The cruelty took place in the distant past. Tour the Smithsonian’s Museum of African American history in Washington (this columnist’s hometown for the last 45 years) and there you will stumble upon a slave narrative from 1848 that is part of the Weeping Time exhibit, documenting the tragic history of enslaved children being separated from their enslaved mothers, a narrative in which we read about the howls of a mother as her baby was being ripped from her arms during a slave auction, and she refusing to let the baby down, even as she was being lashed across her back before being forced to climb atop an auction block to be sold to the highest bidder.
If modern-day Americans, many transformed generations and many legislated laws after the fact, thought that kind of wickedness was behind them, they were shocked to discover the memory of that ugly chapter in their history was being reenacted in their time, different in kind but the same in degree. Clearly we’re talking here about news reports that in recent months have appeared in every national and provincial newspaper in the country, detailing the forceful separation of Hispanic migrant families seeking asylum in America.
Here’s one such report, that appeared in the Washington Post last May: “The administration’s current crackdown on families [from Mexico and several Central American republics] that cross the border illegally has led to hundreds of children. some as young as 18 months, becoming separated from their parents. The parents are being sent to federal jails to face criminal prosecution while their children are being placed in shelters operated by the Department of Health and Human Services. Often the children have no idea where their parents are or when they will see them again.”
This is not a one-off episode in today’s America, a country in a dark mood these days, whose resurgent populism and nativist venom have driven it to seek a “pleasure principle” in the infliction of pain on helpless people, people born, by a trick of fate, as it were, to more difficult conditions than others, in circumstances hard to escape.
This column, you say, is being hyperbolic this week? No. For consider how vengefully, wantonly and, above all, gratuitously, the current administration has in recent months tormented Palestinians. First came its initial assault on the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which for decades has provided economic, educational and health care services to millions of Palestinian refugees, by cutting its contribution to the agency from $360 million (Dh1.32 billion) to a paltry $60 million, followed soon by a total cut-off of funds. Then last month, the administration cancelled $200 million in annual aid earmarked for the West Bank and Gaza, which had paid for infrastructure, humanitarian assistance and education there. And last week, Washington (hold on to your hat) ordered that $25 million intended for the care of Palestinians seeking health care in occupied Jerusalem hospitals be stopped or, in State Department lingo, “redirected”. And last Monday, in a punitive action intended to instil submission, dealt the Palestinian leadership a one-two punch by suddenly ordering that the PLO office in Washington be shut down. In short, you don’t play ball — on our terms — you ship out.
What might explain this nastiness? To be sure, the toxic mix of nativism, demagoguery and populist mean-spiritedness we’re talking about here is today widespread throughout the Euro-American world. We are told that it is all triggered by immigration — Muslim in Europe and Hispanic in America.
Now consider the drama playing out in various countries in the former, where we are witnessing the end of the centre-left/centre-right monopoly that has dominated politics there since the conclusion of the Second World War. The voters there have spoken, and what they had to say — not unlike their counterparts across the Atlantic — is not altogether pretty.
In September 2017, the far-right Alternative for Democracy in Germany won 12.6 per cent of the vote and entered the Bundestag with 94 seats. In October, Andrej Babbis, the anti-immigrant populist, became prime minister of the Czech Republic, and the avowedly racist Freedom Party in Austria won 26 per cent of the popular vote. In March this year, the Five Star Movement, with its own anti-immigrant and so-called New Left agenda, scored significant electoral gains in Italy, becoming the country’s largest party.
And in the Netherlands — yes, the Netherlands, renowned historically as having a tolerant, unruffled, laid-back society — the centre-left Labour Party’s share of the vote fell from 24.8 per cent in 2012 to just 5.7 per cent in 2017. Even in liberal Sweden, in elections held last Sunday, the Sweden Democrats, a far-right group with neo-Nazi origins, who oppose immigration and want to pull out of the European Union, made strides. And, yes, lets face it, if issues centred around the economy, not immigration, had determined the outcome of the Brexit vote, Britain would have remained in the EU. As to the virulently populist and openly racist governments elected in places like Poland and Hungary, well, the less said about that the better.
This is the sad state of affairs in the Euro-American world today. It may take psycho-historians, who have a more penetrative grasp of the dynamic of social evolution than us political columnists do, to explain that state’s obliqueness. But one thing is plain: living as we are in Marshall McLuhan’s “global village”, where that Euro-American world goes in the future will, in a trickle-down effect, affect where our own world in the Middle East will itself go. Scary thought?
Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.