The Politics of Distraction and Chaos

The latest Executive Order from DT, banning Syrian refugees and putting a 90 day hold on Iraqi nationals who want to enter the US has, at least on the surface, put us on a new playing field it seems. I tried to find the list of the other 5 countries that the press, from the NYT to CNN, has insisted is on the list of banned countries. There is nothing in the executive order about it, although there are references to earlier segments of US law that appear to list those countries. According to CNN, an earlier draft of the order (why can’t we have access to that??) listed the seven countries to which this EO applies. But I see no other confirmation, apart from the media parroting each other.

Here’s the upshot as far as I can tell: those five countries were listed on an original list of exceptions to Visa waivers, passed in December 2015 as part of an Omnibus Appropriations Act of 2016 (h/t to Emory Law School professor Deborah Dinner for helping me figure where to look, and for pointing me to Seth Frantzman’s site for some leads). I don’t agree with Frantzman’s conclusions, but still his efforts to find where the assumed countries are listed are commendable.

Frantzman points us to an announcement from the DHS website, wherein in they list 3 more countries to the list of 3 others already on the list to be exempted from the Visa Waiver Travel program, i.e., travelers from this list will not be eligible for visa waiver exemptions). The six countries are as follows: Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, and Syria (already mentioned in DT’s EO).

 

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You will notice that these are seven countries listed under a Travel Visa Waiver restriction that was passed in December 2015, announced in February 2016, that is, under the Obama Administration. Trump’s EO in effect develops further the policy enacted under Obama’s DHS, namely suspending visa issuances to those foreign nationals. To be sure, The Obama policy was narrower than the Trump EO, But let’s also be clear: these were countries of concern under the Obama Administration’s watch.

Trump’s EO suspends the Visa Waiver altogether, requiring in-person interviews for all persons seeking non-immigrant visas.

It is also the case that Trump’s EO is much more sweeping than the DHS restrictions, in that it seeks to suspend the entry of all refugees for 120 days, pending further scrutiny, and suspends the entry of all Syrian refugees until further notice (which is not the same as forever, but perhaps that’s a distinction without a difference).

Trump’s is a rather cleverly crafted EO, in that there is no explicit reference to all Muslims, but rather to “Islamic terrorists” (which we can certainly read as an “existential threat,” to paraphrase Judge Bruce Selya in his 2013 opinion on the Tarek Mehanna case. And we know that “terrorist” is a salient and legally acceptable category in a way that “banning all Muslims” is not. So, I suspect that this EO will-through conventionally narrow legal readings—be upheld as constitutional.

But all that is neither here nor there. I think there is another point here which is extremely salient: This is a politics of distraction and chaos in to which we would do well not to cave. Remember that this EO was effective in stopping exactly 109 travelers in the first 24 hours of the EO taking effect. 109 of 325,000 foreign nationals who fly into the US in a 24 hour period. Of course, this doesn’t include the number of travelers who were turned back in international airports, who are stranded elsewhere. But I worry that the Trump Administration in delivering these splashy—incredibly incompetent, ill-planned, insufficiently vetted EO’s–is leading us around like trained seals. They know we’re protesting, they’re expecting it, and it expends our energy while other less visible chaos is being wrought. In that sense, (and I did join the protests yesterday), I’m reminded of Walter Benjamin’s comments about the aestheticization of politics in his 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”

Fascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property. The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life.

Agreed, we are not proletarian masses, and I hestitate to use the term “Fascism,” because it is overused. But I’m struck by his point that property is preserved while political expression is exercised. I’m also reminded of Hannah Arendt’s point about how the success of authoritarian regimes depends upon throwing us into confusion and chaos, while other devastating acts are undertaken under “dark of night,” as it were (my phrase).

This is not to say that there isn’t important reason to be on record as dissenting. This is not to say that there is no cause for concern—but Trump/Bannon et al are continuing a certain politics of distraction that has been in effect for a long time, including under the Clinton, Bush, and Obama Administrations—namely getting us to focus on a certain social politics of antagonism and hate, while they enact other deeply destructive economic policies: NAFTA, the repeal of Glass-Steagall (leading eventually to the massive mortgage foreclosure crisis), financial treats for pals in the investment banking industry, the loss of pensions, bailing out the banks, cowtowing to the health insurance industry, etc.

We know that Trump has put Steve Bannon, clown and white supremacist extraordinaire (excuse me, his “Chief of Staff” on the NSC), along with the NSC Executive Secretary, while removing the Director of National Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs from permanent status. This is a WTF moment. Responses from the Trump administration responded that they didn’t want to waste the DNI’s or Chairman’s time. I repeat: WTF?

We also know that over the weekend, Trump launched a barely-noticed drone strike in Yemen that killed the the 8 year old daughter—and the second, US citizen, child– of suspected terrorist and US citizen Anwar Al-Awlaki’s children (the first, American 16 year old Abdulrahman having been killed during an Obama Administration drone strike). You can read all about the heinousness of the Obama Admin’s actions at the previous link.

The big question for me here is: what else are these bozos up to? What are they trying to pass under the radar while keeping our noses focused on this superficial “Clash of Civilizations” approach to foreign policy and immigration/visa policies? What kind of economic destruction are they playing into? Funnily enough, even Benjamin Wittes, on his Lawfare blog (with whom I agree about almost nothing), also thinks there’s something else going on besides “national security concerns”.

Something to consider while we’re being distracted and thrown into chaos.

 

 

 

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Some thoughts as we head even further* into the KaliYuga (the epoch of terrible things)…

This post comes after a long hiatus from this blog: almost 2.5 years later. As some of you know, I lost my darling almost 2 years ago next week, and I moved to the South  which, remarkably, has showered hope on me again despite the current moment.  Salon has dropped me from their masthead (without notice), and so I return to my blog. I’d like to think that this piece constitutes a happy (re)inauguration of this blog. Happier than the one happening in DC today in any case. This piece honors the memory of Robert E. Prasch III, and speaks to some of our shared concerns. Love to you all and thanks for reading.

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Two days ago, I was called in for jury duty in my new home territory of DeKalb County, Georgia. That’s part of the 5th district, for all y’all who are keeping track of the spat between Rep. John Lewis and the Trumpster. I spent nine hours in total in the DeKalb County Courthouse. Six of those hours were in a courtroom with 17 others while lawyers for the state of Georgia and the defense asked us a series of questions. The questions were designed to weed out potential jurors who might present obstacles to either side of the case. The charges involved domestic battery, leveled against a young black man, probably not older than 20.

We were ushered out of the courtroom several times so the lawyers could confer privately or speak with some of us who declined to elaborate on our answers publicly. As the day wore on, the 17 of us (one was dismissed immediately for an important reason which I won’t share with you so as not to give any of y’all ideas) developed a sense of camaraderie, kind of like “feeling close” to the participants of your favorite reality TV show. And people’s most intimate views came out. In particular the following 2 views were ringing loud and clear: 1) the accused guy was guilty of the charges. 2) they were hoping to be excused from the jury, because they had a bunch of important work meetings. It was patently clear that a number of us were grasping at straws, but giving lame answers to questions in the hopes of getting off jury duty.

Many of us, I’m betting, were anti-Trump folks. I know that the two who expressed the previous comments were definitely anti-Trump. When they (both women) found out that I was a WGSS faculty member at Emory, they anticipated that I was going to participate in the Women’s march. I’m wondering if anyone else besides me sees the tension in this story: Participating in the Women’s march was important. But giving the man in front of us the benefit of the doubt, and feeling obligated to participate on a jury of his peers somehow didn’t occur to them.

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As I read lots of suggestions about what do instead of/after the Women’s March (talking circles, get-togethers for strangers who don’t talk to each other, be nice to people, make space for everyone to speak, “resist hate, exclusion, and policies that impoverish your community”…run for office, etc. etc.), I’m struck by how there has been little mention of practices that seem to be the least glamorous and the most important:

Maintain your civic responsibilities. Undertake your political obligations as citizens: not just to vote and to speak. But to try NOT to get excused from jury duty if you think you can be a fair juror (being impartial, I think, is next to impossible, but one can try to be fair). Juries are hugely important sites of social change and justice. Thinking thoughtfully, deliberatively, generously, and fairly is one of the most underestimated values of civic citizenship. And remember that for many decades, non-whites, women of any color or status, COULD NOT SERVE on a jury as the peers of the accused. This is, as problematic as it is, an important civic responsibility—undervalued, and casually dismissed by many of the most otherwise justice-minded of our friends and family.

On a broader level:

Figure out what kind of assistance/advocacy you can offer to men/women/children who are inadequately represented in our legal system. Be a children’s advocate. Join organizations that assist those who are charged with crimes and don’t have adequate laws or protections of their dignity and interests: the elderly, children without parents/legal guardians, men and women of color (Black, Arab, Latino, often) to protect their interests in the courtroom or in prison.

It’s important to be nice and generous and practice kindness and organize gatherings where we talk to each other and make each other feel better.

But there are a lot of folks who are already suffering under policies that, if not enacted under the Obama Administrations, were continued or exacerbated over the last eight years: Muslim men in solitary confinement due to specious material support statutes that make it nearly impossible for them to get a fair trial; men and women of color who are falsely accused of crimes against police officers; undocumented migrants who are penned up in prisons for months because they have “made the mistake” of trying to flee violence (public or domestic or sexual), disbelieved by overworked, harried, or indifferent bureaucrats. The list could/should be continued indefinitely, but you know the details.

Often, the best resistance is that which is everyday, obvious, and unsung. Be a citizen if you still have that privilege and defend others who don’t have—or who may have lost that right–through no fault of their own.

*As Jane Bunker aptly reminded me, we’ve been in the KaliYuga for a while. And it doesn’t really mean the epoch of terrible things, although it does suggest the Dark Epoch. Forgive my idiomatic interpretation…