Dear Grey Zone,

Like a Goldman Sachs lobbyist, the last five months have brought out the worst in both of America's political parties, and in the 56% of us who identify as an acolyte of either.

Paul Ryan used to be an out-of-work actor with steely eyes, abs of steel, and an uncompromisingly Randian vision for America. Now Paul Ryan is an out-of-work actor with steely eyes, abs of steel, and a compromisingly Randian vision for America who walks around behind Trump with a shovel, scooping up poop as it falls out of Donald's ass like an elephant and its trainer on parade.




It's like a three-man Last Supper painting, only Ryan has to give up his soul for Trump's sins instead of the world's



On the Democratic side we have a bunch of people who somehow summon the energy to block traffic every weekend playing "French Resistance" but couldn't manage to get out of bed on November 8th for a democratic election. I had to register for an absentee ballot a month before the election so that I could send in my vote from a different hemisphere. I'm registered to vote in the antiswing state of Texas, where everyone's​ vote is meaningless anyway. And I still fucking voted.

Meanwhile, 70,000 less Democrats managed to make it out for 2016 than they did in 2012. I guess a second dose of Obama vs. the most boring Mormon on earth was more animating than Clinton vs. The Antichrist.

And it seems like the Democrats who aren't spending their evenings making over-sized, papier-mâché Donald Trump heads are busy doubling down on the same identity politics that failed to elect Clinton. Hillary got a lower percentage of the Black, Hispanic, and Under 30 vote than Obama did in 2012, and she didn't even manage to pull a higher percentage of Women than her husband did in 1996.

It's almost like these target demos are composed of real, complicated human beings with multifaceted identities and preferences, extending far beyond race and gender, who are capable of considering myriad factors and policies when voting, rather than simple, single-issue, two-dimensional ethnic and gender stereotypes to be blatantly pandered to.

I'm a white man who grew up in small-town America. I guess I was supposed to have voted for Trump. The only problem there is, I'm not only a white man who grew up in small-town America. I'm also an atheist and a skeptic and an expatriate, and the latter identities and experiences are of far greater import to my fundamental worldview than the former accidents of birth. I don't find gender and race to be particularly salient foundations upon which to build a worldview. Adversarial identity politics subverts any inclination by the electorate to approach politics in an independent, objective, skeptical, issue-by-issue manner. Identity politics is blind, subjective, and tribal, and tribalism begets tribalism. It's a highly contagious disease.

While Clinton failed to sufficiently energize traditionally Democratic target demos, she did much better as a foil for white men. Trump and Clinton worked together to convince white men that they should think of themselves first and foremost as white men, and that their diverse intellectual identities should take a backseat to something as arbitrary as their race and gender. That's bad. It's bad when men vote as men. It's bad when women vote as women. It's bad when Hispanics vote as Hispanics. I may have more in common ideologically with a black transgender woman than either of us do even with our own families. We should form a natural political alliance, but neither of us will realize that as long as we participate in a political system that tells us to think with our skin, dicks, and vaginas.

That's not to say that any group is to blame for leaning on their demographic data as a primary source of identity or community. In fact it's perfectly understandable. In most cases it has been actively encouraged, historically. If you were denied opportunities by virtue of skin color, gender, or sexual orientation, then of course you will be inclined to define your identity along the same lines as those who discriminate against you. In many ways it is the very heart of white male privilege to be permitted to push one's race and gender to the background and pull more pertinent identities to the fore. But I'd like to see that privilege extended to everyone, and instead we seem to be moving in the opposite direction- towards a world in which we all rally around our respective tribes.

The Republicans have long championed a similar brand of identity politics- patriotism. Nationalism by any other name...

Nationality is a lot like race or gender. You don't pick the citizenship you're born with. Yet many people seem to think nationality makes a great primary identity. I disagree. That doesn't mean I'm unAmerican, anymore than I'm unwhite or unmale. I just don't think those accidents of birth make sense as a solid, foundational identity. Most Democrats would agree that nationality shouldn't be the basis of a person's identity. Most Republicans would agree that race and gender shouldn't be the basis of a person's identity. I think they're both right.



Most of you only feel disdain for one of these two 



I kind of feel like they're two of a kind



Neither the Democratic party nor Hillary Clinton invented identity politics, but they seem to think it's a winning strategy.

When Hillary announced during the campaign that her cabinet would be at least half female, I was like, "...because years of underutilization has led to a surplus of qualified female applicants? Are you going to discover and plug in underappreciated talent, hence increasing productivity and efficiency? Please tie this back to merit, somehow. I really want to be excited with you, but I can't quite do it yet. THROW ME A BONE HERE, GOD DAMN IT!"

Nope. I didn't get the final bit I so desperately needed. It might seem like an inconsequential detail, but without the merit component I'm left with a naked gender quota instead of a meritocracy that considers both genders dispassionately. Disappointing. Now we are squarely in the world of identity politics. In this world we are expected to believe that gender discrimination can be mitigated... by more gender discrimination. In this world I am forced to look at the world through the arbitrary, tribalistic lens of gender. I am forced to leave my precious and hard-fought intellectual identities behind and consider how my interests would be affected as a man, because that is how Hillary Clinton is telling me she would view me. I don't like playing for Team Man. I didn't choose Team Man. I don't feel like I have a lot in common with Team Man. I haven't even seen The Fast & The Furious 8. But Clinton is telling me this is how she thinks the world should be categorized. Trump feels the same way. I'm supposed to pick a side. I told them both to go fuck themselves. This is the intellectual dead end that is identity politics.

In January, Mike Allen published Hillary Clinton's cabinet shortlist. Per Slate-


...in Allen's words, the job of running the Environmental Protection Agency was "likely" going to go to "an African American." Which “African American,” apparently, didn't really matter. And that is how United States politics work.

I expect the Republicans to be on the wrong side of most issues these days. Democrats are supposed to be the sane ones. That's why it cuts so deep when they disappoint me.




Another once-proud liberal household reduced to posting pedantic platitudes better suited to the halls of an elementary school.



Didn't believe me? Here's an elementary school poster that predates the yard sign above. 


Something about those subtly authoritarian, passively coercive "we" statements always rubs me the wrong way. It all feels very much like groupthink mantra, regardless of how well-intentioned the sentiments might be. My parents were very religious and as a child there was a framed Bible verse at the bottom of the stairs that read, "But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord." I always felt like I was in a cult when I saw that sign. And of course that predictive propaganda ultimately turned out to be inaccurate as well, because I do not in fact serve the Lord (aside from at Renaissance faires, of course). It's always so embarrassing when a big, bold prediction falls flat like that. That's why the signs I've put up around my own home are a little less assuming and a lot more modest. For example, I've got a framed poster at the bottom of the stairs that says, "But as for me and my house, we'll try our best not to look at our phones during dinner." It's a less ambitious claim for sure, but more realistic, I think, and also a little less embarrassing when I look up from my phone at dinner and see everyone scrolling down their Instagram feeds. The sign only said we'd do our best.

Nearly all of the empty platitudes in the two posters above are merely bits of didactic fluff, devoid of any of the details which might lend them meaning. Some of them are shadowboxing with straw men, and some of them would just be absurd if you took them literally.

Take, "we never give up," for example. Sometimes you set a goal, and then somewhere along the way to achieving it, new information comes to light. Your priorities might change. You might encounter unforeseen difficulties which tarnish the effort/reward ratio. You might learn more about the goal and realize that you don't really want it after all. In an uncertain world full of imperfect information, populated by impulsive individuals with a limited ability to forecast the future, knowing when to fold 'em is an essential skill, not a weakness. There's a good reason why Kenny Rogers' classic hit, The Gambler, does not go, "You got to know when to hold 'em... always. Because we never give up."

Then we have the nonsensical phrase, "kindness is everything." It's not. Kindness is just kindness. Some of my favorite people are curmudgeons.

"Science is real." Everybody knows science is real. We have antibiotics and put a man on the moon. Only an asshole would deny the veracity of the scientific epistemology. That's why most people who believe crazy things also try to claim that the preponderance of the scientific evidence is on their side. Virtually everyone believes in science. Some of us just suck at doing science.

"No human is illegal." 

Well, let's find out.






After a very disturbing Google search, it seems that being human is not in fact a crime in any legal jurisdiction I could find. Eating a human, on the other hand, is illegal in many places. Hopefully all of the places.

But when people use the colloquial term, "illegal immigrant," they're not talking about illegal humans, are they? They mean that a human, perfectly legal in his or her humanness, emigrated from one country to another in a manner nonpursuant to the new host country's immigration policy. It is the act of immigration which has the potential to be illegal. Pretending not to be able to see the difference between an illegal human and a human who's done something illegally requires a willful obtuseness so intellectually dishonest that I'm surprised anyone can maintain that logical superposition for more than five minutes without their skulls overheating, springing a leak, and finally erupting chunks of prefrontal cortex like pus out of a popped zit.

Trump's stance on illegal immigration is chock-full of lies, fear-mongering, stereotypes, and misrepresentations, but at least it has a certain internal consistency. The law says potential immigrants must register with the U.S. authorities and obtain permission before living or working in the United States. Historically, this has been a hard law to enforce. Trump has promised to go to whatever lengths necessary to enforce it. The day of the defiant scofflaw is over. The laws in the books and the reality on the streets should match up. It's a pretty simple message. 

Of course, you can achieve the same consistency between word and deed by changing the laws in the books. You might expect this to be the natural stance to take as the opposition. Instead, Democrats seem to embrace the murky, hypocritical, extralegal status quo. I haven't heard Democrats proposing bold reforms to U.S. immigration policies lately, but I have heard an assload of whingeing and excuses about why we can't or shouldn't enforce the rules that are in the books. These platitudes include things like-

1. This country was built by immigrants.

Yes, and most of them came through immigration stations like Ellis Island, where the immigrants were processed, registered, inspected for communicable diseases, verified to have a clean criminal record and enough cash on hand to establish a new life, and were determined to have a minimum level of employable skills so as not to be "likely to become a public charge." The ~2% who did not meet these criteria were sent back to their countries of origin. Lazarus' poem New Colossus on the base of the statue of liberty was never reflective of actual American immigration policy.

2. Illegal immigrants are good, hardworking people.

I agree. I'm sure most of them are. Of course the statement above contains the implicit subtext that other people who disregard other laws are not good, hardworking people. I'm not sure that's true. I think the vast majority of us are just trying to get by; trying to do the best we can for us and ours. I've known excons who were good people at heart. I've met people who have never committed a crime in their lives but were total assholes. Just as there's no law against being a dick, being a good, hardworking person doesn't give you carte blanche to break the law without facing the consequences.

3. Illegal immigrants have built their whole lives here. America is their home.

This rationale boils down to the sentiment that we've waited too long to enforce the law and it would now be unfair to do so at this point, having established an expectation among illegal immigrants that the law would never be enforced. I agree that it would totally suck to build a new life on the fragile, creaky foundation of an illegal immigrant status. But I understand why people do it, and I'd probably give it a shot myself if I had been born in Honduras. It's a calculated risk, though, and you know that going in. Your slow, life-long acclimatization to your own illegal status doesn't gradually make it less illegal, however, anymore than any other persistent infraction of the rules becomes less illegal with repetition.

Imagine you stumble across an empty house in the woods. It's big and pretty and every time you hike up into the woods, it's deserted. The grass around it is overgrown. The windows are naked and through them you can see that the rooms are bare. Over the weeks you become bolder, investigating more of the property until one day, satisfied that the house is abandoned, you force the back door open and enter. You tour the empty, aging home. The wallpaper is outdated, and the appliances are missing. The moulding, banisters, and other woodwork is old-fashioned, but intricate and beautiful. The rooms smell musty and stale, but the roof is new and the structure is sound. You already feel a sentimental attachment to the house. You are attracted to the peace and quiet of the shady forest in which it sits. You return nearly every day. You bring things with you; at first just some candles, a camp stove, canned goods, and a mess kit. You enjoy sitting on the sprawling back porch, watching the deer graze on the long grass at the edge of the overgrown yard at the forest line as the sun sets and dusk descends. You enjoy hearing the chirping of the cicadas at night as the fireflies swarm in the forest clearing. There are so many stars this far away from the city you can see the sideways spiral of the Milky Way. You bring a sleeping bag and spend the night.

The house becomes your hobby, your passion, and your refuge. You load up your station wagon with paint, groceries, small appliances, and a couple of boxed up IKEA chairs, then drive slowly down the old logging road that leads to the house. At some point you end the lease on your apartment and move in to the house in the forest. You mow the lawn and plant some bushes. You rip out the old wallpaper and replace the plaster with drywall. You weatherproof the deck and build a gazebo. You insulate the attic and install a new tankless water heater.

Four years later you're sautéing some vegetables in olive oil on your new stove-top when you hear a knock at the door. You walk down the hardwood floors of the hallway that leads from the kitchen to the front parlor, wondering whether someone from work has decided to drop by unannounced. It's the local sheriff. He's here to evict you. 

You built a new life out here in the forest, a beautiful one. You worked hard and improved the property. You felt more secure and at home with each passing year. But at the end of the day... you were also trespassing in somebody's house the whole time. You built your new life on a tenuous foundation, and that didn't stop being the case just because you stopped worrying about it.

4. Deportations are cruel and inhumane because they split up families.

Just as in excuse #2, this line of argumentation betrays a lack of sympathy for boring old "normal" criminals. I rarely hear people talk about how it's cruel and inhumane to imprison someone who's been caught breaking and entering into someone's home. And being isolated from family and friends is just one of the many things that sucks about being in prison. It's one of the main reasons why people don't like going to prison, and the fact that most people don't like it is exactly what makes prison such a common punishment. It sucks. It sucks in ways it was designed to suck- it sucks for the inmate, who I remind you, is not always a "bad" person. But unavoidably, prison also sucks in ways it was not necessarily designed to suck- it sucks for the inmate's family, who did nothing to deserve having their father/husband/brother/cousin/son torn away from them. At least in the case of deportation, the deportee's family can go back to their country of origin and be reunited. A prisoner's family isn't allowed to move into the prison. So tell me why someone who enters a private home illegally deserves to be separated from their family, and someone who enters a country illegally does not?

And behind the smokescreen provided by these flimsy, ephemeral excuses, marches the small army of Democratic half-measures and non-solutions- sanctuary cities, DACA, DAPA, and euphemisms like "undocumented" immigrant. "Undocumented," is what we should call someone who loses their work visa on the subway, not someone who payed coyotes to smuggle them across the border and then skips out on their court hearing.

Democrats have fallen in love with the grey zone. Legalized illegality. The great uncertainty. And it's hard to understand why, because the grey zone is an ugly mistress, regardless of from which side you behold her. There are some illegal immigrants who do not pay taxes, but there are many illegal immigrants who do pay taxes, including things like Social Security, even though they have no claim to collect most of those benefits. Either way you look at it, someone's getting fucked. Without legal status, immigrants face constant uncertainty, the threat of deportation, and severely restricted access to the job market. All of this makes illegals easily exploitable by the black market employers who do hire them, typically at rates well below the industry average or even minimum wage. All of this together in turn retards upwards social mobility and the rate at which immigrants can be integrated. 

Who thinks this is a status quo to be defended?

There's a law in Hawaii that you're not allowed to put pennies in your ear. Now it seems to me that there are two reasonable stances to have on this law. Either we need to be cracking down on those penny packers who flout the statute, or we should remove this ridiculous ordinance from the books. Depending on your view of the negative societal effects of putting pennies in one's ear, one of these two positions makes sense. What does not make sense is granting the rule your tacit approval by leaving it in the books and then coming up with a million excuses why we should turn a blind eye or look the other way when we come across someone greedily stuffing pennies into their ear. Oh, I know; I've got an idea- let's create special legal statuses for certain penny packers and establish special geographical zones where penny packing is still illegal but the police are instructed to ignore it. 

Let's not. Let's enforce the law or change the law. 

It's not like I'm some super stickler for the law. I did not wait until 21 to have my first beer. I speed when I think I can get away with it. I jay walk with the best of them, brazenly even, smirking and flashing double birds to the do-not-walk sign like some kind of profane, middle-finger-waving Richard Nixon, departing the White House for the last time on Marine One. But turning a blind eye to laws you don't care for is an odd policy position for politicians who are running for the job of deciding those very laws.

The Democrats need a positive vision; something coherent, consistent, and easily communicated. They needed it a year ago to counter Trump's simplistic and counterproductive wall-building scheme. A clear message on immigration would have kept him from cornering the issue. Oh well. Better late than never, I guess. In some ways it's even easier now to offer up a unified vision for comprehensive immigration reform. You're not in power anymore- you can propose anything you want without having to compromise or worry about whether it can realistically get through congress. Now it's about advertising your ideas in their purest, unadulterated form. And right now your pure, no-compromises vision for immigration policy is, "We're quite fond of the current patchwork amalgamation of dubious legal statuses and look-the-other-way law enforcement that none of the stakeholders in this process would ever have chosen if given the chance to design this system from the ground up."

Well I've got a vision. And it's pretty simple. It fits into a paragraph; this paragraph, in fact. We're always told that immigrants do work that Americans won't. Fine. Let's figure out approximately how many of those jobs there are and issue guest worker permits accordingly so that supply roughly mirrors demand. But what if the demand for low-wage workers starts to creep over into industries and jobs that compete directly with low-skilled American workers and we don't want to issue more and more guest worker permits every year? Fine. Then we get tough. But let's get tough with the American construction companies, landscapers, meat packing plants, and restaurants that are hiring people without paperwork. What's easier- tracking down five hundred illegal immigrants, or tracking down one meat packing plant where all five hundred illegal immigrants work? Aside from being less numerous, companies also have more skin in the game. They're less mobile. They've often got capital invested in the ground. We can hit them where it hurts if they break the law and don't ask for paperwork while hiring. Individual illegal immigrants have everything to gain and nothing to lose- even deportation is potentially merely a temporary set back. The companies hiring illegal immigrants have less to gain and everything to lose. Hell, some of the extra guest worker visas we issue could go straight to new (now legal) immigrants who could spend their first few months in the US working undercover for ICE, busting employers who turn a blind eye to their employees' legal status. Just watch how quickly the labor black market in Home Depot's parking lot dries up after word gets around that unscrupulous contractors are getting busted regularly in undercover stings. Between raising the number of guest worker visas to more realistically reflect demand on one hand and spending most of our enforcement budget on busting exploitative employers to dry up the demand for black market labor on the other hand, the net result should be the vast majority of immigrants being on the right side of the law. Many law-and-order conservatives should be able to get behind the policy because it means ending the open defiance of our immigration policy and allows us to know who is entering the country and where they are. Democrats meanwhile, should like the fact that more guest worker visas are being issued and that the focus of enforcement is corrupt businesses rather than individuals and families. As for those millions of illegal immigrants already living in the US, some form of amnesty might be the answer. I know Reagan's amnesty in 1986 is generally seen as a failure, and poses a potential moral hazard and communicates a lack of future credibility, but unlike Reagan's amnesty, this one would be following on the heels of a major sea change, hopefully one which would severely diminish the incentive for future illegal immigration. From a "fairness" perspective there is also a precedent for this kind of forgiveness. After all, we do have a statute of limitations in most states. If Bill Cosby can escape culpability for raping scores of women just because the crimes happened more than twelve years ago, then surely we can pardon families looking for a better life who broke the law in coming here twenty years ago. Even in the example of the house squatter which I detailed above in answer to excuse #3, there is a legal precedent in most US states and in many other countries around the world called adverse possession, wherein even a squatter can, in some circumstances, receive legal right to a property, sometimes in as little as five years, if the squatter improves the property and their habitation is uncontested by the original owner.

OK. So it was a long paragraph; but that's my plan. The Democrats are going to be in the driver's seat soon- probably in three and a half years, and possibly much sooner than that. Trump will leave the Republican party crippled and moaning like that impression he did of the disabled NYT reporter. If the Democrats present themselves as a return to sanity, to decorum, to moderation and common sense, I could see them staying in power for at least the next decade, maybe longer. Or the Democrats could present themselves as the party of identity politics, condescension, and self-righteous, UC Berkeley neo-marxist illiberalism, in which case the country will lurch left and right nearly every election cycle, alternately running to and then desperately trying to escape the clawing, gnarled grasp of the rabid, reactionary zealots on both sides.

I hope we choose the former.

Sincerely,
Sebastian Braff


Popular Posts