How to Look Away

A corollary to a politics of destabilized truth is a politics of destabilized empathy.


“These child actors weeping and crying on all the other networks 24/7 right now; do not fall for it, Mr. President.”

Ann Coulter, on Sunday, was speaking to that famed audience of one—Donald Trump—in the language whose grammar and idioms both of them understand intuitively: that of the Fox News Channel. But the pundit wasn’t informing the world leader so much as she was warning him. And she was concerned, she suggested, not so much for the presidential mind as for the American soul. You may be tempted, she noted to the president and the larger audience, to feel for the children who wail as they are torn away from their families at the American border; resist that temptation. Do not feel for them; they don’t deserve it. They’re faking it. As Coulter reiterated on Tuesday, in a follow-up interview with TMZ: “They are trying to wreck our country through a political stunt.”

The “they” in question is both unspecified and wincingly clear. And the “stunt” Coulter is referring to, of course, is the series of images and sounds and words that have been coming from America’s southern border, in a progression that has become steadily more urgent in recent weeks: images of children, separated from their families, their little fists clenched in fear. Reports of a woman whose infant was ripped from her body as she breastfed. Reports of a man who committed suicide after he was separated from his wife and son. Reports of kids taken from their parents to get “baths,” never to be returned. All those tiny people, caged like animals.

The images, moving and still, are searing, in part, precisely because they are images. They capture something in immediate and visceral and urgent terms that words, even at their frankest and most effective, cannot. The Getty photographer John Moore’s viral photograph of a 2-year-old girl sobbing as she watched her mother being frisked by an agent of the American government—the pink shirt, the matching shoes, the pudgy cheeks, frozen in an expression of despair and disbelief—is worth many more than a thousand words. The audio of children crying for parents who cannot come to comfort them—the recording a symbol of both human tragedy and governmental opacity—is wrenching, emotionally, precisely because it is, rationally, so raw and so real. And because it is, in its starkness, so profoundly undeniable.

And yet: Ann Coulter has found a way to deny it. Her repeated accusation—“child actors weeping and crying”—is attempting to destabilize not just the facts on the ground, but also another kind of truth: the emotions most humans will feel, automatically, in response to children who cry in agony. Coulter’s warning to the world leader responsible for the tragedy—Do not fall for it, Mr. President—is a repetition of the logic deployed by some as a matter of moral reflex in response to the otherwise unimaginable, and otherwise inarguable, tragedies of Newtown, and Parkland, and so many others: They’re just actors, those people will insist. It’s all fake, they will assure. It is a moral claim as much as a factual one: You don’t have to act. You don’t even have to care. You can look away from this and still manage to look at yourself in the mirror.

Tragedies that need not be treated as tragedies at all, because the tragedies, in a fundamental way, are false: In one way, certainly, these are extremely fringe ideas—Ann Coulter, Coultering once more. But in another way—an ever more familiar way, as the Overton window flings ever more widely on its rusty hinges—they are not fringe at all. They have been summoned, instead, this week, across platforms that are decidedly mainstream. They have been, as it were, decidedly normalized.

The press conference conducted by Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen on Monday was, overall, dedicated to the proposition that the reporting coming out of the holding facilities along the American border—the audio, the video, the images of tiny bodies held in massive cages, as a portrait of the American leader looks on—is wrong. (“Don’t believe the press,” Nielsen said, echoing one of the core intellectual and emotional propositions of Trumpism.) The president himself has embraced the corollary idea to Coulter’s claim that the screaming families are actors: that the compassion for them is misplaced. The real tragedy here, he has suggested, is the one perpetrated by Congress/the Democrats/the fake news/an infestation—again, an infestation—of people who are not American and therefore do not deserve the same level of sympathy that Americans might. Crisis actors of a different sort.

The White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, similarly dismissed the moral questions at the heart of the family separations by suggesting that there is a more sweeping moral code than the fickle workings of your own heart. (“It is very Biblical to enforce the law.”) The attorney general, Jeff Sessions, suggested the same. Humans, ever fallible, must practice humility, this logic goes; part of that practice must involve the recognition that even empathy must answer to a higher power. The higher power that insists, despite so much evidence to the contrary, “I alone can fix it.”

And so: You are looking at the wrong thing, insist the current stewards of the national soul. You are caring about the wrong thing. Sleight of hand meets sleight of heart.

In 1977, Susan Sontag wrote about photography—a century-old practice whose cultural transformations, as tends to happen when the slow march of new technologies is involved, had only become clear after decades of human experimentation with the medium. Photographs, Sontag argued, “alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe. They are a grammar and, even more importantly, an ethics of seeing.” An extension of those ethics, it has become urgently clear—particularly in this age defined by the new technologies of the internet and social media—is distinctly political: In a democracy, if the people are to have a meaningful say over the world and its workings, those people are, fundamentally, obligated to look. And, much more fundamentally, to see. To avert one’s eyes is a privilege that those of us who have the power to act cannot afford to exercise, even when we are complicit in the images. Especially when we are complicit.

It is a dynamic—the democratic alchemy that converts seeing things into changing them—that the president and his surrogates have been objecting to, as they have defended their policy. They have been, this week (with notable absences), busily appearing on cable-news shows and giving disembodied quotes to news outlets, insisting that things aren’t as bad as they seem: that the images and the audio and the evidence are wrong not merely ontologically, but also emotionally. Don’t be duped, they are telling Americans. Your horror is incorrect. The tragedy is false. Your outrage about it, therefore, is false. Because, actually, the truth is so much more complicated than your easy emotions will allow you to believe. Actually, as Fox News host Laura Ingraham insists, the holding pens that seem to house horrors are “essentially summer camps.” And actually, as Fox & Friends’ Steve Doocy instructs, the pens are not cages so much as “walls” that have merely been “built … out of chain-link fences.” And actually, Kirstjen Nielsen wants you to remember, “We provide food, medical, education, all needs that the child requests.” And actually, too, Tom Cotton warns, think of the child-smuggling. And of MS-13. And of sexual assault. And of soccer fields. There are so many reasons to look away, so many other situations more deserving of your outrage and your horror.

It is a neat rhetorical trick: the logic of not in my backyard, invoked not merely despite the fact that it is happening in our backyard, but because of it. With seed and sod that we ourselves have planted.

Yes, yes, there are tiny hands, reaching out for people who are not there … but those are not the point, these arguments insist and assure. To focus on those images—instead of seeing the system, a term that Nielsen and even Trump, a man not typically inclined to think in networked terms, have been invoking this week—is to miss the larger point. On MSNBC on Tuesday, the host Nicolle Wallace noted to The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker that “our eyes do not lie with the images we’re seeing from the border.” He agreed, of course. (What could be more true?) But on the other hand, the powerful people whisper: Maybe eyes can lie, too. The images, the sounds, the video, the stories: Perhaps, instead of telling truths, they are obscuring them. Perhaps they are baiting your emotions. Perhaps they are trying to manipulate you into misdirected empathies. Do not fall for it. Do not feel for it.

This is a moment in America in which people are talking, with mounting panic, about the slow encroachments of autocracy. One of the truisms of that discussion: For a democracy to erode into something else, the infrastructures of collective truth-telling must to be allowed to crumble into disrepair. (Hannah Arendt’s prescient concerns weren’t just for the fate of facts, but also for a broader worry: that widespread cynicism would make facts, in some ways, irrelevant. That people would cease to believe that anything at all can be true.) It’s an urgent concern, of course, in this age of fake news and do not believe them and I alone can fix it; it’s also one that tends to be rendered as an epistemic argument—a matter of news and information and the way we understand the world, intellectually. The future of facts, and all that.

Those ideas of destabilized truth are, of course, at play in the telling of the family separations, as a story: the Orwellian debates over whether human children are being kept in cages. The government official in charge of implementing the policy that puts them there suggesting that the news reports are, in ways so obvious they do not require specifics, simply wrong. (Don’t believe the press.) But there is also a corollary to the traditional Orwellianism: a kind of emotional doublespeak. Appeals to the failings of the head, met with appeals to the failings of the heart. Do not believe your eyes, but also, Do not believe your eyes when they fill with tears at the sight of a wailing child.

When you hear a little girl screaming for her absent father, yes, you may, as a human person with a human soul, reply with automated empathy. You may recall, without trying to, those moments when you yourself were small, when you yourself were separated from your own parent, for an instant or the opposite—how impossibly tiny you felt, and how impossibly big the world was at that moment. You may recall, without trying to, all those times you, as a parent, could not find your child—all the panic, all the fear, all the love frantically seeking its home. You may feel it, just a very little of it, the pain of strangers that is not yours but in another way very much is. “[Children crying],” the image accompanying ProPublica’s audio informs you, against a screen that is infinitely dark, and the simple fact of the stark juxtaposition might make you cry. It might make you do what Rachel Maddow did on Tuesday evening, as she read a breaking-news bulletin from the Associated Press about detention centers for very young children that are referred to, in the language of the state, as “tender-age” shelters: Break down. Lose your words. Erupt into involuntary tears.

It is precisely such an eruption, though—the connective tissue of a world that is at once sweeping and small—that many representatives of the United States, elected and not, are claiming to be false. You are being duped, they are suggesting—by the hysteria of the biased media, by the cherry-picking of images and truths, by your own easily manipulable humanity. On Tuesday, Corey Lewandowski, the former manager of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, made news on Fox News for, in response to a fellow guest’s mention of a 10-year-old girl with Down syndrome who had been separated from her mother, interrupting the story with a dismissive “womp womp.” The heckle was callous and glib and deserving of the have-you-no-decency drubbing Lewandowski got in response; it was in the service, however, of the argument that the fake news are at it again, refusing to show you the full truth, the full stakes. Tucker Carlson summed it up this way: To profess horror at the events taking place at the border, the host said on his show, is to capitulate to those who “care far more about foreigners than about their own people.” It is to have lost the battle, and with it, the war. This is a matter of us and them, Carlson is sure. Your own weary heart might counter that the true subject here, as it always will be, is we—but your heart, he insists, is wrong.