Words and Pictures: What is a “liberal” and Who is Responsible for Migrant Deaths?

Michael DeAdder cartoon portraying US president Donald Trump as a heartless perpetrator of migrant death illustrates the hyperbolic character of partisan politics in the current era.

According to the CNN article “Senate, House headed for confrontation over border funding bill,” “Four liberal Democratic freshmen voted against the [border control/aid] measure: Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota.” The Senate and House overwhelmingly approved versions of the Bill. The House Democrats relented to the Senate and Trumped signed the bill into law. The migrant crisis did not allow time for reconciliation.

Let me begin with a complaint. One would expect these four to vote this way. But why are their politics characterized as “liberal?” The rule of law, equality of opportunity, individual rights, freedom of speech, secularism and freedom of religion, all core features of liberalism, are hardly the ideals embraced by persons who call for the abolition of law enforcement agencies, believe in equality of result, assert group rights, demand political correctness, and condemn irreligious criticism as bigotry. Efforts to mainstream Islam can hardly be accurately characterized as a liberal political interest (see “The Democratic party and the Doctrine of Multiculturalism”).

I raise this issue as an imperfect liberal. I am a socialist. That means that I disagree with the liberal value of capitalist markets. But I am committed to liberalism’s other values (these ones I listed above) and have explained elsewhere (see “The Contradiction in Liberalism”) that liberalism suffers from an internal contradiction (capitalism is at odds with personal liberty) and that resolving that contraction brings liberalism’s other values in line with freedom and justice. The George Orwell in me bristles when I see leftwing identitarians identified as such. But CNN is a propaganda outfit. Not just CNN, though. The New York Times and The Washington Post do this same thing. In fact, this labeling trick is rampant in corporate media. This is part of what is allowing conservatives to claim for themselves a liberal value such as free speech. And without apparent contradiction.

But I am writing this entry not merely to bitch about the corporate media misusing a word. The partisan character of the establishment media, not just party-wise, but, more crucially, establishment-wise, by which I mean a configuration of bourgeois fractions, uses this language to deepen a subjectivity that promotes politics that work against the interests of the working class. This CNN article illustrates this problem quite well. It shows how the habitual use of certain types of framing connect popular perception to elite agenda.

Perhaps nothing illustrations this better than the crisis at our border. I will begin with some facts. On the matter of deaths at the border, according to US Customs and Border Patrol, under the Obama administration there were 313 deaths in 2014, 251 in 2015, and 329 in 2016. In 2012, the remains of 463 migrants were found, a figure approaching death toll of 2005 (when close to 500 bodies were found). If those numbers surprise you, that doesn’t surprise me. There was little coverage of it in the media and no associated hysteria.

To compare, there were 294 deaths in 2017 (since these are fiscal year numbers, which begin on October 1, some of these deaths occurred on Obama’s watch) and 283 deaths in 2018. The media dutifully threw these numbers into the echo chamber and now the public is registering concern. (Rarely reported is the fact that, in 2017, the rescue/death ratio was 11:1, a fact I a reporting here because of the way CBP is being depicted as causing deaths rather than preventing them.)

Source: US Immigration: Drowning exposes risks to illegal border crossings

The way the media puts faces to the statistics is with pictures and video (the ones they choose to share, of course). Photographs and videos are important records of human tragedy. The picture of the Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea after human smugglers crammed his family onto a tiny inflatable raft haunts me still. Because information indicated that Kurdi’s final destination was Canada, his death became an issue in the federal elections there, even though no Canadian had anything to do with the little boy’s death.

How these images are framed depends on agenda. When viewed in humanitarian terms, these pictures are a reminder of the risks associated with migration. Migration is a millennia-old human story and the elements can be deadly barriers to freedom and slavery. The leading causes of death at the southern US border are dehydration, drowning, heat stroke, and hyperthermia (the last is the most common cause). This is why it is always important to remember that encouraging migration can be a deadly invitation.

Much of the establishment media, however, framed the image of the bodies of Óscar Martínez and his daughter, who drowned attempting to illegally cross into the United States, as the fault of Donald Trump and its immigration policies. CNN and MSNBC are very clear about this: It is because Trump does not open the borders and let everybody cross that people die.

Yet the United States, like all other countries, has national borders and, like all other countries, regulates immigration for the sake of its citizens, who expect policies in the national interests to be enforced, not abdicated because other people recklessly attempt to illegally cross the border. The reasonable approach to solving the problems of people who leave their home countries is to help them in their home countries, not encourage them to embark upon a perilous journey to migrate to other countries.

For this reason we should applaud recent remarks by El Salvador’s president Nayib Bukele, reported by the BBC, admitting that it is his country’s failures that are responsible for Óscar Martínez and his daughter’s deaths. We should also applaud the BBC for reporting the story in an objective manner that avoids falsely blaming the United States government in a way that inspires more migration. (To see that the BBC is engaged in a pattern of responsible reporting on this subject, see the article “US Immigration: Drowning exposes risks to illegal border crossings.”)

In the wake of the tragic drownings of bodies of Óscar Martínez and his daughter, Bukele told the BBC his government has to fix the issues that force people to migrate in the first place.

“We can blame any other country but what about our blame?” he said. “What country did they flee? Did they flee the United States? They fled El Salvador, they fled our country. It is our fault.” Bukele promised he would work to make El Salvador a safer and better place. 

Bukele has more respect for the truth than a lot of Americans. Unless evidence could be brought to bear sufficient for believing otherwise, I didn’t hold the Obama Administration responsible for the hundreds of migrant deaths annually that occurred on his watch (neither did those now complaining about Trump) and I don’t hold Trump accountable for the migrant deaths that occur under his administration.

However, the conditions in El Salvador are not the only thing responsible for migration. Those are push factors. But there are pull factors (see “The Situation at the Border”). Betraying their humanitarian claims, the Catholic Church and other religious groups play a major role in encouraging migration to the United States. The truth is that they seek congregants and opportunities to signal virtue. Business advocates, like the Koch brothers, play a major role in the movement of population (see “The Koch Brothers and the Building of a Grassroots Coalition to Advance Open Borders). They seek cheap labor and low wages to raise the profit rate. Immigration advocate and attorney are self-interested. And progressives must also take responsibility for encouraging Central Americans to defy an administration they obsessively desire to embarrass and delegitimize. Americans workers deserve better than this in their own country. 

The debate over the border depends on one’s choice of comrades. The questions I ask myself: Do I stand with the working class or do I stand with exploiters and moral entrepreneurs? Do I want migrants dying needlessly in the desert or in a river or do I want to see efforts made to improve the conditions of native existence? The progressive left is wrong on so many levels on this issue. And their errors are indicative of a much deeper problem, namely the tacit acceptance of neoliberal assumptions about open borders and market forces, which have created a subjectivity deceiving the rank-and-file into working at cross-purposes with the interests of those they are supposed to be fighting for. They have made a poor choice of comrades.

Perhaps, then, tagging social democrats and identitarians as “liberal” is designed to keep them close to bourgeois sensibilities, to keep them in the fold, and away from a position on the left where the contradiction between deep multiculturalism and globalization, on the one side, and the conditions for worker solidarity, on the other hand, can be resolved in a way that produces the grounds for a leftwing populist movement that threatens capitalist power.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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