Save the Babies
“I just want to ask a question / Who really cares?” –Marvin Gaye
I used to be a Catechist in the Catholic Church, or to say it a different way, I was a Sunday school teacher. My classes consisted of teaching third and fourth graders about the Eucharist and the sacraments from outdated workbooks. The curriculum taught nothing about the bible, but I persevered for two years. Mostly, I deviated from the curriculum and explained each bible book to the students, and provided context about their authorship. I enjoyed the natural curiosity and wonder the children exuded in class. As an adult, they trusted me. The children saw their parents chatting with me and shaking my hand before and after class. Sometimes the parents would be late picking them up, so I’d wait with them, sometimes for half an hour, or up to an hour. The parents completely trusted the church, that their kids would be safe. They were sweet kids, and I was a different person then, full of blind faith.
And then the child sex abuse scandal broke out, and I broke with the church. Countless parishioners argued with me about supporting the church and not abandoning my faith. Their argument for accepting the sex abuse scandal as “not that serious” and “probably exaggerated,” was ridiculous. “We’re Catholics,” they said. “We can’t abandon the church.” Every paper worth a damn published first-person accounts of the abuse. I watched at least four documentaries on the global reach of the church’s sexual abuse, the duration of the abuse, and the ongoing cover-up. Yet these parishioners dismissed the horrors. As if saying “We’re Catholic” was a shield against living like a human being capable of independent thought and feeling. I left the church and never regretted it for a second.
Perhaps no other country in the West produces the kind of people America produces. Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his book Between the World and Me, calls them Dreamers. People completely disconnected from reality. Americans desperately cling to institutions for a sense of identity: religious, political, educational, economic, or socially constructed and nebulous. Americans, especially European Americans (people who believe they are white), desperately want the power of certainty; to know for sure whom they are, who “those” people over there are, what “they” do over there, and how and why what “we” do here is better. A catastrophic situation when you consider that American institutions speak of themselves as not only exceptional, but completely moral and righteous. They can do no wrong, nor have they ever wronged anyone. American institutions completely disavow the bloody reality that is American history, and how that history of war and enslavement made them wealthy and powerful. So it is that when Americans identify with institutions, we absolve ourselves of any and all responsibility. We are free not to care because we believe that we—like the institution we are slaves to—are righteous and innocent. It is hard to wake up from this Dream, almost impossible.
If you know real American history, then you’re not surprised that the Trump administration is imprisoning asylum seekers from South and Central American countries, or that they’ve targeted immigrants from the Caribbean, East Asian countries, and African nations for deportation. When you know real American history you will not be surprised that children are separated from their parents and that both are put into cages, nor are you surprised that prison corporations and weapons manufacturers are profiting from all of it. The American government, for over a hundred years, separated thousands of Native American children from their parents and communities, and sent them to assimilation camps (benevolently known as boarding schools). The children were forcibly stripped of their language and identity, and were punished for being demonstrably Indian. Horror stories of rape, physical abuse, and the terror of being removed from their families have all been documented. American’s excuse at the time? Come now. Can’t you hear them already: “We’re civilized white people,” or “This is a Christian nation,” and perhaps the most telling, “We have to resolve the Indian problem.” A uniquely American habit: to create the problem of dislocated indigenous people by stealing their land, and then to terrorize them as part of the solution.
More Americans should read, so as not to be in a constant state of shock.
During slavery children were stolen from their enslaved parents and sold off as a standard business practice. Countless generations scattered across the country in an effort to traumatize and destroy African Americans’ sense of humanity. America still hasn’t come to grips with its racist past or present. The history is there. Go and read it. By not acknowledging history, Americans have always given themselves a way out of truly caring. As a kid I saw social services take children away from their parents for the crime of being poor. Since America treats addiction like a crime I’ve also seen my fair share of families destroyed by government agencies and the judicial system. Poor African American & Latinx children ripped from struggling families and many times put into even more dangerous environments. Sure, some lives have been saved, but in too many cases children died.
Forgive me or don’t, but I’m calling bullshit and fake outrage. When Melania Trump sauntered onto a plane to visit children held illegally at an immigration prison, she proudly wore an army green coat that read, “I really don’t care. Do U?” Her act remains not only immeasurably cruel and immensely stupid, but more importantly, telling. The whole administration spoke through that coat, and the villains asked us the most important question of all: Do you really care? They called our bluff. The billionaire’s club bankrolling the Republican party, Trump, and their racist agenda are showing us what they care about. They are using the influence money can buy to keep as many Americans racist, xenophobic, homophobic, Islamophobic, and averse to facts as possible. And ultimately, to keep all of us economically enslaved.
You might disagree with me; however, I don’t believe we care enough. Sure, we responded to Melania Trump by blowing up social media with responses like, “Yes, I care bitch,” and so on. However, we are too caught up in surviving the rat race to do much more than that. At least we believe we are. And we’re afraid. A steady diet of police brutality videos combined with the nightly news has ensured that. In addition, average Americans, unwilling to accept the reality of their situation, are struggling to determine what their political capital looks like. We can’t compete with the millions of dollars billionaires are pumping into politics (see Citizens United). In his 2014 The Hill article “Who Rules America?” Allan J. Lichtman reported:
A shattering new study by two political science professors has found that ordinary Americans have virtually no impact whatsoever on the making of national policy in our country. The analysts found that rich individuals and business-controlled interest groups largely shape policy outcomes in the United States.
What can we do?
When news of the child separations went viral, thousands of people marched across the country. I was one of them. I stood in front of city hall with my wife and children in Newark, New Jersey and we exercised our right to peaceful protest. We marched to the immigration building, people shouted, and people sang. One woman at the march held up a sign that read, “NO DEPORTATION WITHOUT REUNIFICATION.” Undoubtedly, she missed the memo that the American government shouldn’t mistreat or immediately deport asylum seekers. Especially when that very same American government created the instability that led to the refugees seeking asylum in America in the first place.
However, on that day I realized that the only way to make ourselves heard was by getting out onto the streets. The larger a peaceful protest is, the more inconvenient it becomes to the power structure, and the more attention it gets. The visual emboldens others to find a way to resist. On that day I remembered a picture I’d seen of the famous 1963 March on Washington. I wondered what it would look like if every city, in every state across America, organized an equivalent march, to take place on the same day. What would it look like if we completely shut America down until our demands were met?
The oligarchy is waging an extremist economic war against us, and children are suffering the most. If you know history, then you know they are capable of so much worse: genocide, totalitarianism, torture, and more. There is no hero coming to save us, Americans. There is no hero coming to reunite all those scattered and suffering children with their desperately waiting parents. We have to do it, all of us. The racists and sufferers of isms and phobias have found their hero in the personage of Donald Trump. They’ve been conditioned by institutions to fall in line. To become what historian Timothy Snyder, in his book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, calls people whom “obey in advance,” or “anticipatory obedience.” Snyder writes: Because enough people in both cases voluntarily extended their services to the new leaders, Nazis and communists alike realized that they could move quickly toward a full regime change. The first heedless acts of conformity could not then be reversed.
We’ve seen examples of this already. VICE News ran a segment on Trump supporters outside of Revolution Books in Berkeley. Not only did they threaten to burn down the bookstore, but one of them says, “Your genocide is coming!”
In his essay collection Chronicles of a Liquid Society, the late Italian writer Umberto Eco wrote of heroes:
Brecht reminds us in his play Galileo: “Unhappy is the land that needs heroes.” Why unhappy? Because it lacks people who do their duty honestly, responsibly, and “with professionalism.” That’s when a country searches desperately for a heroic figure, and awards medals left, right, and center. An unhappy land, then, is one whose citizens no longer know where duty lies, and seek a charismatic leader who tells them what to do. Which, if I remember correctly, is what Hitler promulgated in Mein Kampf.
Recently, I decided to confront a lifelong friend on his stance concerning the stolen children. I’ll preface this by saying that he’s a Seventh Day Adventist and that he voted for Trump, like many Catholics and other Christian denominations, because the Republican party is anti-abortion. I asked him point-blank what he thought about children taken from their parents, locked up far and wide, and with no plan for reuniting them. He responded that they shouldn’t come here if they know that could happen. I rephrased the question: Shouldn’t we treat children, their parents, and people in general with dignity? He looked me right in the face and said, “I’m a Republican and a Christian. What do you want me to say? I support my party and my faith.” This man’s parents are immigrants to America, one of them undocumented for a long time, and not even this fact prevented the entire clan from voting for Trump. That was but one more moment of affirmation for me that we’re approaching critical mass. We’re no longer operating as human beings centered on what’s good for our humanity. Instead, we are upholding institutions even when they are driving us off a precipice.
Marvin Gaye’s classic album What’s Going On is frighteningly relevant today. That the album’s themes, topics, and concerns still apply is an indictment of us all. In “Save the Children,” Gaye asks, “Who really cares? Who’s willing to try?” Who, indeed?
As I talk to people about what’s happening in America, two things strike me like punches to the face: American’s lack of historical reference and political education, and our identification with institutions. This combination makes it almost impossible to see what’s happening in front of them as actual events happening to real people, and not as political or corporate media sound bites. The difficulty this situation creates makes it almost impossible to exercise political will. My essay worries around that.