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.
[more after the jump]Read More
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.
- First, I'm not sure that Charlottesville revealed anything about the true nature of the alt-right, or even white supremacy, that we did not know before. James Alex Fields, Jr. who killed Heather Heyer and injured 19 others with his car, appears to be very troubled. His murder of Heyer was clearly the headline event of the weekend, but it does not for that reason define the movement or the intentions of those who organized the "Unite the Right" rally. (Remember that James Hodkinson, who shot up a Congressional baseball practice, was a fervent Bernie Sanders supporter. He was also a nut. His actions told us very little about the true nature or intentions of the Sanders movement.) It is impossible to say what the weekend would have looked like had that not occurred. It seems to me as though it would have started an argument about whether the alt-right or progressive forces had been more violent. (This is not to engage in moral equivalence on my part: clearly the right-wing forces were more violent. Unfortunately, the progressives cannot claim to have been completely non-violent themselves. And as long as that is true, Trump supporters would have muddied the waters and obscured the facts.) That would have been a frustrating and inconclusive argument and everyone would have forgotten about it in a few days. But given the facts as they actually did occur, what specifically leads one to say that white supremacy is on the march? Was the rally particularly large? Did it get positive news coverage? Were non-participants showing up in droves to sign up? Did they say things in Charlottesville that they do not usually say? Any of these things could actually be true. And even if they were not, I understand why people would be frightened at the notion of these groups showing up in their neighborhoods. But the declaration that something is the new reality and the implication that anyone who doesn't "see" it is a moral coward are big claims, and big claims require evidence to be compelling.
- Second, I'm very skeptical of any account that says we know what a movement stands for or what a person truly thinks without showing some attempt to address how the issue looks from that person's or movement's perspective. Doing that well usually requires quotations. If you want to perform a detailed intellectual excavation of a movement or person and you do not use a large number of quotes, you're just projecting your own views on to them.
- Third, my progressive friends and colleagues all seem very upset at the idea that some people are working really hard to stake out some comfortable middle ground here. Who are these people? Jimmy Fallon, of all people, criticized President Trump for his response to Charlottesville. I have not seen any journalists or politicians, with the admittedly large exception of the president, engage in this sort of thinking. In that environment, I'm not sure that condemning this contemporary manifestation of white supremacy actually does require a whole bunch of moral courage. It seems possible to me that progressives are imagining that people are not taking this seriously enough so that (I hate to say it, but it has a grain or truth) they can feel morally superior to them. That's not a good look, lefties.
- Finally, the notion that underlies these exhortations is that anyone who doesn't subscribe to this interpretation of events is either a) a complete idiot, or b) lacking moral courage. I don't think either of these things necessarily follows. Sometimes, perhaps often, people simply reach different conclusions. In that case, the best course of action seems to be trying to convince them that their view is wrong. Drawing Manichean lines designating the in-group and out-group is unlikely to achieve that goal.
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.
I was featured in the most recent episode of David Sehat's podcast Mindpop. The subject of our conversation was ostensibly "Has identity politics wrecked liberalism?" But in passing I did make another point: that liberals are frequently every bit as pompous, irritating and smug as the conservative caricatures make them out to be. This is not a new position for me. But it's one that has taken up more and more of my mental space since the Trump election had laid bare the liberal disinterest in explaining or justifying left-of-center ideas to anyone who doesn't already share them.
A case in point is this weekend's reaction to Kellyanne Conway's reference to the "Bowling Green Massacre," an event that never actually occurred. In response to this gaffe, liberals have unleashed a flood of smug self-congratulatory jokes on the subject. One can find a candlelight vigil for the victims of this nonexistent tragedy, a Facebook survivor check-in page, a fake folk song memorializing the event and a whole host of oh-so-clever tweets. Personally, I would prefer that liberals put their energy into crafting messages that could make their message clearer and more convincing so that they might resonate with the broad swaths of the country. But that apparently would not scratch the right itch.
Liberals have two primary modes of communication: outraged moralistic accusations and funny, sarcastic putdowns. Both do little more than preach to the choir. Neither will ever convince anyone to listen to a new point of view or to change his/her mind about a political issue. We've been on this road for a long time and it's only gotten us to a place that we don't particularly like. It's time to get off of it.
"When they go low," Michelle Obama said, "we go high." I'm not seeing it. Do better.