Месечни архиви: януари 2019

Among the Vitamin K ‘Anti-Vaxxers’

Eve Arnold/Magnum PhotosA mother looking at her newborn baby, Long Island, New York, 1959

For pediatric resident physicians, the newborn nursery at a high-risk delivery center is a potent mix of the mundane and the terrifying. We spend most of our time teaching new parents how many wet diapers to expect in a day, making slight adjustments to breastfeeding positions, listening again and again to normal hearts. Most babies don’t need a pediatrician at delivery, and these kids simply arrive on our unit, swaddled and ready for life outside the womb.

Sometimes, though, birth is an emergency: the baby has no heart rate; the baby is not breathing. I wear running shoes here even though I’ve lost a pair to bloodstains, so that every time my pager sounds I am ready to sprint upstairs to the labor and delivery floor. 

Mid-morning, a nurse calls downstairs to tell us that the mother who will have a C-section at noon is declining the Vitamin K shot for her baby. Although the trend of refusing neonatal Vitamin K feels fresher to me than vaccine refusal, it may just be less publicized. I, like many pediatricians, see an increasing number of refusals.

Jen, my intern, sees me grimace. “We need to go upstairs and talk to her before the birth,” I say. “She’s refusing Vitamin K. Do you want to lead this conversation, or do you want to listen to me?”

“Maybe since it’s the first time, I’ll listen to you,” Jen says. 

“OK,” I say. “So let’s go over it first. Why do I care so much that this baby gets Vitamin K?”

“Her blood can’t clot without it,” Jen says.

“Exactly. So the risk of not getting the shot is?”

“Bleeding,” Jen says.

“Brain bleeds and bleeds in the gut are the ones we care about,” I say. “And when might babies who don’t get Vitamin K start bleeding?”

“Um, pretty soon?” Jen says. 

“Yup,” I say. Babies are at the highest risk for Vitamin-K Deficiency Bleeding (VKDB) in the first week of life, so the standard of care is to give the shot within an hour after birth. Many parents don’t know that the risk of VKDB is high in untreated newborns: between one in sixty and one in 250 babies who don’t get the shot will have a clinically significant bleed, like a bleed in the gut that makes them anemic or a brain bleed that affects their neurodevelopment. 

A small minority of these bleeds will be devastating hemorrhagic strokes, which may leave previously healthy babies with severe brain injury or, sometimes, kill them. The severe bleeds happen later in life, between two weeks and six months of age. They are unprovoked—there need not have been a car wreck, trauma or abuse. There are usually no warning signs until the bleeding is severe enough to cause pressure on the brain. 

The Centers for Disease Control, in an appeal to parents, have published a handful of stories from parents whose babies suffered life-threatening VDKB. “Judah’s Story” tells of a healthy boy whose parents declined the shot. At five weeks old, Judah began vomiting. At first, his parents thought he had stomach flu, but by evening he had become lethargic. His folks were getting ready to take him to the ER when he started having seizures. Within hours, the baby was having emergency brain surgery and on his way to a pediatric ICU.

Such bleeding is not among the conditions that doctors are required to report to public health authorities, so we don’t have great data on how often this is happening. Anecdotally, in my three years of residency, I have seen a handful of cases. In every case, it was a healthy kid like Judah, whose life was forever altered by a brain hemorrhage that could have been prevented with a single shot of Vitamin K.

“So what will this mom want to know?” I ask Jen.

“Side-effects of the shot,” she says. (There are none other than pain at the injection site.) 

“If there are any chemicals in the shot.” (Our hospital uses preservative-free Vitamin K.) 

“If she can wait and get it at her pediatrician’s office.” (Not advised because, again, babies are at high risk in the first days of life.)

Upstairs, Jen and I find the expectant mother alone in her room, waiting to be transferred to the operating room for her C-section. Her husband is home minding the kids. We introduce ourselves as the pediatricians who will be there when her baby is born. “So when Mia is born,” I say, “the OB doctors will hold her up for you to see her. We’ll try to do delayed cord clamping, and then she’ll come over to the baby bed with us for a few minutes. Sometimes babies need a little extra help adjusting to the world when they’re born, so our job is to help her out if she needs that. We’ll warm her up and make sure she’s breathing well, and we’ll get her in your arms as soon as possible.” 

The mother nods and smiles, so I continue. “We give three medicines to all babies on the first day of life: erythromycin eye ointment, and a vaccine against Hepatitis B, and Vitamin K,” I say. Erythromycin prevents blindness caused by gonorrheal infection of the babies’ eyes, and the reason we give the Hep B vaccine so soon is because vaccination within twelve hours of life can prevent mother-to-child infections of hepatitis B. 

“Oh, I don’t want to do any of that,” she says.

“Tell me more about that,” I say.

“I just don’t think she needs all those medicines right away,” she says. “My midwife told me to say no.”

This genuinely surprised me. Most practicing midwives are nurses, professionals who provide excellent prenatal care and deliver lower-risk pregnancies safely and competently. I was surprised that a midwife entrusted with the health of mothers and babies would give advice that is so obviously unsafe. 

We know that babies delivered at birthing centers are less likely to receive Vitamin K. After a cluster of four cases of life-threatening VKDB in Tennessee babies in 2013, a study found that 28 percent of infants delivered at Nashville-area birthing centers did not receive Vitamin K. I had assumed, however, that parents who declined the shot were acting against the advice of the midwives caring for them.

“I know you’ve had good prenatal testing, so in your case I do think it’s safe to hold off on erythromycin and hepatitis B,” I said. “But let’s talk about Vitamin K.”

Jen and I spent some time in the room, trying to ensure the baby’s safe delivery without strong-arming the mother. We did what I think is our due diligence: we said the words “stroke” and “bleeding in the brain.” We promised that we would respect her choice but made it clear that our firm medical advice was to get the shot. 

The mother called her husband, and decided she would make a decision after the birth. The surgery went smoothly, and Mia was born vigorous and beautiful. But the mother did refuse Vitamin K. She said she didn’t want to “overwhelm her system with a massive overdose of vitamins.” 

It isn’t an overdose, I fretted inwardly. It’s a dose. 

Jen encouraged Mia’s mother to talk with her primary provider again about Vitamin K, and we let it go. My attending physician tried to call the midwife, but couldn’t reach her. I was left wondering about Mia’s vulnerability, and how I see it differently from her mother. 

Newborn babies are resilient in many ways: they have remodeled their skulls to fit through a pelvis, activated dormant lungs with the first breath of air, opened and closed special passageways in their hearts to match their new extra-uterine environment. Within moments of birth, they are breaking down blood cells and learning to see. I have seen babies born with no detectable heartbeat who get the right pediatric care and are crying vigorously and ready to eat within fifteen minutes of life. An adult could never do that. Newborns are hardy people, in short, and I don’t think a shot can really harm them. A medically appropriate dose of a vitamin can’t overwhelm them. A brain bleed can.

Later in the week, Jen’s co-intern Emily convinced another reluctant mother to accept the shot. This mother simply didn’t know what the stakes of refusal were, and when Emily explained, she changed her mind. 

This is the best pediatricians can do: we can be kind, and we can make sure that parents who refuse Vitamin K understand the possible consequences of that decision—as well as someone who has never set foot inside a pediatric intensive care unit ever will. A colleague told me a story about an anesthesiologist who heard a parent say, mid C-section, that she had chosen not to give Vitamin K. The parent was talking to the pediatrician, but the anesthesiologist snorted and said, “That’s a bad choice.” Supposedly, the parent heard him and changed her mind. 

The story makes me wonder if I should listen less and be more blunt. But parents are allowed to make choices that put their children in unnecessary danger. They are allowed to weigh risk and benefit on their own scales. They can see a shot as harm. Research has shown that parents who decline Vitamin K are likely to go on to decline vaccination. Like those who refuse vaccines, they tend to be college-educated, white, and born in this country—people like me, whose social privilege insulates them somewhat from ill-health.  

Even if my body is insulated, however, my mind is not. I am afraid of giving birth because I have seen women die trying. I am afraid of fever in the first eight weeks of life because I have seen how bacteria can liquefy the brains of children. I am afraid of whooping cough because I have watched a baby’s oxygen levels drop and his heart rate slow, closer and closer to cardiac arrest. I am afraid of nature, because my work has thrust life’s excruciating vulnerability in my face. 

Children die of diarrhea and starvation; they are killed in war. Pneumonia is still the biggest killer of children in the world, though we have vaccines that could prevent many of these deaths. In this country, vaccines such as those against Streptococcus pneumoniae, Haemophilus influenzae, whooping cough, and the influenza virus prevents tens of thousands of pediatric deaths every year. The flu vaccine, for example, reduces a healthy child’s risk of dying from influenza by 65 percent—even if they catch the illness despite vaccination. Approximately 80 percent of the 185 American kids who died of flu last year were unvaccinated. If privilege allows some parents to believe that they are capable of protecting their children without vaccines or Vitamin K, my experience in the children’s hospital—where all the sickest children congregate—makes me afraid that we can never do enough to protect the most vulnerable among us.  

But parents who refuse preventive medicines such as vaccines and Vitamin K do think they are protecting their children. They tend to believe that children are under constant threat: from toxins, from medical interference, from corporate conspiracy. As the American writer Eula Biss writes in On Immunity: An Inoculation (2014):

So now it is, in the activist Jenny McCarthy’s words, “the frickin’ mercury, the ether, the aluminum, the antifreeze” that we fear in our vaccines. Our witches’ brew is chemical. There is not actually any ether or antifreeze in vaccines, but these substances speak to anxieties about our industrial world. They evoke the chemicals on which we now blame our bad health.

These parents see a vulnerability similar to the one that I see in their children, but in their minds the threats come from society. “We seem to believe, against all evidence, that nature is entirely benevolent,” Biss writes. The way I see it, society is by no means benign, but it does offer vaccines and Vitamin K as safeguards against threats that come from nature.


On a Friday afternoon in my primary care clinic, I see a two-week-old boy who has not received Vitamin K. In conversation, I realize that the mother doesn’t object to the vitamin itself; she objects to the shot.

This family is the ideal target for oral Vitamin K supplementation, an option used as standard of care in the Netherlands. In the US, we do not have an FDA-approved form of oral Vitamin K to prevent VKDB, and there is no evidence that the options we do have (grinding up pills and mixing them in water, or giving the injectable liquid by mouth) are effective. When I tried to prescribe oral Vitamin K for a baby, I got different dose recommendations from two different pharmacists, and neither recommendation was evidence-based. To circumvent this confusion, a children’s hospital in Oregon once devised a standard protocol for dosing oral Vitamin K, but doctors there ultimately abandoned the plan because of the absence of evidence for efficacy—a rational choice when we have a cheap, widely available, and near-universally effective shot. 

Pediatricians Melissa Weddle and Carrie Phillipi have argued that American doctors should not recommend off-label use of oral Vitamin K. Even in countries where the proven oral formulation is available, there are treatment failures that would not have occurred with the shot. Oral Vitamin K has to be given several times, at specific intervals in a baby’s life, and studies suggest that many kids won’t get all the prescribed doses. Between this demand for timely repeat dosing and the tendency of babies to vomit oral medicines (or just to vomit, anytime, for whatever reason), some babies treated with oral Vitamin K still develop VKDB. Also, babies who have undetected problems with their liver or gallbladder may not be able to absorb the oral medicine and will remain at risk despite oral treatment.

The safe, effective, and proven method we already have available should be the standard of care for all babies. But there are cases where a family would consent to treatment if only it weren’t for the shot. And even if oral Vitamin K prophylaxis is second-rate care, it is better than no prophylaxis. I wish we in this country would get around to evaluating oral Vitamin K as a second-line option for the minority of babies whose parents are adamant shot-refusers. 

“Tell me more,” I say, because I sense that the mother is holding something back. 

She looks down into the baby’s face as she replies, so softly I almost don’t catch it. “I don’t believe it is right to pierce his holy body with a needle,” she says. 

At that, my heart softens, because this is the kind of objection I feel for. It is not based on risks that science has proven are imaginary, or on false notions of “toxins,” or fear of chemicals that occur naturally in foods and the soil and are added to medicines. This mother’s child is holy, and his body is perfect, and we ought to leave it be.

I agree that they are holy, these pokey, half-myelinated creatures whose needs have woken me from sleep, or kept me from it, a thousand nights. But to persist in my work, I must believe that holiness is inviolable even as the body itself breaks open and bleeds. Babies are holy when they are plump and warm in the newborn nursery. They are holy when they have nasogastric tubes snaking out of their nostrils. Children sedated and paralyzed in the ICU, with surgical wounds freshly bandaged, are holy. Children with double-lumen central lines dripping chemotherapy drugs into their veins are holy. Children reading comics while a hemodialysis machine four times their size runs their blood through a filter, children on heart-lung bypass after drowning in a backyard pool, children who need four IV medicines to make their faltering hearts pump long enough to keep them alive for transplant: holy, holy, holy. 

No needle is strong enough to interrupt for a single second the holiness of a child’s existence. This notion that it could seems to overestimate the ontological power of medicine: I certainly infringe on the bodies of children, but I do not believe their essential selves—their spirits, or their holiness, or their souls—can be harmed by a needle. That takes stronger stuff.

It is common for religion to inform how medicines are used. A deeply Catholic mother who fasted three days so Jesus would relieve her son of the symptoms of asthma recently told me that she nevertheless believes albuterol inhalers are evidence of God’s working through physicians’ hands. An observant Muslim mother whose child refused to take pills was delighted to follow my recommendation for gelatin-free gummy vitamins. (Pork gelatin, contained in many medicines, is considered by some haram, although an international council of imams convened by the World Health Organization has recommended that medicines and vaccines be regarded as exempt from the prohibition.) A woman raised as a Jehovah’s Witness told me her family had renounced her for allowing her three-year-old son to receive an infusion of platelets when chemotherapy had driven his own levels so low that he was at risk of dying from a nosebleed. 

It is not common, however, for religion to present hard refusals that elide creative work-arounds when the potential consequences of declining to use the medicine are so dire.

The boy who has not had the Vitamin K shot is warm, swaddled, breathing quietly. His heartbeat is regular and his normal newborn’s heart murmur has faded. He is holy; he is perfect. And it is shocking to realize the narrative place my medicines hold in this mother’s cosmos. To her, my shot and I are pollutants. We are the bitter Samaritans, strewing bones through the temple in Jerusalem. 

But I am not bitter at my core. I want him to get Vitamin K for practical reasons: so he can stay home safe, in his mother’s arms, with no critical need for my medicines and me. I don’t want him to bleed into his brain. I don’t want neurosurgeons to slice through his skull to relieve the pressure. I don’t want him on a breathing tube in our ICU. The vitamin is preventive, a charm to ward me off. 

The mother and I come to understand each other, but we do not agree, and the baby leaves without the shot.

Identifying details of patients have been omitted or changed.

Source Article from http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/nybooks/~3/6GnRo_eQxIU/

Men’s Lib

Larry Colwell/Anthony Barboza/Getty ImagesHenry Miller, California, circa 1950

Pity John Burnside. It’s not the best time to publish an appreciation and defense of Henry Miller, whose Tropics trilogy, written in the 1930s, was banned for decades in the US for obscenity, and then indicted by feminist critic Kate Millet in her book Sexual Politics (1970) as a paramount example of chauvinist attitudes toward women. Burnside, a poet, points out that Miller is a romantic who devoted over a thousand pages (the Rosy Crucifixion cycle) to chronicling his narrator’s relationship with the great love of his life (based on Miller’s second wife, June). More specifically, Miller was one of the early-twentieth-century writers—with Lawrence and Joyce—who brought the explicitly carnal, so-called lower functions into the literary language of heterosexual romantic love.

Written in an autobiographical first person, Miller’s dirty books are intimate and ardent. “O Tania, where now is that warm cunt of yours, those fat, heavy garters, those soft, bulging thighs? There is a bone in my prick six inches long. I will ream out every wrinkle in your cunt, Tania, big with seed,” Miller’s narrator croons in his infamous address to a married lover in the opening pages of Tropic of Cancer—reason alone for the book to be unpublishable in his home country until 1961, when it was vindicated as a legitimate work of art in an obscenity trial.

I shoot hot bolts into you, Tania, I make your ovaries incandescent. Your Sylvester is a little jealous now? He feels something, does he? He feels the remnants of my big prick. I have set the shores a little wider, I have ironed out the wrinkles. After me you can take on stallions, bulls, rams, drakes, St. Bernards. You can stuff toads, bats, lizards up your rectum. You can shit arpeggios if you like, or string a zither across your navel. I am fucking you, Tania, so that you’ll stay fucked.

It may be hard to hear the romance and dash of Miller’s address when parts of it (“I will ream out every wrinkle in your cunt”) sound like something an angry gamer might have tweeted to Brianna Wu, the video game developer who received numerous threats after criticizing the sexist nature of her industry (actual example: “I’ve got a K-bar and I’m coming to your house so I can shove it up your ugly feminist cunt”). Fifty years after the last obscenity trials cleared the way for sexually explicit content in art, Miller’s writing still violates community standards, as they say, but for a reason other than its being explicit. Alongside our general acceptance of sexual and profane language, a public language of violent, misogynist intimidation has also arisen. “Take her off the stage and fuck her,” some men from Students for a Democratic Society jeered while Shulamith Firestone was speaking about women’s issues at a New Left anti-Nixon rally in 1969. In 2015 Samantha Bee, who was about to become the first woman to have her own late-night show, joked that she’d created a separate “rape threatline” for all the people sending her sexually violent comments. “Whore” doesn’t have much power as a dirty word, but it does have startling power as the last word in Kristen Roupenian’s story “Cat Person,” texted by a man whose attitudes toward the main character have been ambiguous and freighted with potential menace.

Our contemporary obscenities are the racist, sexist, homophobic language of hate speech, language that reminds us of our ability—our desire, we have to conclude—to dismiss and brutalize whole categories of people. Hate speech is of course not banned within works of art, but its usage is contested depending on who’s speaking in what context. A wish to ream out every wrinkle in someone’s cunt is, for today’s reader, possibly as vexing an expression of heterosexual love as it was when Miller wrote it, “cunt” occupying that narrow, cunt-shaped part of the Venn diagram where explicitly sexual terms overlap with terms of potential hate speech, where the old obscenity is also the new obscenity. “Cunt” can’t get a break. For similar reasons, neither can Henry Miller.

To generations of American readers who got their hands on a forbidden copy of Tropic of Cancer, Miller’s voice sounded like freedom itself. Miller was born in 1891, the son of a tailor, and grew up in a lower-middle-class German-American family in Brooklyn. Until his forties he lived mostly in New York (with short stints in California and the South) and wrote prolifically but fruitlessly for decades, supporting himself with a variety of jobs until he came to rely entirely on June, who found them patrons by striking up flirtations with rich-ish men at the dance hall where she worked as a waitress and dancing girl.

Despite June’s belief in his genius, his stories and novels weren’t coming out right, and publishers weren’t interested. (At this stage, he was writing third-person, lightly fictionalized accounts of his day job as a personnel manager at Western Union and his relationship with June, material he would later rework for Tropic of Capricorn and The Rosy Crucifixion.) He left for Paris as a last-ditch effort to change things up, make something happen with his writing. He bummed around Montparnasse, cadging meals, cash, and living quarters from other artists and a few sympathetic benefactors—and from June, who wired him money from New York.

The escape trick worked. At the age of forty, he found a way to write that sounded true. First-person, loosely autobiographical, freewheeling, drawing on such various guiding spirits as Whitman and Céline (whose Journey to the End of the Night Miller read in manuscript while working on Tropic of Cancer), Miller’s Paris novels did away with a lot of the narrative machinery that he saw, in retrospect, had been weighing down his earlier work. Tropic of Cancer is about the narrator’s vagabond life in Paris, the city that had recently worked its magic and set his voice free. The discovery of his writing voice is an event that feels so big that Miller casts it as a renunciation, a total break with his past, a break—in the going style of modernist grand gestures—with literature itself: “Everything that was literature has fallen from me. There are no more books to be written, thank God.” But Miller was not a revolutionary or a movement man. He was a writer finally settling down to play. As George Orwell wrote, Tropic of Cancer “is the book of a man who is happy.”

Orwell too was once poor in bohemian Paris, and wrote of the peculiar satisfaction of hitting bottom:

It is a feeling of relief, almost of pleasure, at knowing yourself at last genuinely down and out. You have talked so often of going to the dogs—and well, here are the dogs, and you have reached them, and you can stand it. It takes off a lot of anxiety.

Orwell’s narrator in Down and Out in Paris and London gives the sense of having taken the exact measure of a situation, seen it clearly, described it precisely. Having nailed it, he goes to look for a job.

Miller’s narrator, by contrast, doesn’t describe, he sings. “I have no money, no resources, no hopes,” he tell us on the first page—“I am the happiest man alive.” Though he too will eventually get a job (as a newspaper proofreader), he will first revel in finding himself at the bottom:

My last problem—breakfast—is gone. I have simplified everything. If there are any new problems I can carry them in my rucksack, along with my dirty wash. I am throwing away all my sous. What need have I for money? I am a writing machine. The last screw has been added. The thing flows.

His narrator drinks, writes, gains and loses small amounts of money, has sex with Tania, with whores, and with his wife when she visits from the States. He makes the social rounds in Montparnasse, among the artists, grifters, Russian exiles, and would-be writers. The book is full of comic incidents and anecdotes unfolding in a continuous present. The big thing that happens to the narrator—his finding a way to write—has already happened at the start of the book, and in any case it can’t be narrated directly. All the book can do is point to the conditions that enabled the narrator’s newfound freedom: his exile, his poverty, his submission to the waywardness of his life, his going with the flow. In Tropic of Cancer’s last scene, the narrator, temporarily flush with cash, takes a cab to a beer garden for a drink by the Seine: “The sun is setting. I feel this river flowing through me—its past, its ancient soil, the changing climate. The hills gently girdle it about: its course is fixed.”

Miller proceeds by colloquial exaggeration, hyperbole, and provocative overstatement, spiced with earthy frankness and surreal comic metaphor:

It was only this morning that I became conscious again of this physical Paris of which I have been unaware for weeks. Perhaps it is because the book has begun to grow inside me. I am carrying it around with me everywhere. I walk through the streets big with child and the cops escort me across the street. Women get up to offer me their seats. Nobody pushes me rudely any more. I am pregnant. I waddle awkwardly, my big stomach pressed against the weight of the world.

We are so used to the first-person comic-oratorical (thanks in part to Miller himself) that it hardly needs explanation today, but no one had quite done it like that in English before. He dares us to disbelieve him, knowing full well he has gotten at the truth without having taken the exact measure of anything at all. Measuring is for bureaucrats. “Even if my distortions and deformations be deliberate, they are not necessarily less near to the truth of things,” Miller wrote several years after completing the Tropics, in an essay called “Reflections on Writing.” “One can be absolutely truthful and sincere even though admittedly the most outrageous liar.”

After he moved back to the US and settled in Big Sur in 1944, Miller had a steady trickle of visitors—pilgrims, really—mostly young white men in flight from middle-class ideals or working-class dead-end jobs, who had been moved by his books to reconsider their ways of life. By this time Miller, an anarchist since his twenties, had not only published the Tropics novels and Black Spring, but also several books of critical and personal essays in which he laid out a worldview that valorized individual liberation from social rules, materialism, and spurious national values, while advocating the pursuit of inner freedom and a self-guided life. Tropic of Capricorn’s narrator dreams of a stateless, lawless, borderless world, a vision more suggestive than prescriptive, where “you wouldn’t own anything except what you could carry around with you and why would you want to own anything when everything would be free?” Miller wrote numerous essays and passages in his novels broadly condemning Western culture, colonialism, capitalism, and the extraction of the earth’s resources. He also considered himself a kindred spirit of the Dadaists, and he captures more in his witty glancing riffs than in his broad direct attacks. Here is the fevered reverie of Tropic of Capricorn’s narrator on a cold night in New York:

To walk in money through the night crowd, protected by money, lulled by money, dulled by money, the crowd itself a money, the breath money, no least single object anywhere that is not money, money, money everywhere and still not enough, and then no money or a little money or less money or more money, but money, always money, and if you have money or you don’t have money it is the money that counts and money makes money, but what makes money make money?

Burnside, who loves and lives by some of the anarchist principles that Miller advocated, argues that “in an age of environmental crisis” these principles are newly relevant: “What we need, each of us, is to become our own anarchists—which is to say, unlearn our conditioning and refuse to be led, thus transforming ourselves into freethinking, self-governing spirits.” But Miller is vague on the question of how liberated spirits are to coexist, and Burnside doesn’t explain how we get from refusing to be led to the kind of large-scale collaboration that seems almost certainly required by the climate crisis. Miller’s vision doesn’t easily mesh with today’s skepticism toward personal transformation, or with the growing conviction that even the most productive and salutary forms of self-liberation can’t serve as substitutes for collective action.

Miller’s own inclinations, in any case, were strongly bohemian, and for most of his life he lived practically hand to mouth. After he and June divorced in 1934, he relied on handouts from Anaïs Nin (whose rich husband and rich psychiatrist-lover provided personal funds as well as financing for the European publication of Miller’s first book), from a few close friends, and from other supporters of his writing. He published short pieces in obscure, low-paying magazines, and he took up watercolor painting and sold his work for badly needed cash. He had a daughter from his first marriage whom he did not support (or see much of after the divorce) and two children with his third wife. Only when his books were published in the US in 1961, when he was seventy, did he finally make a comfortable living from his writing.

When Burnside decided to write about Miller, he tells us, he

had been thinking for some time what it means, not to write the odd poem or two, but to work as a writer, trapped in a seemingly unending struggle to render unto Caesar just enough to buy an hour or two each day to sit in a narrow room and confess, to a sheet of cold white paper, the inner workings of a botched heart.

Burnside—born in Scotland, growing up in England, the son of a steelworker in the East Midlands—had come to Miller’s books as a young man in the 1960s in search of permission and the validation of his desire to write:

Growing up, I had not intended to take up writing as a métier. In fact—as my father frequently told me, whenever I expressed an interest in anything other than manual labor or the armed forces—I knew all too well that “people like us” did not presume to “go into” the arts, where only one in a million “made it,” and that one in a million came from an entirely different background from the gray, uninspiring streets of the impoverished coal and steel towns where I was attempting, despite my father’s derision, to grow up as a different kind of man from the specimen he wanted me to be (tough, hard, ready for anything, devoid of trust).

Miller has so thoroughly been cast as a sexist writer, Burnside points out, that readers may not realize how much his writing upends the early-twentieth-century ideals of manhood that he would have grown up with—and that Burnside also grew up with, one generation removed:

My father’s notions of manliness were mostly to do with physical prowess and the ability to endure hardship—work, pain, mental fight—without complaint. Though he was somewhat younger than Henry Miller, he would probably have been exposed to similar idealizations of manly life, of the kind to which Theodore Roosevelt subscribed: “We need the iron qualities that go with true manhood. We need the positive virtues of resolution, of courage, of indomitable will, of power to do without shirking the rough work that must always be done.” What the industrial society wanted from my father was physical endurance in the coal mine or the steel mill, and reasonable courage in warfare. It had no use for his narrative gifts. Like Miller, my father saw through the societal rhetoric, but he did not know how to avoid his fate as a piece of industrial cannon fodder.

Miller’s own father was judged and hounded by his mother for being a failure at his business, a subject Miller elaborated in Black Spring and Tropic of Capricorn. Refusing his mother’s standards, obscurely keeping faith with his father, Miller too failed to earn a living—a circumstance that caused him some shame (especially with his parents) even as he flaunted it defiantly at other times. He did not, however, ultimately fail as a writer, and his belated, spectacular discovery of his voice allowed him to rewrite the story of supposed failure into a triumph over the tyranny of social expectations and economic pressures. You can be a man without property, he insisted, you can be a man without a wife (in the traditional, respectable sense of the word), you can be a man without a home, and you can be a man while talking about the pleasure of emptying your bladder in a Paris public urinal.

In Tropic of Cancer (unlike the subsequent books, where self-mythologizing and sexual bravado creep in), much of the sex is actually failed sex, or sex that doesn’t go the way it’s supposed to. The narrator and his friends are more likely to fail to get erections, or come at the wrong time, or in the wrong place, than they are to brag about a conquest. His friend Van Norden, the most ardent (we would say compulsive) seducer of women, tells a story of how one of his girlfriends shocked him by revealing that she had shaved her pubic hair:

His curiosity aroused, he got out of bed and searched for his flashlight. “I made her hold it open and I trained the flashlight on it. You should have seen me…it was comical. I got so worked up about it that I forgot all about her. I never in my life looked at a cunt so seriously…. And the more I looked at it the less interesting it became…. When you look at it that way, sort of detached like, you get funny notions in your head. All that mystery about sex and then you discover that it’s nothing—just a blank. Wouldn’t it be funny if you found a harmonica inside…or a calendar?

As a portrait of man vainly trying to trace his appetites to their source, this is pretty funny. By the end of the book, Van Norden—on whom the narrator looks with bemused, condescending fondness—gives up women, deciding it just as pleasing and more convenient to masturbate into a cored apple. But the episode isn’t simply about man, it’s about a man and a woman—who, by the way, is doing what while Van Norden is peering into her vagina? Laughing? Hating? Who knows. Miller’s highly subjective first-person (in this case, Van Norden’s first-person-within-first-person) allows him to write rich comedy about sex in which the woman need not be in on the joke.

Does Miller’s freethinking man have a counterpart in freethinking woman? Miller would surely have said yes—the kind of inner freedom he was after is by definition improvised, often in straitened circumstances, and therefore theoretically available to almost anyone yet difficult for almost everyone to attain. In his novels, however, he doesn’t much care to consider the particular matrix in which women had to make their choices and compromises with a moralistic, property-based, and patriarchal society. The novels are taken up with observing and articulating male ways of being in the world, male styles, male attitudes toward sex and love.

He is very good on men, especially the working men of New York making their way in an unforgiving city. There are great passages in the Tropics and Black Spring about the narrator’s father, the Brooklyn boys and men the narrator grew up with, the lowly bicycle messengers whom he was in charge of hiring and firing for a large New York company (based on Miller’s days at Western Union). The narrator’s manager at the company asks him to write “a sort of Horatio Alger book about the messengers,” sending the narrator into a fugue of indignation (he calls Horatio Alger “the dream of a sick America”) on behalf of the many desperately poor men he interviews who don’t have a prayer of advancing in the company: “You shits,” the narrator imagines telling his managers, “I will give you the picture of twelve little men, zeros without decimals, ciphers, digits, the twelve uncrushable worms who are hollowing out the base of your rotten edifice.”

Women also apply to be messengers at the company, but they inspire a different kind of feeling:

The game was to keep them on a string, to promise them a job but to get a free fuck first. Usually it was only necessary to throw a feed into them in order to bring them back to the office at night and lay them out on the zinc-covered table in the dressing room.

Miller believed in amorality when it came to sex. For him, “sexual morality” could only mean the prudery and hypocrisy and zealous oversight of his elders, which he hated. Nothing could be more foreign to Miller’s narrator than to have regret or misgivings about a sexual encounter based on a woman’s response or her circumstances. But the narrator’s commitment to sexual amorality leaves him unable to size up the plight of those would-be messengers who are both poor and female, or to perceive himself, when he exacts sex for the promise of job, as an instrument of that exploitative corporation that he derides.

Miller did not, in other words, see the subordination of women as one of his society’s many cruelties and stupidities. It could have been otherwise. He moved for some years in the Village bohemia of the 1920s before he left for Paris, in the setting where feminists and suffragists had mixed with other Progressives, anarchists, socialists, and artists of all kinds. Questions of women’s rights and status, alongside questions of free love, were still in the air. And for two centuries, most of the great Anglo-American novelists had been interested specifically in the question of how women could, or should, make their way in the world, given a set of sexual, social, and economic restrictions that would have seemed intolerable to men of the same class. But this was not Miller’s canon—he loved Rabelais, Boccaccio, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche—and these were not his questions.

Nonetheless, his books are full of female characters. Through his narrator’s social and sexual encounters with prostitutes, secretaries, teachers, dancers, desperate job applicants, and other men’s wives, Miller ends up showing us a great variety of women subject to the kinds of economic pressures, narrow prospects, sexual exploitation, and double standards elaborated—and lamented—by Samuel Richardson, Thomas Hardy, George Gissing, and Edith Wharton (most of whom were in their own time notably candid about sex). The difference and the shock of Miller is this: here is a novelist registering the same conditions that two centuries of great English-language writers taught readers to find absorbing, urgent, and unjust, but he has no moral response to them. He sees female characters from the other side, as it were, with cool indifference to their sense of themselves and to their fate, thus seeming to cut off a long-established, artistically fertile current of sympathy in prose fiction for the circumstances and constraints of people born female.

Van Norden’s—and the main narrator’s—attitude of essential aloofness from the woman with whom he’s having sex would be picked up in the work of many (heterosexual) writers and artists Miller inspired: it’s in Kerouac, in Lenny Bruce, in Mailer and Bellow and Roth, and in the work of later writers who make great comedy of male sexual appetites and failures. Miller became a guiding spirit of the 1960s sexual revolution, a movement whose public intellectuals and popular promoters—Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse, Hugh Hefner, and Helen Gurley Brown—ascribed sexual inhibition to a variety of sources (capitalism, property relations, bourgeois values, religion) without considering that a major factor in heterosexual sexuality might be what we now call sexism. They did not take account of the ways in which women’s lower status and limited scope for self-determination might also affect sexual expression—for all parties involved, and not necessarily for the better. The women’s movement would soon sweep in to correct them, and then get corrected itself through decades of intramural and extramural debate about sexual ethics.

There still sometimes seems a gap in our public discourse when it comes to these fault lines of heterosexuality, a hesitancy to suggest that the prevalence of sexual harassment, violence against women, and hiring discrimination have an effect not only on particular victims, but on intimate relationships between men and women. These relationships form and dissolve in a society that has long been sexually permissive without exactly being—or seeming, or feeling—sexually free. In his best flashes of writing about sex, Miller shows us how it might feel to be free and easy. But he can’t imagine what it would actually take to get us all there. Strange as it is to say, he did not think hard enough about women.

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Farmworker Anxieties

In response to:

In the Valley of Fear from the December 20, 2018 issue

Matt Black/Magnum PhotosFarm laborers on their way to work, Fresno, California, 2004

To the Editors:

Michael Greenberg’s essay “In the Valley of Fear” [NYR, December 6, 2018] captures the overwhelming sense of anxiety among many farm laborer families in California. Daily life among family members, whether traveling to work or to school, shopping, or just visiting friends, places them at risk of sudden arrest and possible deportation at the hands of federal ICE agents. In relating Rufina Garcia’s story and visiting her late parents’ shrine, Greenberg correctly focuses on the indigenous immigrants’ plight: agriculture’s reliance on low-wage immigrant labor vs. a society that has become increasingly antagonistic to the millions of hard-working families who lack authorization for US employment.

At the same time, Greenberg inaccurately portrays recent trends in California agricultural production, and in the state’s farm labor market. While he suggests that San Joaquin Valley table grape vineyards have been pulled out owing to a shortage of labor, he appears unaware of the latest production data. The California Table Grape Commission announced that the industry set a new all-time high record of production during its 2018 peak harvest season, shipping 55 million cartons of fresh table grapes. Nearly all were hand-picked by foreign-born farm laborers.

Some sectors of California agriculture have fared badly in recent years. Production and/or prices have declined for cotton, sugar beets, and some other field crops, as well as dairy. New almond and pistachio orchards replaced some croplands. But many components of the fresh produce sector have thrived. Every year, the state’s farms yield ever more key fresh produce crops: more berries, more leafy greens, more table grapes, and more mandarin oranges, among other commodities. Despite a record five-year drought, wildfires, and untimely freezes, segments of the fresh produce sector have expanded.

Labor demand in California agriculture is greatest for these fresh produce crops while most field crops rely heavily on mechanized planting and harvesting. Nonetheless, during the decade 2008 through 2017, the statewide annual average of monthly employment in agriculture increased from 389,767 to 418,258, a growth of 7.3 percent. The greatest increases were for fresh produce crops.

What has changed in the farm labor market during the past several years is that fewer domestic workers—residents of the US, regardless of employment authorization status—seek jobs in agriculture. How could employment have increased?

The new source of farm laborers is the existing “guest worker” program, formally known as the “non-immigrant, temporary foreign agricultural worker” program, aka H-2A, its visa category. The most recent report finds the number of H-2A visas certified for US employment during fiscal year 2018 was 242,762, up by 21 percent over the 2017 figure. In California alone, year-on-year, the number of H-2A visas certified increased by nearly 40 percent. Representative Bob Goodlatte’s failed proposal to weaken the H-2A visa program had minimal support in the House and Senate.

California agriculture has led the nation for decades in annual production value. Farmers know their industry is reliant on foreign-born labor. Californians favor comprehensive immigration reform instead of policies that intentionally divide families and punish many who work hard in our state’s fields.

Don Villarejo
Founder and Director Emeritus
California Institute for Rural Studies Inc.
Davis, California

Michael Greenberg replies:

I appreciate that Don Villarejo acknowledges the accuracy of my portrayal of the plight of undocumented farmworkers and their families in California, and I admire the research that the California Institute for Rural Studies has conducted on the dangers of heatstroke, pesticide exposure, and food insecurity faced by farmworkers. But I fear that he has misread my discussion of labor shortages in relation to the economic value of California’s agricultural production. Revenues are higher than ever, as I report—$50.13 billion in 2017, according to the latest figures from California’s Department of Food and Agriculture, almost double that of any other state. No one doubts that this is because of the high value of the state’s fruit and vegetable crops that travel straight from the fields, without processing in most cases, to America’s supermarkets and grocery stores.

The 7.3 percent increase in the number of farmworkers over the past ten years that Mr. Villarejo cites is pretty modest in light of the fact that California’s farm revenues rose more than 30 percent between 2010 and 2017. In 2017, grape production decreased by 4 percent yet grape revenues increased by 3.1 percent, because the price went up by $62 per ton. Surely this price increase, along with favorable weather conditions after the end of a recent drought, contributed to the strong table grape harvest of 2018.

Yes, these grapes were picked by undocumented workers, but that doesn’t change the fact that all along California’s agricultural valleys, growers are anxious about labor shortages as they compete for the same finite—and shrinking—pool of workers. Wine vineyards, where the highest-value grapes are grown, are employing machines instead of farmworkers to strip grape clusters and leaves, even though the machines sometimes damage the vines. And fruit growers have been planting more and more almond groves, which require less labor, despite the fact that almonds consume large amounts of expensive water. Every grower I spoke to or saw quoted in the local press was worried about the precarious supply of labor. John D’Arrigo of D’Arrigo Brothers, the giant lettuce and broccoli producer in the Salinas Valley, admitted that he was losing millions of dollars a year from crops that have been plowed under because of a persistent shortage of workers.

With undocumented domestic workers under intense pressure from ICE, it is no surprise that more guest workers are being contracted to work in California’s fields. But guest workers are not the answer: H-2A visas are subject to changes that can weaken guest workers’ rights and undermine the wages of workers who live here. And most growers prefer a steady local workforce with ongoing knowledge of the vicissitudes of particular crops and climates.

These are relatively minor differences when compared to the important issue that Mr. Villarejo and I wholeheartedly agree upon: comprehensive immigration reform that would give undocumented workers the right to live and raise their families without fear of sudden deportation.

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Building in Berkeley

In response to:

California: The State of Resistance from the January 17, 2019 issue

To the Editors:

In the article “California: The State of Resistance” [NYR, January 17], Michael Greenberg wrote, “I was surprised to see virtually no new construction in Berkeley.” I don’t know where he looked, but I could offer a tour of just-completed, under construction, and permits-issued residential sites, most several stories taller than what they replace. Is it enough? No, but far better than a decade ago when nothing was being built, and a clear sign of progress.

David Michael Vartanoff
Oakland, California

Michael Greenberg replies:

I thank Mr. Vartanoff for pointing out that there is indeed construction activity in the city of Berkeley. I should have written, “I was surprised to see virtually no construction of affordable housing in Berkeley.” My essay about statewide poverty and housing in California was not the place to drill into the data of particular localities. But Berkeley is a prime example of how hyperlocal laws impede the building of affordable housing, and I hope to address here the complaints of readers who took issue with my characterization of Berkeley’s housing shortage.

In Berkeley, 910 new housing units were completed between 2014 and 2018 and another 525 units have permits or are already under construction—a total of 1,435 and a considerable increase from the relative inactivity of previous years. Only 157 of these units are affordable; the rest are for high-income tenants. In 2016 Berkeley permitted the construction of a total of eighteen affordable units; in 2017 the total was sixteen. The majority of the current construction is clustered around the downtown area and consists of smaller apartments marketed to high-rent-paying students and recent graduates.

For Berkeley to meet its Regional Housing Needs Allocation, 1,530 additional units still need to be built by 2022, and almost all of these—1,401 units—will have to be for low- and moderate-income households. It is difficult to envision a scenario in which this will occur, even though the developers of a 260-unit building on a former parking lot on Fourth Street made half of their apartments affordable last year in order to stop being thwarted by local restrictions and lawsuits. They invoked a laudable new state law (SB 35) under which any municipality that is not meeting its housing requirements must relinquish control of its permit process (i.e., local restrictions and pending lawsuits are summarily overruled) when developers make a mandated portion of their projects affordable. Another step in the right direction is Governor Gavin Newsom’s recent proposal to penalize cities that fail to meet affordability goals by withholding state money for road and transit improvements.

One reason for the lack of affordable housing in Berkeley is its Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance, a visionary law when it was passed in 1973; it was designed to protect the city from demolition-happy “urban renewal” polices by granting control over new construction to neighborhood residents. But housing realities have changed since the 1970s: the federal government no longer invests in large-scale “slum clearance” projects, and the Berkeley ordinance now works to impede the creation of badly needed affordable housing in residential areas where new projects can and should be built. In 2018, the median cost of a home in Berkeley was more than $1 million, and the average one-bedroom apartment rented for $2,296. Residents use arcane zoning technicalities to block new construction because of parking concerns or dubious fears that it will depress property values and disturb a neighborhood’s “character.”

This kind of politics of convenience is hard to defend in a time of crisis. California is in the throes of a passionate debate about how best to tackle its affordable housing shortage. It seems reasonable to hope that Berkeley, with its long history of support for progressive causes, will find a way to create equitable housing policies. Ethical, inclusionary development adds value to cities in innumerable ways.

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‘My Responsibility to History’: An Interview with Zhang Shihe

Sim Chi Yin/Magnum PhotosZhang Shihe, often known—as China’s first citizen journalist—by his web name “Tiger Temple”

“Tiger Temple” (Laohu Miao) is the nom de guerre of Zhang Shihe, one of China’s best-known citizen journalists and makers of short video documentaries, many of them profiling ordinary people he met during extraordinarily long bike rides through China, or human rights activists who have been silenced but whose ideas on freedom and open society he has recorded for future generations.

Now sixty-five years old, Zhang belongs to a generation of people like leader Xi Jinping who came of age during the Cultural Revolution. Also like Xi, Zhang was a child of the country’s Communist elite. His father had been a Public Security Bureau official in China’s Northwest, which was also the base of Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun. Zhang’s father was a rung lower on the ladder, but still ended his career with the rank of vice-minister.

And like the Xi family, the Zhangs suffered during the Cultural Revolution. Xi was sent off to a remote village to labor, while Zhang Shihe was a child laborer who helped build a treacherous mountain railway line. But the two reacted differently to their fates. When the turmoil ended in the late 1970s, Xi grasped every opportunity to make up for lost time and launch his political career. Zhang, however, used the freedoms of the new era to explore how China had gone off the rails.

He did this by interviewing China’s downtrodden, becoming a pioneering “citizen journalist,” a breed of self-taught activists who used the newly emerging digital technologies to record interviews and post them online, thus bypassing—for about a decade starting in the early 2000s—traditional forms of censorship.

After nearly twenty years in Beijing, Zhang was caught up in the hardening political climate and, in 2011, sent him back to his hometown of Xi’an. This is the most important metropolis in western China and also one of the country’s most famous ancient cities. I went there with the help of a Pulitzer Center travel grant late last year to find out how civil society was faring outside of the narrow confines of Beijing.

The interview below is part of a bigger project I’ve been pursuing to look at how writers, thinkers, and artists are dealing with the new, more repressive policies in China. As I’ll explore in subsequent posts and an essay in the Review, I found in Xi’an a surprisingly thriving, if small, ecosystem of critical journalists and thinkers.

Zhang lives in the eastern reaches of Xi’an, in a district called Ba River, which is one of the rivers that bounds the city. In ancient times, it was the place where travelers to the empire’s provinces took leave of friends, and was mentioned by so many great Chinese poets that it became synonymous with melancholy and loss.

When I visited, I found another sort of tristesse: the drab uniformity of modern Chinese cities. The Ba still flows but the area is now a series of endless housing compounds of fifteen-story buildings divided by razor wire and faceless streets. One subway line serves the area, its stations made of corrugated iron that was being hammered by rain when I arrived.

Ian Johnson: Why are you living back in Xi’an?

Zhang Shihe: It was 2011 and the Jasmine Revolution [the North African uprising, which also led to a crackdown in China]. I didn’t participate in that, but one day, the Public Security Bureau told me not to go outside. That was the day there were supposed to be Jasmine Revolution protests in Beijing. I didn’t even know about it, but they kept an eye on me.

I moved to Xianghe [a distant suburb] but they kept pushing me further and further out of Beijing. I was being followed constantly.

I thought: forget it, I’ll just leave. I went to Hebei Province to do an investigation and, a month later, was back in Beijing and they were following me again. I thought, Forget it, I’m leaving. So I rode back here.

You rode back to Xi’an?

Of course, I always ride my bike.

From Beijing to Xi’an? That’s 1,000 kilometers!

That’s exactly right: 1,000 kilometers. But I once rode the length of the Yellow River, so what’s Beijing to Xi’an? I ride slowly. About thirty or forty kilometers each day. I’m never in a rush. I like to stop and interview people and just move on slowly.

What do you like about this work?

I’m not so good on theoretical questions like that. Maybe the feeling of speed when reporting the news, even though I’m not a journalist. I always liked reporting. At one point, around 1990, I bought two motorcycles and got two young guys and told them, “Wherever anything is happening, you go there and report on it and bring it back to me.” And I’d write an article and send it to the newspapers.

At least, that was my goal. We did buy the motorcycles, but mainly smoked cigarettes and waited around. But I realized I liked news. There was some pleasure in it.

And you want to influence politics?

Politics? Don’t bring that up. But righteousness (zhengyi)—because I’m one of those people who gets really angry when he sees something wrong. No one cares, but I do. I have to speak up.

Where does it come from, this sense of justice?

[Laughs.] I don’t know! From heaven. It’s not genetic, that’s for sure. My older brother isn’t like me. He is happy to get along.

Maybe your experiences in the Cultural Revolution?

That was a very strange time. My parents were attacked as “cow demons” and “snake spirits” in the Cultural Revolution. You see, my father was from the founding generation of the revolution. He was from a very poor area, Xunyi County in Shaanxi. He worked in Public Security. But it was exactly these old, loyal officials who were attacked by Mao and his followers. Both my parents went to jail.

And you?

I was thirteen and I went traveling. I was too young to be a real Red Guard, but at the start of the Cultural Revolution, schools closed and train travel was made free so young people could travel China and experience the revolution.

We were all red. We were brainwashed and wanted to see Chairman Mao in Beijing. We got on a train the night before it was due to depart and we slept on the train. We thought we were going [east] to Beijing, but in the morning when it started to move, we realized it was heading west!

We went to Chengdu, which was in the middle of armed struggle [a phase of the Cultural Revolution when guns, and even gunboats, were used by different factions]. I spent eight or nine months on the road. I saw the most violent parts of the Cultural Revolution. We begged for food on the streets—we had no money.

When I was nearly fifteen, I got back home to Xi’an just by accident. The train stopped here so I got off. I didn’t have a penny.

People of your generation missed a lot of formal schooling.

When I got back to Xi’an, I went to classes to make up for lost time, but we didn’t learn much. It was really basic. We did math and Chinese. The rest of the time, we learned slogans about how we had to defeat nature, or learn from [the model commune of] Dazhai.

When I was seventeen, my education really stopped. Mao ordered young people to the countryside. I was sent to work on the Xi’an to Qinghai railway. More than 190 people died building that. We had to carry forty-pound sacks of cement on our backs. We were teenagers.

Of course, it ruined so many people’s health. Most were broken when they came home. They’d carry two sacks, one on the end of each pole, and carry it up the mountain. Professional track layers did twenty-eight meters a month. We did thirty-seven.

We were crazy in our revolutionary fervor for Mao. We even smelted metal. We had no training. We didn’t know what we were doing.

You’ve done a lot to help these workers. Many still come back to Xi’an to protest each month to demand compensation. You’ve recorded many of their stories.

Yes, all those old guys, over sixty, this is why they come: it’s not for money. They all have children and grandchildren. They don’t lack money. But 25,800 people worked on it, and 7,400 died prematurely after coming back. They don’t want that forgotten.

What happened to you when the reform era started?

I was ran one of the first independent bookstores in China. It was called Tianlai (Scorpion). It lasted from 1983 to 1990.

But after the June 4 [Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989], all the interesting books were banned, especially the foreign ones. No one had an interest in reading since all the books were boring.

And then you turned into a citizen journalist. How did you take the name Tiger Temple?

It was 1997 or so, and everyone was getting online. Everyone was taking web names (wangming) as a way to be anonymous. There’s a place in Beijing named Tiger Temple. People worshipped there on their way to pilgrimages in the western mountains because the mountains used to have tigers. They were dangerous, and so they were worshipped as a way to get protection from this danger. I thought it would be a great name for myself online.

Beijing became your base for long bike rides. You spent five months riding along the Yellow River and produced more than forty videos, about thirty of which can be seen in China and the others, censored, are on your YouTube channel. You recorded stories about people’s livelihood, pollution, and corruption. What led to this work?

I can’t express myself well [in writing] so I think that recording is my best way. I don’t really do deep theoretical explorations. Think about it: I stopped school at thirteen and then had another year of education, mainly using an abacus. Then I worked as a child laborer on the railroad. So, for me, recording on a camera is great. I do it all myself: I record, cut, produce. I have more than nine hundred videos on Youku (a Chinese online video service).

Why bike rides? You once wrote that on one trip you had to change seven inner tubes, three tires, four chains, and a set of gears.

I like riding because you see more. I like to travel alone. You don’t bother others and they don’t bother you.

Where did you sleep?

Three places. One is the highway toll booths. My bike can’t go on the highway, but there are cars and people all the time so it’s safe. Or the entrance to a police station. That’s safe. My favorite is someone’s backyard. I don’t live in their homes. One reason is the hygiene, or lack of it. I ask if I can stay out back for ten or twenty yuan [two or three dollars]. People are really happy to do that. Then we eat and drink, and the stories come out. The next day, I’d go to the county seat, find an Internet bar, and send out the stuff.

What were you looking for on these trips?

Everyone wants to travel but few have the time. Everyone’s busy making money. I thought: I have time but no money—because I wasn’t working. I was over forty with no money. So I thought I’d travel poor. Just as cheaply as possible.

Then people began to write about me. I was in Yangcheng Wanbao [a influential newspaper in southern China] and other newspapers. People sent money. Then I got to Inner Mongolia one day and no one reported on me anymore. The guy repairing bikes said, “Hey, aren’t you the guy they reported on in the newspaper?” I said, “Maybe I am.” He said, “So why aren’t they reporting on you?” I said, “You’re right, I don’t know why.”

Later, a journalist told me: he said they issued an order that you can’t report on me. So that was the end of that. But what did I do wrong? A person can’t go investigate on his own at his own expense? But that was it. No one reported on me.

Sim Chi Yin/Magnum PhotosZhang Shihe now makes documentary films on social issues in China

Now you’re doing longer-form videos, including a series of interviews with lawyers and activists who were involved in the rights-defense [weiquan] movement.

It’s called “Diligently Strive for Civil Society” and has fifty-one parts. You can see thirty-seven on Chinese social media, but the rest are banned inside China. I interviewed [the artist] Ai Weiwei, [the scholar and activist] Cui Weiping, [the legal scholar] He Weifang, [the civil rights activist] Xu Zhiyong.

Why is so much going on in Xi’an? Is it more open than Beijing?

No! It’s a stupid city. They don’t get what the [central] government is trying to do. It’s different in places like Chengdu. That’s an anti-Communist base! Their character in Sichuan is to rebel. All the people from Sichuan are like that.

But Xi’an is an imperial city. I went to Beijing and a taxi driver said, “Wow, you’re from Xi’an—that’s a real capital.” I said, “Beijing is too, right?” He said, “No, we’ve only been the capital for 500 years. You’re a real capital.”

But it’s not like that. [The writer] Jia Pingwa called it right in [his 1993 novel] Ruined CityIt was once a cosmopolitan capital, but now it’s stupid and backward. If the officials here were a bit more competent, they’d be ten times more fierce.

After making those short videos, you’re now doing full-length documentary features, like the film Ram.

It makes me feel a bit more creative. I’m getting older and want to win prizes! I started this at age fifty-eight. I’m not young anymore and if my films are longer, then they’re longer.

Can these films ever be shown in China?

What we’re doing now is recording this and leaving it for the next generation. If we can leave something, then that’s good.

I’ve sent everything I’ve done abroad. There’s nothing we can show here in China, so we have to send it abroad. [The art curator and organizer of a now-banned independent film festival] Li Xianting is trying, but it’s almost impossible now. The last time [I saw him], we had to meet at the second floor of a hamburger joint and watch the film on two laptops. Li Xianting is such a great figure, but that’s what he’s reduced to: showing films on the second floor of a hamburger joint.

What’s your next project?

I’m building a website for the guys who worked on the railway. I’m collecting historical materials. I plan to put online all this oral history.

Why this project?

I was a Mao Zedong child laborer. Thousands died. It was twelve year-olds blasting tunnels with explosives. It was insane. I can’t record them all, but I’m going to just keep going. I’m trying to make a document. It’s my responsibility to history.

This interview, part of Ian Johnson’s continuing NYR Daily series “Talking About China,” was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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Accentuate the Positive

Arindam Dey/AFP/Getty ImagesAn Indian health official administering polio vaccine drops to newborn babies at a hospital in Agartala, India, as part of a nationwide program to eradicate polio, January 2018

Is the world getting better or worse? Both, it seems. In January 2018, Time ran a cover story called “The Optimists,” in which the issue’s guest editor, Bill Gates, reported that things are on the whole improving. Within the month, The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved the hands of its Doomsday Clock thirty seconds closer to midnight, signifying that the end is as nigh as it has ever been.

The Doomsday Clock was created in the late 1940s to warn of nuclear Armageddon and now monitors other risks as well. Climate change has been factored in since 2007, bioterrorism and artificial intelligence were included in 2015, and further causes for concern will no doubt be added in due course. The clock’s hands have been moved twenty-three times since 1947, mostly in an ominous direction, but it is only a gimmick. There is no pretense that it measures anything except the degree of foreboding felt by a panel of scientists and academics.

Time’s optimists, by contrast, claim to base their sunnier outlook on precise quantification. It is “backed by data,” wrote Gates. He mentioned, among other things, a halving since 1990 of the number of children who die before their fifth birthday; a decline in the proportion of the world’s population that lives in extreme poverty, from over one third in 1990 to about one tenth now; and a rise during the past century in the number of countries in which it is legal to be gay, from twenty to more than a hundred.

There may also have been a rise in the number of books that count the ways in which things are going well. At least fifteen have appeared in English since the publication in 2000 of It’s Getting Better All the Time: 100 Greatest Trends of the Last 100 Years by Julian Simon, an economist who died in 1998, and Stephen Moore. Nobody has yet unveiled a Paradise Clock to mark the world’s measurable progress toward utopia, but many of these authors do seem to hear such a thing ticking.

Others are less sanguine, since there is no evident method of weighing good news of one sort against bad news of another. Simon’s book had a dissenting preface by his widow, Rita Simon, who was uncomfortable with the positive terms in which her husband had described the twentieth century. Despite his 146 tabulations of encouraging developments, ranging from a rise in life expectancy to increased numbers of teeth in adult mouths and of orchestras in US cities, she pointed out that the past century also saw the rise of Nazism, Stalinism, and Maoism, and the deaths of at least 170 million people at the hands of their own governments.

Optimism can seem heartless and naive even when there is plenty of good news to report, as Hans Rosling notes in his instructive Factfulness: “Because you know that huge problems remain…you feel that me saying that the world is getting better is like me telling you that everything is fine.” For this reason, Rosling, a Swedish doctor and professor of public health who died in 2017, preferred to call himself a “possibilist,” which means

someone who neither hopes without reason, nor fears without reason…. As a possibilist, I see all this progress, and it fills me with conviction and hope that further progress is possible. This is not optimistic…. It is having a worldview that is constructive and useful.

Steven Pinker, in Enlightenment Now, is similarly uneasy with the label of “optimist.” Bill Gates is content with it, but in effect redefines it: “Being an optimist…means you’re inspired to look for people making progress…and to help spread that progress more widely.”

This pragmatic stance was anticipated and dubbed “the new optimism” in an article in Popular Science Monthly in 1913 by George Patrick, an American philosopher and psychologist. According to Patrick, the old optimism said, “Cheer up, for the world is good and beautiful,” whereas the new says more modestly, “Cheer up, for you can make the world good and beautiful.” His coinage never caught on, perhaps because nobody was interested in any kind of optimism after World War I promptly broke out.

Today’s new optimists often have a hard job convincing people that there has been much progress. The problem is not just that there is room for debate about what counts as progress, or that some people fear impending disasters, but that almost everyone is mistaken about basic measurements of the state of the world. It was a singular achievement of Rosling to illustrate this surprising fact and to show that it cannot be explained by mere ignorance.

For several decades, he gave simple questionnaires to various audiences around the world, and in 2017 a version of his quiz was administered by two polling firms to 12,000 people in fourteen countries. Here are a few of its multiple-choice questions:

How did the number of deaths per year from natural disasters change over the last hundred years?

(A) more than doubled; (B) remained about the same; (C) decreased to less than half.

How many of the world’s one-year-old children today have been vaccinated against some disease?

(A) 20 percent; (B) 50 percent; (C) 80 percent.

In the last 20 years, the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty has…

(A) almost doubled; (B) remained more or less the same; (C) almost halved.

Given twelve such questions—other topics included average life expectancy, female education, endangered species, and access to electricity—one person out of 12,000 got eleven right, nobody got them all right, 15 percent got them all wrong, and the average number of correct answers was 2.2. Most people did worse than they would have done if they had picked their responses at random, which would have produced an average of four correct answers. As Rosling puts it, chimps would have done better than humans did.

Rosling’s quiz is shaped so that the correct answer to each question is also the one that corresponds to the way any well-meaning person would want the world to be. (Thus in all three examples above, the correct answer is C.) It therefore seems that people are biased against good news on such topics. Expert knowledge does not appear to be much help in overcoming this bent. Rosling reports that an audience of health scientists did even worse than laypeople on his vaccination question. His results generally match those of similar studies, including a survey spanning thirty-eight countries by the Ipsos MORI market research firm in 2017.

Rosling blames our misperceptions on an “overdramatic” worldview, and he identifies ten habits of thought that contribute to it. One is a “negativity instinct” that leads us to notice unpleasant things more than pleasant ones, and which results from three main factors, according to Rosling. Bad news is loudly reported and memorable, whereas incremental improvements tend to be neither. We misremember the past as better than it was. And we feel that it is unseemly to dwell on the good when so much is bad. Most of his book consists of helpful tricks for overcoming the mental habits that can lead us astray, and tips for interpreting and digesting data.

While Rosling wanted calmly to curb our “cravings for drama,” Pinker prefers to make an angry song and dance. In Enlightenment Now, he ridicules “morose cultural pessimists” who are loath to acknowledge progress and vilifies many supposed enemies of the sciences and humanism that he thinks made it possible. So incensed is he by the “declinism” and “progressophobia” of our times that he is apt to let his keyboard run away with him. “Intellectuals,” he writes, without qualification, “hate progress.” And “people”—we do not learn exactly who, but literary “elites” and “the chattering class” are his stock villains—are said to regard saving billions of lives and feeding the hungry as “Bo-ring.”

Enlightenment Now is the most ambitious work of its genre so far, and it is not boring. Awash with graphs, it documents improvements in human life, mostly from around the nineteenth century onward. Dickens’s Thomas Gradgrind pronounced himself “ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to.” So is Pinker. His Gradgrindian juggernaut plows through health, wealth, food, happiness, the environment, peace, and human rights, among other things, and the upshot is that lots of things have on average been getting better in most places for a while.

Even some acts of God are becoming less irksome. Pinker reports a thirty-seven-fold decline since the beginning of the twentieth century in the chances of a person in the United States being killed by lightning. This happy fact results from acts of mankind, namely better medical treatment, weather prediction, and safety training, plus shifts of population from rural to urban areas. Some other positive changes are less easy to explain, but nevertheless real, such as the so-called Flynn effect, a significant rise in IQ scores over the course of the twentieth century. Increases in these scores have been measured in the Americas since the 1920s, in Europe since the 1930s, and have been confirmed for thirty-one countries (though the scores have recently been falling in some places).

Despite its wider range, Enlightenment Now is in one respect more solid than Pinker’s earlier The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011). The new book focuses on relatively recent times for which sources of data are easier to interpret, whereas Better Angels spanned nearly all of human history. Its forays into archaeology and the Middle Ages did not fare well under expert scrutiny. Pinker’s analyses of data in Enlightenment Now will not be the last word on the more contentious subjects in his broad remit, but they are on balance salutary.

His commitment to the cause of spreading good news, though, does blinker him now and then. For example, a chapter on economic inequality smacks of rhetorical sleight of hand. Its aim is to refute the idea that rising inequality within some countries is a “sign that modernity has failed to improve the human condition.” Pinker’s reply is that one should not confuse inequality with poverty or with unfairness.

That is a reasonable point. But it is the seemingly unfair way in which the wealth of the new super-rich has been accumulated, and the unhealthy amount of political power that it affords them, to which people mainly object when they complain that growing inequality amounts to the opposite of progress. Whether or not these problems are properly designated as inequalities is a side issue: what matters is that they are regrettable developments.

For Pinker, the reason why human life changed for the better in the past two centuries is simple: “The Enlightenment has worked—perhaps the greatest story seldom told.” He construes the Enlightenment broadly, to include not just its core in the last third of the eighteenth century but a quarter of a millennium of European history, from the intellectual pioneers of the early 1600s to liberals in the first half of the nineteenth century. What these thinkers had in common, according to Pinker, was a belief that we can and should “apply reason and sympathy to enhance human flourishing.”

As a slogan for the long Enlightenment, this is apt enough, though we get few further particulars. Pinker is thumping a bible that he rarely opens. And when he does open it, he mainly sees a mirror. Pinker, who is a psychologist and an atheist, writes that Montesquieu, Adam Smith, Kant, Diderot, and other eighteenth-century thinkers were “cognitive neuroscientists” and “evolutionary psychologists” avant la lettre, because they all wanted some sort of science of man. He concedes that “not all of the Enlightenment thinkers were atheists.” It would be more accurate to say that almost none of them were.

Pinker does not explain exactly how “the gifts of the Enlightenment” were delivered but is sure that it is the Enlightenment that deserves credit for our better lives. How much did thinkers have to do with it all, though? Adam Smith praised market economies; he did not invent them. Pinker notes that the Industrial Revolution “ushered in more than two centuries of economic growth,” so one might think that it, too, was deserving of thanks. Perhaps we are to suppose that the Enlightenment was responsible for the Industrial Revolution.

The finer points of history are, however, not Pinker’s concern. His aim is to promote the values that were characteristic of the Enlightenment, namely “reason, science, humanism, and progress.” Science is described as “the refining of reason to understand the world.” There is a brief but stimulating account of psychological investigations of reasoning. Humanism is defined as the “goal of maximizing human flourishing.” The nebulousness of some of what he is promoting becomes apparent in the last third of the book. Much of it is a sort of hunting ground for the pursuit of assorted bugbears, in which Pinker takes issue with various enemies and supposed enemies of the Enlightenment.

The foes include religious faith, authoritarian populism, nationalism, theistic morality, tribalism, mysticism, and the Romantic movement, which was allegedly too dreamy to accept that “peace and prosperity were desirable ends.” Today’s intellectuals are also a threat even when they are not nationalists, religious, or unduly Romantic. They tend to be not only pessimistic progressophobes but also openly hostile to other Enlightenment values. Pinker’s attacks on intellectuals are a volte-face. Instead of the sunny, sober, and numerate evaluation of evidence in his documentation of progress, we get flimsily supported jeremiads and hyperbolical moaning.

He writes that reason, science, and humanism are treated by today’s thinkers with “indifference, skepticism, and sometimes contempt.” Science fares the worst in this trinity of derided ideals. It is taught as “just another narrative or myth” in “many” educational establishments, and liberal arts curricula are “often designed to poison” students against it. Also, “many” historians of science think it “naïve to treat science as the pursuit of true explanations.” Unable to produce hard evidence of this antiscientific blight, Pinker tuts over reading lists. He reports an analysis of a million syllabi that shows Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions to be the second-most-assigned book about science. This book has indeed been taken by some, though not by its late author, to encourage the idea that science is irrational. Yet The Communist Manifesto is the second-most-assigned book about politics, and colleges do not seem to be awash with Communists.

Pinker quotes the abstract of a journal article, “Glaciers, Gender, and Science,” as an example of work that treats science as “just a pretext for oppression.” He does not seem to have read the article itself, which is no such thing. What it argues is that glaciology can improve the quality of its data by taking more care to include evidence collected by indigenous observers and female scientists. Thus it aims to enhance science, not to undermine it. Feminist postcolonial glaciology is not everyone’s cup of tea, so Pinker can expect some easy laughs with this sally. He helpfully directs readers to a Twitter feed where they can titter over more of the same. One wonders which Enlightenment values he takes himself to be exemplifying with such tactics.

There is also a “war on science” waged by intellectuals who are “enraged” by its intrusion into the humanities. The failing humanities, which have “yet to recover from the disaster of postmodernism,” are thus rebuffing an integration of disciplines that could be “one of the greatest potential contributions of modern science.” Pinker’s contention that there is a damaging struggle between C.P. Snow’s “Two Cultures” is belied by his own statement that “humanities scholars themselves tend to be receptive to insights from science.” He seems merely to have been piqued by some magazine articles and unwilling to let go of an unedifying spat he had with the former literary editor of The New Republic in 2013, in which one side gave unconvincing arguments to show that science will never illuminate the humanities and the other gave unconvincing examples of how it already has.

According to Pinker, the demonization of science is jeopardizing its progress, for two main reasons. First, bureaucrats who worry about ethics are tying it up in red tape. He quotes some speculative musings that X-rays and other medical boons would never have made it past the regulators today. The social sciences are affected, too. We learn that “anthropologists are forbidden to speak with illiterate peasants who cannot sign a consent form,” though his evidence is one researcher who says it once took him several months to get such approval. Another effect of the vilification of science is that students who might have made discoveries and contributed to humanity decide instead to go into finance, because they have been taught that science is “a rationalization of racism, sexism, and genocide.” Pinker cites no investigations of this supposed phenomenon but assures us he has “seen” it happen, thus failing to heed his own homily to declinists: “Remember your math: an anecdote is not a trend.”

Lurking behind recent intellectual movements that are “hostile to science” is their “godfather,” Friedrich Nietzsche, who also represents the “opposite of humanism” and thus seems to be the arch-enemy of Enlightenment values in Pinker’s eyes. Nietzsche died in 1900, yet his ideas have “obvious” connections to the causes of both world wars and “links” to Bolshevism and Stalinism.

There is a story that one of Nietzsche’s schoolmates fashioned a puppet of the future philosopher and made it say absurd things. Pinker does the same. According to him, “Nietzsche argued that it’s good to be a callous, egoistic, megalomaniacal sociopath.” He supports this claim with five short quotes, mostly extracted from Nietzsche’s notebooks. Since Nietzsche’s remarks can be deliberately provocative, playful, and prone to dramatic overstatement, it is something of a fool’s errand to deduce his views from sound bites. This is true even if you are a careful reader of Nietzsche, and Pinker is not one of those. In one place, he quotes part of a sentence about “facts” and “interpretations” and gives it a subjectivist twist that Nietzsche explicitly rejected later on in the same paragraph.

Nietzsche’s writings have indeed been appropriated by fascists, white nationalists, and anti-Semites, as Pinker reminds us, but they have also been embraced by classical liberals, socialists, feminists, and Zionists, which does not fit Pinker’s puppet so well. In one of his books, Nietzsche declared that he sided with “the spirit of the Enlightenment,” and in another he attacked German thinkers for renouncing this spirit. In later life, he sometimes blamed eighteenth-century philosophes for the French Revolution and other ills, but he remained an ardent admirer of Voltaire.

It is not always easy or useful to divide writers into pro- and anti-Enlightenment camps, as Pinker is keen to do. I have seen Rousseau advertised in one bookshop as a “key Enlightenment thinker” and in another as a “key Counter-Enlightenment” one. Both are right and not just because Rousseau was a complicated man. How should one label writers who share all or some of the Enlightenment’s ideals but think there is plenty of room for improvement in the way they are implemented?

A case in point is Dialectic of Enlightenment, an influential book that was begun during World War II by two Germans in American exile, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, who saw the rising barbarism of a supposedly enlightened Europe and wondered what had gone wrong. They called for “enlightenment to reflect on itself if humanity is not to be totally betrayed” and produced a critique aimed at formulating “a positive concept of enlightenment which liberates it from its entanglement in blind domination.” One can dispute their analysis, but not their commitment to human welfare. Pinker does not sufficiently distinguish Enlightenment values from attempts to realize them in particular times and places, so for him such critiques are just anti-Enlightenment screeds.

Pinker is far from alone in believing that critics of modernity have sapped the West’s faith in progress. Robert Nisbet, an American sociologist who died in 1996, reported in his History of the Idea of Progress (1980) that intellectuals have more or less abandoned this faith. (Nisbet also claimed to detect that middle-class youth were withdrawing from science and that there had been an “ominous…retreat from reason.”)

Pinker quotes Nisbet’s book approvingly but does not notice the implications of the fact that it was written almost forty years ago. Its publication was followed by over three decades of the most dramatic material progress in human history, during which hundreds of millions of people in India, China, and elsewhere were delivered from poverty. Rosling’s charts show that child mortality, child labor, slavery, and many other evils continued their declines after 1980, while literacy, immunization, female education, the availability of clean water, and many other good things continued to rise. This suggests that the sort of intellectual skepticism about progress that Nisbet reported and Pinker still bewails does not seriously impede progress itself. So why make such a fuss about it?

Who does the most to make people richer, healthier, happier, and less likely to be killed by lightning? Is it those who accentuate the positive or those who accentuate the negative? Rosling notes that progress in human rights, women’s education, catastrophe relief, and many other matters is often largely thanks to activists who believe things are getting worse, though he speculates that they might achieve even more if they were readier to recognize improvements. Bill Gates, in his call to optimism, acknowledges that to improve the world, “you need something to be mad about.” Focusing on bad cases is indeed no mere cognitive malfunction. Voltaire would hardly have waged his campaign against clerical abuses of power if he had been struck by the fact that, statistically speaking, most priests were perfectly decent chaps.

When he coined “the new optimism,” George Patrick argued that dissatisfaction with the state of the world was not a defect. It was instead “the voice of progress proclaiming its discontent with the present and demanding improvement.” Perhaps new optimists should not forget to thank old pessimists for the fruits of their discontent.

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Waiting with Immigrants

Molly Crabapple

To be an immigrant in America is to wait. This goes double for the millions of immigrants who have found themselves at the sour end of the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) bureaucracy—and triple in the age of Trump. If you are an immigrant in the process of deportation proceedings, you must wait for your Master Calendar, on which a bureaucrat will assign you to a check-in date several months into the future. At this check-in, you may win several more months of anxious waiting—or disappear into a detention center, where you will wait for a one-way plane ride to a country you may no longer know. And if, for instance, your paperwork is straight but, twenty years ago, you jumped a turnstile or got into a barfight, then ICE has a mandate to hunt you down. Once snatched, you, too, will wait in a detention center, losing your job, your apartment, and possibly your health, while the months pass until a judge grants you a bond hearing. Then, you will appear in court—in chains or via video link—and learn how many thousands of dollars your family must pay for you to have the privilege of waiting outside a cage.  

While you wait, though, New Sanctuary has made the commitment to wait with you. 

Founded in 2007, the New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City is “an interfaith network of congregations, organizations, and individuals” that “stands publicly in solidarity with families and communities resisting detention and deportation.” In 2018, the group made headlines when ICE arrested two of its leaders, immigrants Ravi Ragbir and Jean Montrevil. ICE quickly deported Montrevil to Haiti. Through street protests and the advocacy of sympathetic politicians, New Sanctuary forced ICE to free Ragbir. If you have walked by City Hall in Lower Manhattan late some Thursday morning, you may have seen the group’s Jericho Walk—a weekly, silent march around the ICE headquarters at 26 Federal Plaza—but most of its work is more quotidian. The group offers transport to doctors’ appointments, posts bond for people, runs a legal clinic, writes letters of support, and sends staff and volunteers to sit quietly beside immigrants at ICE facilities every weekday as they go through the interminable waiting to find out their futures.  

I began to volunteer occasionally with New Sanctuary shortly after Trump’s election. Each hearing was a variation on a theme. On a weekday morning around 8 AM, the volunteers group would gather at a deli near either 26 Federal Plaza or 201 Varick Street. Because of the office-hours timing, the volunteers were mostly retirees. Sometimes, nervous immigrants—“friends,” in New Sanctuary parlance—would show up, and volunteers would walk them through the labyrinthine buildings, help them find their names on dockets strewn across multiple floors, wait in line beside them, and call their families if ICE moved to detain them that day. Other times, the immigrants were already detained, and, at their request, New Sanctuary showed up to their bond hearings both to provide moral support and to prove their links to the community

Molly Crabapple

Many volunteers were, like me, driven by a desire to be useful in the face of helplessness. “What am I going to do? Yell at The New York Times or MSNBC all day?” one woman asked, as we waited in line for the metal detector at the public entrance to 201 Varick in early January. “I do what I can. And what I can do is take the subway to court and show up.” She considered herself a little person, she told me, but when little people got together and organized, they had power. She cited Tahrir Square, of Egypt’s 2011 revolution.

“Immigrants are scapegoated to a degree that I cannot sit at home,” said another volunteer, a former magazine writer. 

Our group of ten filed into the waiting room. At 201 Varick, the immigrant whose hearing we were attending would not get to see us: since June’s Occupy ICE protests, ICE has refused to take detained immigrants to their bond hearings in person, citing the protesters’ raucous chants as threats to the ICE officers’ safety. Instead, immigrants would have to attend their hearings via a glitchy video link. Occupy ICE has come to seem merely a pretext—although the protests have been over for seven months, ICE has not resumed in-person hearings. A New Sanctuary organizer told me that the agency had been trying to move to video hearings for years, judging that the lack of direct human contact will reduce the effect of an immigrant’s emotional appeal and make the hearings more impersonal, rote, and ICE-friendly in outcome. 

We sat and waited. “Waiting is our main activity,” Jerry, the group leader, told me. After an hour, Jerry learned that the immigrant whose bond hearing we had planned to attend was not on the docket. This happened often—twice that week. She wondered if it had something to do with the federal shutdown, but it was also true that confusion always reigned.

We had another friend on the docket for noon. When we returned, there was no room to sit. The entire waiting room was packed with the friends and family of detained immigrants: moms, cousins, little kids. More people at a hearing could mean lower bond because it showed proof of extensive ties of kinship and community and could make a friend less likely to be judged a flight risk, but how many days would all these people have to take off from work to be supportive? ICE’s bureaucratic reach spread over the community, impoverishing not just the lives of the detained immigrants but those of all who loved them. 

I spoke to the boss of one of the detained immigrants. His employee had been picked up outside a courthouse while trying to pay a ticket for a misdemeanor. According to the Immigrant Defense Project, between 2016 and 2017, ICE arrests at NYC courthouses have increased 1,200 percent, and have even targeted alleged human-trafficking victims. After three months inside a detention center waiting for a bond hearing, his employee began coughing blood.  

We waited another hour.

Finally, it was time for the hearing of the immigrant whom New Sanctuary was there to support. Along with family members, the volunteers filed into the tiny court. The friend showed up on the screen, a tired man in an orange prison jumpsuit, barely able to hear the translator over the audio link’s echo. His attorney asked for bond. The prosecutor haggled to keep him in detention. The judge agreed to a bond that was several thousand dollars higher than his attorney requested. The family rejoiced anyway. He would be out by that evening, to wait, at least, in his own home. Once there, he may try to file for asylum, or he may be caught in the loop of endless check-ins, his future uncertain. But for as long as he wants, as long as this purgatory lasts, New Sanctuary will wait with him.  

“Most of these people are seeking asylum, fleeing terrible circumstances,” another New Sanctuary volunteer told me, while we waited. “I’m against the way our country is going right now. You feel so helpless. So if there’s even a small thing I can do, I do it. I lived through the Sixties. I thought we’d made all this progress. Now, I just feel like we are losing it all.”

Molly Crabapple

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Rome: Where Migrants Face Eviction as Fascists Find a Home

Maurizio MartoranaPosters by the fascist political party CasaPound calling for the eviction of the migrants and refugees living inside a former penicillin factory, Rome, November 26, 2018

The penicillin factory is a sprawling, abandoned complex on the outskirts of Rome. The first thing I noticed when Italian photographer Maurizio Martorana and I visited in November 2018 was the trash. Stacks of T-shirts, juice cartons, plastic plates, clothes racks, and bicycle parts. A path led through a series of buildings, and against every wall was a makeshift shack. At the time, some 500 people, the majority of them African migrants and refugees, lived there amid the debris.

The second floor of the factory was covered with shit—with no working plumbing, people had nowhere else to defecate. The street-side windows looked out on a tennis club. Throughout the grounds were small shops selling beer, toothpaste, and basic cooking supplies. The ground was muddy and contained chemicals and asbestos leftover from the factory’s manufacturing days.

Over the past year, depending on your perspective and politics, the penicillin factory had become either proof that there were too many foreigners in the country or a symbol of the country’s failure to respond humanely to migrants. During the day, a fascist group called CasaPound marched outside protesting, while at night, health outreach vans run by aid groups provided medical services.

Across Italy, some 10,000 migrants and refugees are living in squats. In search of shelter, many have joined vulnerable Italians in occupying empty buildings. The housing crisis is not an accident. It is part of a deliberate strategy by the government to make Italy as inhospitable to migrants and refugees as possible.

On December 10, 2018, Matteo Salvini, the deputy prime minister and interior minister belonging to the far-right party the League, stood outside the factory as police entered and cleared it of residents. CasaPound, which had led a public campaign for the eviction, celebrated. But the paradox is that they themselves are squatters. CasaPound took over an empty office building in the center of Rome in 2003 and has housed people there ever since. This incongruence, between the penicillin factory eviction and inaction against CasaPound, is another example of how Italy’s far right is increasingly driving public opinion and policy on immigration. In late November, Salvini’s government passed a new law called the Security and Immigration Decree, but referred to by almost everyone in Italy as the “Salvini Decree.” It radically changed the Italian asylum system; eliminating the category of “humanitarian protection,” a form of protection given to people who are deemed to have “serious reasons” to flee their home country and cannot be deported. Since 2008, some 120,000 asylum-seekers in Italy have received this status.

Although immigrants comprise only 8 percent of Italy’s population, Salvini rails against “the invasion” and has blocked rescue ships from landing at Italian ports (“porti chiusi,” he likes to brag on Twitter and Instagram, meaning “harbors closed”). Despite the fact that, since 2014, the share of crimes committed by foreigners is decreasing within every single region in Italy, anti-immigrant sentiment, stoked by Salvini’s government, is at a dangerous, all-time high.


Italy’s current populist government came to power in March 2018. It is an unusual coalition between Salvini’s the League, which ran on a platform of “prima gli italiani,” or “Italians first,” and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, led by Luigi Di Maio; the latter had never held national office.

The League, formerly the Northern League, used to call for the state of Padania to secede from Italy. A few years ago, it revamped itself as a nationalist party that was against immigration (during the election campaign, Salvini pledged to deport 500,000 migrants), the European Union, and austerity policies. The Five Star Movement, founded in 2009 by Italian comedian Beppe Grillo, also capitalized on growing discontent against traditional political parties with an eclectic platform of ideas pulled from across the political spectrum, such as advocating for a universal basic income and questioning Italy’s participation in the eurozone.

Maurizio MartoranaInside the penicillin factory, Rome, November 26, 2018

Before the election, the Five Star Movement said it would never form a coalition with the League because it was too far to the right. (Italy essentially has a proportional representation system, whereby parties need to form a coalition after the election if one party does not have a substantial majority of votes.) However, after an attempt to form a government with the center-left Democratic Party failed, the Five Star Movement proceeded to do exactly that. Although Five Star initially had more public support, with 32 percent of the vote compared to the League’s 17 percent, it has proved inept at governing, and over the past few months has lost many of its left-leaning voters. Meanwhile, the more experienced League has overtaken Five Star in popularity, as its base responds to Salvini’s anti-immigration stunts. By November 2018, support for his party had jumped to 34 percent.  

The rise of the far right was not sudden in Italy, where the 2008 global financial crisis and subsequent economic slowdown was particularly severe. Under Silvio Berlusconi, the billionaire media tycoon who served as Italy’s prime minister four times, Italy borrowed large sums to stem the crisis’s effects; public debt leapt from an already sizable 103 percent of GDP in 2007 to nearly 127 percent by 2012. Proving inept at handling the crisis, Berlusconi was forced out in 2011—but not before he had paved the way for Salvini by forming coalitions with the League when he was in office and calling migrants a “time bomb.”

After Berlusconi, the government of Mario Monti, a former European commissioner, ushered in austerity measures such as cutting social spending and raising taxes. The effect on many Italian households was stark. The relative poverty rate crept upward, from 13.6 percent in 2008 to 15.8 percent in 2012, while household consumption plummeted to 1997 levels. As in much of Southern Europe, rising inequality and resentment of ongoing austerity measures—viewed by many as externally imposed by leaders in France and Germany—fueled populist sentiment and euroskepticism. The government failed to address growing resentment among the public.

Now Salvini has made attacking refugees and migrants a cornerstone of his politics (he also goes after feminists, gay people, journalists, and leftists, or “ticks,” the term used by Salvini). At the same time, Italy has seen a resurgence of support for fascism. Fascist ideology, always simmering on the margins of Italian politics, has acquired a growing respectability in political debates as a plausible alternative.

CasaPound, whose name references the pro-Mussolini American poet Ezra Pound, is a political party that calls its members “fascists of the third millennium.” It has proved adept at attracting young Italians, opening centers across Italy where young people can play sports, party (they throw raves), and hang out. The party claims poor and middle-class Italians have been left behind by a supposed preferential focus on migrants, provides social services in disadvantaged areas, and protests for housing rights. CasaPound’s supporters are predominately male and young. They are adamantly against a multiracial society and groups that advocate for human rights.

CasaPound does not have any representatives in parliament, and only holds local elected office in Ostia, a suburb of Rome. But its membership is expanding, and the group has a growing presence on college campuses. As of 2017, CasaPound had 20,000 members and 110 centers across the country, and many credit its media-savvy tactics with pushing the government farther to the right. Although Salvini has tried to distance himself from the group since ascending to power, he has a history with the organization. In 2014, the Northern League and CasaPound created a movement called Sovereignty to mobilize CasaPound’s supporters to vote for the League; there are pictures of Salvini dining with CasaPound leaders in 2015.

Casa Pound is one of several neo-fascist groups in Italy; others like Avanguardia Nazionale and Forza Nuova have been around longer. All of these groups have exploited the issue of migration to bolster their supporters.  

From 2014 to 2017, some 624,747 people arrived in Italy on boats from North Africa, the majority crossing from Libya and coming from countries like Eritrea and Sudan, as well as, increasingly, West Africa. Under the previous center-left government, Italy poured money into the Libyan coast guard to block boats from crossing; in 2018, only 23,370 asylum-seekers arrived by sea. The drop is not because fewer people are leaving their countries, but because they are now increasingly intercepted en route by the Libyan coast guard, and then trapped in Libyan detention centers, where they are often tortured and sometimes sold to traffickers. Last year, at least 1,311 people drowned trying to reach Italian shores.

Salvini and his party stoke fears around migration by portraying migrants as criminals. Over the past ten years, overall crime has decreased in Italy by 8.3 percent, and crimes committed by foreigners have also fallen, with convictions at an all-time low. But each time a crime occurs in an immigrant neighborhood or when non-Italian citizens stand accused, Salvini exploits it. Such was the case with the brutal rape and murder of a sixteen-year-old girl, Desirée Mariottini, in a squat in San Lorenzo, an immigrant neighborhood in Rome. Two Senagalese men, one Nigerian man, and one Ghanaian man were arrested in connection with her assault and death. Salvini visited San Lorenzo and laid a rose at her memorial, then said he would come back with a bulldozer.

The Italian public grows ever more fearful. In a 2018 study, over half of Italians greatly overestimated how many migrants were in the country. Meanwhile, in the two months after Salvini became interior minister, Italian civil society groups recorded twelve shootings, two murders, and thirty-three physical assaults against immigrants.


There are roughly 100 squats in Rome spread across the city. These vacant hotels, offices, warehouses, and apartment buildings host an estimated 12,000 people. Many poor Italians lack stable accommodations; some 12,000 families are on the waitlist for public housing. Some of the squats are well organized by community or leftist political associations such as the Metropolitan Precarious Blocks, which also advocate for reform of housing laws.

One of the squats supported by Metropolitan Precarious Blocks is a former hotel in Tor Sapienza that currently houses some 500 people, including 150 children, many of whom attend local schools. Called “the four-star hotel,” its residents are from Africa, South America, and Eastern Europe; the majority have been living legally in Italy for years. Some found themselves homeless after the 2008 financial crisis, when many people lost their jobs and were unable to pay rent, resulting in evictions. The hotel was occupied in 2012; since then it has been carefully maintained by residents, and the rooms resemble mini-apartments.

Maurizio MartoranaAbay and her two children in their home in the four star hotel, Rome, November 24, 2018

When we visited, a recent kitchen fire in one of the rooms had cut the electricity supply, and people gathered in the lobby to connect their phones to portable chargers. Outside, kids rode their bicycles around the parking lot as dusk fell. Abay, thirty-two, has lived in the four star hotel with her family for six years. Abay is Ethiopian and her husband is Eritrean; they met in Khartoum, Sudan, and came to Italy together in 2008. Their children—Amen, six, and Kirubel, two—were born in Rome. Abay and her partner have political asylum, and while Abay works thirty-six hours a week as a hotel housekeeper making six euros an hour, she and her husband can’t scrape enough together for rent after the supermarket where her husband worked shut down. Without the squat, they would be homeless.  

The government has indicated it wants to evict the building. Abay said she tries not to think about it, because she has no idea where they will go. The recent political changes in Italy scare her. “There are many episodes of racism every day. Every time I get on the bus, someone says something [to me]. They say, these are the people who live in that occupied four star hotel, they don’t pay the rent, they steal our jobs. It got worse since Salvini became interior minister.”

Despite CasaPound’s own illegal occupation of state property, the group has repeatedly protested immigrants’ habitation in other squats like the penicillin factory. “These people are the same ones who go to sell drugs on our streets,” they shouted outside the factory a few months ago. “We live in fear of crime and insecurity.” They chanted: “We defend our nation, we do not want immigration.” At the metro stop closest to the factory, Rebibbia, which is well-known as the site of one of Italy’s most notorious prisons, CasaPound flyers showed a bunch of white men waving the group’s flag with the headline “Vittoria!” CasaPound’s media representative declined a request for an interview.

In early January, journalists from the Italian newspaper Espresso reported that the headquarters of Avanguardia Nazionale had been in a building that belonged to Rome’s city council since 1991. Then, at a commemoration for several young people who died during a 1978 attack on far-right activists, two journalists from Espresso were violently assaulted by members of Nazionale and Forza Nuova just for showing up.

On our first day at the penicillin factory, the sky was gray and full of rain clouds. The first men we met were afraid that we were police. Other journalists had come recently with police escorts. Some men were chopping tree branches to use as fuel; others were filling jerry cans with water from a pump and taking cold bucket showers. Temperatures were in the low forties.

We met a young man, John, from Delta State, Nigeria. He was twenty-eight, and had been in Italy for four years. At the penicillin factory, he shared a small room with two other Nigerian men. The floor was made of green astroturf, and it was dark inside—there was no electricity. Rain leaked through the roof, a patchwork of cardboard and metal.

John had lived in a reception center in Sicily before making his way to Rome. He now had a residence permit, but couldn’t find work. John and his friends occasionally received a small amount of money from friends abroad. Otherwise, they begged on the streets.

A young woman, Felicia, came around the corner pushing a stroller with a small child. Twenty-seven, and originally from Lagos, Nigeria, Felicia has been in Italy for two years. She’d lived in the factory for over six months with her partner and two children until she found a shelter across town, for women and children only. “It’s very hard for him, and also hard for me, coming here so the kids can see their father,” said Felicia. She described the housing crisis across the city. “Some people are stranded; anywhere they [are when] night falls, they sleep there.”

The separation of families in state-funded shelters is another reason asylum-seekers turn to squats. Italy has a multi-tiered reception system that has struggled to provide adequate care and avoid corruption, including mafia-secured government contracts to manage reception centers for asylum-seekers and subsequent embezzlement of $41 million. The main system for integrating asylum-seekers—known as SPRAR (Protection System for Asylum Seekers and Refugees)—has been in place since 2002. SPRAR provided initial accommodation in a house, health care, and basic protection for those in need. It also saw the integration of asylum-seekers into local communities as critical to society’s well-being, and allocated funds for language classes, cultural activities, job placement and translators.

In late November, the “Salvini Decree” dismantled SPRAR. The program will now exist only for unaccompanied minors or people who have obtained refugee status, a process that can take years and only covers those who fled war or persecution. SPRAR will no longer provide asylum-seekers with housing in its facilities—instead they will be pushed into more temporary housing—or support to integrate into society. The Decree also eliminated “humanitarian protection,” a legal protocol that does not confer refugee status, but protects against deportation. It was granted to 25 percent of asylum-seekers in Italy who had fled their countries for “serious reasons of a humanitarian nature,” such as violence, famine or human trafficking. Because the status has to be renewed every two years, it is unclear what will happen to the more than 100,000 people who hold it. Losing the status means also losing a residency card and right to work; people who were in the country legally would suddenly become illegal.

Maurizio MartoranaA man using a water bucket to shower inside the penicillin factory, where there is only one water tap, Rome, November 26, 2018

“A person without a residence permit is a person banned from society,” said Salvatore Fachile, a lawyer with ASGI, a Turin-based national association of immigration lawyers.

The law also extends the period of time that the government is allowed to detain migrants and asylum-seekers from ninety days to six months and halts the asylum process for people deemed “socially dangerous.” New arrivals who request asylum will be processed in “hot spots,” which are essentially detention centers in the countryside where asylum decisions are made more quickly in order to then speed up potential deportations.

“These hot spots are a very dangerous thing, because it carries out the whole asylum procedure in a place far from the scrutiny of civil society, in isolation and in such a short time,” said Fachile. “This means that very few people will actually be able to exercise their rights [to asylum].”

The Salvini Decree claims it will make Italy more secure, but in practice, it all but guarantees there will be even more people living in the streets. Over the past week, authorities evicted some 300 migrants and asylum-seekers, including children, from a reception center outside Rome with only forty-eight hours’ notice. No one could tell the residents where the city would send them. Ahead of the eviction, some people started walking to Rome on foot.


Guglielmo Picchi is the League’s deputy minister for foreign affairs. His office is in the Palazzo della Farnesina, which houses the ministry. It is a large imposing building in the north of Rome, near the banks of the Tiber River. We met just a few days before the Salvini Decree became law.

“Our idea is pretty clear. We don’t want economic migrants,” said Picchi. “We don’t want illegal migration. Either you enter legally, or you don’t have any right to be here.”

The League is also working abroad to prevent people from leaving their countries in the first place. Picchi outlined for me how Italy was deploying a military mission to Niger, among other countries, to help police the border and prevent migration. Italy continues to support the Libyan coast guard with vessels, training, and spare parts to intercept ships at sea, despite that refugees and migrants are then returned to horrific detention centers.

Picchi did not foresee problems with the Decree’s implementation, which he said would help Italy process asylum requests more quickly and deport those who do not qualify. “We deem this bulletproof constitutionally speaking,” he said.

In recent weeks, more than a hundred cities and six regions in Italy have indicated they will oppose the Decree’s implementation, and some mayors have called it unconstitutional. “This (law) incites criminality, rather than fighting or preventing it,” said Palermo mayor Leoluca Orlando in early January. “It violates human rights. There are thousands, tens of thousands of people who legally reside here in Italy, who pay their taxes, who pay into pensions, and in a couple of weeks or months they will become… illegal.”

Meanwhile, the association of immigration lawyers is working with other advocates to file suit. “What we will do is go to the Constitutional Court and try to bring down this decree piece by piece,” vowed Fachile.

As more migrants have found themselves on the streets, grassroots efforts run by volunteers have tried to provide basic services. One is the Baobab Experience, which in 2016 erected a camp for people to sleep near Tiburtina train station on the east side of the city. Working with other groups, Baobab estimates that they have provided 70,000 people with some form of aid, including tents, meals, clothing, and legal assistance.

Three years ago, many African asylum-seekers and migrants stayed only briefly in Rome before catching trains or buses north, hoping to settle in countries like Germany and Sweden where there were more jobs. As a result, many passed through Baobab for only a few nights. But under EU policy, asylum-seekers can be returned to the place they first sought refuge. European borders have become much harder to cross now, as countries like Austria and Germany implement tighter controls to prevent migration. Most of Baobab’s residents are now stuck in Rome, and homeless.

Salvini has personally singled out Baobab for criticism, tweeting #Dalleparoleaifatti (“from words to facts,” implying that he’s delivering on his campaign promises) after Baobab’s camp was demolished by police this fall. The eviction displaced 200 people, at least sixty of whom then slept on the corner of a bus station behind Tiburtina. Another tactic of the government has been to harass and criminalize humanitarian workers. The Security Decree targets housing activists, increasing jail time for people who promote occupations of buildings.

Maurizio MartoranaA man showing his expired residence permit and other documents that he cannot renew due to a lack of employment, Rome, November 19, 2018

Behind Tiburtina, men of all ages were unrolling sleeping bags and trying to stay warm. The train station, which is run by a private company, does not have public bathrooms, so people have to pay one euro every time they need to use a toilet, or go in the nearby woods. A group of young men from West Africa sat around an iPhone speaker blaring Sheck Wes’s “Mo Bamba.” Around 7 PM, several volunteers arrived with large plastic bins of pasta and paper bags filled with bread. After dinner, everyone stood around sipping tea and chatting about politics, and this seemed to be one of the most important things volunteers offered—a connection to Italian society.

The next morning, it was raining again. Everyone jammed their clothes in black garbage bags to keep dry. An Al-Jazeera TV news crew arrived, but most people did not want to be filmed. “Many journalists have come to photograph the evictions and conditions; nothing has changed,” said one man from Tunisia. 

Temperatures in Rome in late December and early January hovered around freezing. In early January, the city council opened a room in Tiburtina station with thirty cots for migrants to sleep in. But the city did not let in some of the Baobab referrals, saying the spaces were for “vulnerable” migrants only. Because of this, twenty-four beds were left vacant.

To evict the penicillin factory’s occupants, police entered wearing blue helmets and riot gear. The factory residents did as they were told, gathered what belongings they could, and left. Some found other squats nearby, where they will live until they are forced out. But just last week, an Italian news agency reported that the factory had been re-occupied; an estimated forty men are living again among the ruins. The mayor of Rome, Virginia Raggi of the Five Star Movement, tweeted, “The ex-penicillin factory has been occupied again, this is unacceptable… After eviction there should be surveillance.”

On one of our last nights in Rome, we walked to the CasaPound building in the city center near the bustling Termini train station. It was raining again. We stood across from the entrance, marked by the group’s flag of a tortoise. Inside, the lights burned brightly. At the station, dozens of African men slept out in the open.

With additional reporting by Maurizio Martorana. Some names have been changed to protect privacy.

Source Article from http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/nybooks/~3/N177Het9Gqc/

The Path of Greatest Resistance

Alessandra Sanguinetti/Magnum PhotosProtesters in support of gun control at a March for Our Lives demonstration, Santa Rosa, California, March 2018

In the two years since the 2016 election, Donald Trump has generated some of the most demagogic, xenophobic, and cruel policies and practices to come out of Washington in decades. At the same time we have also seen some of the most engaged social activism in decades. The Women’s March, the airport demonstrations against the Muslim ban, the overflowing town halls in defense of the Affordable Care Act, the protests against the separation of immigrant families and Trump’s threats to deport undocumented minors who were granted legal status by the Obama administration, the #MeToo moment-turned-movement, the student-led March for Our Lives in support of stricter gun control, and the widespread protests against Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court are just the most public manifestations of citizens’ determination to stand up against Trump’s assaults on civil rights, civil liberties, and constitutional norms.

Less obvious signs of this engagement include the record number of subscriptions to The New York Times and The Washington Post, which are important checks on an administration that cavalierly disregards truth, and the quadrupling of membership in the American Civil Liberties Union, of which I am legal director. We were already the largest civil liberties and civil rights organization in the country before Trump’s election, and our membership has risen from 400,000 to 1.8 million since November 2016. Other nonprofits defending constitutional and environmental values under attack by Trump have also seen dramatically increased support.

This sense of urgency was reflected in the 2018 midterm elections, in which turnout was high and Democrats performed very well, despite the fact that Trump had inherited the strongest economy in decades. Democrats gained forty seats in the House of Representatives, the largest net gain for the party in a single election since 1947. Democrats also picked up seven governorships and won hundreds of state legislative seats previously held by Republicans.

Civil society groups made enormous efforts to ensure that the low Democratic turnout that allowed Trump to eke out a victory in 2016 would not be repeated in 2018.1 From its inception, for example, the March for Our Lives stressed the need to “vote them out” and promoted that theme with a nationwide get-out-the-vote effort. Women responded to the election of a self-avowed sexual assaulter by running for office—and winning—in record numbers. The ACLU launched a grassroots mobilization campaign, People Power, designed to inspire and support a loose network of citizens coming together in their neighborhoods and towns to work with local government to advance civil liberties and civil rights. It also devoted millions of dollars to supporting civil rights ballot initiatives, including a Florida referendum that ended the disenfranchisement of 1.4 million Floridians who have completed their prison sentences and returned to society.

This is democracy in action. When a president manages to get elected despite obtaining nearly three million fewer votes than his opponent and then embarks on a series of controversial initiatives that please his extremist base but generally keep his approval ratings below 40 percent, the democratic process should respond accordingly. To a degree, it has. People have used the two most important tools of democracy—their voice and their vote—to register their disapproval.

Will this response translate into meaningful long-term political and social change? The midterms provided an important early indicator that this is possible. If the threat posed by Trump inspires an alignment of progressive citizens and groups, we may see real long-lasting reforms. If the resistance to Trump fades, splinters, or self-destructs, however, the nation’s future could be determined by his resilient base, even though it represents only a minority of the electorate.

Zeynep Tufekci’s Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest offers a cautionary note. It is possible that one of the reasons there has been so much social activism on the left since Trump’s election is that it is so much simpler to engage politically in the era of the Internet. It seems as if social media have been around forever. But the first iPhone was not sold until 2007; Twitter launched in 2006, Facebook in 2004. As Tufekci illustrates, these developments have made it significantly easier to mount protests, to coordinate action, and to identify and associate with like-minded citizens. So while the unprecedented threat posed by Trump is undoubtedly a cause of the extent and energy of civic activism, it’s also true that the tools for organizing opposition have never been more democratized.

Dissatisfaction with autocratic regimes in the Middle East, for example, has been long-standing, but the Arab Spring did not occur until the advent of social media there. Social media allowed dissidents “to overcome censorship, coordinate protests, organize logistics, and spread humor and dissent with an ease that would have seemed miraculous to earlier generations,” Tufekci writes. But the Arab Spring is hardly a success story. As Robert Worth has shown in A Rage for Order (2016), popular protests may have succeeded in toppling autocratic regimes in many nations, but the result was more often a mere shift in autocrats than a transition to democracy.

The failure to achieve real reform in the Middle East may result in part from how handily social media called protesters into the streets. Tufekci notes that in order for the US civil rights movement to mount the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 and the March on Washington in 1963, legions of activists had to work for years to develop the networks, relationships, organizations, and leaders necessary to sustain the boycott and carry out the march.

Today, by contrast, a major demonstration can be launched in a matter of weeks. It took less than six weeks after the Parkland shootings in February 2018 to mobilize more than one million people nationwide in the March for Our Lives. The Women’s March, the most impressive anti-inaugural protest in history, was put together in a little over two months. The airport demonstrations protesting the Muslim ban took place across the country the day after the ban was introduced. These would not have been possible without Twitter, Facebook, and other social media tools.

But precisely because organizing is made easier by social media, a protest is a less meaningful indicator of a movement’s influence than it once was. The March on Washington was testament to the institutional power and reach of the civil rights movement. Today’s protests are less often the culmination of an organizing campaign than the start of one. Tufekci writes:

In the networked era, a large, organized march or protest should not be seen as the chief outcome of previous capacity building by a movement; rather it should be looked at as the initial moment of the movement’s bursting onto the scene, but only the first stage.

Despite their impressive beginnings, the question of whether the Women’s March, the #MeToo movement, or the March for Our Lives will help achieve lasting reform remains open.

Moreover, while social media permit progressives to organize more efficiently, they also empower repressive movements. Social media and the Internet are likely responsible in part for what appears to be a resurgence of white supremacist groups in the United States. Strong social norms condemning the Ku Klux Klan, Nazis, and other racist organizations once made it extremely risky for those with white supremacist beliefs to seek out like-minded allies and voice their views in public. Now they can find communities in chat rooms, the echo chamber of Facebook, and on niche websites without incurring social opprobrium. As Siva Vaidhyanathan argues in Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy, Facebook is a “forum for tribalism.” Facilitating association is not without costs.

Even as social media make it easier for dissidents to find one another and act collectively (for good or ill), they can also be deployed to undermine and neutralize forces for change. Traditional means of censorship are far less effective in a world where there are a myriad of independent voices rather than a finite number of outlets to target. As Tufekci shows, however, governments have devised new modes of countering their critics, unleashing “trolls” and “bots” to engage in mass disinformation aimed at undermining the legitimacy of dissenting voices and spreading sufficient confusion to drown out and disarm them. The goal is not to shut down opposing views

but to produce resignation, cynicism, and a sense of disempowerment among the people. This can be done in many ways, including inundating audiences with information, producing distractions to dilute their attention and focus, delegitimating media that provide accurate information…, deliberately sowing confusion, fear, and doubt by aggressively questioning credibility,…creating or claiming hoaxes, or generating harassment campaigns.

Tufekci’s book, written before the revelations about Russian interference in the presidential campaign, was prescient in describing how governments would use and abuse social media. Indeed, the description quoted above perfectly captures the tactics of Donald Trump and his allies.2 Several domestic US groups copied the ploys used by Russian trolls in 2016 to sow discord and confusion in advance of the 2018 midterms.3 The Saudi government has done much the same thing, deploying trolls to target and drown out its critics, including Jamal Khashoggi before it murdered him.4 Similar tactics were used in Brazil to spread millions of misleading WhatsApp messages in the run up to the October 2018 presidential election won by a Trump-like populist, Jair Bolsonaro.5 Online, censorship is out and disinformation is in.6

Facebook and Twitter have attempted to respond, but identifying and blocking disinformation is extraordinarily challenging. As a recent article in The New York Times revealed, Facebook has 15,000 employees around the world who monitor millions of posts each day for objectionable content, guided by elaborate, ever-changing, and secret rules. Errors are inevitable in such a vast censorship enterprise.7 At this point, it is difficult to know whether social media’s benefits in giving everyone a voice and facilitating political association outweigh their considerable costs in encouraging tribalism, enabling widespread disinformation, eroding faith in a set of shared facts, and undermining activism. In retrospect, the jubilation over new technology’s part in the Arab Spring looks remarkably naive.

If social media’s greatest contribution is democratizing communications, their greatest threat is in abetting cynicism and distrust. When platforms are infected with disinformation, making it difficult for users to identify the truth, or when users encounter only a version of events that supports their suspicions about the difficulty of change, they can slide into a hopelessness that prevents them from acting. And that result is just as good as censorship to those seeking to deflect challenges to the status quo.

Social media, in other words, may be as much an obstacle to effective political organizing as an aid. If today’s emerging movements are to succeed, they will need to migrate from the online platforms that supported their formation and early successes, develop more traditional institutional structures, and operate in the offline world as much as or more than online. A hashtag may be sufficient for a moment or a message, but not for a movement.

In How Change Happens: Why Some Social Movements Succeed While Others Don’t, Leslie Crutchfield offers useful guidance to the many individuals and groups that have been inspired to take action following Trump’s election. Crutchfield studied a range of American social movements over the past several decades and sought to identify the characteristics that effective ones have shared. Her subjects include the campaigns to discourage cigarette smoking and drunk driving, to develop the constitutional rights to bear arms and marriage equality, and to reduce acid rain. In much less detail she also discusses Occupy Wall Street, environmental campaigns, the Tea Party, and Black Lives Matter.

Accra SheppProtesters against student debt, New York City, November 2011; photograph by Accra Shepp from his series ‘Occupying Wall Street’

The principal lessons from both books are threefold. First, successful campaigns for national change generally begin at the local and state level, and only build to national change incrementally. This means that movements will do best if they encourage the development of state-based or even more localized affiliated groups that are part of a national strategy but exercise substantial independence and initiative in their regions. Crutchfield calls it “networked leadership.” This requires a mix of guidance and independence, because a top-down national structure risks dampening enthusiasm of those at the local level, while coordination is necessary to achieve results at the national level.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving, for example, encouraged the formation of local chapters with substantial autonomy, and within five years of its founding in 1980 it had 450 local chapters and two million members. The National Rifle Association worked through affiliates in every state to gain recognition of gun rights at the state level long before the Supreme Court took up the question of a constitutional right to bear arms in 2008. By contrast, the gun control movement, led by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, focused its efforts in Washington, D.C., and had very little presence in the states, thereby easing the way for the NRA and its affiliates. As Crutchfield notes, “the winning movements that have peaked since the 1980s have all adopted this states-first approach—including gun rights, tobacco control, and drunk-driving reduction.”

The gun control movement has now learned from this mistake, and Everytown for Gun Safety, founded in 2014 by Michael Bloomberg, is an effort to match the NRA’s state-focused strategy. To the extent that March for Our Lives can work with Everytown affiliates, it may be able to transform into real change the national attention it achieved through its inspiring response to the Parkland shooting. But that will require painstaking institutional work at the state level.

Second, Tufekci’s and Crutchfield’s accounts emphasize the importance of institutions with strong structures that assign responsibility for decision-making to trusted leaders. Without organization and clear lines of authority, movements can founder when they need to respond nimbly to changing conditions. Tufekci identifies such “tactical freeze” as one of the reasons the Arab Spring reforms failed; aided by social media, the protests launched without developing the kind of organizational capacity that might have enabled the movement to shift tactics when necessary. Both authors identify this as a critical weakness as well for Occupy Wall Street, which was adamantly opposed to institutions and hierarchy, and as a result was often dysfunctional.

Third, seeking reform through elections is critical to success. Both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street started from grassroots, but the Tea Party focused single-mindedly on electing representatives who reflected its views, while Occupy had little appetite for ordinary politics. One engaged in democracy; the other largely opted out. The Tea Party has had lasting influence, while Occupy is a thing of the past. It’s also true that the Tea Party had millions of dollars in support, as Jane Mayer has shown in Dark Money (2016), so the comparison is not entirely fair. But it is nonetheless true that the surest path to reform in the United States is through the democratic process.

Women have been at the center of the Trump resistance and are likely to remain so. While they have long been victimized by sexual harassment, the election of a president who bragged about using his own privilege to assault women seems to have broken some sort of barrier. A disproportionate number of the ACLU’s new members since 2016 are women. The congressional freshman class that just took office had more women than ever before. Women protesters were not able to halt the confirmation of Justice Kavanaugh, but that failure may motivate still more to take up the fight against Trump and for women’s equality and dignity. (The confirmation of Clarence Thomas in 1991 despite Anita Hill’s highly credible allegations of sexual harassment sparked a “Year of the Woman,” and women punished Republicans at the polls in the next election.)

The #MeToo movement has already inspired considerable reform. Microsoft, Uber, and Lyft have exempted sexual harassment complaints from contract clauses requiring binding arbitration, while Condé Nast has adopted a new code of conduct for working with models. Several major hotel chains have provided their workers with panic buttons to notify security if hotel guests try to harass them. Four states—Maryland, Vermont, Ten- nessee, and Washington—have banned the confidentiality conditions in employment contracts that enabled employers to conceal harassment claims.8

Crutchfield’s and Tufekci’s work suggests, however, that whether reforms will continue depends on the energy of the movement being channeled productively into organizations at the national and local levels, and into electoral politics. The #MeToo movement has given rise to the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, which provides subsidized legal support to victims of sexual harassment and assault. And the women’s movement already has a number of established organizations that work to prevent and remedy sexual harassment and assault, including the National Women’s Law Center, Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, Girls for Gender Equity, the ACLU, and the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Some of these have state and local affiliates. And because federal employment law already prohibits sexual harassment, private civil rights attorneys and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission also play an important part in responding to the problem. But troubling signs of division have also arisen, particularly among organizers of the Women’s March.9

Whether #MeToo and other progressive movements will achieve lasting reform will depend on these organizations working collectively in multiple forums, including courtrooms, state legislatures, corporate boardrooms, union halls, and, most importantly, at the ballot box. We all need to turn away from our smartphones and screens and engage, together, in the work of democracy.

  1. 1

    For more on increased turnout and its effects in 2018, see Michael Tomasky, “The Midterms: So Close, So Far Apart,” The New York Review, December 20, 2018.  

  2. 2

    For an account of Facebook’s complicity in the Trump campaign, see Jacob Weisberg, “The Autocracy App,” The New York Review, October 25, 2018.   

  3. 3

    Sheera Frenkel, “Facebook Tackles Rising Threat: Americans Aping Russian Schemes to Deceive,” The New York Times, October 11, 2018.  

  4. 4

    Katie Benner, Mark Mazzetti, Ben Hubbard, and Mike Isaac, “Saudis’ Image Makers: A Troll Army and a Twitter Insider,” The New York Times, October 20, 2018.  

  5. 5

    Mike Isaac and Kevin Roose, “Disinformation Spreads on WhatsApp Ahead of Brazilian Election,” The New York Times, October 19, 2018.  

  6. 6

    Disinformation tactics have been deployed by both parties, as in the Alabama Senate race. See Scott Shane and Alan Blinder, “Democrats Faked Online Push to Outlaw Alcohol,” The New York Times, January 7, 2019.  

  7. 7

    Max Fisher, “Inside Facebook’s Secret Rulebook for Global Political Speech,” The New York Times, December 27, 2018. 

  8. 8

    For a list of reforms achieved in the first year of the #MeToo movement, see Zoe Greenberg, “What Has Actually Changed in a Year,” The New York Times, October 6, 2018.  

  9. 9

    Farah Stockman, “Women’s March Roiled by Accusations of Anti-Semitism,” The New York Times, December 23, 2018. 

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Godard’s Conflagration of Images

Kino LorberThe Image Book, 2019

A head-scratcher and a mind-bender, The Image Book—the latest film by eighty-eight-year-old Jean-Luc Godard—is gloriously obscure and brutally unpretty, yet lucid and even gorgeous all the same.

In a fabulously eccentric Skype press conference held after the movie’s première at the last Cannes Film Festival, Godard remarked that “most of the films in Cannes this year and in preceding years show what is happening, but very few films are designed to show what is not happening.” The Image Book, he hoped, would show precisely that dimension—in its method if not its subject matter.

Since taking the digital turn some twenty years ago with his magisterial video series Histoire(s) du cinéma, an epic exercise in home-video technology that twisted a question—history of film or film of history?—into a nearly five-hour long Moebius strip, Godard’s movies have been gnarly ruminations on Europe’s cataclysmic past century, the significance of his chosen medium, and, by implication, his own mortality.

Kino LorberJean-Luc Godard

Where the young Godard of Alphaville (1965), Pierrot le Fou (1965), and Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1967) was the first and greatest of post-modern filmmakers, the old, irascible, stogie-chomping Godard is akin to the encyclopedic high modernists (Joyce, Pound, Pessoa, Benjamin), shoring up fragments against his ruin. He’s also sui generis, a solitary cosmonaut broken free from the Earth’s gravity and sending back intriguingly garbled transmissions from the edge of the solar system.

Godard’s twenty-first-century films—Notre musique (2004), Film socialisme (2011), and Goodbye to Language (2014)—have been wildly experimental, using iPhone and GoPro cameras, video-synthesizers, and 3-D, even while ransacking his archives for classic cinema images. Composed of visual shards and snatches of dialogue, The Image Book seems entirely fashioned of found material. All the images, some taken from old Godard movies, are second- (or perhaps third-) hand. Everything is obviously mediated, mostly by video, and annotated by the filmmaker’s rasping voice.

A film historian friend was annoyed by the way that Christian Marclay’s twenty-four-hour installation The Clock (2010) played fast and loose with the formats of the clips used in its making. Godard, one of the world’s great cinephiles, is even more cavalier. Images are smeared, stretched, squeezed, subject to high-contrast Fauvist distortions, shaken, slowed down, superimposed, and otherwise degraded. A sense to deterioration is crucial. In a recent interview, Godard’s technical assistant Fabrice Aragno revealed that “Jean-Luc records his voiceover with an old microphone, and we keep all the noise. It’s the mark of time.”

As tendentious as they may seem, Godard’s recent films are not so much arguments as they are assemblages. “One has to think with one’s hands and not only with one’s head,” he twice told the press at Cannes last year. Montage, which is to say juxtaposition, has become Godard’s first principle. One of the first shots in The Image Book is a close-up of the artist making a splice at an editing console. Hands, sometimes fingers pointing upwards, are a recurring motif, reinforcing the movie’s artisanal, as well as didactic, quality.

Kino LorberThe Image Book, 2019

However polemical Godard may be, the medium is still the message. Fond of wordplay, he makes few concessions to non-Francophones or even the non-French. Where Film socialisme employed gnomic subtitles in what the filmmaker called “Navaho English,” The Image Book severely rations the number of English titles. Almost before it begins, it invokes the venerable French comic-strip character Bécassine, and this cartoon Breton housemaid turns up periodically (and, at least for me, enigmatically) in the midst of the movie’s rapid-fire montage.

Unfamiliar, which is not to say inapt, cultural references abound. The Image Book ends with a quasi-adaptation of the French-Egyptian novelist Albert Cossery’s 1984 political satire Une ambition dans le désert, as yet untranslated into English, in which the leader of an imaginary state, Dofa, the only Gulf emirate without oil, attempts to garner international support by inventing a phantom terrorist organization. Still, so long as one understands Godard’s movie as a hands-on construction, it is not completely inscrutable.

The Image Book is divided into five parts, each with a particular emphasis that nevertheless spills into the rest of the film. The first, “Remakes,” is marked by intimations of nuclear annihilation, including the final shots of the apocalyptic noir Kiss Me Deadly (1955). Other favorites appear: the actor Eddie Constantine, seen in Godard’s Germany Year 90 Nine Zero (1991); a clip showing a confrontation between old lovers Joan Crawford and Sterling Hayden from the Nicholas Ray western Johnny Guitar (1954); a bit from Godard’s own anti-war film Les Carabiniers (1963). There’s a powerful cut from a shark decal on a jet fighter to Spielberg’s monstrous Great White erupting out of the water.

War continues in the second part, “St. Petersburg Evenings.” Here, Godard looks for historical grounding. As compared to “Remakes,” this chapter is a flashback. Godard samples the spectacular Soviet super-production War and Peace (1966–1967) and includes a representation of the French Revolution and documentary scenes of the European landscape after battle, in addition to a clip from his own meditation on the Balkan wars, For Ever Mozart (1996).

The third chapter, named “Those Flowers Between Rails, a Confused Wind of Travels,” in apparent reference to a line from Rilke’s The Book of Hours, is largely devoted to railroad trains—a favorite Leninist trope for onrushing history as well as a frequent metaphor for cinema. The main theme would seem to be mechanization. The fourth part, “The Spirit of Laws,” addresses another sort of machine. Direct yet wide-ranging in its emphasis on the enforcement of civil order, it includes two passages from John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) and instances of transgression, or transgression punished, ranging from gay porn (intercut with a laughing microcephalic from the 1932 movie Freaks), Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), Ingrid Bergman put to the stake at the climax of Joan of Arc (1948), and the surreal “The Country’s Going to War” production number from the Marx Brothers’s movie Duck Soup (1933).

The mind may surrender but the eye is engaged. The Image Book is moment-to-moment exhilarating—a work of great beauty and undeniable pathos. More than once, a frozen still comes to life. How to take the spectacle of all these souls trapped by the camera, preserved on video? Bergman is the exemplar. As close to music as Godard has ever gotten, this is less the book than the conflagration of images.

Kino LorberThe Image Book, 2019

Like the mysterious Bécassine, certain phrases recur throughout, notably “Under Western Eyes,” which becomes the theme of the fifth part, named for Michael Snow’s vertiginous landscape film, La Région centrale (1971). Seemingly as long as the four previous chapters combined, the fifth leaves Europe, crossing the Mediterranean, a body of water shown frequently through the film, into the Maghreb. Is North Africa the world’s central region? Godard samples movie images of the crusades, later colonial wars, and (literally) the Arab street. Ambivalence rules. What is the correct way to frame this world? Godard might be channeling the culture critic Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak when he suggests that the act of representing necessarily involves violence against the represented. Bloody corpses and more bloody corpses are shown. Albert Cossery’s sardonic account of a staged revolution is illustrated with ISIS propaganda videos.

His voice rising in exasperation, Godard rails against all leaders, “Do you think men in power today are anything other than bloody morons?” His last words, however, can be understood as conciliatory or self-deprecating, and might well be a quote from Cossery: “Chatting with a madman is an invaluable privilege.”

Indeed. The Image Book seems about to end with a long list of films and music compositions, but Godard is not quite done. The final few minutes are something of a curtain call. There is slowed-down footage of what appears to be an African royal court, the pointing finger returns, battlefield footage is reprised, and the filmmaker paraphrases Rimbaud (whose image appeared in the fourth chapter) to acknowledge his magpie methodology: “When I speak to myself I speak with the words of another.”

The movie’s final image is shockingly personal—lifted from Max Ophüls’s Le Plaisir (1952), a movie, set in the late nineteenth century, that Godard once anointed the single finest French film since Liberation, with a title, meaning “pleasure,” he considered the greatest in cinema history. The scene, in a Paris salle de danse, depicts a vigorous and vertiginous quadrille. One frenzied dandy faints, falling to the floor. Godard cuts to black, but anyone familiar with the Ophüls film can fill in what follows. The man has been wearing an elaborate face mask. When it is cut away, it reveals a face so old as to seem ancient.

The Image Book opens in New York on January 25 and in Los Angeles on February 15.

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