In 1964, Marshall McLuhan coined the famous phrase, “the medium is the message.” He meant that the true message, more than just the content, carried by any medium or technology — print, radio, TV, and now the internet — is the change of scale, pace, or pattern that the means of delivery of the message introduces into human affairs. The medium controls and shapes the scale and form of human associations and interaction. The classic case of the medium creating the message was the 5 o’clock news on TV during the Vietnam War. We lost the war in American living rooms, not the rice paddies and jungles of Vietnam. It wasn’t the first war to be filmed, the programming wasn’t the first to show us the ugliness of war, but it was the first war we saw live and in color as it actually happened. The TV networks wanted to be real, asking us to endure this daily invasion of our collective consciousness. But in the end, we lost the war because the American people could not stomach the brutality they saw.
A similar thing is happening right now, but this time we seem to be so jaded and inured to injustice, violence, and suffering that the travesty will not end soon. I speak of the latest manifestation of the medium is the message, the frightful TV images from the southern border. The scenes of people in cages, especially the children, have powerfully shaped our reactions. For the vast majority of Americans the outrage and revulsion at the violation of American values has been intense and fast, causing those of us with a conscience to turn against the border policy. But for others the images vindicate their beliefs. “They are getting what they deserve,” is the attitude. Now we are dealing with another medium, Twitter, whose immediacy is unprecedented. Twitter’s extension of power in justifying imprisonment of refugees works very well.
Can we see refugees crammed into cages and not be negatively affected? This is the real issue for us because are at the mercy of new technologies which make newspapers and TV look quaint.
Make no mistake. This whole thing is fast becoming a threat to our sanity. And it’s bad for our morals. This cannot be overstated. Remember Sunday school? “As you do unto others so shall it done unto you.” We can change how we deal with the refugees. We may need new laws, but we can solve the asylum problem in a humane and decent way that will preserve the sanctity of our borders. But we’re still stuck in the old way of thinking, treating people, including babies and kids, as alien invaders. But we need to get real. The only way to deal with the problem is to address its root causes, the terrible poverty and crime in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.
It’s a conundrum, and President Donald Trump thinks he has a solution: denial of asylum, even if by U.S. law people fleeing for their lives can request asylum. Of course, the ACLU and others have sued to overturn his decision. The president’s actions will not have much effect. In May, 133,000 migrants were apprehended, a 32% increase over April. There was a drop in June because of Mexico’s new border policies, but the numbers are still record-high, and no one thinks that the decrease will be a trend.
The experts say that refugees fear that Trump will ultimately succeed in closing legal pathways for asylum seekers and therefore are coming in greater numbers. “Get out while you can” is the byword. The causes of this mass migration are failing economies, the collapse of democratic rule, and the rise of narco-states where criminal gangs usurp governments. Their main business is selling drugs to Americans. Grinding poverty, food insecurity and shocking levels of violence make these countries literally hell on earth. Would you live in places like that? I don’t think so.
Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.