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 carbon dividends, Robert Caro's research process, and a breakthrough in non-line-of-sight imaging

  • Guillermo Del Toro reflects on “Roma”, his countryman and friend’s masterpiece now nominated for Best Picture:

Finally, he raised his head. “I didn’t know someone from Princeton could do digging like this,” he said. “From now on, you do investigative work.”

I responded with my usual savoir faire: “But I don’t know anything about investigative reporting.”

Alan looked at me for what I remember as a very long time. “Just remember,” he said. “Turn every page. Never assume anything. Turn every goddam page.” He turned to some other papers on his desk, and after a while I got up and left.

Caro is famous for the obsessive research underlying his biographies of Robert Moses and Lyndon B. Johnson. The latter has been a four-volume project (publications in 1982, 1990, 2002, and 2012) with a fifth and concluding volume characteristically overdue. His next book, “Working”, is a memoir and is due out in a few months:

Why am I publishing these random recollections toward a memoir while I’m still working on the last volume of the Johnson biography, when I haven’t finished it, while I’m still—at the age of eighty-three—several years from finishing it? Why don’t I just include this material in the longer, full-length memoir I’m hoping to write?

The answer is, I’m afraid, quite obvious.. I am well aware that I may never get to write the memoir, although I have so many thoughts about writing, so many anecdotes about research, that I would like to preserve for anyone interested enough to read them. I decided that, just in case, I’d put some of them down on paper now.

I also recommend listening to his appearance last year on the New Yorker Radio Hour (embedded below), which he at the end calls the best interview he’s ever had. Read also this interview with the New York Review. I have not read any of his books.

  • This is California, the creepy progressive dreamland of contradictions dominated by the real-estate lobby

“I have interviewed a number of the characters Mark Lilla cites in his essay' ‘Two Roads for the New French Right’. Lilla’s account fails to confront the white supremacy at the heart of a movement he ultimately describes as a ‘coherent worldview'.’ Although he is correct that there are important evolutions underway on the French and European right, he overlooks an implacable bigotry that remains the essence of the project. Any responsible discussion of the movement’s new developments must begin and end there.”

And Lilla replies:

“Writing about the political right has never been harder. Different kinds of right-wing ideologies and political formations are proliferating and shaking liberal governments around the world… This makes it difficult to keep track of all the developments, distinguish them, and establish the connections between them. At the same time, liberal and left forces that want to resist these developments are increasingly hostile to learning anything that does not conform to their settled ideas about the right.

“…a reader of McAurley’s letter who had not seen the piece might come to a different conclusion: that it was intended to whitewash Marion [Maréchal ] (or her grandfather, or right-wing forces everywhere; it’s unclear which) and ignore the real animating forces on the right, which are ‘white supremacy,’ ‘hatred of the other,’ ‘bigotry,’ and ‘an ideology of exclusion,’ all whipped up by the phantom of immigration. In other words, never mind all the things that seem new, forget the writings about family and sexuality, forget all the talk about organic community, forget the lashing out against neoliberalism and tech giants, forget Pope Francis. It all comes down to hatred: ‘Any responsible discussion of the movement’s new developments must begin and end there.’”

  • Questions that have been weighing on my mind ever since I’ve thought about working in development:

Figure 1: “Controlled by a laptop PC, the standard digital camera obtains a snapshot of the irradiance distribution on a visible imaging wall, which is induced by the penumbra of an occluding object owing to light emanating from a scene of interest. The scene of interest is displayed on an LCD monitor for ease of performing experiments with many scenes. The snapshot is fed through a computer algorithm to recover an image of the scene of interest and an estimate of the position of the hidden occluder.”  From: “  Computational periscopy with an ordinary digital camera   ”, Nature   565 , 435-436 (2019)

Figure 1: “Controlled by a laptop PC, the standard digital camera obtains a snapshot of the irradiance distribution on a visible imaging wall, which is induced by the penumbra of an occluding object owing to light emanating from a scene of interest. The scene of interest is displayed on an LCD monitor for ease of performing experiments with many scenes. The snapshot is fed through a computer algorithm to recover an image of the scene of interest and an estimate of the position of the hidden occluder.”

From: “Computational periscopy with an ordinary digital camera”, Nature 565, 435-436 (2019)

What I've been reading, featuring problematic art and Jonathan Franzen's "Purity"

  • Writers Nikil Saval and Pankaj Mishra correspond on how they reckon with the legacy of VS Naipaul, the Trinidad-born Man Booker and Nobel Prize-winning author whose influential writing conjured neocolonial, fascist, racist, and misogynistic sentiment. I’m not familiar with Naipaul, but the subject of reconciling influential work with its problematic creator is doubtlessly relevant. They artfully call this exercise “the painful sum of things”.

    Choice excerpts with some editing:

NS: Now that he has died, the preparation feels insufficient: the uneasiness remains. I suspect you feel it as well: how to speak about a writer whose work has been meaningful—in my case, profoundly so; I could not imagine my life without it—as well as a source of frustration or real pain. I have admired Naipaul as much as I have found him difficult to admire, a murky admixture that I find difficult to explain or clarify, and which I find with no other writer, to anything like the same degree. (Edward Said referred to his “pained admiration,” and dissonant phrases of that kind are scattered through appreciations of his work.)

PM: For many aspiring writers from modest backgrounds, in the West as well as in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean, he was the first writer who made us think that we, too, had something to say, and that we, too, had an intellectual claim upon the world... In societies and cultures where the idea of a whole life devoted to writing and thinking is confined to the privileged members of the population, Naipaul’s example—that of a man making himself a writer through sheer effort—was a great boost.

NS: The question is whether this recognition, this fundamental dissonance in his existence, had to find the sorts of toxic resolutions that it did: his Islamophobic comments that gave succor to Hindutva; the current of anti-blackness that courses through his work; the consistent disregard for women writers and editors... it has taken me some time to come around to feeling in Naipaul what Adorno recognized in Wagner: that what is damaged and wounding and reactionary in him is essential, a critical part of the work, not something ancillary or disfiguring.

PM: There is an incandescent essay by Vivian Gornick on Naipaul and Baldwin—why the latter opens up new places for reflection and action while the former closes them down. She concludes that Baldwin’s unavoidable engagement with the tormented history of African Americans saves him from the sterile despair she identifies in Naipaul’s nonfiction writing… Naipaul did not have an equally profound stake in any society he knew—or the societies he condemned for failing to be more like the civilized West. He was embraced early in his career by Britain’s white literary establishment; he retreated to the countryside but took little interest in British politics and indeed professed disdain for the political struggles and intellectual endeavors of people like Stuart Hall. He was embarrassed about his origins in the small island of Trinidad and hoped to achieve a generous identity through his ancestral country.

NS: When Naipaul received the knighthood, the cycle of humiliation had made its final turn. He praised the universal civilization that had granted him one of its highest, most nostalgic honors. There was the heir to Conrad and Dickens—Dickens who had proposed, in response to Indian killings during the 1857 rebellion, “I should do my utmost to exterminate the Race upon whom the stain of the late cruelties rested”—receiving the sign of grace from the Queen of the United Kingdom and the other Commonwealth realms.

It is the nature of the societies we live in never to let you forget your luck, to point to any success as a sign of its ultimate justice; to make your rage against them seem like ingratitude. In the end, to an extent that I find debilitating, Naipaul was grateful. I know that the sense of personal injury, of grievance, that I feel in recalling these fundamental aspects of his life and art are disabling—feelings that one day might be transmuted into something different; a necessary distance. But I have yet to manage it.

“The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died. He had been shot by one of the state hit squads and I did not care about the shooting of this man. Others did care though, and some were those who, in the parlance, ‘knew me to see but not to speak to’ and I was being talked about because there was a rumour started by them, or more likely by first brother-in-law, that I had been having an affair with this milkman and that I was 18 and that he was 41… It had been my fault too, it seemed, this affair with the milkman. But I had not been having an affair witht he milkman. I did not like the milkman and had been frightened and confused by his pursuing and attempting an affair with me.”

  • I’ve just finished “Purity” by Jonathan Frenzen (h/t Eszter), the inaugural selection for our unofficial grad-student book club here at Nuffield College. I didn’t like it and not knowing Franzen outside of this work, I found myself distrusting him with the subject matter. I couldn’t help thinking of this tweet from the @GuyInYourMFA novelty account run by @danaschwartzzz:


I’m not prudish about what I read, but I didn’t feel nearly enough reward for indulging 560+ pages of exhausting characters. I can appreciate the choice to use a cast of unlikeable in a novel called Purity, but the unlikeability of the author seeps through too much to justify the length.

Spoiler alert, I also made this chart trying to chronologize the sequence of events in this novel, which jumps abruptly between chapters across space, time, and character perspective:

Purity Timeline.jpg

EK: …99.99 percent of all the humans who’ll ever live have yet to be born. If that’s true, then even very small reductions in the danger of those future lives not happening begins to outweigh large improvements in the value of life now.

BG: Well, the people in the future will have more knowledge and more resources than we have today. They’ll understand what those emerging problems look like.

If you said there was a philanthropist 500 years ago that said, “I’m not gonna feed the poor, I’m gonna worry about existential risk,” I doubt their prediction would have made any difference in terms of what came later. You got to have a certain modesty…

If somebody thinks there’s a magic thing they can do today that helps all those future lives, in a free economy, they have a chance to build whatever it is they think does that. We do have a few things like climate change where you want to invest today to involve problems tomorrow. I’m always a little surprised there’s not more engagement on that issue. Pandemic risk, weapons of mass destruction.

But… there’s not many that we really understand with clarity, and so somebody who says, “Okay, let’s just let a million people die of malaria because I’m building this temple that will help people a million years from now,” I wonder what the heck they’re building that temple out of.

EK: A lot of people have become very focused on the question of AI risk. I’m curious how you weight that as a risk to future human life?

BG: And so they think that’s more important than kids dying of malaria?

EK: …I don’t want to put words in other people’s mouths, but as I understand it, the idea is there are a lot of good people working on malaria, and AI is so dangerous that it’s better for people on the margin to be working on AI risk now than to be—

BG: But most of those people aren’t working on AI risk. They’re actually accelerating progress in AI… They like working on AI. Working on AI is fun. If they think what they’re doing is reducing the risk of AI, I haven’t seen that proof of that.