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Liberal Entitlement, part 4

"Good People"

Last July, journalist George Saunders published a long essay in The New Yorker reporting on his experiences attending Trump rallies. The piece was titled, “Who Are All These Trump Supporters? At the candidate’s rallies, a new understanding of America Emerges.” What haunted me from that article was the segment in which the phrase "good people" recurred. Saunders wrote:
"Talking to a Trump supporter about Trump’s deportation policy, I’d sometimes bring up Noemi Romero, a sweet, soft-spoken young woman I met in Phoenix. Noemi was brought to the U.S. when she was three, by undocumented parents. A few years ago, she had the idea of applying for legal status through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. But the application costs four hundred and sixty-five dollars, money her family didn’t have. Hearing that a local Vietnamese grocery was hiring, she borrowed her mother’s Social Security card and got the job. A few months later, the store was raided. Noemi was arrested, charged with aggravated identity theft and forgery, and taken to jail and held there, within the general prison population, for two months. She was given spoiled milk, and food that, she said, had tiny worms in it. Her lawyer arranged a plea bargain; the charges were reduced to criminal impersonation. This was a good deal, he told her, the best she could hope for. She accepted, not realizing that, as a convicted felon, she would be permanently ineligible for DACA.

"Puente, a local grassroots organization, intervened and saved her from deportation, but she is essentially doomed to a kind of frozen life: can’t work and can’t go to college, although she has lived virtually her whole life in the U.S. and has no reason to go back to Mexico and nowhere to live if she’s sent there.

"I’d ask the Trump supporter, 'What do we do about Noemi?'

"I always found the next moment in our exchange hopeful.

"Is she a good person? the Trump supporter might ask. I couldn’t feel more sorry for her, he might say. That kid is no better or worse than I am and deserves the best God can give her. Or he might say that deportation would have to be done on a case-by-case basis. Or propose some sort of registry—Noemi, having registered, would go back to Mexico and, if all checked out, come right back in. There had to be some kind of rule of law, didn’t there?

"Tellingly, the Trump supporter might confess that she didn’t think Trump really intended to do this mass-deportation thing anyway—it was all just campaign talk. The most extreme supporter might say that, yes, Noemi had to go—he didn’t like it, but ultimately the fault lay with her parents.

"Sometimes I’d mention a Central American family I met in Texas, while reporting another story. In that case, the father and son were documented but the mother and daughters weren’t. Would you, I’d ask, split that family up? Send those girls to a country in which they’d never spent a single day? Well, my Trump-supporting friend might answer, it was complicated, wasn’t it? Were they good people? Yes, I’d say. The father, in spare moments between his three jobs, built a four-bedroom house out of cinder blocks he acquired two or three at a time from Home Depot, working sometimes late into the night. The Trump supporter might, at this point, fall silent, and so might I." (New Yorker, 2016 Jul 11 & 18)
What do we do about Noemi? Is she a good person? the Trump supporter asks. Should the family with father and son documented and mother and daughter undocumented be split up? Were they good people? is the response. Not "is this cruel treatment of any human being?" Not "is this fair or just?" Not even "is this policy good for the US economy?" But "are they us?" For that, of course, is what “good people” means: it means "people who act in ways that make sense to me without any stretching of my sympathetic imagination." The division of the world into "good people" (us) and "bad people" (them) is a tell-tale indicator of the authoritarian attitude. People who are different are dangerous, and dangerous people deserve cruel treatment.

So if you’re needing a story to make sense of what happened, that’s what I got: Reactivity to a changing world has produced rising authoritarian and anti-politics sentiments, which started as ideological rigidity and morphed from ideology to raw identity, accentuating the racism that has always been a part of American culture.

What To Do About It

First, remember that this, too, is just a story. It helps me make sense of things, and it might help you. But no story is ever the whole story. There’s some stuff going on out there that this story will help you see, and other stuff that it could make you blind to. So keep your eyes and your heart open, and be ready to take in other stories. The antidote to identity wars, us versus them, is listening with care and empathy to every story you can.

Second, let’s get over being surprised. I admit, I was. Perhaps our greatest liberal entitlement was the luxury of being shocked. Sure, some people of color, LGBT people, and Muslims were also surprised, but overall, not so shocked as white liberals at the "discovery" that the US harbors a lot of racism, sexism, xenophobia, and bigotry.

Third, as the great labor organizer Joe Hill said on the eve of his execution in 1915: “Don’t mourn. Organize.” Join the rebel alliance. There’s a new Star Wars movie coming out, and, no, we don’t have any cool spaceships to zip around in, but we can take inspiration from the metaphor.

My friend and colleague minister at First Unitarian in Orlando, Florida, Rev. Kathy Schmitz, posted on Friday afternoon:
"Wait and see what he does post-election" they said.
OK, I gave it 48 hours.
So far, far worse than I thought.
"Keep your heart open," they said.
It is.
Wide open.
And fully committed to the rebel alliance.
Hashtag: MightAsWellGetOnTheEnemiesListEarly.
Courtney Parker West posted an open letter:
Dear liberal white people whom I often love:...
I get it. It’s awful. It’s terrifying. It’s devastating. But find yourself a white person and complain to them, then get past your feelings because if you really want to be an ally, we don’t need your posts or your shock or even your tearful apologies, but rather your organizing manpower. People of color have always resisted and you can follow us. You can’t be with her anymore, so be with us.”
You have been called to live into this period of darkness that has been with us for some time. You have been called to the fierce love of resistance, solidarity, and hope.

As we are also mourning the death of Leonard Cohen, I conclude with Cohen's reminder that this fierce
love is not a victory march.
It is a cold and it is a broken hallelujah....
Even though it all went wrong
We stand before the lord of song
With nothing on our tongue but hallelujah.

* * *
This is part 4 of 4 of "Liberal Entitlement"
See also
Part 1: Election Prayer
Part 2: Called Into Darkness
Part 3: The Problem with Anti-Politcs

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