Column: Replacement Theory

In 1956, I saw “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” Although I had been raised on a weekly diet of science fiction and horror movies, this movie caused real psychic damage. The films with irritable dinosaurs, giant bugs, and overgrown gorillas and those featuring vampires and werewolves all lacked credibility. These monsters were more weird or comical than terrifying. The Hays Commission, the movie censor of that era, assured moviegoers that nothing reaching the local theater would have nudity, explicit sexual content, profanity, obscenity, or antigovernment statements or sentiments. This made for fairly predictable and usually bland entertainment, but “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” found a theme that would strike authentic terror in the hearts of Americans of any age. This movie explored the horror of “replacement.”

The “Body Snatchers” came from outer space.  Spores, seed-like elements that give rise to  plants, drifted on the solar winds for billions of miles before landing and taking root in a typical American town. The developing plants bore pods, football shaped fruits measuring about 3 to 4 feet long. A pod placed near a sleeping human would bloom into an exact replica of its somnolent host.  It would not only capture all of the anatomical features of its victim, but it would also assimilate all of his or her memories, habits, idiosyncrasies, and life humors. The hosts would die in their sleep, and the replacements from the pods would be indistinguishable from the humans whose bodies they replicated in every respect except one: They lacked affect.  After all, they were plants, not people. They were emotionless. Despite this personality defect, the pod people were protective of their plant parents and eager to replace all humans. Kevin McCarthy, the actor, not the politician, tries to warn his fellow humans of the danger they face, but most people dismiss him as a raving lunatic. (I have had similar experiences.)

Times have changed, and now many Americans have accepted the veracity of the Replacement Theory. The replacements are not the fruit of spores from outer space but are the “huddled masses yearning to be free,” arriving from Latin America, Africa, and other impoverished or war-torn places. The theory postulates that this migration from sewerage-challenged (to rephrase the former President’s less elegant designation) countries is part of a massive conspiracy to alter the makeup of the American population. The white, Christian citizenry is being replaced by non-white, less Christian immigrants whose political voice will be unopposable, even with ever more creative gerrymandering. The architects of this undermining of white power are alternatively described as socialists, Jews, Democrats or simply socialist Jewish Democrats. The theory asserts that these conspirators want to take over the government with their chosen leaders and wreak havoc on the America we all know and love.

There are, of course, flaws in the Replacement Theory.  First of all, we are a nation of immigrants, albeit immigrants who have traditionally resisted the influx of additional immigrants. That the population of the United States is in large part pale-skinned and many of its inhabitants identify themselves as Christians does not mean that these citizens share common views or vote as a block. In fact, those most concerned with being replaced by newer immigrants are a minority and are in most cases the descendants of immigrants. That the alleged conspirators forging this mass influx of “foreigners” could control the votes or even the preferences of these new arrivals has been contradicted by the American experience with every wave of immigrants. What is undeniable is that each wave of novel cultures has increased the global dominance and resilience of America.

Numerous government policies and actions have attempted and often succeeded in excluding, minimizing the power of, or disenfranchising certain ethnic or racial groups in America. In fact, one of the first acts of the newly constituted Congress in 1790, a year into George Washington’s presidency, was HR 40, a bill limiting access to U.S. citizenship to “free white person(s)” who had resided in the U.S. at least two years and to any children they had that were less than 21 years of age. Over the subsequent 230 years, Federal and State legislatures have fashioned numerous laws favoring or discriminating against specific ethnic groups or nationalities.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 tried but failed to stem the flow of Chinese immigrants to America.  It was federal government policy for several decades before it was rescinded, and during those years it was in place it caused enormous hardship for millions of people working to build American businesses and industries. The initial major influx of Chinese immigrants was to provide a workforce for constructing the western half of the transcontinental railroad. The Chinese Exclusion Act targeted both Chinese men and women trying to emigrate to the United States, but also discriminated against those who had already been brought to the U.S. to compensate for a labor shortage. The wives of Chinese workers seeking to join their husbands in the U.S. had to prove they were not and had never been prostitutes. In keeping with the disdain the government had for these workers, the celebratory photographs of the driving of the final spike at the completion of the railway included none of the Chinese men who had actually built the railway.

Theories are proposed to explain observations. The Replacement “Theory” is not a legitimate theory because it does not explain actual observations. On the contrary, it invents observations and then offers explanations for this fictional data. The Theory could be dismissed as routine political nonsense if it did not have a corrosive effect on our democracy.  It asserts that the white people in power are victims: Their benevolent control of America’s most revered institutions is under attack. To thwart this assault on their political control, the proponents of this bogus theory argue that they must mount a pre-emptive attack. They insist that these foreign invaders and their enablers must be neutralized by whatever means necessary.

“Invasion of the Body Snatchers” was brilliant fiction, but nonetheless, fiction.  It frightened me because it proposed a scenario in which I might be replaced by the plant people. I was vulnerable to this harmless fiction because I was 8 years old. Children are easily duped, but adults should be able to distinguish what is reasonable and what is not. Replacement Theory is an irrational and malignant fiction. The proponents of this fiction have chosen to forget the unnecessary hardships to which their own forebearers were subjected. We all need to recognize that those folks struggling to get across our borders do not want to replace us: they want to become us.

Dr. Lechtenberg is an Easton resident who graduated from Tufts University and Tufts Medical School in Massachusetts and subsequently trained at The Mount Sinai Hospital and Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan.  He worked as a neurologist at several New York Hospitals, including Kings County and The Long Island College Hospital, while maintaining a private practice, teaching at SUNY Downstate Medical School, and publishing 15 books on a variety of medical topics. He worked in drug development in the USA, as well as in England, Germany, and France.

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