May 1, 2016

DANBERG BIGGS | Really a Very Cowardly Thing to Do

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Last week, laid out in the center of the Arts Quad were five sets of sets of flags, each displaying a number. Heading each display was the name of a different nation: Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Somalia and Sudan. These signs, placed there by Cornell Amnesty International as a part of the Week of Action, counted the number of refugees displaced from each nation, and were designed to raise awareness about the hardships faced these millions. On Wednesday night, nearly all of the 250 flags were removed from the ground and scattered throughout North Campus. And it is very difficult to understand why.

The display made no mention of policy prescriptions, nor did it assign blame to any nation or group of people. It made no normative claims about the states it mentioned or any conflicts in which they are currently involved. In fact, apart from the choice to highlight these nations, the display was entirely apolitical, so it is not obvious why a person might find cause to object to a set of demographic statistics. But I think it comes down to the shortcuts we take when we reach the limits of our empathy

When I was 12 years old, I read Night like it was written by my father. It’s a short book, the 110-page account of Elie Wiesel’s life in Auschwitz and Buchenwald from 1944 to 1945. He calls it his deposition.

Thumbing through the light paperback on what I remember as a Saturday afternoon, I read this stranger’s narrative like it was a deeply personal family memory. The features of the character I constructed in my head were familiar, and every pain he felt seemed immediate. Fear and heartbreak jumped from the text on the page, and landed somewhere near my chest. This, I think, was a shortcut taken in deference to an empathy that had reached the limit of its ability. The extent of Wiesel’s tragedy was such that the only way I could think to process it was to place myself within it.

When faced with a certain scale of devastation, we are often confronted with the reality that the full scope of a stranger’s pain is impossible to comprehend on face. Staring at a flashing news banner or reading gory statistics in a textbook makes it clear that no matter how brutal a distant tragedy may be, it is extremely difficult to fully understand. And that is a deeply unpleasant experience. Much as I may like to be able to say that I know and can cognize the pain of some far away other, this is just so rarely the case.

Instead, we construct narratives to give ourselves a hand. In a certain context, like a movie or a book, where the narrative is laid out in detail, we will impose ourselves into the story. But when the presentation is more dispassionate, like a sign with a number, the shortcuts we take tend to be altogether more political. We might choose to digest the casualties of war as a necessary consequence, or the sign of a misguided leader. The victims of a natural disaster become the evidence of a necessary policy prescription, or a neglectful government. Regardless of the specifics, even when we are sympathetic to the pain that is being felt, the bodies and the lives are not really the point. They are the function of whatever larger meaning we would like them to have.

The lens through which Americans have chosen to witness the exodus of millions of refugees has been largely dominated by a perception of threat. It is hard to disentangle the various flavors of hysteria that have amalgamated in political discourse to create a widespread feeling that it would be a risk to allow the entry or support the survival of the victims of widespread war. Race and religion certainly play a role, but more than anything it is the overarching perception that advocacy for these refugees comes somehow at the expense of American safety.

Viewed in this light, it is unsurprising that someone might see these signs as something other than a humanitarian announcement. Those who took these flags, just like those who continue to peddle terror and hate, have chosen to understand this suffering with a narrative of fear. For months, America has been afraid of the shadows of huddled children walking in the dark, and for want of empathy, it seems we still are.

Rubin Danberg Biggs is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at The Common Table appears alternate Mondays this semester. 

  • Arafat

    Yours is a false comparison. No doubt the following will sound harsh to your naive and idealistic sensitivities but not all refugees are made the same. Indeed – and perish the thought – but some refugees should be given preference over others! I know, I know, how disgusting of me to state the painful obvious.

    But despite my sentence of eternal hell let’s get real here, Rubin.

    The Muslim migration into Europe – and this dates back to the 1970s – has created untold problems.

    As an example…The liberal and socialist Swedish politicians dating back to the 1970s sold that country down the river by convincing Swedes that opening up that entirely white and Christian nation to Muslim immigration would accrue to everyone’s benefit. Now this sounded good on paper. I mean why wouldn’t a bit of multi-culturalism and diversity possibly be a bad thing? Well, because in this instance it was, and all you have to do is to ask the thousands of women and even young boys raped by these Muslim immigrants. Unfortunately, and is your types wont, you never get around to asking the victims who are permanently hurt by your Kumbaya recommendations.

    But seriously, and thanks to people like you, Rubin, the incidence of rape in Sweden is up by 1,400% since the liberal politicians have had their way. Furthermore stores in Sweden cannot keep Mace in stock thanks to policies you are promoting. And gun sales you might ask? Yes indeed, stores cannot keep enough guns in stock.

    Now you might think I am a racist xenophobe but let me assure you I am not. I am all for Hindu immigration, I am all for Assyrian, Coptic, Chaldean immigration, and I am all for Buddhist, Zoroastrian and Baha’i immigration too. It is just Muslim immigration I have a problem with.

    For you see, don’t you, that Islam is incompatible with anyone else’s way of life. It has always been so and will always be so. For Mohammed was a megalomaniac, a sadist and a person for whom conquering the entire planet was his purpose in life. Damnation for all others, for all infidels was his mantra, and superiority for all Muslims followed suit.

    SO you can support Muslim immigration all you want but do it in your backyard, not mine. Open up your parents extra bedrooms to Muslims. Share your dorm room with Muslims. But just don’t tell me to do the same.

    Let me close by saying I feel for Muslims, for Muslims are Islam’s first victims. I pray that one day Muslims are free to leave Islam without fearing for their lives or their families lives due to Islam’s cruel apostasy laws. I pray Muslims are one day free from the repressive and cruel religion they are unluckily born to, for whether they know it or not they have so much more potential to share and to give if they were outside of their supremacist and cruel religion. I hope they will follow in the footsteps of the Ayaan Ali Hirsi’s of the world and to experience the true meaning of freedom. But until this happens you’re not welcomed in my backyard and Rubin’s words are all hot air until she puts up or shuts up and welcomes you into her’s first.