foreigners -- Slovaks, Germans, Serbs, Italians -- who wanted to speak their own languages and observe their own cultures (he seemed to have missed the fact that these Slovaks, Germans, Serbs, and Italians were living in what today is Slovakia, Austria, Serbia and Italy, but whatever). Then he told me something that made my blood run cold: "White people," he told me, "aren't even in the majority in California, and if these Mexicans come here and they all become citizens, they will vote, and if all those Mexicans vote, the vote of White people like you and me will become meaningless!"
It's one thing to want immigrants to speak English. Learning English is a fine thing for immigrants to do, but keeping Mexicans out of the United States in order to protect the Whiteness of California, and lamenting the fact that non-White citizens might get to participate in the American democratic process? That is racism, and it's not just the petty kind that resorts to silly stereotypes (Asian people cannot drive, White people cannot dance); this is the kind of racism that wants to preserve the ethnic "purity" of a place, and calling out vile racism when it has been so plainly articulated seems like a righteous thing to do. Does that make me lacking in sanity?
I wish I could say my Sunday night encounter with an old man's racist malarkey was a one-off event, but sadly I've been seeing a bit of racism recently. Every time I write a pro-immigrant blog here on the Huffington Post, I get comments that are tinged with racism. In my last piece for the Huffington Post I wrote about the plight of the Roma people in Europe. In recent years, countries all over Europe have targeted Roma people, often deporting them, for no reason other than their ethnicity. Most of the comments I got in response to that piece were somewhere between ignorantly bigoted and downright racist. Some of my responders, with no apparent shame, talked about the idea of driving Roma people out of Western Europe as if it were a capital idea.
And then there's this, just in from Arizona: the state senator who sponsored Arizona's tough (and probably unconstitutional) anti-immigration law has connections to a group of Neo-Nazis in Arizona. When will it end? How much of this nastiness can I take before I take to the streets, sanity be damned, with a bullhorn and a sign emblazoned with the words, "I disagree with you, and maybe you're not Hitler, but I'm pretty damn sure you're a racist dipstick"? If things get too much worse, I'd be crazy not to.