America's cyber civil war rages as migrant families suffer

America's cyber civil war rages as migrant families suffer
Comment: In the age of Trump, journalism alone can't convince people of concepts like the universal value of human life, writes Wilson Dizard.
6 min read
26 Jun, 2018
Republicans plan on focusing on immigration in November's congressional elections [AFP]
In America, things are even worse than you think. 

Civil society's best, and only means of rejecting authoritarianism aren't working. The last, endless week has proven that.

Donald Trump's presidency has brought with it the dismantling of the administrative state, combined with his continued demands for it to carry out impossible tasks that violate the US constitution and ignore the human rights of vulnerable people.

Incarcerating asylum seekers, some separated from their children, is his latest, most brazenly cruel scheme, reminiscent of his Muslim ban last year.

Some of the journalism surrounding the crisis has been stellar, especially ProPublica's chilling recording  of parentless children crying inside detention centres, but there is a limit to how much journalists can do.

Presenting the misery of innocent children and the terror of their parents, even in the most "down-the-middle," objective way, won't sway people resistant to feeling empathy for them. In fact, broadcasting the chilling reality achieves the administration's goal: Detering migration into the United States.

"We cannot allow all of these people to invade our Country," the president tweeted on Sunday. "When somebody comes in, we must immediately, with no Judges or Court Cases, bring them back from where they came. Our system is a mockery to good immigration policy and Law and Order. Most children come without parents...."

There's nothing that even the best reporting can do if people decide not to believe it

Although mainstream Republican politicians have gasped at the policy, Trump and his supporters have ignored the shocked conservative scorn and hot liberal outrage. Indeed, 90 percent of Republicans still approve of the president, according to Gallup; and 55 percent support family separation of asylum seekers, according to Quinnipiac University polling.

Republicans plan on focusing on immigration during upcoming congressional elections in November. Democrats have noticed.

Read more: Illegal, unconstitutional or just racist? Trump's travel ban heads to Supreme Court

"I don't want to be quoted saying Democrats have a problem, but there is a real problem here. On most issues, whether health care or taxes or the general mood, the Republicans are in a bad place," the anonymous Democratic pollster told The New Yorker. "This is their one wedge issue that actually works for them."

Some of Trump's fans just tune out negative press about the president, considering it a product of liberal bias or not telling the whole story.

"It's kind of like when you experience a sensation over and over again. A sensation is no longer a sensation. It's just "Oh, here we go again,'" Daniel Arnold, a 32-year-old Trump supporter in Virginia told The New York Times.

Another Virginian Trumpist, Jeff Butts, 58, told the paper that evidence of FBI agents badmouthing the president in 2016 was more newsworthy than "crying babies on the border".

Butts probably doesn't consider himself a bad person, or a racist. He's Jeff, his brain tells him, and not doing anything wrong.

Although Butts discounts the significance of suffering, he doesn't relish it like White House adviser, the arch anti-immigrant Stephen Miller, who reportedly feels glee at images of families torn apart and helped devise the punitive plan himself.

Meanwhile, the reality of housing tens of thousands of asylum seekers has caught up with the alt-Right fantasies of building a white ethnostate. Military attorneys may start overseeing prosecution of alleged illegal entries by asylum seekers. Camp Pendleton, a Marine base outside San Diego, may start to house as many as 47,000 people, Time and others reported.

"I don't believe it," tweeted Montgomery Granger, a former Guantanamo Bay guard who wrote a book about his time there. "Perhaps the story is really that Mexico is setting up a tent city for all the asylum seekers they used to let through to the US. What great neighbors! Viva la Mexico!"

Journalism requires some basic understanding between outlets and audiences on what is right and wrong

And there's the rub. There's nothing that even the best reporting can do if people decide not to believe it, and then present their own alternative reality. This divergence began in 2016, when millions of voters decided that Trump was the "lesser of two evils" compared to his opponent, Hillary Clinton.

Meanwhile, millions of other voters grudgingly voted for Clinton, considering her the lesser of two evils. But these statements exist in parallel moral universes. Tearing families apart, sending them down byzantine bureaucratic labyrinths, cannot be both right and wrong.

In order to function, journalism requires some basic understanding between outlets and audiences on what is right and wrong.

Trump, by fostering a cult-like devotion online, has undermined this understanding, and pushed Americans deeper into the dugouts of an ongoing American cyber civil war.

Unlike the battles and bloodshed of the first American Civil War, where armies invented modern trench warfare, the American cyber civil war is a psychological one, where the purpose is to humiliate, insult and degrade your ideological enemies from afar.

American journalism, even in its most staid, Cronkite incarnation, can't stop this cyber civil war.

We can't convince people of philosophical concepts like the universal value of human life, or force them to choose to believe the facts of physical reality.

Nor do we really know how to help people interpret the hallucinatory surreality of actual, documented events, like Melania Trump's decision to don a jacket scrawled with the words "I really don't care. Do u?" after visiting migrant children her husband ordered detained. I mean what the heck was that? How do civil society's antibodies attempt to respond to something so bizarre?

Raising an alarm about a cyber civil war might sound far fetched, but it follows a disturbing trend in American history.

Every increase in the capacity of communications technology in the United States has proved a harbinger for conflict.

Trump and his supporters have ignored the shocked conservative scorn and hot liberal 

The first civil war broke out not much more than two decades after the invention of the telegraph. Less than a century later, radio let leaders stir the whole world into the bloodiest war in the history of civilization.

Instead of a means for mass education, television proved to be a powerful force for social control. The internet, for its part, has brought people closer together than ever before, but they've used it to figure out reasons to hate and fear one another, sometimes for utterly delusional reasons.

So what's to be done about civil society eating itself?

I'm not sure, but I don't think journalism can stop it. And you sure can't Google the answer. Believe me, 
I've tried.

Wilson Dizard is a reporter and photojournalist covering politics, media and culture. He enjoys bicycling. 

Follow him on Twitter: @willdizard

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.