It was Day Ten of social distancing when someone in my Vermont community posted the governor’s phone number on Facebook, urging people to call about too many New Yorkers flocking to Vermont to escape the pandemic.
The usurpers were allegedly hoarding, emptying local groceries and using medical services meant for Vermonters. Even second-homeowners paying taxes were trouble. Something needed to be done about it.
“Check out Rhode Island’s measures on how to handle this,” wrote one responder. “We can’t stop them from coming, but we can make sure they follow the rules.” I wondered if she realized how Draconian Rhode Island’s plan was and if she knew it had been rescinded. I also wondered what rules she thought the invaders were breaking?
Another post read: “I never thought I would suggest surveillance of population, or rationing of a sort, but I am leaning toward such measures…. There is just not enough we can do to keep them out.”
Posts like that made me cringe, so I responded. “These posts reveal an underbelly I never expected in my chosen state,” I wrote. “They smack of a new kind of xenophobia. Where were the outcries of gluttony in grocery stores when Vermonters left no toilet paper for others? Where had all the flour gone? Why so hard to get bread? Who among us would not do what we need to in order to protect our families? To survive? It is coming close to Passover. Do I need to ask ‘why is this [time] different from others?’ Do I need to wonder what we’d be thinking if they weren’t New Yorkers, but Jews? (Or is this really about NY Jews?) I could weep for what these posts reveal.”
That’s when rebuttals started flying. “Chill,” wrote the writer of the original post. “This is only about stay home, stay six feet apart, don’t hoard, don’t buy all the food in a small grocery store just because you can. … Don’t make it into something it’s not.”
The thing is, I wasn’t making it about something it’s not. I was exposing how easy it is to slide into subliminal stereotyping, shaming, blaming, casting out, scapegoating — in other words, how quickly one can slide down the slippery slope leading to what Hannah Arendt referred to as “the banality of evil,” a phrase my admonisher found despicable. “We are all in this together,” she wrote. “We are all Jews, Muslims, Christians,” she said, not realizing the irony in the photograph she posted for my benefit of a chapel table upon which sat a large cross and several other small religious icons, while the star of David was conspicuously absent.
I used the example of Jews to make my point not only because New York is home to many Jews, but because it is my historical context; I know what it’s like to be treated as an outsider and I am sensitive to matters of exclusion. I could as easily have used Asian or Latina or black or immigrant populations to make my point. After all, let’s remember that in addition to millions of Jews, almost as many gays, priests, Jehovah’s Witnesses, disabled people and others were put to death during World War II.
The issue is Otherness, the shunning of people in dark times, the underbelly of racism and violence, the xenophobia that is gripping our nation in the face of a pandemic threat. Stories are emerging about what is already happening. An Asian woman’s jaw was broken because she wasn’t wearing a mask. Three Asian Americans in the same family were stabbed. One was 2 years old, another was 6. Three young men who arrived before shelter-in-place was implemented in a small town in Maine had a tree felled so that they could not escape quarantine.
In contrast to the posts I read, Sen. Patrick Leahy’s message demonstrated another way entirely to speak to the difficult issue of asking others not to come to Vermont. He acknowledged the economic contribution visitors and second-homeowners make to the state. He said they would be very welcome once the pandemic is over. He made clear that the issue was public health and safety, the only reason he was asking people from out of state to remain in their own homes.
In her famous essay “Illness as Metaphor,” Susan Sontag, dying of cancer, argued that people who are ill are often stigmatized as sinners. In our time, those who literally cross the [state] line, especially if they come from places hardest hit by the pandemic, are seen as sinning against residents.
Ian Buruma, writing in The New York Times, reminds us of the “long history of illness being used to stoke hatred.” It goes as far back as ancient times and reminds us of the European plague of the 14th century, he says, when “disease was seen as a foreign invader, an alien attack on people,” for which, by the way, Jews and foreigners were blamed.
But it was Camus who put it most succinctly in The Plague: “The only way to fight the plague is with decency.”
That was really all I was asking for when I read those chilling posts, and sounded a plea against disease-driven xenophobia. Because yes, we are in this together.