Recently, I read a report from the Rand Corporation entitled, “Truth Decay: An Initial Exploration of the Diminishing role of Facts and analysis in American Public Life” written by Jennifer Kavanaugh and Michael D. Rich in which the researchers rediscovered that, “…national political and civil discourse in the United States has been characterized by “Truth Decay,” defined as a set of four interrelated trends: an increasing disagreement about facts and analytical interpretations of facts and data; a blurring of the line between opinion and fact; an increase in the relative volume, and resulting influence, of opinion and personal experience over fact; and lowered trust in formerly respected sources of factual information. The most damaging consequences of Truth Decay include the erosion of civil discourse, political paralysis, alienation and disengagement of individuals from political and civic institutions, and uncertainty over national policy.” While this should surprise no one, it lead to wonder how much decay was really going on with me as it relates to the most pressing issues of our day. How much do I “know” and how much do I “believe” or want to believe about what is happening all around me.
This concern has surfaced most acutely as it relates to the immigration and asylum seeker policies unfolding in our country and prominently felt in my current home state of Texas. I saw the reports of families separated; I watched in pain and horror of overcrowded detention centers, children sleeping on floors, frantic parents, crying children. I listened to analyses trying to explain away what I saw, and trying to emphasize what I saw, sometimes in the same news program. I absorbed the politician’s spin ono both sides of the aisle. I talked to immigration attorneys and asylum seeker support service providers. I spoke with a close friend who works for the Department of Homeland Security who works on the border who told me flat out, “don’t believe what you see or hear because it’s all wrong.” Apart from the irony of insisting I believe him over everything else, part of me knew what he was really saying was, “you gotta see this yourself.”
So when the invitation came from Repairers of the Breach, the Rev. Dr. William Barber’s organization, to join with Rabbi Rick Jacobs, my friend and colleague Imam Omar Suleiman and others to bear witness to this issue in El Paso last Sunday and Monday, I knew I had no choice but to go and see for myself and this was the time to be a part of the testimony of this great stain on the soul of our country; that there is, in the words of Kohelet, “…a time for tearing and a time for sewing; a time for silence and a time for speaking…” and that time is now.
Upon arriving in El Paso and connecting with URJ and RAC staff, clergy, and congregants from our movement from as far away as New York and Boston, it became clear that this was not just a press conference and an opportunity to march in the Texas heat, but to add a moral voice to a policy problem that will become a defining moment in American history. We gathered to learn about non-violent direct action – a euphemism for civil disobedience that might result in arrest. This dominated the conversation for the next couple of hours; will you get arrested? What does your arrest mean in light of this issue? Does it matter? Is being arrested more about you or about the moment and movement? After the training were honored to hear from a number of powerful and important people. Dr. Barber Spoke. Imam Suleiman spoke. Rabbi Jacobs spoke, as did a few other of our leaders. But the most powerful witnessing that first night came from people directly affected by the immigration and asylum problems. There were asylum seekers from Guatemala sharing their ridiculously dangerous and lengthy journey; asylum seekers sent back to Mexico to wait; people who were separated from their parents and children. It was heartbreaking to hear their firsthand accounts. It was liberating to hear their words without commentary, derision or spin. It was maddening to know this is happening in our country, in my state, right in front of me.
The next day was the day we would make our way through the heat to the detention center. We learned that non-violent direct action and getting arrested would make the work of the local support systems for immigrants and seekers more difficult. Instead the hundreds assembled would march to the entrance of the detention center and as clergy gathered toward the front, make numerous demands; to pastor to those detained, the end of inhumane conditions at the detention centers, end of family separations, end to the wait in Mexico asylum process. Of course we were not let in, but as Dr. Barber said, “We condemn and call evil and unjust the caging of people, the making people drink from toilets, the refusal to even give them a toothbrush. You’re holding angels in this place. But you will not hold them forever. We join them now, and not only do we bring condemnation, but we bring hope. It doesn’t have to be this way. America, turn around. America, repent. America, stop. America, change your ways.”
Seeing is believing and indeed I do believe I saw.
Rabbi Andrew Marc Paley serves Temple Shalom in Dallas, Texas.