René Magritte Le Mal du Pays (Homesickness) 1940
The two most viral photographs of the ‘Trump Separation Scandal’ have now been debunked, or at the very least been proven to have been used ‘out of context’. This is a dangerous development, as are the reasons to use them the way they have been. Both pictures are of children who had not been separated from their mothers at all. But both were used to depict just that: a child being taken away from its mother.
What’s dangerous about this is, first, that those who spread the narrative regardless of the truth may next permit themselves to use images from entirely different locations or times to make their point. Yes, children have been taken from parents at US borders. And attention for that is warranted, very much so. But playing loose with the facts turns those facts into a mere narrative in which nobody can tell fact from fiction anymore.
First, a week ago already, I saw this on RT:
A distressing image of a crying toddler locked in a barred cage after purportedly being detained by US immigration officials has gone viral – but despite online claims, it does not actually depict what has been alleged. The image, which shows a little boy crying in a cage as he looks out between its bars, was shared by activist journalist and undocumented migrant Jose Antonio Vargas as a comment on the Trump administration’s immigration crackdown on families.
In the same thread, Vargas admitted that he came across the photo on a friend’s timeline and was still looking for the original source. Nevertheless, the snap quickly went viral with Vargas’ post garnering more than 23,000 retweets and many others sharing the image across their own social media accounts.
Vargas explained that he shared the photo because when he was detained by ICE in McAllen, Texas in 2014, he encountered children who were locked up there. “It wasn’t okay then; it’s not okay now,” he wrote, adding that he’s been outraged about the incident for years.
It has since emerged that the picture was in fact not from a detention facility at all, and instead was taken at a protest against Trump’s immigration policies held on June 10 outside Dallas City Hall. The demonstration organized by Brown Berets de Cemanahuac was held to call out the policy of family separation and confining undocumented children.
Ergo: an activist journalist and undocumented immigrant makes it look as if a picture depicts something that in reality it did not. Note also that the article says he wanted to comment on the Trump immigration crackdown, because he has memories of the Obama immigration crackdown, when he saw children locked up. But then, hey, that’s social media, right? Anyone can say anything.
It’s different, though, when TIME Magazine uses such politics. And its editor-in-chief defends the use of the picture by saying it was the most visible symbol of something, even though he knew full well that the photo didn’t depict that something. That’s a mighty slippery scale. If they could have achieved the same effect with a picture of a overripe banana taken in the Pacific in the 1950’s, they probably would have used it. It’s the effect that counts, not the facts.
Two photos that went viral on social media depict scenes that are not directly related to the family separations taking place on the US-Mexico border since early May. The most prominent, of Honduran two-year-old Yanela Varela crying inconsolably, has become a global symbol of the separations – helping to attract more than $18 million in donations for a Texas non-profit called RAICES. The photograph was taken on June 12 in McAllen, Texas by John Moore, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer for Getty Images.
An online article about the picture, published by Time Magazine, initially reported the girl was taken from her mother, but was subsequently corrected to make clear that: “The girl was not carried away screaming by US Border Patrol agents; her mother picked her up and the two were taken away together.” Time Magazine nonetheless used the image of the sobbing child on its cover, next to an image of President Trump looming over her, with the caption “Welcome to America”. The head of Honduras’ Migrant Protection Office Lisa Medrano confirmed to AFP that the little girl, just two years old, “was not separated” from her family.
The child’s father also said as much. Denis Varela told the Washington Post that his wife Sandra Sanchez, 32, had not been separated from their daughter, and that both were being detained together in an immigration center in McAllen. Under fire for its cover – which was widely decried as misleading including by the White House – the magazine said it was standing by its decision. “The June 12 photograph of the 2-year-old Honduran girl became the most visible symbol of the ongoing immigration debate in America for a reason,” Time’s editor-in-chief Edward Felsenthal said.
Nassim Nicolas Taleb, of black swans and Fragility, has found the appropriate term for this ‘phenomenon’, and explains why it works so well that TIME apparently doesn’t care about the damage to its reputation caused by using photographs for such purposes.
Pedophrasty Definition: Argument involving children to prop up a rationalization and make the opponent look like an asshole, as people are defenseless and suspend all skepticism in front of suffering children: nobody has the heart to question the authenticity or source of the reporting. Often done with the aid of pictures. [..] Pedophrasty is effective as it provides arguments to strike before the evidence is formed. People are moved into “doing something” Pedophrasts prey on our maternal (and paternal) instincts.
Pedophrasty has its most effects on actors, journalists and similar types who are intellectually insecure, deprived of critical judgment, and afraid of being classified as violators of some norm of political correctness. For instance, pedophrasty has been commonly used in the Syrian war by such propagandists as Julian Roepke continuously supplying the German public with pictures of dead children. Or the various lobbies hired by Saudi Barbaria (and allies), such as the Middle East Institute in Washington DC, to promote Sunni Islamist policies under the cover of “think tanks”.
The Nayirah testimony: a false congressional testimony by 15-year-old girl who provided only her first name, Nayirah (she turned out to be the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the U.S.) was a bit responsible into tipping the US into the war. Nayirah claimed that she had witnessed Iraqi soldiers take babies out of incubators a Kuwaiti hospital, and leave the babies to die. Nobody dared to question the veracity of her claims.
That’s what is dangerous: seeing a photo of a child in distress makes people halt their critical thinking. That’s also why such photos are used. They help build a narrative that doesn’t have to be factual to shock people. But at that point TIME becomes a fiction magazine; it’s where it leaves journalism behind.
The narrative also depends to a large extent on the singularity of Trump’s brutality compared to other presidents and nations’ leaders. It seeks to single him out as being extremely cruel. That narrative will fall to pieces going forward, and not only because the stories behind the photos have now been exposed.
First, here’s a look at what happened under earlier US presidents, in this case Obama, published by the ACLU in May 2018:
Documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union featured in a new report released today show the pervasive abuse and neglect of unaccompanied immigrant children detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The report was produced in conjunction with the International Human Rights Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School.
“These documents provide a glimpse into a federal immigration enforcement system marked by brutality and lawlessness,” said Mitra Ebadolahi, ACLU Border Litigation Project staff attorney. “All human beings deserve to be treated with dignity and respect regardless of their immigration status — and children, in particular, deserve special protection. The misconduct demonstrated in these records is breathtaking, as is the government’s complete failure to hold officials who abuse their power accountable. The abuse that takes place by government officials is reprehensible and un-American.”
The report is based on over 30,000 pages of documents dated between 2009 and 2014.
Then, what other ‘leaders’, who express their ‘disgust’ and worries at the Trump separation policies do at home. The Guardian yesterday:
[..] as a British citizen I cannot, in good faith, reassure myself with that time-old mantra that we are somehow more civilised and less cruel or brutal than our cousins across the pond. Nor do I think that condemnation from our government can carry any real currency. Since long before anybody had heard the words “Make America great again”, splitting up families has been official policy in Theresa May’s Home Office – and it has been carried out with a brutality and on a scale that would make even President Trump blush.
The Children’s Commissioner has found that at least 15,000 children growing up in the UK live without a parent because the right of British citizens to reunite with a foreign spouse is limited by an unreasonable income threshold, an impossible complicated application system fraught with Home Office errors, and no legal aid for families to challenge incorrect decisions.
And the Sydney Morning Herald from December 2017:
When we visited Nauru as paediatric specialists three years ago, we were asked to see 30 of the 100 children being detained on the island. Among them was a six-year-old girl who had tried to kill herself and a two-year-old boy with such severe behaviour problems a doctor had prescribed anti-psychotic medicines. Their parents were in despair. They had fled persecution, trying to save their children from harm, but had ended up imprisoned on a remote island, without hope.
We left with the view that these were the most traumatised children we had ever consulted on, far worse than children we had seen in Australia, Africa, Asia or Europe. Three years later, 43 of those children remain on the island. Officially they are now free to move around, but reports of attacks by locals show Nauru is not safe and so they remain in the “Regional Processing Centre”.
In 2014, the Australian Human Rights Commission reported that children at this centre were deeply traumatised psychologically, and had even been abused. Their detention was harming them. When Australia introduced mandatory detention in 1992, it took 10 weeks on average to process an application for refugee status. Now it takes years. As the numbers of children in detention fall, the length of time in detention rises. This is deliberate: wilfully damaging children’s health to deter others from seeking asylum.
See, what TIME Magazine and others do, using pictures of crying children regardless of their actual context, may make for an initially appealing narrative, but in the end their approach only distracts from what really matters. Which is that children need to be with their mothers (and preferably fathers).
Just reporting the facts on this is not only enough, it’s the only way to report on it. Once you start making up stuff, you’re done, and the truth is done.
US immigration laws are clearly not working; so change them. ICE is a terrible organization that has attracted far too many sociopaths. Close it down. Child abuse as a tool to instill fear has been an international political tool for a very long time. Those are the things that should be making headlines. Turning this into yet another anti-Trump narrative, using crying children as shortcuts to people’s emotions, doesn’t work, or not for long.
This is not about Trump. Trying to make it about him is not going to help those children. And that’s what you want, right? Right?