The Dark Night

At yesterday’s march in El Paso, Texas protesting the Trump administration’s zero tolerance immigration policies, one of the speakers–a DACA recipient–told her story of a recent run-in with the Border Patrol after returning home from a work trip abroad.

Despite her DACA status, she was detained for several hours. There she met several of the victims of this new zero tolerance policy, including mothers separated from their children.

But for me, the most important part of her story was when she quoted the Border Patrol agent who sent her to detention despite the fact that she had a DACA deferment.

He told her, “The Border Patrol listens to the President, not the federal courts.”

I wish everyone who denies that our democracy is in peril could hear that and really, really think about it for a minute.

It’s more than a sign that some of our border and customs officials are being infected by cruelty and callousness as though they were participants in the Stanford Prison Experiment.

This is a story of a federal agent denying the due process of a resident by negating the separation of powers and pledging exclusive loyalty to the executive branch. It’s a story about democracy breaking down.

Could it be an isolated incident? One bad apple?

Not likely. We’ve heard stories of detainees abused by agents. Of families split up and sent thousands of miles away from each other. Even of asylum seekers being tricked into turning away from the legal points of entry so that they can be snared in the zero tolerance net when they cross elsewhere and seek out the Border Patrol to request asylum.

This cruelty is not incidental to Trump’s border policy.

It is Trump’s border policy.

Trump says that we have to defend our borders, that we have to toughen up our border policy to stop the waves of illegal immigrants threatening to “infest” our country. But that’s yet another lie.

There was no crisis on the border until Trump–or rather, until Jeff Sessions and Stephen Miller–created one. Illegal immigration is at near historic lows and we have never had so many resources allocated to border enforcement.

With thousands in the streets, with his evangelical support eroding (finally), and with voices from both sides of the aisle denouncing the cruelty of this border policy, you’d think this would count as a self-inflicted wound for the administration–that Trump and his team have badly miscalculated.

But you’d be wrong. This is all part of the plan.

To really understand this whole mess, you have to understand the dank, wicked little mind of Stephen Miller. Often described as troll-in-chief, Miller believes ardently in the politics of provocation. Like the travel ban before it, these policies are designed specifically to stir up the liberals. Miller wants us in the street. Miller wants us loudly decrying this policy.

Miller is supposedly a fan of The Dark Knight Rises, since he loves how the film seems to mock economic dissatisfaction, but I think a better tool for understanding his mind is the film that precedes it.

During the climax of Batman’s battle with the Joker in The Dark Knight–still one of the best movies of the century–there’s a moment where the Joker’s plot falls apart because neither of two groups of ordinary people he pit against each other will save themselves by blowing the other group up.

Batman, seeing the Joker’s disappointment, intones, “What were you trying to prove–that deep down everyone is as ugly as you?”

I think of that line when I think about Stephen Miller.

Miller is sure that immigration is a winning issue for the Republicans in the 2018 midterms because he believes that, when push comes to shove, the American people will respond to pro-immigration sentiment from the Left like a spoiled two-year old, that by and large the populace will clutch at those promises of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and shout in an infantile, shrill crescendo, “Mine! Mine! Mine!”

He believes, like the Joker, that all of us so-called civilized people will eat each other when the going gets rough.

There are plenty of people warning the Democrats that they’re playing into Miller’s hands here. They believe that focusing so much on immigration will have a backlash effect, making native-born Americans (you can go ahead and read that as a euphemism for “older, white Americans”) think the Left only cares about immigrants, not Americans–a charge repeated by Tucker Carlson when he said recently that the ruling class “care far more about foreigners than about their own people.”

But all the people warning Democrats not to fall into his trap are in it, too. They, too, are presuposing that Miller is right. That we are as ugly as he thinks.

As Americans, we should not care only about “our own people.” We should care about the principles that define the American Dream–freedom, democracy, and yes, this nation being a beacon for immigrants. That’s what this immigration crisis is really about: What kind of America we want to live in. Is America a nation of principle or an ethnic enclave trying to protect its own?

So I know what Miller wants. I know what his plan is. I marched anyway.

Because I believe we can be better. Because I believe this moment is about so much more than this one issue, about more, even, than children being ripped from their parents’ arms.

There is something even more sinister brewing beneath this.

Federal agents circumventing the checks and balances essential to our democratic system. An administration using race-baiting and a manufactured crisis to create an us vs. them division within society. A president willing to lie to the American people, attack the free press, and undermine law enforcement.

This is how fascism takes root.

I hope the American system and the American people are strong enough, moral enough to turn away from this abyss.

But if not, and the worst comes to pass and we see the end of the American republic in our lifetimes, I have no doubt I’m standing on the right side of history.

No doubt.

And woe to all of you who remain silent and do not resist.

 

 

 

Advertisements

On Reading Wings of the Dove

For the last few weeks, I’ve been slowly trudging through Henry James’s Wings of the Dove. Slowly and trudging is, after all, the way to do James. I’ve never studied him much in the past and don’t recall ever feeling so alienated, or “put out” as some might say, by his style as I was during much of Wings. I read “Turn of the Screw” in college and Daisy Miller in conjunction with studying Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran and wasn’t then quite so vexed by his style, which apparently H.G. Wells described as a Hippopotamus struggling to pick up a pea.

Indeed, one of my recurrent thoughts throughout my plodding time with the novel was that it could never be published today. It’s a self-serving and predictable lament for a writer frustrated by the lack of an audience to complain about the maddening squeamishness and inscrutable subjectivity of the publishing industry, but on this occasion, I wonder if the industry doesn’t have it right as James’s syntax is not so much intricate as obtuse and his approach to exposition is in stark contrast to the show-don’t-tell directive I always give my students in creative writing class.

James tells. And tells. And tells. In seemingly interminable passages of prose he describes the characters’ thoughts and moods at a remove of several meters. This distanced relationship to their own emotions does not fall away when the characters actually speak to each other either. Their discourse is so heavy with vague vagaries and nineteenth century euphemisms that I often had to put the book down with a shake of my head after puzzling out a list of three or four possibilities for just what exactly they might be talking about.

But still, after finally finishing it, I can see why Wings of the Dove is lauded by some. There are layers of irony–though I’m not always sure they were all deliberate–that suffuse the story of journalist Merton Densher’s love triangle with his fiancé Kate Croy and the rich, yet doomed American socialite Millie Theale. It’s the kind of tragedy of manners that could only be set in England before the twentieth century. The shades of morality and immorality revolving around the dying girl’s fortune stir up quite a few contradictions. Kate always professes to admire and love Millie–well, everyone does as James develops her character primarily by having other people praise her as “stupendous” and call her a “dove” oh-so-many times…sooooo many times–but her intentions toward the girl are perhaps the most underhanded, in some ways worse than the rakish Lord Mark who gets summarily dismissed as a “wretch” and scoundrel by Densher even though his own girlfriend is the most manipulative of them all.

Of course, he does come to see this, leading to his ultimatum to Kate that closes the book. Spoilers: her scheme has paid off and without Densher ever having had to actually marry the sick girl. Millie, having come to understand the lovers’ scheme and seeing their need, just goes ahead and wills Densher a small fortune (how much of her ridiculous wealth she bequeaths him is never revealed, not even, apparently, to Densher himself) but the young man’s had enough. He tells Kate she can have the money…or she can have him. He wants them to be together just as they were before Millie came into their lives or not at all, which elicits Kate’s famous line to close the novel so ambiguously: “We shall never again be as we were!”

James Thurber wrote a long review for The New Yorker back in the fifties about the difficulty of adapting James to the stage and screen, but I disagree with him in thinking that this ending is actually quite fit for the screen. I find myself wondering how it’s played out in the most recent adaptation wherein Helena Bonham Carter’s Kate would have the honors of closing the drama, but unfortunately the film doesn’t seem to be streaming anywhere and isn’t even readily available in Netflix’s DVD inventory. Reading that conclusion–just a few hours ago–I felt a bit like the Bradley Cooper character in Silver Linings Playbook who hurls away Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms in a fit of literary dissatisfaction. I think I (almost audibly) muttered: “You’ve got to be f’ing kidding me.”

It’s quite a canned moment, particularly from an author associated with Realism, but despite or perhaps because of that unsettled final moment, Wings does seem like a story that stays with one beyond the denouement. These characters, who for much of the past few weeks I felt were tedious (or at least tediously rendered) are now flitting about my mind, quiet and poised, naturally. Their overwrought, self-inflicted predicament lingers. I imagine them there still, frozen in a moment of “just what have we done,” unable to move forward…forever.

More on Immigration

Though the public discourse scarcely has any claim to being “discourse” any more at all, there is one obvious disconnect between the two sides in the current “discussion” about immigration.

Supporters of tougher immigration clamor for “following the law.”

While opponents to Trump’s border policy and to strict border enforcement in general recite the mantra “no person is illegal.”

But the real difference of opinion is about those laws.

The Right fundamentally believes that our border laws are just.

The Left fundamentally believes they are not.

Talking about the migrants or the illegal immigrants–you know, about the people–brings out our stereotypes of each other. The Right sees the Left as a cabal of bleeding hearts who care “more” about illegals than citizens. The Left, on the other hand, sees the Right as a gaggle of hypocrites for being Pro-Life and then “not caring” about the lives of these migrants because their skin is brown.

That’s obviously not productive.

Maybe we should just be talking about the laws, not the people.

Here’s the thing I don’t think a lot of people on the right understand about the laws for immigration:

They are not fair.

Maybe some do realize that, and probably quite a few Americans–either secretly or openly–don’t want them to be. I don’t know how to talk to those people, the ones who think the American Dream is only for white people. But for the rest, I have some insights I’d like to share…

See, my in-laws immigrated to the United States several years ago.

They followed the legal process. They got right in. They stayed with us, their sponsors, for a few months. And then a few years later, they were citizens.

They’re a case study in how to immigrate the legal way.

People on the right would probably say: “See, that’s how all these illegal migrants from Honduras or wherever should do it! Just follow the law!”

And here’s the truthful answer to them: “There’s no way in hell any of these poor people from Honduras could follow that law.”

See, my in-laws had money. Not from us. They had their own.

For my father-in-law, an affluent Mexican with business ties to the U.S., access to legal advice, and children born in the U.S., immigration was quick and easy.

For a worker in Honduras, there is no access to the capital or expertise required to navigate U.S. immigration law. Even if one of these migrants managed to get the resources together to process the legal documents, medical certifications, and other requirements for immigration, without a family or employment connection in the United States, that person is liable to wait…and wait…and wait.

There are millions waiting in that line and it can take six years to clear–if you clear at all. Any mistake in the copious paperwork and those Honduran parents are out the application fees and no closer to escaping the violence and poverty of their own country.

Those kids they want a better life for would probably be grown before they got in legally. (Or dead. The kids might die staying in Honduras.)

Couple this logistical barrier to entry with the racist history of immigration laws and that’s why the Left just doesn’t believe in enforcing the current immigration laws.

But clearly, if the Left wants to change the debate, then asking the American public to just ignore the law–which was sorta policy under Obama–isn’t going to lead to any lasting change. The Republicans are trying to scrape together some kind of immigration bill, but apparently their president just torpedoed it with a tweet. Go figure.

We on the Left don’t want their solution anyway. So what we should be worried about is legislators and the law. What we should be worried about is voting in November. It would be nice if the Democrats had a good alternative platform for changing immigration law, but right now, they mostly just have sympathy.

That’s better than nothing, I suppose, but no where near enough.

Looking Out for What’s Ours

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry is arguing over at The Atlantic that Democrats are losing the immigration battle, despite So-Called President Trump’s backing down (while praising his own political “courage” in partially undoing what he himself had done) over the child separations at the border.

This controversy (though possibly not Trump’s mendacious flip-flop) was all orchestrated and engineered by Stephen Miller, the right-wing’s self-described “troll” in chief.  Much has been made of the shortcomings of the man-child in the oval office, but it’s also important to understand the entitled, self-aggrandizing ideology promoted by Miller. With a president so bereft of actual political beliefs, Miller has held tremendous sway.

Thirty-two year old Miller’s political rise would be impressive if it was based on anything other than sycophantic suckling at the teat of established conservative blow hards and his remorseless commitment to provocateur politics. He has not so much espoused ideas during his career–beginning at the tender age of sixteen–spouting off hard-line conservative platitudes as he has delighted in irritating liberals like his parents.

It seems his sensibilities are frozen in the state of that rebellious teenager out to thumb his nose at mom and dad and dig in with a world view based on protectionism, nativism, and–if those folks at the Mexican restaurant the other night are to be believed–quasi-fascism.

Miller is betting that the immigration issue is a big win for Trump and his ilk in the midterms, partly because it was a big win in getting Trump into office. But he also sees the populace the same way that Gobry does in his Atlantic piece.

Miller believes that, sympathy for children or not, Americans fundamentally want an immigration policy that protects what’s theirs–ours.

Indeed, many polls show that Americans do believe in the central tenant of US immigration law and most are receptive to the straight-forward argument that the law must be enforced and that immigrants should only be allowed to enter and stay in the country if they enter through established, legal channels.

This is the “rule of law” argument that Trump and Sessions hold to–when they’re not saying other horrible things like that immigrants are going to “infest” the coutnry or that wrenching children from the mothers will be a nice “deterrent” to future migrants.

Gobry argues that “many progressives seem to think that whenever politicians invoke ‘the rule of law’ as a motive for enforcing borders, that is racial code,” admitting that “I don’t doubt that there’s some truth to this. Maybe a lot of it.”

More than a lot, I’m afraid.

You see, progressives are right. More right than Gobry seems to understand. Not only is Trump’s and Sessions’s talk of deterrents and infestations thinly veiled racial code, immigration law itself is a racial code. All immigration law in the United States has always been motivated by racism. The first immigration laws were the Chinese Exclusion Acts and later immigration legislation explicitly favored white Europeans.

The entire idea of policing our borders is based on the belief–fueled by what anthropologists call “otherness”–that we Americans have more right to the fruits of the American Dream than anyone not lucky enough to be born here.

It is a belief based, as science is increasingly showing most of conservative political thought to be, on fear.

Fear of change in society. Fear of crime. Fear of the “other.”

It’s understandable that, seeing this anti-immigrant “populism,” progressives and Democrats feel outraged, disturbed, and seem capable of little more than shrilly shouting: “Look, this is totally some Nazi-level shit here, people!”

Gobry’s right, though, that progressives and Democrats need to do more than just lament the right wing’s embrace of this history of racism to milk populist anti-immigrant sentiments–if for pragmatic reasons alone. What they need to do is articulate a clear vision of how immigration and law-abiding immigrants serve the best interests of America in the 21st century, even if they lacked the resources or access to make that migration through the official, legal channels.

What we need is real leadership, something lacking for quite some time. Obama talked the talk, but ultimately his charisma and intellectualism was not enough to be transformative (and precipitated one of history’s nastiest backlashes). We see what qualifies as “leadership” on the other side of the aisle now–bullying and deceit–so what is it that progressives really need to bring to the table in order to stir the imagination of the American people?

It’s a question we need to answer quickly.

Because Stephen Miller has Trump’s answer ready and if we don’t find a way to inspire the better angels of America’s collective character, the devils are going to win.

The Expanse is the Best Space Opera. Full Stop.

This week brought the dreaded news that the SyFy channel would not be picking up the series adaptation of The Expanse novels for a fourth season. The move was not quite shocking, but still somewhat of a surprise. The show’s productions values are top notch and not cheap, so the fact that it has not garnered a broad fan base like Game of Thrones made its future uncertain. But the universal critical acclaim seemed to suggest that SyFy would want to keep it around for bragging rights, if nothing else.

In the glory days of the SciFi network (before the questionable and to many, odious name change) the network took a similar gamble on an expensive critical darling that never really had the viewership to justify its budget but was a flagship for what the network wanted to be–before it decided to be the home of craptacular fare like Sharknado. Battlestar Galactica was part of the early wave of revitalizations and everything-old-is-new-again fervor that has gripped Hollywood throughout the twenty-first century. The show took name recognition and the outline of the original series’s concept and created a “gritty” and “philosophical” version of a pulp sci-fi dud from the 70s.

It worked and the network spun the long-running show into a prestige piece with a dedicated fan base that still argues for the series as one of the best sci-fi shows of all time.

Here’s the thing, though: The Expanse is better and will continue to be better than Battlestar Galactica.

Early in its life, the remade Battlestar Galactica (BSG to aficionados) promised its viewers that its nefarious android antagonists had “a plan.” But the producers and writers have since admitted that they included that bit in the show’s crawl simply because it sounded cool. Not only did the Cylons not have a plan, neither did the show runners.

The series sometimes raced and other times lurched through a thinky, but often incoherent exploration of man’s relationship to technology and the age-old question science fiction never gets tired of reheating: what does it mean to be human? Along the way there were some great characters rendered in fantastic performances (often having to overcome inconsistent writing) and some truly intolerable ones (looking at you, Apollo).

Many a science fiction series has waded through such unevenness. Star Trek: the Next Generation‘s first season is unwatchable today and rarely suggests the heights the show would someday reach. It’s natural enough for a series to take its time to find its footing.

It would be easy to look at the first few episodes of The Expanse and think that’s what was happening, but the pacing is not a sign of uncertainty, but confidence. The Expanse rewards patience as it builds its world and its characters. Now, in the third season, the complexity of that world and the investment in those characters is paying off in a tense conflict of epic scale.

But that conflict is only prelude to what’s coming.

Many other science fiction and fantasy shows struggle with endings just as much as many flail about for sure footing at the beginning. One only has to look back at the last few seasons of the X-files (to say nothing of the disastrous rebooted seasons) to see how a lack of “a plan” can be disastrous to a show built on mystery and intrigue. The same could be argued of Lost and, if last season was any indication, may taint the denouement of Game of Thrones.

But fans of The Expanse novels have no fear for that outcome. We know the shape of many things to come and they are earth-shatteringly awesome.  Fans like me aren’t worried by this (hopefully momentary) cancellation because it means we won’t ever know what happens in the story. What we’re afraid of is being deprived of the cinematic rendering of that story that we know it so richly deserves.

Hopefully, that won’t come to pass. Hopefully, the press swirling around the cancellation–every article I read reiterates that SyFy’s move is either a crying shame or down right tragic–will find it a new home at Netflix or Hulu and the Cinderella story will inspire more people to watch it.

It is a show that deserves viewers, but more than that, it is the space opera the Golden Age of Television deserves.

So you want some links that actually work?

At some point, something went wrong on the back end of the website where the Internet pipes direct your traffic to where it belongs and as a result none of the PDF links for the Novels or Stories pages worked anymore. Oops! I blame DropBox.

Anyway, that’s all fixed now (I think) so you can enjoy some fiction if you’re so inclined.

Regolith and Aquifers: Terraforming Mars with Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy is a monumental sci-fi classic.

It’s also kind of a slog.

With no central narrative arc beyond the ongoing political, economic, and ecological evolution of human settlement on Mars and a rotating cast of narrators whose lives on the red planet range from the mundane–hydrologists, yay!–to the, well, also mundane–desert nomads driving around rovers, yay!–the colossal 700,00o+ word opus never quite aspires to page-turner status.

Reading it, you come away feeling qualified to join NASA as a geologist should we ever get our collective shit together and actually settle a second planet.

And that is what the book is ultimately about: getting our shit together as Homo sapiens…well, rather as Homo martial. Throughout the novels, Robinson evidences his exhaustive and expansive research by dwelling on the minutiae of Martian geology and climate. It’s an ultimately fascinating kind of Utopianism tied to the reworking of the surface of Mars as a kind of ur-metaphor for shaping society.

The Mars Trilogy’s politics are based on a what-works practicality set against the tabula rosa of a new world. His characters squabble over the direction of this new society, eventually settling into a new constitution that ingests the best from Earth’s history with a keen understanding of the forces that have threatened human freedom and dignity throughout, whether they be economic injustices or cultural anachronisms.

Robinson offers a way forward beyond the privatization and spiraling inequality that plague post-Liberal Western society and posits a fresh start on Mars as a way that humanity can, as a whole, reinvent itself. A kind of new city upon the hill to replace the worn-out idealizations of America.

The Earth Robinson describes, wracked by ecological catastrophe and ruled by vast, competing trans-national corporations seems oddly prescient of the world we actually face in the twenty-first century (the last book, Blue Mars, was published in 1996). So many of his characters are ultimately scientists that the entire enterprise could be characterized as a scientific remaking of society–society remade as science. Empirical. Pragmatic. Testable. Open.

Given the retreat into ignorance so on display in contemporary American society–where people dismiss science as “fake news” and apparently flat Earthers are an actual thing–it’s a particularly appealing utopia to gaze at longingly. Robinson’s ultimate theory is that as society progresses, the new paradigms always come into conflict with the old, and indeed whole eras of history are defined by such tensions.

In his hypothesized future, capitalism as a transitional mode between feudalism and democracy gives way to new, more just economic modalities. It seems reasonable to believe that we have reached or are nearly reaching the useful limits of capitalism. Yes, it has created great wealth, but after being co-opted by regimes like today’s China,  it can no longer claim to be the channel into a broader liberalism of Fukuyamian promises and globally it is more and more a driver of extreme inequality–enough to rival any past aristocratic systems.

What, then, beyond it? Robinson’s Mars safeguards the commons, denying private ownership of land or resources and allows competitive economics and markets to be driven by co-ops, banishing the massive trans-nat corporations to Earth where they slowly wither.

It’s a lot to hope for, but in the book, one of the powerful forces that helps the Martians establish their independence and protect their special society is a giant corporation called Praxis, led by an polarizing visionary CEO who believes the world order of and by corporations must give way to something better. He aids the Martians in their search for that better something. Robinson seemed to be anticipating the era of the tech paragons of the Internet age like Jobs, Bezos, Zuckerberg…

Did I mention that Elon Musk wants to go to Mars?