Our Weekly Discontents, 1/25/2021

Our first look at life in Joe Biden’s America.

It’s Biden time, babey. This week’s Discontents is brought to you by Felipe De La Hoz and Gaby Del Valle of BORDER/LINES, and my god we’re already annoyed at the state of the immigration discourse.

In a way, President Biden is getting both more and less credit than he deserves on immigration policy, depending on how you look at it. He’s proved skeptics who argued he’d jettison the politically contentious subject wrong by making it one of his day one priorities. He already signed a series of executive orders to roll back Trump-era policies and sent an expansive immigration bill (the text of which has yet to be publicly released) to Congress. Immigration advocates and attorneys who’d spent the past four years in exhausting, neverending trench warfare with an openly anti-immigrant administrative machinery breathed a collective sigh of relief, but the cracks started showing almost right away.

While Biden undid the Trump administration’s infamous “Muslim” ban, he didn’t touch more recent restrictions that make the rollback a largely moot point, like immigration curbs his predecessor tenuously tied to the coronavirus pandemic. For example, Presidential Proclamation 10014, which continues to prevent almost all incoming immigration on the flimsy grounds of preventing a “risk to the United States labor market” during the pandemic recovery. An order that CDC staff issued essentially under duress continues to allow for the expulsion of almost all migrants arriving at the southern border, their humanitarian claims notwithstanding. Advocates were quick to note that the administration’s promised deportation moratorium did not stop detentions from happening, nor prompt immediate releases of anyone in detention, and ICE is reportedly refusing to actually stop deportations anyway. Details on a family reunification task force have yet to materialize.

If last week is any indication, the next four years of Biden’s tenure, at least when it comes to immigration, will be simultaneously over- and underwhelming. It’s not a stretch to say that immigration was considered a “fringe” issue before Trump launched a presidential campaign rooted in nativism and white supremacy. Biden will likely receive more public scrutiny than Obama did on the immigration front, and it’ll be deserved. But already, people are asking about the kids in cages, even though what we have now is far worse: people are being turned away at the border en masse in the middle of a pandemic with no end in sight. Children are being put on deportation and expulsion flights alone rather than being given the protections they’re entitled to under the law. Still, the public attention is focused on policies from two years ago that aren’t even in effect anymore. If things continue at this pace, immigrants will be used as a rhetorical device and not much else.

That’s why we decided to focus last week’s newsletter on what has changed in Biden’s first week, as well as the many things that haven’t. There are obviously things that will take a longer time to undo, like the Remain in Mexico policy (whose official name, believe it or not, is the Migrant Protection Protocols) and the complete dismantling of the refugee program. 

The biggest question mark is what Biden will do besides reverse course on Trump’s most abhorrent policies. The immigration bill he sent Congress may give us a clue, but there’s no realistic way it’ll become law as-is. (And, again, we haven’t even seen the actual text yet.) Congressional Republicans are sure to oppose any form of “amnesty,” Democrats will likely concede as they always do, and we’ll end up with some milquetoast half-measure like an expanded version of DACA, or something, which will then be subject to some dark money-funded lawsuit. Or maybe we’re being too pessimistic! Even the most generous interpretation of Biden’s immigration policy leaves a lot to be desired though. As Felipe recently wrote for The Nation, Biden is really into the idea of “smart” border technology like drones and sensors, which will do little to curb unauthorized migration but will push migrants into more dangerous parts of the border. No matter what conservatives say, Biden is far from an open-borders president, and Democrats still aren’t a pro-immigration party. At best, they’re willing to give status to some undocumented people who already live in the U.S., beef up the asylum and refugee systems a bit more, throw some money at Central America, and call it a day. It may be better than Trump, but that’s not saying much.

That’s all from us, folks. Now on to the rest of the gang.

Wars of Future Past

Kelsey D. Atherton

Inauguration happened with all the calm and grace of a low-intensity conflict. Inside the massive Green Zone imposed upon Washington, DC, the passive violence of homelessness took on an existential dread as a fire in an encampment was feared assault, instead of just the grim reality of life under capitalism. 

The day before the Inauguration, I wrote about the Green Zone, about how the presence of the military reveals the absence of peace. Inauguration happened, little flags attended instead of people, and the National Guard took naps in parking garages, the kind of routine logistics error common across wars and yet still a novel sight for Members of Congress. The violence lurking around the Capitol, the long tail of January 6th, is the violence of the Forever War rebounded: an appetite for vengeance, hinged on a durable antidemocratic understanding of what the United States is, and who its enemies are. 

The Trump presidency, so far the greatest manifestation yet of that nationalist violence turned as much inward as outward, is formally over. The repercussions remain, as does the potential for future harm, so long as the United States continues endless war against malleable enemies, at home and abroad.

The grim footnote to all this, to Green Zone DC and to a prophylactic armed occupation of the Capitol, is that the National Guard garrison will remain through the impeachment trial, at least until Mid-March. With any delay at all, that means DC’s Green Zone will overlap with the 18th anniversary of the start of the Iraq War. 

A Lonely Impulse of Delight

Connor Wroe Southard

Even I, your intrepid correspondent, sometimes get discouraged during [gestures around]. Early last week was one of those times. I was trying to write about one of my favorite poems, and it just wasn’t happening. I’d been in workshop and my writerly brain was fried. So I took the hint and wrote about writing while your brain is fried. (I also put out a call for subscriber questions for an upcoming mailbag piece, so hit me with those!)

It’s been sort of a slow stretch for my newsletter, as I deal with hitting the home stretch of my graduate degree and struggle—like just about everyone else—to maintain my sanity. I find myself worrying that the energy will leak out of this project, and everything else I’m working on. Mostly likely, my next edition will have to be about a wildly entertaining and well-known movie. Maybe Goon (2011)?

I may or may not write about Goon next, though it’s inevitable that I’ll get to it, because it’s a top ten movie for me and maybe higher. Realizing that Goon, an integral filmic part of my twenties, came out a goddamned decade ago is not helping this whole situation. I demand to speak to whoever did this. I want Goon relocated to, at the earliest, 2013. Thank you for your assistance in this matter and please sign up.

Welcome to Hell World

Luke O’Neil

Last week in a paid-only piece I wrote on the NFL and going to live games in person and some shit about “cancel culture” and “free speech” and a follow up on the piece from the other day about the Trump administration’s unquenchable lust for executing people on death row and I forget what else. If you want to read it here’s a coupon for 36% off a subscription.

Then in this free post I heard from a couple dozen people about their experiences over the years being afraid to call in sick to work, either because they couldn’t afford to miss the day, or they were berated or pressured by their boss. Turns out it’s not much of a surprise that we bungled the pandemic so badly when we have always routinely forced people to work sick.

“I’ve never called in sick to work,” a career bartender in Boston told me. “Ever.”

“I’ve been doing this for twenty two years and can tell you stories about barely keeping snot in my nose while mixing drinks simply because there’s no room for calling in sick. Maybe you can get a shift covered, but more often than not you’re just working sick. If you try to call out, your management will punish you with worse shifts, less shifts, etc. Ownership does not give a fuck about us.”

Read it here.

Sick Note

Libby Watson

I had a two-part interview last week with an emergency room nurse. Part one was about the challenges of caring for patients in a country without a healthcare system; we talked about how hard it is for him to actually treat patients when they can't see a doctor outside the ER. In part two, we talked about his experience on the other side of things when his infant son developed Toxic Shock Syndrome. His story demonstrates how even nurses go through the same dilemma you might have about going to the ER: Wait and see if it gets worse, or risk a huge bill? (That bill was $6500, and he'll be paying it off for years.) 

I also wrote about my migraines and how they affect my ability to work, which sucks even if you don’t have a chronic condition. There's no untangling the impact of having to work on the number of migraines I get, and it's a pointless exercise anyway, because I'll always have to; I'll never be rich enough to find out. I might as well imagine becoming Batman. 

The Insurgents

Jordan Uhl & Rob Rousseau

How does it feel, America? Fascism has been defeated. Normalcy has returned. The soul of the country has been restored. This week we go over some of the deranged liberal reactions to Joe Biden’s inauguration, and talk about the inherent danger in the “adults in the room” bringing the neoliberal consensus to Washington, and how it’s unlikely they’re going to be challenged in any way by a media class that learned to be somewhat adversarial during the Trump Administration against their better judgement, and now seem eager to get back to things like deficit-scolding and asking the Good Conservatives what it means to unify post-Orange Man.

The urgent question facing the country is whether anyone on Team Biden learned anything from the mistakes of the Obama years. While there have been a few mildly encouraging signs, overall it isn’t looking good. So maybe hold the brunch for now.

Discourse Blog

Like everyone, we spent most of the week covering America’s new return to normalcy. Our peers above have already said most of what should be said about the dangers of the neoliberal consensus, as Rob put it, but here’s some highlights of specific dangers we’re going to face with kindly old Joe in office. Caitlin Schneider wrote about the social media adoration immediately heaped on the new administration, signifying a return to times when the barbarities of the U.S. system were easy to ignore.

And that’s pretty much the whole point, right? That with Biden in charge, it’s easier to lose sight of the things that matter. Like the fact that yet again, one of the liberal stalwarts of the Supreme Court is refusing to retire in the narrow window of Democratic control of both the White House and Senate.

The other danger, of course, is that the Biden administration will do worse than just let progressive opportunities slip away, and instead concede too much to a GOP that is only interested in his destruction, as Paul Blest wrote.

And finally, I went to the Inauguration! It was… well, pretty boring. But the massive presence of the security state was a show in and of itself. Read more about it here, and check out Sam Grasso’s preview of our premium newsletter this week here!

Perspectives: Past, Present, and Future

Patrick Wyman

Nothing new this past week, but if you’re looking to understand precisely what happened at the Capitol, I’ve got a piece on that. Alternatively, if you’d like to try to forget about that, or really anything that’s happened in the past several thousand years, check out this recent post on mounds and temples in the prehistoric Americas. This week, I’ll be talking about precisely what we mean when we say “civilization,” and why or whether the term has any value at all.