What I've been reading, featuring corrective narratives of the migrant caravan and the American frontier; and “Sabrina” by Nick Drnaso

Late post because I lost an early draft from two weeks ago. I also initially had a bullet-point on David Wallace-Wells’ climate change book here but it morphed into its own post.

  • Why wasn’t the migrant caravan covered this way from the beginning?

San Pedro Sula may not be well known, but from 2011 to 2014 it was the most violent city in the world. The only thing to do there is escape. The crime syndicates, which have complete control over the region and the power of life and death over its people, have in recent years plunged Honduras into an unofficial state of war…. President Trump talks about the migrant caravan as if it were an attempted invasion. In reality, Honduras and Central America have paid an enormous price precisely because of US policies.

…This is what people are fleeing from, this landscape that seems to offer no future but killing or being killed. Despite their varied histories, the migrants all have in common the desire—or rather the need—to escape the violence of the drug gangs and the lack of work and opportunity in their country.

…Jakelin Caal Maquin, age seven, was healthy when she left Raxruhá, Guatemala, with her father. On the evening of December 6, both were arrested, along with 161 other migrants, by the US border patrol in New Mexico, after illegally crossing the border. A few hours later, while in the custody of American border agents, Jakelin began suffering from a high fever and seizures; she was taken by helicopter to a hospital, where she died the next day from septic shock, dehydration, and liver failure. She had traveled two thousand miles, crossing the Mexican desert, enduring weeks of exhaustion and hardship to reach the US, because she knew that beyond its border she could hope for something better than the future her own country offered. She died in the very place she could have begun a new life.

…Despite Trump’s many assertions, there is no evidence that criminals or drug traffickers formed any part of the caravan. The journalists who followed it have consistently reported that it is made up of ordinary, desperate people who are not criminals but are fleeing from criminals. Making these people seem dangerous, for example by claiming that the caravan has been infiltrated by “unknown Middle Easterners,” does, however, serve Trump’s interests, because it allows him to resort to emergency measures to keep the migrants from entering or remaining in the United States.

CBS also reported last week that 4,556 complaints over the past four years alleged unaccompanied migrant children were sexually abused in US custody

The New York Review article makes note of the diminishing numbers at refugee camps at the border and cite data from Mexican authorities: from a caravan originally estimated to be about 10,000 strong, 1,300 migrants returned home, 2,900 received humanitarian visas from Mexico and are living there legally, and 2,600 were arrested by US Border Patrol for attempting to cross illegally. The New York Times explored these migrants’ decisions to return to their home countries, attempt an illegal crossing, or settle in Mexico in the face of increasingly stringent policy under President Trump. It suggests that most of the asylum seekers who have given up on entering the United States were typically economic migrants who saw opportunity in joining the Honduran exodus:

Mexican officials said the data on people who have deferred or given up their quest for asylum in the United States reinforced an idea that is often raised by Mr. Trump: that many caravan members are not truly desperate for protection.

Immigrant advocates said that hype and false promises had attracted a group that was somewhat unrepresentative of typical asylum seekers. But they pointed to the roughly 4,000 members who had successfully entered the United States and had at least requested protected status to argue that most had legitimate claims.

Michelle Brané, the director of migrant rights and justice at the Women’s Refugee Commission, warned that while Mr. Trump’s tough policies may discourage the undeserving, they might also endanger people who need protection. She said they would likely drive vulnerable migrants into the arms of human traffickers, who promise to provide passage into the United States.

“It may look like it’s working in the short term,” Ms. Brané said, “But I don’t think it’s a long-term solution. It’s driving people further into the shadows and that’s exactly the opposite of what we want.”

It recalls this New Yorker article from last year summarizing an outstanding effort by 2016 MacArthur Fellow Prof. Sarah Stillman and her graduate journalism students at Columbia to make a record of migrants who were deported to their violent deaths “with the help of border agents, immigration judges, politicans, and US voters”:

Fear of retribution keeps most grieving families from speaking publicly. We contacted more than two hundred local legal-aid organizations, domestic-violence shelters, and immigrants’-rights groups nationwide, as well as migrant shelters, humanitarian operations, law offices, and mortuaries across Central America. We spoke to families of the deceased. And we gathered the stories of immigrants who had endured other harms—including kidnapping, extortion, and sexual assault—as a result of deportations under Obama and Trump.

…As the database grew to include more than sixty cases, patterns emerged. Often, immigrants or their families had warned U.S. officials that they were in danger if sent back. Ana Lopez, the mother of a twenty-year-old gay asylum seeker named Nelson Avila-Lopez, wrote a letter to the U.S. government during Christmas week in 2011, two months after Immigration and Customs Enforcement accidentally deported him to Honduras. Nelson had fled the country at seventeen, after receiving gang threats. He’d entered the U.S. unauthorized and been ordered removed, but an immigration judge then granted him an emergency stay of his deportation so that he could reopen his case for asylum. An ICE agent told his family’s legal team that Nelson was deported because “someone screwed up,” and ICE alleges that the proper office had not been notified of the judge’s stay.

Francisco Cantú, the former Border Patrol guard whose article on border violence was previously linked to here, reviews a new book taking a historical look at the race-based violence and militarism of the American frontier and its modern incarnation in the southern Border Patrol. This is a history of atrocity—including “the lynching of thousands of men, women and children of Mexican descent from the mid-19th century until well into the 20th century”—that the Times this week reported is struggling to be preserved. The book is “The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America” by the historian Greg Gandin:

Grandin’s chapters on the Border Patrol make evident the origins of many of today’s most egregious border-enforcement practices. When I read of the Mexicans who were routinely jeered at by federal agents in the 1920s as they crossed the bridge from Ciudad Juárez to El Paso, I thought of the agents who mocked a roomful of crying migrant children last summer after they had been separated from their parents. “Aqui tenemos una orquesta,” one agent joked—“We’ve got an orchestra here.” When I read of the workplace police raids that were conducted in the early nineteen-thirties, with the sanction of the Hoover Administration, as a “psychological gesture” to scare deportable migrants, I thought of the “show me your papers” law, passed in Arizona in 2010 and then adopted by other states, with the explicit hope of driving migrants toward self-deportation. When I read of the Border Patrol agents who admitted to reporters in the nineteen-seventies that, when pursuing migrant families, they would often try to apprehend the youngest member first, so that the rest would surrender in order to avoid being separated, I thought, inevitably, of the enactment last year of “zero tolerance,” which turned family separation into a national policy.

Because I served as a Border Patrol agent, from 2008 to 2012, Grandin’s account brought up more personal memories for me as well. Despite its white-supremacist roots, the Border Patrol has evolved into an agency where more than half of its members are of Latinx descent. Just as the military has long promised social mobility to immigrants and minority populations, the Border Patrol provides rare access to financial security and the privileges of full citizenship, especially for those living in rural border communities. In America, even at the individual level, citizenship politics often wins out over identity politics.

  • “Sabrina”, a graphic novel by Nick Drnaso was our latest book club venture. Strong recommendation from The New Yorker and I think the LA Review had the best take on it: “At its best, Drnaso’s work encourages readers—more thoroughly than might art with more explicit rendering of its characters—to recognize the interiority of other people. We pause, reflect, and introduce more of ourselves.”

    As someone unexperienced with graphic novels—I think I’ve only read Archie comics, “Watchmen”, and a few manga that were popular during high school—I was surprised by how well Drnaso accomplishes that expression of interiority through images drawn in the same style as airline emergency instructions (someone else’s comparison that I can’t seem to source at the moment). I had a prejudice to think of all graphic novels as having the subtlety of the “POW!” of comic-book superhero punches, but I found in many cases, they can leave a lot more implied that can text-based novels. Some choice examples (hover over the images for notes):

“I guess the reason I feel skeptical of all that is it makes me feel that books have no potential to speak truth to power, they have no potential as political texts because of the role they play in the cultural economy… because of its position as a commodity.”

 
 
  • The latest (at the time of my initially drafting this) in the Jason Hickel vs. Bill Gates/Steven Pinker/Max Roser debate. The finer points about data quality I don’t really care about (though on that, Branko Milanovic is by far the most qualified). I don’t find this graph being celebrated on Twitter particularly compelling. Poverty rates decreasing across all poverty lines over 25 years—especially these last 25 years—is a very low bar to clear, in my opinion, and will be mostly driven by China’s market reforms. Lost in that level of aggregation is how many countries for which this invariance to poverty line does not hold (which I have no clue about but would like to see). And even in those cases, I’m not sure that’s a worthy counterfactual upon which to celebrate the successes and inherent virtues of market fundamentalism and the Washington Consensus, which this is really about.

  • Final note after attending my last economics lecture at Oxford yesterday:

 
 

What I've been reading, featuring our blindnesses, Tony Romo's vision, and Theranos' blind vision

We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity, and society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul. You tried that in the case of the negro. You pressed him down for two centuries; and in so doing you crippled the moral strength and paralyzed the spiritual energies of the white men of the country. When the hands of the black were fettered, white men were deprived of the liberty of speech and the freedom of the press. Society cannot afford to neglect the enlightenment of any class of its members.

…I do not believe that giving the woman the ballot is immediately going to cure all the ills of life. I do not believe that white women are dew-drops just exhaled from the skies. I think that like men they may be divided into three classes, the good, the bad, and the indifferent.

….Talk of giving women the ballot-box? Go on. It is a normal school, and the white women of this country need it. While there exists this brutal element in society which tramples upon the feeble and treads down the weak, I tell you that if there is any class of people who need to be lifted out of their airy nothings and selfishness, it is the white women of America.

I’m disheartened by the defensiveness of the NYT reader comments; there is value in the type of introspection these challenges evoke. This week, I was called out by a caring friend for what they considered half-hearted allyship and I tried to take it as an opportunity to step back and re-assess. I hope others have done the same when I worked up the same courage to share my pain with them. Critically revisiting our shortcomings and identifying our blind spots are the purposes of events like Black History Month (this month in the States) or LGBT month (this month here in the UK). Addressing ongoing struggles should be uncomfortable; let’s not sterilize and misremember the details for palatability and peace of mind. Sorry if this paragraph reads as trite, but I’ve been feeling this a lot lately and wouldn’t mind erring on the side of trite enunciation.

I hold with Wordsonfire from Minneapolis who wrote:

I'm struck by all the defensiveness and whataboutism in the responses to this column. Cloaking responses in "what was possible at that time," and "black men did it too only worse," suggests that it's harder to just accept history and those flawed individuals who came before us as they were.

Few are willing to say what needs to be said: "That was wrong. Let's strive to do better."

So little was required of the readers of this column and yet they were unable to demonstrate even the smallest bit of remorse or solidarity with black women.

Photo taken from  this Filipino-American morning-show panel discussion  on the legacy of American colonization

Photo taken from this Filipino-American morning-show panel discussion on the legacy of American colonization

Those who want to change the world can’t shape their ideas according to the conventional wisdom about what the public will accept, whether on refugees, climate change or anything else.

Who does the most to make people richer, healthier, happier, and less likely to be killed by lightning? Is it those who accentuate the positive or those who accentuate the negative? Rosling notes that progress in human rights, women’s education, catastrophe relief, and many other matters is often largely thanks to activists who believe things are getting worse, though he speculates that they might achieve even more if they were readier to recognize improvements. Bill Gates, in his call to optimism, acknowledges that to improve the world, “you need something to be mad about.” Focusing on bad cases is indeed no mere cognitive malfunction. Voltaire would hardly have waged his campaign against clerical abuses of power if he had been struck by the fact that, statistically speaking, most priests were perfectly decent chaps.

When he coined “the new optimism,” George Patrick argued that dissatisfaction with the state of the world was not a defect. It was instead “the voice of progress proclaiming its discontent with the present and demanding improvement.” Perhaps new optimists should not forget to thank old pessimists for the fruits of their discontent.

I find these optimists usually don’t define a meaningful counterfactual and that when they are convincing, the change in perspective is usually that things were worse before not that things seem better now. In that framing, new optimism would seem an argument for complacency and usually a validation of the (neoliberal) status quo. We don’t evaluate, say, civil rights movements this way by asking oppressed people to be grateful for the gains they’ve made; we ask why they couldn’t be afforded them sooner and why injustices persist today:

 
 

Also would like to see a new-optimist response to the finding by Alesina, Stantcheva, and Teso (2017) that “pessimists [about social mobility] are far more supportive of redistributive welfare policies” because to me, new optimism comes from a place of privilege.

I also haven’t seen one meaningfully approach the topic of the coming climate refugee crisis that could imperil billions. But do let me know if you come across a new optimist from a developing country. Here’s The Nation on Steven Pinker’s perspective on climate change:

But even if we grant that in many domains human life has indeed improved enormously over the past two centuries, there remains a simple question: Can we count on the progress continuing? What, for instance, about climate change? Pinker is no climate-change denier, and admits that “the challenge is daunting.” But then he quickly pivots from his position that things are getting better and better to say that we can avoid the looming doom if only we start taxing carbon emissions, increase the use of nuclear power, and engage in deliberate climate engineering to lower global temperatures.

He largely disregards the fact that the political will to move in any of these directions is wholly lacking and will remain so as long as the party that controls the White House and Congress refuses to admit that a problem even exists. When it comes to his favored technological solution, nuclear power, Pinker also seems determined to ignore the problem that the people who manage plants do not always follow their own safety procedures and cannot plan for every possible natural disaster (as Fukushima showed all too dramatically). The industry, he insists, has learned from its mistakes.

Until they were ready to go public, Holmes ruled that Theranos was to operate in ‘stealth mode’: no published papers open to peer review, no demonstrations to anyone who hadn’t signed a non-disclosure agreement. All visitors had to be accompanied at all times, even to the loo. Holmes’s corner office – modelled on the Oval Office, and with the same arrangement of desks, sofas and armchairs – had windows made from bulletproof glass… To reporters, to investors, Holmes would say that her technological breakthroughs were a ‘trade secret’, like the recipe for Coca-Cola.

…But as for how it all worked, Holmes would only say that ‘a chemistry is performed so that a chemical reaction occurs and generates a signal from the chemical interaction with the sample, which is translated into a result, which is then reviewed by certified laboratory personnel.’

There is also a brutal invokation of Paulo Coelho’s “The Alchemist” at the end. An Adam McKay adaptation of the book is already in development.

  • I was finally able to watch “If Beale Street Could Talk.” I’m still processing my thoughts, but the music:

 
  • Tony Romo’s sensational color-commentary genius. I don’t think an NBA player could replicate Romo’s intuition for basketball broadcasts—the pace of a football game lends itself to these pre-action analyses and I think it’s a skill quarterbacks need to hone more than do point guards. But even if there were, it would go against ESPN and TNT’s propensities to promote inane under-informed voices in place of intelligent analysts. I wasn’t able to find the tweet I read a while back that bemoaned the massive gulf in quality of basketball analysis between television announcers and (a select few) writers and bloggers, but it rings very true.

 

What I've been reading, featuring the cruelty of the US-Mexico border and Viktor Orbán’s constitutional coup

  • A former Border Patrol guard reflects on life at the American-Mexican border, which he calls a “permanent zone of exception” with a man-made “disregard for human life”:

The borderlands have slowly become a place where citizens are subject to distinct standards for search and detention, and where due process for noncitizens is often unrecognizable by normal American standards. It is a place where migrants are regularly sentenced at mass hearings in which the fates of as many as seventy-five individuals can be adjudicated one after another in a matter of minutes, after which they are funneled into a burgeoning immigration incarceration complex. It is a landscape often written off as a “wasteland” that is inherently “hostile”—without recognition that it has, in fact, been made to be hostile. Violence does not grow organically in our deserts or at our borders. It has arrived there through policy.

…[the former commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service]’s damning admission—that the loss of hundreds of lives on America’s doorstep each year was not enough to cause the government to reevaluate its policy—reveals the extent to which the desert has been weaponized against migrants, and lays bare the fact that the hundreds who continue to die there every year are losing their lives by design. Deterrence-based enforcement has steered the immigration politics of every administration since that of President Clinton, and has resulted in an official tally of more than six thousand migrant deaths along the southern border between 2000 and 2016. This figure, it should be said, does not account for the thousands more who have been reported as missing and never found, not to mention those whose disappearances are never reported in the first place.

…Standing at an altar assembled from remnants of wooden refugee boats, Pope Francis looked out over the port of Lampedusa and asked his audience, “Has any one of us grieved for the death of these brothers and sisters? Has any one of us wept?”

So not to get political, but don’t be this guy:

 

“They do everything by law—there will never be an illegal action. Any one law didn’t look that bad, but if you stack them together it creates this web. That’s why the EU is unable to cope. They look at one thing at a time, but Orbán is a systemic thinker… it’s absolutely ingenious.”

Central European University rector Michael Ignatieff on CEU’s forced relocation to Vienna:

“In Hungary, the law is a tool of power. It looks like a law, sounds like a law, walks and talks like a law, but it’s just a piece of arbitrary discretion.”

Also:

“Around ninety per cent of Hungarian media is now owned or controlled by people with personal connections to Orbán or his party, and eighty per cent of Hungarians who listen to the radio or watch television hear only news that comes from the government.”

  • A selection of the New York Times’ visualizations and multimedia stories from 2018

  • Sally Rooney profiled by The New Yorker. The article mentions how well technology is integrated into her work, which I alluded to in my last post discussing her second novel “Normal People”. I had considered elements like texting and social media to be too clunky and distractingly of-this-era to incorporate well into a book or even a movie, but I’m realizing maybe it’s just that older people and Jonathan Franzen are bad at it in the same way fan fiction botches sex scenes. The article gives this sentence as an example of Rooney doing it well: “I didn't feel like watching the film on my own so I switched it off and just read the Internet instead."

An older novelist might have written “surfed the Internet” or “looked at the Internet,” but “read the Internet” has the ring of native digital literacy. There’s also something current about the flatness of Rooney’s tone; like “breaking the Internet,” “reading the Internet” makes a little joke of the juxtaposition of a puny active verb and the vastness of the thing upon which it is acting.

Trailer for “Searching” (2018), 92% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.

The movie “Searching”, whose gimmick is that all footage is set on a computer or phone screen, also incorporates modern technology extremely well and convincingly. Recommended!

  • Rolling Stone: 20 years on, “How Britney Spears Changed Pop With ‘Baby One More Time’”. I found it to be a poorly written article that doesn’t do much to answer its title question, but I appreciated the prompt to reflect on Spears’ debut album. In retrospect, its opening with “…Baby One More Time”, “(You Drive Me) Crazy”, and “Sometimes” back-to-back-to-back is a hell of a self-introduction.