Mimesis Law
28 June 2017

Cross: Dara Lind, Keeping Criminal & Immigration Law Honest At Vox

November 16, 2016 (Fault Lines) — Ed. Note: Scott Greenfield and David Meyer-Lindenberg cross Vox “explainerd” on immigration and criminal justice, Dara Lind.

Q. You’re a Yalie, seven years out of college, and an anthropology major to boot. Were you one of those grubby forensic-anthropology types, slumming it in the mud, or were you drawn to the cerebral, cultural side of things? And what are you doing slumming it as a crimlaw journalist? Ever consider going to law school? Did you have an interest in criminal law at Yale? Where did it come from?

A. It’s a matter of family lore that, the first time my father held me (his firstborn) in his arms, he told me that I could be anything I wanted to be in life — but please, God, don’t be a lawyer. And like any good millennial, I have a codependent relationship with my parents 😀

JK. This is the real reason that story matters: my father had earlier in life left the radio industry to get a very fancy law degree, and then spent a few years in New York entertainment law, before realizing that the fact that he “oughta be a lawyer” (because he was good at writing, public speaking, and arguing) mattered less than the fact that he was freaking miserable practicing law. So when I turned out to be especially good at writing, public speaking, and arguing, I knew better than to give in to the “you oughta be” line.

It would be tremendously helpful to me if I had a legal credential. I’d like JD degrees to be subject to the rules for chair tests in high-school band: I’m sure I could find people who would lose their diplomas to me in a one-on-one Law Challenge. As it is, I know myself well enough to know I would be a terrible law student. I simply do not care about easements, and I’m not very good at doing the reading on subjects I don’t care about.

My legal education has instead come through legal anthropology, and then through the areas of policy (immigration and criminal justice) that tend to be built most firmly on law. My anthropology degree was the result of taking a bunch of classes in social theory (I essentially majored in Bourdieu) and then writing papers on immigration policy in the United States. I’m kind of a failure as a poststructuralist; I believe firmly that power works through subtle and symbolic ways, but simply as a matter of triage I tend to care more about blindingly obvious expressions of power like deportation and incarceration.

I wrote my senior thesis on immigration court after spending a summer watching proceedings in Minnesota; I saw about a dozen people get deportation orders in two hours on my first day of observation, and have never felt more inclined to smash the state in my life.

Watching a trial court in an administrative-law system is a really good object lesson in how lives get abstracted to fact patterns, and in discretion as the chief way to exercise power, because immigration judges had (or at least were willing to exercise) so little of it. Attorneys and defendants literally got a handout listing three hypothetical fact patterns, two of which wouldn’t qualify for relief and one of which would; the best way to get relief was to show how identical the facts of your case were to the third case on the handout.

That’s very different from the legal education that you get from actually studying law, which tends to be about the transmutation of facts into law and the flexibility and power of argument within a case.

Q. You were a well-known student activist at Yale; your cause célèbre was immigration reform. Would it be indelicate to ask where the interest came from? With so many worthy causes to choose from, why this one? What was it like, advocating reform in the dying days of the Bush administration, when it still seemed like the next President might turn things around? Did you plan on parleying student activism into a career?

A. I’m pretty sure the real student activists thought I was a crypto-Nazi, or at least a neoliberal sellout. I lived with members of the Party of the Right and used words like “discourse” a lot. My activism, to the extent that it existed, was a function of my interest in immigration.

The summer after my freshman year, I was an intern with an education nonprofit in Louisville working on Hispanic outreach programs. At one point I was analyzing a bunch of grant applications, and pretty much every district said the same thing: they couldn’t build a relationship with the parents of a student if the parents were afraid to come to school, because school officials were part of the government and the government might deport them. It immediately became clear to me that immigration status is (as the anthropologists put it) a “master status”: something you can’t fix other problems without addressing first.

When, the next summer, the city of New Haven passed a municipal ID program — and then the next day ICE arrested a few dozen immigrants in an early morning raid on a Latino neighborhood — it was too obvious a case of retaliation not to be galvanizing. At the time, there were serious worries that the lists of municipal ID holders would be FOIAable by anti-immigrant groups, so there was a lot of interest in getting as many people as possible to sign up. I helped the city of New Haven get in touch with student groups and set up a week of open signups on campus: hardly a notorious activism career.

I definitely figured that my senior thesis was going to be a historical artifact, because I figured that at the very least the Obama administration would fix the immigration-court backlog. But looking forward to the Trump administration, I’m glad to have some understanding of what it looks like when the federal government wants everyone to know how tough it is on immigration enforcement.

Q. After you graduated, you spent a year guest blogging at several progressive outlets, including The American Prospect, ThinkProgress and the now-defunct Firedoglake. We keep getting told that the collaborative-blog model exemplified by the likes of Vox and HuffPo is the future of journalism. Back then, did blogging even pay the bills?

Was it a temporary gig while you looked for more stable employment? A good alternative to the unpaid-internship circuit? Or was it exactly what you wanted to do? Were the soapboxes you were given big enough? How about reader engagement? Does a 23-year-old have the ability to ask deep, thoughtful questions? Answer them?

A. To the contrary, blogging nearly cost me steady employment. I was trying to juggle it with a full-time job in advocacy, because I was too annoyed with the state of immigration reporting in 2010 (which generally showed less policy literacy than I had as a 22-year-old) to turn down opportunities to do it better. I had asked for my office to draft some sort of “social media policy” that would establish what I could do on the side. I ultimately figured it was better to beg forgiveness than ask permission.

I thought I was flying under the radar until I wrote a blog post pointing out some Spanish/English doubletalk from a politician my employer was still trying to stay on good terms with. I got…a talking-to. I don’t know how close I actually was to losing my job, but it’s the only time in my career I thought that’s where the conversation was going.

At one point, I tried to transition to journalism full-time, but the outlet I’d decided I wanted to work for did not agree. I realized I was either going to have to develop some actual reporting chops or just give it up – and that I couldn’t do the former while doing a day job I cared about. So I picked the latter.

Q. You spent nearly a year and a half as the Senior Policy Associate for America’s Voice, the immigration-reform advocacy group. As with most organizations of its kind, the official titles aren’t exactly descriptive, so we’re going to come right out and ask: what did you do there? By then, you were an established writer– did they hire you for that reason? For your immigration chops? Were you looking to become a policy wonk, a lobbyist? You set up shop in DC, the progressive’s mecca. Were you fully prepared to be thrust into that arena? Ever wish you’d stayed in Connecticut?

A. Remember that I graduated into the maw of the Great Recession. DC was the only place I could possibly get hired (especially because my only internship experience was in the nonprofit sector).

I spent a miserable summer in Kansas City after graduation, which allowed me to save up enough money to move to DC without employment, but also reminded me that I’d gotten out of the Midwest because I was sick of people mocking me for using big words, so I happily fled back to the East Coast where all my friends were.

(A few months after moving to DC I made the brilliant mistake of falling in love with someone else who had escaped the Midwest and worked in an industry that only existed in DC, so my fate got sealed pretty quickly.)

I actually started at America’s Voice in October 2009 — titles are so fungible that I had 3 different titles over my time there, which explains the confusion on my résumé. I was told that the job might not last more than a year, because the organization planned to pass comprehensive immigration reform in 2010 and then dissolve. I was there for five years.

I got hired because I cared about immigration and could write a press release quickly (the time I spent doing communications for extracurricular groups at Yale was much more relevant to my career than my degree was). I spent the next several months writing talking points for police chiefs and faith leaders, because of course a 21-year-old nice Jewish girl is immensely qualified to tell black pastors how to talk about immigrants.

I realized pretty quickly I wasn’t cut out for communications. When I got on calls with think-tankers to develop talking points, they were the ones stressing their topline message while I tried to pick apart their methodology. So over time, I ended up taking on more political and policy tasks.

I live-tweeted House hearings (and got a lot of stink-eye from congresspeople who assumed, I guess, I was just sitting in the hearing room texting the whole time). I parsed the shit out of offhand comments made on immigration by random back-benchers in town-hall meetings, trying to reverse-engineer, from talking points, what sort of policy compromise they’d be able to accept without being accused of flip-flopping. I did a bunch of Spanish-to-English translation of work under other people’s bylines, which means I can’t tell you what it was, but believe me, I’m really good at it.

Oh yeah, and one time I helped deliver a couple hundred cantaloupes to Republicans in Congress (after Steve King famously said that deferred-action recipients were all drug smugglers with “calves like cantaloupes”). The success of that stunt made us cocky enough to follow up with a dozen frozen turkeys before Thanksgiving, which resulted in us having to pull an “Am I being detained?” when cornered in a side room by a Capitol Police officer and more or less chased out of a House office building. I was a little relieved when I got my Hill press pass for Vox; I wasn’t sure my name wasn’t on a blacklist somewhere.

Q. The big federal immigration story in 2013 was S.744, the Senate reform bill sponsored by Chuck Schumer and his “Gang of Eight” (including Marco Rubio, a fact that would come back to bite him in the ass in this year’s primaries). You covered it extensively while you were at America’s Voice. Was it everything you wanted from a piece of immigration-reform legislation? Did it compromise too extensively? Was it entirely off the mark? Though the Senate passed it, it died an ignominious death when the House declined to take it up. Did the bill have a noteworthy legacy? Were you, perhaps, startled by subsequent Republican support for the E-Verify system?

A. If anything I was surprised at how little of a push got made on E-Verify once the GOP took back both chambers, given that the House had tried to pass mandatory E-Verify in 2011 — and while the system is still flawed, it appears to be better now than it was then.

Comprehensive immigration reform was never a strategy everyone loved, obviously. But it was one way of solving the fundamental dilemma of immigration policy, as it’s existed since 2009 or so. There are 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the US; most people don’t want all of them deported. At the same time, the US/Mexico border is fairly secure by historical standards, but calls to “secure the border” tend to drown out arguments for further changes to law — and no other change to immigration law is actually popular enough among both politicians and the public to push through the border panic. So how do you reassure people that the border is secure, and move forward with other reforms?

In 2009 and 2010, President Obama tried to answer this by stepping up deportations; in S744, as it ultimately got passed by the Senate, it was done by focusing on inputs (number of Border Patrol agents, amount of money spent).

The problem is that symbolic politics are rarely just symbolic, so the real question is how much real suffering you’re willing to cause in the name of catering to people’s feels. The S744 “border surge” made it impossible for feels of border insecurity to derail the rest of the bill, but also would have caused real harm by further militarizing border communities.

(Arguably, if you want to make people feel safer about the border without doing anything, “build a wall” is probably the way to go — you build it, you say “Look, it’s built!”, you move on with legalizing people who are already here. But the incoming administration is not as committed to building the wall as it is to deporting people, so.)

By the time S744 was drafted, the framework of “comprehensive immigration reform” had remained unchanged for several years, which made it a little overbaked — it was impossible to make individual legislators feel like they’d won meaningful concessions, and people don’t fight for things they’re not invested in. (A less kind way to put this: members of Congress have never seen an issue of principle they can’t reduce to an issue of ego.)

At this point, the coalition that made “comprehensive immigration reform” politically appealing has been blown to smithereens — you pretty clearly can’t persuade Republicans in 2016 to get on board with expanding immigration just because business likes it. Arguably, it was blown to smithereens the minute the law passed. The organization I worked for had mugs made with some of the best provisions of the bill, as a memento for some of the people who’d worked on it; weeks after they were delivered to the office, we still had a whole box of mugs, because none of the Republicans we were hoping to give mugs to were returning our calls.

The next time the opportunity comes up for Congress to pass a big change to immigration law, the politics are going to be very different, so S744 won’t make very much sense as a model. Whether that’s a good thing depends on what happens instead.

Q. In lieu of legislative action on immigration, President Obama decided to take action himself. At a cabinet meeting in early 2014, Obama declared that he had a pen and a phone and was going to use them. He originally created DACA – his Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals policy – by executive action in 2012, following yet another Congressional refusal to pass the DREAM Act. His November, 2014 changes to DACA amounted to an enormous deportation deferral, potentially covering nearly half of the nation’s illegal immigrants.

Is it constitutional, let alone wise, for the President to usurp Congress’ role by executive fiat? Given that Donald Trump is poised to wield the same power Obama did, he may very well use it to revoke Obama’s orders – and pass some of his own that’ll take the nation in a very different, un-progressive direction. At Vox, you’ve been a notable cheerleader for DACA. Has anything changed?

A. The executive branch has a ton of statutory authority on immigration enforcement; Donald Trump would have had just as much ability to deport every unauthorized immigrant in the US had he been elected in 2008 as he does now. The limiting factor is resources. Nothing changed in immigration law between 2001 and 2007 to make deportations easier, but post-9/11 budgeting did, and deportations more than doubled as a result.

At the same time, prosecutorial discretion is an uncontroversial legal principle. With the exception of traffic violations in the age of red-light cameras, perfect enforcement of violations of the law is always impossible, and the question facing prosecutors is whether to engage in deliberate triage or fill up dockets opportunistically. When you don’t have the resources to deport everyone, but you have the resources to deport a lot of people, how you choose which ones to deport becomes super relevant.

The story of the Obama administration’s immigration policy is, in large part, a battle between labor and management over where in an agency prosecutorial discretion resides. The White House felt that agency management had the power to dictate where resources go; the agents feel they’re being deprived of their ability to make case-by-case determinations.

When I worked in advocacy, we’d occasionally get word that a college student, or the mother of a toddler, had been detained by ICE, even though the Obama administration was going around saying they weren’t deporting students or parents. We’d mobilize activists to send faxes and phone calls to ICE headquarters in DC, in the hopes that, if the case became enough of a headache, someone in DC would make an angry phone call to, say, the Detroit field office, telling them to drop the case. That’s obviously not an ideal way to implement policy!

The Obama administration ultimately decided that the only way to guarantee that management could dictate prosecutorial priorities was to allow immigrants to apply for protection proactively, taking the decision out of ICE agents’ hands.

When the deferred-action programs got challenged in 2014, the administration found itself arguing that Citizenship and Immigration Services did still have discretion in looking over applications, as a way to claim that the deferred-action program wasn’t a regulation (and therefore didn’t need to go through the notice-and-comment process). But though I’ve heard about cases where people got rejected even though they met all the qualifications on paper, the government never really made the case for that in court. As far as I’m concerned, the constitutional weakness is probably there: not in what the administration did, but how.

What I’ve never understood was how the expansion of deferred action in 2014 was unconstitutional, but the original Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in 2012 — which, if anything, was much more clearly analogous to a bill Congress had just failed to pass, and which the states in the US v. Texas case were using to argue the new program would be implemented unconstitutionally — was kosher. The Fifth Circuit totally punted on that, and I would have loved to see whether the Supreme Court was willing to follow the states’ argument to its logical conclusion.

Q. And that brings us directly to our next question – in March, 2014, you left America’s Voice to sign on with Vox. How come? Missed blogging? The thrill of seeing your name in print, or pixels perhaps? (Given that you stayed, it can’t have been that you were sick of Washington.) At the time, Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias had just founded the site; you were part of the original team. What was so new, so revolutionary about it? What made you want to sign on? Was its emphasis on liberal politics part of the game plan from the start, or was it the organic result of the people writing for it? Did working for Vox make you rethink your duties as a journalist, and if so, what did you conclude?

A. I spent about three years trying to figure out how I could forge a career in policy without going either to the Hill (too outspoken) or to grad school (too poor, bad at delayed gratification). But by the beginning of 2014, I was sick of people assuming that, because I was a 25-year-old woman, I didn’t know exactly what information was and was not publicly available about deportations of “criminal aliens” (something I’d been following as a wonk side project for years). So I figured I’d go to grad school, get the credential, maybe grow a few gray hairs for gravitas.

When Ezra and company left the Washington Post to start a new site, my partner tried to get me to apply, because it was such an obvious fit for me. “Explaining complicated systems to interested people” was my career mission statement years before I went to a site that explained the news, and while the state of immigration reporting in 2014 was better than it had been in 2010, it still wasn’t being taken seriously enough as a policy issue for my liking.

But it had taken me three years to decide what I wanted to do next with my life, and I did not want to reconsider again. I told my partner I’d offer to freelance for the new site as a grad student. Then Ezra himself emailed me with a request to talk.

Ultimately, he persuaded me that a high-profile byline would give me the same social capital as a graduate degree, and that “instead of you paying them, we’d be paying you.” (Fact check, Mostly True. Given how much all of us worked during the first year of the site and what we were getting paid, I have no idea what our hourly wages came out to and I don’t particularly want to run the calculations to check.)

Because I was coming out of advocacy, my editors were initially concerned about a liberal bias in my reporting. Vox has never tried to be liberal; to the extent that our writers tend that way, it is, as you say, the result of organic network effects. Personally — and everything I say about my site should be taken as me speaking only for myself — I would love it if we had more ideological diversity.

What Vox is, though, is positivist journalism: here are the consequences of these choices; here is the choice that does the most to accomplish the stated goals. The problem is that not everyone’s goals are the same; to paraphrase something I heard about game theory once, what does a utilitarian do with people for whom “utility” isn’t happiness but Godliness? And while positivist journalism is better built for a lot of things (like assessing truth claims) than traditional he-said-she-said journalism, it isn’t built for debates that are built on irreconcilable values.

The solution to this, as far as I’m concerned, is to be honest about what the values of all participants are. Done right, this is actually better than he-said-she-said journalism, because it allows you to ignore incorrect factual smokescreens and grab onto the values arguments that aren’t being voiced.

When I write about “self-deportation,” for example, I always try to point out that stepped-up enforcement is going to make the lives of unauthorized immigrants harder, and that for supporters of self-deportation that is the point — they feel the cost of violating immigration law should be as high as possible.

This might appear biased because, to people who don’t agree with that principle, the logic seems cruel. It might seem less biased to assume that people believe in more immigration enforcement because, say, they’re primarily concerned about welfare use. But it’s not the job of journalists to put people’s positions in the terms we find most palatable; it’s our job to present the values people themselves find most important.

Q. Vox is where you started spreading your wings as a crimlaw journalist; in the past, your focus was more on social issues. Why did you decide to make the change? Given that you’re neither a lawyer nor someone who, like Radley Balko, has spent many years on the beat, how have you’ve managed to make a success of it? Crimlaw journalism is one of those areas where emotions and political bias can get in the way of the facts; have you managed to avoid those pitfalls? Is there any pressure at Vox, like Slate, that encourages a less objective viewpoint? Given the right circumstances, can neutral journalism be more of a hindrance than a help? What’s the right way to look at a crimlaw issue – complex and unsatisfying, or simple, easily digestible?

A. I am going to send this to all the immigration lawyers I know and tell them that a crimlaw blogger called their field a “social issue.” I imagine the result will look something like this.

old-cartoon-fight-animation-gif

I think of both criminal justice and immigration less as social issues than civil issues; they both involve complicated apparatuses of law and policy  that have real and discrete impacts on people’s lives, but the public debate about them often pretends that all policy is just an expression of normative or “culture war” values. “Tough on crime” is a slogan without policy meaning that nonetheless has policy consequences; so is “end mass incarceration.”

If I know anything at all about criminal justice, it’s because of my partner, who is always happy to discuss collateral consequences over dinner. (We are fun at parties.)

Since he, like me, is also a wonk who is not a lawyer, my understanding of criminal law is pretty purely reflected through policy; I think of myself as a criminal justice journalist rather than a legal journalist. That probably gives me a bias — not toward emotions, but toward consequences – that I know can run counter to the logic of law.

There’s a tendency in criminal-justice and legal journalism to apply existing frames to new cases; that’s what determines which cases are newsworthy. (Consider the median coverage a police shooting of an unarmed black man gets now versus 2012.) Those existing frames are often built by politics: poor police-community relations and implicit bias in policing; rape and rape culture; overcriminalization. This can make for some terrible journalism. It is what leads journalists upset with the outcome of a case to say the defendant “got off on a technicality,” which is a phrase I promise never to use on pain of forfeiting my paycheck to the NACDL.

But this is not an inevitable consequence of talking about law in terms that are more lay-friendly than the terms in which lawyers talk about them.

There’s a difference between ambiguity and ambiguousness. Most things are complex and unsatisfying, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t identify particular axes of disagreement and lay those out, or explain how the same dilemma, played out over and over again, can create clear systemic problems. The question of “should defendant X take a plea bargain?” is usually a lot harder to answer than the question of “is the fact that 95% of defendants take plea bargains good or bad for the system?”

Laypeople need to have some understanding of how law works (inter alia, they’re the ones who have to serve on juries and elect prosecutors). And if journalists aren’t actually making it easier for laypeople to understand than an expert would, there is no point to journalism.

Q. Let’s be blunt: Vox has come in for its share of criticism. A recent Current Affairs op-ed by Nathan J. Robinson attacked your outlet (and its writers) not just for factual errors and style, but for an alleged tendency to see itself as the arbiter of what’s true and correct when there’s little basis to support that’s the case. Any truth to that? Are you entitled, snot-nosed kids condescending to the rest of us, or do Robinson and his ilk not get what you’re up to? Vox’s self-proclaimed goal isn’t to provide facts, but to process those facts, come to the right conclusions and make them easily digestible for its readership. Is it possible that nuance gets lost along the way? Is humility important? Is it a help or a liability that you guys are so damn young?

A. Stentorian lecturing is not actually any more appealing when it’s being done by an older person, though! I have spent enough time listening to Boomers to know this.

I think of condescension as treating readers as if they’re not smart. A lot of “news” writing for women, in particular, appears to be written for someone who doesn’t actually care about global affairs but has to make small talk with the boss in the office elevator. Blech. Spare me.

Vox assumes readers are smart, but not necessarily perfectly informed — i.e., that those of us who get paid to know these things for a living do in fact know more than people doing other things with their lives. (That makes it super-incumbent on us to be right. This is the most important use of humility for a journalist: making you careful enough before publication that by the time you publish, you’re damn sure everything’s right. Whenever I get something wrong, it’s because I’ve gotten too cocky to check, and it sucks.)

Depending on how you look at it, that’s either translation or arbitrage. Either way, it obligates the journalist to write in a way that maximizes ease of access — to inform as many people as want to be informed.

In my experience, clarity, conciseness, and informativeness are one of those “pick two” situations. I tend to pick the first and the third. A ramp might have to extend for longer than a set of stairs in order to reach the same height, but not everyone can manage the stairs and everyone can manage the ramp.

Clarity and ease of access should not be the goal of all writing. It would be laughable to judge poetry that way, for example, and I think that narrative journalism can accomplish things explanatory journalism can’t. But if you’re committed to expository writing — which is, in theory, what most journalism is — ease of access has to be a core commitment.

As a middle-schooler, I was really proud of myself when I completed a written assignment and the Microsoft Works Flesch-Kincaid analysis gave my work a score of 11.7 or whatever. I thought it meant I was sophisticated. It really just meant I was using too many semicolons and relative clauses to be readable.

Of course, that Current Affairs article, and most critiques of my site, are generally a stalking horse for ideological disagreement (with “Vox ideology” defined as “what Ezra, Matt, and Dylan Matthews think”). I personally am much less concerned with whether I’m manipulating my readers into the “right conclusions” in my writing than I am with whether I can persuade my readers when I suspect my conclusions don’t mirror their instincts.

Journalistic outlets in 2016, and this is not just a Vox problem by any means, have a huge incentive to pander to the prejudices of the existing audience. This creates a vicious cycle: the content you publish attracts readers of a certain stripe, who reward content that appeals to them, which draws in more of the same kind of readers. I worry much more about that than I worry about the prejudices of the people doing the work.

This isn’t a problem that we can fix on the producer end. I want people to think a lot harder about what ethical consumerism looks like in an attention economy. Understand that when you spend time consuming content you don’t like, you’re playing yourself. When you don’t like everything a site does, make a point of seeking out and sharing the stuff you like. And never, ever hatelink.

Q. You’re just at the outset of your career, and you’ve got a long, promising future ahead of you. So it only seems fitting that we close by taking a quick look at the past. Right now, college campuses are in turmoil, with students clamoring that they and their emotional traumas aren’t being taken seriously by administrators and staff. Exactly one year ago, you wrote a notable piece on just that subject, drawing on your own experiences at Yale.

Are campus protests over political slogans written in chalk and offensive Halloween costumes likely to be effective in the long run? Have today’s student activists lost sight of the bigger goals of progressive politics by choosing to focus on themselves and their needs? Are they unlike you and your generation? Do you have any advice for them? And given that they, along with the rest of us, are facing four years of President Trump, what should they be focusing on now?

A. I don’t think that this wave of student activism is particularly strategic. But I don’t know that it could be. Some of these students (Nathan Heller’s feature about Oberlin in the New Yorker brought this into focus for me) are rejecting the notion of college as a place to find oneself, which is at least a half-century old, and as a lever of upward mobility, which is even older than that. That’s a really radical critique, and radical critiques don’t tend to lend themselves well to strategy.

It’s going to be really interesting to see how progressive movements react to the Trump administration. But I think that campus activism circa 2015 was maybe not terrible tactical practice for the age of Trump, because the feelings of unsafeness that were at the core of so many activist uprisings are a lot more relevant (and arguably more valid) now.

The fact of life under President Trump is that some fears are entirely rational, both in terms of threats from the state and from nonstate actors. You don’t have to believe every reported hate crime on social media to be aware that there are a lot of verified cases of harassment being undertaken in the name of our president-elect, and when Guatemalan-born children ask to start taking their passports to school it seems wrong to blame their parents for making them scared.

But not everyone has equal reason to fear: I think that a lot of progressives, not only on college campuses, are focusing on their own victimhood to the exclusion of protecting others. (I’m a woman, a Jew, and a journalist, and I am really annoyed with the number of people using their membership in one of those categories as evidence that they personally will be targeted by the federal government or 4chan. I am not the person I’m worried about right now.)

I feel pretty strongly that if you are less threatened, you are obligated to support those more threatened. When someone is afraid because she’s getting harassed on the street for being Muslim, or because her parents might get deported, you don’t get to pretend she’s just upset because her preferred candidate lost. But if you’re primarily worried for what President Trump will do to you, you should probably work through the relative likelihood that you’ll be endangered compared to others.

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