Decoding ‘Build the Wall’: What Liberal Critics Miss

This was recently published in NACLA Report on the Americas, in their excellent new issue on confronting the Trump government in Latin America. If you can access it, read it here:

Donald Trump’s border wall, if it is ever built, will of course be a monument to arrogance and folly. And obviously, it won’t “work”—that is, it won’t achieve the White House’s officially stated goals of restricting immigration and drug trafficking. Unfortunately, that’s the best thing about it.

Trump’s executive order mandating the construction of a border wall decries “aliens” as powerful vectors of crime and terrorism, a “clear and present danger” to national security. In response, liberal critics have lately emphasized  that the border wall is a waste of money and resources. The MIT Technology Review asks us to “set aside the questions of whether it’s wise to put a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border” in making a persuasive case for its exorbitant cost—some $40 billion USD, far more than the estimate of $12-15 billion USD that House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) has pledged to allocate for the project. The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a liberal, D.C.-based NGO focused on human rights in the Americas, observes that building 413 more miles of fencing—the portion of the land border with Mexico not yet walled in by Clinton and Bush-era “border security” initiatives—would cost $11.37 billion USD. Another liberal wall critic, Robert Reich, at Berkeley, showed all the humanity of the average economist when he wrote on his blog in January 2017 that border crossings are down because Mexico “is producing fewer young people.”

It seems certain that the wall will be wasteful and useless—what’s less clear is whether this actually matters, at least to Trump and his right-wing allies. What pragmatic and economic arguments against the border wall miss is that its major objective is symbolic. And in this respect, the wall’s real target audience can be found in the exurbs and suburbs of Trump country, far from the Mexico-U.S. border.

Like any other political slogan, the Trump campaign’s battle cry of “Build the Wall!” is both a claim—about the chanters and what unites them—and a demand, about what they want their leader to do in their name. The claim, in this case, is primarily cultural, even though it pretends to be geographic. The chant unites the chanters in a community of race and language. Those inside the wall share a pure American nationality, uncontaminated by anyone perceived to be “Latin American” or otherwise “foreign.” They are hardworking, English-speaking, and, the slogan implies but does not need to say outright, white. The wall, in other words, is as much about who it keeps in as who it supposedly keeps out.

From this claim follows the demand. What the chanters want, and what Trump’s executive order mandating the wall provides, is an official validation and a material manifestation of this ethno-national fantasy. This is all the wall provides—but it’s a lot.

Indeed, the developer-turned-president himself seems to recognize that the major point of a border wall—perhaps the major point of borders at all—is in the spectacle of the thing. As he emphasized repeatedly on the campaign trail, the wall will be “big,” and it will be “beautiful.” And as he once tweeted during the presidential campaign, “A nation WITHOUT BORDERS is not a nation at all.” The presidential executive order Trump signed in January elaborated that the border wall is intended to preserve the nation’s “safety and territorial integrity”—it’s telling that these are separate values. Safety doesn’t follow from territorial integrity: “territorial integrity” is an ideological value, not a pragmatic one.

The dream of an impermeable cultural boundary with Mexico is also older than Trump, of course. The border with Mexico effectively existed nowhere but on a map until 1911, when as Rachel St. John recounts in her history of the border, Line in the Sand, the first section of a border fence was completed—to restrain wandering cattle. It was not until the Clinton era, in the wake of NAFTA, the drug war, and the rising jingoism of the nationalist Right that those fences were replaced by something you could call a “wall.” Trump’s presidential executive order to finish the job Clinton started also commanded federal agencies “to repatriate illegal aliens swiftly, consistently, and humanely.” Treat “aliens” as if they are human, not cattle, the president demands, even as the wall implicitly advertises an old point once put more bluntly on signs posted in border towns decades ago: “No dogs, no negros, no Mexicans.”

Further back, in another imperial era, before so much as a cattle fence separated Mexican and U.S. territory—indeed, before “U.S. territory” existed in its current form—the Trumps of the nineteenth century would have called their wall-building fantasy “Anglo-Saxonism.” The claim for the “Anglo-Saxon republic” had the distinction of stating more directly what “Build the Wall!” only says obliquely: the United States was a country destined to be ruled by European whites, and America, in turn, was a hemisphere destined to be ruled by those United States. In angry response to U.S. Anglo-Saxonism, the Colombian poet José María Torres Caicedo coined the term “Latin American” to defend the dignity of Spanish America. This is what simply pragmatic cases against the border wall don’t address, but which the wall distinctly does: the very idea that “Latin American” and “American” are distinctive cultural identities in the first place—an idea that is a product not of geography but of ideology.

There is one more compelling argument for the wall’s practical ineffectiveness, however, as Todd Miller has argued in NACLA and elsewhere: the wall is already here. Drone surveillance, increased Border Patrol manpower and, yes, many walls already police the border. Trump is simply doing what he does best: throwing up a gaudy façade with his name on it. “Nobody builds walls better than me, believe me,” Trump liked to tell the audience at his campaign rallies. To this end, the federal bid guidelines for contractors hoping to build the border wall stipulated that “the north side of wall (i.e. U.S. facing side) shall be aesthetically pleasing”—the south-facing side need not be, since the wall’s audience does not live there.

The existing border wall bears another level of imperial symbolism, one so startling in its historical symmetries that it almost seems like the invention of a rather heavy-handed left-wing novelist. Much of it was constructed out of surplus helicopter landing mats from Vietnam and the first Gulf War, the recycled waste of older imperial adventures. Compared to these, one could argue that the border wall has thus far been distinguished by relative thrift.

When we oppose the border wall, therefore, we have to ask ourselves what exactly we’re opposing. Is it the militarism and nationalism of Clinton’s wall, or just the extravagant tastelessness of Trump’s? The pragmatic arguments against the wall may be correct enough, but merely pointing out Trump’s hypocrisy has hardly worked so far. What’s more, arguing against the wall for its profligacy raises some uncomfortable questions. Would this xenophobia be more tolerable if it were only cheaper? And what case can be made against the border wall that shouldn’t also be made about the border itself?


This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis in NACLA Report on the Americas 49. Find the published version here, if you can access the paywall:

On Jared Kushner’s New After-School Project, The White House Office of American Innovation

Per the New York Post: “Jared Kushner will be announced Monday as the head of the newly formed White House Office of American Innovation, which is being called a strategic consultant SWAT team meant to make government more efficient.”

Nobody even told me the White House Office of American Innovation was hiring. I have a cover letter all ready to go and everything. 

I initially fixated on that bizarre and somewhat vile metaphor of the innovation “SWAT team.” But apparently the “innovation SWAT team”idea  was actually coined in the Obama administration, making the authoritarian cast of Jared’s new after-school project less Trumpian than it sounds, and more like routine neoliberal governance, in the same league as the “innovation czars” and unaccountable economic advisory boards that are business as usual at state and federal government. And obviously there’s nothing very new about “running the government like a great American company” and valuing “efficiencies” and “nimble power centers” and “flexibilities,” and you know Hillary Clinton would have pursued something that at least sounded similarly awful.

But when the Obama administration pursued these sorts of ideas–pursuing “innovation” through semi-privatization of governance–it gave it a much more convincing technological basis borrowed from Silicon Valley, which was part of its appeal (though not to me, obvs). It was also, to give them credit, almost certainly way more competent. I prefer Jared’s inept project because it looks so nakedly, clumsily ideological; from these early reports there’s barely any pretense of meritocracy or “accountability,” and no particular interest in technology at all. They use the wrong business buzzwords, borrowing from Dad’s building industry background. As Trump said in a statement, the government is beset by “congestion… leading to cost overruns and delays.” And then there’s the odd list of initiatives, headlined by the opioid crisis, which Jared is apparently going to tackle with ideas from other real estate tycoons and investment bankers. The meanness and graft that always lurks closely behind “innovation” discourse in government is just so much more out in the open here. I can’t even say the mask is slipping, because it’s not clear they will try to even wear it.

Bodies on the Gears at Middlebury

My piece defending the activist students at Middlebury College from the wailing mob of pious national journalists working the “free-speech-at-elite-colleges” beat was published at Inside Higher Ed.

From all the talk of campus “civility” to the “freedom of speech” controversies at Yale, Missouri, and elsewhere over the past couple of years, one of the ways conservatives and elite liberals on campus and in the media police campus activism is by invoking a fantasy of the campus as a neutral sanctuary from the world of politics outside. This notion of campuses as sanctuaries from the “real world” only makes sense if you are either 1) connected to real-life campuses mostly through the gauzy haze of Ivy-League nostalgia or 2) cloistered in an elite institution yourself, where it is easier to indulge the fantasy of academia as a leafy idyll, rather than a workplace like every other.

For an example of the second, see what may be the least convincing of the hostile criticisms of the Middlebury activists, by Danielle Allen in the Washington Post. Allen is a classicist who has taught at the University of Chicago and Harvard, and it definitely shows. She laments the pollution of the “sacred groves” of academe–yes, “sacred groves”–by illiberal, angry protesters. The essay hinges on a truly outrageous comparison between Murray and the Little Rock 9 who integrated public schools in Arkansas’ capital city in the aftermath of the Brown ruling. The content of Allen’s comparison is very superficial–she brings it up in the opening paragraph as a hook and then never returns to it. It amounts to the fact that both Murray and the integrationist students faced a “shouting, shoving mob.”

Allen invokes another historical reference, Abraham Lincoln, when she describes his 1862 Morril Act that established land-grant universities, which disseminated her sacred groves across the nation. What she learns from the Morril Act is that “democracies are necessarily contentious but can survive only if they can channel contestation into peaceful forms of behavior.” Now, if you want to make a claim that important democratic social change comes only from reasoned debate, you can go right ahead, but you could certainly choose better analogies than the Civil-War United States and the Civil Rights movement.

What Allen wants from protest, in short, is that it conform to the standards of the classroom. And what this shows is an impoverished understanding of the history and strategy of political protest. It’s a familiar argument over all, though, since some version of this “sacred groves” business is used to discipline every campus movement that manages to unsettle business as usual, as protest must do if it is to avoid becoming a charade. I first encountered this sort of argument during the TA unionization efforts I was involved with an NYU. It’s not an argument that will go away anytime soon, but I’m grateful for the students who don’t buy it.

Allen writes that “the supreme academic aspiration is to defeat bad arguments with better ones.” I don’t know that I agree, since I’m not one for enumerating virtues, and in any case I prefer to think of college and universities as workplaces first. But in the spirit of the aspiration, here’s my argument.

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The Pivot to Presidential

Much coverage of Donald Trump’s speech to Congress–which I didn’t watch, I was working–revolved around whether or not he “pivoted” to “presidential,” as the AP’s analysis put it. Just as much coverage made the more reasonable argument that he wasn’t actually “pivoting,” he was only “pirouetting” as the New Yorker‘s John Cassidy wrote. Much of the pre-game punditry focused on disproving in advance the anticipated “pivot” praise.

And in case you were wondering what an average boob in Miami thought about the speech, here’s Rolando Valdes, who’s in sales, who praised Trump, saying “today he acted like a politician.”

Valdes seems to be saying that Trump pivoted from authentic outsider to compromising politician which, incredibly, he means as praise. And Valdes may be just a boob from Miami, but his comment echoes other pundits‘ praise for Trump’s “presidential” demeanor (equalled perhaps by the furious denunciations for the praise for his presidential demeanor) . In Trump’s case, where “presidential” more than ever before means a character one plays on TV, how can a “pivot” be anything other than a “pirouette”–that is, a circular, stationary dance, which goes nowhere, and ends up where it started? (Obviously, the short answer is, “because the capitalist media.” But read on for the longer answer.)

The “pivot” was a mainstay of Very Serious Analysis of the Obama administration (with its pivots to Asia, Cuba, “the economy,” and so on), which may explain its appeal to a class of political analysts who know no other way to discuss national politics except in the style of a never-ending sporting event with clear rules of which they style themselves the referees. Cassidy’s error is in treating “pivoting” and “pirouetting” as substantially different things, as if changing your public messaging or political branding amounts to something more substantial than a showy about-face. But at least he’s skeptical. What’s remarkable overall is that a political figure, like Trump, who people regard as either 1) a thoroughly fabricated TV character, incapable of authentic conviction or 2) a thoroughly authentic guy, who “says what he thinks” could ever be thought capable of a “pivot,” which is used to mean either 1) an authentic shift in one’s ideas and focus, worthy of a statesman or 2) an inauthentic dance, performed for the cameras. If he’s a phony, then all he does is pivot, and who cares; if he’s authentic, then any pivot is a betrayal, immediately exposing him.

While Trump takes the fiction of the public “pivot” to absurd new heights, the contradiction he highlights is inherent in this and many of the keywords for the age of austerity, which celebrate 1) zealous moral commitment (the Way of the Entrepreneur) and yet also 2) an acquiescent flexibility to the demands of the market, a willingness to turn your zealous commitment on a dime as trends demand.

As I wrote in a longer entry on the topic, a person “pivots” by moving right or left while they remain stationary. In basketball, you can’t move your “pivot foot” after you pick up your dribble. A second baseman turns a double play by pivoting from his right to his left without leaving the base. Alternatively, the pivot is, as the OED says, “any physical part on which another part turns”–a tool in the manipulation of some larger object. This is how the word used to be used metaphorically, in political journalism that referred to various countries as strategic “pivots.” Taiwan and Japan, for example, were often described as “pivots” in Cold War Asia. Political parties could also occupy a pivot position, exerting leverage one way or another, as when a 1967 New York Times report on French elections described the Socialists as a pivot between left and right parties. This is more in line with the conventional definition of “pivoting” as stationary movement, which provides leverage for shifting direction one way or another.

Until the late 1990s, “pivots” were mostly found in the sports section. Its recent explosion in political journalism is borrowed from business jargon, where it translates roughly as a “rebranding.” In its political lobbying, the Catholic Church is said to “pivot” from “social issues” to inequality and the environment. Eastern Europe, wroteScreen shot 2015-07-06 at 10.58.09 AM Frank Bruni in 2003, “pivoted” in a secular direction after 1989. In 1999, Bruni–a pioneer of pivotology–used it to refer to political candidates’ practiced, canned redirection of journalists’ questions. “Mr. Hatch can pivot from just about any subject to a pitch for his campaign’s Internet site,” Bruni wrote. Here, one “pivots” from one question to another if you can’t answer the first one. Bruni rightly regards it as insincere, a pirouette. But I suspect many political journalists like the word as much as they do because it calls attention to the rhetorical dancing politicians do to flatter journalists. And as Adam Serwer pointed out on Twitter, the journalistic praise for Trump’s “presidential” bearing last night came largely from the fact that he refrained from insulting journalists.

So “pivots,” being essentially media exercises, are inherently superficial and highly personalized forms of accounting for political processes. Observing pivots are also masturbatory exercises in professional self-regard. For a charismatic figure like Trump, all he ever does is “pivot.” And for a certain class of political journalist, who treats the “pivot” as a performance of serious statesmanship, Trump can never authentically “pivot,” and analysis of him amounts to little more than the futile exercise of pointing out his hypocrisy. The point isn’t that Trump’s public statements don’t matter, that they are “distractions” from the Real, etc. Rather, when Trump can be praised for embodying the empty-suit conventions of political seriousness that he is otherwise credited with rebelling against, then these conventions–always empty signifiers, even in more normal times–are plainly defunct as categories of analysis now.

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Keywords for the Age of Austerity 29: Hack/Hacking/Hacker

“Hacking,” according to Evgeny Morozov, is the art of “exploiting existing resources to produce more.” The MIT Tech Model Railroad Club, a student club credited with coining the technophilic meaning of the word, defined a “hack” in its 1959 dictionary as “something done without constructive end,” an “entropy booster.” For the TMRC, hacking is less like cyber-warfare and more like “pranking,” a subversive but not malicious demonstration of intellect and curiosity. Meanwhile, insists the Daily Kos, Russia “hacked the election” by “undermining people’s faith in democracy.” In her book Lifehacker: 88 Tech Tick to Turbocharge Your Day, Gina Trapani writes that a “lifehacker” “uses workarounds and shortcuts to overcome everyday difficulties of the modern worker: an interrupt-driven existence of too much to do and too many distractions to keep you from doing it.”

As other historians of the term like have observed, the meaning of “hack” vacillates between two poles: either mischief or malice, rebellion or authority, the dark side and the light. This duality was apparent in one of the first investigations of “hacking” to appear in the New York Times, in August 1983. In a lengthy interview, Geoffrey Goodfellow, a computer security researcher in a town called Menlo Park, CA, described the hacker this way:

A hacker is someone who programs computers for the sheer fun of it rather than, say, just theorizing about programming. A hacker could be described as a person capable of appreciating the irony and beauty—or as we refer to it, the ‘hack value’—of a program. But another part, unfortunately, is a little bit on the dark side. There is a malcious of inquisitive hacker, or meddler, who would like to discover information by poking around.

The article was illustrated by what may be the first appearance of the stock-photo caricature of the hacker (more on this below): a grinning masked catburglar, cracking a computer depicted as a safe.

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“The World of Data Confronts the Joy of Hacking,” The New York Times, Aug. 28, 1983

The verb’s current meaning—to covertly access  a complex technological network, in order to manipulate it for some end unintended by its designer or owner—originates with the telephone. The first “hacks” invaded telephone switchboards, and from there, the word expanded to other kinds of communication networks. If this meaning has any relationship to the other meaning of “hack”–to attack aggressively with a heavy or sharp object– it would seem to be ironic, since the hacker’s dangerous allure comes from his secrecy and ingenuity. The rhyme with “crack”–as in to crack a code–seems important here, though maybe I’m just swayed by that illustration.

Let’s leave the etymology aside and move onto the heavier stuff. Do you with to proceed? If yes, click the video link below.

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