By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Years ago in university a close friend of mine was a Chris Matthews devotee. She imbibed his brash brand of “I know everything” pulpit-journalism the way people adored FoxNews personalities. For years I’ve ignored the ignorance-laced demagoguery of banal faux-folksy nonsense, but today was different.
Chris Matthews launched into another sermon, but this time about something I know personally: Syrian refugees.
On his November 17 edition he launched into a tirade against Syrians.
“Let me finish tonight with two numbers that don’t make sense, the first number is four, the number of Syrians we Americans have trained and recruited to fight ISIS, hold on to that number. The other number is 4 million. That’s how many Syrian refugees there are, including all the able bodied men we’ve seen on board boats to Europe. So why this strange, unexplained difference in numbers? 4 million fleeing ISIS and Assad and just 4 trained to fight. Are just 1 in a million willing to fight for Syria. Is that the deal? Would just 1 in a million be willing to fight for our country if it were taken from us. There are dread implications. It signals ISIS is taking the country from people who would rather leave to the West.”
After this claim, comparing the number of Syrians in a failed US-backed program to train Syrian rebels with the number of Syrian refugees he had read about, he argued that ISIS was able to recruit members worldwide. “Why aren’t the Syrians using social media? Why aren’t the US and others using social media to fight for their country. Some sat here last night and said they can’t do that because they have families. Well tell that to the American families on their fourth deployment. When we liberated Paris we had elements of the Free French Army…it is too much to ask that the Syrians lead the fight to re-take Syria. It is their country, unless they are willing to abandon it. What do we think of people who do that…If we had Syrians playing the rightful part in the liberation of their country, they would be the one’s taking it over. Is it too much to ask? That’s ‘Hardball’ for tonight.”
This nonsensical claim is based on a laundry-list of false comparisons. The number of refugees is indeed estimated at around 4 million but there are an additional 6.5 million displaced people in Syria. Around 2 million of these refugees are in Turkey. The Syrian civil war began in March of 2011, and many refugees have been living in camps or in meager existence for two to three years. They are not mostly young men. I’ve been to refugee camps in Iraq, places Chris Matthews has never been. I’ve seen Syrian refugees on the streets of Istanbul, a place Chris Matthews has never seen them. And I’ve been with Syrian refugees in the borderlands of Eastern Europe.
They are not mostly “able bodied men” as Matthews asserts. Many of them are young children and women, as I have shown in various posts. What made this wealthy, white, privileged, American news host attack these refugees with the kind of venom known on the radical racist right? What makes the viewers of MSNBC, the channel that claims to “lean forward” embrace the same ignorance demagoguery of fascism? Let’s talk about “able bodied men”? This feeds the narrative of that paints Syrian refugees as Muslim men come to take the women of Europe, invaders, new barbarians, part of a conspiracy. We’ve heard a lot of propaganda about “Syrian men” and terrorism since the Paris attacks.
The most persistent myth is the one that Matthews puts forward, namely that Syrian men should be fighting Assad, not fleeing. He compares them to Americans fighting a foreign invader. He implies they are cowards, when he claimed “what do we think of people who do that”? Cowards?
Chris Matthews wanted to give two numbers, 4 and 4 millions without referencing the other numbers. How about the number of buildings destroyed in Assad’s war. In 2013 it was already half a million. How about the number of people killed in the war? 300,000. How about the fact that Syria’s major cities are shells, akin to Stalingrad in the Second World War? Why doesn’t Matthews want to talk about the number of Syrians killed, the number who fought either for or against Assad for years?
How long did Matthew’s heroic America fight in the Second World War? America entered the war in December of 1941, but didn’t get into the fight in November of 1942. That means it fought for two and a half years. In Europe the US lost 213,000 men. That means the US fought the Second World War for LESS time than the Syrian civil war has been ongoing. So when Matthews castigates these young men fleeing, he forgets to mention that some men have been fighting and dying in Syria for more time than America carried on the Second World War.
Now let’s talk about the millions of fighters Matthews didn’t want to mention. He wanted to talk about just 4 Syrians fighting to preserve their country. How about all the Kurds who have been fighting and dying against ISIS, against enormous odds, for years? When they fight with rudimentary equipment, with barely enough food in their belly, where is Chris Matthews and his bravado and judgement to tell them they aren’t doing enough. Let’s put up the Matthews “Free French” and the “Greatest Generation” against the YPG. I bet most Americans who fought in American wars, as my ancestors did with the doughboys in the Great War, would be proud of those fighters going forth against ISIS, against Assad, against the Russians today.
American media has become addicted to ignorance. There is no one to challenge these insane assertions made by politicians or popular media personalities. No one speaks truth to power. No one wants to see any Syrian refugees because it might make the Chris Matthews and Donald Trumps of America hide their faces in shame.
You may not agree that Syrian refugees have some automatic right to move to Germany or the US, and that’s a well and fine point. But don’t lie about them. Why are some of them able-bodied men? Were not the people who fled Tsarist Russia in the 19th century “able bodied” men? Who do you think is a typical refugee who is able to move from one country another easiest? When Syrians live in refugee camps for years in Turkey, who goes out to do the work to make money for the babies and elderly? Able-bodied men. Who risks his life on a small raft to Europe to gain entry so as to bring the family? Who begs on the streets? Able-bodied men. Does Chris Matthews want more children on the rafts to Europe, more Aylan Kurdis? Why must there be more children for it to be legitimate. More feeble old people who can’t swim? How about younger men to get to the EU, to send money back? It’s ok if it is Mexican men, or if African men, but not Syrians, right?
What did Syrians do to the world? Palestinian young men. No problem. Saudis? No problem. Nepalese? No problem. Columbians? No problem. Cubans. Send them all. Syrians? Cowards, go fight Assad. Why won’t you carry your baby in one arm and an Ak-47 in the other, you cowards? How come you can’t live in the rubble of Aleppo without water or electricity with your family? Don’t you want your country?
What happened to the humanity of Americans and others. When Vietnamese boat people fled the communists, then there was sympathy. For other groups, sympathy. For Mexican migrants you’ll say “undocumented”, but for Syrians you have disdain?
Why? Why do Syrians, alone among the world’s people, all have to be heroes, fighting and dying for years? Afghans, they can flee. Ukrainians? No problem. Libyans. Sure. But Syrians. No, no.
There is a pernicious madness, a cruel view that is uncontested by logical voices. I’m not a bleeding heart, I don’t say that every Syrian must all have refugee status. But stop lying to us about these poor, wretched, victimized people, many of whom wanted to save their country, but who were crushed under the boot of various regimes and powers.
And if you truly did care about the fighting Syrians, then you’d have supported them, you’d have supported men like John Gallagher who gave his life to fight ISIS alongside the Kurds. But most people just want to cast aspersions on refugees, the weakest and poorest, and you weren’t there for them when they wanted help. That’s a shame.
Don’t give into the ignorance propagated by those like Matthews.
Seth, you write: “When Vietnamese boat people fled the communists, then there was sympathy. For other groups, sympathy. For Mexican migrants you’ll say “undocumented”, but for Syrians you have disdain?
“Why? Why do Syrians, alone among the world’s people, all have to be heroes, fighting and dying for years? Afghans, they can flee. Ukrainians? No problem. Libyans. Sure. But Syrians. No, no.”
So what’s the answer? What makes Syrian refugees more disdained than Vietnamese, Mexicans, Afghans, Ukrainians, and Libyans?