Soap and toothbrushes: Mundane symbols of compassion and respect

Although the U.S. government has a long history of warehousing people of color, its overt foray into large-scale concentration camps intended for desperate asylum seekers is relatively new. And the video of a Trump administration lawyer coolly offering a rational argument as to why basic humanitarian rules do not require the government to facilitate sleep, or provide soap and toothbrushes, caught the attention of many. It’s got me thinking about what makes a refusal to provide the humble basics of personal hygiene seem so distinctively cruel.

The implements of human hygiene which, to be sure, vary from place to place, are a critical part of human culture and often function as structural support for our identities. By contrast, part of what makes dogs so endearing is their capacity to pull themselves from a reeking mire without a flicker of self-consciousness. Living as a human in society, however, tends to carry some internalized imperative to keep ourselves in basic hygienic order. It’s no accident that part of how we measure others’, and our own, well being — how well we’ve recovered from the flu, or our level of depression, for example — is by how well we can tend to our basic hygiene. Soap and toothbrushes, then, in addition to being associated with utterly basic public health standards, have become fundamental symbols of personhood and membership in human society.

It is no surprise, then, that when we have the luxury of traveling on our own terms, that is, when we are not desperately fleeing starvation or murderous rogues, basic toiletries often figure high on our priority list. The privileged among us may even bring careful, almost loving, attention to our travel toiletry kits, and keep them close to avoid being separated from them in the event of flight delays. It’s not, of course, that being caught overnight without a comb or toothbrush will have devastating consequences, but that many of us do not quite feel like ourselves without performing some basic rituals of hygiene. In the face of the great unknown, grooming rituals can provide a familiar, psychologically significant, substructure. So too, when a stranger visits our home, we ensure that they have toothpaste, a washcloth, maybe a nightlight in the bathroom in order to affirm how very welcome they are.

The outrage about the denial of toothbrush and soap, then, is not merely, or even primarily, about soap and toothbrushes, though any number of conservative extremists pretend not to know that. It is, rather, a reaction to what a refusal of such basics symbolizes. That is, outrage at how quickly Republican extremism has swept the U.S. away from any pretense of human decency. To be sure, the U.S. has a long, ignoble, and ongoing history of devastating treatment of brown and black families and individuals, both residents and visitors. Still, it is startling to see such concerted, highly publicized attempts by the highest levels of government to rationally justify stockpiling children in abject, life-threatening, squalor.

To be clear, this is not a merely symbolic atrocity. Toothbrushes and soap are perhaps the least abominable part of this, despite the critical role that simple soap and water plays in preventing the deadly and predictable epidemics that endanger even well organized refugee camps, which these manifestly are not. The horror is in the cages and the separations, in the casual and cruel acts of violence and neglect, in the refusal to treat these legal asylum seekers with any semblance of compassion or respect. The degree to which much of white America despises brown visitors from the south, often concealed beneath a veneer of gentility, has never been more proudly and officially on display in recent memory. “No soap for you!” is a pretty precise expression of the intensity of this racist, xenophobic contempt.

And, too, there is horror in both the silent and vocal complicity of the countless Americans who continue to defend, tolerate, and even celebrate the GOP’s embrace of concentration camps. For many of them, we can be sure, it is a point in Trump’s favor. So, it is not enough to be outraged, any more than it is enough to supply soap and toothbrushes. There are links, below, then, that contain practical information and instructions for the privileged among us, that is, for those of us with soap, toothbrushes, toilets, toilet paper, diapers, tampons, and babies sleeping safely in our arms. Please feel free to share other helpful links in the comments below.

“What You Need to Know About the Crisis at the Border and What You Can Do to Help”

“Children Shouldn’t Be Dying at the Border: Here’s How You Can Help”

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