To Understand the Caravan Is to Have Sympathy. But Do We Want to Understand?

Politics Features The Caravan
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To Understand the Caravan Is to Have Sympathy. But Do We Want to Understand?

Like philosophy, politics is the art of the second question.

Most people have the curiosity to ask a first question, and get a first response:

“What is justice?”
“Getting what you deserve.”

But in this workaday, workanight world, we rarely think to ask the obvious followup: “Well, what do we deserve?”

Second questions are the secret to understanding the world. The rules of politics work the same way:

First question: “What’s the deal with the people coming up through Mexico?”

First answer: “They’re a caravan of immigrants, the majority of them from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador.”

That’s where far right-wing media would have you stop. Because, of course, it’s in their interest to portray them as a Horde. To use John Cale’s phrase, it’s a bullet of searchlight.

If this is how you honestly see the world—if your brain is married to cable news, the number-one poisoner of senior citizens, then there’s not a lot of medicine to fix what ails you. A caravan is coming. What’s there to understand? Here stands us, here stands the danger. Better close the windows. Better lock the doors. The mountains and deserts and the watchful stars won’t guard us. The wall hasn’t been built. God in heaven, who can save us from the caravan? Won’t someone think of the Applebee’s? Is nothing sacred?

But there’s the second question, that somehow never gets asked:

“What makes them a caravan, and what are they running away from?”

Excellent question. “Caravan” is not the right word to use. It’s the word the far-right wants you to use. The alternatives are more precise and accurate: the asylum seekers, the refugee convoy, the escapees, the friendless, the poor. However, using those terms would create the emotion of sympathy in listeners. That would make them human. The far-right doesn’t want that. So “caravan” is the noun they use.

Whatever you call them, an estimated five thousand people are moving through Mexico. Many of them are families. Many of them women and children. Most likely, the bulk of the populace will be absorbed by Mexico. But still, they are coming.

So much for who they are. Onto the second part of the second question: What are they running away from? Now, that’s the real question.

Like anyone else, Hondurans and Guatemalans and Salvadorans prefer not to relocate if they have other options. But they don’t have a choice. These families are moving north because their countries—Honduras especially—are racked by massive, ceaseless violence. Honduras’ second largest city, San Pedro Sula, has been compared to a war zone. In 2012, the tiny nation suffered, on average, a score of homicides per day.

Why? Because of us. Honduras was, until recently, a stable country. Well, perhaps it’s more precise to say its elite were stable. A steady ruling class is the kind of firm foundation you build colonialism on. A few years ago, that all changed. And we were involved.

Run back the tape, won’t you, to the Reagan Era? During the decade of John Hughes, South and Central America finally began to escape U.S. dominance. They’d been trying to get out from under our thumb since the 19th century.

This scared the holy hell out of Washington. So in the Seventies—and truthfully, in the preceding decades as well—we pushed back against Latin and South America. There was a lot to do: sponsoring death squads, overthrowing governments, backing brutal dictators, war crimes, assassinations, the works. From our view, Honduras was a perfect place to stage our mafia adventures. We set up shop just south of the city of Comayagua, in Honduras. A little place called Palmerola Air Base, also called Soto Cano Air Base.

That was ground zero for U.S. black bag operations in Latin America. Even before Palmerola was set up, we were using Honduras for our terrorist actions. Listing all our crimes would make for a far longer column. For instance, the blood-soaked Contras, who probably murdered about a hundred thousand people in Guatemala and Nicaragua, operated out of Honduras. So did the people who overthrew Guatemala’s Arbenz, in ‘54. Let’s not even talk about what we did in El Salvador.

Eventually, Honduras had enough. This guy Zelaya got elected there in 2005. Ran on a platform of reform and peace. He’s successful. So Zelaya figures, why not join the neighbors? The Cold War is over, right? Honduras decides to join a leftist economic organization set up by Cuba and Venezuela.

Zelaya goes even further: he pushes back against American manufacturers. Agitates for the minimum wage to go up. And even closing the holiest of holies, the Palmerola Base. Zelaya gets popular approval to rewrite the American-backed constitution—and wouldn’t you know it, the day the vote was going to happen, he gets detained by the military, and exiled. The guys who pull off the coup are American-trained military officers. This is in 2009. The Obama Administration doesn’t lift a finger.

You can probably guess what follows.

The people of these ravaged countries suffer because of us. There are hundreds of stories like this, from every country south of the Rio Grande.

This particular set of refugees started from San Pedro Sula on October 12. In the beginning, there were about a hundred and sixty of them. They left because they couldn’t find jobs, because they were terrified of crime, sick of poverty. According to the BBC:

Most previous migrant caravans have numbered a few hundred people, but after a former politician posted about the plan on Facebook, news of it quickly spread and the numbers swelled. By the time the group set off in the early hours of 13 October, more than 1,000 Hondurans had joined. They have since crossed into neighbouring Guatemala and then Mexico, with thousands more people joining along the way. ... “It’s our dream to reach the United States, we want to give our children a better future and here [in Honduras] we can’t find work,” one mother of two told local newspaper El Heraldo.

They’re fainting. Hungry. Dehydrated. Sleeping on the streets. In other words, they can’t fight back, not really.

The refugees were a golden opportunity for the President, who ran on a white-supremacist platform of harassing brown people. As usual, Trump made up a bunch of numbers, added them to a collection of make-believe facts, and started yapping about it on Twitter. The President is insisting the asylum-seekers are criminals, are Middle Easterners, etc. Now, in a crazed, racist-grandfather-universe, this has a kind of logic to it: all of these people are reliably non-white, ergo, they must be the same.

The liar-in-chief, who was suffering a bad month, needed a distraction for his troubled party. The Fox News organization was still lost in the woods after the demise of its hideous, lecherous founder. Conservatism, faced with the upcoming impeachment of its Orange God, desperately needed a new scandal.

And so the myth of the Terrible Migrant Caravan was born. When you consider how many things frighten the far right—teens, Colin Kaepernick, Nike shoes, award ceremonies, SNL, lukewarm Dem politicians, all motion pictures, mouthy baristas, ungrateful grandchildren, and now poor asylum-seekers—it’s amazing that they have the will to escape bed every morning.

And so it was that the richest, most powerful country in the history of the world, a country of 325.7 million people, a nation that would not notice an influx of five thousand people—a nation that doesn’t seem to get upset when Irish immigrants overstay their visa—well, my God, a small part of that nation decided these poor people were the four horsemen.

For the sane majority of us, a simple thought experiment: Widen your view a bit. Look at everyone who moves to Europe and North America. What causes all of the scattered, desperate people to stream to the West? What would make anyone relocate permanently to a strange land?

In our own lives, no matter how bludgeoned we are by daily affairs, most of us manage to crawl home with some small amount of satisfaction. Home is home, after all. Every stone, every tree, every brick we pass is written with history, with memory.

Now that you’ve thought about this, imagine yourself an immigrant. Imagine tearing yourself away from the place your family has always lived. What would it take for you to move? It would have to be pretty bad, right?

If you stop and think about it, really think about it, you’ll wonder about what we (and our allies) have done to the world. Either by our own hands, or indirectly, through climate change. The far right loves telling poor people there are consequences for everything. Well, there are consequences when we meddle in foreign lands. There are consequences when we burn the air and raise the oceans. There are consequences for our wars and pillagings.

Why are we so scared? The question isn’t who the refugees are, or why they’re coming. We know what they’re running away from. They know what they’re afraid of. Do we?