The cruelty is the point

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It was one of those weird moments of digital synchronicity: After an early-Friday-morning news scroll that included the New York Times’ comprehensive interviews with some of the Venezuelan asylum seekers lured into being flown from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, iTunes’ song-shuffle function offered up Randy Newman’s “Sail Away” as I brushed my teeth.

If you’re not familiar with this 1972 track, it’s not for lack of cover versions. “Sail Away” has been recorded by everyone from Ray Charles and Linda Ronstadt to the Daves Von Ronk and Matthews. Newman’s version might be the most brutal — and the most black-heartedly funny. With orchestration bearing the cinematic sweep that would go on to make Newman famous in his soundtrack work, its lyrics are a pitch delivered to a young African child about the glories of America, where freedom, security and prosperity are guaranteed: “Sail away, sail away/We will cross the mighty ocean into Charleston Bay.” Newman’s pitchman is, of course, a trader of enslaved people trapping an unwitting victim into a life of servitude.

The immigrants scooped up by DeSantis’ latest own-the-libs initiative were similarly lured from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard by promises of shelter, food, support and jobs at the other end of a privately chartered flight to Massachusetts. Several told reporters they were led to believe they were going to Boston; others hoped to be able to find swift passage to New York City, where they could connect with relatives. Instead, they were flown to Martha’s Vineyard, an island that just wrapped up its summer employment season and like many other communities — including San Francisco and Saratoga Springs — is grappling with an affordable housing crisis.

DeSantis is clearly aping the tactics of Greg Abbott of Texas and other Republican governors, who have organized similar transports to New York City, Baltimore and the official residence of Vice President Kamala Harris in Washington, D.C. He was, indeed, so desperate to jump aboard the train that he had to hoodwink immigrants in a whole other state for the project, and then set up a layover in Florida in what the Miami Herald described as a potemkin effort to justify the use of public dollars.

The Florida-funded migrant flights inspired a truly execrable column by the Boston Herald’s Howie Carr, who engaged in what the Catholic church would categorize as an act of self-pollution in front of his readers in a piece headlined “Ron DeSantis has Martha’s Vineyard elites feeling blue” but begins with the rather elite scene of DeSantis last winter “holding court with some of his supporters at a swank Italian restaurant on Worth Avenue in Palm Beach.” When the governor floats the idea of sending what Carr refers to as “the hordes of ‘illegal alien’ criminals … the surly foreign indigents” to the Hamptons or the Delaware shore, the columnist recalls how he piped up and suggested Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.

Carr expresses delight over what he alleges is “the consternation that is gripping the elites” — on the Vineyard, not in Palm Beach — “as they are suddenly forced to … Celebrate Diversity.” (The ellipsis is Carr’s, apparently for … Effect.) That’s a really odd point to make, considering that Martha’s Vineyard has for generations been a summer destination for Black people, and because the only consternation that has been publicly expressed by the islands’ residents is that anyone, especially a state executive leader who claims to be a fan of Jesus Christ, would be low enough to hustle desperate people in an attempt to score political points.

DeSantis, of course, isn’t modeling himself after Christ. He’s going for someone who currently lives a short drive south of Worth Avenue: former President Donald J. Trump, whose performative cruelty — rhetoric as well as policy — aimed at undocumented immigrants was a major theme of his political rise, all the way back to his 2015 charge that Mexico was sending rapists over the border. It plays well with the base — and feel free to use both meanings of “base” when you read that.

Carr and DeSantis were apparently banking on the notion that everybody feels the way they do about undocumented immigrants and/or asylum seekers, and will react with fear and trembling when they see them on their block. Instead, the response on the island was what we’d hope to see from actual, y’know, human beings: The citizenry organized temporary shelter in a local Episcopal church, offered meals and clothing, and put out the call for lawyers to provide assistance to people terrified of complications to their asylum requests. On Friday, authorities began shuttling them to Joint Base Cape Cod on the mainland.

But to get back to my starting point: I am in no way suggesting that what was done to the Venezuelan immigrants equates to the horrors of chattel slavery that form the backdrop to the acid satire of “Sail Away.” Randy Newman has an unparalleled skill for writing his songs from the perspectives of some truly awful individuals: His songbook includes pages and pages of racists and perverts; his biggest hit was sung from the vantage of a guy who inexplicably hates short people.

These characters are all bent in some tragic way. And they are, alas, very American types.

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