The Last Refuge of the Scoundrel

Carolina Bello

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Nationalism is defined as identification with one’s own country to the exclusion or detriment of others. It begs its participants to worship one single thought: their nation. After all, why would a dutiful citizen not unquestionably pledge themselves to their country? Yet, nationalism begets apathy; it forces us to look inward and to focus on trivial, personal concerns, instead of reaching out, over our walls of self-interest. It traps us within ourselves and convinces us to champion our own causes, persuading us to view the suffering of others as a challenge unto our own success. We are the suns in our solar system; the world revolves around our concerns, not vice versa. We cut ourselves off from the rest of the Earth, with imaginary lines that say “we are the only ones who matter,” and content ourselves to live in ignorance; we are the happy centers of our own universe.

The average American’s universe revolves solely around the United States and its interests; we gravitate towards issues which affect our standard of living and only interfere in matters that benefit us. But Elie Wiesel tells us that wherever there is persecution, that moment must be the center of the universe. We must make it so. We must create the center, acknowledge the center, demand that this evil becomes the center of our attention. It sullies the reputation of an American to live in “the land of the free,” and not champion freedom, and much more importantly, it cheapens our humanity when we don’t recognize and preserve someone else’s.

Following the 2016 presidential election, President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan echoes in the halls of egoism, tearing down the doors of altruism. The belief that this nation is no longer the shining beacon of glory that it once was, serves as a Trojan Horse for its ultimate, expected outcome: “From this moment on, it’s going to be America First.” Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families. The phrase “America First” is deeply rooted in nationalistic sentiment, stemming from Charles Lindbergh’s anti-Semitic and isolationist comments on the eve of the Second World War. Lindbergh called for American neutrality, for the reason of preserving American blood, and to “end [Jewish] hold on European business and society.” This toxic mentality has bloomed into a noxious flower of bigotry in today’s society; as nationalism sprouts, so does far-right philosophy, conservatism, and prejudice.

This is especially troubling considering that since arriving in office, President Donald Trump has proposed two policies in order to put America First: the Muslim Travel Ban and the Mexican border wall. In addition to blocking Muslims from select countries, the travel ban denies entry to thousands of Syrian refugees, who desperately seek their one chance for freedom, and the right to live as they choose. The “land of the free” is no more; we eschew our legacy as a nation built by immigrants, a melting pot of cultures, and a home for all, for the self-satisfaction of mattering only to ourselves.  

The more separatist our policies become, the more we “other” and ostracize groups, and the less we see outside our borders – the less “together” we are as people. As we distance ourselves, the less likely we are to understand, to empathize, and to love. We lose a spark of togetherness, lose a bit of the human collective, and lose the spirit of a shared experience. Take the border wall, which would block immigration for Mexicans, separate families, and rob them of their immeasurable potential for success. Each new provision becomes seemingly more implausible than the rest, one proposal even supporting a glass wall, so that the smugglers who “throw sacks of drugs over” can be detained. Those in power misunderstand the effects this barrier would have on would-be immigrants; these people are not pouring into the United States for drug money, no, they are coming because they heard Lady Liberty’s timeless summon for the tired, the poor, the huddled masses, and recognized themselves in the ironclad inscription.

The modern landscape of xenophobia is not a new phenomenon; conservatives and their ilk are simply voicing our secret, ethnocentric beliefs: why should I care? We are the heliocentric heavenly bodies of our own solar system, so why should we care about the suffering of thousands, if we are so lucky to not be in their lot? Unless one has a personal stake in tragedy, it is difficult to raze these walls of comfort once they are constructed. Our current administration only voices the quiet biases of millions of Americans; why go out of our way to help those so far from our reach, when we can make ourselves great again?

All the while, Nationalism claims to bring us together under one flag, but all it achieves is separation and discord. Islamophobia is an apt example of nationalism at work in the modern landscape. Across the globe, those who dare to worship as they choose are shunned and ostracized: in France, the burkini swimsuit was banned, citing that it “promoted the enslavement of women,” while in Moscow Muslim men are forced to shave their beards at gunpoint. This persecution is not a product of swimsuits or beards, its origin is steeped in discrimination and its target is anyone who differs from the norm.

More specifically, in the case of the Xinjiang genocide, the red flag of the nation has split apart neighbor and neighbor, othering a native group of mainland Asia, in the name of Islamophobia. The Uyghurs are an Islamic ethnic group, concentrated in Northwest China, in the province of Xinjiang. They are one of the five recognized minorities in the Republic of China, making up less than one percent of the nation’s population. Despite their small numbers, they make up ninety-five percent of Xinjiang, considered their homeland and hearth, the epicenter of Muslim culture in communist China. Meanwhile, the Han dominate China as the world’s largest ethnic group; their influence grows alongside their numbers, via Sinicization, or the diffusion of Han culture over the continent.

Since the 1940’s, these two groups have consistently clashed, from when the Uyghurs first attempted to declare their independence, to today’s proliferation of the Han in the Xinjiang region, and the subsequent loss of Uyghur culture. The Sinicization of the Uyghur homeland is a nationalistic erasure of identity; by wiping a culture of their heritage and past, you easily assimilate them under the flag of tyranny.

The relationship between the Uyghurs and Han Chinese can be understood by looking back on our history. The Jewish population of Germany in the 1930’s was one percent of a population of sixty-seven million, a miniscule amount of a larger whole, yet this percentage is examined, analyzed, and understood by the population of the world. It is mandatory in the majority of schools to have some sort of Holocaust education, there are museums all over the world documenting the horror experienced by those six million, and thousands of texts documenting firsthand accounts, all so that we may never forget. Why is the Holocaust the only center of our universe, the only touchstone of our discussion on genocide and human depravity, while others are overlooked and set aside? If anything, the Holocaust has served as an unfortunate lesson on why we should care and be vigilant of global injustice. The Uyghur population in China and the Jewish population in Germany is the same number; why are interventionist measures not being taken, why is the general population not aware of the million in detention camps across Xinjiang, why are there no testimonials or news reports of the exact atrocities in these camps? Each genocide follows a similar pattern, and each group of people has to endure abuse, yet their stories are not told, and their suffering is experienced again and again, all because we forgot, even after we vowed never to.

The July 2009 Urumqi Riots, instigated by the rape of two Han Chinese women by six Uyghur migrant workers, was the beginning of the end for Uyghur freedom in their country. The six men were lynched in a town square, and several others beaten. The Uyghurs retaliated by hurling bricks, stones, and abuse at the Han policemen in the Uyghur sector of Xinjiang. The Han blamed the Uyghurs “natural brutality,” while the Uyghurs blamed the brutality of the police, the scars left by lasers and live ammunition, and the disappearance of thousands of men, women, and children from their villages, for the instigation of the riots.

Learning of these riots and their aftermath, one cannot help but be reminded of Kristallnacht, of the broken glass from Jewish storefronts that littered the streets of Berlin, and of the broken trust between the Germans and their Jewish neighbors. Jewish people were then ostracized, and blamed for Germany’s troubles, and restrictions against their person were set in place. The Nuremberg Laws exemplified the Jews “politically unreliable” nature, and disavowed them from serving their country, stripping them of their rights as citizens of the nation. Adults were restricted from “Aryan professions” and forced to leave their jobs after years of service to their employer. Jewish veterans’ names were stricken from World War One memorials, their sacrifices forgotten in the wake of Aryanization. Children were barred from German schools, forced to abandon their education and subsequently, their future.

Today, one million people are being held against their will in internment camps in Xinjiang in order to Sinicize them or make them Chinese. Spyware is installed on every electronic device and Uyghurs are forcibly separated from their families, as intelligence officers swoop in to replace them as “adopted cousins.” Children are then forced to cut their hair, change their names to sound traditionally Chinese, and adopt Mandarin as their new native tongue. Detainees in the camps are held simply because they maintained conversation with those outside of China, via foreign websites, such as Whatsapp. The Uyghurs are cut off from their family and friends abroad, unable to greet their loved ones, see how those outside the Chinese borders live, and ask for help to escape the country. Inside the camps, Uyghurs are forced to learn Communist hymns and sing the praises of the nation, and learn complicated, new laws not applicable to the country, only for themselves.

The United Nations’ Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has recently declared Xinjiang a “no rights zone,” meaning that the Uyghurs have been stripped of their fundamental rights as human beings to live as they choose. Xinhua Net, the leading news source from Xinjiang, denies the very existence of these camps and cites Western slander and the fear of terrorism as warrants to create “employment centers” for the Uyghurs. Xinhua Net also condones the banning of burqas and hijabs, calling attention to the fact that “masked robes” are banned throughout the world as precaution against terrorism; down to their clothing, Uyghurs are punished for their existence in the Han sphere.

Essentially, the Han are stripping the Uyghurs of their very identities. They are denied the right to their cultural attire, robbed of the sign of their devotion to God, and deprived of the ability to live according to scripture. And why? Under the guise of the monikers of Aryanization and Sinicization, their nationalism strives to make the nation the center of the individual’s universe, and erase anything that might usurp that position in its citizen’s eyes.

Here’s why, in Samuel Johnson’s own words: “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” We hide behind our ideals, behind our pledges and creeds, and behind our borders, but we cannot hide the ugliness of the truth: we are the ones to blame. We cannot stomach the burden of our nation’s problems, and the inconvenient truth that we will have to be the ones to fix them. So, we pick a disenfranchised group, like the Uyghurs, like the Jews, like many others, and set them on stage to gawk at. Yet, we will not shift from merely watching to acting until we accept our own culpability, and we break free from our self-centered orbit.

We must abandon ourselves, and our egotistical thoughts, and make others, and their suffering the center of the universe. We must find not only empathy and sympathy within our hearts but put our minds to work and put action in motion to help those in need. We must recognize the bias within ourselves and admit how this affects our society and how we treat others. We must shed our prejudices, and embrace our differences, and understand that this, not any flag, wall or creed, is what makes us ourselves, and unites us together, under the only label which matters: human.

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