Stop helping demagogues change the subject

In Manila, the traffic is so bad that it isn’t worth driving anywhere during the day, because a couple of miles will take a couple of hours. In other parts of the Philippines, only a third of children ever finish primary school. Nevertheless, the loudest political debate in the Philippines, over the past two years, was not about public transportation or public education.

Ever since President Rodrigo Duterte came to power in 2016, the loudest, and angriest, debates are about drugs and drug users. “I would kill all of you who make the lives of Filipinos miserable,” he declared during his election campaign. Since winning, he has indeed presided over the murder of up to 12,000 men, women and children, according to some rights groups; these are, by his own admission, extrajudicial killings, carried out with no evidence and no trial.

This policy has polarized the Philippines. Duterte has successfully divided the country into supporters (“people who want us to be safe”) and opponents (“people who want us to be unsafe”). In time that could have been spent on a discussion about fixing roads and schools, Filipinos had emotional arguments about violence, safety — and the president.

More recently, Matteo Salvini, the leader of the League party, and now the Italian interior minister, has pulled exactly this same trick in Italy: Even as the numbers of foreigners coming to Italy slowed to a trickle, he has used stunts and insults — turning away refugee ships, for example — to shift the focus of Italian politics away from economics and unemployment and toward debates about violence, safety — and Minister Salvini.

Now President Trump, with the aid of Fox News and Twitter, is creating the same sense of anger and emergency around the Central American refugees who are marching toward the U.S. border in hope of asylum.

In the grand scheme of things, this is not an important problem. It’s not even an important immigration problem. The “caravan” now numbers less than 4,000, which is a tiny fraction of the hundreds of thousands of people who enter the United States legally and overstay their visas every year. But I don’t want to argue any further about the caravan, because that’s the point: Like drugs in the Philippines or refugees in Italy, this is an event being used to create fear, anger, division — a distraction. If you are talking about the caravan, you aren’t talking about U.S. companies suffering from the president’s trade war, or the U.S. government deficit, which is up 17 percent from last year, or the president’s utter failure to provide the “health insurance for everybody” he promised during the campaign.

The challenge, for ordinary citizens as well as news organizations, is how to discuss this story without adding to the polarizing emotions that surround it. Some have tried fact-checking, demanding proof, for example, of the president’s unfounded claim that there are “unknown Middle Easterners” — implied terrorists — in the caravan. None was forthcoming. Others have tried empathy, conducting sympathetic interviews with the people suffering terrible hardships on this biblical pilgrimage north, to a place that doesn’t want them.

As the examples of Italy and the Philippines have shown, these responses may not be effective. The caravan story fits neatly into Trump’s larger narrative, whose contours we already know. Criminals/MS-13/terrorists are pouring into our country; Republicans want to protect us, and Democrats want violence and chaos. People who already believe that line of argument will see the caravan story as confirmation, and many will simply reject any information that contradicts that view. That means that any discussion at all can increase polarization. Talk about children suffering from thirst, and many will loudly blame the parents. Condemn the president, and his supporters will blame you for undermining national safety.

There is only one solution. Keep the story in proportion — and talk about other things. Don’t get pulled down a rabbit hole of absurd argument. News organizations aren’t lacking for other subjects; ordinary people can use their social media accounts to write about real problems that matter to their communities. Think of it as a test: Will we be sucked into a cycle of violence and recrimination, as the Philippines has been, or can we return to a debate about genuine challenges facing our country?

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