March 04, 2017

Why You're Entering The Immigration Debate Without The Proper Documents

Or, "The Time Andrew Couldn't Quite Bring Himself To Write A Clickbait Headline"

Let me begin with the requisite disclaimers on a post like this: I don't like Trump, I'm a white guy so probably don't truly understand immigration anyway, and though I worked at a U.S. immigration law firm for two-plus years and therefore have a somewhat unique perspective on the topic, I am by no means an expert. Did I mention I don't like Trump? Okay.

The majority of immigration coverage I've read since Trump got elected has focused, understandably, on Trump's executive order restricting admission for citizens of certain countries, and his more recent order expanding the grounds on which people are targeted for deportation. The majority of that coverage has proceeded, also understandably, by reporting on individuals suffering as a result of those executive orders. But recently I've started to see a tricky flip in those stories, whereby reporters first find an immigrant suffering, and then relate that suffering back to one of Trump's executive orders. As a side note, Wikipedia tells me that this particular logical fallacy is called affirming the consequent, and as another side note, I would like to say that I think Trump's executive orders are bad policies. But that's not actually the point I want to make here.

Since we have a recent and horrific point of comparison in the news, let's talk about that off-duty cop in L.A. who fired his gun at a group of teenagers, in probably (hopefully) the most extreme "get off my lawn" incident in recorded history. Naturally, the protest in response was swift and vocal: fire that damn cop. It's a response that I think we're all pretty used to by now, in stories about police misconduct and brutality; the individual cop is definitely to blame, the "police department" or more vaguely "the system" is probably to blame, but very rarely does the specific head of the police department get apportioned any individual blame. And even when the latter does happen, it's not usually tied to that head of police's political views except maybe as an incidental "all racists are Republican/all Republicans are racist" assumption. (Talk about affirming the consequent!)

That's why I think it's (1) interesting, and (2) a problem that when an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raid is conducted illegally, or a Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officer detains someone without cause, or any other law enforcement officer under the aegis of homeland security does something shitty, we're very rarely treated to the same "fire the cop" argument. We certainly haven't been in any of the immigration stories I've seen since Trump was elected. Instead the implication is always that those officers were mindlessly carrying out the inherently politicised will of the current administration. For example:
The government's decision to remove the 31-year-old father, who has no criminal record and is married to an American citizen, is the latest indication that President Donald Trump's administration plans to deport practically any immigrant here illegally. [...]

"What the president is doing is going after everyone," said David Leopold, an Ohio immigration attorney.
Well, I'm sorry, but bull-honky. Trump didn't personally sit down the ICE officers involved in this case and say, "nope, that guy's out." Neither did anybody in his administration. It's also worth noting that ICE had already initiated removal proceedings against the guy, and an immigration judge had already ordered his deportation, back in 2006, because his mother had let his legal status lapse—and the only reason he was still in the country was because of Obama's executive order granting prosecutorial discretion. We can have a discussion, of course, about the shittiness of the Immigration and Nationality Act's provisions for what happens in a case where a minor's status lapses through no fault of his or her own, but technically the guy was removable under laws passed by congress a long time ago. The fact that ICE decided to enforce those laws now and in this case is undoubtedly a dick move, and I don't dispute that they probably felt empowered to do so by Trump's executive orders, but let's be clear that it was still some asshole ICE officer on a power trip who ultimately made the call, not Donald Trump. Making it about the current administration is like convening a jury to try an accessory after the fact while the murderer keeps going to work every morning.

Also, on the topic, Trump didn't personally call up the ICE agents hanging out in Denver courthouses waiting to sweep up immigrants as they leave their hearings, and say, hey guys, can you do this tremendous thing for me? He certainly didn't sit down and give any orders to the ICE officers who arrested people just to fill quotas in 2013, or the ICE officers who in 2015 struck an off-the-books deal to detain without cause or process suspected immigrants released by Fresno county's sheriff's office, or the ICE officers who lied to immigrants during raids in 2016 so that they could enter private property without a warrant. This isn't an Obama-bashing moment either, though to be clear his record on immigration was equivocal. Obama also didn't have anything to do, I don't think, with the CBP officer who told one of my clients, while I was a paralegal, that trying to enter the country with a green card approval rather than the green card itself—which is quite legal—was "like trying to claim lottery winnings without the ticket." Or the CBP officer who stopped my Canadian citizen friend at the land border during Bush II's administration and questioned her for an hour just because she was born in Iran.

These are all bad cops. They were bad cops before Trump and they will be bad cops after Trump. They also have plenty of colleagues at ICE and CBP who are good cops, and who frankly don't deserve to be tarred by the same brush that people are (rightly) using to discuss Trump's executive orders. The idea that ICE and CBP, which combined have twice as many officers as the NYPD—officers who are dispersed in wildly different communities all across the country—somehow all behave consistently and flip political affiliations automatically every time a new president is elected is, if you think about it, pretty ridiculous. And sure, executive orders can and do set the broad parameters of their activities, but day-to-day the president has pretty much zero oversight or control over what ICE and DHS do. Congress has pretty much zero oversight too—actually, it has too much oversight, in that something like 90+ subcommittees claim oversight, which is why congress has never actually passed annual authorising legislation for the Department of Homeland Security. And that's the real problem. One of the largest (and most powerful!) law enforcement agencies in the country basically sets its own rules and monitors its own performance, and that's by legislative design rather than executive fiat.

So go ahead and keep talking about how shitty Trump's immigration orders are. And go head and keep posting stories of all the shitty stuff ICE does (and largely gets away with) on a regular basis—it's nice that people are finally paying more attention. But let's all be very clear that these are two separate problems, and when it comes to immigration, at least, I think career immigration officers who treat immigrants like crap are the much bigger problem than a blowhard president trying to make good on his outrageous campaign promises.

February 18, 2017

Gopnik vs Gopnik

I've been unusually prolific on my blog since Trump's election (I mean, three posts, but that's prolific compared to my previous months-long streak of nothing). If you don't want to take the time to scroll down and read them, they have all essentially expressed an uneasiness about how over-the-top the reaction to Trump has been on the political left, and about how so many people I have generally found to espouse level-headedness and empiricism in the face of almost anything now seem suddenly to be running through the streets screaming that the sky is falling.

So it was refreshing to read none other than Lord Chancellor of the Liberal Intelligentsia, Adam Gopnik, distill all my arguments into an elegant paragraph this week. (Have you been reading my blog, Adam?)
First, that Donald Trump is a blowhard but not a Benito: the scary things he says are mostly just smoke in the room. Second, that what his opponents most object to are not “Trumpian” policies but Republican ones, which, like it or not, now dominate the electorate. (Even if one questions the popular vote, there are the G.O.P.’s Senate, House, and gubernatorial majorities to explain away.) Then there is the claim that even the most controversial of his policies—though perhaps poorly articulated or sloppily executed—involve actions that are well within the norms and rules of American politics. Finally, there is the warning that continued liberal “hysteria” only further insults and emboldens the armies of Trump supporters, who, whether a strict majority or not, certainly number in the tens of millions. By seeming to call their views illegitimate, according to this argument, one only reinforces their well-earned feelings of rejection.
Psyche! Unfortunately Gopnik was only summarising all these arguments in order to explain why they're bad:
The trouble with these views, and what makes them cheery but false at best—or sinister or opportunistic at worst—is that they are deliberately blind to both the real nature of the man and the real nature of the threats he makes and the lies he tells. Many autocratic governments have built this road or won that war or engineered a realist foreign policy. They remain authoritarian and, therefore, fatally arbitrary. In a democracy, our procedures are our principles. Every tyrant does nice things for someone. You cannot be a friend to democracy while violating its norms—and when we say, “He violates democratic norms,” we undermine our own point, because “norm” is such a, well, normal word. In truth, what he violates by his statements are not mere norms but democratic principles so widely shared and so deeply important that “bedrock value” is closer to the mark than “democratic norm.”
Now, let's set aside for a moment the fact that this doesn't actually engage with any of the very reasonable arguments Gopnik claims to be debunking. Instead it just carries on asserting that Trump is a Benito rather than a blowhard, that he's too dangerous to be rational about, that to do anything except treat all Trump's actions as a step towards fascism is to risk losing forever our "bedrock principles"—which sort amounts to "but, like, he is just SO bad, okay?"

Let's set aside, too, the fact that in tying himself in knots to explain why Trump is so exceptionally evil, Gopnik ends up arguing, straight-faced, that Bush's lying about WMDs to justify the invasion of Iraq was just "normal fibs told by normal people." (Seriously! The real tragedy of the Trump presidency is that it's made Adam freakin' Gopnik say "Oh, the invasion of Iraq? Boys will be boys!")

No, I have a more philosophical (ontological? epistemological?) objection to Gopnik's argument: it's impossible for him to lose. If Trump does turn out to be the world's next fascist dictator, Gopnik can say, see, I told you so, we should have been more hysterical; if Trump goes through an undistinguished four years and then is peacefully booted in favour of a more conventional candidate in the next election, he can say, see, good thing we were so hysterical! That may be a boon rhetorically for him—and indeed anyone making the same argument—but it's a failure of the sort of rational thought that many people making the argument (including Gopnik, usually) profess to like.

The problem is, "Trump will destroy America unless we assume everything he does is intended to destroy America" is an opinion, not a fact, and certainly not an empirically testable fact. It's an opinion you're welcome to hold, but as an opinion it's not a valid reason to reject, if you'll pardon the lingo, the null hypothesis—namely, that Trump is just another in a long line of American presidents. He's a particularly vile American president, and so far he hasn't done anything to make me think otherwise. But that doesn't mean he's going to destroy America.

I bring up the null hypothesis because it, too, is a "bedrock value" in Western thought. It's baked right into our justice system: innocent until proven guilty. Gopnik implies that Trump being mad about a department store dropping his daughter's clothing line is evidence of a dictator-in-waiting, which I suppose ex post facto, if that ends up being the case, will look prescient—but good luck getting a conviction that way. That's why we hold jurists (and scientists) to a higher standard of evidence: it's not enough to find evidence suggesting your belief might be right; you have to find evidence demonstrating that the opposite belief (in this case, that Trump is not a fascist) is definitely wrong.

And for all the articles about Nordstrom, about Russia, about Bannon, about executive orders, I have yet to see a single piece of evidence that demonstrates, without a doubt, that Trump is not just another president that half the country didn't vote for. Again, I don't think he's a good president—but I also don't think that makes him a fascist, or even particularly worse than much of the extreme right has openly been now for quite some time. Major conservative figures have been undermining the "lamestream media" for years, and undermining "activist judges" for years, and talking about voter fraud for years, without the press or the judiciary or democracy collapsing. That Trump continues to parrot these things on Twitter doesn't prove anything. Blowhard until proven Benito.

But hey, I'm just some blogger; what do I know, compared to an intellectual heavyweight like Gopnik? So I'll let 2014 Gopnik have the last word:
On the very day of 9/11, one of the wisest men I’ve known said that the choice it would present for us would be between experiencing the attack as an imagery and experiencing it as an injury. If you allowed it to become imagery, running on perpetual loop in your mind (the planes exploding, the people leaping), you would never be past it. If you experienced it as an injury—a horrific one, but of specific dimensions and significance, a criminal atrocity rather than an intimation of apocalypse—you had a chance to go on. [...] His model of conduct came from a character like Ed Harris’s flight director in “Apollo 13.” Let’s work the problem, people. Let’s not make things worse by guessing. What had happened to the American habit of pragmatic appraisal and a refusal to panic?

Well, nowhere to be found, and still missing. In the contest of imagery versus injury, imagery won in straight sets—the specifics of the injury have been lost in floods of hysteria. If there is one worst moral casualty of the past decade and a half, it surely lies there: Americans have gone from being the hardest of peoples to panic to among the most easily panicked people on the planet. [...]

Terrorists have become skilled at manipulating the Western imagination. There is an easy explanation for why this is so—it is because they are themselves in so many ways Western. [...] [E]xposed to the humiliations they think visited on their faith and distressed by the uncertainties of an open society, [they] turn toward fundamentalism—not for its own sake, but as a weapon against the shaming other, who bewilders and enrages them. They create what amount to GIFs of this other’s helplessness.
2014 Gopnik is writing specifically about terrorist spectacle, of course, but the argument works just as well for the endless newsfeed images of ICE raids, of lawyers in airports filing emergency habeas corpus petitions, of Bannon lurking in the background of the Oval Office, of Republican controlled legislatures enacting draconian restrictions on abortion. Those images are stirring, yes, but they also obscure the extent of the original injury: a lost election; a travel ban, for that matter, facilely blocked within days by the very institutions that Gopnik claims are being eroded as we speak.

So if you feel besieged by 2017 Gopnik and the constant "evidence" that Trump is marching us towards dictatorship, take solace in 2014 Gopnik's sage closing advice:
Reprisal born of optical reflex may work out this time [...] but if it does it would be a rare thing. Wars provoked by pictures tend to begin in clear outlines and bright colors. Imperfection being the inevitable state of human projects, the imagery at the end is always blurred and bloody. This is a truth worth keeping present in our minds, even as it escapes our vision.
It's easy to say Trump is a one-of-a-kind evil, who will snuff out American democracy for good. Making that a political strategy is not likely to go well.

January 31, 2017

Taking the Low Road

I've found myself on what I can most charitably call the unpopular side of most arguments about politics, lately. I like to tell myself it's because I'm being relentlessly reasonable, which may well be the title of my autobiography one day, but I expect to a certain degree that's self-rationalisation. Either way, the end result of that is that I usually come out saying "Trump isn't trying to create an authoritarian state," and "Trump voters aren't so bad," and you can no doubt understand why this is often the unpopular side of the argument when one runs, as I do, in social groups that tend towards the left of the political spectrum. Hell, I've been piled on so much the last few months I've begun to feel kind of gaslit myself by my liberal friends.

But look, we can disagree for the rest of time over whether the Trump presidency or his supporters are as bad as the worse predictions, so this time I won't ask you to come there with me. The thing is, though, successive Republican congresses and presidents have brought us closer and closer, each time, to the sort of political climate where Trump can get elected, and that matters, because like it or not half the electorate still voted for the increasingly conservative right. (Of course, Hillary got more votes than Trump, but Republican candidates for the house got more votes than Democratic ones, so I'm inclined to call it a draw.)

I say this not to defend or justify any specific Trump or Republican policy, but to point out that conservative policies, by and large, can't change and still be conservative, whereas any voter can in theory be persuaded to vote for the other side with the right tactics. You're welcome, of course, to dig your heels in and say that anyone who voted for Trump is an irredeemable asshole who could never be persuaded to do something as reasonable as voting for a left-wing candidate — but for my money, there's still more chance of changing a human mind than rewriting a political doctrine, so the former is where I choose to put my effort. And, to be clear, I choose to expend that effort not by, say, donating money to swing races so that increasingly left-wing candidates can attempt with greater amounts of increasingly left-wing campaign material to sway increasingly right-wing voters onto the right side of 50%, but by approaching the problem as, like I said, a human one rather than a political one.

This is around the time when people tell me I'm being naive, or normalising, or using the moral high ground as an excuse not to take real action. So let me be clear: I am not now nor more than very rarely taking the high ground about anything. (Read the rest of my blog; my wheelhouse is mainly dick jokes.) So when I say something like "the Trump presidency isn't so bad," or "Trump voters aren't so bad," or "let's give them a chance," it is purely, self-servingly, entirely because I want a left-wing candidate to win the next election. And I don't believe that will happen as long as the most vocal left-wing voters are the ones who think all Trump voters are idiots or Nazis or both.

That's because there is a large body of reliable and replicable social science research into the most effective (and ineffective) ways to persuade people to agree with your point of view, and though I should have thought some of these were self-evident, here's a quick list of the most widely accepted dos and don'ts:

Things that don't persuade peopleThings that do persuade people
Calling someone a Nazi/idiot/fascistGetting someone to make small-bordering-on-insignificant, incremental concessions to you (because each time someone takes your side, no matter how piddling the issue, they are more likely to take your side again in the future, and on bigger issues too).
Punching someone (*perhaps because you believe them to be a Nazi, perhaps not)Modifying someone's "choice architecture" to make them more likely to choose what you want (e.g. Not "Do you think the president should protect our borders from Muslim terrorists?" but "Do you think the president should violate the fourth amendment and the Immigration and Nationality Act?")
Telling someone that they are unequivocally wrong about everything they believe in.Telling someone that they clearly have valid reasons for holding their beliefs, thereby making them more likely to accept your compromise when you offer it. (*N.B. This might require the exercise of empathy to understand why someone would hold an opposing belief.)
Framing everything as nothing short of a cultural war in which there can only be one winner.Making some concessions. People are more likely to do you a favour when they feel indebted to you. (N.B. This obviously cuts both ways, given my first point about concessions. That's good. The more everyone in the country feels indebted to each other, the less likely they are to kill each other. Science!)

I also want to take a minute to be clear about my units of analysis here. I am not saying anybody needs to make concessions to Steve Bannon or empathise with Donald Trump (though I am saying you shouldn't punch anyone, Nazi or not). To the extent that this kind of conflation is reasonable, I see Bannon and Trump as equivalent with "right-wing doctrine," and therefore largely unchangeable. I'm also not saying that their opponents shouldn't consider all legal recourse to stop Bannon and Trump implementing their doctrine. But neither doctrine nor Bannon nor Trump is interchangeable with the people who voted that way, and those are the people whose can still be persuaded to vote for someone else. Those are also the people who won't be persuaded to vote for someone else if we repeatedly force them to publicly defend their views by calling them Nazis and idiots. When you get someone to state a belief out loud, they are less likely to give up on that belief in the future.

As I mentioned at the beginning, I know this approach is unpopular. People are afraid that taking this kind of "soft" approach, instead of militancy, will only give the right more opportunity to press their advantage and drive us towards a new fascist dictatorship. I don't disagree that, in the context of government, that's true. But in the context of voters — and I'm going to keep drawing this distinction — it's not true. Look at same-sex marriage: it went from 27% approval in Gallup polling in 1996 to 53% in 2011. And yes, there were militant aspects to that movement, of course there were. But it also did a lot of the things above: it made incremental steps (civil unions in some states, repeal of DOMA, Obergefell); it changed the choice architecture (not "should gays be allowed to marry" but "should people who love each other be treated equally regardless of gender"); it expressed an understanding of the opposing side's beliefs ("we know you're afraid that this will destroy the institution of marriage, but that's not what we're trying to do"); and, crucially, it largely didn't frame the issue as about defeating a group of bigots.

So let me say it again: this isn't about taking the high ground. It's not even, jokes aside, about being relentlessly reasonable, except insofar as I think — and so do most of the most militant lefties I know, about most things, in most other circumstances — that the most reasonable and rational course of action is usually the most effective one. And let me say this again, too: you'll never make right-wing ideology left-wing. By definition it's impossible. But it is possible to make right-wing ideology less popular, and if everyone could focus a little more on changing minds and a little less on winning the culture wars, we might be able to do just that. If you want to persuade me otherwise, just remember: I'm not a Nazi.

January 25, 2017

On Trump, Normalising, and Bike Paths

I had a somewhat delayed post-election epiphany about a bike path the other night that I feel like sharing, but before I do, full disclosure: I, perhaps like you, am pretty tired of hearing about Donald Trump. I thought I had Trump fatigue by the end of the campaign, but Jesus, back then seems breezy compared to the endless, over-wrought handwringing dragging down Facebook these days. What happened to the drunk pictures and stupid memes, guys?

Okay, I'm being glib. I get it. Donald Trump, on the evidence, has a number of character traits and apparent ideological positions and an overall air of dumbassedness that are unprecedented in modern presidential history (if you discount Nixon for the character traits and Reagan for the ideological positions and W. Bush for the dumbassedness, but yes, all three in one president is a first). Certainly, it's unsettling imagining the potential consequences of some of the things he might do. And no, I don't agree with the deft synecdoche most liberal pundits deploy by which Trump supporters = Trump = the return of the Nazi party, which strikes me as intellectually lazy and unnecessarily alarmist a lot of the time, but on his own merits I also don't expect Trump to shower himself in distinction as a commander-in-chief. That's why I didn't vote for him.

Still, I get tired of the doom and gloom. I remember the early years of Bush II, remember how fucking terrified I was, as a nineteen-year-old, by all the forecasts and prophecies about the first steps towards an authoritarian state, and the start of World War Three, and terrorist retaliation against the U.S. I was so terrified, in fact, that I did what a certain segment of the Democratic Party–voting U.S. population often threatens, and actually moved to Canada. After a few years, though, it became clear that none of those awful things were coming to pass, and to top it all off the same country then elected Obama, widely regarded as one of the most thoughtful, liberal, modernising presidents in recent times. Everything, it seemed, had turned out okay. And that's why I'm pretty sanguine about the actual prospects of a Trump presidency. I've heard these cries of wolf before.

This is the point where you accuse me of normalising. And yes, I'll cop to that, inasmuch as I am pointing out that a lot of the things Trump has done since taking office do reflect the norms of the presidency in the last fifteen years. His plans to restrict refugees from certain Muslim-majority countries? Actually less restrictive than what Bush II enacted in 2002. (It was called NSEERS, and was in effect until 2011. Look it up.) The Keystone Pipeline? I mean, come on guys. Obama didn't nix that until like literally three months ago, and if you recall even that took some cajoling. The ban on funding for global organisations that offer abortions? Bush II did that too. So did Bush I. So did Reagan. I'm not saying these are good things, or calling them norms in the prescriptive sense. But they are norms in the descriptive sense and that's worth acknowledging, because they're bigger than Trump and making it about him is counterproductive long-term.

All of this to say, sorry for adding to the weight of post-election armchair punditry, and sorry for normalising or whatever, but this epiphany, right?

So I'm walking home from the train station, along a poorly lit pavement near my building that is wide but perhaps not quite wide enough to be divided, as it is, into a half-and-half pedestrian walkway slash bike path. It's kind of a terrifying sidewalk, to be honest, and one I might avoid if it weren't the quickest route home. If you're crossing to it from the other side of the street, you have to navigate three lanes of traffic and then step immediately onto this bike path before you can get to your pedestrian sanctuary, and not a lot of effort has been put into making that fact obvious. There are no signs, there are only tiny little bike symbols painted onto the bike path at very long intervals, and the bike path itself just looks like part of a normal pavement. Yeah, it's got slightly different asphalt laid down, and there's a narrow concrete strip dividing bike path from footpath, but in the dark it all just looks like kind of a wonky pavement and let's be honest, if you're a London pedestrian you don't tend to notice that after a while because they're ALL wonky pavements.

But so I'm walking home, having successfully navigated these various dangers myself, and up ahead I see a lost old woman stop, on the pedestrian side of the pavement but right next to the divider. She looks to her left (away from the bike path), and realises that she is going the wrong way, and finally starts to turn around to the right — in a way, I have to emphasise, that is totally reasonable if you believe you're just standing in the middle of a normal pavement, and reckless only if you're aware that what you're doing is going to make you step directly into a commuter bike lane at rush hour.

Luckily, the cyclist careering towards her has also seen this coming and slams on the brakes and skids to a stop about two inches from her. He looks exasperated — but in a way, I again have to emphasise, that is totally reasonable if you've just shit your pants grinding your bike to a halt because you thought you were about to kill an old lady who wasn't watching where she was going. He doesn't say anything to her, but you can see it in his face, and she clearly can too, because she yells at him that she wasn't expecting him to be there, and at that point he finally yells back that, well, it is a cycle path, so she should probably pay more attention. And then they both just stand there smouldering at each other for a few seconds before he starts to ride off again. (It was a very British argument.)

And this was when I had my epiphany. Because both of those people had ample reason to be fucking furious at the other, right? The privileged young white man and the old black lady alike. No wonder they stood smouldering at each other for a while. He almost fucking killed her! She almost fucking caused an accident! How fucking stupid could he/she be?! They probably both went home and told their friends and family about the fucking moron who almost fucking sent both of them to hospital!

But let's face it: neither of them was really at fault. The problem was that goddamn bike path. And that suddenly struck me as a neat metaphor for the thing that has bothered me no end about the election's aftermath, about the campaign, and about politics in general in the United States ever since 9/11. Everyone is so busy painting the other side as imbeciles who are going to kill us all, that nobody is actually doing much about the real problems. You can keep signing and un-signing that executive order banning abortion funding as long as you like, but even restoring the funding doesn't really address the underlying cultural forces that mean women around the world get pregnant against their will way more than is acceptable. (i.e. at all.) You can also do and undo the Keystone Pipeline as much as you like, but at the end of the day, as long as the U.S. still needs this much oil, it has to come from somewhere and that means someone is going to get the shaft.

This is over-simplifying, okay. Of course it is. It's a fucking metaphor, that's the point. But it's still, I think, an instructive one. Do you know how many unrelated, disparate, piddling, unimportant decisions went into making that bike path the way it is? One bureaucrat had a bike path quota to meet and several other bureaucrats had lighting and road improvement budgets to slash, and all of them -- and indeed it sometimes seems the whole of my borough council -- were caught unprepared in general by the enormous push for gentrification in my neighbourhood over the last decade. And gentrification, of course, is a problem in itself, and one I'm a part of, but even that boils down to a lot of individual people making roughly the same, very reasonable calculation: I have a job in London, and I want to be able to get to and from that job to a house that I own and still have enough time left over after commuting to see my wife and/or husband and/or kid and/or friends. (For that matter, the fact that London is the place where so many people have to find work takes us onto another long history of once-reasonable decisions creating unintended consequences.) To claim that somehow all of that can be boiled down to "it's your fault for being on my side of the bike path" is, I hope we can all agree, also grossly over-simplifying.

To be clear, I'm still not saying we should restrict immigration or cut funding on the basis of abortion services or reinstate the Keystone Pipeline. What I am saying is that all of these issues are at the nexus of several much larger, much more complicated problems, most of which result from people with conflicting needs and beliefs making exquisitely rational decisions on the basis of those needs and beliefs over a long period of time, and in the process creating social forces that are much larger and more serious than the sum of their parts. And as easy and as satisfying as it might be to look at it all and say "fucking Trump, what a Nazi, just like anyone else who doesn't also say he's a Nazi," that not only won't address those larger issues (even assuming that calling anyone a Nazi is ever a good way to solve a problem), but it will actively make those issues harder to solve — because an issue like immigration across somewhat arbitrarily drawn national borders is not something you can definitively fix or unfix with a single executive order or act of congress or whatever. It requires long term cooperation and concerted effort of the sort that just doesn't happen in the current political climate.

So let's cool it with the new world order talk, okay? Don't forget that the right spent much of Obama's administration calling him an undercover fascist, and if you're on the left (and I assume you are if you're reading this) you probably switched off as soon as you heard someone suggest that. So what makes you think anyone on the right will take you seriously now that you're doing exactly the same thing to their guy? The validity or not of the accusation is irrelevant; it's basic psychology that nobody will want to cooperate with you or even listen to you if your starting point is likening them to the most notorious and murderous political movement in modern history. That doesn't mean you have to roll over and pretend everything Trump is proposing is okay. It doesn't mean you can't fight, vigorously, to fix what you see as the world's biggest problems.

But as long as we're all screaming at each other about who's on the wrong side of the bike path, we're never going to make anything better.

October 11, 2016

In Loving Memory

A dear old friend of mine died today.

Beyond the obvious depressingness of that, I've also been depressed, since I found out, at how hard it's been coming up with a fitting way to commemorate him. It seems like all my ideas somehow revolve around posting something he wrote or did, or a photograph of him, or some other quote or image that captures what he meant to me. But never mind the difficulty in doing that for an eighty-five-year-old man who did all his best writing in private correspondence and avoided pictures and was so unique and encyclopaedic and indescribably good that some random internet epitaph could never do him justice anyway — he would have hated that sort of millennial social media dross. He liked depth. He saw the value in propriety, and tradition. Even in his most off-the-cuff emails, he wrote poetry in perfect meter if he thought the situation called for it. What would a stupid fucking GIF be to someone like that?

That's not to say he was a stubborn old fuddy-duddy. Sure, his emails had a lot of the same features as the ones you get from your grandparents — changing fonts, weird line breaks, that sort of thing — but he wasn't anti-change or anti-technology. He probably would have giggled at a lot of the GIFs I giggle at, too, come to that. He had a roomful of computers, and a digital camera he carried with him everywhere, and when his daughter got her PhD he exchanged half a dozen messages with me agonizing over the various different configurations of Windows and Mac computers he might buy her to mark the the occasion. (He even Googled reviews of them all, long before reviews likes that were easy to find on the internet, and certainly long before it ever occurred to me to do the same.)

But he also thought it was important to take time and care to express yourself clearly, to express yourself right, and I can't help feeling that so much of what I do to express myself these days wouldn't really meet his standards. I post pithy jokes on Facebook, and tweets that rely on so many levels of obscure pop-culture and twitterverse self-reference that even I look back sometimes and think, what the fuck was I going for there?

I use vulgarity too much as a shortcut for a certain kind of humorous tone.

I rush past words that I'm only 90% sure are correct instead of taking the time to look them up, even though the dictionary he bought me fifteen years ago is still sitting here on my desk, ready and willing. (Or I use lazy coinages like "depressingness" because, you know, dude, you understand what I'm going for, even though there's doubtless an existing word I could use that would do the trick much better.)

I use emoji. Emoji! Yeah, okay, show me all the research you like about how they actually increase intimacy between users and capture a lot of sophisticated meaning depending on their context. Send me a link to Buzzfeed's "Ten Best Famous Novels Retold In Emoji" if you think it will help. I get it. But don't tell me a smiling pile of poo is superior to a guy who takes the time to write you extemporaneous rhyming couplets just because he thinks you'll get a kick out of it.

Even when my cat died (and I loved that cat), my first reaction was to post a picture on Facebook accompanied by a reference to a TV show that was in turn referencing the cat's name, and a glib afterthought that we'd miss him. I only wrote the thoughtful blog post about it weeks later, and then only elsewhere and because I needed it for a publication credit. This is what the internet has reduced me to: shorthand and self-promotion.

Well not for you, Michael. You only get the blog post, and you only get it here, on my own blog, whose traffic, now that you're gone, has probably halved or disappeared altogether. I've tried to pay attention to language, like you always said I should, even though you won't be sending me an email in the morning to point out all my sloppy mistakes — but I've not tried too hard, either, because you always said I wrote best when I didn't. I've tried to express what you meant to me, not just in obnoxious, oblique ways but in clear, genuine, heartfelt ones too. And I know how much joy you took in describing yourself as my honorary godlessfather, so I won't make the twee suggestion that I hope you're appreciating all that with a smile, wherever you are. But I do hope that by some standard, somewhere, I've done good by you.

And now all that's been said, good grief,
Thank you, sir, and rest in peace.

July 13, 2016

In Which The Author Wonders How These People Find The Time To Actually Give A Shit About This Stuff

Top ten sentiments ACTUALLY expressed by REAL PEOPLE at my building's shared ownership residents' meeting this evening.

IMPORTANT CONTEXT FOR NON-BRITISH READERS: In Britain, as in most places, and especially in London, there is a shortage of affordable housing. This shortage affects both the very poor, who can't even pay private market rent, and the middle-class, who can afford rent but have little hope of buying property. To solve both problems, the government legislated a class of housing called "shared ownership," whereby middle-class people can buy a portion of a home and pay heavily subsidised rent on the other portion. The catch is that these shared ownership homes are usually only given planning permission if they are built into new developments that also include social housing for the very poor. The result is "mixed-tenure" buildings like mine where the middle-class share with both the very poor and often, in cases where the building also offers private rent and private ownership apartments, the moderately rich—the idea being that the richer residents effectively subsidise the poorer ones, while the melting pot of so many people from different backgrounds living in close proximity fosters mutual understanding and greater social cohesion.

That idea, at least if tonight's meeting was anything to go by, is rather seriously over-optimistic. END CONTEXT.

And so, without further ado:

10. "I paid a lot of money for my parking space, and you're just giving them away to disabled people for free?"

9. "Who's responsible for the roof of the new 24-hour gym opening next door? Because my window looks out over it and I've noticed a lot of debris collecting up there already."

8. "I'm a public school teacher and I'm all in favour of inclusion and I don't want to sound like an elitist twat and I voted 'In' and all that, but if I'd known there were going to be so many social housing units in the building I would never have bought here. We're all new homeowners and I think I speak for the whole room when I say that frankly it's been a disappointing experience."

7. "I think the 24-hour gym will make the building safer, because it will be manned all the... Sorry, "manned" is a terrible word to use, isn't it? It will be staffed by people all the time."

6. "I know we've established that the people on the lower floors can't let their kids ride bikes around the common outdoor area... But my kid can, right? He's only little." (*NB ADDITIONAL CONTEXT: the social housing is on floors one to six, the shared ownership housing on floors seven and eight.)

5. "Somebody keeps leaving cotton buds in the stairwell."

4. "Is it safe to leave my bike in the bike storage locker? Do the social housing units have access to that?"

3. "I mean, that is just horrendous. I'm genuinely offended. How can anyone not recycle?"

2. "Can we get some kid-friendly signs in the bin storage room? Because a lot of the social housing families get their kids to take out the rubbish and they leave it in the wrong place."

1. [Collective gasp of delight at rumour that a coffee shop will be opening downstairs.]

I didn't make up a word of this folks. Not. A. Word.

June 26, 2016

It's Fine, We're Already Making More Whine Than Europe

Dear sore losers,

1. You do not value diversity and condemn marginalization and exclusion above all else, because ever since the result you have been acting like people who think differently from you (i.e. Leave voters) are ruining the country. That is by definition marginalization.

2. The younger generation was not defrauded, or screwed over by their parents and grandparents. Younger people were half as likely to vote in the last general election, despite the unambiguous promise of an EU referendum if the Conservatives were elected. We screwed over ourselves a year ago when we let that happen.

3. It doesn't matter if a petition for a new referendum gets 1 million signatures or 2 million or even 18 million (i.e. more than the number of Leave voters). That is not how elections work. You ask the country once and then accept the outcome. In this case, the outcome was that more people wanted to leave. I cannot stress that enough. This was a democratic decision by the eligible voting population. Just because you don't agree doesn't mean you get a do-over. This is why older people think millennials have a sense of entitlement.

4. All Leave voters are not bigots, idiots, trolls, etc. Most of them just aren't happy with the status quo and are using the enfranchisement granted them by our democratic system of government to try and change the status quo. The complete failure of remain voters to understand that (a) not everyone has a cosmopolitan life in London, (b) not everyone wants a cosmopolitan life in London and (c) the above doesn't make someone an ogre, is part of the reason the leave campaign had so much traction.

5. Leaving the EU is not an irreparable disaster for the country. If you could stop complaining about having lost and start talking about how to ensure an out Britain will continue to reflect the cosmopolitan values you care about so much, a lot of things won't have to change at all.