Cracks in our moral superiority
I read this story recently about a southwestern caravan of migrants seeking safety in America, and wanted to share in case you missed it.
“The movement changed them; the highways, the camps along the road, the fear of hunger and the hunger itself, changed them. The children without dinner changed them, the endless moving changed them. They were migrants. And the hostility changed them, welded them, united them —hostility that made the little towns group and arm as though to repel an invader, squads with pick handles, clerks and storekeepers with shotguns, guarding the world against their own people.
“In the West there was panic when the migrants multiplied on the highways. Men of property were terrified for their property. Men who had never been hungry saw the eyes of the hungry. Men who had never wanted anything very much saw the flare of want in the eyes of the migrants. And the men of the towns and of the soft suburban country gathered to defend themselves; and they reassured themselves that they were good and the invaders bad, as a man must do before he fights. They said, these goddamned immigrants are dirty and ignorant. They’re degenerate, sexual maniacs. Those goddamned immigrants are thieves. They’ll steal anything. They’ve got no sense of property rights.
“And the latter was true, for how can a man without property know the ache of ownership? And the defending people said, They bring disease, they’re filthy. We can’t have them in the schools. They’re strangers. How’d you like to have your sister go out with one of ’em?
“The local people whipped themselves into a mold of cruelty. Then they formed units, squads, and armed them — armed them with clubs, with gas, with guns. We own the country. We can’t let these immigrants get out of hand. And the men who were armed did not own the land, but they thought they did. And the clerks who drilled at night owned nothing, and the little storekeepers possessed only a drawerful of debts. But even a debt is something, even a job is something. The clerk thought, I get fifteen dollars a week. S’pose a goddamn immigrant would work for twelve? And the little storekeeper thought, How could I compete with a debtless man?
“And the migrants streamed in on the highways and their hunger was in their eyes, and their need was in their eyes. They had no argument, no system, nothing but their numbers and their needs.”
You might think that passage is about immigrants trying to escape the fear and brutality where they live in Central America being met with hatred and venom at the United States border, but those words were written 80 years ago. Go back now and everywhere you see the word “immigrant” replace it with the original word “Okie.” You might now recognize it from “The Grapes of Wrath,” John Steinbeck’s classic novelization of the plight of Americans forced to flee their homes in search of a better life.
Sadly, reading those words makes it easier to understand how Americans could shrug and take little notice of the tear-gassing of people seeking legal asylum. During the Depression, many Americans blindly, and with no evidence, convinced themselves that impoverished Okies fleeing the Dust Bowl were sub-human, disease-ridden maniacs who needed to be confronted with force. We did it then to white, Midwestern American families; we can certainly do it now to brown, non-native immigrants.
Don’t be fooled though by the bleatings of the president, his henchmen and state news agency. The people at our border are not an invading army of terrorists, plague carriers and criminals. They’re bedraggled refugees escaping horrific living conditions. But neither is the solution as simple as believing we just need to reclaim our national moral compass. Steinbeck reminds us that our capacity for savage cruelty has always been there.
So in America, where we desperately cling to our moral superiority, we are torn. Because if somehow you’ve convinced yourself up is down, day is night and asylum seeking migrants are an invasion force ... even you cannot say, without the words tasting like ash in your mouth, that America truly is great when it gasses children.
David Rafferty is a Greenwich resident.