A magician waves his hand and the card disappears. The art of the act is that the distraction lies in the flourish – the over-dramatized spectacle created when one seeks attention. By filling your frame of vision with movement, your ears with music, your senses with stimulation, you can be tricked into believing miracles occur simply because you failed to witness the events that lead to a particular outcome.
The most useful distractions are sustained. Momentary flashes to draw the eye are handy, but ultimately result in a need to recreate a second such, then a third and so on, to continuously force the audience to look away from the sequence of events taking place that aim to lead to a particular objective. In politics, scapegoating has always been trendy for just that reason. Shifting the blame for situations that occur while one party holds office onto a particular demographic allows for the displacement of anger and rage away from those in power. The human instinct is to hold those in power accountable for their actions. The difficulty with accountability, in the eyes of the politician, is that there are often consequences associated with being held to a standard. Career-ending consequences.
The original concept of a scapegoat was born in the Book of Leviticus. A tradition was outlined where a goat would be told the sins of a group by a priest, then be cast into the desert to atone for their sins, effectively taking the evidence of transgression with it. The Ancient Greeks has a similar tradition, though admittedly colder, where a beggar or criminal would be exiled from the community in response to a crisis or significant temporal event. Luckily, the practice of casting cattle or humans from communities every time a calendar year ends has been replaced by a combination of fireworks and metaphor.
An effective scapegoat, in modern politics, involves separating individuals into groups. Scapegoating is creating or manipulating a perceived divide between individuals or groups, either against other individuals or groups than themselves. Recognizing when a politician is assigning a particular identity to a certain community (ethnicity, religious, organizational affiliation, gender, etc.) is paramount to understanding that the placement of identity comes with assumption. That separation facilitates the introduction of conflict, real or not, based on a desire to protect an ideology or way of life.
An example of one of the more common scapegoats used throughout human history has been religion. Religious war and ethnic cleansing have long been staples of our human identity. From the age of the Muslim conquests of the Indian subcontinent, to the rage against Buddhism in ancient China, religious divide is among the strongest catalyzers for violent opposition. Christianity itself was, and is, subjected to persecution across the globe. It’s role in the fall of the Roman Empire shows the power faith can hold over a community or group. And the persecution of those of Jewish faith has been well documented throughout history, weaving a tale of tragedy, slavery and persecution in empire after empire.
A more example is the growth of Islamophobia within the Western World – or, at the least, the growth of intolerance of those in the Islamic faith. Refugees who fled Syria have had noted difficulty settling into new European communities, with over 1 million individuals being subject to international arguments regarding national acceptance quotas, and domestic anti-Islamist prejudice once a home is decided upon. Even the champion of open refugee policy herself, Chancellor Angela Merkel, has followed her announcement of running for a fourth term with the suggestion of banning burqas in German public spaces. The political risk of being seen as ignoring the looming threat of Islamic fundamentalism, felt all too clearly in the recent terror attacks across Europe, may very well be too high a price to pay if a political career is to endure.
Yet that remains much of the problem. Democratic politicians wishing to hold onto power redirect attention from themselves toward other groups in times of crisis. Autocrats do the same. But the difficulty with creating a scapegoat is that the sentiment that is created, the divide that is opened, does not often heal on it’s own. Creating scapegoats is useful when those in power seek to shift attention from a particular objective or sequence of events occurring elsewhere, such as economic distress, federalist politics or the acquisition of additional powers. But if we aren’t careful, we may look one day to realize that we are the latest to be placed in the crosshairs of political blowback. And just like that – poof. We’ll be gone, with or without the dignity of a flourish.