Archive for June, 2018

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.

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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.