Friday, February 2, 2018

Scale Issues

There is a very well-known Jorge Luis Borges' text, named On Rigor in Science. It begins like this:

In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it.”

Giving yet another example of his highly ironic style, the writer comments about scales, by taking scales out of proportion, namely by exploring the possibilities of  a 1:1 one. This is exactly the opposite, and yet related, to what Trump did on his State of the Union address last Tuesday.

In a very collected manner - isn’t it sad that we have to note this?-, he delivered a one hour 20 minutes long discourse - the third longest, sorry Donald! - in which in his self-congratulatory way, and interrupted oftenly by standing ovations by the republicans present, gave a recollection of the wonders of his government and the vision of a future he apparently has already started working on. As expected, hyperboles abounded, falsed statistics were treated as science facts, and a racist discourse was attempted to be built as the new normal, all that with threats to foreign powers and reinforcement of the military. So far, classic Trump: let’s brag, insult, and be careless, because what can go wrong, right?

At the same time, and not new either, he sprinkled his narrative with small exemplary tales of what he considered the essence of the American values, the core of his nation. These small narratives were interjected as vignettes on almost every topic, from tax reform to immigration and military budget.

My main concern with this exemplary tales - besides the obvious lack of complexity of its rhetorical value in itself-   lays where Borges derived his humor from: scale. By defining a whole nation out of some particular cases, Trump’s address attempted to erase any heterogeneity or diversity in favor of - you guessed it- a whiter nation.

Let’s go over some examples. When proposing his immigration reforms, he said “Tonight, I am calling on the Congress to finally close the deadly loopholes that have allowed MS-13, and other criminals, to break into our country. We have proposed new legislation that will fix our immigration laws, and support our ICE and Border Patrol Agents, so that this cannot ever happen again.” This argument comes after, of course, showing a family whose daughters were killed by members of MS-13. The message is clear: we need to stop all immigrants, because they are killing us. Quite a creative improvement from that “all mexicans are rapists”, but still.

In the same machiavellian way, since all immigrants are bad guys, all members of the security forces are angels who can do no harm. His next picture in the America the Great’s family album is Ryan Holets’ story. Donald, tell us:
“Ryan Holets is 27 years old, and an officer with the Albuquerque Police Department. He is here tonight with his wife Rebecca. Last year, Ryan was on duty when he saw a pregnant, homeless woman preparing to inject heroin. When Ryan told her she was going to harm her unborn child, she began to weep. She told him she did not know where to turn, but badly wanted a safe home for her baby. In that moment, Ryan said he felt God speak to him: "You will do it -- because you can." He took out a picture of his wife and their four kids. Then, he went home to tell his wife Rebecca. In an instant, she agreed to adopt. The Holets named their new daughter Hope. Ryan and Rebecca: You embody the goodness of our Nation. Thank you, and congratulations.”

See? Same thing.
No, it is not enough to roll our eyes. Ryan, a white policeman, found a pregnant woman, and took her baby away because he knows better. The unnamed mother disappeared as soon as his wife Rebecca “agrees to adopt” - gosh, never knew it was so easy! Even to adopt a cat in Houston you have to at least fill a form and wait a couple of days-. No one knows what happened to the mother, if she is in rehab or dead. Who cares, the baby is right here, in a pink blanket, of course named Hope, and everybody is clapping, including Melania. There is apparently nothing wrong or missing with this story, we need to congratulate the officer, who does exactly the same thing Steve Murphy, a fictionalized DEA agent, did on the first season of Narcos, on Netflix. 

But maybe I am being unfair, since not all the main characters in America the Great soap opera are white. We do have one Korean - North Korean, of course- that serves a point too. Back to Trump:

In a very Rocky fashion, I must say.
In 1996, Seong-ho was a starving boy in North Korea. One day, he tried to steal coal from a railroad car to barter for a few scraps of food. In the process, he passed out on the train tracks, exhausted from hunger. He woke up as a train ran over his limbs. He then endured multiple amputations without anything to dull the pain. His brother and sister gave what little food they had to help him recover and ate dirt themselves -- permanently stunting their own growth. Later, he was tortured by North Korean authorities after returning from a brief visit to China. His tormentors wanted to know if he had met any Christians. He had -- and he resolved to be free. Seong-ho traveled thousands of miles on crutches across China and Southeast Asia to freedom. Most of his family followed. His father was caught trying to escape, and was tortured to death. Today he lives in Seoul, where he rescues other defectors, and broadcasts into North Korea what the regime fears the most ‑- the truth. Today he has a new leg, but Seong-ho, I understand you still keep those crutches as a reminder of how far you have come. Your great sacrifice is an inspiration to us all.”

Of course, the story telling time ended with Seong-ho waving his crutches in front of everyone. I wonder which visa is he on, since he is still living in Seoul. All this and we still have a month to go before the Academy Awards. 

This Hollywood rhetoric, these super evil vs immaculate good logic, this call for basic emotions and no questions is what Trump was looking for. His address had rare moments of specificity in policies, or honesty in statements. Instead, we had a parade of happy ending stories that meant to metonymize America, Trump’s America. Each story, meant to be told in less than two minutes, attempted to represent and convince - better, justify-  bigger decisions and even more drastic consequences. If we are willing to buy that all white policemen just go around “saving” poor unborn babies from their irresponsible-homeless-ofcoursedrugaddict mothers, then there is no room to talk about police brutality, abuse of power, racial profiling or, at the sake of bluntness, murder.

If immigration means “our” daughters are in perpetual risk of being killed by MS-13, then closing our borders and “sending back” everyone who was not born here is a logic response, and the only one. Finally, if North Korea is the only country in the world who makes people starve and tortures them[1] because they can’t handle the truth the dissidents embody, it is only obvious for us to parade their survivors to them, and, since we are at it, embarc in a “bloody nose” strike because, who can blame us? We are the good guys!

There is an immense risk in failing to understand scales. You might end up with a map as big as your territory, as in the Borges’ tale, or you might end up justifying your racist and deadly policies by playing a hero narrative every time you are asked to face difficult decisions. By the way, this is what happens to the big map territory in the end : 

“The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.” 

One can only hope the same is not said about us, and we do not become tattered ruins when North Korea loses its patience. 

[1] Did I mention he also portrayed as an act of bravery the fact that he will not close Guantanamo Bay?