USA Today does not need to put down janitors and shoe shiners in order to criticize the president. The paper should apologize.
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The other day I participated in Testify, which is a monthly show in Austin that features storytellers. (Think of it as a local version of NYC's The Moth, which you might have heard on the radio or via podcast as The Moth Radio Hour.) Anyway, my friend videotaped my performance on his phone and some of you might be interested in seeing it. (It starts out sideways but will straighten out after a few seconds.)
When I look at all the current controversies over "Dreamers," DACA, President Trump's wall and so forth, I actually see two different debates. The first is a fairly conventional left-right controversy over whether the US should be willing to spread its good fortune broadly to those who were not born here, or whether the country should take care of its own first. The second argument, which I find more interesting, seems to me more of a clash between temperaments or philosophical styles. It concerns the nature of crime and punishment. Those who have more of an essentialist, formal way of looking at things will say, "Undocumented immigrants broke the law and should not be rewarded for this by being allowed to stay in the country." The more practical-minded will note that, in many cases, these same lawbreakers have been here for a long time, made a life for themselves and added something to our national economy. It would be both cruel and pointless, this argument goes, to kick them out of the country.
The latter argument, it seems to me, can only exist because of the unique nature of illegal border-crossing. We do not have this debate over bank robbery. No one argues that the bank robber who has become a good citizen should not be punished for her crime. On the other hand, though, if this criminal can elude capture for five years, she is in the clear (from federal prosecution, at least). This is because the federal statute of limitations for bank robbery is five years.
But illegal immigration is different. First of all, there is no statute of limitations on illegal border crossing. Secondly, though, the undocumented immigrant commits another crime every day that he wakes up in the US. This one is called "unlawful presence." It it illegal to be in the United States without some sort of recognized legal status: that of citizen, tourist, student, etc. If this law did not exist, then there would be no way to deport those who had entered the country legally, but then stayed longer than they were allowed. (More undocumented immigrants in the US have overstayed their visas than crossed the border illegally.) So someone who might have snuck across the border twenty years ago is still committing a crime at this very second by merely being in the country.
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In the wake of the the weekend's events in Charlottesville, I have seen a couple of points being made with some frequency. Generally speaking, they amount to the idea are that now there can be no mistake about the true nature and intention of white supremacists. In a common refrain, people will say that "there is no middle ground" or "you're either with them or against them." A related point comes up from time to time as well, when people say that "from now on, call these things what they are: racist."
I admit to some confusion and even trouble with most of these points, especially as they are thrown around as being fairly obvious. Whether or not they are correct, I do not think that they are obvious. Those things that are obvious do not require arguments to support them. In my view, however, progressives actually do need to walk through the events that happened this weekend in order to explain and justify their reactions to them. Without those explanations and justifications, the speaker is merely preaching to the choir. Those who already agree with these points will cheer, the others will walk away. And I think we want more substantive reactions to our views on white nationalism.
I was pleased recently to stumble across a new review of A Commercial Republic. Published in the winter 2016 issue of The Historian, it was written by John Lauritz Larson, whose The Market Revolution in America is my favorite book on the Jacksonian period. Larson praised my book as "both learned (for the specialist) and thoroughly accessible (for the general reader)," saying that it "succeed[s] on both fronts" and "is a pleasure to read."
Particularly interesting to me is Larson's conclusion, in which he notes that "critics may fault O’Connor for mining existing literature instead of reporting the fruits of extensive archival research." Those critics would be accurate in their descriptions, he suggests, but misguided in their assessments. A Commercial Republic, he writes, "does something our literature desperately needs: It offers up an invitation to explore what otherwise must seem a daunting and impenetrable shelf of specialized tomes. Kudos to the author for daring to do it."
That last part reveals an implicit criticism of the contemporary university. Non-academics could be forgiven for not understanding why one would have to "dare" to encourage general readers to become interested in one's field. Don't historians want their work to be relevant to the broader cultural conversation? This is a far more complicated question than it may seem. The shortest answer, I think, would be something like "No doubt many do, but not as much as they want to get and keep a job." In professional academic circles, the coin of the realm is a narrowly-defined, professionally-sanctioned scholarship of obscurity. In a hyper-competitive market, untenured scholars engage in any other kind of work at their own peril.
When I embarked on the project that eventually became A Commercial Republic, I was a graduate student. Back then, my goal as a writer was to produce things like the essays in Harper's magazine. Why? For no other reason than that these were what I liked to read. I didn't put much thought into it, and no one ever told me that I was supposed to be doing something else. (In retrospect, though, I remember a professor's comment on my paper that read, "Because you are fluent, you content yourself with breezy generalizations." I'm not sure how much has changed, though I'd like think that, rather than breezy generalizations, A Commercial Republic features learned and well-supported ones.) I had no idea of the import of the decision that I was making, and never really felt like I was making a "decision" at all. So I appreciate Larson's kudos, but am not certain that I deserve them.
Whether I understood the situation or not, its logic inexorably went to work on me. After getting my Ph.D., I fought the good fight, working as a lecturer and trying to land permanent work for ten solid years. But eventually it became clear that the only use the academic world had for me was as cheap disposable labor. I am now finishing up my first year in public policy school, with the hope of landing work in a completely different field. But I still think I wrote a good book, and still appreciate reviews like Larson's.