Counting conspiracies

By Ronald M. Horvath | May 26, 2010

Robin and I have a friend who recently decided to give up her job as a census taker. She had been surprised at the level of hostility she had encountered in the course of her duties and, being in her 60s, came to the conclusion that she was in no position to handle any real violence should it manifest itself. Such are the fears in our modern America and such are the wages of some of the lunacy now being propagated by our right wing.

Many conservative pundits have expressed fears of secret government plots behind the humble census form, such as internment camps for conservatives, the legalization of gay marriage or the counting of illegal immigrants. Michele Bachmann, representative of Minnesota, has reminded us all that census data was used to round up the Japanese during World War II. Rush Limbaugh has accused the government of ignoring Republican neighborhoods in an attempt to undercount conservatives. Libertarian Ron Paul has accused the government of using the census forms to catch tax evaders (as though that were a bad thing). Erick Erickson of RedState.com recently said he'd take out his wife's shotgun if anyone working for ACS showed up at his house. He didn’t explain why she had a shotgun and he didn’t, but then that’s probably another story.

Still, it is strange how the hostility against the census itself comes from the very people who scream about protecting a Constitution that proportions representation by population and says “The actual Enumeration shall be made … within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct.” In other words fair representation means a fair count of the population. It’s the law, and that’s the final word.

As for using census information for political ends, “U.S. Code, Title 13, Section 9” says that “Copies of census reports ... shall be immune from legal process, and shall not, without the consent of the individual or establishment concerned, be admitted as evidence or used for any purpose in any action, suit, or other judicial or administrative proceeding.“ The fine for this offense can be a stiff incentive of anywhere between $5,000 and $25,000.

And yet there is a method to all this madness over the census. Propagating suspicion of government is prime in the conservative agenda and is only part of the divide-and-conquer strategy that uses populism as a weapon against the populace. Misinformation keeps people angry and distracted from the true sources of that anger and therefore easily manipulated. While the Tea Party howls at imagined offenses their backers work behind the scenes to give them something real to howl about, but only after it’s too late.

Meanwhile the state of Arizona has devolved into its own form of programmed lunacy, and the “show me your papers” law is only part of it. Perhaps even more insidious is Arizona House Bill 2281, which bans from the public schools “ethnic studies courses that promote race consciousness.” It’s the personal achievement of Arizona State Sen. Russell Pearce, a man with past associations with both neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups. Its main target -- of course -- is any course specifically aimed at raising the self-awareness of Mexican-American students by teaching their history in a version not forced on them by the white majority. “If the ideas and values of the oppressor are all you ever hear,” say the originators of the program, “they will become yours.” But, of course, that’s the idea.

Am I making too harsh an analogy when I say that Arizona is becoming the North Korea of the Southwest? Isn’t it enough that Arizona’s predominantly white legislature has cast legal doubt on every Arizonian of Mexican decent? Now it has made it illegal for their children to even learn about more than a century of discrimination and abuse at the hands of “real Americans.” Schools are now forbidden to even point it out since that would constitute teaching hatred of one group for another. Censorship of words and thoughts isn’t enough for a white majority with an obviously guilty conscience. All of recent history must be purged, wiped clean, probably so as to make future abuse more palatable.

As George Orwell once said, "If one harbors anywhere in one's mind a nationalistic loyalty or hatred, certain facts, although in a sense known to be true, are inadmissible."

There is something arrogantly paranoid about any government that uses its power to deflect criticism and dictate memory. I am reminded of the Chinese government’s problem with its growing number of nongovernment organizations that have sprung up to deal with such problems as AIDS, hepatitis and disaster victims. These self-activated groups frighten a government made up of privileged party members that either sees all such activists as anti-government, and therefore a threat, or as bringing unwanted attention to the state’s unacknowledged problems. The state of Arizona, with far less power but controlled by a like-minded, “privileged” majority, is trying to accomplish the same end, to re-write history and whitewash the present.

And there is the problem with local control of education, that the result would be 50 separate versions of “the truth” according to whatever group takes control of the legislature. Any discussion of the hundred years of Jim Crow laws, the multiple broken treaties and genocide of the Native Americans, or the thousands of black men lynched throughout the South and Midwest could be forbidden as “hate speech.” Ronald Reagan once bragged that as a boy in Nebraska he didn’t even know what discrimination was. Should we let such convenient lapses of knowledge and memory become the only national standard of education?

“You can't legislate stupidity,” said Jesse Ventura. No, but Arizona seems to be making the attempt and, as always, ignorance is still conservatism’s weapon of choice.


Ronald M. Horvath lives in Camden.

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