The word “conservative” is doing a lot of unspoken work in this story. It serves, among other things, as both an accusation and a defiant confession.
If they vote to bar refugees, as expected, Burleigh County — home to about 95,000 people and the capital city of Bismarck — could become the first local government to do so since President Donald Trump issued an executive order making it possible.
… Trump’s executive order this fall came as he had already proposed cutting the number of refugees next year to the lowest level since Congress passed the Refugee Act of 1980. He declared that refugees should be resettled only in places where the state and local governments — counties — gave consent. Since then, many governors and counties around the country have declared that they would continue taking refugees.
Republican Gov. Doug Burgum said last month that North Dakota would continue accepting refugees where local jurisdictions agreed, and his spokesman said the governor saw it as a local decision. Soon after, Cass and Grand Forks counties, which are home to the state’s largest city, Fargo, and third-largest city, Grand Forks, respectively, declared they would continue taking refugees. Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney said refugees were needed to boost the city’s economy, and that 90% were fully employed within three months of resettling in his city.
But the idea was quickly opposed in more conservative Burleigh County. Among the opponents was Republican state Rep. Rick Becker, of Bismarck, an ultraconservative who took to social media to criticize the program as unrestrained and a possible drain on social service programs, schools and law enforcement.
Burleigh County is likely to bar refugees because Burleigh County is “conservative.” The most outspoken opponent to permitting refuge for those fleeing violence and persecution is a local Republican state representative who is “ultraconservative.”
We are presented with an identity: “conservative” equals “inhospitable to outsiders and those in need.” Rick Becker is opposed to accepting refugees because he is a “conservative.” Rick Becker is “conservative” because he opposes accepting refugees.
AP reporter James MacPherson attempts to employ the word “conservative” as a dispassionate, disinterested descriptor — a label that strives for accuracy, not for evaluation. This is in part because the article is discussing Republicans, and the generally agreed-upon consensus view is that Republicans are the “conservative” party in America. This is, in fact, how the Burleigh County Republicans describe themselves, so MacPherson’s use of “conservative” is also deferential — allowing those he discusses to describe themselves as they see fit.
But despite all of that — despite the fact that this use of “conservative” here is customary, chosen, and embraced by the subjects of the article it describes here — the use of the term here is still likely to be regarded by some as judgmental, pejorative, or “biased.” That’s due to the unavoidable substance of the article, which reports the facts of the matter, namely that in Burleigh County, North Dakota, conservatives seek to deny refuge to those in need.
That’s simply a blandly accurate description of what is happening. That this will strike many readers — including many self-identified “conservatives” — as pejorative or judgmental has nothing to do with MacPherson’s or my predisposition toward these self-declared conservatives. Nor does it have anything to do with MacPherson’s or my evaluation of their behavior.
I will happily add my opinion and evaluation to that simple description: Conservatives in Burleigh County seek to deny refuge to those in need … and in my opinion that is a shitty, sinful, blasphemously evil thing to do.
But it doesn’t matter whether or not I add that, or even whether or not I think that. What matters is that everyone thinks that — including the ultra-conservative Rep. Rick Becker, his fellow anti-refugee Republicans in Burleigh County, and all of their fellow anti-refugee Republicans across America. I don’t have to tell you or them that I think this because it is what everyone recognizes to be the case. Banning refugees is just shitty behavior — an ignorant, selfish, dishonest, indecent violation of the Golden Rule.
This creates an uncomfortable situation for poor Rick Becker. He is defiantly proud of his self-chosen identity as a “conservative.” And he is adamant that being a “conservative” entails denying refuge to people in need. If you were to accuse him of going “soft” on his proposed refugee ban, he would vehemently deny that was the case, insisting that no one takes a harder line against providing refuge to refugees than he does. He will not abide the suggestion that anyone could possibly be to the right of him on this point, or that anyone else might be more conservative than he is when it comes to the conservative belief that refugees should be turned away.
And yet, at the same time, he is inescapably aware that his position is utterly gross and shameful. This is what leads him to defend that position as unwaveringly “conservative” rather than attempting the impossible task of defending it as good or as wise or truthful or beautiful.
Perhaps I’m overstating the matter when I say that even Rick Becker and the rest of the anti-refugee Republicans of Burleigh County agree that banning refugees is shameful, sinful, ugly and evil. Maybe they don’t agree with that at all. Maybe they think it’s good and right and just to ban refugees.
But I don’t buy that, because look what happens even if we follow MacPherson’s example and attempt to be as neutral as possible, stating only the stark facts of the matter and refraining from any evaluation or judgment of those facts. We could say:
1. People who describe and identify themselves as “conservatives” seek to ban refugees in Burleigh County, North Dakota; and
2. These same self-described conservatives insist that banning refugees from Burleigh County is the conservative thing to do.
And that alone will provoke a defensive response. It will be perceived as an attack on conservatives and as a criticism of conservatism. Because whether or not it’s ever stated, it is impossible for conservatives or liberals or anyone else to read those two points without also acknowledging a third point:
3. Banning refugees is a shitty thing to do.
Folks like Rick Becker will try to distance and insulate themselves from that recognition by attributing that third fact to the mere opinion of specific others. Points 1 and 2 are an attack on conservatives, they will say, because most liberals think that banning refugees is a shitty thing to do.
And that’s not wrong. Most liberals do think that. Because most liberals are humans and most humans think that. Most conservatives are also humans, and so most conservatives think that too.
We humans — all of us, liberal, conservative, whatever — tell stories about this very thing. In some of these human stories people offer refuge to others who are fleeing violence, disaster, or destruction. In other of these human stories, people refuse to offer such refuge. We humans can tell either version of that story. But what we cannot and do not ever do is tell a story in which those who refuse to offer refuge are the Good Guys.
It is impossible to tell such a story, or to hear it, or to imagine it. By definition — because that is what “the Good Guys” means.
Rick Becker knows this. That’s why he’s so defensive about proudly defending the indefensible.
Becker is quite aware that the policy he’s proposing looks really bad:
“This isn’t about skin color,” said Becker, a plastic surgeon and former gubernatorial candidate. “In the past, nobody had any say whatsoever. Now we have something that should have been in place decades ago.
“Now, if they want to accept them, they can, and if they don’t want to they shouldn’t.”
So this isn’t about skin color, Becker says, as everyone seems to say when they’re doing something explicitly about skin color. Becker says, rather, this is about states’ rights. The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even etc.
I’m still unclear as to what it would even mean for Burleigh County to withhold its official “consent” for the resettlement of refugees there. Trump’s executive order — dreamed up by his white supremacist senior legislative aide, Stephen Miller — seems illegal or unenforceable or, at best, simply beside the point. When the “conservative” fundamentalist Baptist church I grew up in signed up to resettle a refugee family of “Boat People” back in the early 1980s, we didn’t seek or require the “consent” of Union County, N.J. We were just a group of citizens acting as such. The county government had no role, no jurisdiction, no say, and no involvement in any of that.
In providing refuge for that family, we were also a local church acting as such. Had our local county government imagined they had any legal right to muck about with our doing that, we’d have taken them to court and every lawyer they tried to hire against us would’ve advised them to back off, drop the matter, and apologize to avoid losing a slam-dunk First Amendment case.
I note that Burleigh County, North Dakota, is home to many local churches that belong to traditions with a long history of welcoming refugees as an intrinsic expression and requirement of their faith. There are dozens of Lutheran congregations there that have long supported the work of Church World Service. There are local Catholic parishes that have long contributed to support refugee resettlement through the UCCB and Catholic Charities. There are scads of nondenominational white evangelical congregations that have, up until recently at least, wholeheartedly supported the refugee resettlement work of World Relief. And that’s just the Christians — there are also at least three synagogues in Bismarck, and America’s Jewish congregations have always way outperformed us American Christians when it comes to offering refuge to those in need.
I don’t know, specifically, if any of these many many religious congregations in Burleigh County are directly involved in helping to resettle refugees in their community, but the odds are that at least some of them are or plan to be. Does the Burleigh County government imagine it has the authority to stop them by denying them its “consent”? Does the Republican-controlled Burleigh County government imagine that it has any hope of defending itself against the lawsuit that these congregations are likely to bring?
Yes, I realize Trump has had three years to cram hundreds of Federalist Society ideologues onto the courts, and that those bozos do not recognize religious liberty as a constitutional right, only as a political slogan having to do with letting bakeries refuse to sell baked goods or allowing pharmacists to refuse to sell Monistat because they pretend to believe it’s abortion cream. But even so, there’s no legal basis for a county government barring local congregations from practicing their faith in the way that American congregations have done for more than a century.
The idea of a local government withholding its “consent” for refugee resettlement just seems confused. This is not an activity that has ever required that government’s consent.
But now, according to Trump’s strange executive order, we’re told that government “consent” will be required even for activities in which that government has no role or involvement. Religious groups who seek to continue doing that which religious groups have been doing will first need to seek and secure the government’s permission.
There are many words that might be used to describe that state of affairs, but “conservative” really shouldn’t be one of them.