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God Bless the Child?

Reflections on Families Belong Together, Trumpism, and the politics of resistance

“I merely took the energy it takes to pout, and I wrote some blues.” -Duke Ellington

While recent primaries have furnished some reason for modest hopefulness (see for example my piece last week on the primary victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), in a broader sense recent political developments have further darkened the already dark shadow that the Trump administration has cast on the remaining elements of constitutional democracy in the U.S. Supreme Court decisions supporting the Muslim travel ban, the denial of medical information at “pregnancy crisis centers,” and limiting union rights, make clear that the Court, and the federal judiciary more generally, is not a reliable bulwark against Trumpism. Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement announcement, Trump’s promise to nominate Kennedy’s replacement—surely someone even further right than Neil Gorsuch—by July 9, and Mitch McConnell’s vow to expedite the approval process in the Fall, further underscore the extent to which Trumpism is digging deep into the foundations of the constitutional state, weakening democracy in ways we will experience for decades.

And yet these things pale in significance compared to the cruelty and punitiveness of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance policy” on undocumented immigration, which has led to an immediate catastrophe for at least tens of thousands of people, most fleeing violence in Central America, who have sought entry to the U.S.: the separation of children from their parents, which has not been “remedied,” whatever this might even mean (how does one “repair” the psyches of the children stripped from their parents?); the planned mass detention of individuals and families in makeshift “detention centers” on military bases or in private prisons; the refusal of public inspections of these facilities by public officials, journalists, or citizen monitors, and the treatment of these facilities as virtual “black sites”; the immediate deportation of people seeking asylum without any due process; the militarization of the southern and northern borders, and calls for the Pentagon to organize the construction of new detention facilities, i.e, prisons, to detain, i.e., imprison, civilians seeking entry into the country who cross the border without authorization.

Perhaps even more frightening, in the face of criticism Trump has doubled down on all of this, intensifying his demagogic rhetoric about immigrant “infestations” and “criminal hordes”; blaming Democrats and journalists for seeking “open borders,” promoting crime, and caring about “foreigners” more than they do about the Americans whom “foreigners” supposedly victimize; and indeed going so far as to insist that we should dispense with courts and judges in the processing of immigrants.

Trump is being Trump, and he is making crystal clear what was clear from day one of his candidacy for the Presidency: he is an “aspirational fascist” for whom the crackdown on immigrants and “foreigners” is the foundation of a much broader crackdown on civil liberties, political opposition, independent media, and the basic procedures of constitutional democracy. And he must be opposed, stopped, and in 2020 expelled from office.

And so it was with great enthusiasm that I spent this past Saturday morning at the Monroe County Courthouse on the square, in the center of Bloomington, Indiana, attending the local Families Belong Together rally, one of many hundreds of such rallies to take place across the country. It was a glorious, uplifting event. Many thousands of people turned out and stood together in the hot sun for 90 minutes to hear speeches and songs, and to chant, and to express their outrage at Trump’s detention policies and their commitment to justice. The event was exhilarating and it was effective. A wide range of speakers spoke, each in their own way, about the need to resist Trump’s border policies and to defend human rights. There were Latinx and Muslim speakers; older people and students; representatives of the local ACLU chapter and the Bloomington Human Rights Commission; and an immigrant rights attorney who has been tireless in representing immigrant clients. They spoke about immigration and cultural pluralism, about human dignity and indignity, and about how “resistance is not futile.”

There was an extraordinary diversity of signs, and I created a Facebook album entitled “Bloomington’s Families Belong Together Rally: What the Signs Say,” posted with this caption:

So many people brought signs to the rally. Each sign made a statement. Through their signs, participants spoke. A great variety of perspectives were shared. Such a plurality of opinion is essential to a strong democracy. And if we are to defeat Trumpism and make our democracy stronger, then we will need to listen to each other, argue, listen, learn from each other, and work together.

The signs testify to the vitality of demonstrations like “Families Belong Together,” and the diversity of perspectives, and interests, that can and must come together to defeat Trumpism. And the rally itself testifies to the importance of public gatherings that demonstrate publicly the importance of pressing issues and demands, and that afford opportunities for diverse citizens to join in public together, beyond their private travails and tribulations and beyond the depression that so many now experience in the face of Trump’s rhetorical and political assaults on common decency and political freedom. By acting in concert, we empower ourselves, discover new solidarities, and open up pathways to political change. (As many readers will know, my comments here are heavily influenced by the writings of the political philosopher Hannah Arendt [1906-1975], a German-Jewish refugee from Nazism and the Holocaust, who wrote extensively about the importance of citizens acting together, in a principled and public way, in defense of human dignity and human rights.)

This rally was organized to express outrage at the Trump policy of family separations and detentions, in solidarity with those mainly Latino and Latina immigrants who are being detained, separated, and humiliated. It was organized beautifully, and effectively, by the organizers to serve this purpose—a purpose that is now morally imperative.

At the same time, there was a tension at the rally between this purpose and another, related though distinct purpose: the coming together of a genuinely political opposition to Trumpism that is capable not simply of expressing legitimate outrage and solidarity, but of checking and then politically defeating Trumpism.

Such an opposition, if it is to be principled, must express outrage at Trump’s punitive and repressive immigration measures. And many of the speakers, and the signs, did this, powerfully. “Where are the Children?” “Families Belong Together.” “Familias Unidas.” “Real Christians Don’t Put Babies in Cages.” “Concentration Camp.” “No Human Being is Illegal.” “Asylum is a Human Right.” “My Outrage Can’t Fit on This Sign.” To this extent, the very framing of the rally—“it is wrong to strip children from parents,” “it is necessary to bring families together”—was effective. And centering most of the discussion on the dehumanization of immigrants was equally effective.

But while necessary, it was also limiting, and in some tension with other messages: “This is What Democracy Is.” “Dissent is Patriotic.” “Rallies Aren’t Enough! Register Voters. Work on Campaigns.” “Vote Blue.”

These signs, a welcome and essential part of this rally that was organized in solidarity with vulnerable immigrants and their families, did more than express outrage at immoral separations and detentions, and solidarity with victims. They articulated a broader message of democratic civic equality and active democratic citizenship, and of the centrality of liberal, constitutional democracy to the upholding of human rights.

The rally offered a terrific opportunity to foreground some of these political concerns in ways that might actually have given more effective voice to many of those present—who were neither Latinx nor immigrants—and might also have resonated beyond the rally’s few thousand participants, to animate a strong, broad-based opposition to Trumpism in Monroe County and in Southern Indiana more generally. Unfortunately this opportunity was lost. Two examples will suffice to make my point.

(1) Of all the wonderful speakers at the rally, the one that was most exceptional and that received the loudest applause was a young girl, around 11 years old, who was incredibly articulate, spirited, precocious, and effective, especially given the rally’s core theme. With a Hispanic last name, she announced herself to be “biracial,” and then declared: “half of me is a privileged white kid, but the other half is Puerto Rican.” She then went on to speak, presumably on behalf of her latter half and against her former half, declaring, proudly and impressively, that she could not and would not accept the racism of Trump’s policies, which were an offense to her as a young Latina woman, and that “this land was stolen; the least we can do is recognize the rights of others.”

This girl was proud, she spoke for herself in her own voice, what she said was entirely appropriate, and nothing I say here is intended to disparage it.

But she never said: “I am a biracial girl, but I am also an American citizen, and I am outraged at Trump’s immigration policies, but also at Trumpism in general, in its treatment of women, African-Americans (not represented at this rally at all), and working people (also not represented), and indeed in its assaults on the civil liberties and political rights that define our constitutional democracy. I am outraged as a Latina with family who is suffering in Puerto Rico. But I am also outraged as a citizen. This country has a constitution, and the Trump administration violates this constitution on a daily basis.”

This civic perspective was expressed by some of the signs. But it was given minimal voice among the speakers (only one of whom—the Director of the Indiana ACLU—explicitly declared “We have the ultimate tool of our democracy; we have the vote. Let’s vote for our America”). One of the rally’s most powerful signs bore the slogan “We are the Change We Believe In.” But there was a paradoxical tension between two very different versions of “we.” One “we” was the group of assembled individuals taking a moral stand in support of immigrants and ethnic minorities. The other “we” was a diverse assembly of citizens acting together on behalf of values and institutions that we share and wish to defend. On the first meaning, Caucasians, who were probably a majority of those present and without question are a large majority of citizens of Southern Indiana, are represented as “privileged white people” whose presence is, presumably, an altruistic act of self-abnegation in solidarity with others (mainly those who come from Central America). On the second meaning, all participants, regardless of race, creed, or color, were citizens acting together in support of democracy. I am no fan of Mark Lilla’s recent screed against “identity politics,” The Once and Future Liberal, and I have strongly criticized his lack of appreciation for the power and legitimacy of “identity” claims like those asserted, impressively, by that wonderful young girl and many other fellow citizens at the rally. And yet it also seems obvious that a discourse centered only on “white privilege” and “solidarity with Spanish-speaking immigrants” is limiting. It is incapable of drawing the full range of support that we need in order to stop Trump’s border policies, and resist Trumpism, and institute better and more just policies, regarding immigrants but also African-Americans, ending border detentions, but also the prison-industrial complex, and also addressing economic insecurity, reproductive freedom, the opioid crisis, and the crisis of democracy that affects us all. Each of these is an issue warranting attention. But none of them, standing alone, can be sufficient to frame a powerful opposition to Trumpism. And so it is important to come up with frames that can bring together large groups of people in a sustained way. The defense and expansion of democratic citizenship is one such frame.

I wish the rally, and its program and its speakers, had complemented the important focus on racism and immigrant rights with a focus on the real meaning of the sign that read “This is What Democracy Is.” For the rally really was what democracy is, and to that extent it exceeded its own (necessary but insufficient) central message.

(2) Visibly present at the rally were John Hamilton, the liberal Democratic mayor of Bloomington, who has spoken out strongly against Trump’s Muslim ban and his immigration policies, and been very public that the city would do everything in its power to defend the rights of all residents (Bloomington is one of many cities that has, for legal reasons, avoided declaring itself “a sanctuary city” but has been clearly in effect such a city); and Liz Watson, the liberal Democratic candidate for Congress in the 9th District, who has also come out strongly against Trump’s border policies, and is fighting a tough battle to unseat the heavily-funded Republican incumbent, Trey Hollingsworth. I attended every minute of the rally. I waited for each of these speakers to be called to the podium. Neither was ever called. I learned later that neither had been invited to speak at the rally. More importantly, not a single speaker at the rally that I can recall even mentioned either Hamilton or Watson.

There may have been reasons for this. But it was a significant lost opportunity nonetheless.

In the case of the mayor, Bloomington is a bastion of Democratic liberalism in a sea of conservatism, and the mayor is very politically strong. Even there, it is symbolically important, for those present and for those who can learn about the rally through the media, that the city’s mayor was present as a strong supporter. Having him speak could have given greater credibility to the demonstration beyond its core activists. For the mayor is the city’s principal elected official, and he speaks for the city as a whole.

The case of Liz Watson is different, for she is not an incumbent local official but an extraordinary progressive challenger whose candidacy faces an uphill battle and whose fate is central to the national effort to flip the House, an effort that is absolutely essential to the resistance to Trumpism. Arguably no political development is more important right now to the citizens of Monroe County who care about immigrant rights, minority rights, reproductive rights, worker rights, civil rights, or voting rights, than the chance to elect Liz Watson to Congress. She has been endorsed by every national liberal and left group that matters. She has been endorsed by over 30 local unions. She has been endorsed by Elizabeth Warren. And she was recently named by the Nation’s editorial board as one of ten “progressive candidates we’re keeping our eyes on for the midterms.” She was present at the rally because she cares about the issue. I am certain that she was there to register her support as a citizen. At the same time, I think that the failure to ask her to speak, and thereby to highlight her campaign, was a serious lost opportunity.

Every single speaker at the rally made clear that the Trump administration and the Republican party that has become Trump’s vehicle are now enemies of immigrant rights and much else. Every speaker made clear that it is essential politically to fight the enemies of immigrant rights. A few of the rally’s attendees carried signs that made clear the political stakes: “Rallies Aren’t Enough! Register Voters. Work on Campaigns.” “Vote Blue.” But these messages were not represented on the podium, and were not loudly shared, to attendees and to everyone reading about the event in the newspaper or watching it on social media. This was a shame.

I want to be clear. The rally’s core theme—solidarity with immigrants—is virtuous, exemplary, and moral, and I embrace it wholeheartedly. And the rally’s organizers are to be commended for doing a great job. No event is perfect. They did their best, and they acted from a noble sense of solidarity, and they did something that everyone involved can be proud of. Period.

At the same time, in a spirit of solidarity with the event, I say: we need expressions of moral solidarity now, but we also need politics, now more than ever. And every public act of solidarity can only be enhanced by an explicit commitment to politics.

It is not enough to be in solidarity with separated children, or with undocumented immigrants, or with Latinx fellow citizens. We must be in solidarity with each other, as a diverse group of democratic citizens working together, in diverse coalitions, to defeat Trumpist neo-fascism. The struggle against barbarous detention needs to be linked to the struggle against barbarism more generally, and in defense of human rights, racial and gender equality, economic justice, and democracy. And it also needs to be linked to a positive agenda that involves real policy commitments, including commitments to a fair, humane, and just immigration policy.

This is a political fight, and the future of democracy is at stake. The fight is of course not reducible to electoral politics. But electoral politics is now a crucial component of this fight. And right now, especially for those who care about immigrant rights, there is nothing more important than placing political checks on Trump by flipping the House and perhaps even the Senate to the Democrats, and then by coming together to defeat Trump in 2020. As I have argued repeatedly in this column, such a political approach is consistent with and indeed requires vigorous debate and social movement activism, but this must be combined with the hard work of coalition-building and political compromise that alone can produce real change of government and make possible real change in policy.

As I have thought about the politics of the current moment, and of the legitimate moral outrage at the Trump-Sessions policy of “zero tolerance” and its options of family separation and family detention, I have returned repeatedly to the famous song “God Bless the Child.” Written in 1939 by the great Billie Holliday with Arthur Herzog, Jr., and first recorded by Holliday in 1941, the blues-inflected lyrics sing plaintively of the dependence and vulnerability of underprivileged children and of the importance of independence and autonomy. At the same time, they offer an utterly non-sentimental perspective on the human condition, and seem to extol a vision centered less on family warmth and integrity than on justice.

Them that’s got shall get
Them that’s not shall lose
So the Bible said and it still is news
Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that’s got his own
That’s got his own

Yes, the strong gets more
While the weak ones fade
Empty pockets don’t ever make the grade
Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that’s got his own
That’s got his own

Money, you’ve got lots of friends
Crowding round the door
When you’re gone, spending ends
They don’t come no more

Rich relations give
Crust of bread and such
You can help yourself
But don’t take too much
Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that’s got his own
That’s got his own

Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that’s got his own
That’s got his own
He just worry ’bout nothin’
Cause he’s got his own

Here is Holliday’s original 1941 recording:

Here is a video of her live 1955 performance with Count Basie Sextet:

And, given the concerns of the “Bringing Families Together” rallies, it seems appropriate also to share the version recorded by Blood, Sweat & Tears in 1968, which incorporates some terrific Latin horn solos, and happens to be one of my favorite recordings ever:

Also for you:

Jeffrey C. Isaac

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