Weaponizing Compassion

What the controversy over illegal immigrant families is really about.

Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.

The Democrat “resistance” has managed to break its own record for hysterical and hypocritical invective. Literalizing the clichéd punch line of a thousand gags––“Will no one think of the children!!!” ––the Dems are hyperventilating about the illegal alien parents and their children being separated upon detention, as the law requires. Once again, we see how much “conspicuous compassion,” as Alan Bloom called it, has become a weapon of politics, one that damages our security and interests.

In this case, the disconnect between fact and spin is more glaring than usual. No matter that ICE and Homeland Security are working within the constraints of court rulings and the law that Congress passed and can change any time.  No matter that often it’s impossible to certify that the detained adults are the actual parents, or that human traffickers aren’t using this dodge to enter the country with their prey. No matter that the alternative is to turn these poorly vetted illegal aliens loose (as Obama did, as a form of de facto amnesty), merely on their word that they will show up for a hearing. No matter that across the country, Child Protective Services are “ripping children from their parents’ arms,” as are the children of those arrested on suspicion of a crime. Do we set a criminal suspect free on his own recognizance just because he’s accompanied by his kid? 

No matter. Fact, common sense, and law must cede to politics, which these days comprises a deep, pathological hatred of Donald Trump, the Emmanuel Goldstein of the Democrats’ 247 “Two Minutes Hate.” “Compassion” is just another weapon of that hate.

Compassion, however, has a long history of being trivialized in Western culture. It followed the idealizing of “sensitivity” that began in the late 18th century. Novels like Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey and Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling, whose hero bursts into tears every ten pages, marked the point when showy displays of “feelings” like compassion, often called “luxurious” at the time, became a virtue-signaling status symbol. This is the fad that Jane Austen satirized in her 1811 novel Sense and Sensibility. As many other critics at the time pointed out, compassion was the justifying virtue that masked what often was nothing more than emotional solipsism for those whose concern for others seldom led to action that improved their lot.

By the mid-19th century even a master of sentimentalism like Charles Dickens could recognize that such public displays of compassion for the poor or native peoples abroad were a self-indulgence. In Bleak House, he created Mrs. Jellyby, the archetype of today’s purveyors of virtue-signaling compassion, who bleed for distant suffering but neglect that in their own backyard. As Mrs. Jellyby strives to settle impoverished Londoners among heathen Africans they will convert to Christianity, her shabby household and neglected children continue to fall into ruin. 

Dickens called this “telescopic philanthropy,” a phenomenon we’re seeing today with the ostentatious compassion for illegal alien children on the part of those who shrug off the daily excesses in their own country, such as those of the Child Protective Services, which often violate the Fourth Amendment. 

Popularized more widely in the 19th century by the mass circulation of illustrated magazines and serialized novels, conspicuous compassion permeated American culture, as did “telescopic philanthropy.” In Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain satirized the “committee of sappy women” who are petitioning the governor to pardon the murderous Injun Joe: “If he had been Satan himself there would have been plenty of weaklings ready to scribble their names to a pardon petition, and drip a tear on it from their permanent leaky water-works.” 

So too today, with those beating their breasts over sloppily vetted illegal aliens who endanger their children by bringing them across the border or sending them off with “coyotes.” They can’t seem to summon similar compassion for the victims of the criminals allowed into the country and kept here despite serial felonies. And remember the weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth over the terrorist murderers held in Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib? And how about the “Palestinians” who use their own children as shields behind which to launch lethal attacks on Israelis? When do we hear the same lamentations over innocent Israeli children and families murdered by homicide-bombers, scud missiles, and knife-wielding terrorists?

Then there is today’s favorite venue for politicized conspicuous compassion––the postcolonial Third World. Our morbid fascination with the misery and suffering there serves both our need to signal our superior virtue, and the leftist melodrama of the Western colonial and imperialist oppression allegedly responsible for that suffering. 

This combination of conspicuous compassion and ostentatious self-loathing is the essence of Third-Worldism, that idealization of the non-Western “other” combined with self-flagellation over the original sins of imperialism and colonialism. French philosopher Pascal Bruckner wrote a brilliant analysis of this cultural neurosis in Tears of the White Man. Bruckner describes how Third-World suffering has become a lucrative commodity for the modern media, who provide the images that we consume in order to enjoy cost-free pathos and smug superiority about our righteous compassion. In this way, we compensate for our “certain essential evil,” as Bruckner calls the West’s original sin, “that must be atoned for.” 

Which is to say, conspicuous compassion is about political power, since this neurosis empowers the foreign policy favored by globalists and leftists alike –– foreign aid and “development” even if they’re not in our national interest and don’t help to protect our security. Domestically, for decades, including during George W. Bush’s bout of “compassionate conservatism,” the progressives have slandered conservatives as heartless and ruthless racists, bigots, and xenophobes who fear the dark-skinned “other” and seek to “roll back the clock” to the time when their “white male hetero-normative privilege” was unchallenged. 

That caricature reinforces as well progressives’ self-image as more enlightened and tolerant, more caring about the suffering victims of conservatism’s crimes. Both caricatures serve political theater by giving us a melodrama in which good and evil, white hats and black hats, are easily recognizable without having to think too much about, say, the long track-record of progressivism’s failures, both at home and abroad, to improve the lives of those they have so much compassion for.

But politics based on sentimental emotions and cheap compassion obscures the tragic realities of the choices a nation has to make. Modern Mrs. Jellybys like Samantha Power, Obama’s U.N. ambassador and architect of the “responsibility to protect” doctrine, have nothing practical to say about how to achieve their utopian projects without a massive intervention of lethal force. U.N. resolutions, heart-rending photographs, celebrity global pan-handling, disappearing red lines, and lofty speeches didn’t bring the boon of education to girls in Afghanistan. The U.S. military did by killing and driving away the bad guys. They liberated more girls in Afghanistan than all the feminist books and seminars and protests combined. 

But the role of our government is not to be the world’s social worker going about searching for monsters to destroy. The 800,000 murdered in Rwanda comprised families and children too, but we did nothing to stop the slaughter. Instead, we pretended that the feckless U.N.’s Orwellian “peace-keepers,” who watched the disaster happen in real time, absolved us of our “responsibility to protect.” Rather than indulge such hypocrisy, we should be honest and let the world know that we act in the service of our own citizen’s security and interests. If humanitarian assistance or policies are compatible with those purposes, then we should do what we can.

Moreover, we do not have a moral obligation to be the world’s refuge and take in everybody if doing so harms our security and interests. And since we can’t take in every refugee whether political or economic, any decision to admit people will necessarily be political, which again means that our country’s interests are the paramount criterion. In the end, we are not obligated to correct the misery and suffering of nations who bear the responsibility for their own people’s problems. We can’t let the whole world use us as Mexico does, as a safety valve for lessening their citizens’ discontent caused by their country’s political and economic corruption and dysfunctions; and as a source of foreign currency––$26 billion in just nine months last year–– in the form of remittances sent home by their citizens.

Finally, it is the fundamental right of every sovereign nation to protect its borders and to decide by what criteria they will admit immigrants. Whatever we decide is a political issue to be settled by the people through their representatives in Congress. Calls for amnesty or de facto open borders––which is what the recent outcry over separating illegal aliens from their children is really about––should be adjudicated by political debate on the facts, consequences, and costs, not by emotional appeals, sentimental rhetoric, and conspicuous compassion.

Unfortunately, the hypocritical telescopic philanthropy of the Dems, few of whom live with the wages of our broken immigration system, has been seconded by too many Republicans intimidated by their rhetoric. The Bush clan, which spent Obama’s two terms in silence as The One “fundamentally transformed” America, have squandered much of the good will they once enjoyed by piling on Donald Trump with ridiculous comparisons to the internment of Japanese citizens during the World War II, and with bathetic exaggerations of the conditions in which the children are kept. So too a lot of Republicans who should know better, but with an eye on the November midterms, are scrambling to defuse the bad publicity caused by the dishonest media coverage, rather than championing facts and principles and refuting the Dems’ duplicitous narrative. 

But ceding the argument to the Dems, rather than putting their feet to the fire by forcing them to vote in Congress, is handing them a win. That’s why Trump’s executive order on Wednesday ending the practice instead of forcing Congress to do its job, is disappointing. And even if that’s what polls tell us the people want, laws or policy based on specious emotion and lurid optics, rather than on Constitutional principles and national interest, usually turn out to be disastrous. Our national interests are more important than people’s need to display their conspicuous compassion.