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.