There is a country that ranks 31st globally in life expectancy even though its healthcare costs per capita are by far the highest. This country has one of the lowest voter participation rates in the free world. It loses over a thousand people every week to misuse of pharmaceutical opioids. It loses about another 600 people every week to homicide and suicide by gunfire.
Its military veterans go untreated for months or years while suffering from both serious physical and mental illnesses. It has saddled its young with a trillion dollars in debt for the unforgivable crime of seeking a higher education. It is home to countless millions working full time who can’t afford adequate food, shelter, or clothing. Among industrialized free states, it has the highest percentage of citizens without health insurance.
This country, of course, is the United Stares, and it is a shithole. But not for any of the reasons cited above. We have our problems, but we have our virtues as well. America is a shithole because its empathy is quickly vanishing.
Empathy is the lifeblood of any nation. No legal system, no matter how expansive, can possibly cover all the nuanced and often bizarre circumstances that befall people every day. No vast array of government programs can do it. No army of corporate juggernauts can do it. Only millions of volunteer foot soldiers disguised as neighbors, peers, passersby and strangers can even hope to get some sort of a handle on it. Those foot soldiers—namely, you and I—are disappearing every day.
Readers may argue that Americans still care for their families and friends. Yes, that’s true if you define down those terms. But for the most part, the American populace is behaving like a body experiencing empathy frostbite. The digits go first—fingers and toes. Nose tips and earlobes follow soon after. Then whole limbs.
It has been decided by default that refugees and undocumented immigrants are the fingers and toes of our frostbitten social order. This ethos has been on full display in January following Donald Trump’s unabashed relegation of poorer nations to the political outhouse and his Hitleresque advocacy of Nordic DNA. None of it was particularly surprising for a president who sees a showdown between the Ku Klux Klan and protesters as a barroom brawl between inebriated equals. What was, even to this thoroughly jaded observer, just a little bit surprising, was the swift defense of both Trump’s language and his politics all over social media in the ensuing days.
Yes, we’ve seen this sort of xenophobia before, but I would argue not to this degree. In the dead of winter, millions of aggrieved John and Jane Does—their lives apparently turned into a living hell by the Salvadoran plumber who fixed their leaky kitchen sink last summer and the Haitian chef who prepared their rare steak last Tuesday—took to Facebook and Twitter to scream, with caustic sarcasm, Time’s up! Because Lord knows the Salvadoran plumbers and Haitian chefs are running wild in the streets, marauding good white households, raping our fair-haired daughters. They are somehow stealing jobs in a U.S. labor market so tight companies are once again hiring ex-convicts.
They broke the law! This is the battle cry again and again from incensed Americans with unpaid parking tickets on the dresser, illegally obtained painkillers in the medicine cabinet, and unlicensed firearms in the shed. They broke the law! is the brick thrown in a massive glass house of delinquent taxes, domestic abuse, and barely legal internet pornography.
If you believe millions of internet threads, these refugees hardly cut it as marginal human beings. They are not even fingers and toes but fingernails and toenails. They are the “wretched refuse” etched into the Statue of Liberty who can now be returned to teeming shores because that is the new zeitgeist in a land where anyone you don’t happen to need this very moment you won’t ever need in the future.
One day it’s Muslims. The next it’s Mexicans. Then Haitians and Salvadorans whose historical fates the United States threw into chaos repeatedly. Then it’s African-Americans. Then Puerto Ricans. Then gay people. Then transgenders. Then liberals. Then Jews. Then, eventually, anyone who doesn’t attend your church regularly, look and dress like you, and subscribe to whatever self-indulgent rage you awoke with this morning.
This is Trump’s legacy. It trumps the warped tax code reform, the war on scientific thought, the verbal pissing contest with North Korea, and the normalization of sexual assault. It is more dangerous, toxic, and corrosive than anything Vladimir Putin’s flunkies could have perpetrated on the internet and any erosion to date of the First Amendment. It is the death of the two thousand year old Good Samaritan in the space of a few short months.
We are falling for it because looking at someone a little different—or a lot different—from yourself and knowing there but for the grace of God go I is infinitely harder and messier than tapping into your own misplaced sense of victimhood, firing a few long range pot shots, and retreating back into your self-righteous emotionally gated community.
This is the new civil war, fought not between north and south but between you and everyone you see as having come between yourself and the golden life of handjobs from the prom queen in the backseat of the Ford Convertible you were promised in a 50s sitcom. The M.O. of the moment is to point selectively to the lack of full compliance with antiquated immigration laws and delight as the corpses are strung up in the public square.
Foaming at the mouth makes some people feel invulnerable. It also makes them way too shortsighted to understand they are spilling blood formed in the very same empathy marrow they will one day need themselves, and far too forgetful to connect the dots years later when they are left to die on the side of the road by strangers. They know only two things—one, rage over “broken laws” feels good, and two, in an absolute technical sense devoid of any context whatsoever, they are correct.
May God have mercy on their souls. I’m not sure I do.
Rich Herschlag is well into his third decade as an author, consulting engineer, husband and father and is very tired.