interesting times

If We Want to End the Border Crisis, It’s Time to Give Trump His Wall

Trump inspects a border wall prototype in San Diego on March 13, 2018. Photo: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

You could think of the last week as a solid victory for the Democrats and for basic human decency. An utterly indefensible and morally foul policy of separating children from their parents is over for now. Trump backed down amid a torrent of his usual lies and refusal to take responsibility for anything. We found a line even today’s GOP would not cross (although we also found plenty who were indeed prepared to cross it).

But it is emphatically not the end of this story, not simply because there are more than 2,000 children still apart from their families, with very little hope of ever finding their parents again, but because none of the underlying reasons for this atrocity in the first place have been addressed. Nor are they likely to be addressed in the Congress today, as one of the latest GOP immigration bills staggers toward failure. Nor do the Democrats seem able, willing, or united enough to tackle the problem at its source, by finding a legislative compromise with the GOP and president, on both legal and illegal immigration. That means families in cages multiplying in the future; it means more endangered children; it means an even deeper coarsening of our moral values; it means more and more people in limbo; it means genuine refugees losing asylum and being deported back to their nightmares; and it portends even greater polarization ahead.

The reason for that is simple: The United States has not allocated the resources, political and financial, to stem the wave of illegal immigrants into this country that is now rising again, or to enable genuine asylum cases to be adjudicated fairly and expeditiously. Our political system — incapacitated by tribalism — has been incapable of addressing the intensifying problem since the Bush administration. Obama was trapped by the same impasse as Trump now is, and detained families in camps. And the problem is acute. There are almost a third of a million asylum cases pending in the system; and, as David Frum has noted, it now takes up to nine months to process a single one. We also know that the Flores settlement that bars any detention of children with their parents past 20 days has not been invalidated or legislatively fixed.

Which means to say that in less than three weeks, we will be here again, with another excruciating dilemma. Do we set up vast tent cities and camps to imprison families indefinitely, or do we simply let these families go free, and hope they show up for a future court date? Either way, we solve nothing fundamental and leave a huge incentive for those trying to enter the U.S. illegally to bring children with them when they do. And that does happen. There is fraud and trafficking and opportunism as well as valid family-based escapes from violence and persecution, and it can be hard to tell one from the other.

As in everything, Trump makes things worse. His rhetoric, his callousness, his wanton lies all make a compromise harder. It’s completely understandable that Democrats do not wish to let him off the hook in any way before November. But there’s a big conflict here if you actually want to end the suffering, or get at the real problem. If you do not want to jail kids with their parents indefinitely, or to maintain the incentive for illegal migrants to bring kids along for the harrowing ride, you need some sort of congressional action and soon. There’s something deeply wrong, it seems to me, with expressing the view that what the government is doing is barbaric and yet allowing the underlying cause of it to continue for political reasons. If that’s the case, then Trump is not the only one using kids as pawns. Chuck Schumer is too.

The Democrats need to accept that they lost the last presidential election for a reason, and that their opponent’s main campaign pledge was to tackle illegal immigration, with a wall at the southern border as the centerpiece. Completely resisting a legitimate agenda based on a clear campaign promise — well, it reminds me of the Republicans with Obamacare.

And there is clearly an adamant, persistent segment of the public that sees the crisis of illegal immigration as a vital one. They’re not alone. Cast an eye at Brexit Britain, newly populist Italy, Macron’s France, and even Merkel’s Germany as it heaves in response to mass immigration from the developing world. This is a huge force in Western politics in every country. It may be the primary one. Millions of people are on the move right now, fleeing war and poverty and persecution. The vast migration from south to north, from poverty and chaos to opportunity and order in the West may be just beginning. Climate change will surely only make it worse. Finding the right balance between reason and compassion is essential if we are not going to further tear this country apart, or witness ever more humanitarian catastrophes, or see what’s left of the West go under.

So give him his fucking wall. He won the election. He is owed this. It may never be completed; it may not work, as hoped. But it is now the only way to reassure a critical mass of Americans that mass immigration is under control, and the only way to make any progress under this president. And until the white working and middle classes are reassured, we will get nowhere. Don’t give it to him for nothing, of course. It should come with a full path to citizenship for all DACA immigrants, as in the proposed deal in January that Trump first liked and then reneged on, under Miller’s toxic influence. But it should also go bigger: a legislative fix for Flores; massive new funding for detention facilities, humane family-friendly housing, and, above all, much more money for the immigration legal system, now completely overwhelmed by asylum cases. If Democrats can show they want to deal with the humanitarian problem as a whole, and are willing to compromise on the wall, they’ll be in a much stronger position going forward than in the recent past.*

And this strikes me as urgent. We have a burgeoning humanitarian crisis in our own country, and it is simply not good enough to let it fester some more. The future levels of immigration — and the methods for deciding who comes and who doesn’t — can be determined after the fall elections. For what it’s worth, I favor a Canadian style merit system; a tightening of extended family-migration laws; and marginally lower levels of legal immigration so that the country can better absorb the current wave, which is as high a proportion of the population as in the 1920s, and far greater in absolute numbers than any previous period at all. But I’m open to other ideas. The point is that after this crisis, we have to return this debate to the calm and nitty-gritty area of legislative hearings and compromises, rather than the cable news and social media rhetorical screech of the recent past.

If all this sounds like appeasing a bigot, I understand. But better to see it, I think, as a way to address the legitimate concerns, fears, and worries of a large number of Americans who feel like strangers in their own land, and whose emotional response to that has been to empower the white nationalist right. It’s also simply the moral thing to do to relieve real human misery on the borders. It’s good politics too, I’d argue, for both parties in the medium term. At some point, the GOP will need to drop the appearance of bald-faced racism, callousness, and brute force, if they are to survive anywhere outside their base. And equally, the Democrats who are currently posturing are playing a good card badly. They give off the appearance, as Hillary Clinton did, of making no distinction between legal and illegal immigration, favoring de facto open borders, and calling anyone who disagrees with them a white supremacist. Until they recognize that illegal immigration is a huge and legitimate problem, and until they propose a set of actual policy proposals to end it humanely and efficiently, they run the risk of another 2016 in 2020.

And this is what Miller and Bannon want. They want to turn the fall elections and the next presidential contest into a polarizing, fearmongering referendum on illegal immigration. They don’t mind the current hysterical atmosphere or the brutality that occasioned it. They relish both because they believe that immigration is the issue of the future, and that, in the end, if passions run high, it will be to their advantage. Looking at the rest of the West right now, I suspect they’re more right than wrong. Which means to say: Don’t give them this issue. Do the work to defuse it. And do it sooner rather than later.

* I updated this paragraph to include mention of the deal that Democrats offered Trump earlier this year — and also make clear how what I’m proposing here is something bigger.

A Rare, Nuanced Look at Trans Issues

This is a difficult time for writers. We’re a strange breed that is particularly dependent on liberal democracy to survive. Why? Because, at our most fully realized in the nonfiction world, we’re about argument not propaganda, persuasion not coercion, and our ability to write things someone else doesn’t want printed — Orwell’s definition of journalism — is dependent on a free society to sustain it. It is a very rare event in human history that writers have the kind of freedom liberal democracy allows for — almost unheard of before the last couple of centuries, and still a fringe phenomenon in the wider world. Which is why it’s so dismaying that even an organization like the ACLU is beginning to wobble on free speech, that Twitter mobs are so insidious and pernicious, and that “social justice” now includes the hounding and ostracism of writers who will not tow the party line.

That’s why I’d like to take a moment to congratulate my colleague, the indefatigable Jesse Singal, for achieving the near-impossible in this climate: He has written a nuanced, balanced, non-ideological essay exploring some of the consequences of the movement for trans rights. That’s rather brave. The right will disdain you; the left will pillory you. And this essay was no exception: Nicole Cliffe hauled out her usual tweet calling for another writer to be fired or expelled: “I think more cis people need to speak up about how hiring Jesse Singal in the year of our Lord 2018 to write your Pride month cover story on teens who are asking themselves questions about their gender identity is fucked. He is O B S E S S E D with trans women! It’s creepy … I am just a simple unfrozen caveman cis chick and I can smell the grossness coming off this guy.”

Another liberal writer who dared investigate de-trans people for The Stranger, Katie Herzog, was also slimed for a balanced reported essay that also included lots of stories about happy transitions: “From the response to my piece, you would think that I’d written that trans people don’t exist or shouldn’t have access to medical care or deserve to be beaten in the street.” She was also informed that only a trans person should be allowed to write about trans issues. How’s that for liberal democracy! To keep at it despite this level of abuse and worse, while never giving an inch to anti-trans bigotry, is worth a medal. Jesse and Katie deserve one each.

De-transitioning occurs. Of course it does. We are fallible in understanding ourselves, and this is particularly true when we are young or adolescent. Children and adolescents are subject to a myriad competing impulses — hormonal, social, familial, psychological — and some early identities wax or wane away as maturity arrives. And so the movement to assign a trans identity to children who exhibit gender dysphoria has some great benefits, in relieving acute psychic pressure, but also inevitably, has some drawbacks. If a gay or a straight kid happens to show signs of behaving as or identifying with the other gender, they can be prematurely defined as trans, and start on a track that will not work for them. But it’s hard to find this sane and balanced view anywhere.

If you want to read a book that only really highlights the de-transitioners, you can peruse When Harry Became Sally by Ryan Anderson. Its stories are riveting and revealing, but the book omits all the good stories of trans kids who escape some of the psychic terror that previous generations have endured, and perpetrates the bigoted idea that trans people are mentally ill. And if you want to read the current trans ideology, well just read any liberal media outlet. They’ll roll over for anyone on the far left.

It seems to me we can find a happy medium in this area, and Singal shows how. We should be attentive to gender dysphoria, and watch for signs of a kid being genuinely trans, and care for him or her. That’s been a big and hugely welcome change from the gruesome past. But to automatically equate non-stereotypical gender behavior with being trans is a dangerous overreach. Gender dysphoria affects countless young gay boys as well as lesbian girls, along with straight boys and girls who don’t fit gender stereotypes but are nowhere near being trans or gay. Keeping that in mind is also essential. And that, to my mind, requires an abundance of caution and patience, which is why I favor a ban on irreversible sex reassignment surgery and hormone blockers until the age of 18. I’m all for supporting trans youth in their identity and dignity. But if you’re not regarded as mature enough to vote, you should not be regarded as mature enough to alter your body and your gender irreversibly.

The danger in the alternative is that gay boys and girls can actually be mis-defined as trans by well-meaning parents or therapists. Which, it seems to me, is as homophobic as defining us as straight. And the danger of believing that sex and gender are entirely socially constructed — as so many trans activists do — is that these identities are reconceived as choices, rather than who people naturally are. This not only denies nature, it also trivializes the actual lived experiences of gay, lesbian, or bi people. We do not call it a choice because, whatever its origins, it isn’t.

There’s also the reactionary element in prematurely defining gay people as trans. There’s a reason why one of the countries with the most sex reassignment surgeries is Iran. For the mullahs, it is homosexuality or ambiguous sexuality that is the problem. Surgically reassigning gender is the solution. Of course there’s a world of difference between forced sex reassignment surgery in Iran and voluntary transitioning in the West. But for some reactionaries, trans people who adhere to gender roles are preferable to gay people who don’t.

You see there are some wrinkles in what some call the LGBT community. Things are complicated. And it usually takes a liberal democracy to tease those complications out.

Remembering Charles Krauthammer

I’ve known Charles Krauthammer for a long time, through the Reagan years all the way through Obama and Trump. Perhaps the most remarkable thing is that we remained friends, albeit distant from time to time, throughout. Being a dissident on the right as I became — particularly in the new century — was to invite ostracism and obloquy from the mainstream conservative media. But not from Charles. It wasn’t because we didn’t have disagreements. We argued strenuously from the get-go. In the 1980s, I was against the Contras; he was for. I then found the Iran-Contra affair appalling; he found it defensible. I became a sharp critic of Israel, as it continued and intensified the settlements; Charles could not offer a single stray thought critical of the Jewish state. He opposed marriage equality at first — on the slippery-slope polygamy grounds; I rebutted him. Then, perhaps most profoundly, he argued for a special team of U.S. forces to torture prisoners; and I pulled out all the stops to oppose him. We agreed on Trump (he regarded his Russian ties as sinister), but even then, I found Charles’s inability to disown the GOP baffling. I don’t regret any of those positions now; and I doubt Charles ever did either.

But he seemed incapable of personal abuse, animosity, or rhetorical demonization. He even expressed a kind of fondness for me, I like to think, which was hard not to reciprocate. He was always a thinker, always drawn to argument and counterargument, even if he almost never conceded a point, however trivial. He’d smile laconically if you thought you’d made a good point, in what seemed like a mixture of mischief and condescension, and you knew it wouldn’t be worth haggling any further.

He was as far away from bigotry as is humanly possible, which is why I took his argument against gay marriage seriously. And he was a liberal conservative: completely at home in a pluralist and multicultural world — he was originally Canadian, after all — but with a profound and even dark realism about human affairs. He supported science and religion. His writing has one quality above all others: total clarity. But he was also able to turn on a dime. I’ll never forget him writing a piece at The New Republic arguing that the Palestinians would never recognize the Jewish state. Then they did, and Charles quickly rewrote the piece, with apparent equanimity.

In my time, he was engaged at TNR in a monumental feud with Leon Wieseltier. Both were pro-Israel fanatics. But Leon was always trying to play the role of the liberal Zionist, above certain arguments, attentive to means as well as ends, fond of the bon mot and the elegant phrase. And Charles was emphatically unworried about his rep among liberals and lefties, his language always pellucid, never showy. They once had a fight over whether Yitzhak Shamir actually referred to Palestinians as “cockroaches.” They never spoke after that. But our cartoonist, Vint Lawrence, drew a cockroach in a yarmulke, and we framed the image, put it up on the wall between their two offices (which, for some reason, were right next to each other) and amused ourselves. Magazines were once like that, you know?

The Great Unmentionable was his paralysis that came from a swimming-pool accident as a young man, when his spinal cord was severed. It’s the first thing you’d notice about him in person, and the last thing you’d remember after a few minutes. He never complained, never explained, and maintained incredible mobility and dignity through it all. He found a way to drive (riding in his Kraut-mobile was a trip). He devised a way to eat. He bore a son and had what seemed a deeply happy marriage. He was of the view that suffering was to be endured in private, eschewing the avalanche of self-exposure that our culture generates and rewards. Or perhaps he was simply allergic to being pitied. I saw him as a model in my own grappling with HIV in the early years. I kept it secret at TNR because I didn’t want it to be in any way a shield in a contested public battle of ideas. And so he inspired not simply because of the way he wrote, but because of the way he was.

I wish I could be arguing with him forever.

See you next Friday.

To End the Border Crisis for Good, Give Trump His Wall