Tarred, tarried July above the finger-point
of by-law. Quiet men
are quietly roofing in runic arrests. Progress can be stopped
with only minor internal damage and a length of rope
short enough to miss the point.
Everything can and will happen at once.
Except the sun’s light, which is not full,
but an incomplete weave that covers the most
controversial areas of interest.
In a cab, you know without lesson it’s better to talk
to your hours-dead cat wedged into its carrier
like an overstuffed closet of furs.
It’s okay. Hello, Little One. Hello.
It’s better for everyone
if you decide it’s better for everyone.
There is the take-away. In coolers,
the dead become firmer in their resolve
to remain firm. At home, celery softens and pools
in the corner you regularly remember to forget.
Telephones funnel the regrets of future days.
intersections like a planchette you’re directing
but would deny. The roads are being torn up
for new roads. Anyone could have
predicted that, even you.
Heat gulleys best intentions
and hours lean. Work crews
adopt fresh pace. You will find out
the work you do is internal. You will
undo it. A spill of vinegar into the milk.
Accidentally render both useless. You are being
closed into the hour like an exhibit. When the glass
comes down, a voice will say, It’s okay, it’s okay.
Air conditioners drone in precision flocks.
The air will last until it doesn’t.
Paul Kingsnorth led the way, Gulliver-like, through the Lilliputian orchard he has put in since buying these two and a half acres in the west of Ireland three years ago. “Oh dear,” he said, “something’s dug that up.” He stooped to push back into place a young currant bush that a rabbit had uprooted. It was the deft motion of someone at ease in body and place, a writer with dirt beneath his fingernails. The sapling may be not much taller than his ankles, but the plan is that before long it will help provide the food that he and his family eat all year round; already, they are self-sufficient in the summer, more or less. He knows how to plant a field, how to wield a scythe.
This is all part of a philosophy articulated in Kingsnorth’s essays, and more obliquely in his fiction, that it is too late to save the world, but you can care for one small part of it, enriching both the land and your own life in the process. He has moved here from his native England to put theory into practice. Earlier, playing the good host, he had pointed out the bathroom, saying, “It’s a compost toilet, so just put down some sawdust when you are finished.” This, too, is part of the theory, as outlined in his forthcoming essay collection Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist. Plumbing is symbolic of “a civilisation that wants to wash its hands of its own wastes”; Kingsnorth proposes a new metaphor: “I will deal with my own shit” and, in such noisome contemplation, come to a better relationship with the natural world of which he is a part. As Thoreau had his pond, so Kingsnorth has—to use the English slang—his bog.
There’s an important distinction between ‘the end of the world’ and the end of the way we’re living now; it’s the latter that’s ending.
At forty-four years old, he is the author of two novels, a poetry collection, and three works of nonfiction. He is a founder of the Dark Mountain Project, a movement of creative artists united by a belief that climate change and humanity’s self-destructiveness cannot now be stopped, and a desire to respond to this accepted fate with works that are honest and often darkly beautiful, beautifully dark. His crowdfunded debut novel The Wake (2014), set around the Norman invasion of England in 1066, was longlisted for the Man Booker prize. Film rights have been optioned by Mark Rylance, often described as the greatest British actor of his generation, who plans to play the lead. Paul Greengrass, director of three Jason Bourne films, has been asked to write the screenplay.
“Paul Kingsnorth’s writing has had a huge impact of me,” Rylance said when we spoke on the phone. “I’m drawn by his consideration of what’s valuable in the world, and his challenge to the economic paradigm that we live in. I find his work very helpful in informing my thinking.”
His latest novel Beast (2016)—a sequel to The Wake—will be published by Graywolf Press in August, as will the Confessions collection. I met Kingsnorth on a wet afternoon in late February. We spoke in the living room of his cottage. His dog Quincy dozed in her basket by the fire, and the voices of his children, busy being homeschooled by his wife, Nav, drifted in from another room. Mounted high on one wall was a collection of “green men”—ten faces carved in wood and stone, each surrounded by a corona of foliage, symbolising wildness, rebellion, rebirth. An eleventh was out of sight, tattooed on his right shoulder, its tendrils groping downwards as if toward the light at the end of his sleeve. It is the arm with which he writes, and works a spade; pen and blade, both digging down to the truth of things.
Those inked leaves on pale skin made me think of something he had said earlier as we walked in his fields: “The severing of people away from everything else that lives is the heart of the crisis that we’re in.”
Peter Ross: Beast is the middle part of a planned trilogy spanning two thousand years. It is set in the present day and tells the story of Edward Buckmaster, perhaps a descendent of Buccmaster in The Wake, living the life of a hermit and trying to track down a large black animal that he glimpses on the moor. The Wake was striking in that you wrote it in an invented “shadow-tongue,” a mixture of Old and modern English. Beast is written in much more familiar language, but still feels uncanny and unchancy.
Paul Kingsnorth: I’m aspiring to produce the “uncivilised” writing we called for in the Dark Mountain manifesto back in 2009. I think that's more about style and execution than subject matter. If your writing becomes too controlled, not chaotic enough, then you’ve lost one of the fundamental elements of what it means to be an animal in the world. The idea is to write like a mountain hare—or like a mountain. What would it be like to attempt to write from the animal in you, and from the land around you, rather than from the rational, well behaved, civilized person that you are trained to be? Our writing is too civilized now. It’s too rational and realist, too middle class and urban. The kind of stuff that we lay out in mainstream culture as the height of great literature is not saying anything about the state of the world. It’s not saying anything about crumbling civilizations or climate change or extinction, or the complexity of being human in the midst of all that. It’s fake. I’m trying not to be fake.
The thing about these novels of mine, if I don’t make them strange, I’ll bore myself. I can’t imagine writing a third-person realist novel. I think I’d die of boredom.
My writing is also increasingly religious, or spiritual, although “spiritual” is such a horrible New Age word. I am a Zen Buddhist, but that’s not exactly a religion, it’s more a practice. As I get older, the spiritual mystery of life seems to be coming to the fore. It’s right there in Beast, which is a religious book, a quest book. It’s all the way through The Wake as well. I have a strong sense that the earth is alive. I’ve always had this. I remember reading Wordsworth when I was fifteen or sixteen and being really struck by the fact that he was talking about experiences that I had had—when you are up on a mountain and the world opens itself up to you. All the time when I was young, I felt there were mysterious things going on in nature. I believed in fairies and magic and all that. Then you grow up and put all that to one side, but it feels like it’s coming back into my writing as I get older. One of the disastrous stories our culture tells itself is that the world is a machine, and that you can cut it into bits and look at how it works. But it’s not a machine, it’s a great web of life with a strange religious mystery bubbling underneath.
PR: For most of your twenties you were a green activist who believed that by campaigning you could save or change the world. But at some point, around 2008, you stopped believing it was possible to avoid environmental catastrophe. Can you explain how that loss of faith happened?
‘This guy says the apocalypse is coming and there’s nothing we can do, so we should all have a party.’
PK: It wasn’t some blinding flash of light. I came to realize, gradually, that no matter how much information you give people, it doesn’t make much difference. There’s a huge level of psychological denial.
When I worked at The Independent in 1995, I was obsessed with climate change, but nobody on that newspaper was interested and nothing on it ever got published. I remember thinking, “If only we could get climate change on to the front page, things would really change.” Well, now it is on the front pages very often, and everybody knows about it, and the politicians and business leaders all know about it, and yet nothing’s changed. There hasn’t been any effective action at all. I also remember thinking, “If there was a real disaster in America, say one of their cities got flooded, they would wake up.” Then New Orleans happened and that didn’t make any difference to the direction of travel either. Maybe there will come a time when things get so bad that we have to change our ways, but I don’t think that will happen in time to prevent irreversible ecological shifts.
One of the problems with the green movement is that it is constantly issuing deadlines: “We’ve only got five years to save the world!” I read Naomi Klein’s book on climate change a while back, and I found it ludicrous and dishonest. There’s plenty of good research in there about how the corporations are refusing to act and are covering up what needs to be done, but then she says that we have to have radical change in ten years and provides an enormous list of impossible global tasks. She’s a smart woman and she knows damn well none of that is going to happen.
PR: How did it feel when you accepted the end of the world? Relief or despair?
PK: I’d make an important distinction between “the end of the world” and the end of the way we’re living now; it’s the latter that’s ending. What do I feel about that? Kind of both. More relief, actually. There’s a common notion among activists that “taking action” must be inherently hopeful. If you’re going on demonstrations or working to stop climate change then that’s a hopeful or optimistic thing. But after a while, when people realize they are banging their heads against a brick wall, this kind of campaigning leads to despair. What I found when I said, “You know what? This isn’t going to work,” was that a great weight lifted off my shoulders. I’ve stopped pretending that the impossible is possible.
People often call me dystopian. They think, “This guy says the apocalypse is coming and there’s nothing we can do, so we should all have a party.” I like a party as much as the next man, but that’s not the point I’m making. I’m saying we should be honest about what’s happening and not entertain fantasies about how we can turn it around with, for example, global governance. How does that focus your mind? Where does that leave you? What do you do? Dark Mountain starts with those questions.
PR: It has been suggested that you and the Dark Mountain Project rather enjoy the prospect of the collapse of civilization; that you take pleasure in the idea that humanity’s going to get what it deserves.
PK: It depends on how I feel in the morning. Sometimes I think it’s awful and I wish we could do something about it. Other times I am more optimistic and think, well, maybe it won’t be so bad and there’s still plenty we can do. And yeah, at other times I think “It fucking serves us right.” If I see a particularly egregious example of ecological destruction, or I read about another species that’s disappeared, or I see twenty people walking down the street with their eyes glued to their smartphones, I can think, “I don’t care if it all collapses.” Anyway, the thing that I’m most concerned about is not human civilization, it’s the fate of the earth. That’s what matters. I’m interested in life—which includes humans. But if we have created a civilization that is destroying everything else that lives in order to keep us overfed for an extra few years then it wouldn’t bother me if it fell apart, no.
‘We have created a civilization that is destroying everything else that lives in order to keep us overfed. It wouldn’t bother me if it fell apart.’
We are just animals doing what animals do. We are trying to feed ourselves and be comfortable, and we are competing with other animals for territory. We just have knowledge and power far beyond our wisdom. That’s what we’re lacking – wisdom. We have plenty of information, but we don’t seem to know how to use it.
It’s the way we’re living that’s the problem, and the culture that we’ve got, and the stories that we tell ourselves. The Kalahari Bushmen built a culture that lasted for thirty thousand years and did very little damage. The Australian Aborigines did the same thing. There are tribes in the Amazon who have no word for “war.” It’s possible to be human in a different way. I don’t think it’s inevitable that humans are going to destroy everything, but I think it is probably inevitable that this civilization is going to destroy itself. One way or another, this materialistic, tech-driven, progressive civilization has got to hit the buffers and fall apart before we can change anything.
PR: So why write? What’s the point in trying to be creative and analytical in the face of collapse?
PK: It’s something I’m driven to do, and it seems like it could be useful. I know from the work we do at Dark Mountain that simply giving voice to this stuff is very useful to a lot of people who are out there thinking the same thing but feel they are alone with it. People tell me that they felt despair but couldn’t say anything because they had to look positive in front of their friends.
PR: Dark Mountain is literary grief counseling?
PK: There’s a degree of that, yeah. It’s like going through the stages of grief. Eventually you pass through despair and rage to acceptance of the reality, and that feels good. It’s a very Zen place to be. You do your work. You chop the wood and you carry the water.
PR: But writing books and putting them out into the world, having children—these are hopeful acts.
PK: That’s quite true. I’m not hopeless. But I don’t feel hopeful either. Hope is irrelevant. Hope and despair both cloud the mind. I’m just trying to get on with life. There are lots of wonderful things about life, and there will still be lots of wonderful things about it when this civilization has fallen apart. There might be more of them. When all the skyscrapers and oil wells are just memories, there will still be life everywhere. There might be great flocks of parakeets in the air again.
PR: The best essay in Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist is, for me, “Upon the Mathematics of Falling Away.” You begin by writing about your father Robert’s sudden death in 2007 and move to a more general discussion of collapse and endings and change. Can I ask how losing him affected you personally and in your work?
PK: It hasn’t escaped my attention that his death is the moment when my work changes a lot. I didn’t realize until after my dad died how much I was trying to prove to him, and that urge to prove myself had somehow manifested itself in my political activism—even though he didn’t agree with pretty much anything I stood for. He was a businessman, a Thatcherite, a working-class self-made man. He came from a background where he didn’t have very much, and worked his way up the chain until he was running companies. He had always been a strong presence in my life, and it sounds like a terrible thing to say, but actually his dying gave me a sense of release. I felt I could be something I couldn’t be before. I had had a notion of wanting to be a high-achieving campaigning journalist and writer, and that clearly came from my dad. When that pressure wasn’t there any more, I realized it wasn’t what I actually wanted to do. I wanted to write, but I didn’t want to be famous, or be on television news programs, or edit a national newspaper. Underneath this supposedly ambitious journalist was a poet, and that was the side that flowered. And, of course, if somebody close to you commits suicide unexpectedly then it naturally gives you a darker view of life.
I don’t believe that a writer or any kind of artist is just themselves alone. There’s always a wider sense of connection with the human community.
PR: I’m sure there must be some relation between the loss of your father and the grief you must have felt, and your emerging feelings of loss and grief around the environment. Can you talk about that connection?
PK: I’m not sure I’m equipped to explain how they are linked, but they clearly are. There’s a clear sense of looking collapse in the face and wanting to deal with loss globally and personally. I also had a feeling that I needed to be honest about the darkness. People don’t like talking about suicide, it’s very difficult to talk about, and there is a clear link between that denial and the way people often react to my writing about the death of life on earth. A lot of the negative reactions to Dark Mountain and to me when I talk about this stuff come from the fact that people don’t like looking at the darkness. But it is like dealing with suicide in that sense. You have to look into the abyss and say, “Well, that’s what happened.” My dad’s death led me to look at things I think I’d been wanting to look at for a long time. There’s a mysterious, elemental aspect to all this, too, because the style of my writing changed as well, and I don’t know why or quite how that happened. By the time I came to write the Dark Mountain manifesto, having gone through that experience of his death, I felt I had been given permission to not pretend any more. I just wanted to write the truth.
PR: Why did you move here to Ireland and buy this land?
PK: We wanted a change of life. My wife was a psychiatrist in the National Health Service, and very disillusioned. It was a pharmaceutical sausage machine, doling out drugs that didn’t work to people who didn’t need them. We wanted to live in the country, have our own land, grow our own food. We couldn’t afford to do that in Britain. You have to be a millionaire to live simply there. I have a nine-year-old girl and a six-year-old boy. I want them to be able to run around in the fields and climb trees instead of looking at screens all day.
PR: You can’t save the world but you can at least look after this part of it?
PK: Yeah, I think so. How long was I going to write and talk about nature before going and getting my hands dirty? I’m going to do what I can do, and one of the things I can do is try and bring my kids up well, plant some trees, and try to slow down and pay attention to things. Having a bit of land is a kind of discipline—you have to shut up and focus and learn. Sometimes it’s best to do nothing.
PR: Is there a survivalist aspect to the way you are trying to live? Are you trying to learn to survive the catastrophe you predict coming?
PK: I wouldn’t call it survivalism. That conjures up images of men with guns in shacks. I’m not expecting some nuclear war or apocalyptic zombie catastrophe, but there is certainly a slow grinding collapse going on. So I want my children to know what seeds are and how to plant them. I want them to know how to light fires and how to use knives and simple tools. I want them to know how to cook properly and how to ferment drinks. The more of those things you know, the more connected you are to life, the more control you have, and the more choice you have over how to live. I don’t want them growing up in a consumer economy that wants to teach them absolutely nothing about how living is done. Even if all that stuff doesn’t fall apart in their lifetime, which it might well, it’s a powerless way to live. You end up making yourself a slave. You are completely dependent on this destructive world-spanning machine, and you are not fully human. I want them to be fully human. So it’s an insurance policy but it’s also just a way of living. And it’s enjoyable. You can’t live this way from some puritanical notion. You actually have to enjoy it, which we do.
PR: In your introduction to The World-Ending Fire (2017), a new collection of essays by Wendell Berry, you write that “some places want writers to tell their stories.” Is that what you feel is happening to you here—that the land is shaping or directing or seeping into your work?
PK: I hope so. I want it to. I do have the slightly mystical notion that places can speak through people, and the stories that we think we’re telling don’t come just from us; they come from somewhere outside us. I don’t believe that a writer or any kind of artist is just themselves alone. There’s always a wider sense of connection with the human community, or with the community beyond that. Working in that cabin in the field out there has certainly affected the way I write, and the writing itself. It seems like a much cleaner process now. There’s a certain power in place that you can tune into. That’s an idea I have tried to get into the novels: that the land is speaking to you, and it’s hungry, and it wants something, and it’s going to get it whether you like it or not.
Trump is a barbarian, but barbarians are what you get when empires collapse.
PR: Does living like this change how it feels when you sit down at the blank page?
PK: Yes. I’m walking over to the cabin in the morning when it’s still dark, lighting the fire; standing listening to the songthrush and watching the sun come up. I’m deliberately opening up a space for the place that I am in, and the sunrise, and the birds, and the things that are growing to come into the writing. I’m inviting them in. Beast was a book that to some degree I planned, but I was still surprised by the relative smoothness with which it flowed out. I think that was in part down to opening myself up to what the place gives me.
PR: In an essay published the day before the U.S. election, you likened Hillary Clinton to a corrupt late Roman emperor and Donald Trump to a barbarian hammering at the gates. If you had a vote, would you have cast it for the emperor or the barbarian?
PK: I don’t think I’d have voted for either of them. I would certainly not have voted for Clinton as she was just the continuation of a dead system. I kind of like the chaos energy that Trump is bringing, but I’m not sure I could have brought myself to vote for him. I’ve waited my whole life to see what is effectively an independent candidate in the White House, a guy who is going to take on the media establishment and global free trade and the authoritarian left and stand up for the working class, and it’s just a shame that it had to be Donald Trump. Those are the things he says he is going to do, but I’m not sure he is capable, and a lot of what he stands for I dislike intensely, especially his cowboy attitude to nature.
PR: On the day that you and I confirmed this interview, Trump signed executive orders to allow construction of the controversial Dakota Access and Keystone XL oil pipelines. Surely you can’t favor that?
PK: Of course not. But what you see with Trump is American capitalism with its mask off. Obama talked a great game about climate change, but he never did anything. He was so charming that he could drone-bomb people every day for eight years and the media who are now calling Trump a fascist wouldn’t say anything about it. Trump is a barbarian, but barbarians are what you get when empires collapse, and the United States is obviously a collapsing empire.
At this point, his children burst into the room, laughing and roaring, pretending to be wildcats. They are learning to play guitar and harp and were due at a concert. Although Nav does most of the homeschooling, Kingsnorth gives a creative writing lesson every Friday. “We’ve been working on haiku,” he explained.
He pulled on a pair of rubber boots and we walked over to the cabin where he works. On the way, he pointed out the vegetable garden, the space set aside for chickens, the treehouse he has built for the youngsters. Fathers and children—it is a tender spot for him. “I want the children to have a home, and a sense of growing up in one place, which I never quite had; I’d like them to have somewhere they belong.”
Kingsnorth cast a critical eye over his two and a half acres, a green man in a green land. “If I was a millionaire, I’d buy up all the farms around here and cover them in trees and lakes and create a very small national park,” he mused. “If this interview sells me enough books, I could do that. But I’m not holding out much hope.”
Paul Kingsnorth will be teaching at the Great Mother and New Father Conference in Nobleboro, Maine, May 27–June 2. He will run Stories From The Cliff Edge: A Dark Mountain Weekend at The Rowe Center, Massachusetts, June 2–4. He will be running a day event with mythologist Martin Shaw at Point Reyes Books, California, on August 4.
In late February nineteen-year-old “Dreamer” Josue Romero was arrested by the San Antonio police for possession of under two ounces of marijuana. Even though the Honduras-born youth had been granted relief from deportation under the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) program, police handed him over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Romero’s detention evoked immediate public outcry at the possibility that a misdemeanor charge might cause him to be expelled from the country where he had lived since he was four. Thanks to the local media and activists, who celebrated Josue as a promising art student and a “good” immigrant, he was released by ICE after two days in detention. But while Romero remains in the United States for now, he is the exception. Hundreds of thousands of other immigrants with criminal arrests have not been spared from deportation.
For strategic reasons immigration advocacy has coalesced around Dreamers and families of “law-abiding” immigrants, while keeping in the shadows those who are deported on criminal grounds. The consequences of this tactic to emphasize immigrant respectability have been catastrophic for those who have been deported under the guise of criminality, perpetuating a silence that provides cover for a massive deportation regime that must be questioned and dismantled.
In 2016 more than 60,000 immigrants were cast out from the United States on criminal grounds. According to ICE, “criminal removals” comprised 92 percent of all deportations from the nation’s interior last year, compared with only 3 percent in 1980. Yet immigrants are not committing more crime than in the past. Rather the definition of “criminal” has broadened significantly since the 1990s, when the federal government began criminally prosecuting immigration infractions that were previously enforced as civil matters, while also deporting an unprecedented number of immigrants with minor criminal records.
Immigrants are not committing more crime than in the past. Rather the definition of “criminal” has broadened significantly since the 1990s.
So-called criminal deportations bring into clear focus our nation’s “crimmigration” system, where immigration policy, criminal law, and their corresponding enforcement apparatuses are tightly intertwined. Though targeted as criminals, often at the hands of the police, deportees are not granted the same due process rights in the immigration system that are guaranteed in the criminal justice system. Many are detained for months or years without bond, and few have the chance to see a lawyer or have their day in court before ICE permanently expels them from their adopted homeland. Though technically an administrative measure rather than a criminal sentence, deportation is an extreme form of punishment that rips people from their families and communities. Moreover, because the vast majority of deportees are immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean, deportation operates through racially disparate sentencing that reserves the harshest penalties for people of color.
This has been the cornerstone of our nation’s immigration system for the past three decades, and it has met with little public outcry. Believing that immigrants who break the law deserve to be deported, most Americans are blind to the separate and unequal justice system that governs immigration detention and deportation. The full dangers of this silence—of acquiescing to an ever-expanding notion of the criminal who needs deporting by any means necessary—are now coming into view.
• • •
The allure and perils of the criminal immigrant trope are evident in Donald Trump’s rise to power. Trump peddles an alarmist picture of an America under siege by Muslim terrorists and Mexican rapists. His executive orders on immigration directed the Department of Homeland Security to pursue not only immigrants with felony convictions, as under Obama, but also any non-citizen arrested for or suspected of having committed a deportable offense, “fugitive aliens” with prior removal orders against them, and anyone known to “abuse public benefits.” Millions more immigrants now fall under Homeland Security’s elastic dragnet.
While Trump’s discourse and proposed plans are particularly draconian, the creation of a powerful state apparatus for identifying, incarcerating, and deporting the criminal began three decades ago. The criminalization of immigrants in part resulted from more aggressive policing of communities of color. In the 1980s and ’90s, law enforcement agencies across the nation implemented broken windows and stop and frisk strategies, claiming that mass arrests for low-level offenses would prevent more serious crime. As immigrants who lived in these communities fell victim to racialized policing and mass incarceration, the federal government’s rosters of the criminal immigrant exploded.
Ronald Reagan’s Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 established the aggravated felony charge and made murder, drug trafficking, and firearms trafficking deportable offenses. George H. W. Bush in 1990 and Bill Clinton in 1996 signed immigration reform laws that expanded the aggravated felony charge to include a long list of nonviolent offenses with sentences of one year or more. In a neoliberal era that prioritized “immigrant responsibility,” falsified documents and unauthorized reentry became criminal violations punishable with prison time followed by deportation. The number of non-citizens in federal prisons rose steadily, as did deportations of immigrants with criminal records, including green card holders who were convicted and served their sentences far before 1996.
After 9/11, drunk drivers, turnstile hoppers, marijuana users, and gamblers were all turned over by police to federal immigration authorities.
The links between the criminal and immigration systems grew stronger after 9/11 with the increase of surveillance and vigilance around national security. George W. Bush created the Secure Communities and 287(g) programs, which instituted unprecedented information sharing and cooperation between immigration and domestic law enforcement to identify and apprehend immigrants with deportable offenses. Drunk drivers, turnstile hoppers, marijuana users, and gamblers were all turned over by police to federal immigration authorities. Obama escalated this system, deputizing thousands of police officers to do the job of immigration law enforcement, thus overseeing three million deportations, more than any other president in U.S. history. Though he claimed to go after “felons, not families,” Obama’s ICE also deported over a million undocumented immigrants with no criminal records who were stopped by police for minor traffic infractions such as broken taillights and jaywalking. In his second term, faced with an increasingly vociferous immigrant rights movement, Obama ended Secure Communities and directed ICE to exercise “prosecutorial discretion” by focusing on non-citizens with aggravated felony convictions rather than low-level misdemeanors and immigration-related infractions. Still the paradigm of the criminal immigrant was kept in place, along with the DHS’s database of information.
Today teams of ICE agents aggressively swarm homes and workplaces in search of “fugitive aliens.” Drones hover over the border with Mexico. The DHS refers to undocumented immigrants that get swept up in its raids as collateral arrests—vocabulary that suggests warzone conditions in which the violation of civil liberties is necessary to protect national security. The immigration trap built over the past 30 years is an interconnected network of federal and local law enforcement that detains over 400,000 immigrants on any given day. Trump now controls it, and is already fashioning it into something even more brutal.
• • •
In early February, rosters in hand, ICE escalated its arrests, sweeping up others in the process. Homeland Security announced its intent to reinstitute the Secure Communities program and multiply the number of 287(g) agreements, which will put potentially thousands more police officers in the business of immigration enforcement. Almost immediately civil liberties and immigrant rights advocates lambasted the administration’s expansion of deportation priorities and its trampling of due process. Op-eds rehashed familiar statistics that immigrants are less likely to break the law than citizens, least likely to access public welfare programs, pay billions in federal and state taxes, and, in the case of Dreamers, are found to outperform their U.S.-born peers in our nation’s universities. Their narrative decried Trump’s criminalization of our nation’s overwhelmingly law-abiding and productive immigrant communities.
But the oft-made claim of innocence furthers a disturbing respectability politics that aids the Trump administration’s assault on communities of color. By insisting that most immigrants do not deserve to be deported, advocates leave unchallenged the idea that the criminals do. The good immigrant narrative misses the ways that overpolicing and mass incarceration produce a reservoir of immigrants with criminal records, creating an endless chain of detentions and deportations.
By focusing on the mistreatment of “good” immigrants, advocates miss the bigger point that everyone should have the right to due process.
Nothing illustrates the linkages between mass incarceration and mass deportation more clearly than the history of the War on Drugs. The Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II administrations bloated police department coffers and put tens of thousands more cops in communities of color. More police and bigger budgets meant more arrests, more convictions, and more incentive to police to maintain agency resources. The overpolicing of low-income neighborhoods has meant a sharp increase in the number of immigrants of color encountering the criminal justice —and thus the deportation—systems. In particular, more and more black and brown immigrants, both undocumented and authorized, were arrested and convicted of drug crimes, received longer sentences than their white counterparts, and then were deported. Between 2007 and 2012, there was an increase of 22 percent (totaling 260,000 deportations) in the number of lawful permanent residents and undocumented immigrants deported for drug offenses. Research shows that black deportees are the most likely to be legal permanent residents deported for drug convictions. The intersection of anti-drug policy and the Department of Homeland Security’s expanded deportation powers reflect and reinforce anti-black racism in our nation’s system of law, yet are rarely challenged in tandem.
Contrary to the stereotype, most immigrants deported for drug offenses are not traffickers or violent offenders. The largest group (39 percent) was convicted on possession charges, rather than sale, manufacturing, or smuggling. In 2013 marijuana possession was the fourth most common reason for a criminal removal, behind illegal entry, DUIs, and traffic offenses. Ironically, even as the Obama administration advocated for treatment and prevention over incarceration for those who suffer from addiction, drug-related deportations did not cease. Treatment over punishment only applied to U.S. citizens. Immigrants continue to pay a steep, and vastly greater, price for drug offenses.
While the good/bad immigrant debate is now being challenged by the immigrant rights movement and civil liberties groups (most notably the ACLU), progressive politicians and organizational leaders have yet to follow suit. Many states, cities and universities are creating sanctuary policies that make exceptions for criminal immigrants. In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti and many members of the city council have balked at the idea of providing city funding to cover legal costs for immigrants with criminal records who are fighting deportation. And in New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio has stated that he is willing to accommodate Assemblyperson Nicole Malliotakis's request to expand the existing list of 170 criminal offenses for which the city complies with ICE detainers.
Although there has been growing awareness and action around the abuses behind mass incarceration, too often have they been siloed from discussions of and advocacy around mass deportation. Public pressure has forced many states to remove three-strike laws from their books, but few in the public are aware that the government may deport a non-citizen who has three misdemeanor convictions. Calls to roll back oversentencing in the criminal justice system have not made connections to deportation as a form of extreme punishment. The federal government routinely deports people who have already paid for their crime by serving a prison sentence, but outrage over this unconstitutional double indemnity is seldom heard in debates over immigration reform.
More than ninety years ago, Chief Justice Louis Brandeis warned that deportation could result in “loss of both property and life; of all that makes life worth living.” Outrage at this cruel and extreme punishment must extend to all immigrants, without exception. Supporters of immigrant rights must unequivocally reject weakened rights and racially disparate sentencing for non-citizens with criminal records. Otherwise they are providing cover for a massive and unjust deportation regime.
Alone, an audience can only speak for themselves and the idea of observing the space between them and what isn’t
apparent, though it makes them anxious to not imagine the spherics of clouds, wind, indicators of the probability of rain
and retreat, how the body turns inside itself when it is wet, pressing everything back as one presses against the wind
when walking through snow, a memory of footsteps striding behind them. A History, says the audience, which so soon covered
will never repeat. There is little, of course, to leave behind when you’re not here. Incisor. Mandible. Quarter moon of bone.
A separation, says the audience, which is to say, a sort of ghost. A sleight. Afterthought of anise leaving its cloud across the tongue.
What are you if not a better skin?
a symbol for what’s kept
within folds of sterile plastic:
coiled, cinched tight
as a blindfold around muscles
and a skeleton—Nothing flinches,
nothing turns inside
your barren walls. Impervious
purse, what kicks against
your stomach never stirs
from within: the clock of bones
in my intricate hands—
or some ligature of wind—
will brush against your surface
and send you rippling
into the sound of static. Black
gown, what you hold
was once exquisite: Be dark
enough to keep my eyes
from seeing what gestates inside.
I’m done with all this talk of breath—
the crush of waves that coalesced
into an unplowed field of sea
has fouled your mouth repeatedly
with water. Its flower reappears
above my head as atmosphere
and seeds itself in thunderheads—
but I’m done with thinking of the dead.
I’m done, too, with this talk of tongues
and how a mouth can be undone
by something lifeless as the sea.
We both know that it should have been me
whose bronchials held down, still burn,
whose body holds an ocean’s worth
of salt scorching its bloodless veins.
You fall now as torrential rain
and fill me as a black cistern:
a bowl to hold your mass on earth,
where you still tremble on some coast.
But I’m done searching for your ghost
through the catacombs of night terrors:
room by awful room, you enter
my paralysis: my sleep.
Once again you’ve learned to speak
I don’t believe in god or ghosts, but, dead
for days, he reappeared. Not as I remember
him, not flesh, on an invisible wind—fed
by equilibrium—not from dirt untethered.
He resurrected as blood-warm weather,
as flight, an exit wound in anemic clouds,
empty as a gun barrel. After we found
his body, I hid my mouth beneath sheets
in my coffin-rack. Breathless, I drowned
myself awake, my skin pale as the meat
of a pear. How could he appear, facedown
underwater, then circle like an hour
overhead, some I caged inside reliquary
bones that bends birds to flight, tourniqueting
sky around their wings, pink as match heads?
Who charcoaled the tongues of flaming birds,
made mine, with artless blasphemy, shed
unholy syllables? The unheard
Gods made men devour the tongues of birds,
as if a song might solidify a place inside soil
and not above, where bodies never spoil.
Or maybe I have too much faith in eyes.
I can’t recall the shape of every stone,
but, somehow, my mind has memorized
the double helix’s whorl, which makes bone,
muscle, eye, and everything I know.
And somewhere in its simple code—cells,
mitochondria—an atom cannot tell
where the living end, where the dead begin:
each breath must be a memory in lungs
designed to fail this blood rubble, ruin
of skin, a body born from a million suns
exploding. Am I just the sky undone,
a clot of chemistry, dreaming a shepherd
for its dead? I am—if god is ghost or bird.
There is a word that has been hovering around me like a familiar since the morning after the U.S. presidential election. It comes from the title of the Palestinian novelist and politician Emile Habiby’s bizarre and wonderful 1974 book, The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist (al-mutasha’il, a mashup of mutafa’il [optimism] and mutasha’im [pessimism]). Through the oxymoronic condition of pessoptimism, the novel—which Edward Said styled the national epic of Palestine—describes life for a fairly ordinary Arab on and across the borders of Israel, roughly from the Nakba in 1948 through the June War of 1967. The facts of this ordinary life for Saeed, whose first name means “happy,” include separation from his family, a politically expedient marriage arranged by a party boss, a stint in jail for overzealous loyalty to the Israeli state, the loss of his child and wife, multiple relocations, forced anti-communist spying, the constant threat of expulsion, the stripping of rights, and, most importantly, a radical, deranging solitude.
In one of the letters to an anonymous correspondent in which he chronicles his adventures, Saeed the Pessoptimist explains how he inhabits his name under such conditions: “I don’t differentiate between optimism and pessimism and am quite at a loss as to which of the two characterizes me. When I awake each morning I thank the Lord he did not take my soul during the night. If harm befalls me during the day, I thank Him that it was no worse.” A self-consciously quixotic type, Saeed compares his adventures to those of Cervantes’s antihero, as well as to Candide’s. Fellow Palestinian writer Salma Jayyusi situates the Pessoptimist in a genealogy of three archetypes of Arabic literature going back to the eighth century: the picaresque hero, the fool, and the traitor/informer.
Pessoptimism refers to the inseparability of hope and despair under untenable historical conditions.
Saeed inherits his family name from a long line of bumblers and compradors, known for reading the ground as they walk, “looking always for money that some passerby has dropped hoping always [to] discover some treasure that might transform the regular pattern of a monotonous life.” More often, however, they bump their heads, or get crushed by a millstone, or lose themselves—literally—in subterranean reverie, looking for a warp to some other dimension. Saeed’s Pessoptimist ancestors, scattered from Haifa in the Nakba, include a lieutenant colonel in Lebanon who died of a heart attack when his bank collapsed and the head of the Israeli Committee for Distribution of Dandelion and Watercress in Upper Galilee. Whether he was also in charge of the Lower Galilee is a point of some disagreement.
Pessoptimist is Saeed’s surname, but it is also his ethos. Saeed never hopes for too much, or forecasts too far in the future, but he goes to work, searches for his true love, and tries in vain to make his way back home. He considers rebellion, but finds he has no ground from which to rebel beyond a constant movement and tireless observation. Pessoptimism refers, in this way, to the inseparability of hope and despair, of desire and knowledge under untenable historical conditions. For Habiby, to even be able to name historical conditions as untenable is a performance of pessoptimism’s contradiction—a condensed or crystalline version of Beckett’s famous lament, “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”
In light of the recent resurgence of anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, and anti-refugee sentiment in the West, and the consequences of the immigration ban, I have come to think of the Pessoptimist as an archetype of those who stay and survive in inhospitable places, by noble and ignoble means, and necessarily compromise themselves in the process of fighting for justice even within a state or system of states they wish to dismantle. Saeed’s letters give us no recommendation for party politics, no blueprint for reform. They recount a withdrawal from rights-based life and its uneven distribution. They inhabit a mode of non-futurity, of dispersal and fugitivity, an oscillation between ungovernable presence within the state and a total absence of being.
If we take the unlucky Saeed as a model, the tragic absurdity of autocracy and its capricious hypocrisies can only be survived in forms of life that are equally improvisatory and often nonsensical. In Saeed’s case, it is a kind of babbling toward justice—an insistence on being, and making a record of one’s being over time, letters sent to nowhere that declare the horror of each event with undiminished astonishment, embodying the kind of dummy Theodor Adorno accused Walter Benjamin of being, perhaps admiringly: an astonished presenter of mere fact.
The tragic absurdity of autocracy and its capricious hypocrisies can only be survived in forms of life that are equally improvisatory and often nonsensical.
Saeed undertakes an obsessive and circular accounting of locations, names, objects, and facts under the constantly shifting conditions of violence, disappearance, repression, and surveillance that are visited upon him. These recitations ensure his survival, though it is not a happy one. The errors and confusion created by changing names of people and cities—not just for Saeed but also for his abusers—is a leitmotif in the book; Habiby uses it to perform a diligent mapping of the erasure of Palestine in its most literal, terrestrial forms. Villages, trees, apartments, houses, people, mosques, beaches, and paths are all documented with the loving care of a proleptic dementia, a foreknowledge of their imminent erasure, settlement, and renaming.
For many in the United States, Habiby’s archipelago of statist abuse and dissolution of fact and of history may seem distant in both time and particulars. Indeed, just a few weeks ago, it would have been alarmist and self-aggrandizing to imagine that anything like the Israel Defense Forces’ flagrant displays of power would waylay the majority of us—citizens at least—in mandatory checkpoints, prisons, house arrests, and insane asylums. But it now feels as if we are living in and through the unthinkable.
What fills the void when thinking seems to fail us—or feels like it is failing us? What makes us hyperinvest in the state—call senators, sign petitions, hope for legal remedies—at just the moment when many of us feel a redoubled urgency to divest from the state-as-such? More simply, how do we, or will we, live under the threat of autocracy? These last weeks, pessoptimism has gone from a persistent companion in my thoughts to a more urgent question. It expresses the strong pull of political participation and the simultaneous necessity of retreating from the state and the circus of electoral cycles, of refusing the way they co-opt our time and our affect. What does it mean to hope for a great cataclysm right now? What did pessoptimism offer Habiby?
• • •
Born to Arab Christian parents in 1922 in Haifa, Habiby studied petroleum engineering and worked at an oil refinery when he was young, then shifted into radio news at the Palestine Broadcasting Service in Jerusalem. He would later become editor of Israel’s first Arabic newspaper, Al Ittihad, owned by the Israeli Communist Party of which Habiby was also a founder and three-time representative to the Knesset. He was still a public servant when he wrote The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist, but by the time he published his last novel Saraya, the Ogre’s Daughter in 1991, he had given up politics, turning himself entirely to writing. The enormous controversy over his acceptance in 1992 of the Israel Prize, just two years after the Palestine Liberation Organization awarded him the Jerusalem Medal, was emblematic of the contradictions in which he insisted on dwelling, as well as his singular way of handling them. He accepted the prize, citing its importance in enshrining not just the Arabic language but the plight of Palestinians in the highest tiers of Israeli culture, but donated the money to a children’s medical service in the West Bank. He asked that his tombstone bear the epitaph, Emile Habiby—remained in Haifa.
Just two years after the PLO awarded Habiby the Jerusalem Medal, he controversially accepted the Israel Prize.
Saeed, Habiby’s most famous literary hero, shares some of these traits but stretches them to an absurd limit. His service to the public is pointless, a front for statecraft, for controlling communism and managing workers’ unions. His staying seems to be a matter of accident, and his homegoing is thwarted by a constant terror about the risks of going back or excavating the past too deeply. Given the less than desirable fates of his forbears in their own quests for fortune and security, Saeed makes the brave decision to look for treasure, not on the ground, but up above, “in the endless reaches of space, in this ‘shoreless sea’ as the mystic poet Ibn Arabi described it.” This is how he comes to meet with creatures from outer space when he is only trying to find his way back home.
Anyone who has spent time talking or reading about the displacement of Palestinians will be familiar with the incessant obstacles to homegoing, the way each story nestles into the one before and the innumerable after in a puzzle of cartographic horror in which most of the pieces have been lost. One of the dispatches in Amira Hass’s extraordinary reporting for Ha’aretz captures the particularly uncanny quality of such scenes, the way homelessness, groundlessness, and uprooting blur into one another. In the village of ‘Anata, on June 9, 1998, a demolition contractor clears a Palestinian home. “Astride his bulldozer, the man sailed into the house attacking it wall by wall. Afterward . . . he leveled the fruit trees in the backyard. The bulldozer also hit three water tanks positioned in the garden,” she writes. One’s house is knocked down. One’s fruit trees are bulldozed. The busted water tank rains on the unearthed roots. Under such conditions, what difference does it make whether one stays or goes? In what space or spaces can life continue?
In a sharp and beautiful reading of Habiby’s novel, Lital Levy, a scholar of modern Arabic and Hebrew literature, identifies the underground or the cave in works of Palestinian literature as one such viable space. For her, the subterranean is a crucial figure for survival and resistance, a literalization of the political underground. Putting Habiby’s work next to Anton Shammas’s and Elias Khoury’s, she argues that the cave in contemporary Palestinian writing telegraphs “otherworldliness,” a space that is “freer than the outside world,” “the Palestine-that-no-longer-is and the Palestine-that-is-not-yet,” an “underground homeland,” “territory and memory . . . hideout, and domicile . . . the spatial expression of refugee subjectivity.” When Antonio Gramsci wrote his brother Carlo the famous 1929 letter in which he distinguished the pessimism of the intellect from the optimism of the will, he was also speaking, literally, about life underground:
Your letter and what you write me about Nannaro interested me very much, but it also surprised me. The two of you were in the war, Nannaro in particular fought in the war under exceptional circumstances, as an underground mine-layer, hearing through the thin wall that separated his tunnel from the Austrian tunnel the enemies’ work that was intended to hasten the explosion of his mine and so blow him up. It seems to me that under such conditions prolonged for years, and with such psychological experiences, a man should have reached the loftiest stage of stoic serenity and should have acquired such a profound conviction that man bears within himself the source of his own moral strength, that everything depends on him, on his energy, on his will, on the iron coherence of the aims that he sets for himself and the means he adopts to realize them, that he will never again despair and lapse into those vulgar, banal states of mind that are called pessimism and optimism. My state of mind synthesizes these two emotions and overcomes them: I’m a pessimist because of intellect, but an optimist because of will. In all circumstances I think first of the worst possibility in order to set in motion all the reserves of my will and be in a position to knock down the obstacle. I have never entertained any illusions and I have never suffered disappointments. I have always taken care to arm myself with an unlimited patience, not passive, inert, but animated by perseverance.
Six lines following this extract were blacked out by prison censors. Gramsci offers his brother a deeply Hegelian vision of political being: optimism and pessimism are not stirred together in a slurry of non-action but rather feed each other through their synthesis, as do the intellect and the will, each term cancelling out its “vulgar, banal” opposite in a kind of noble perfection, a certainty of vision, an “iron coherence.” Gramsci’s dialectical certitude—spurred, perhaps, by the extremity of his condition (he was ill as well as in prison, and his wife was constantly mad at him) and the ways in which it matched the extremity of the exterior world (a fascism far more developed and universally intolerable than the one that has been allowed to mature over the last few weeks)—attempts to describe what he imagines would or should have happened to Nannaro, the mine layer, whose months underground ought to have brought him to “the loftiest stage of stoic serenity.” This vision is inspiring, and I am enormously sympathetic to Gramsci’s broader political project. But Habiby’s insistence on the co-presence of the two positions (pessimism and optimism) and the two faculties (intellect and will), rather than their double erasure, has the virtue of being livable. It describes a multitactical, if manic, approach to opposing and resisting cascading horrors, while also remaining alive inside the parameters of a state in crisis.
The novel’s spatialization of pessoptimism is a meditation on the “where” of Palestine.
Saeed, like Nannaro, spends a good deal of time underground and also spends many months diving to an undersea cave where his wife’s family has hidden their family treasure. Eventually, his son Walaa will retrieve the treasure and use it to finance the fedaiyeen resistance. When he is caught, he will disappear with his mother into the same waves that guarded their secret. There is a moral clarity to Walaa’s actions—something like what Gramsci speaks of—that is utterly absent, perhaps even beyond the grasp of his fidgeting, cloudy-headed father. But Walaa’s is also, within the narrative scope of the novel, an aborted enterprise, a temporary respite in the form of an imaginable politics of nationalism that ends in death. For Saeed, a dumber, more complicated character, the great beyond, the freedom of the sky, of non-space, of deterritorialization or extraterrestrialization, is as important in his picaresque adventures as the cave. Where the cave offers a kind of revolutionary fugitive natality—a point underscored by Levy’s association of the cave with the womb—the sky and the sea offer something not-yet-known, less practical, more anti-gravitational. Their promise constitutes a more radical break with politics-as-such, a heterotopia disburdened from the broken machinery of the present, which the novel represents as an increasingly unbearable series of interior spaces including the subterranean catacombs and caves but also party offices, military vehicles, prison, interrogation chambers, an insane asylum. These are the spaces, I want to suggest, of a narrow and moribund politics, the type that were becoming increasingly unbearable for Habiby himself, indicated by his withdrawal from political life.
In Saeed’s grief-addled mind, the fantasy of being raised aloft—above the occupied zones of Haifa, Acre, the bridges to the West Bank and Jordan, the Union of Palestinian Workers headquarters—manifests as a nightmare. As he sleeps, clutching his transistor radio, Saeed is lifted onto a great stake plunged into the heart of Israeli-occupied Palestinian territory. “I found myself sitting on a flat surface, cold and round, not more than a yard across . . . there was a pit behind me like the one in front . . . [i]f I moved, I would be certain to fall.” He compares his predicament to the trick performed by Indian magicians who cast ropes into the air but quickly scolds himself for his folly: “I was no Indian magician, just an Arab who has remained, by some magic, in Israel. I felt like shouting ‘I am having a nightmare!’ then jumping.”
Saeed’s predicament hyperbolizes a number of contradictory feelings, including the sense of isolation and terror that comes from materializing at some great height and then realizing that the contingencies that delivered you there cannot deliver you back, that survival may not be worth the price of remaining. Such contradictions are mirrored narratively in the foolish pantomime he undertakes by mounting a white flag of surrender on top of his house in Haifa. As the city is already-requisitioned territory, surrendering is tantamount to a declaration of war. This, finally, is what lands him in prison. If the caves, catacombs, and prison cells of the novel’s first and second sections invoke the possibility of an organized resistance, then Saeed’s nightmare tower and its sense of performative irony—you are up here! the watcher not the watched!—warn of the dire outcomes of docility and collaboration while also expressing an increasingly jaundiced view of the projects of statehood and national belonging altogether. In this sense, the stake is impossible to think apart from Saeed’s status as informant, from the watchtowers that scar the shifting borders and checkpoints along the Israeli frontier, from the planting of triumphalist flags.
A fable of just this kind opens Hollow Land, Eyal Weizman’s remarkable book on the architecture of Israeli occupation. It recounts the story of the installation of a cell phone tower as a prelude to full-blown occupation in the northern West Bank. The story is fairly straightforward: a couple of people call to complain of poor cell reception on the road from Jerusalem, the Israeli military frames the network weakness as a security issue, cell tower construction begins at the site, which is soon fenced off and supplied with power and electricity, settlers declare it the buried site of the biblical town of Migron, and soon dozens of families take up residence there. Eventually the largest settlement in the West Bank, Migron was dismantled and its residents relocated in 2012, following an Israeli Supreme Court order. While this outcome demonstrates at least some small measure of commitment to justice for Palestinian residents of the West Bank, Weizman reminds us that “Migron is not the only outpost established around a cellphone antenna.” The cell tower is more than symbolic, or it is a symbol transformed into the material precondition for occupation, “a focus of territorial intensity” whose infrastructure made settlement possible. “The energy field of the antenna was not only electromagnetic,” Weizman observes, “but also political, serving as a center for the mobilizing, channeling, coalescing and organizing of political forces and processes of various kinds.”
It is not a very grand vision: to stay, as Habiby stayed in Haifa, as Saeed stays, beyond his disappearance, in epistolary form.
Saeed’s nightmarish stake begins to come into focus as an unhappy double of the cell tower as a harbinger of settlement. Marooned in an Israel governed by Mandate-era emergency laws, Saeed mounts, in his mind, an antenna that broadcasts to no one, coalesces nothing, organizes nothing, mobilizes nothing. Habiby’s novel unfolds the condition of Arab life in the Israeli state between these two poles—underground survival with the possibility of solidarity and the radical untethering of solitary exposure, the shoreless feeling of being in the sky or at sea.
The novel’s spatialization of pessoptimism, which could be read as a meditation on the “where” of Palestine, concludes with Saeed’s return to the blunt stake, to which he is now clinging in terror. A small parade of people walks by below to offer him solace. His old friend Jacob says that he too sits on a stake, “Each of us is alone, on his own stake. That is the stake we share.” The Big Man—an indeterminate figure of authority—tells Saeed he is mistaken, that he is not sitting on a stake but on a “television antenna,” then adds, “Each and every one of you acts as if he were in a submarine; the deeper you go, the higher its periscope rises.” A newspaper man says “come down into the streets, with us. There is no third choice.” He soon returns and begins chopping at the base of the stake. As Saeed gets more and more desperate, the creature from outer space reappears “like a stray cloud,” his face “only wrinkles, as on the surface of the sea.” He invites Saeed to escape with him, only “when [he] can bear the misery of [his] reality no longer, but will not pay the price necessary to change it.” The Pessoptimist immediately jumps on the space man’s back and the two ascend to the sound of joyous ululation below.
The epilogue (subtitled “For the Sake of Truth and History”) clarifies that Saeed’s letters were sent from a mental hospital on the seashore in Acre, but when the letters’ recipient goes in search of him, there is no record of his existence. It is not a very grand vision: to stay, as Habiby stayed in Haifa, as Saeed stays, beyond his disappearance, in epistolary form. The kind of staying I am talking about stems from a position of defeat, a wish for no one to triumph until or unless we all can, which almost certainly means not at all. What this looks like, for Saeed, and maybe for us, is an unfettered commitment to the necessarily limited joys of being noncompliant—but also the joys of railing against the state in incessant speech acts, even failed ones, letters written and sent, phone calls recorded and counted, private acts of solidarity and public acts of care. It is not an overcoming of pessimism and optimism—positions that are neither banal nor vulgar—but rather a deep devotion to both, foolishly, endlessly, willingly.
Brecht wished for a tiny counting apparatus
to take the place of his heart.
A new matter-of-factness,
generated by a less facile goddess.
I ate my food between slaughters…
It is true: I work for a living
but, believe me, that is a coincidence. Nothing
that I do gives me the right to eat my fill.
He knew that every day
something had to be fixed.
The machine was shuttling along
just fine, they would say, you’re the one
with the problem, hush now.
A great deal of what had been frozen in me
melted in America,
and I rediscovered my old yearning for painting.
I carefully and deliberately destroyed
a part of my past
wrote his friend Grosz
in A Little Yes and a Big No.
The Explosion artist had been to the war
to end all wars, this was before prosthetics
and the V-effect,
when collective subjectivity
One night after returning to Berlin,
he drank too much, lost his footing,
and died from the effects of a staircase.
When you speak of our weaknesses,
Brecht requested, speak also
of the dark time
that you have escaped.
For we could not ourselves be gentle.
At Boston Review we have been committed since 1975 to independent, nonprofit publishing. Our editorial mission is founded on strong convictions about equality and democracy. After November 8, now more than ever, we plan to fight for our conviction that democracy works best when informed citizens have serious debates about the issues that matter most.
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On the Wednesday after November’s presidential election, I found myself in the Back of the Yards area of Chicago’s South Side. I was there to meet with Roman Catholic priest David Kelly. Father Kelly is executive director of Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation, which he runs out of a converted school building on Fifty-first and Elizabeth. He and his team feed the hungry and bring together the perpetrators and victims of gang gun violence in the community.
The Back of the Yards neighborhood—once a sprawling, spewing, foul-smelling collection of stockyards, polluted streams, tenements, and churches—was the original industrial area of the Industrial Areas Foundation, the largest network of community-based organization in the United States, of which I am co-director. The first IAF organization—started by its founder, Saul D. Alinsky, in 1939—was called the Back of the Yards Council. It included representatives of several of the sixteen Roman Catholic parishes that served a once-dense neighborhood of Poles, Lithuanians, Germans, Czechs, and others. At that time, each ethnic group had its own ethnic Catholic—or occasionally Lutheran—church, attended services in its own language, went to taverns filled with fellow countrymen, and sent their kids to schools packed primarily with people from their own ethnicity. Whole European villages were transplanted into a few blocks of Chicago’s South Side, but they were right across the street from another transplanted village from another nation, with another language and other traditions. Often the villages, jammed together, carried their old hatreds and prejudices about one another into the Chicago streets. The work at the stockyards forced most of the groups together. So did the union that represented those workers, the Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee, which was also a major member of the Back of the Yards Council.
A critical precedent to the extreme political polarization of the present moment is the balkanization of neighborhoods during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
I was in Back of the Yards in my capacity as a working organizer, doing the kind of direct organizing work that I began exploring more than forty years ago. Specifically I was looking for leaders and institutions that wanted to work with our Chicago-area IAF affiliate, United Power for Action and Justice. These days in Back of the Yards, there is not a Pole or Lithuanian to be found. Most of the old ethnic parishes have folded, their churches, schools, rectories, and convents long shuttered or demolished. The stockyards are long gone. The river runs clear now. There is no belching smoke, no stench. There is now something called the Back of the Yards Industrial Park, on West Forty-seventh Street, which, as I drove by, seemed filled with more trucks than workers. In fact, as Fr. Kelly points out, there are almost no institutions left in the neighborhood: no large churches of any faith, no major employer, no bustling shopping strip, no hospital, just a few struggling churches and schools among blocks filled with vacant lots and boarded-up homes. Arriving too early for my appointment, I drove up and down the empty blocks trying to imagine the teeming tenements of the early twentieth century. Back then, all the senses were either stimulated or assaulted, and the interweaving of institutions and social relationships was nearly complete. Church, workplace, union hall, bowling league, parks program, ward office—people met and clashed, negotiated and collaborated, prayed and played. All of that institutional density and relational intensity is gone.
In the IAF we say that organizing is always a process of disorganization and then reorganization. Here, all around Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation, is a world that has been steadily disorganizing for decades. But where is the reorganizing?
While the current extreme polarization in American politics is a prevailing theme in political discussions and election postmortems, we often forget a critical precedent, the balkanization of neighborhoods such as Back of the Yards during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Sanford D. Horwitt, in his fine biography of Alinsky, Let Them Call Me Rebel (1989), describes a time when “political identities seemed distinct and discrete.” To say the least. While modern critics hyperventilate about Alinsky’s radicalism, they misunderstand the nature of his innovation in citizen organizing. It had nothing to do with left-wing or progressive conformity. In fact, twenty-five years later, in the 1960s, Alinsky would rail against the ideological purity on the left and the left’s lack of appreciation of the lives and struggles of working people, many of whom were fighting and dying in Vietnam. The Back of the Yards Council was radically different because, as Horwitt writes, its “political identity . . . seemed varied, even muddled.”
Saul Alinsky liked to preach, “No permanent enemies, no permanent allies, only permanent interests.”
Alinsky liked to preach, “No permanent enemies, no permanent allies, only permanent interests.” The council was not ideological enough for some of union radicals, yet was not loyal enough for the poohbahs in the Cook County Democratic Party machine. It was not Catholic enough for the most conservative ethnic pastors. It was not white enough for many of the European immigrants. And it was not progressive enough for the occasional Hyde Park liberal who happened to pass through. Yet it thrived for several years and provided Alinsky (and those of us who followed) with a laboratory for testing key tools of effective organizing. People and institutions that disagreed profoundly on other matters could and did work together on common concerns. In the process they built mature and complex public relationships with one another—relationships not of total agreement, but of mutual recognition and grudging respect and occasional moments of shared success and joy.
Over time the union engagement faded. Without the incentive of seeking remedy for the pressing issues of wages and workplace conditions, the mingling of ethnic and African American members decreased. The council problematically became focused on preserving Back of the Yards as a largely white enclave against the influx of minority families fleeing rattrap tenements in ghettos to the east and south. But the instinct and the drive to build organizations that attract unlike members and forge (often contentious) alliances—between conservatives, moderates, and liberals—endured in the IAF to this day.
Over seventy-five years the process of community dissolution that took place in Back of the Yards has been mirrored in thousands of U.S. communities. Everywhere the tightly-knit worlds of a dozen or so blocks—where workplace, church, neighborhood, recreation, tavern, and political affiliation were all deeply entwined—have given way to exurban enclaves, long commutes, gathered congregations, matchmaker websites, and fitness clubs filled with customers who don’t know one another. A world where local news was critically important and closely followed—often delivered by local publishers and reporters and passed along by word of mouth—has been replaced by the constant flow of real and fake news arriving through social media. A world of physically imposing and present institutions and organizations has morphed into a culture of global economic dynamics and fitful national mobilizations built around charismatic figures.
I grew up in one of the thousands of American neighborhoods like Back of the Yards—West Garfield Park, about ten miles north and west of Fr. Kelly’s Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation—so I know about the downsides and dangers of the world that has been lost. It could be incredibly claustrophobic. It treated people who were different—someone who liked to read, someone who was black, someone who decided not to marry and have kids, someone who didn’t attend Mass—coldly and at times cruelly. It protected its institutions even when they failed catastrophically.
Great cities and great countries are made and shaped and driven by a critical mass of existing and new institutions.
When our grade school, Our Lady of the Angels, caught fire on a cold gray day in December 1958, killing ninety-two students and three nuns, there was a national outpouring of grief and sympathy. Fire safety laws and practices, long resisted by those who ran area schools, were finally upgraded. But the city’s establishment—the Catholic mayor who started every day with Mass, the largely Catholic fire department that lacked ladders tall enough to reach the kids killed on the upper floor of the school, the legal establishment that depended on the Democratic machine for its living and that did not want to offend the archdiocese—made sure that even minimal blame would never reach the mayor or the cardinal. It took seven long years for a panel of judges to distribute modest settlements to families of children who were killed or terribly injured. The “hearings” to decide these settlements often took less than three minutes.
Eight years later, in 1966, an African American friend from another high school invited me to a Bears game. He and his father and uncle came to pick me up. My mother invited everyone in for coffee and cake before we left. My dad was nervous, never having welcomed a black person into our home, but was a gracious host. After the game, my parents had a meal waiting for all of us. That night, a cross was burned on our front lawn.
What was not clear to me then was that the Democratic machine that ran the ward and doled out patronage jobs and small contracts to a few of the families in our neighborhood was secretly cooperating with real estate interests, mortgage brokers, and redlining banks to profit from the wholesale movement of white families out of the area and black families in. The profits from this churn greased the insides of the machine. The costs of this churn haunted both the white families who sold low and the black families who bought high for generations. This pattern—a political party partnering with powerful insiders at the expense of its most loyal followers—was refined and modernized by both parties over the decades and “worked,” more or less, for both parties, until the last election.
Church, workplace, union hall, bowling league, parks program, ward office—people met and clashed, negotiated and collaborated, prayed and played.
So you will not find me waxing nostalgic about the good old days. And yet I wonder what else was lost when all of those communities, all of those institutions, all of those dense webs of public relationships were lost. The habit of relating to people, including people you may not like or who may not like you—in physical space, over years and decades—is a public skill. It requires judgment, patience, courage, and a sense of the larger stakes. It forces people to decide when and how to act, or not act, when it is clear that avoidance or flight are not options. For instance, my mother swore that she would find the person who had burned that cross and confront him publicly. It took her years. But she eventually identified a kid who had been there that night and forced him to fess up. Then she found the fellow who lit the match and let him know how she felt about it. He was startled and ashamed. What happens when people are not conditioned or obligated to contend with one another and with their institutions in this way, when knotty problems can neither be deflected nor dismissed?
• • •
In Chicago our present-day Republican and Democratic parties evolved as the age of multiple local institutions and relative stability gave way to an age of dynamics and constant mobility. The Cook County Democratic Party perfected its mastery of electoral engineering and permanent incumbency just a few blocks north of Back of the Yards, in Bridgeport. Earlier in the century the party prided itself on its ability to deliver—a trashcan, a city job, a clean street—to its loyalists. But by 1955 a shift had occurred; Thomas Dyja writes in The Third Coast (2013) that the machine “no longer made any pretense of helping ‘regular guys’ work the system; the Machine was the system, and its purpose was to rake in money, create jobs, and keep blacks in their place yet still voting Democratic.” Whether this shift was unconscious or deliberate, its leaders had absorbed the fact that they did not really need to preserve working-class neighborhoods or improve the lot of those in poorer areas to retain their stranglehold on City Hall and Springfield. Neighborhood after neighborhood segregated even more deeply as contract sellers stripped the emerging African American working class of every last cent of savings and equity. The Poles and Lithuanians along Fifty-first Street moved west toward Midway Airport and out to the first ring of suburbs, selling low and buying high. The Croatians, Irish, and Italians in West Garfield Park packed up and headed in the 1960s to the Chicago neighborhood of Austin, then to the inner ring of Cook County suburbs or out to DuPage County (the populous suburban county directly west of Chicago) in the decades that followed. For many this was no free-will trek in search of the American Dream; this was a forced march, with families hemorrhaging money with each successive move and leaving their communities, churches, and lifelong connections behind.
In 1966, when an African American friend and his family came over to dinner, a cross was burned on our front lawn.
This growing disconnect between neighborhood stability and electoral supremacy condemned neighborhood after neighborhood and city after city to dramatic, structural decline. In Chicago the white ethnic—and more recently the African American—working class voted with their feet: nearly a million fewer people now reside in the city than did when its population peaked at 3.6 million in 1950. The same trend has repeated in Detroit, Milwaukee, Gary, Cleveland, Baltimore, and elsewhere. The list of cities dominated by Democrats and doomed to deterioration is very long. Despite this the current loose alignment called the Democratic Party rode to glory in 2008 and 2012, helmed by a charismatic leader trained by machine politics and advised by campaign operatives trained in Cook County tactics and operations.
What is left of the modern Republican Party emerged in a very different way during this same period. Contrary to its gerontocratic reputation, the average Republican representative is actually younger than his or her Democrat counterpart by about five years. And these members did not typically grow up anywhere like Back of the Yards. They mostly were born and raised in suburbs and exurbs. In fact they are products of what William Schneider called “the suburban century” in his remarkable 1992 Atlantic Monthly piece “The Suburban Century Begins.”
Paul Ryan, who is forty-six years old, grew up forty miles from Madison, Wisconsin. Jim Jordan, fifty-two, grew up fifty miles from Columbus, Ohio. Mike Mulvaney, forty-nine, grew up in a suburb of Charlotte, North Carolina. Michele Bachmann, sixty, has spent much of her life in the suburbs of Minneapolis–Saint Paul. The list goes on and on. These leaders are products of sprawling, seemingly ever-expanding communities. Late nineteenth-century inner suburbs were designed and promoted as clean, prosperous, spacious enclaves for the wealthy and later for the comfortably middle class (as well as their service workers). The suburbs of the early and mid-twentieth century were something different, although they played off many of these same promises, gutting cities by enticing working families and companies with promises of yards, lower taxes, and less regulation—not to mention escape from encroachment by blacks. Then other, newer suburbs lured the same companies and families even further out with better offers. In the process, as in the shrinking cities, the construction, legal, real estate, and mortgage brokerage work just kept growing. The result was a sense of perpetual boom. As a result, a quality shared by these younger Republican political players, all weaned in such suburbs, is that they were born on third base but have gone through life believing they hit a triple.
While Obama’s White House team grew up in a culture of scarcity and urban shrinkage—which it alternately denied, deflected, and spun into political gold—the House Republican gang inherited a long wave of relative prosperity and steady growth, from which it has also obviously profited. Neither party has ever honestly contended with the daunting challenge of creating new work and new wealth, now that the growth engine has ground to a halt. Neither has ever tackled the dangerous decline of our basic national infrastructure. Neither has studied or started new enterprises without financial wizardry and in service of large-scale living-wage job generation. The leaders of both parties, in short, are predatory takers, not creative makers, as Rana Foroohar has brilliantly described in Makers and Takers (2016). For half a century, both crews kept floating, obliviously upward, in their separate bubbles.
The machine no longer made any pretense of helping ‘regular guys’ work the system; the machine was the system.
On November 9 both bubbles burst. On the Democratic side, many of the urban and near-suburban voters who gave Barack Obama two opportunities to take their concerns seriously stayed home. The continuing decline, combined with the stunning violence of the past summer in city after city, eroded whatever chance the party had of maintaining control of the White House.
On the Republican side, the breezy disregard in the primaries for the struggles of the barely working and non-working by all but one of the candidates led to a result that shocked the still-fair-haired congressional class as much as the national election stunned the old-line Democratic cartel.
• • •
Right after Trump’s election, an Italian reporter called to ask for my reaction. He said that he had interviewed many Americans and all said they were frightened for the future of their country and particularly concerned for their children. What, he wondered, did I think about that? The question angered me at first: “Why weren’t these same people frightened four years ago, or eight years ago, or sixteen years ago? All that time, kids have been shot down in our streets, poisoned by lead in their drinking water and windowsills, trapped in dangerous neighborhoods and crumbling schools, and deported in record numbers. Why are they so frightened now?” I shot back.
If I had thought longer, I would instead have quoted Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (now in Ukraine), whose saying was paraphrased to me by a young New York rabbi a few days after the election: “All the world is a very narrow bridge, and the important thing is not to freak yourself out.” People on the right spent eight years freaking themselves out, buying guns at an unprecedented rate, predicting Armageddon after every Obama move. Now it is people on the left doing the same. They have not yet stopped to reflect on why they long accepted the dreadful conditions that they now, finally, suddenly, dramatically, consider unacceptable.
Neither party has ever contended with the daunting challenge of creating new work and new wealth, or tackled the dangerous decline of our basic national infrastructure.
Instead of freaking out, I urge the left to reflect on the fate that has befallen our nation’s institutions. When people ask me what makes a great city, they expect me to say something about a visionary mayor or a wave of new immigrants or the growth of cutting-edge technology and world-class knowledge workers. What I point to instead is institutions: great cities and great countries are made and shaped and driven by a critical mass of existing and new institutions. The example I use—the counterpoint to the Back of the Yards decline—is the rebuilding and repopulating since 1990 of East Brooklyn and a number of other New York neighborhoods that were equally bad.
After President Gerald Ford’s infamous 1975 public rebuke of New York City’s request for financial help—immortalized in the Daily News headline, “Ford to City: Drop Dead”—an unlikely collection of individuals and institutions came together. These included the public service union led by Victor Gotbaum and the investment firm headed by Felix Rohatyn, along with young and focused government figures such as Donna Shalala, as well as Peter C. Goldmark, who was serving as budget director for the tough-minded Democratic machine governor Hugh Carey. As in Back of the Yards, these people disagreed and clashed on many issues, but were able to find common ground around the survival of New York. In the decades that followed, ad hoc clusters of very different and often differing institutions came together or worked on parallel tracks to tackle and resolve three fundamental challenges, all considered intractable by most observers: the rebuilding of the abandoned and devastated neighborhoods of East Brooklyn, the South Bronx, upper and lower Manhattan, and other areas with more than 350,000 new and renovated homes and apartments; the refinancing and upgrading of a collapsing transit system; and the stabilization and reversal of the rate of violent crime. A fourth challenge—the improvement of the city’s education system in part through the addition of 400 smaller public schools and 250 public charter schools—is still a work in progress. Our organizations in East Brooklyn and the South Bronx were just two of as many as a dozen significant third-sector organizations that worked with an initially reluctant mayor, Ed Koch, and a housing department that retooled itself to help meet the housing needs of the more than one million people who have poured into the city over the past twenty years. Some of these organizations, such as ours, were deeply grounded in local congregations and communities; others were arms of the corporate community; still others specialized in housing finance and technical assistance. One hears a great deal about how the mayors—Koch, David Dinkins, Rudy Giuliani, Michael Bloomberg, and now Bill de Blasio—have played major roles in this dramatic revisioning of the city. Many of the individuals who led the effort, however, have never had their names appear in the papers, yet have been unsung shapers of the city’s ongoing revival.
I recently attended the “going home” service at Mt. Sinai Church of God in Christ on Herkimer Street, Brooklyn, for one of those leaders, Bishop E. L. White, who in 1980 helped found East Brooklyn Congregations, an IAF affiliate. Then-Reverend White was the pastor of a small church, St. James Holiness Church in Brownsville, Brooklyn. It was located on a side street in an area that had once housed gravestone yards for the Jewish residents, described hauntingly by Alfred Kazin in his book A Walker in the City (1951). In 1980 the blocks around Rev. White’s church were dangerous, buildings abandoned, vacant lots filled with discarded tires and trash, gunfire a common sound. White was a full-time transit worker, part-time pastor, and persistent in the organizing of congregations and other associations that would become East Brooklyn Congregations. Working with other pastors and lay people from denominations that differed profoundly on theology and practice, Rev. White convinced them to bracket those concerns so they could together focus on a scheme to demolish hundreds of derelict building; see to the placement of thousands of new street and traffic signs; push for higher standards of cleanliness and quality in local bodegas; and, eventually, construct thousands of affordable homes, the Nehemiah homes, which the organization built with the help of abatements from the city.
What about younger Americans, many of whom have little or no positive experience with institutions, whose limited political life is dominated by the social media?
One of the other founding leaders of EBC, Carmelia Goffe, passed away a few days after Bishop White. Like White, Goffe had been a transit worker, assigned to a tower in the subway system in spite of her chronic asthma. In 1980, when I first met her, she was living in an unheated flat with her three young sons on one of the most dangerous streets in East Brooklyn. She and fellow leaders were writing the grants that would provide some of the initial funding for the fledgling organization. She saved enough money to buy a Nehemiah home in Brownsville, where she raised her family and remained a leader in her community for thirty-six years.
Eighteen months ago she spoke at an assembly of five hundred homeowners, reflecting on the death of Ed Chambers, Alinsky’s successor as executive director of the IAF.
Pastor [John] Heinemeier, Bishop White, and Fr. [John] Powis came together. Their first meeting was in a run-down tenement building on Dumont Avenue. A dark, dank, dilapidated place that reflected what was going on in our neighborhood. Mr. Chambers, a professional organizer from the IAF, said to us: ‘When you get yourselves organized and raise the money to get your organization started, call me back.’ I don’t believe Mr. Chambers thought it could be done. For that matter, I don’t think we thought it could be done. But a fire had been lit under us that made us come together—blacks, Hispanics, whites, Catholics, Protestants, and others. It was unprecedented. We held house meetings, one-on-ones, and we raised $150,000 in dues. We called Ed Chambers back and told him we were ready to start East Brooklyn Congregations.
Goffe and Bishop White, like the early members of the Back of the Yards Council, did not become household names. But they saved East Brooklyn and helped save New York City as surely as any mayor or governor or banker or union leader did.
I confess that the funeral gathering at Mt. Sinai Church of God in Christ was on the older side. The deacons in their dark suits and the deaconesses in their white dresses were of my generation, most in their sixties. So, what about younger Americans, many of whom have little or no positive experience with institutions, whose limited political life is dominated by the social media that defines much of their lives?
Let me quote from a letter I received from a young person who came to Chicago three years ago to participate in an internship program sponsored by Episcopal Charities and Community Services. He grew up in a relatively wealthy family in northern California and then began to travel the country. Here is what Ian wrote:
"I grew up with a theoretical understanding of society and why it’s important. However my family situation always felt isolated from this ‘thing’ called community. Upon graduating from college, I felt drawn towards a ‘free’ life filled with idealistic values like poverty and wandering. The thing is, I was all wrong about ‘freedom.’ In Chicago, I came to understand that freedom is being part of the world and that one cannot belong to this world without institutions.
That all being said, employment is not the only kind of institution I want to be a part of. Here in Oakland, I joined a church. . . . However, the process of becoming part of this faith community has been difficult for me. I think I have been conditioned with the very ‘millennial’ ideal that any social group one belongs to must be perfect. There is such an emphasis in my generation on having ‘best friends’ and being around people who have your exact worldview. This mentality is quite possible in college, but misses the point in the real world. I learned in Chicago that ‘best friends’ are a part of a private life, not necessarily a public one. Finding a little corner of society where everybody agrees with me is not a good goal to have. This church is not perfect, but it is a means to being a part of this neighborhood and this city as a whole. It is a public life. I have made it a goal to go to every event this church has (i.e., Bible studies/community dinners) and actually become part of it.
Just down the street from my house is a park where all the kids from the neighborhood play soccer and basketball. It occurred to me that this public park is absolutely a social institution. The guys who play there do not go to school or church (for the most part), and the courts are where they feel like they belong. . . . I have started going down to the park just to get exercise, but I want to start treating it like an institution. Through playing soccer with these guys, at a physical location that belongs to us all, I can be a part of this neighborhood. Physical ‘belonging’ to a geographical location is becoming a lost art in this digitally connected world.
Since leaving Chicago, I have started to articulate my dreams for the future through institutions I can be part of. . . . I have noticed that the more I belong to communities, the more energy I have. With isolation—no matter how ‘spiritual’ or idealistic it may be—comes lethargy."
Ian, at age twenty-five, has begun to learn the critical lesson of Bishop White, seventy-eight at the end of his life, and Goffe, sixty-eight at the end of her life—not to mention of Fr. Kelly, who is still very much with us. How many more young men and women learn this lesson will depend on them. Although it is too soon to tell, there are signs that some younger Americans are revisiting the question of what it takes to build an institution. After the election, a group of former congressional staffers stopped freaking out fairly quickly and put together a practical guide for themselves and other young progressives. They produced what we in organizing would call a beginning power analysis of the Tea Party. They took the time to learn how the Tea Party evolved as an institution and what strategies and tactics were used to build power and generate impact. The guide emphasizes that the Tea Party was “small, focused, and dedicated . . . almost purely defensive.” You don’t have to be young or progressive to recognize a group of people thinking practically and institutionally, not emotionally or ideologically. These former staffers have witnessed firsthand the effectiveness of another set of very different organizers and leaders. They have already rejected a tendency in American thought that goes at least as far back as Emerson and Thoreau, namely, a devotion to the “infinitude of the private man.” In Walden (1854), Thoreau whined, “But, wherever a man goes, men will pursue and paw him with their dirty institutions, and, if they can, constrain him to belong to their desperate odd-fellow society.” Institutions might lack the luster of apps, networks, and theatrical mobilizations, but, when well built, they offer their members the opportunity to build real power and generate profound and lasting impact.
Institutions are messy, if not dirty. But rejecting them comes with a very high price.
Whether future generations relearn the habits of institution-building also depends on the willingness of adults, such as those Ian met in Chicago, to agitate them. Many people are understandably put off by the limitations—the moderation, the generational time frame—of institutional life. Institutions are messy, if not dirty. But that rejection comes with a very high price: a loss of power, a loss of stability, a vulnerability to all kinds of attractive substitutes that flare up and fade out just as quickly, and an inability to extend or improve upon a living faith in community or party or country.
This is the work—the revitalization of our existing institutions and the creation of a next generation of new institutions—that will make or break the American experiment going forward.