The durability of America’s false self-image

The forcible separation of children, even those who are toddlers, from their parents at the borders and putting them in cages seems to threaten the Trump administration with being a step too far. The photographs and videos of the grim sight and the newly released heartbreaking audio recordings by ProPublica of children sobbing uncontrollably and calling for their parents seems to be too much to stomach for even some of Trump’s most ardent supporters. Even the evangelical zealot, Trump fan boy, and outright bigot Franklin Graham who had hitherto not allowed any daylight between him and Trump said “It’s disgraceful, and it’s terrible to see families ripped apart, and I don’t support that one bit.” Laura Bush has also come out against it, as have some other conservatives. Big majorities oppose these actions, with the only demographic group supporting it being Republicans.

As I have said, the Trump administration seems to work on the assumption that you can never be too mean to poor people and people of color and that indeed they and their supporters relish the cries of the bleeding hearts who speak out against such actions and seem to actively seek to provoke such reactions with more and more meanness. The head of the Department of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, who has been humiliated by Trump several times, has been the leader in making callous remarks, no doubt hoping that it will put her back in Trump’s good graces because being mean to the weak and powerless is a good career move with Trump.

It is becoming clear that this cruel policy is aimed at forcing Democrats and the Congress to fund Trump’s wall. They seemed to feel that using children as hostages in the negotiations would put pressure on them to make such a deal. But that does not seem to have worked as expected, with the negative reaction being aimed at the administration instead.

What seems to have happened is that shining the light on this policy has caused some people to indulge in some self-reflection and it makes them a little uncomfortable. But the reality is so unpleasant that they simply cannot avoid self-deception. Take this example of a common reaction.

Tom Perez, chair of the Democratic National Committee, responded to Nielsen’s remarks by saying: “This utter lack of compassion and respect for basic human dignity is grotesque. And the blind contempt his staff has shown toward anyone pointing out the truth is a vile disgrace. This is not who we are. The American people are watching.” [My italics-MS]

It is a marvel to me that Perez can say such a thing with a straight face because ripping children away from their families is what America has done repeatedly, during the time of slavery and again when Native American children were forcibly taken from their families and placed in distant boarding schools to ‘get the Indian out of them’. Ripping families apart is as American as apple pie.

I was reminded of the only novel that Oscar Wilde wrote The Picture of Dorian Gray. Gray is an extremely handsome man and when he was young he had a portrait painted of him. But as he started to indulge in secret evil acts, he noticed that while he continued to look young and innocent, his portrait started changing subtly for the worse. Alarmed that his true character would be seen by others in the painting, he hid it away in a locked attic room. As he grew older and increased the level of his debauchery and indulged in more and greater evil acts, he continued to look young, while it was his portrait that revealed what he had truly become due to the ugliness of his character and actions.

America is like Dorian Gray who, when they look in the mirror, see a virtuous and innocent nation, overflowing with noble qualities, a shining light on the hill that others should seek to emulate. But in the dark recesses of its attic is a portrait that shows the true picture, with the effects of its long history of oppression and cruelty, to its own people and to those of other nations. The question is whether this latest act of cruelty to immigrant children will cause America to gain the courage to go into the attic and take a good, hard look at what it has truly become.

I am doubtful, though. The capacity for self-delusion is strong. Behavioral economist Dan Ariely’s work on cheating found that when given the opportunity to cheat a little for small rewards, people tended to take advantage of it and did cheat. But as the opportunity to cheat more for larger rewards increased, the level of cheating did not increase proportionately but leveled off. He inferred from this that most people want to have a self-image of themselves as honest people and a small amount of cheating allows them to retain that self-image and prevents them from crossing that invisible line they set for themselves. This is why people in real life may cheat in small ways by (say) inflating their charitable giving and making other questionable adjustments on their tax returns to reduce their taxes but only a few will go all in and commit major dishonesties, because they want to be able to think of themselves as basically honest people.

But if history is any guide, when it comes to the nation it will take a lot to change the smug self-image of being virtuous. The list of atrocities in its history is long and hideous and yet people like Perez can still look at something like what is being done to immigrant children and say “This is not who we are”. That self-delusional attitude is precisely why such polices exist and continue.

Don’t look in the mirror, Tom, because it is deceiving you. Look at the portrait that has been hidden away and you will discover that this is indeed who we are.


  1. says

    This is why so many white people are so eager to paint American slavery as not that bad. Yes, they are racist, but seeing the truth of slavery for what it was and how its after effects are felt rips the veil off the lie that is the United States -- a nation of “liberty” founded by slave owners.

    (It also helps explain why so many white Americans prefer to only ever see Native Americans as cartoon mascots for their sports teams.)

  2. says

    Well said.

    The USA have not been the “good guys” ever, except in the World War 2, and even then they commited completely unnecessary atrocities.

  3. mnb0 says

    I am reminded of Kristallnacht. The nazis learned an important lesson: despicable politics should be hidden from public opinion, so that the masses can keep on believing lies (in your words: avoid Dorian Gray’s mirror). Fortunately that’s much and much more difficult in the 21st Century.

    Btw, you being a movie buff, should try to lay your hands on

    This is what horror should be.

  4. Quirky says

    Tabby, the apples don’t fall too far from the root of the tree.
    Nice to see ya back.

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