After a few weeks overseas, away from the daily drip of US news, I’m home and horrified and thinking about Karl Polanyi.
One of the 20th century’s great economic historians, Polanyi wrote about economics, but he started with humanity. What does it take to create a willing worker, a follower, a servant? What makes a person pliant?
To explain it, Polanyi looked at colonizers who cut down fruit trees and olive groves and uprooted relationships to break apart autonomous social networks. Smash society and you create craven people. Craven, from the early English word meaning crushed, defeated, overwhelmed.
You can probably see where I’m going.
What does it take to break apart social beings and turn them into fearful atomized ones — the ones I feel us becoming as we scurry about in our endless days, trying to make ends meet and digesting the news while the news we get becomes ever more shocking and more dire?
Award-winning cartoonist Jen Sorenson put her finger on it in an insightful strip about what’s been happening at the border. Families aren’t the only things being separated, she shows us. Americans, too, are being divided from their consciences.
Forced separation from our consciences, she warns, can lead to national trauma, and even national suicide.
Is this what this is? This sadness that I’m feeling? Smashing society is what authoritarians do, and Donald Trump is great at it.
In a pep rally for his troops – I mean voters – Trump announced a change from family separation to family incarceration. Indefinitely. Will we stomach that? He also insulted a protestor, disparaged the press and boasted about how well he got along with the dictator of North Korea.
Breaking us apart from one another, insult by insult, threat by threat, is how Trump seized the presidency in the first place, but it’s important to understand that we were already pretty broken. Without even delving into the nation’s history of genocide and slavery, the statistics are disheartening. On any given day in the US, half a million kids are in foster care. They stay there, on average, for a couple of years, and some for 5 years or more. More than half are children of color, and their average age is 9. Another 60,000 children, under 18 years of age, are incarcerated in prisons and jails.
This state of affairs is normal, but only in a broken society.
However, we’re not done for yet. As I write, protestors are occupying Immigration authority offices around the country with their children, and women are preparing for mass arrests. Images and sound bites of kids in cages hit a nerve that rescinding DACA for 800,000 dreamers did not – that ending temporary protection for 248,000 refugees did not, and that denying asylum to thousands of victims of war and violence has so far failed to do. We’re not at national suicide point yet, but only time will tell.