Our Weekly Discontents, 3/22/2021

Here we go again.

A simultaneously smug and befuddled-looking Chuck Todd began his Sunday Meet the Press segment on NBC News by parroting the line that the “deteriorating situation” at the U.S. southern border is a “crisis, even if the Biden administration refuses to use that word.” Those of us who’ve spent years covering immigration and witnessing its cyclical and negligent coverage on television news in particular could feel the next part coming, tensing up like when you hear the screeching breaks before a car crash. Todd did not disappoint. He continued: “It's more than that: It's a political crisis for the new president, with no easy way out.”

And just like that, we’re back to this familiar place, where the specifics on any particular immigrant humanitarian catastrophe are backdrop to a game of high-stakes domestic political football. ABC even flew a panel out to sit on a shoddy makeshift stage with the border as a literal backdrop, to debate things like what the correct compromise position is between letting desperate migrants access the system of humanitarian protections guaranteed by both U.S. and international law, or sending them to their potential deaths.

Consuming most of the wall-to-wall coverage on the Sunday shows and in mainstream publications (with a few exceptions) would never have alerted you to the fact that providing a system for humanitarian entry and observing the global principle of non-refoulement — that is, a responsibility to not send someone back to danger — are not actually political choices that the president can make. The United States is, absolutely and unequivocally, required to do it.

Yet Biden is choosing not to, keeping the Title 42 expulsion order — a supposed Covid-19 response measure that was signed by CDC officials under overt political pressure from the Trump administration — in place for adults and families, letting them be expelled almost instantly without ever having the opportunity to present a claim for protection. Much of the recent coverage hasn’t bothered to speak to or represent the perspectives of these migrants at all, or is content to speculate that a change in administration ‘rhetoric’ would dissuade them from coming.

This notion, along with trickle-down economics and efficient privatized healthcare, occupies the pantheon of political ideas that have been disproven again and again only to re-emerge from the talking head tar pit. In the real world, it turns out that if you’re uprooting your life and fleeing the threat of imminent rape or murder, the tenor of the political conversation in Washington, D.C. factors very little in your constellation of considerations.

No matter, because the secret is that asylum seekers are just abstractions and the law is more like guidelines when it comes to noncitizen brown people. It’s a bizarre national conversation, as if we were having a never-ending debate about dealing with the “crisis” at the U.S. Postal Service by having the president shut down delivery to rural areas, without anyone ever pointing out that such a move would be both illegal and certainly kill some rural customers who depended on medicine deliveries.

At the same time, Congress is undertaking yet another attempt at passing a version of the DREAM Act first introduced in 2001. The image of the precocious young Dreamer, maybe a high school valedictorian who wears jeans and speaks in unaccented English just like you, has remained burned into the public imagination, even as that original group is now pushing 40, having spent twenty years in legal limbo. A legalization program for this group has remained broadly popular among American voters throughout, yet been torpedoed by circumstance (the first hearing of the original DREAM Act was set to be held on September 12, 2001) and the radicalism of Congressional Republicans.

After two decades of watering it down to meet the impossible standard of satisfying GOP counterparts, Democrats have finally decided to actually write a program that’s broadly accessible, with a cutoff date of January 1, 2021 and expansive criteria for entry. It passed the House last week and heads to the Senate. The Migration Policy Institute estimated that, if passed and signed, it could provide a pathway to residency and citizenship for over 4.4 million people total.

However, as we explored in last week’s BORDER/LINES, some habits die harder than others, and Democrats have not been able to break their addiction to a punitive criminal justice system. The bill as currently written includes absurdly extensive criminal carve-outs to the protections offered; a Dreamer could, for example, be precluded from ever applying for the program’s conditional resident status if they’d ever been convicted of any drug crime.

Given Senate Democrats’ reticence to do anything about the filibuster, the bill has got an uncertain path forward. If they manage to get it through, it will undoubtedly be a victory for pro-immigrant advocacy. For many of its intended beneficiaries, though, that victory would sour as they discover that, decades after the failure of the Biden-supported 1994 crime bill became painfully apparent, Democrats have yet to really learn their lesson.

Here’s what our Discontents colleagues have been up to:

Sick Note

Libby Watson

Last week, I spoke to Harrison Kalodimos, a family medicine doctor in Seattle, about the challenges of practicing medicine in a country without a healthcare system. (See previous interviews with a cardiologist and an ER nurse for similar coverage). Throughout our conversation, I kept thinking about how different things were for my stepdad, who was a GP in Banbury, England for decades. Not that the NHS is without any problems (largely due to austerity and neoliberal bullshit), but it’s just a totally different thing when you provide healthcare as a right to all. I think about how many nights my stepdad spent on call, sitting at the surgery late or overnight waiting to do home visits—home visits!!!—for people in need. For free. And it seems like a minor thing, but I thought about how I had the same excellent GP from when I was born until I went to university; there was never any risk he’d go out of network, for example. Also, in my news roundup this weekend, I had some thoughts on the public option, and there’s a really good picture of my cat.

Welcome to Hell World

Luke O’Neil

This week on Hell World I wrote on the multiple overlapping corrosive American pathologies intertwined in the massacre in Atlanta, looked back on some of my previous writing on gun violence

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted recently that “Sandy Hook happened six years ago and we can’t even get the Senate to hold a vote on universal background checks,” and that is very true and a good point and all but did you realize Sandy Hook was only six years ago because to me it feels like it was a lot longer than that. It feels like it’s a story that we were born with. It’s like the thing about how Romulus and Remus were raised by wolves and then went onto found Rome but in our case it’s about how a guy with a gun massacred a school full of tiny little babies hundreds of years ago and we decided to build a country on the very spot to mark the occasion and weave its inevitability into our patriotic mythology. If we ever end up redesigning the American flag it should probably be a third grader with a bullet hole in her face and then you could have an eagle or something in the background so everyone still thinks we’re tough.

and swatting and my experience having been doxxed largely because of that writing…

I called the local police and said hey just as a sort of courtesy if you ever get a call that there’s a shooting at my address could you call me first because it’s very likely not me and that felt real weird to have to say it I felt sort of ashamed for a minute like here I am this guy who criticizes the police all the time and as the common critique from the right goes I was still nonetheless calling them for help when I needed it but then I realized I wasn’t calling them to come and save me I was asking them politely to please hesitate for a minute or two before coming to kill me.

Coming up later this week I’ve got paid subscriber pieces from Dave Infante on what South Carolina’s whole deal is and Linda Tirado on dental care and living with bad teeth in America. Subscribe here with a 33% off coupon (around $4.50 a month) to make sure you get those fresh off the tap.

Wars of Future Past

Kelsey D. Atherton

The Invasion of Iraq turned 18 on Saturday. The War in Iraq, as I think historians will record it, can probably be traced back to 1990, with an early period of intense invasion, a longer decade of No Fly Zones and air strikes, a second period of invasion and occupation, followed by a shorter period of more general withdrawal and air strikes, which in turn was followed by a third return to ground warfare (this time against ISIS), followed again by a return to air strikes.

I don’t know what an end to the US War in Iraq looks like. I can say, though, that the week of the 18th anniversary of the 2003 invasion, deployed National Guards received COVID vaccines in the country. The war has lasted long enough to get a pandemic chapter.

I maintain that Forever War has broken our society in some profound ways, to say nothing of the outright lives it has ruined with violence and deprivation. National Guards remain deployed in DC, as a too-late prophylactic against the anti-democracy riot Capitol Police were unwilling to stop. Last weekend, Michigan guards rotated out, replaced by Guards from New Jersey, all part of “Operation Capitol Response II.”

Eighteen years after the launch of a war on a lie about securing democracy abroad, the National Security State has simply created a Green Zone in Washington, to match the ones it previously installed in Baghdad. 

What is important, I think, in marking the grim coming-of-age of the 2003 invasion is approaching every statement from elected officials with a deep skepticism of war nationalism. By design, it is extraordinarily hard to prevent a president determined to launch a war from doing so. Were Congress truly interested in securing democracy at home, it would not just move to secure protections for voting. It would also act, with great speed, to make wars much harder to launch.

Cruel and Usual

Shane Ferro

Last April, a guy in an $800,000 sports car ping ponged around Hell’s Kitchen, causing a fair amount of damage to his and several other cars. He was arrested and charged with driving under the influence of drugs and reckless driving. It was a big deal at the time in the car world because he just absolutely demolished his very rare, very expensive sports car seemingly on purpose, and as you can imagine car people took Offense to that. They were offended all over again last week when his case was dismissed.

I, a person who loves criminal procedure much more than cars, dug into the reasons why his case might have been dismissed. It is for sure an outrage, but in my opinion reflects the outrageous systemic failures in the NYC Criminal Courts (and potentially a quirk in DUI law), rather than being about the wealth and privilege of the individual person in this case, as the coverage up to this point sort of assumed.

I don’t actually know why this guy’s case got dismissed, but I do know that the prosecutors in New York City are prosecuting thousands of cases that everybody knows will end up being dismissed because of a failure to comply with the new discovery laws that went into effect in January 2020. Almost 15 months later, some combination of the NYPD and NYC prosecutors are unable to comply with the law in an astonishing number of cases, and the reasons why are still unclear. What is clear is that the people whose cases don’t have a chance of going forward are still being punished by the process for months at a time before these dismissals happen. As ever, the process is the punishment.

Discourse Blog

Hello. We’ve got big news this week. Tuesday is the one year anniversary of Discourse Blog being an entity, a blog, whatever you want to call it. Now we’re a media company. We’ve got a website, we’ve got subscriptions, and we’re growing. To celebrate, we’re going to have a sale on all subscription tiers on Tuesday, and over the past week we’ve been dropping the paywall on most of our best posts from the year. 

You can see some roundups of those here, whether it’s interviews, pop culture,features and essays, politics or just assorted nonsense. If that’s not convincing enough, take a look at what we published this week, such as Katherine’s blog suggesting we abolish England. An interesting idea deserving of consideration! Aleks also blogged about the Teen Vogue mess, and what qualifies someone to be an EIC, and I wrote about Biden’s extremely dumb marijuana bust. More to come this week!

Perspectives: Past, Present, and Future

Patrick Wyman

Have you ever wondered what languages people spoke in the deep past, before the invention of writing? I definitely have. By definition, answering that question is almost impossible - without writing, we can’t tell for sure what languages people were using - but we have some theories and ideas. Historical linguistics allows us to move backwards through time toward earlier stages of a language’s, or language family’s, past. By comparing languages to one another, we can work toward an understanding of the proto-language, the ancestor later languages share in common, and formulate some ideas about how, when, and where the people who spoke that language actually lived.

In my last entry, I apply this method to the Afroasiatic language family, which includes Ancient Egyptian, Hebrew, Arabic, Berber, and dozens of other languages, both living and extinct. Tracing their path backwards in time leads us to a lost world: the Green Sahara, when giraffes, elephants, and other savannah-dwellers wandered a grassland that is now the wastes of the world’s largest desert.

The Insurgents

Jordan Uhl & Rob Rousseau

We regret to inform everyone that Ken Klippenstein is at it again. After Ken got up to some more of his classic antics this weekend, this time getting formerly respected author and now current chemtrail research and mask/vaccine skeptic Naomi Wolf to retweet an image of Johnny Sins (we had no idea who this is and had to look it up) we reluctantly invited Ken back onto the show to explain himself. We also talked about how we’re currently being prepped to accept a number of grotesque future realities from Amazon Fulfillment Centers to Migrant Detention Facilities.

Foreign Exchanges

Derek Davison

Tomorrow Israeli voters will head to the polls for a parliamentary election, which will be the fourth time they’ve gotten to do so in less than two years (lucky duckies!). None of the previous three votes has managed to produce a stable governing coalition, with the most recent (last March) ending with the negotiation of a “power-sharing” arrangement that fell apart the instant it began to look like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might actually have to share power.

Polling suggests there’s a pretty good chance this election won’t be any more decisive than the last three, which is an uncomfortable possibility for Netanyahu, who needs to remain PM to survive his ongoing corruption trial. So he’s decided to cast a wide net in search of potential voters, appealing—in a move that’s very out of character—to Arab Israelis. Amazingly this has worked to some degree, fracturing the formerly unified Arab Joint List and thereby damaging its electoral chances. At the same time, though, Netanyahu has also—perhaps reflexively, perhaps to fend off challengers on his right—made an alliance with the Kahanist Kach party.

It’s hard to see how Netanyahu can appeal to Arab Israelis while boosting a party founded on the ideals of annexing the West Bank and ethnically cleansing all Arabs from Israel, but I guess we’ll find out soon enough whether he was able to make it work. A Netanyahu victory would likely constrain the Biden administration’s Middle East policy and I’d say it would be the death knell for the Israel-Palestine peace process but I think we’ve already passed that point. Another indecisive election, on the other hand, and Israel could really find itself in some very uncharted political waters.