The political philosopher Michael Oakeshott said that the “rationalist” is hopelessly lost in ideology, captivated by the world of self-contained coherence he has woven from strands of human experience. He concocts a narrative about narratives, a story about stories, and adheres to the “large outline which a general theory imposes upon events.” The rationalist asserts that he has unearthed the etiological Piltdown Man and the long-sought Theory of Everything. He believes he has reduced the totality of man’s experience to an easily digestible slogan, which contains within it “the formalized abridgment of the supposed substratum of rational truth.” In time, ideology so subsumes the rationalist that he finds “it difficult to believe that anyone who can think honestly and clearly will think differently from himself.”
For a certain type of progressive, “racism” — in the broadest sense, with all of its attendant neologisms (whiteness, white supremacy, internalized oppression, privilege, etc.) — has become something of a story about stories. It explains everything: Trump’s election, racial disparities in crime rates, black Republicans, the prevailing color of bandages in grocery stores. Its explanatory scope has been tried — and tried, and tried — and is yet to be found wanting. It is indeed “remarkable,” as Oakeshott observes, “the rapidity with which [the rationalist] reduces the tangle and variety of experience” vis-à-vis the real world “to a set of principles.”
CNN’s Angela Rye is something of a rationalist. Last Wednesday, on Chris Cuomo’s CNN show, Rye sat to Cuomo’s left, with frequent verbal-sparring partner Steve Cortes to his right. Both had been invited on to discuss Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s claim that America was running “concentration camps” on its southern border. Defending the detention facilities as such was not, strictly speaking, the point of the discussion. It was meant to be an etymological debate, about the propriety of using “concentration camps” as a descriptor for facilities to detain migrants awaiting an asylum hearing.
Yet Rye began her remarks with little regard for the semantic implications of AOC’s statement. She instead took aim at the unspoken motivations of the administration propagating the policy it referred to. The “inhumane crisis happening at the southern border,” she insisted, is a result “of how [the migrants] look.” The detention centers, she said, had sprung from “a fear that white people are losing their power in this country.”
There are plenty of legitimate concerns one might have about the lack of resources devoted to the border, the shortage of immigration judges, and the overcrowding of the facilities Rye was denouncing. That children are sleeping on concrete floors without basic resources is unconscionable. But that wasn’t the core of Rye’s objection, which was principally with the notion of detention itself. She argued that these detention facilities are another example of the “mass incarceration of black and brown people,” and that their very existence might precipitate “death camps” akin to those overseen by Nazi Germany. At the end of the interview, she asserted that Democrats can’t trust the GOP with the allotment of additional resources to the border because they might direct those monies toward “more detention facilities.”
If the very detention of unprocessed asylum seekers and illegal migrants is illegitimate, Rye must have meant that the only racially exculpatory policy option available to the United States is to allow every would-be migrant into the country.
Is there any level or measure of border security the voting public can request before Angela Rye starts levying accusations of “white fear”? Suppose we allowed everyone who approaches a port of entry with a child in tow — a child who may or may not be theirs and may or may not be a victim of human trafficking — to enter the country without prior vetting. Are we willing to accept the possibility that children might be held in bondage because Angela Rye would call us racist if we don’t?
Perhaps Rye would permit the country to use detention centers only for those cases in which agents have reasonable suspicion that a child is being trafficked. Fine — it certainly leaves open the possibility that border agents will still fail to identify some child victims, but perhaps we’re willing to take that risk. What happens when every single poor person in Latin America shows up at the American border with a child? How many of those families must the country accept to fulfill its basic obligations to Rye’s satisfaction? Rye suggests that the only morally legitimate answer is “all of them.”
Are certain administrations allowed to exercise discretion at the border without the imputation of racial motives? Was it angry “white people” afraid of “losing their power” who prompted the Obama administration to build some of the “cages” now used by the Trump administration? What about the native-born low-skilled workers whose wages are undercut by low-skilled migrants? Are lower wages the indulgence required of the American underclass to avoid the imputation of sinister motives by Rye?
G. K. Chesterton insisted that the world could be made “quite simple and solid, just as the madman is quite sure he is sane.” Angela Rye has insisted upon a world so simple and solid that one wonders whether she thinks her audience sane.