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When it comes to xenophobia, history always repeats itself

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The reader will forgive this overly-long quotation:

Once, as I was strolling through the Inner City, I suddenly encountered an apparition in a black caftan and black hair locks. Is this a Jew? was my first thought.

For, to be sure, they had not looked like that in Linz. I observed the man furtively and cautiously, but the longer I stared at this foreign face, scrutinizing feature for feature, the more my first question assumed a new form:

Is this a German?

…I could no longer very well doubt that the objects of my study were not Germans of a special religion, but a people in themselves; for since I had begun to concern myself with this question and to take cognizance of the Jews, Vienna appeared to me in a different light than before. Wherever I went, I began to see Jews, and the more I saw, the more sharply they became distinguished in my eyes from the rest of humanity. Particularly the Inner City and the districts north of the Danube Canal swarmed with a people which even outwardly had lost all resemblance to Germans.

And whatever doubts I may still have nourished were finally dispelled by the attitude of a portion of the Jews themselves.

Among them there was a great movement, quite extensive in Vienna, which came out sharply in confirmation of the national character of the Jews: this was the Zionists.

It looked to be sure, as though only a part of the Jews approved this viewpoint, while the great majority condemned and inwardly rejected such a formulation. But when examined more closely, this appearance dissolved itself into an unsavory vapor of pretexts advanced for mere reasons of expedience, not to say lies. For the so-called liberal Jews did not reject the Zionists as non-Jews, but only as Jews with an impractical, perhaps even dangerous, way of publicly avowing their Jewishness.

Intrinsically they remained unalterably of one piece.

The Jew as Other. The marker of clothing. The felt certainty that, although not all Jews were outwardly of a certain politics, shorn of dissembling and subterfuge they were "of one piece."

All the elements of xenophobia are here, triple-distilled. And they're familiar. Just substitute "Muslim" for "Jew," "niqab" for "caftan," add the effusions of cretins who claim that "moderate Islam" is a contradiction in terms at best, or a mass conspiracy at worst -- and Steve's your uncle. Assorted Sun news threads provide copious examples of the latter, as well as "journalists" like Mark Steyn and various right-wing cess-blogs.

I'm obviously not suggesting that Canada will go the way of Germany in the 1930s. A nexus of historical and material circumstances permitted those thoughts to root and bloom into something unspeakably monstrous and engulfing, which our country is in no position to emulate. Rather, I am noting the quasi-psychological and propagandistic process by which a group of people is separated out, viewed through a lens of suspicion and hatred, and homogenized. That's had its historical consequences, large and small, in many more countries than Germany.

Homogenization is dangerous, and we do it without thinking. I addressed what I called "communitized minorities" some time ago: we see ourselves -- straight white folks, that is -- of being differentiable individuals, but the Other, whether gay or Muslim or Black, operates in "communities." When a young radical Muslim makes the news, for example, indignant voices are heard demanding that his "community" speak out, and that its "leaders" hold errant members of that imaginary polity accountable.

But matters run deeper than that. Once we imprison the Other in a rhetorical "community," we begin to see every member of that ghetto as entirely representative of it. That's the "homogenization" part. Entire groups of people are perceived to be in lockstep, a sort of hive mind. That becomes very clear when we look at the reporting of terrorist incidents: white mass murderers who gun down kindergarten children or teenaged campers are always described as crazed loners. Muslim mass murderers, on the other hand, are seen as representative, and often as emissaries.

The politics follow. Once identified, a target group can to easily be turned into a political fetish. We've been watching this unfold for a while now, here in Canada. Syrian refugees? Sure, so long as they aren't Muslim. A purge of the public service is under review, Harper says, flatly contradicting his own Treasury Board minister, Tony Clement. A snitch line will be established to report on Muslims in your neighbourhood. Close links with anti-Muslim fascists are cultivated. A secret police bill (C-51) is passed to deal with the "terrorists" in our midst. Citizenship becomes a privilege and not a right, removable by the government without the right of appeal -- even native-born Canadians can be exiled. Tacitly encouraged by all this, hoodlums have begun attacking Muslims on the street.

Read this heartbreaking article. In the blink of an eye, a sense of belonging, a sense of safety and peace and genuine community, can be wiped out. It's an old movie, one we've seen many times before. History does indeed repeat itself—but not always as farce.

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