Peggy Noonan's border nonsense: Her bizarre view of how "normal people" experience this crisis

The WSJ columnist shares how she thinks "normal people" experience the border crisis. Laughable imagery ensues


Jim Newell
July 11, 2014 8:52PM (UTC)

So much of the talk about the refugee crisis on our southern border focuses on the politics of it: who in Washington is to blame, how it will affect the 2014 elections, how it will affect the 2016 elections, whether it is "politically comparable to Hurricane Katrina," what Obama's deliberate strategy is, etc. These are the silly questions of cynical charlatans, far away from the action, ensconced in their Northern Virginia palaces and Georgetown cocktail parties. (Also, too, on the Internet.) Why isn't more of the punditry based around the experiences of people near the border -- their thoughts, their fears, their compassion, their anger? What is a day in the life like for a Normal Person near the border, with all these Guatemalan children just sort of chilling nearby?

For this perspective -- the real one, the human one -- we must turn to champion of the normals, the Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan, who writes about the crisis in this week's edition of "Declarations."

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Noonan is a wealthy commentator and columnist who lives on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, New York City. One time, however, she saw a Mexican, so she is qualified to opine on these matters.

"All this gives normal people a feeling of besiegement and foreboding," Noonan writes. "Is a nation without borders a nation?" Doesn't that line sound familiar? Sarah Palin used this cutesy formulation earlier this week in her call for the president's impeachment: "Without borders, there is no nation." And in its own weird way, Palin's made more sense. She was referencing a theory that the Obama administration has ordered the Border Patrol to stand down. Which was made-up, but still. Noonan is talking specifically about the situation regarding tens of thousands of Central American children, who were detained at the border and remained in custody awaiting trial. It makes no sense to whine about the lack of a border in response to a situation in which many, many children are being apprehended at the border.

It is sad, about the children, Noonan concedes. But it is also a sad state of affairs for "normal Americans," also known, throughout the column, as "normal people." They "are seeing all this on TV" and "judge they are witnessing a level of lawlessness that has terrible implications for the country." (What they're actually seeing is the system adhering closely to United States immigration law, but, uhh... semantics??)

This is when Peggy Noonan proceeds to tell us about the experience of the Normal People, at the border, at length. Not that she went to the border and talked to the people. Good heavens! Such a reporting trip would be equally or perhaps more arduous than the impossible journeys that children are taking from Central America. And so Noonan opts, instead, to channel the Normal People.

"This is how I think Normal People are experiencing what is happening:

It's like you live in a house that's falling apart. The roof needs to be patched and there are squirrels in the attic, a hornet's nest in the eaves. The basement's wet. The walkway to the front door is cracked with grass growing through it. The old boiler is making funny sounds. On top of that it's always on your mind that you could lose your job tomorrow and must live within strict confines so you can meet the mortgage and pay the electric bill. You can't keep the place up and you're equal parts anxious, ashamed and angry. And then one morning you look outside and see . . . all these people standing on your property, looking at you, making some mute demand. Little children looking lost—no one's taking care of them. Older ones settling in the garage, or working a window to the cellar. You call the cops. At first they don't come. Then they come and shout through a bull horn and take some of the kids and put them in a shelter a few blocks away. But more kids keep coming! You call your alderman and he says there's nothing he can do. Then he says wait, we're going to pass a bill and get more money to handle the crisis. You ask, "Does that mean the kids will go home?" He says no, but it may make things feel more orderly. You call the local TV station and they come do a report on your stoop and then they're gone, because really, what can they do, and after a few days it's getting to be an old story.

No one's in charge! No one is taking responsibility. No one who wants to help has authority, and no one with authority is helping.

We have some difficulty determining which is of this supposed to be a real depiction of the Normal's life and which is metaphor. That it begins "It's like" suggests that the whole spiel is metaphorical. But then she goes on to describe real-life problems that the beleaguered Normal famously faces: job insecurity, bills, a dilapidated house. "Squirrels in the attic" and "a hornet's nest in the eaves" could be meant literally, or the Squirrels could represent malaise and the Hornets crushing property taxes, and those crushing property taxes themselves could represent a resurgent Russia, and so forth.

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Alas, she adds: "America is the house that is both falling apart and under new stress." Phew! Thank God she cleared that up. METAPHOR, PEOPLE -- IT'S METAPHOR -- IN THIS CASE THE HOUSE SERVES AS THE VEHICLE AND AMERICA AS THE TENOR. There are no zombies settling into the garage or the basement, but yes there are, theoretically.

Let's go ahead and say that Noonan's depiction of Normal People as screeching hair-pulling walking heart attacks incapable of rational reactions is an inaccurate and condescending generalization. People know that the situation won't be resolved overnight. And as a former White House employee and columnist whose job, somewhere deep down, is to inform the Normal People about what's going on and how it can be resolved, Noonan could attempt to be useful. She could explain that this situation stems from a 2008 law that granted extra legal protections for Central American children fleeing human traffickers, protections that aren't there for Mexican or Canadian children. She could say that if they believe this law was well-intentioned but has overwhelmed the immigration system, they could urge Congress to change it, now that members of both parties in Congress are weighing whether to do just that. She could clarify that this situation is not a "border security" problem, and border security itself could be addressed in a House immigration bill that the chamber could bring up for a vote and send to conference to be negotiated with the Senate bill that passed last year. She could add that net immigration flows from Latin America recently reached zero and remain near recent historic lows.

Or she could make up frantic stock characters from a distance and say that they've reached a boiling point because of President Obama's lack of leadership and/or deliberate sabotage of the country.


Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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