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Bittersweet Empathy: Immigrants, Progressives, and One Failed Conversation

By Talia M. Blatt, Contributing Opinion Writer
Talia M. Blatt ‘23 is a resident of Currier House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

In late August I spoke with an old Russian woman. I had never met her, and I never will.

I called her to see if she was voting in the Massachusetts Senate Democratic Primary. I spent much of my summer making those campaign cold calls, and I was usually cut off after that initial question.

She and I spoke for over two hours.

I learned that she lives alone, and does not have many people with whom she can discuss politics. She emigrated before the fall of the Soviet Union and still feels grateful for grocery stores.

She told me that she had been a staunch Democrat since she stepped foot in the United States, but was now losing faith. For her, seeing Democratic leaders kneel and side with protesters amid mass looting and anarchy revealed a weakness and hatred for their country that she couldn’t stomach.

After a long pause, she said something I remember viscerally: “Where I come from, your leader kneels only when someone has a gun to his neck.”

This stuck with me but I’m still not sure what she meant. Perhaps she was recalling weak-willed local leaders who were mere puppets of a larger autocracy. Maybe it was a much broader claim, that strength and force — which she felt she could no longer find in the Democratic party — were, in her experience, the ultimate metrics of leadership.

I disagree with her stance on the protests completely: To me, the demonstrations have been a long-fated reckoning, and the Democratic Party’s choice to kneel was distasteful not because of the legitimacy it afforded protesters but because it reeked of performance and accomplished nothing.

Intellectually I was frustrated, even repulsed by this woman, whose arguments sounded like Fox News headlines jammed in a washing machine. But I also felt an unexpectedly acute sympathy for her — she, who grew up without the freedoms offered (ostensibly) by democracy and capitalism, coming to this country and finding leaders ready to give it all away; she, who responded to my decision to skip lunch and continue our conversation with an affectionate disapproval I associate faintly with my grandmother, who always wanted me to eat more.

That nascent but deeply affecting tie I felt to her did not affect my views on the protests. But our conversation unsettled me. I grew reticent and defensive with her. I eventually ended the conversation with a flimsy excuse and hollow guilt. Not only had I failed to convince her of anything — a heavy blow for a college debater — I had cut her off with the knowledge that our conversation might be her only one that day.

In the days after our call I was able to be more reflective. I realized I had let my political ideology circumscribe my empathy. And while this habit is unfortunately common in an era of polarization, it seems particularly pernicious among progressives engaging with immigrants.

We cannot value immigrants’ lived experiences only when those experiences inform politics we like. My surprise at making a connection with the woman I spoke with is itself surprising and frankly disturbing — indicative of both my inability to come to terms with the emotional and embodied nature of political discourse, and the toxic standard of perfect liberalism to which we hold immigrants.

With issues like criminal justice, reparations, and illegal immigration, progressives cannot project uniformly left-of-center ideas onto immigrants.

In 2017, amid uncertainty about the future of DACA and asylum policy, Democratic lawmakers in Maryland tried to create a sanctuary county for undocumented immigrants. Despite the majority Democratic area, the bill failed: It was passionately opposed by legal immigrants, a turn of events that shocked and antagonized progressives. The tacit assumption that immigrants would support liberal immigration reform was homogenizing, erroneous, and fatal.

But Maryland Democrats statewide did not take enough notice. Months later, a similar sanctuary city proposal was made in the state legislature. It also failed despite a two to one Democratic majority, in part because of objections made by some of the same legal immigrants.

I did not hear much about illegal immigration while I phone banked. But people I called frequently brought up reparations, often framing it as a yes-no debate demarcated by a party line. Those who most fervently opposed reparations echoed a sentiment I have heard from friends, parents of friends, and other strangers: They did not feel that they should bear the same guilt for America’s sins as people with centuries of ancestors here.

With race-related issues, immigration necessitates more nuanced analysis than it has tended to receive. Immigrants are subject to the precarity of racial capitalism, with visas determined by market whims and ethnic origin. But they are also settlers on stolen land, who often reap benefits from the vestiges of slavery. And immigrants from “non-shithole countries,” as President Trump would put it, are weaponized as successful American dream stories to mask structural discrimination in education, hiring, wealth, and more.

I don’t know where that leads us, and I had trouble articulating any of it to the woman on the phone. Her decades of life (understandably) mattered more to her than the vaguely Marxist ramblings of a teenager.

But our conversation was meaningful. It reminded me that empathy can coexist with unflinching political demands, and that disagreement should fuel reflection rather than dogma. And I hope that she is a little bit more open to civil disobedience, the way I am now a little bit more grateful for my local supermarket.

Talia M. Blatt ‘23 is a resident of Currier House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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