“We offer your love to all of our children …” the Episcopal priest said, her eyes closed in prayer. Some 170 people were gathered around her, as she stood in a gazebo in a park in Huntsville, Alabama.
This was one of the 700-plus protests across the country last weekend, as Americans gathered in unity and outrage over Donald Trump’s cruel treatment of immigrants and their children at the southern border.
Even before the guy pulled the Glock from his waistband, wow, this was the American recipe: Sarcasm and hate and racism stirred into our prayers and deepest values, into the best of who we are.
When we describe the United States in the abstract, the best of who we are prevails. Our ideals loom like mountain peaks on a picture postcard: “Give me your tired, your poor,/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free …”
But the real America has always been parsimonious in its allotment of freedom and respect.
“Scratch the surface of the current immigration debate and beneath the posturing lies a dirty secret. Anti-immigrant sentiment is older than America itself. Born before the nation, this abiding fear of the ‘huddled masses’ emerged in the early republic and gathered steam into the 19th and 20th centuries, when nativist political parties, exclusionary laws and the Ku Klux Klan swept the land.”
So Kenneth C. Davis wrote in a New York Times op-ed more than a decade ago, pointing out, among much else, Benjamin Franklin’s contempt for the newly arrived Germans in colonial Pennsylvania in the 1750s. Their children don’t even bother to learn English!
Name an ethnic or (non-Protestant) religious group and an obscene name for it probably lurks in the shadows nearby. And this doesn’t even count the horrors committed in the creation of America: theft of land, genocide, cultural devastation of Native Americans; the importation of “human property.”
“Disdain for what is foreign,” Davis wrote, “is, sad to say, as American as apple pie, slavery and lynching.”
At the Huntsville rally, compellingly described by Avi Selk in the Washington Post, Kerry Holder-Joffrion, the priest, stood with her eyes closed, praying for the immigrants and their missing children as a lone counter-protester circled the gazebo holding a sign with the words “ICE ICE Baby” on it and quoting Corey Lewandowski at regular intervals: You know, “womp, womp.” Lewandowski had hit that note of snarky sarcasm about 10 days earlier on Fox News, in response to a Democrat’s story about a 10-year-old girl with Down Syndrome who had been taken from her mother at the border. Wow. These nonsense words toss acid on all the idealism and fill the air with outrage, bringing out everyone’s worst. They have the efficiency of bullets.
The womp guy was confronted and challenged. He shoved, someone shoved back, he fell down — and then he pulled the concealed Glock from his waistband and, oh Lord, pointed it at the crowd. Was another NRA-blessed act of mass insanity about to occur? People took cover. The priest continued to pray.
And no, he didn’t fire. He walked away and was arrested at the edge of the park.
The quiet message in these words is that dehumanization can be fun. It’s necessary, of course. The border hawks are full of stories about the horrendous behavior of the illegals, and America has no choice but to minimize the flow of Irish … I mean Italians … uh, wait, I mean Jews … Muslims … into the country, just to maintain a state of English-speaking normalcy. And keeping them out requires toughness. But when liberals cringe at the enforcement of the law — for everyone’s good, including theirs — you can have a little fun putting them in their place. No harm in that.
This, I believe, is the gift that Lewandowski, Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, has given to the president’s supporters: a fun way to denounce idealism without getting all tangled up in issues and such.
All of which demands emotional as well as political clarity from those on the other side of the womp divide. Those who put children in cages, or who support the practice of doing so, are themselves in a cage. For instance, when the Huntsville counter-protester was asked, “Where are your ancestors from?” he answered: “Alabama!”
He probably knew his ancestry transcends the state’s borders, but entering that paradoxical wilderness is too scary. Better to limit your awareness to the colors red, white and blue and know only that you come from good stock, period. End of awareness.
As we demand border sanity and compassion for asylum seekers and their children — as we reach beyond the borders of our own thinking and envision a different sort of country, with no need for ICE or a private prison industry — somehow we have to maintain the painful awareness that hatred is easy and blaming the enemy solves all our problems.
When they cry “womp, womp,” we need to keep praying.
Robert Koehler, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.