Editorial cartoon (7/10/2019) (copy)

I was somewhat stunned by veteran Chicago Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg's recent comments about our treatment of immigrant children at the Mexican border. Would you agree with him?

Steinberg, one of the city's best read columnists, was writing about the reaction many have had to news that children separated from their parents seeking asylum were being housed in squalid conditions.

"We are better than this," is the catchphrase uttered by many Americans when they learned of the conditions forced on the kids.

No, we're not, responded Steinberg.

"Leave it to Americans to turn our intentional abuse of refugees into an occasion for pride," he wrote. "Our government greets those turning to us for asylum by dividing their families and torturing their children, while our citizens start preening about how our supposed values are being violated by this freakish aberration."

"This isn't the exception," he continued. "It's the rule. We are NOT better than this. We have NEVER been better than this. We are exactly this and always have been."

He then recounted several moments in American history to make his point.

The "Trail of Tears," for instance, when the government loaded up the Cherokees "like cattle" and forcibly moved them from their historic homeland.

"Many of the children rose to their feet and waved their little hands goodbye to their mountain home, knowing they were leaving them forever," Steinberg quoted Tennessee soldier John Burnett who wrote about the infamous relocation ordered by U.S. President Andrew Jackson. (Jackson's picture was to have been replaced on the $20 bill by black suffragist Harriet Tubman, but will remain there for several more years thanks to actions taken by President Donald Trump's administration.)

"Many of these helpless people did not have blankets and many of them had been driven from home barefooted ... The sufferings of the Cherokees were awful. The trail was a trail of death," Burnett went on.

Then Steinberg turned to slavery. Slaves had children, he wrote matter-of-factly, quoting from Solomon Northup's 1855 memoir "Twelve Years a Slave," which depicts scenes where mothers and daughters are torn apart at a slave auction.

"Never have I seen an exhibition of intense, unmeasured and unbounded grief," Steinberg quoted from Northrup's book.

The columnist went on to describe Chicago in the early 1900s, where 4,000 newsboys and girls worked the streets, selling papers for pennies.

"They slept outside in the cold, were hit by streetcars and sexually molested by adults," he continued.

Then there was our government in 1939, when Congress refused to pass a bill that would have admitted 20,000 Jewish German youngsters as refugees. Instead, they were left to suffer the fate of the Nazis.

Steinberg added that we don't have to even look at history.

Discover Madison news, via the Cap Times

Sign up for the Cap Times Daily Features email!

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

"Walk in any direction today and you'll trip over parents who don't care about their own children, never mind anyone else's. Spit in a crowd and you'll hit someone fooling himself that an exaggerated interest in the fate of fetuses, even though that benevolence vaporizes at the moment of birth, amounts to concern for children. It doesn't," he continued.

So are we really no better than that? Steinberg himself admits that while don't have a sterling history of caring for children, we still are a better country than most.

"Our beloved country has had a proud tradition of abolitionists, emancipators, suffragettes, children's rights advocates, liberators and kind-hearted souls," he wrote, adding that compared to many countries, from Russia to China, from tin pot dictators in South America to several European countries, we can hold our heads up high.

But, he's worried along with a lot of us that the treatment of kids at the border isn't an aberration, but is "a reversion to form" under the current administration.

Most assuredly we have periods in American history of which no one should be proud. And there's a real danger that we could have still more if Americans don't pay attention.

Because we indeed are better than this.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. dzweifel@madison.com608-252-6410 and on Twitter @DaveZweifel.  

Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to tctvoice@madison.com. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.