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Columns

Telling the Story of the Migrant Caravan

By Trevor J. Levin, Contributing Opinion Writer
Trevor J. Levin ’19, a former Crimson Arts Comp Director, is a Social Studies concentrator in Mather House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

Sometimes, in the face of so much propaganda from the White House and its allies, it can be self-defeating to address their narratives on their own terms. To repudiate each falsehood is also to repeat it for a new audience; identifying each dehumanizing detail is to legitimize it as simply one “side” in a partisan argument.

In order to see the depths of the corruption and evil that the “migrant caravan” episode has revealed in the Republican Party, you have to instead start at the beginning.

At the beginning, you have a choice.

You see several thousand people, mostly families walking thousands of miles through Central America, many intending to seek asylum in the United States. This is a dangerous journey. The group wades through rivers. Children collapse from exhaustion. You might ask why anyone would do this, and the answer, of course, is that the very prospect of being allowed to live in America, away from the violence and poverty that characterize their lives at home, makes it all worth it.

Your choice is that you can react to these images either as a partisan or as a human being. If you choose the latter, whether you believe that other people have God-given rights or simply that their well-being matters at all, you could not help but feel compassion, not fear. The appropriate question is “How do we help these poor, desperate human beings?,” not “How do we stop them from getting anywhere near me?”

How could anyone feel fear, from their sofas in Minnesota, at the sight of unarmed families a thousand miles from Brownsville — whose numbers, roughly 7,000, could not fill a quarter of Harvard Stadium?

The answer is obvious: Because a handful of very powerful people saw a potential for political gain.

As we learned after last month’s attempted bombings of center-left political figures, the Trump-Fox-Gab Reality Machine takes as its inputs not facts to be spun favorably into arguments but rather television images to be transformed into unhinged hatred — with George Soros as the semi-fictionalized Emmanuel Goldstein of our Two Minutes Hate. With scary music, misleading captions, and a right-wing base all too willing to believe the president’s claims of threats and conspiracies, these human beings looking for a better life become an invading force of gang members and Middle Eastern terrorists.

Missing in this account, of course, is that many in the caravan plan to apply, legally, for asylum at the border. And why Middle Eastern terrorists would choose as their way of entering the country to fly to Honduras and walk 1,000 miles with international media attention on them is unclear. One explanation is that the universes of these conspiracy theories are not populated by actual people who think and feel but rather by faceless foreign enemies who came into existence hell-bent on destroying America.

In a particularly stomach-churning moment, Trump even winkingly professed ignorance as to whether Soros himself is funding the caravan — the very theory that motivated Robert Gregory Bowers to kill 11 Jews at a synagogue last weekend.

Right-wing conspiracies are nothing new. Opportunists weaponized Vince Foster’s suicide in the 1990s, and a certain reality television star even accused Barack Obama of faking his own American citizenship. But, to paraphrase soon-to-be-Senator Mitt Romney, never has this ugly imagination been married to real power.

But the marriage took place, and in a move without precedent (except, arguably, the entire War in Iraq), the president has deployed tens of thousands of active-duty troops in an expensive and nakedly political act of desperation. This deployment has disrupted hundreds of thousands of Americans’ lives, swamping cities at the border with helicopters and creating images straight out of an apocalyptic B-movie.

Never mind that the Army itself reports a very different image of the migrant caravan, writing in a report that the “most likely scenario” is that the caravan will continue to shrink as it moves north. (Its worst effect, in this scenario, is that smugglers exploit Trump’s focus on the caravan). But the point is not security; the point is making Trump look like a very big boy, and he is reveling in the good television it has produced to that effect. If you have any doubt of the operation’s political motivations, note that this is not the first caravan but merely the first to approach the border during an election season. Further, the caravan is scheduled to arrive at the border in 45 days at the earliest — one day before the deployment is scheduled to end!

The absurdity of the Trumpian nightmare-theater does demand our attention. After all, it represents a horrifying torrent of dehumanizing lies from the most powerful man on earth and another step in eroding the norms of American governance. But we must also take a moment, every now and then, and look at the facts on the ground outside of their immediate political context.

We are not fundamentally Republicans or Democrats. We are human beings. And under normal circumstances, when we see other human beings in pain, we experience empathy. We try to help. That should have been the story of the migrant caravan.

The warped, hateful picture we see instead speaks to how deep those human beings can be buried under ideologies of hatred. That, not the brown faces on your screen, should terrify you.

Trevor J. Levin ’19, a former Crimson Arts Comp Director, is a Social Studies concentrator in Mather House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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