Refugees: What Didn’t Come Up


Human beings

Among many other things, this election reintroduced and normalized the American tendency to see everyone else as less than human.

The UNHCR estimated in May that approximately 2500 refugees, mostly from Syria, had drowned on their way to Europe. The number is no doubt much higher now: these lives lost in a grasping choke, in a flail of limbs and water, in a wine-dark and inhospitable sea, the same one many may have swam in as a child, a memory of lives now ruined and vanished. Who can know the terror of being in an overstuffed and leaky boat? Who would step foot on one, especially knowing that bitterness and hostility awaited you in Europe?

People without a choice. People whose lives were shattered in the epochal slaughter of the Syrian civil war. People who wanted something better for themselves and their families. People who are willing to risk nearly everything. People.

That’s what gets lost so often. In Europe, the old language of the far right has come creeping back into discourse. They are vermin and rats, ugly unwashed hordes come to take over. It’s the language of Striecher. It’s the same kind of language used in Rwanda before the genocide.

I don’t know if it is worse on this side of the pond; I can’t make that judgment. Donald Trump Jr aside, you don’t have many mainstream people openly questioning their humanity by comparing them to rats or Skittles. But what we’ve done is somehow more insidious. We’ve completely dehumanized by them cowering behind our fear and using that as an excuse to say that their lives don’t matter. That indeed, they barely have lives. They are a faceless abstraction, something terrible to be feared, and not desperate people escaping madness.

Trump has done this with his rapist Mexicans, of course. There’s a long history of that in America. For a big and powerful country, we’re easily cowed. We let fear-mongers blind us to the basic humanity in others. We refuse to see it, because we’re scared. We pretend to be better and more Christian than the Europeans, but the idea of Syrian refugees is anathema to the Right.

I might be wrong, but I don’t remember refugees coming up at all last night. And while Hillary admirably proposes raising the levels, it’s clearly a matter of hedging. It’s not a winning bet, politically (as much as I think she admirably defended liberalism last night). I think it goes deeper than fear, though. It goes to the heart of American self-image.

We’ve never been big believers in the role of luck. Our titans like Rockefeller sneered at it. Wealth was a virtue, and those who had it deserved it. Our national myth mocks that chance and fortune had anything to do with our prosperity and safety, instead assuming it was divine ordinance. The flip side of that is that if you didn’t have that providence, it was because you didn’t deserve it.

This manifest itself in both how we treat our own poor and how we look at the wretched of the world. We don’t see them as humans caught in the maelstrom. They’re statistics or threats or, worse, ignorable. We don’t want to consider how lucky we are to be in America. Not looking at refugees helps us not look at the lies that create our national myths.

Embracing the role of luck in life is the beating heart of liberalism, a broad and expansive philosophy that seeks to mitigate the vicissitudes of chance. The Republican Party is the opposite: they praise the lucky and think them kings. They can’t accept the role of chance, because then that means exalted positions aren’t deserved. And that’s how you have so many people who howl in disbelief that we might accept a tiny amount of the world’s most desperate and unlucky people. Why?

I would like Hillary to use this searing quote an Aleppo nurse gave The Guardian last week. I’d like to see her pose it to America. I’d like to see us respond and show the country we really are.

“Many of the wounded are children, and when you look in their eyes they weep and say we have nothing left. Curse this justice. They lose their limbs and become disabled for life and their only sin is that they are the children of Syria.”

That’s the way the world works. How we work from that frame is the great question of civilization.

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