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For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?  Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?   Mark 8:36-38 King James Version (KJV)


The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched – they must be felt with the heart.   Helen Keller


Whatever you think of Trump’s Wall whether or not he ever builds it, the real national emergency in America goes deeper, right to the core of what it means to be an American. America is in danger of losing its soul.

“How do I know this?” you might ask. I know it in the same way the ancient prophets knew what they knew.


The Prophets Isaiah and Esekiel dined with me, and I asked them how they dared so roundly to assert that God spoke to them; and whether they did not think at the time that they would be misunderstood, and so be the cause of imposition.

Isaiah answer’d: ‘I saw no God, nor heard any, in a finite organical perception; but my senses discovr’d the infinite in everything, and as I was then persuaded, and remain confirm’d, that the voice of honest indignation is the voice of God I cared not for consequences, but wrote.’

Then I asked: ‘Does a firm persuasion that a thing is so, make it so?’

He replied: ‘All Poets believe that it does, and in ages of imagination this firm persuasion removed mountains; but many are not capable of a firm persuasion of anything.   William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell


None other than the uber-cultured elite historian Niall Ferguson seems to miss this point in recent blog post: Don’t Tear Down Trumpman’s Wall. He points out correctly but with characteristic irrelevance: If the choice is between open borders and defensive walls, history suggests walls — and those who build them — will win.”

In my humble opinion, the famous historian sets up the proverbial straw man. No serious politician of either major American political party believes in “open borders.” What’s going on here has nothing to do with open borders. It has to do with anger and racism pure and simple. As Alan Wolfe says in his book, The Politics of Petulance: America in an Age of Immaturity, “Are you so angry, one wants to ask [Trump supporters] that, despite your self-professed religiosity, you have simply run out of compassion?”

We all know how Trump describes the refugees arriving at the border:  “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”

Demonizing the other is what we, a “Christian” nation, have become in spite of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The trope of the “welfare queen” was used to great effect by that darling of all conservatives, Ronald Reagan. Even though his facts were incorrect, Reagan made his point to his true believers just as Trump makes his point today to his “base,” an ironically descriptive term for the group that supports him.

Hypocrisy runs rampant in Trump world. Sometimes the truth emerges even from the mouth of the beast. Consider Boston Patriots CEO Robert Kraft who was just busted for soliciting sex at a Florida spa run by a human trafficking ring. FOX News, the propaganda arm of and informal advisor to our President, made a rare slip in reporting the truth about the feckless Mr. Kraft.

“Sex trafficking is a supply answer to a demand problem. As long as there are men and women in this country who are willing to purchase sex, there will be traffickers who are willing to sell – and sell by any means necessary, including threats, intimidation and violence. Ending human trafficking means ending the demand that drives it.”

Amen!  If only Trump understood that drug trafficking is the same and that a wall won’t stop it and that we in wealthy America bear a great responsibility for both.  If he did, he might stop demonizing refugees who are fleeing countries where they are abused by governments and gangs we in America created in part through our interventions. Why can’t the god fearing Americans act a little more like Jesus and a little less like the Roman soldier that shoved the sword into his side?  Could it be because America is losing its soul? Maybe we never had a soul. After all, America was founded in part on slavery and native American genocide. It’s a topic to consider but I want to stick with the refugees (called illegal aliens in Trump world) because they are so much in the news today.

There was a time when we had common goals but argued about the means to achieve them. Common goals in America today are harder to come by and more and more Americans seem willing to use any means to achieve their goals in spite of (or because of?) the impact on others.

What is the heart and soul of America? Are we a beacon for “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore … the homeless, tempest-tost?” Or, is this just a myth we like to tell ourselves? Are we truly about diversity, respect for others, the melting pot, e pluribus unam or has the American dream become a fossil, frozen at some particular point in time, a pile of bleached white bones abandoned on a sandy shore?

A friend of mine pointed me to a recent essay in Foreign Affairs that argues we may be stuck with the latter:

Modern society may well be stuck with nationalism and many other varieties of human divisiveness, and it would perhaps be more productive to harness these dynamics rather than fight or condemn them. Instead of promoting jingoism and xenophobia, leaders should appeal to people’s innate in-group tendencies in ways that incentivize cooperation, accountability, and care for one’s fellow humans. Imagine a nationalist pride rooted not in a country’s military power or ethnic homogeneity but in the ability to take care of its elderly, raise children who score high on tests of empathy, or ensure a high degree of social mobility. Such a progressive nationalism would surely be preferable to one build on myths of victimhood and dreams of revenge. But with the temptation of mistaking the familiar for the superior still etched into the mind, it is not beyond the human species to go to war over which country’s people carry out the most noble acts of random kindness. The worst of nationalism, then, is unlikely to be overcome anytime soon.


Depressing? Yes, but it helps explain the title of Dave Eggers’ excellent essay Why Donald Trump Could Win Again.

If you want to understand why and how so many refugees are crossing into America at our southern border, I suggest two books both by the same author, Valeria Luiselli: Tell Me How It Ends and Lost Children Archive. Below are a few quotes and links to get you started.


“It is not even the American dream that they pursue, but rather the more modest aspiration to wake up from the nightmare into which they were born.”   From the Financial Times

I think the past is always present, everywhere. And it comes back to haunt us when we try to ignore it or shut it off. In every community or country, there are wounds—historical wounds—that remain wide open because society as a whole hasn’t properly addressed them enough. I certainly think that the U.S. has not yet done what it takes to address the violence inflicted (then and now) on indigenous and other minority communities.   Bookpage

“Were they to find themselves alone crossing borders and countries, would my own children survive?” This upsetting thought, repeated almost verbatim in the novel, is a big, dread-inducing “uh-oh.”   NPR

In 2014, there was a surge in unaccompanied children at the United States-Mexico border — 80,000 children, including infants and toddlers, were detained in less than a year, most of them from Central America. They had traveled on trails littered with human remains, evading ranchers who had taken to hunting migrants for sport. By some estimates, 80 percent of the girls and women had been raped as they passed through Mexico. Countless others died or vanished along the way.

The Mexican-born novelist Valeria Luiselli closely followed this news, struck by how the language used to describe the children — illegals, aliens — so efficiently dehumanized them. Many were fleeing gang violence in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Luiselli wondered why no one called them refugees—or even just children. She began volunteering as a court interpreter, helping the children with the intake questionnaire that might establish a case for asylum, and has since written two books inspired by that work.   New York Times


“Philip Glass, who exists, and whose Metamorphosis I listened to approximately five thousand times while writing this novel.” (In Acknowledgements, Lost Children Archive)



Losing our soul can also be seen in the gross inequalities that pervade our economic system, in the environmental damage that we cause without even thinking, and in such slavish phrases coined by our president such as America First. Having been educated as an economist, I have never been inimical to progress or capitalism per se. As one of those who actually read Adam Smith, I’m quite familiar with his concept of the invisible hand that appeared in his two major works:


Every individual… neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it… he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.   The Wealth of Nations

[The rich] consume little more than the poor, and in spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity…they divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species.   The Theory of Moral Sentiments


The invisible hand may have worked for the common good in Adam Smith’s time but what would the famous philosopher say today? I wonder if de Tocqueville might revise his immensely popular Democracy in America in light of the scathing report by Alan Wolfe in The Politics of Petulance: American in an Age of Immaturity? I wonder if Americans might think differently about the reasons refugees are crossing their borders if they were familiar with A Short History of U.S. interventions in Latin America and the Caribbean by Alan McPherson?

Niall Ferguson with whom I started this post cites Once Within Borders by Charles S. Maier in support of his argument that Trump’s wall will likely be and perhaps should be built. I read Maier’s book and took away a slightly different take than Ferguson. Ferguson quoted Maier as follows:

The historian Charles S Maier, a former colleague of mine at Harvard, is the personification of the old, decent, cerebral liberalism of the northeastern seaboard. But, as he argues in his outstanding book Once within Borders, “Borders are more than just barriers; for some they guarantee community and belonging.

It’s interesting that Ferguson leaves out the sentence that precedes the one he cites. Here is the full quote:

Pope Francis has summoned us, rightly I believe, to build bridges, not borders. But borders are more than just barriers; for some they guarantee community and belonging.


Why Ferguson left out the underlined sentence I don’t know. The two sentences go together. Maier does not feel, nor does he write, that America must lose its soul to control its borders. There are many ways to control borders.  A wall is not the only or the exclusive or even the best one.  Building bridges is equally important.  Americans should carefully ponder what is going on before their eyes today.  They should repeat over and over the words of their Christian savior at the top of this post.


Two further quotes from Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends explain the current situation at the border better than I could.


One of the questions that we dug into most consistently had to do with the gangs all the children talked about during court screenings: the Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13) and the Barrio 18 (or Calle 18). We read, read some more, discussed, and tried to make sense of all of it. Both gangs originated in Los Angeles in the 1980s, a time when the Bloods, Crips, Nazi Low Riders, and Aryan Brotherhood, among many others, were already well established in the United States. The original Barrio 18 members were second-generation Hispanics who grew up in L.A. gang culture. The MS-13 was originally a small coalition of immigrants from El Salvador who had sought exile in the U.S. during the long and ruthless Salvadoran Civil War (1979–1992), in which the military-led government relentlessly massacred left-wing opposition groups. We looked more deeply into the war and the struggle between the left-wing guerilla group Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front and the military government. The primary ally of that government, we discover (and should have predicted), was the United States. The Carter administration and, perhaps more actively, the Reagan administration funded and provided military resources to the government that massacred so many and led many others to exile. Around one-fifth of the population of El Salvador fled. Many of those who sought exile ended up as political refugees in the United States—around three hundred thousand of them in Los Angeles. The whole story is an absurd, circular nightmare. Later on, in the 1990s, anti-immigration policies and programs in the U.S. led to massive deportations of Central Americans. Among them were thousands of MS-13 members—those perhaps quite understandably unwanted in the country. But the policies backfired: gang deportations became more of a metastasis than an eradication. Now the gang has become a kind of transnational army, with more than seventy thousand members spread across the United States, Mexico, and the Northern Triangle. The whole thing is a mess, a puzzle impossible to piece together using common sense and logic. But this much is clear: until all the governments involved—the American, Mexican, Salvadoran, Honduran, and Guatemalan governments, at least—acknowledge their shared accountability in the roots and causes of the children’s exodus, solutions to the crisis will be impossible.


The attitude in the United States toward child migrants is not always blatantly negative, but generally speaking, it is based on a kind of misunderstanding or voluntary ignorance. Debate around the matter has persistently and cynically overlooked the causes of the exodus. When causes are discussed, the general consensus and underlying assumption seem to be that the origins are circumscribed to “sending” countries and their many local problems. No one suggests that the causes are deeply embedded in our shared hemispheric history and are therefore not some distant problem in a foreign country that no one can locate on a map, but in fact a trans national problem that includes the United States—not as a distant observer or passive victim that must now deal with thousands of unwanted children arriving at the southern border, but rather as an active historical participant in the circumstances that generated that problem. The belief that the migration of all of those children is “their” (the southern barbarians’) problem is often so deeply ingrained that “we” (the northern civilization) feel exempt from offering any solution. The devastation of the social fabric in Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and other countries is often thought of as a at least—one that begins in the Great Lakes of the northern United States and ends in the mountains of Celaque in southern Honduras. It would surely be a step forward for our governments to officially acknowledge the hemispheric dimensions of the problem, acknowledge the connection between such phenomena as the drug wars, gangs in Central America and the United States, the trafficking of arms from the United States, the consumption of drugs, and the massive migration of children from the Northern Triangle to the United States through Mexico. No one, or almost no one, from producers to consumers, is willing to accept their role in the great theater of devastation of these children’s lives. To refer to the situation as a hemispheric war would be a step forward because it would oblige us to rethink the very language surrounding the problem and, in doing so, imagine potential directions for combined policies. But of course, a “war refugee” is bad news and an uncomfortable truth for governments, because it obliges them to deal with the problem instead of simply “removing the illegal aliens.”


Heart And Soul

Joy Division

Instincts that can still betray us,

A journey that leads to the sun,

Soulless and bent on destruction,

A struggle between right and wrong

You take my place in the showdown,

I’ll observe with a pitiful eye,

I’ll humbly ask for forgiveness,

A request well beyond you and I

Heart and soul, one will burn

Heart and soul, one will burn

An abyss that laughs at creation,

A circus complete with all fools,

Foundations that lasted the ages,

Then ripped apart at their roots

Beyond all this goo’s is the terror,

The grip of a mercenary hand,

When savagery turns all good reason,

There’s no turning back, no last stand

Heart and soul, one will burn

Heart and soul, one will burn

Existence well what does it matter?

I exist on the best terms I can

The past is now part of my future,

The present is well out of hand

The present is well out of hand

Heart and soul, one will burn

Heart and soul, one will burn

One will burn, one will burn

Heart and soul, one will burn


Songwriters: Ian Kevin Curtis / Bernard Summer / Peter Hook / Stephen Paul David Morris

Heart And Soul lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group