Saturday, September 23, 2017

You Can't Go Home Again

I'm writing this post on my childhood bed, in my childhood bedroom, in my childhood home, for the last time.

My parents recently sold this house, which we've lived in since I was born. This trip was the big "clean out your room" day (through extraordinary effort, I'm proud to say not a single baseball card will be left behind -- fulfilling a promise my parents made to me when I was eight that they'd never throw out my collection).

As you maybe can tell, I'm a sentimental guy. I gave an emotional send-off to this blog's pageview counter, for crying out loud. So you can imagine that this has been a very difficult trip for me.

I loved this house. I loved everything about it. I loved that it had the consensus best front and backyard, perfect for capture the flag. I loved that it had tons of trees and woods for exploring. I loved that it had a huge basement that was ideal for running around in as a kid -- big enough for floor hockey games. I loved that it was packed with nooks and crannies that made it perfect for hide-and-go-seek, and that I knew the perfect hiding spot where nobody would ever find me. I loved my room, with its wall-to-wall desk back behind the bed so I could have all my books in arms reach. I loved a closet that was big enough to house my entire baseball card collection, and enough shelves for seemingly-infinite books plus a few choice pieces of sports memorabilia.

Of course, I didn't really have to deal with any of the stresses of home ownership. I just got to grow up here. And even after I left for college and basically moved out, it was always "home". It was always a place I could put down as a "permanent address" (not a small thing, when you moved five times in five years all across the country). It was always a place where I had my childhood toys, just in case I wanted to bask in a bit of nostalgia. Most importantly, it was always there, a promise that if things didn't work out (and I'm not even sure what I mean by that), I could go back. All the things I was doing in the world, the traveling and working and going to school -- they were not points of no return.

I've always said that I hate change, but I've realized that's not quite accurate. What I hate is not being able to go back. I hate irrevocable change. My ideal life comes with save and reload points. The funny thing is, I virtually never use them (in games, I have a propensity to save before big decisions "just in case" -- then never return to the decision-point again). But just having the option is comforting. And the house was the ultimate reset button. It has always been a part of my life; I've never been without it. And so it doesn't matter that I virtually never spent time there anymore. It's very, very scary to let that go.

Tomorrow, the house is hosting an engagement party for Jill and myself, where some of our oldest friends will get to celebrate a big step forward in my life that I am genuinely excited for. My mom asked if I wanted to do that -- it makes for a bit of an emotional rollercoaster -- but I emphatically did. It will make for a fantastic send-off, and I'm glad I'll get to experience it filled with family and friends once more.

And then, after that, we go to the airport, back to Berkeley, and it's gone forever. I'd love to end this post with some moment of personal growth, or at least catharsis. And I am happy that a new family, with a little kiddo of their own, will live here and form their own memories. But the truth is, right now, I'm just sad. I'm sad to be leaving. I'm sad that when we pull out of our driveway (a driveway which only true experts could back out of without straying onto the grass), I'll never be coming back. It is a permanent, irrevocable goodbye, to something I truly loved.

The grand dame herself:

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Things People Blame the Jews For, Volume XXXV: War!

There is a class in the political science department here at Berkeley, titled simply "War!" (the exclamation point is included). It explores the concept and practice of war from an international relations perspective -- does it follow political science "rules"? Can it be rational? Are there cultural, geopolitical, or demographic markers that make one more or less war-prone? Of course, it's taught by a Jew.

If that "of course" caused a cocked eyebrow just there, well, you aren't Valerie Plame, who ushered in the Jewish New Year by sharing an essay titled "America’s Jews Are Driving America’s Wars." Shana Tova indeed! It includes such lovely suggestions like demanding the media "label" Jews when they appear on television, "kind-of-like a warning label on a bottle of rat poison." So that's nice. Missing is the apparently trivial fact that Jews are significantly less likely to support Middle Eastern wars than the American population writ large.

Plame has already completed the cycle that started with "yes, very provocative, but thoughtful," proceeded onward to "Just FYI, I am of Jewish decent [sic]", over to "put aside your biases and think clearly," and finally coming to rest on an apology.

Fun bonus fact: The site she shared from is the Unz Review, which was a key driver in directing antisemitic harassment at me personally following one of my Tablet articles (e.g., the infamous "are you this Jew?" email).

But one can't help but feel for Plame, who says she just "didn't do [her] homework" on the venue. I mean, who could have known that an article titled "America's Jews Are Driving America's Wars" would be published on an antisemitic site?

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Living in the Machinery of Death

Being a clerk on a United States Court of Appeals was one of the truly great honors of my life. It was a fantastic experience, which included the chance to have a direct hand in the development of American law, to occupy a front-row seat to observe how the legal sausage is mad, and to work side-by-side with some exceptional attorneys and for a federal judge who was a fantastic friend and mentor.

But I've also remarked that, during the tenure of my clerkship, I often felt as if I was "ruining far more lives than I was validating." One arena of law which provoked that feeling was criminal law, where truly obscene oversentencing was a daily occurrence. Another area was immigration.

By the time an immigration case reaches the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, the median adjective describing the appealing immigrant is probably "doomed". This is due to a confluence of factors -- the laws on the books are immigrant-unfriendly, the immigration judges are often immigrant-unfriendly, and the standard of review for immigration claims at this stage is exceptionally immigrant-unfriendly. What that meant in practice was that, over and over again, I found myself reading files of people who insisted that they'd be hacked to death if they were deported back to Central America, then assisting in perfunctory one paragraph orders denying their appeal.

The risk (of being hacked to death) wasn't made up. I was generally quite persuaded that they were at serious risk of violent attack if they were returned to their home countries. But, as I said, the law is quite unfriendly, and since the persecution was rarely the result of direct governmental animosity or membership in a cohesive social group, there was usually nothing to be done. On the rare occasions where there seemed to be a glimmer of hope, I tried my best -- and most of those cases I was unsuccessful. But even the cases where there was even a implausible shot were few and far between. For the most part, the legal rulings were straight-forward -- hence why they could be expressed in perfunctory, single paragraph orders.

The law is straight-forward and it is clear. That does not change the reality of the situation. It is fair to say that the true villains here are the politicians who write and the people who demand laws which regularly enable such horrible outcomes. Fine. But the fact is I was a gear in a machinery of death, one that destroyed families and ruined lives. In terms of how much culpability you want to assign to me, personally, or other agents of the federal judiciary, legal formalism is a fine consideration to take account of. But appealing to it to deny the nature of the machine -- not to say "it's not my fault" but to say "that's not what was happening" -- is a psychological numbing agent. We run to it because it's terrible to have to face up to the reality of the situation.

The Austin American-Statesman reports on a recently deported immigrant -- snatched outside of a courthouse where he was facing a few minor misdemeanors -- who was just found murdered back in his native Mexico. Murdered, just as he told a federal court he would be in a futile effort to stave off his deportation.

Juan Coronilla-Guerrero had a criminal background. Not a serious one, but not a spotless one either. In this, he is little different from many Americans who have a spot or two in their past. Which itself raises the DACA question posited by, among others, my friend Joel Sati. DACA is for perfect immigrants -- those with not a single blemish on their record, those who perfectly fit a respectability narrative. Of course, it's understandable that, in unfavorable conditions, you latch onto the best stories you can. It's no mystery why DACA or the Dream Acts are framed the way they are.

But Juan Coronilla-Guerrero was not a murderer, or a rapist, or a child abuser. More to the point, he did not deserve to die. If or when DACA is passed, or a Dream Act, or some other comparable piece of immigration reform make it through Congress, it will undoubtedly exclude many, many Juan Coronilla-Guerreros. Not perfect people, but not bad people either. And despite the fact that they aren't hardened criminals, or "bad hombres", or incurable monsters, they'll continue to be deported, in circumstances where the results are entirely predictable -- ruined lives as best, death and maiming at worst.

We should still pass a DACA bill. We should do what we can, in the imperfect world we live in, bounded by the terrible political constraints that bind us.

It will remain a machinery of death. I'm not about casting blame; feel guilty or innocent at your own discretion. But don't deny the nature of the machine.

What If Black Liberty Mattered?

Jacob Levy writes on the history of "liberty" as a trope in American racist movements, and the corresponding flirtation that many libertarians have had with White supremacy. Levy's essays for the Niskanen Center have been consistently superb -- I already wrote on his fantastic defense of identity politics as against the Mark Lilla critique -- and this is no different. Give it a read.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Pondering Planets in Science Fiction

A couple of planet-related thoughts I've had over the years in the context of Science Fiction (movies, books, games, etc.)

1) Sometimes, in Science Fiction, something -- an artifact, a person, a dataprint -- will be lost (lost less in the sense of "I had it but dropped it" and more in the sense of "lost to the sands of time"). And where this is a plot point, the heroes usually will "find" the MacGuffin by figuring out what planet it's on (e.g., Luke Skywalker at the end of Episode VII).

I always found this rather striking. Imagine you're searching for a particular human being, and you're told "he's on Earth" ... and that being enough to go on. Even if there weren't a single other human being on the planet, Earth is still really big, at least from the perspective of finding a single guy. There's a ton more sleuthing you'd need to do! It's amazing to me how most "planets" are reducible to basically a square mile of (monolithic) terrain -- anything that's there, is there.

2) In any multiplanetary society, it is taken pretty much for granted that the smallest unit of practical governance is the planet. Sometimes it's larger than that (a galactic federation, or individual star systems), but there's virtually never subplanetary political divisions that are deemed salient on an interstellar level. "Earth" might have a representative on the Galactic Council, or the "Terran Federation" might, but "America" and "China" never do. That actually strikes me as more or less plausible, but it is interesting -- and it strikes me that if humanity ever does spread outside of our home planet we will rapidly coalesce into some form of global government -- at least for the purpose of managing space affairs.

3) Returning to the "planets are big" thing, you know what job must really be low-prestige in science fiction land? An "intraplanetary" transporter or military member. Imagine there exists Starfleet, and you're part of the Navy. Not the Space Navy, just the old-fashioned water Navy that protects ocean-going ships. Somebody has to do it -- again, planets are large and there will have to be substantial intraplanetary trade which will need protection from pirates or rescue from storms or whatnot. But goodness, imagine trying to pick someone up at a bar with that job -- working on a coast guard cutter when there are literal starships flying across the universe. That's rough.