A few weeks ago, I went to the border to document the conditions asylum-seekers are living in while trapped in northern Mexico under the Trump Administration’s “Remain in Mexico” policy.
One day I was in a makeshift tent camp that around two thousand mostly Central American asylum-seekers have set up in Matamoros, a city on the Texas border. The trip had already been psychologically exhausting. Each interview was more horrendous than the last, and that day we’d talked to a woman trying to keep her five-day-old child alive in a tiny tent and a man who’d been kidnapped three times on his way north from Honduras.
In a quiet moment, I lit a cigarette and did what I suspect most people reading this do when they’re trying to distract themselves: I opened Twitter. In my feed was the now-viral video of Ellen DeGeneres defiantly justifying her friendship with George W. Bush and scolding people who said she was selling out her values.
“When I say be kind to others, I don’t mean only the people who think the same way that you do, I mean be kind to everyone. It doesn’t matter,” she said, about a man perhaps responsible for more chaos and carnage than any living human being on earth.
For an instant, I felt the reflexive wash of impotent rage that’s a near-hourly experience for anyone with a moral compass in America right now, but this time it didn’t last very long. Standing on the rain-soaked ground, reading the procession of fawning posts about her monologue from A-list celebrities and ‘influencers,’ and just steps away from a cluster of crosses marking the deaths of children who’ve drowned in the Rio Grande in recent months, what I felt most of all was embarrassment.
Cruelty has always been part of American policymaking. Sometimes it’s a corollary effect—somebody, somewhere, is doing something we don’t want them to be doing, and if we have to kill some people or destroy a few lives to make them stop, that’s just the price. But in recent years, there’s been a shift in how we approach immigration and the border. It’s a tired cliché by now, but that doesn’t make it any less true: the cruelty is the point.
A few days earlier, I’d shot an interview with an 18-year-old Salvadoran girl who had to stop halfway through because she was sobbing too hard to keep telling her story. She was stuck in Ciudad Juarez, alone, waiting for an immigration hearing in El Paso a few months out, and she was scared. Watching her tiny body convulse with sobs as a colleague tried to comfort her, I was overcome by a recognition that the pain she was experiencing was the very intention of the people writing our immigration policies. From their point of view, the grief and fear flooding out of her were proof of just how well those policies were working.
The asylum system is both incredibly complex and utterly simple. People trying to escape poverty or find work generally don’t qualify. People fleeing persecution and targeted violence usually do (or should). Up until this past year, while immigration judges decided who fell into which group, anyone who made an asylum claim was allowed to enter the country while their case was processed. Some were detained, others released to wait for their court date. (Which, research shows, the vast majority of them dutifully attended.)
That changed earlier this year with a new policy that forces everyone – no matter how strong their claim – to wait in Mexico for their court hearings. It sounds innocuous, but it’s not. The cities they’re ‘returned’ to are usually violent and unsafe, and a system of criminal predation has arisen to extort, kidnap, and otherwise exploit them. Trump’s ‘bad hombres’ aren’t the people trying to get to safety and claim asylum – in a sense, through this policy they have become his wall.
For Trump, Stephen Miller, and the cadre of dead-eyed bureaucrats working for them, the point isn’t to make sure only the genuine claims get through the system. It’s to get to a point where none of them do. If someone gets kidnapped in a cartel-controlled city, or raped, or just disappears—great! That way maybe the next person looking to escape gang violence or political repression will think twice before trying to make their way to America.
There’s no reason to tread lightly here—and why would we want to? This is a profoundly monstrous policy, designed by deeply broken people, which revels in the suffering and degradation of other human beings purely in service of crude racism. There’s no justifying it, not if compassion and decency are even tangential elements of how you experience the world.
Watching Ellen’s speech, surrounded by people trapped under the boot of America’s shiny new form of viciousness at the border, I wondered who exactly gets to be included under the umbrella of ‘kindness’ that she was demanding from us. How are we supposed to reconcile the two appeals she made in that monologue – one for civility and another for kindness?
The truth is, we can’t. Not if we’re honest. If civility means politely inoculating powerful people from even the mildest forms of accountability for their ugly decisions, who exactly does that kindness serve, and what’s the point of it?
Ellen’s monologue was an example of what’s fast becoming a genre of finger-wagging sanctimony in America, deployed to discipline us into performing deference to power and training us into a caustic meekness. Vote, but don’t boo the President at a baseball game. Wave a sign, but don’t confront someone in a restaurant, even if their day job is tearing families apart. And of course, don’t make an unrepentant war criminal uncomfortable at a football game.
There’s an unspoken ranking of value that the gatekeepers of civility are making when they serve us these lectures. The comfort of the VIPs they rub elbows with at gated cocktail parties and luxury boxes is explicitly more important than the lives of Iraqis or Central American asylum-seekers at our border. If we want to live in a “decent” society, we are told, we have to treat those who make us complicit in horror with genteel respect.
But the presumption there is that we have a decent society to lose, which right now on balance we do not.
The most recent voice in the civility chorus was none other than Barack Obama himself, who this week descended from on high to warn us of the dangers of “purity” and tell us we should all “get over that.” As if to remind us of everything that went wrong with his presidency, he framed being “judgmental” as an enemy of change. One might think that all that has followed his his time in office might have humbled him and provoked some soul-searching for him, but no. Apparently “wokeness” is the problem.
The message of Obama’s lecture, delivered to an audience of young activists, was essentially that they should tone it down. That we should be more concerned with finding common ground with each other and be less harsh with those whose ideas we oppose. It’s a nice-sounding message, and it’s no wonder that it resonated with so many people who feel like the hostility of our political environment is a bigger problem than what provoked it.
The problem with America’s national character is not that we’re too rude to our leaders, it’s that we’re too deferential to them. Consider the vector of incivility both Ellen and Obama blamed for the bile-soaked discourse in American politics. Was it a catastrophic war whose aftershocks will long outlast every living being on this planet, or the mask-off cruelties being inflicted upon vulnerable people at the border? Nope. For two of the most successful Americans alive, both of whom built their brands on the mantle of activism, the source of our descent into disharmony is apparently mean tweets. It’s enough to make you wonder whether the two of them think that the protestors in Santiago, Hong Kong, Cairo and Baghdad are also being ‘unkind.’
Neither Ellen nor Obama were decrying the treatment of your uncle who voted for Trump. What they meant was, be nicer to power. To say that this is a singularly stupid message in 2019 would be an understatement.
The night before we arrived in Matamoros, many of the asylum-seekers trapped there occupied and shut down a bridge that heads into Texas in protest of their conditions. It was unkind of them, and I’m sure they wish they hadn’t had to do it. But they had no choice. And if we accept that their lives are as valuable as our own, neither do we.
These are not mundane disagreements we are having in America. They are about whether we can continue to institutionalize brutality. Calm down, we are being told. Try to change things if you want, so long as you don’t make anybody in charge feel uncomfortable or isolated. With all due respect, fuck that.