Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Doomed to repeat

This weekend, I inadvertently started an online argument about the Syrian refugees.

I rarely get involved in political discussions online (or anywhere else) because of this very thing.  It's the most fruitless of pursuits, really; it usually accomplishes nothing but eliciting shouts of acclamation from the people who already agree with you, and snorts of derision from the people who don't.

In other words, nothing.

I got the ball rolling by comparing the plight of the refugees, and the reluctance of the United States government to give them asylum, to the attitudes of the majority of English policymakers during the Irish Potato Famine of the mid-19th century, and the blocking of Jews before World War II trying to flee Germany into the Netherlands (and from the Netherlands and elsewhere into the United States).  Some of you may not know that Anne Frank and her family applied for, and were denied, passage into the United States in 1940 -- a move that would have saved their lives.

Well, that was apparently pasting a bullseye on my chest.  How dare I compare the Syrian refugees to the Jews?  The situation is completely different.  Plus, you know, those people want to kill us.  They are uniformly hostile to the United States and everything we stand for, so we're right to deny them entry.

So I thought it was time to set aside my reluctance to discuss political matters, and offer a little history lesson.  I have pulled some quotes, all from primary sources, that refer either to the Irish during the Potato Famine, the Jews prior to World War II, or the Syrian refugees now.  See if you can tell them apart.  (The only editing I did was to remove obvious giveaway references.)
  1. The judgment of God sent the calamity to teach [them] a lesson, and that calamity must not be too much mitigated. … The real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil... but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of those people.
  2. [They are] more like squalid apes than human beings... Only efficient military despotism [can succeed in this situation], because [they] understand only force.
  3. It is probably unwise to say this loudly... but [this situation] is and has been since its beginning guided and controlled by [people] of the greasiest type, who have... absorbed every one of the worst phases of our civilization without having the least understanding of what we really mean by liberty.
  4. Two things made this country great: White men & Christianity.  Every problem that has arisen can be traced back to our departure from God’s Law and the disenfranchisement of White men.  And our current actions serve no purpose but to depart even further from those.
  5. [They] can go [back home] and stew in their own juice.  The rest had better stop being what they are, and start being human beings.
  6. It looks like to me if shooting these immigrating feral hogs works, maybe we have found a [solution] to our... problem.
  7. I see no solution to the... problem short of expelling all followers of the religion from the United States.
  8. [They] could be put down very plausibly as the most unpleasant race ever heard of.  As commonly encountered they lack any of the qualities that mark the civilized man: courage, dignity, incorruptibility, ease, confidence.
  9. A policy that will not kill more than one million [of them]... will scarcely be enough to do any good.
  10. [They] are a cancer that must be cut out of our society, whose goal is the destruction of civilization from within.
  11. [They] hate our order, our civilization, our enterprising industry, our pure religion.  This wild, reckless, indolent, uncertain and superstitious race have no sympathy with [our] character. Their ideal of human felicity is an alternation of clannish broils and coarse idolatry.  Their history describes an unbroken circle of bigotry and blood.
  12. When neighborhoods are occupied by [these people], they establish their own laws and don't respect our own. 
Ready for the answers?
  1. The Irish.  Charles Trevelyan, head of the English Administration for Famine Relief, 1845.
  2. The Irish.  James Anthony Froude, professor of history, Oxford University, 1860.
  3. The Jews.  General Montgomery Schuyler, 1919.
  4. Syrian refugees.  Representative Don Davis of North Carolina.
  5. The Jews.  George Bernard Shaw, 1932.
  6. Syrian refugees.  Representative Virgil Peck of Kansas.
  7. Syrian refugees.  Representative Charlie Fuqua of Arkansas.
  8. The Jews.  H. L. Mencken, 1930.
  9. The Irish.  Nassau Senior, chief economist to Queen Victoria.
  10. Syrian refugees.  Representative John Bennett of Oklahoma.
  11. The Irish.  Benjamin Disraeli, 1878.
  12. Syrian refugees.  Representative Carl Gatto of Alaska.

Only the details change.  The hate speech, the fear and loathing of the "other," the wild claims that those people are trying to destroy our society, all stay the same.

It doesn't even seem to do any good to point out how many of the refugees are children or the elderly.  It doesn't help if you tell people that none of the Paris attackers were Syrian -- every last one of them was a citizen of the E.U.  Nor were any of the 9/11 bombers Syrian.

None of that matters.  They may look like starving, homeless refugees, but they're still implacably hostile to us.  You know how They are.

It's just that every generation has a different They.

I will end with a quote from the great Elie Wiesel.  As a survivor of the concentration camps during World War II, he has as good a reason as any to give in to hate, fear, and intolerance.  Instead, here are his words on the subject.


  1. I'm in Australia. Working on insulating a house ceiling cavity, I recently found a copy of The Watchman, from 1909. It was the publication of a Protestant (i.e Church Of England) group dedicated to saving Australia from the "Catholic Menace". If I took the lead article and replaced the word "Catholic" with "Muslim" wherever it occurred, the article could easily have been written today. The only thing that gives me hope in this is that today the division we had between Catholic and Protestant here is effectively gone. It only took about 150 years.

    1. Oh! Oh! Please do that! Or send me a scan and I will.

  2. It matters that you make these arguments.