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 climate change only: “The Uninhabitable Earth” by David Wallace-Wells, the moral imperative of alarmism, and climate intersectionality

“The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming” by David Wallace-Wells

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  • I’m not sure the title claim is advanced in the book or supported by the climate literature so some people may justifiably feel deceived (and maybe also by the cover; when the mass bee deaths feature, its connection to climate is dismissed). As far as I understand, certain parts of the world—small island nations and some vulnerable coastal cities—are on track to be submerged pending political intervention and others in South Asia and the Middle East will regularly have weather exceeding the limits of human survivability. But that’s just 30% of the world’s population for 20 days a year currently and maybe 48-74% of the population by 2100 depending on what we do. By then, that study estimates, many equatorial locations like Jakarta, Indonesia are expected to experience deadly heat 365 days a year. Luckily, the city will probably be completely below sea level anyway. So literally the entire Earth uninhabitable? Nah. Just conducive to heat death on a daily basis for hundreds of millions of powerless people thousands of miles away and the land inhabited by 5% of the world’s population will experience chronic submergence. And then the next century will start.

    To be less flippant, the title serves mostly to make explicit the book’s origin as the author’s 2017 long-form (here’s a version annotated by scientists), which quickly became New York magazine’s most read article ever (though it’s since been unseated by a “Fire and Fury” excerpt). Many called the original article’s focus on and presentation of worst-case scenarios sensationalist, maybe most prominent among them the climatologist and climate science communicator Prof. Michael Mann. In Mann’s words, his problem with the article was “the fact that there were SCIENTIFIC INACCURACIES that PREFERENTIALLY fed a somewhat doomist narrative.” In contrast, with this book adaptation, “David has done his due diligence, vetted the science, and gotten it right.” Since the publication of the original article, Mann and Wallace-Wells have participated in a public conversation hosted by NYU to discuss the communication of climate science and have jointly promoted the book.

  • To me, the book is overwhelmingly a success and potentially an important leap forward in advancing how the public understands the enormity of the climate change problem. By ‘public’, I also mean to include academics from other disciplines and the op-ed intelligentsia who’ve decided to stake a claim of expertise in the area now that the Green New Deal proposal has made the topic politically relevant.

  • Part of this contribution may be its updating the language of climate change. “97% consensus” and the questions of its happening and of human attribution are old. Here’s some new:

  • The main criticism I’ve seen levied against the book and similar ones has been that they are alarmist. While sometimes an appropriate epithet used to throw cold water on inappropriately extreme messaging (see the cloud study mentioned at the bottom of this post), it’s also had the effect of dismissing necessary attempts to bring the public up to speed with our current understanding of the consequences of climate change, which has advanced significantly in recent years. Wallace-Wells’ work embraces the adjective: his recent NYT opinion piece adapted from the book uses the headline “Time to Panic.” The book’s first sentence, the same as the original article’s, is “It is worse, much worse, than you think.” And on page 138: “If you have made it this far, you are a brave reader.”

    This gets to the heart of an outstanding issue with public engagement on the impacts of climate change. Any honest reading of the growing interdisciplinary literature on climate impacts should induce panic, a natural expression of empathy for the most vulnerable human beings on our planet. From my perspective, to admonish those who feel fear amounts to promotion of injustice and ignorance. Two climate journalists discuss that here.

    Noah Smith recently had what I think is a lazy take on the dangers of climate panic when comparing being upset by the prospects of climate impacts to the fear to itself be feared during the Great Depression:

 
 

To hone in on the Great Depression analogy, there is no meaningful parallel between the mass panic of bank runs collapsing the international economy to the supposed chaos that would ensue from learning what climate change does. When has high public concern ever led to commensurate or over-compensating policy? As pointed out here, the metaphorical mapping would not have the concerned public playing the FDR role; it would be more like everyone but FDR noticing the stock market crashing and then pressuring the bumbling President to take action at an appropriately revolutionary scale. If made in good faith, it’s a silly if not harmful argument for Noah to half-ass for an important topic.

It also seems to be the opposite criticism to the typical one made about alarmism, which is that it induces political defeatism and paralysis. I realize I’m focusing on a single tweet, but Smith has over 135,000 Twitter followers and a Bloomberg column so his thinking out loud in 280 characters at a time to try to reconcile his staunch neoliberalism with the catastrophic embodiment of its shortcomings is unfortunately influential. A bit more on this later below.

We’ve lived with climate indifference for the past few decades and it hasn’t produced any meaningful policy. In contrast, the urgency of the young Democratic progressives made climate change maybe the defining issue of the 2020 Democratic primary before they were even sworn into Congress, this after none of the US presidential or vice-presidential debates from the last two races included a single question about climate change. To drive home the opportunities climate indifference has squandered, consider this hypothetical that Wallace-Wells presents:

“If we had started global decarbonization in 2000, when Al Gore narrowly lost election to the American presidency, we would have had to cut emissions by only about 3 percent per year to stay safely under two degrees of warming. If we start today, when global emissions are still growing, the necessary rate is 10 percent. If we delay another decade, it will require us to cut emissions by 30 percent each year.”

The idea of fear inhibiting meaningful action is disputed in social movement theory (h/t @cityatlas) and I hope I am not out of line in invoking the spirit of civil rights movements:

“I want you to understand how overwhelming, how insurmountable it must have felt [in the Jim Crow South]. I want you to understand that there was no end in sight. It felt futile for them too. Then, as now, there were calls to slow down. To settle for incremental remedies for an untenable situation. They, too, trembled for every baby born into that world.

“You don’t fight something like that because you think you will win. You fight it because you have to. Because surrendering dooms so much more than yourself, but everything that comes after you. Acquiescence, in this case, is what James Baldwin called ‘the sickness unto death.’

“…What, now, do you have to lose? What else can you be but brave?”

In 2017, 150 Indians carried the skulls of their fellow farmers—some small subset of the 320,000 driven to suicide due to uncharacteristic climate-driven crop damage between 1995 and 2016—and trekked to the capital Delhi to protest naked and sitting down for almost a month to demand a policy response: “We wanted to symbolically shame our leaders into action.” So the notion that the relatively wealthy and climate-insulated can’t be trusted to inform themselves about climate change because they might accidentally do too much out of fear is offensive, in my opinion. Maybe anti-alarmism is also part of the new climate denialism.

Figure 4:  “Country-level shares of the global social cost of carbon (GSCC) versus shares of the 2013 CO2 emissions. The CSCC is the median estimate with growth adjusted discounting (ρ = 2%, μ = 1.5) for SSP2/RCP6.0 and BHM-SR. Points are shaded by CSCC per capita and sized according to country GDP in 2015. Diagonal lines show the ratio of the GSCC share to the emissions share. Ratios greater than 1:1 indicate that a country’s share of the GSCC exceeds its share of global emission. The box in the left panel indicates the bounds of the detail shown in the right panel.”   From: “ Country-level social cost of carbon ” , Nature Climate Change   8 , 895–900 (2018)

Figure 4: “Country-level shares of the global social cost of carbon (GSCC) versus shares of the 2013 CO2 emissions. The CSCC is the median estimate with growth adjusted discounting (ρ = 2%, μ = 1.5) for SSP2/RCP6.0 and BHM-SR. Points are shaded by CSCC per capita and sized according to country GDP in 2015. Diagonal lines show the ratio of the GSCC share to the emissions share. Ratios greater than 1:1 indicate that a country’s share of the GSCC exceeds its share of global emission. The box in the left panel indicates the bounds of the detail shown in the right panel.”

From: “Country-level social cost of carbon, Nature Climate Change 8, 895–900 (2018)

  • It is this notion of injustice that I think resonated most while reading this book and even while contributing the little I have to climate research. Wallace-Wells make the point that we’ve now expelled more greenhouse gases while aware of its contribution to the global greenhouse effect than we ever did in ignorance going back to the dawn of the industrial revolution. There is an intuitive unfairness now in “trying to bring many hundreds of millions more into the global middle class while knowing that the easy paths taken by the nations that industrialized in the nineteenth and even twentieth centuries are now paths to climate chaos.” I highlighted Presidents Barack Obama and Narendra Modi acknowledging that unfairness here in a section about the Paris Agreement from Ben Rhodes’ White House memoir last year.

    The legacy of other oppressive institutions such as colonialism, slavery, and Western exceptionalism permeate the narrative of climate change. The first figure at right shows that Saudi Arabia, India, Brazil, and Indonesia are expected to bear the largest share of economic growth impacts relative to their contribution of carbon emissions. For India and Brazil, this ratio is estimated to be roughly 4:1 (but maybe President Bolsonaro’s deforestation can swing the ratio towards equity). The two biggest emitters—the United States and China—are net beneficiaries by this definition, China by a less than 1:4 ratio.

    There is a normalized disregard for the well-being of those in vulnerable areas already suffering tremendously from climate change even among those prepared to embrace the science of climate. How else to interpet the Nobel committee approving the Nordhaus recommendation that 3.5 degrees of warming is optimal the same day that the devastating IPCC Report on 1.5 warming came out? How else to read these suggestions (tweets embedded to the right) that the brutal reality of climate change has finally arrived only now that it’s violently affected the United States in the last two years?

    The only dimension along which climate change has been "far off" was in geography and political power. In 2013, even before Haiyan, 85% of Filipinos reported personal experience with climate change impacts, 54% of them describing them as “severe”. In 2015, 54% of Hispanic Americans rated global warming as “extremely or very important to them personally”. In 2017, monsoon-exacerbated floods affected 45 million in South Asia and submerged two thirds of Bangladesh, including parts of the makeshift hillside camps where nearly a million Rohingya refugees have been forced to settle at risk of death by disease or mudslides. When will developing countries or the vulnerable within developed countries get their say as frequently as do white op-ed writers or public intellectuals who command enormous platforms on seemingly any issue of their choosing regardless of experience or expertise? They haven’t yet. Anti-alarmism and Western exceptionalism would have you discount the value of those lives.

  • Other than harrowing research findings, I think a problem in climate communications is its failure to capture the imagination. A small chapter in the book poses a question I’ve wondered myself: Where is the great climate-change novel? Land war, nuclear winter, artificial intelligence, and other generation-defining threats have inspired influential works of art, but none springs immediately to mind about climate change.

    “Mad Max: Fury Road”, while an action masterpiece, is only tenuously climate-related considering its desert dystopia was conceived before 1979. “Interstellar” was all right. I had been hoping from the trailer and its first half that “First Reformed” could be that movie, but I think it’s third act may have veered off message and it didn’t garner the Academy’s attention (not even an acting nomination for an outstanding entry by Ethan Hawke). Maybe “Woman At War” can be one.

    Music-wise, I can only think of ANOHNI’s “4 Degrees” which was released in the context of the Paris Agreement. Thom Yorke, the vegetarian frontman of carbon-neutral Radiohead has said, “If I was going to write a protest song about climate change in 2015, it would be shit.”

    Wallace-Wells offers some plausible explanations for its unique storytelling challenges, but I worry the answer may also be related to the aforementioned inequality.

  • Next on the climate reading list: “Storming the Wall: Climate Change, Migration, and Homeland Security” by Todd Miller

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Climate stuff elsewhere

  • Young people for climate justice

  • Linked to above, but reposting here for emphasis: federal disaster money favors the rich

An NPR investigation has found that across the country, white Americans and those with more wealth often receive more federal dollars after a disaster than do minorities and those with less wealth. Federal aid isn't necessarily allocated to those who need it most; it's allocated according to cost-benefit calculations meant to minimize taxpayer risk.

Put another way, after a disaster, rich people get richer and poor people get poorer. And federal disaster spending appears to exacerbate that wealth inequality.

"The demonization of carbon dioxide is just like the demonization of the poor Jews under Hitler. Carbon dioxide is actually a benefit to the world, and so were the Jews."

What I've been reading, featuring climate change, here and now; and identity politics, everywhere and always

A prolonged drought has killed 70 percent of the area’s livestock in the past three years, devastating the region’s pastoral economy and forcing tens of thousands of families to flee their grazing land for urban camps, according to authorities.

…In such circumstances, efforts to find solutions can feel futile but Somaliland has some ideas. The government wants to settle 2 million people on the coast—where fish stocks remain abundant—by 2030 and reduce the rural population, currently at 50 percent, by half to take the pressure off the land, Shire says. At the same time, the country will try to develop its “blue economy”—fishing, aquaculture and shipping—and begin a reforestation program, he adds.

“We are a global village now—what is affecting one country is affecting every country and, if the impact of climate change in the less developed countries is not addressed, then we will all be in a big, big mess. There will be more displacement, there will be huge migration, and there will seriously be more insecurity.”

Relevant: With the government shutdown over, NOAA and NASA finally affirm 2018 was the fourth-warmest year in recorded history: “The five warmest years in recorded history have been the last five... 18 of the 19 warmest years have occurred since 2001”

Relevant: An overview of American climate policy in the last 30 years. See also this video (repost), of the last 12 years of the United States stalling on climate change. Climate change did not come up in the recent State of the Union or in the 2012 or 2016 presidential and vice-presidential debates, but looks to be a principal part of the 2020 Democratic primary. I don’t know much about the Green New Deal proposal at the moment other than that on its face, this seems to be an irresponsible way to evaluate it.

Relevant: The New Yorker on the false choice between economic growth and climate policy, quoting my Stanford supervisor and discussing our paper from last year demonstrating substantial economic benefits from climate change mitigation.

Relevant: Todd Miller (whose book “Storming the Wall” was mentioned in my last post) on the link between climate change and border militarization:

All of the assessments about climate change—whether coming from the United Nations, the private sector, the Department of Defense, or the Department of Homeland Security—are talking about accelerating migration, displacement of people, and how it will “challenge stability.” Already, 22.5 million people are already being displaced per year, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, with projections ranging between 150 million and one billion by 2050. There’s a lot of talk about risk, and that slips easily into talk about “terrorism,” they talk about conflict, and so on. A significant part of today’s border militarization exists in a context where it isn’t about today or the immediate present, but rather anticipating future events that could happen. DHS and others are planning 30 years into the future—for what they believe will happen—and climate is definitely on their minds.

Trump administration prosecutors argued this week that members of the borderland faith-based organization No More Deaths broke the law by leaving jugs of water and cans of beans for migrants trekking through a remote wilderness refuge in the Sonoran Desert. The arguments came in the first of a series of high-profile federal trials in Tucson, Arizona, where humanitarian aid volunteers are facing prosecution under a litany of charges.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Anna Wright, who is currently spearheading multiple cases against members of the humanitarian group, assured Magistrate Judge Bernardo P. Velasco that the evidence would clearly show that on the afternoon of August 13, 2017, four No More Deaths volunteers… broke the law when they drove onto the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, just outside the tiny town of Ajo, Arizona, and left humanitarian aid supplies for migrants passing through the region.

Christopher Dupont, an attorney for the defendants, argued that by devoting their time to putting out food and water in one of the world’s deadliest regions for migrants traveling on foot—where a minimum of 3,000 people have died making their way north since 2000—the No More Deaths volunteers were acting on deeply held principles to confront a “crisis of the soul” that has turned much of southern Arizona’s most remote federal lands into a “veritable cemetery.”

The most serious charges have been leveled against Scott Warren, a 36-year-old academic, whom the government charged with three felony counts of harboring and conspiracy, for providing food, water, and a place to sleep to two undocumented men over three days last January. Warren faces 20 years in prison if convicted and sentenced to consecutive terms.

The land manager of the Arizona refuge where more than 70 “sets of human remains” were found between 2015 and 2017:

“Even worse,” he said in the email. “They are now putting our [sic] protein shakes and canned foods. This is beyond saving lives, as the added food can help energize folks to hike another day or two, thus continue their journey.”

  • The Friday before her response to President Trump’s State of the Union address, Stacey Abrams published a response to Francis Fukuyama’s criticism of identity politics.

    In Fukuyama’s words:

What we call identity politics grew out of the social movements of the 1960s, around the demands of African Americans, women, gays and lesbians and other marginalized groups for recognition of their dignity and concrete remedies to social disadvantages. These demands have evolved over the years to displace socio-economic class as the traditional way that much of the left thinks about inequality. They reflect important grievances but in some cases, began to take on an exclusive character where people’s “lived experiences” determined who they were. This created obstacles to empathy and communication. — Source: WaPo

The reason I wrote this book on identity was that you've now seen the rise of a right-wing identity politics. If you want to know what that means, just look at the behavior of Donald Trump before the Nov. 6 midterm election. He was advised to campaign on his tax cuts and the fact that the economy was doing great. And instead, all we heard about was this horrible migrant caravan and taking away birthright citizenship and sending the military to the border to protect us from these terrorists trying to get into the country. I mean that's really an example of what we mean by identity politics are shifting the conversation away from economic policy to these identity issues, where essentially your identity is fixed by your birth — by the ethnicity and the religion and the characteristics of your parents. And I just think it's very hard to have a democracy under those conditions. It feeds the polarization in the country, which I think is our single biggest vulnerability right now. — Source: PRI

Abrams’ response:

The facile advice to focus solely on class ignores these complex links among American notions of race, gender, and economics. As Fukuyama himself notes, it has been difficult “to create broad coalitions to fight for redistribution,” since “members of the working class who also belong to higher-status identity groups (such as whites in the United States) tend to resist making common cause with those below them, and vice versa.” Fukuyama’s preferred strategy is also called into question by the success that the Democratic Party enjoyed in 2018 by engaging in what he derides as identity politics. Last year, I was the Democratic Party’s gubernatorial nominee in Georgia and became the first African American woman in U.S. history to be nominated for governor by a major political party. In my bid for office, I intentionally and vigorously highlighted communities of color and other marginalized groups, not to the exclusion of others but as a recognition of their specific policy needs.

…Beyond electoral politics, Fukuyama and others argue that by calling out ethnic, cultural, gender, or sexual differences, marginalized groups harm themselves and their causes. By enumerating and celebrating distinctions, the argument goes, they give their opponents reasons for further excluding them. But minorities and the marginalized have little choice but to fight against the particular methods of discrimination employed against them. The marginalized did not create identity politics: their identities have been forced on them by dominant groups, and politics is the most effective method of revolt.

The New York Review also published a response to Fukuyama and Mark Lilla, the Columbia professor whose op-ed titled “The End of Identity Liberalism” was the New York Times’ most-read political op-ed of the election year 2016:

There are no pre-identity politics, just as there are no pre-identity economics, in a country in which political, economic, and legal rights were only ever granted to some identity groups and not to others. The only thing new about “the omnipresent rhetoric of identity” is the voices that have been added to it, reshaping it in ways that alarm and affront those who used to be its sole authors. But it was always omnipresent.

Virtually every major event in the long and troubled history of the United States was a direct consequence of identity politics. Start whenever you think America begins, and power struggles based on identity will be staring you in the face, starting with the genocide and forced resettlement of indigenous peoples by European migrants… That’s identity politics.

Black people were enslaved, white people were free: it takes a colossal set of blinders to keep from seeing that as identity politics. Political judgments and legal decisions based on identity underwrote white supremacy from the start: measuring African Americans as three-fifths of a human is identity politics, a logic that led to the one-drop rule, the Dred Scott decision, Jim Crow segregation, and the Birther movement… Electoral colleges were established in order to solve the “problem of the Negroes,” as James Madison put it, rigging the number of electors a state received in order to put a white supremacist thumb on the constitutional scale. Insofar as identity politics helped elect Donald Trump, electoral colleges seem a more proximate cause than debates over gender-neutral bathrooms.

That The Economist did not even notice that its checklist of identity politics skipped gender altogether is both ironic and typical. In 1776, Abigail Adams famously pleaded with her husband to “Remember the Ladies” in drafting the nation’s new code of laws… John Adams replied by telling her thanks, but he preferred male privilege: “We know better than to repeal our masculine systems.”

In fact, it wasn’t until 1979—a full six years after Roe—that evangelical leaders, at the behest of conservative activist Paul Weyrich, seized on abortion not for moral reasons, but as a rallying-cry to deny President Jimmy Carter a second term. Why? Because the anti-abortion crusade was more palatable than the religious right’s real motive: protecting segregated schools.

American access to abortion services has as expected been targeted by the Trump administration and (unlike climate change) did feature in the State of the Union address:

The ongoing assault on Americans’ constitutional right to access abortion care is nothing new, though efforts to curtail that right have taken on a different sense of urgency since President Donald Trump became president. In 2017, 19 states passed 63 legal restrictions on abortion access, the largest number of anti-abortion laws enacted since 2013, according to the Guttmacher Institute. During the 2016 presidential election, then-candidate Trump promised to appoint Supreme Court judges who would overturn Roe v. Wade; a promise he has certainly kept.

Indeed, just recently, in the State of the Union address, the president regurgitated outright lies about abortions that occur later in pregnancy, evoking the image of a mother holding a newborn in an attempt to demonize not only the act of abortion but the people who have them. “There could be no greater contrast to the beautiful image of a mother holding her infant child than the chilling displays our nation saw in recent days,” he said, before intentionally misrepresenting New York state’s newly passed law that codifies Roe v. Wade and allows abortion past 24 weeks gestation in the case of severe fetal abnormality or a threat to the patient’s life, as well as Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s recent comments about end-of-life infant care.

On the Run purports to provide an ethnographic “account of the prison boom and its more hidden practices of policing and surveillance as young people living in one relatively poor Black neighborhood in Philadelphia experience and understand them.”

…We identify your published, widely lauded, easily obtainable book as  dangerous, Prof. Goffman, because it divulges tactics that the subjects of your inquiry intentionally coded for surviving life under siege… And it does so in a manner that erases the pervasive structures of white supremacy and racial colonial capitalism that created the material conditions described above in the first place. You position your “findings” as “new,” largely ignoring decades-worth of Black scholarship that has taken up “fugitivity,” carceral logics, and militarized surveillance.

We wonder, who did you understand your intended audience to be, Prof. Goffman? It could not have been people from West Philadelphia. Not Mike, not Chuck, nor any of the other young men, women, and children from “6th Street” whom you wrote about but with whom you admittedly maintain minimal contact. Your book could not have aimed to benefit materially Black communities in Philadelphia, or similar ones throughout the larger country.

Did you write On the Run for people like yourself? For white researchers, scholars, and educators, to provide them a voyeuristic view into realities they never otherwise see? Did you ever consider that people such as these historically have (and continue to) ignore and perpetrate the very same violence against Black communities which you claim to bring to light?

 
 

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 how we write about other cultures, how we write about racism, how we write about climate change, and how we write about the Animorphs

  • For the New York Review of Books, Alma Guillermoprieto has the review of “Roma” I’ve been waiting for.

    When I first watched “Roma”, I wrote here: “reading the responses… revealed a homogeneity in the backgrounds of the cultural intelligentsia. In the face of an obviously intimate film in a very specific setting and depicting a complex familial dynamic, they seem to use technical observations as a crutch for their unfamiliarity—I don’t think that’s good enough.” I then linked to this collection of Latino critical responses.

    But this review stands apart and is a prime example of why diversity matters. It’s not enough to make note of the hierarchy or power dynamics of the society depicted. A movie this compassionate calls for more: “Cuarón is not interested in portraying Cleo anthropologically: he wants to show us what she was to him, and to tell the story of Mexico City and what happened to Cleo the year that his own family shattered.” With the attention bestowed upon it by a Best Picture nomination, this film is too rare, important, and (above all) good to not be talked about with the specificity and insight Guillermoprieto provides.

I once interviewed a couple of dozen domestic servants about their work. It was hard to get young empleadas to talk to me, particularly if they were from the countryside… But the older women had plenty to say. A surprising number stated that they were happy with their families… But what I heard most frequently was the rage they felt at previous employers who had fired them with no warning or thought for their feelings. What about the children? they would ask. They fire us, we have to abandon them, and then you have to learn to love a new set of children, and you’re always afraid you’re going to be fired all over again and lose them. One woman cried as she explained this. “They never think about the fact that we love the children,” she said.

…That the women I interviewed could love the children they cared for—and love them, in fact, to the point of heartbreak—was to me nothing short of miraculous."

…So much happens in “Roma”. It is so bursting with life, Mexican life!… When I saw the movie in New York, the entire audience sat in silence as the credits rolled over a long, meditative shot of the staircase and the sky, until the screen blacked out over the title, and they sighed, and moved on.

Graphic from  the  Boston Review

Graphic from the Boston Review

A 1956 profile of Georgia senator Herman Talmadge called him “an advocate of ‘White Supremacy’” and noted that “he makes no bones about this.” Talmadge and his southern white colleagues did not shy away from racist language. For example, at the 1948 breakaway States’ Rights Democrats (aka Dixiecrats) convention, South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond claimed, “There’s not enough troops in the army, to force the southern people to break down segregation and admit the nigger race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.” There was nothing “racially tinged” about Thurmond’s comments. He saw no need to hide his racism, and journalists, accordingly, saw no need to describe it in euphemistic terms. When Thurmond filibustered the 1957 Civil Rights Act, an article about it in the San Rafael Independent Journal was surrounded by pieces with the headlines “Racists Hit Rights Bill as ‘Vicious’” and “Racists Rally in Nashville.” These straightforward descriptions may shock modern readers accustomed to the imprecise language of “racial provocateurs” and “nakedly racial” actions.

There were four books in the box. They are very different from one another, but as a whole they represent a generational break with the climate change books before them. This is because not one of them is strictly about the topic at hand. Not one of them bothers to argue that climate change is real. Not one bothers to explain how societies can work to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Not one gets hung up on atmospheric science or computer models or the Paris Agreement. Instead, they simply take for granted that temperatures will rise and that the world as we know it will soon be fundamentally altered. The migration scholar writes about migration and the seed scientist about seeds and the ecosocialist about urban capitalism, but climate change – the biggest, most pervasive ongoing event in the world – is always present in the background. This is by necessity. Climate change is and will be everywhere. It doesn’t stand apart from our daily existence, not any more.

Two of the cities I’ve lived in the longest come up in “Extreme Cities” by Ashley Dawson:

Dawson’s book is about the way responses to climate change are being shaped by the entrenched interests of capital. He takes aim at the comfortable notions of ‘resilience’ and ‘green growth’ pushed by – among others – the former mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg and his cast of visiting Dutch architects, questioning post-Hurricane Sandy projects like the Big U seawall proposed for lower Manhattan: it would attract tourists and protect Wall Street, but displace storm surge waters to surrounding, poorer neighbourhoods. ‘Under present social conditions,’ he writes, such schemes are ‘likely to be employed by elites to create architectures of apartheid and exclusionary zones of refuge’. For Dawson, New York is the ‘extreme city’ problem in microcosm.

…The $40 billion, Dutch-built Great Garuda seawall in Jakarta, soon to be the biggest in the world, will displace thousands of shack-dwellers on an existing seawall and put tens of thousands of fishermen out of work – but it will give developers a chance to profit from selling luxury homes on artificial islands. The Eko Atlantic development on a peninsula off the coast of Lagos is patrolled by heavily armed guards and surrounded by shanty towns built on stilts where the chefs and nannies live. ‘Both Eko Atlantic and the Great Garuda,’ Dawson writes, with excusably escalating rhetoric, ‘offer visions of the extreme social injustice of emerging neoliberal urban phantasmagoria in a time of climate change.’

My home country in Todd Miller’s migration-oriented “Storming the Wall”:

One important revelation in Miller’s book is that climate change science is wholly uncontroversial inside the military and security establishment, even high up in the Trump administration. It’s widely accepted that the warming world will soon see many more refugees – 50 million, 250 million, a billion, nobody can say for sure – even if climate migrants can’t formally be called refugees under present international law… He shares Dawson’s concern that we’re hurtling ever more rapidly towards a world of haves and have-nots. ‘More dangerous than climate disruption was the climate migrant. More dangerous than the drought were the people who can’t farm because of the drought. More dangerous than the hurricane were the people displaced by the storm.’

Miller tells the story of Yeb and A.G. Saño, two Filipino brothers whose hometown was largely destroyed by 2013’s Super Typhoon Haiyan and whose home region was arguably destroyed by the police state that rose in the typhoon’s wake. The brothers marched a thousand miles on foot across the Alps to arrive in Paris for the start of the 2015 UN Climate Summit, with Miller joining them for the last few kilometres. But the climate talks took place just weeks after Islamic State’s attack on the Bataclan concert hall, and Paris was in a state of emergency when the marchers entered the city. The brothers – foreign, brown, idealistic – put their arms around each other outside a café for a photo op, and a man came out and yelled at them, thrusting a newspaper with an image commemorating Bataclan in their faces. ‘People here in France are not concerned about climate change,’ he told them. ‘The people of France are concerned about terrorism.’ The next day, Miller walked alongside protesters demanding carbon cuts, running when they were attacked by riot police. It’s a blunt but effective metaphor. ‘As I ran,’ he writes, ‘I realised I had arrived at the true climate summit.’

  • New Yorker profile of Marlon James, whose third novel won the 2015 Man Booker Prize, the first for a Jamaican writer. He describes his upcoming novel as the first part of a planned “African Game of Thrones” trilogy.

Several years ago, after a frustrating argument with a friend about the all-white cast of “The Hobbit,” James had an impulse “to reclaim all the stuff I like—court intrigue, monsters, magic,” he told me. “I wanted black pageantry. I wanted just one novel where someone like me is in it, and I don’t have to look like I just walked out of HP Lovecraft, with a bone in my hair, and my lips are bigger than my eyes, and I’m saying some shit like ‘Oonga boonga boonga.’ Or else I’m some fucker named Gagool and I’m thwarting you as you get the diamonds.”

…When it comes to feedback on his own work, James is headstrong and malleable by turns. He resents many forms of editorial imposition, nursing cherished grudges against the people who, for instance, told him that “John Crow’s Devil” was too foreign for American readers. (…I would recommend it only to people who also enjoy, say, the very early work of Cormac McCarthy.) BUt, if someone offers an astute correction, he never forgets it. For most of his career, he’s been working off a note that the Trinidadian novelist Elizabeth Nunez gave him in 2002. “She told me that I was talented, but that I didn’t know how to write women,” he said. “I didn’t know how women related to each other, how they processed the unthinkable.” He reread Iris Murdoch, Alice Walker, and Muriel Spark, and concluded that Nunez was right."

As if accepting a challenge, he set his second novel entirely in the world of the feminine unthinkable… “I really tried to get my Jane Austen on!” he said.

There’s also a great discussion in there invoking Chinua Achebe, VS Naipaul, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on the topic of non-Western writers Westernizing their work out of shame. I can relate to that: when I’d write short stories as a kid growing up in Indonesia, the addresses in my stories would be named “Main Street” and would feature characters named “Mark Johnson” or similar. (You internalize these feelings when neither the works in your syllabi nor the adults with the authority to teach them are from the continent you live in.)

The series ran from 1996 to 2001 and consisted of fifty-four books plus spin-offs, all credited to “K.A. Applegate” (in reality, they were written by the husband-and-wife team Katherine Applegate and Michael Grant, with ghostwriters taking over after Book 25)

Sad to learn that all these years later. Still, I felt like the writer is overapologizing for liking these books. It was a legitimately fun series with an iconic gimmick! Plus this series and Tomorrow, When The War Began were the first Western books I’d come across that had non-white characters regarded romantically. That was a mild revelation for me at that age though it seems I’m not the only one who read a lot into those books:

Consequently, today’s Animorphs apologias share a tendency to assert that the series wasn’t really about five teenagers morphing into animals to fight aliens—that it was really about something else, though there’s no consensus on precisely what. Matt Crowley of the AV Club argues that the whole thing was a metaphor for puberty. Meghan Ball of Tor and Lindsey Weedston of The Mary Sue play up its feminist message. Tres Dean of Geek.com claims that Applegate was a “prophet” whose books anticipated 9/11 and the Iraq War. Many fans, including me, find a compelling transgender narrative in the character of Tobias, who chooses to remain in the body of a red-tailed hawk forever rather than continue living as a boy. In drafting this essay, I briefly considered making the argument that the series was really about the experience of being a child inappropriately entrusted with an adult secret.

None of these readings are wrong. But none of them feel exactly right to me, either—not as an explanation of what made the books great. I don’t think we loved them for their allegorical resonance. We loved them because they were exactly what they appeared to be: a series about five teenagers morphing into animals to fight aliens.