In his incomparable novel, “the first modern novel” as it is justly known, Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote presented Spanish readers with a crack-brained romantic who sallied forth into the world as the reanimation of a long-dead chivalry. In his first such sally, Don Quixote rescues a young apprentice from a beating by his cruel master. He orders the master to pay the boy’s unlawfully withheld stolen wages and exacts from him a promise to never mistreat the boy again. The boy knows as soon as Don Quixote is gone his master will redouble the beatings and reclaim the money, and begs Don Quixote to help him flee. Don Quixote insists that the boy will be safe, naively relying on the promise he’s exacted from the boy’s master in the name of chivalry.
We chuckle at such quixotic innocence in part because it reminds us of ourselves. Great art holds up a mirror to the culture, and Cervantes’ mirror is an enduring one. We forget to the point of neglect the unrelenting persistence of evil, and we sometimes naively tell ourselves that we have solved the problem with the passage of a law or the enactment of a treaty or a promise forced from a tyrant.
When it became generally known in the late Spring of 2018 that the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy at the nation’s borders included separating children from their mothers and fathers, the press and public became so shrill in their outcry that even our most strident “moral arbiters” – the evangelicals – started to question the inerrancy of their Lord and Master Donald Trump. Such unpopularity simply wouldn’t do. So when the unstoppable force (Trump’s egocentric unwillingness to admit he was wrong) met an immovable object (Trump’s desperate need to be loved and praised), it turned out that the force was not so unstoppable after all. The administration rescinded the separation part of the zero tolerance policy and that was that. Or was it?
Hold on a minute, Don Quixote, all is not well in La Mancha. As we come to the close of the troubled year of 2019, it turns out that a record 69,550 migrant children have been held in detention facilities in the United States, children separated from their mothers and fathers. No other nation on earth has done such a thing. In other words, the Trump promise to end this barbaric practice was a lie, and like Don Quixote, we believed it. Or pretended to believe it.
And no, Obama didn’t do it too. The Obama administration’s practice was to find instances where children were used by unscrupulous asylum seekers to gain entry into the United States, seekers who cynically used children who were not their own. That is very different from making it a matter of policy to punish anyone who would apply for asylum by taking their children away from them.
To get an idea of how many children we are talking about, imagine the crowd size of an average Super Bowl stadium. That many children, almost 70,000, would fill the Super Bowl to capacity. And they are being inadequately housed, fed and held in isolation from their parents in filthy, deplorable conditions. The trauma from the consequent physical and emotional scars the American government has visited on these innocent human beings will haunt them for the rest of their lives. Meanwhile they will spend their Christmas holiday sleeping without blankets on a hard cement floor. That is Trump’s and his pirate ship of hooligan’s Merry Christmas to them.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.