June 22, 2018

“Emotional Logic,” Children and Activism

How were they, who were once part of the fabric of society, the body politic, ripped asunder, extirpated?

Debórah Dwork, Children with a Star: Jewish Youth in Nazi Europe, 1991, xlvi.

There are so many questions to ask about how a people reaches a point allowing its government to separate children from their parents and, for all intents and purposes, incarcerates them. And there is another set of questions to ask about what activates this people to insist that its government change course.

Making people feel, I’ll argue, is perhaps the greatest single factor in that activation process.

Ginger Thompson, a reporter with independent, investigative journalism outfit ProPublica, this week shared audio of children in a U.S. Customs and Border Protection detention facility. In the recording, the children, estimated to be between 4 and 10 years old, wail and sob, desperate for their parents.

The audio has been a game-changer.

Once Americans had to reckon emotionally with the pain of these children, many began taking steps to force policy change. In addition to rallying and contacting elected representatives, one couple started a fundraising page on Facebook, hoping to raise $1,500, enough money to pay for a lawyer to represent one detained adult. A week later, donations had come in at $12 million. The money will go to Texas-based non-profit RAICES, the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services. It will pay for everything from legal services to commissary funds, the latter necessary for children and parents to contact one another by telephone. Those calls, made from phones controlled by corporations running these detention facilities, can cost eight dollars a minute.

The plight of these immigrant children has brought to mind work I did this spring, when I was teaching a history of the Holocaust to students twice a week. I assigned these very motivated, advanced 8thgraders the introduction to historian Debórah Dwork’s Children with a Yellow Star. These students – low income, of color – didn’t know much about Judaism, the Holocaust, or even how to study history. Dwork’s introduction provided evidence of Jewish children’s experiences, suffering, and death during the war, which predictably awakened students’ sense of outrage. Nonetheless, some still made unthinking comments that Jews were all showily rich, owned banks and businesses, and therefore stood out for scapegoating. Dwork’s words worked like a hot knife through butter with this kind of reasoning, which she described as “nonsense.”

“Even if such pronouncements meant anything – and they do not – they are simply irrelevant or inapplicable to the maltreatment of children.  In the case of a child, someone who saw his neighbor carted away by the SS, or French police, or Hungarian gendarmes, could no longer say to himself to rationalize what he witnessed, ‘I wonder what he did to provoke the authorities,’ because an infant or three-year-old or six-year-old could not possibly have done anything” (xlv-xlvi).

Dwork’s intro forced students to reckon with their feelings about these children’s experiences:

“Child life is a subculture of the dominant society, and that subculture was singularly stricken by the ever-increasing burden of Nazi persecution.  […]  Our unwillingness to accept the murder of children is emotionally different from our incomprehension of the genocide of adults.  […]  Adults are never seen as totally helpless; it is a contradiction of our understanding, our archetypal image of what an adult is.  But in the case of children no such defense exists.  Children are, and are expected to be, helpless and dependent.  In their case it is no longer possible to be angry with and to blame the victim” (xlv).

Dwork’s incisive distinction between adults and children enabled students to jettison their negative stereotypes and fully appreciate the horror of what had taken place.

I think Ginger Thompson’s work this week has had an impact on Americans similar to the one my students experienced.  President Trump and those who support him can spout all the “nonsense” (Dwork’s word) they wish about migrants from Mexico and Central America. I will not repeat them here. Most of us cannot justify, let alone tolerate, the application of these stereotypes to children. Perhaps, in a twisted way, the president will have done his opponents a favor by incarcerating minors in former Wal-Marts and cyclone-fenced tent camps. While many will sit silently while adults are treated unfairly, their emotional reactions make them unwilling, as Dwork suggests, to accept the impact of such policy on the very young.

I wish, as a nation, we could apply a similar “emotional logic” to police violence against young men of color. But perhaps it will take the senseless deaths of boys much younger than Trayvon Martin, 17, to move us all to action. My fingers shake as I type these words.