Speaking of Despair

How much can suicide hotlines do?

I started volunteering at a suicide hotline around three years ago. Whenever I happen to mention to someone that this is a thing I do, they usually seem a bit shocked. I think they imagine that I regularly talk callers off ledges, like a Hollywood-film hostage negotiator. “How many people have you saved?” an acquaintance asked me once. I have no idea, but the answer is probably none, or very few, in the immediate sort of sense the questioner was likely envisioning, where somebody calls the hotline intending to kill themselves and I masterfully persuade them not to. In reality, the vast majority of your time at a hotline is spent simply listening to strangers talk about their day, making little noises of affirmation, and asking open-ended questions.

The conversations you end up having on a suicide hotline are inherently somewhat peculiar. They’re more intimate than you would have in daily life, where an arbitrary set of social niceties constrains us from talking about the things that are close to our hearts. But they are also strangely impersonal. Operators at most call centers are forbidden from revealing personal details about themselves, offering opinions on specific subjects, or giving advice on problems: all of which tend to be central features of ordinary human conversation.

With practice, and a sufficiently lucid and responsive caller, you can sometimes make this bizarre lopsidedness feel a bit less awkward. At the same time, however, you also have to find a way to squeeze in a suicide risk assessment—hopefully, not with a bald non-sequitur like “Sorry to interrupt, but are you feeling suicidal right now?” but in some more fluid and natural manner. The purpose of the risk assessment is to enable the person to talk about their suicidal thoughts, in case they’re unwilling to broach the topic themselves, and also to allow you, the operator, to figure out how close the caller might be to taking some kind of action. From “are you feeling suicidal?” you work your way up to greater levels of specificity: “have you thought about how you might take your life?” “Do you have access to the thing you were planning to use?” “Is it in the room with you right now?” “Have you picked a time?” And so on.

I can’t speak for every operator at every call center, but in my own experience, I would estimate that fewer than 10% of the people I’ve ever spoken to have expressed any immediate desire or intention to end their lives. Well over half of callers, I would estimate, answer “no” to the first risk assessment question. This might, on its face, seem surprising. So who’s calling suicide hotlines, then, if not people who are thinking about killing themselves?

Well, for starters—let’s just get this one out of the way—a fair number of people call suicide hotlines to masturbate.

“Wait, but why?” you, in all your naïve simplicity, may be thinking. “Why would someone call a suicide hotline, a phone service intended for people in the throes of life-ending despair, to masturbate?” Friends, that question is beyond my ken: as theologians are fond of saying, we are living in a Fallen World. If I had to make a guess, I’d say a) suicide hotlines are toll-free, b) a lot of the operators are women, and c) there is a certain kind of person who gets off on the idea of an unwilling and/or unwitting person being tricked into listening in on their autoerotic exploits. The phenomenon would be significantly less annoying if some of the callers didn’t pretend to be kind-of-sort-of suicidal in order to keep you on the line longer: it’s rather frustrating, when one is trying one’s best to enter empathetically into the emotional trials of a succession of faceless voices, to then simultaneously have to conduct a quasi-Turing test to sort out the bona fide callers from the compulsive chicken-chokers.

All right, aside from that, who else is calling?

The other callers are the inmates of our society’s great warehouses of human unhappiness: nursing homes, mental institutions, prisons, homeless shelters, graduate programs. They are people with psychiatric issues that make it difficult for them to form or maintain relationships in their daily lives, or cognitive issues that have rendered them obsessively focused on some singular topic. They are people who are deeply miserable and afraid, who are repelled by the idea of ending their own life, but who still say that they wish they were dead, that they wish they could cease to exist by some other means. Among the most common topics of discussion are heartbreak, chronic illness, unemployment, addiction, and childhood sexual abuse.

Some people are deeply depressed or continually anxious, experiencing recurring crises for which the suicide hotline is one of their chief comforts or coping strategies; while others present as fairly cheerful on the phone, and are annoyed by your attempts to risk-assess them or steer the conversation towards the reason for their call. The great common denominator is loneliness. People call suicide hotlines because they have no one else, because they are friendless in the world, because the people in their lives are unkind to them; or because the people they love have said they need a break, have said don’t call me anymore, don’t call me for a while, I’ll come by later, we’ll talk later, and they are struggling to understand why, why they can’t call their sister or their friend or their doctor or their ex ten, twelve, fifteen times a day, when that’s the only thing that briefly alleviates the terrible upswelling of sadness inside them.

One thing you learn quickly, from taking these kinds of calls, is that misery has no respect for wealth or class. Rich and poor terrorize their children alike. Misery is everywhere: it hides in gaps and secret spaces, but it also walks abroad in daylight, unnoticed. The realm of misery is a bit like the Otherworld of Irish myth, or perhaps the Upside Down on the popular Netflix series Stranger Things. It inhabits the same geographic space as the world that happy people live in. You might pride yourself on your sense of direction, but if you were to wander unaware into the invisible eddy, if you were to catch the wrong thing out of the corner of your eye, you too could find yourself there all of a sudden, someplace where everything familiar wears a cruel and unforgiving face. Somebody you know might be in that place now, perhaps, and you simply can’t see it.

If misery could make a sound like a siren, you would hear it wailing in the apartment next door; you would hear it shrieking at the end of your street; a catastrophic klaxon-blast would shatter the windows of every single hospital and high school in the country, all an endless cacophony of “help me help me it hurts it hurts.” And even if most of the people who call hotlines never come close to taking their own lives, their situation still feels like an emergency.

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We might ask, though, what is the rationale behind a hotline whose protocols are set up for assessing suicidality, when the vast majority of people who call the hotline do not, by their own account, have any concrete thoughts of suicide. The prevailing theory is that suicide hotlines are catching people “upstream,” so to speak, before they find themselves in a crisis state where suicide might start to feel like a real option for them. These people, in theory, are people who are at risk of becoming suicidal down the line if they aren’t given the right kind of support now. But is this actually true?

The fact is, we have no idea. If we take “suicide prevention” as the chief purpose of suicide hotlines, we soon find that the effectiveness of hotlines is very tricky to assess empirically. Of the approximately 44,000 people in the United States who complete suicide every year, we have no way of knowing how many may have tried calling a hotline in the past. Of the people who do call a suicide hotline presenting as high-risk, we don’t know how many ultimately go on to attempt or complete suicide. Small-scale studies have tracked caller satisfaction through follow-up calls, or have tried to measure the efficacy of hotline operators by monitoring a sample of their conversations. But these studies are, by their very nature, of dubious evidentiary value. There’s no control group of “distressed/suicidal people who haven’t called hotlines” to compare to, and the pool of callers is an inherently self-selecting population, which may or may not reflect the population of people who are at greatest risk. There are also obvious ethical concerns about confidentiality when it comes to actively monitoring phone calls by “listening in” without permission from the caller, or placing follow-up calls with people who have phoned the service. A substantial number of people who call suicide hotlines express anxiety about the privacy of their calls. Given the social and religious stigma that continues to be associated with thoughts of suicide, we might posit that the higher-risk a caller is, the more anxious they are likely to be. They may perhaps be reluctant to agree to a follow-up call when asked, and nervous to call the hotline again if they suspect they might be part of some study.

All of this is not to say that we need Hard Numbers to justify the existence of a service that provides a listening ear to people in distress. The value of human connection is self-evident, and when it comes to intangibles like happiness, spiritual purpose, and a sense of closeness to others, so-called scientific studies are mostly bunk anyway. Nonetheless, we can still use our imaginations and our common sense to hypothesize about the limitations of the current system and possible alternatives. I think there are two questions worth considering: first, are suicide hotlines generally accessible or useful to people who are actively suicidal? Secondly, for the “low-risk” callers who appear to be the most frequent users of suicide hotlines, is the service giving them what they need, or is there some better way to provide comfort and relief to these people?

As to whether high-risk individuals are actually being reached by suicide hotlines, as outlined above, it’s hard to tell. Anecdotally, the perception of suicide hotlines seems to differ pretty markedly when you peek in on suicide-themed message boards, as opposed to message boards centered around support for depression or other psychological issues. For example, posters on the mental health support forum Seven Cups describe suicide hotline operators as “supportive,” “non-judgmental,” “patient and understanding,” “some of the most loving people you’ll ever talk to,” and “varied from unhelpful-but-kind to helpful.” By contrast, on the Suicide Project, a site specifically devoted to sharing stories about attempting or losing someone to suicide, posters wrote that their calls were “awkward and forced,” “left me thinking I should just get on with killing myself [and] not speak to anyone before hand,” and “totally useless,” and commented negatively on long hold times or call time limits.

We can’t really draw conclusions from this tiny sample, not least because the kinds of people who frequent message boards and comments sections on the internet are not necessarily representative of broader populations who share some of the same self-identified characteristics. But—again anecdotally—I have noted that high-risk or more despairing callers on the hotline I volunteer for, when questioned about the extent of their suicidal intention, often express sentiments like, “If I were really suicidal, I wouldn’t be calling” or “If I wanted to commit suicide, I would just do it.” It’s hard to say exactly what this means, but it seems as if a general perception among borderline-suicidal callers is that an actively suicidal person wouldn’t bother to call a hotline. Given that suicide is sometimes a split-second decision, and that people who complete suicide tend to use highly lethal means, such as firearms, this perhaps isn’t surprising. (Calls where someone claims to be holding a gun are always the most alarming.)

For lower-risk callers, meanwhile, is a fifteen-minute conversation all we can do for them? People who call hotlines sometimes express frustration at the impersonality of the service. They want a give-and-take conversation, more like a normal interaction with a friend, but many suicide hotlines (including the one I volunteer for) forbid volunteers from giving out personal information about themselves. You never share your own opinion on a topic, even if the caller asks you directly: you merely express empathy, and give short reflective summaries of the caller’s responses to your questions, in order to demonstrate engagement and help the caller navigate through their own feelings.

This isn’t necessarily a bad approach, broadly speaking, since it keeps operators out of the thorny territory of giving possibly-useless, possibly-harmful advice to a person whose full life circumstances they know very little about, or of overwhelming or inadvertently shaming the caller with some inapposite emotional response of their own. For some callers, this non-reciprocal outpouring of feeling may be exactly what they need. But for other callers, who often become wise to a call center’s protocols over many repeated calls, this one-sided engagement is not at all what they say they want. What they want is a real human connection, even its messiness and impracticality, not a disembodied voice that might as well be a pre-programmed conversation bot. Reconciling these conflicting goals is a tricky thing. There are certainly people who use hotlines in what seems to be a compulsive kind of way: they’ll call every half-hour, and if you don’t impose some kind of limit, they’ll tie up the line for less persistent (but perhaps, by some metrics, more vulnerable) callers. But it nevertheless feels cruel to tell desperately lonely people that their insatiable need for the warmth of a human presence is Against The Rules.

“It feels cruel to tell desperately lonely people that their insatiable need for the warmth of a human presence is Against The Rules…”

I often wonder if a suicide hotline’s unique ability to reach a population of acutely unhappy people could be harnessed for more personal, community-based interventions. Currently, there are both national and local call centers, but even on local lines, the caller is still miles away from you, and operators aren’t allowed to set up meetings with the people they speak to. Many people call because of a serious crisis in their lives, but the most you can do is give them a referral to a mental health organization that might be able to help them. I’ve frequently wished it were possible to send an actual human to check up on the person, ask how they’re doing, and see what they might need help with. It would be nice if neighborhoods or cities had corps of volunteers who were willing to be on-call for that kind of thing.

This, it seems to me, might be especially important for callers who seem more desperate and perhaps at higher risk of suicide. When you’re a hotline operator, there’s no middle ground between giving somebody verbal comfort and perhaps a referral, and dispatching emergency services directly to their location. (Some hotlines will only do this if the caller gives permission, while others, if the situation seems imminently dangerous, will send any information associated with the caller’s phone number to local police.) People who have previously had ambulances called on them often express deep shame and embarrassment about the experience. It attracts attention of all their neighbors; depending on the circumstances, the caller might even have been taken out of their home on a stretcher and rushed to an emergency room. Callers who have had this happen, or know someone it’s happened to, will often be especially cagey about sharing their suicidal thoughts, or paranoid about the information that might be being gathered about them. This is extremely problematic, because it means that potentially high-risk callers might deliberately understate the extent of their emotional distress if they ever call again in the future. Moreover, if they’ve been to hospitals before under these circumstances and found the experience traumatizing, they may be unwilling to accept medical interventions in the future. Wouldn’t it be better if instead the caller could consent for a nice person to come discreetly check up on them at their house, have a nice chat, maybe make them a cup of tea? For lower-risk callers, especially people in hospitals or nursing homes who don’t have any company, shouldn’t we be able to find someone living nearby who can pay them a visit during the week?

Of course, suicide hotlines are already understaffed, and so expanding them into an even more labor-intensive grassroots organization wouldn’t be easy. The kinds of callers who call suicide hotlines repeatedly and obsessively would likely be pleading for visits on a constant basis: you would probably need some kind of rationing system to make sure they weren’t overwhelming the entire volunteer network. In a small number of cases, there might be safety concerns about going in person to a caller’s house. (No house-calls for the masturbators, obviously.) The bigger problem, however, is figuring out how to mobilize communities and get people to feel invested in the emotional wellbeing of their neighbors. Personal entanglement is inherently a hard sell. Part of the reason why people volunteer with charitable organizations rather than simply knocking on their neighbors’ doors is because they want to keep their regular lives and their volunteer obligations strictly separate. They want to perform a service for someone without becoming closely enmeshed in the day-to-day reality of that person’s problems. This kind of distance is preferred by most part-time volunteers—I certainly find it more convenient to compartmentalize my life in this way, though I’m not at all sure that’s a good thing—and it may be preferable for some callers, too, especially those who are dealing with issues they intensely desire to keep private, for whom a visit from the wrong neighbor might be mortifying.

But I think we must attempt to surmount these obstacles. When people lament the demise of communities or multi-generation family units in the United States, this is the kind of mutual support they’re thinking of. The extent to which America was once comprised of warm, child-raising villages in its real-life past is, of course, greatly exaggerated, and we certainly shouldn’t romanticize local communities per se: they always have the capacity to be meddling, oppressive, and exclusionary. But all communities don’t have to be like that, and instead of abdicating community ideals as outdated, we could be working to realize them better in the particular places we live. As American lifestyles become increasingly mobile and rootless, close involvement in a community may not be foremost on people’s minds; to the extent that people these days talk about “settling down” somewhere, they usually seem to be thinking in terms of sending their kids to a local school, patronizing nearby restaurants, and attending summer concerts in the park, not trundling around to people’s homes and asking what they can do for them.

But even if we aren’t planning to live in the same town for the entire rest of our lives, we mustn’t allow ourselves to use this as a convenient excuse to distance ourselves from local problems we may have the power to ameliorate. People who come to the U.S. from other parts of the world often find our way of living perverse, in ways we simply take for granted as facts of human nature, rather than peculiar societal failings. I was recently talking to a Haitian-born U.S. citizen who works long hours as a nurse’s aid, and then comes home each night to care for her mentally disabled teenage son. She told me that if it were possible, she would go back to Haiti in a heartbeat. She was desperately poor in Haiti, but there, she said, her neighbors would have helped her: they would have invited her over for dinner, they would have offered to look after the children. “Here,” she said, “nobody helps you.” That’s one of the worst condemnations of American civil society I’ve heard in a while.

As Current Affairs has written in the past, many of the problems that underlie or exacerbate people’s suicidal crises—homelessness, unemployment, lack of access to healthcare—are the result of an economic and political system that is fundamentally profit-driven, and fails to prioritize the well-being of its most vulnerable citizens. Large-scale political changes are necessary to free up the resources that would be necessary to truly tackle these problems in a lasting and meaningful sense, and foster a society that’s better geared towards the health and happiness of all its members. But we must also recognize that government programs—even if well-funded—will never be enough, if they’re administered by an impersonal bureaucracy. What people want, what they need, are real fellow-humans who will come talk to them, and look them in the eye, and genuinely care about what happens to them. At the moment, given the system we currently have to work with, to allocate all that responsibility onto a few poorly-paid, exhausted social workers and health sector employees just isn’t fair—nor is it effective. This is a responsibility that should belong to all of society: to anybody who has even a hour to spare.

Giving people a number to call is a start. It would make sense to use existing hotlines as a tool to find and reach people who need help, both those who are at high risk of harming themselves, and those that are simply unhappy. As for how local volunteer forces could be coordinated, this is something municipalities should trade ideas about: possibly there are communities who have successfully implemented programs like this. Organizations that work narrowly on certain types of social problems might have ideas about how to structure a multi-purpose community-wide organization that could intervene more generally in a variety of contexts. When it comes down to it, actually caring about—and taking care of—your neighbors, even when it’s difficult, is always the most radical form of political activism.

The Regrettable Decline of Space Utopias

Why is it only the libertarians who fantasize about space these days?

Star Trek is one of those TV shows whose basic premise would be horrifying if the show weren’t so utterly committed to its own optimism. Viewed in the abstract, it’s hard to imagine how anybody stays sane on a starship. Star Trek characters are constantly flying blind into some fresh hell. Literally every corner of the universe they visit, Starfleet encounters some fucked-up shit that defies all extant scientific knowledge. Crew members are routinely bodyswapped, brainwashed, possessed by alien lifeforms, or implanted with false memories. Oh, and most crew members bring their entire families on board, so during the ship’s weekly brushes with death, they all get to grapple with the knowledge that their spouse and children will almost certainly be burned alive or suffocated in the vacuum of space. Everyone on that show should be on the verge of complete psychosis, but somehow, they all seem pretty contented with their lives. The characters’ preternatural level of peace with the unknown is probably one of the main reasons why Star Trek is extraordinarily comforting to watch.

Another reason why Star Trek is comforting is that there are no goddamn lawyers in space.

This is not completely true. There are a couple of lawyers in space. But there are no lawyers affiliated with the United Federation of Planets, the big, happy humanitarian alliance of planetary civilizations that are committed to universal peace, cultural interchange, and the accumulation of scientific knowledge. There are a few itinerant JAGs, but there’s no shipboard counsel. There are no legal teams dispatched to scenes of interstellar conflict. When characters find themselves in compromising situations, they never ask if they can speak to an attorney.

This, on the one hand, is completely bonkers. After all, non-Federation planets have all kinds of nutty legal standards, ranging from “guilty until proven innocent” to “automatic death penalty for anybody who accidentally steps on a flowerbed inside the invisible Punishment Zone.” Given the many entirely foreseeable dangers of this approach, you’d think that every starship would have some highly-trained legal wonk on board, ready to deal with these horrifying situations. But nope. It’s implied that the Federation does have lawyers somewhere, and there even is a loose notion that they are important to the effective functioning of the judicial system. In one episode, we learn that during a period of Earth history known as the Post-Atomic Horror (which is scheduled to occur—get ready, guys—in the mid-21st century), all the world’s lawyers were systematically murdered. This is characterized as having been an undesirable development for humanity, so we can infer that the legal profession was subsequently reinstated. But whenever there’s a legal hearing of any kind, Starfleet personnel either A) represent themselves, or B) are represented by a random bridge officer who is deputed to act as counsel.

Now you might say, on the one hand, that we shouldn’t read too much into this. Maybe writing a random lawyer into a storyline was just going to be one more actor cluttering up the set, frittering away the weekly episode budget with dispensable lines. But the complete absence of lawyers across multiple Star Trek seasons, each under different creative direction, each with their own standalone law-centric episodes, is at least a little weird. So is there some other reason why the Federation has no need for lawyers?

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One of the central premises of the Star Trek universe, which is set a couple centuries into the future, is that humanity has evolved—not dramatically beyond all recognition, but nonetheless significantly. After a period of mass calamity on Earth, characterized by nuclear war, genocide, and famine, the remainder of Earth’s global population finally comes to the negotiating table, as it were. A world government is established. Societies are rebuilt. Money is abolished. All basic human needs are provided for. People enter professions, learn trades, and provide services because they find these activities fulfilling, not out of economic necessity. Crime is almost nonexistent; with the elimination of material want, the impetus for most kinds of crime is also eliminated, and it’s implied that psychological dispositions towards violence are somehow detected and rehabilitated in their early stages. The establishment of an egalitarian regime of resource distribution, and the discovery of alien civilizations on other planets, seems to have drawn the human species together and eroded social distinctions. While there are still pockets of institutional corruption, and although humans still sometimes give in to their lesser impulses, people are largely motivated by goodwill. Federation officers in particular have a widespread reputation for honesty, which other civilizations, weirdly, mostly seem to accept at face value.

These characteristics seem to percolate through the Federation legal system. In the courtroom episodes, there are never “gotcha” moments where somebody wins on a technicality or gets tripped up by an arcane legal formulation. Making a common-sense argument, or a soliloquy to general principles of justice, is usually enough to win over an adjudicator. The implication seems to be that in a world where fact-finders are honest, and where parties can make more or less sensible claims in their own defense, the system can afford to be equitable and ad hoc. It’s the ultimate access-to-justice dream where—even better than a lawyer for every client—the law is so reasonable and the judges so fair that every person can represent themselves in court with total confidence, or, at most, bring along a moderately clever friend to help them make their case. In addition, when interacting with other legal systems, the strong presumption of integrity on the part of Federation actors often helps the legal process along.

This all may seem fairly pie-in-the-sky—but could it actually be possible? Could humanity, someday, theoretically, if basic material insecurities were resolved, reach a general state of compassion and reasonability towards one another? Could lawyers, at present a hideous but necessary evil, eventually be rendered obsolete by more humane social attitudes? God, that would be amazing, wouldn’t it?

Of course, the opposing theory of human nature says that our impulse towards selfishness and cruelty is so deeply-rooted, spiritually or biologically, that we can never hope to eliminate it; that at most, we might mitigate it, but that this will never be a durable achievement across cultures or across generations. This theory is quite popular, but we have no idea if it’s true. It certainly seems to be humanity’s default mode, if we make no attempts at self-improvement. But our species hasn’t been around terribly long, in the grand scheme of things, and if we’re honest with ourselves, most of us haven’t exactly been doing our utmost to better the world we live in. As G.K. Chesterton once wrote about Christianity: “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult, and not tried.” The same could easily be said for most schemes of social organization that require some form of moral effort or voluntary material renunciation.

Sadly, utopias are presently out of vogue, as the tedious proliferation of dystopian fiction and disaster films seems to indicate. No genre is safe. Game of Thrones is the dystopian reboot of Lord of the Rings; House of Cards is the dystopian reboot of The West Wing; Black Mirror is the dystopian reboot of The Twilight Zone. The slate of previews at every movie theatre has become an indistinguishably sepia-toned effluence of zombies, terrorists, and burnt-out post-apocalyptic hellscapes. Even supposedly light-hearted superhero movies now devote at least 3.5 hours of their running time to the lavishly-rendered destruction of major metropolises.

There is clearly some deep-seated appeal to these kinds of films; and indeed, it would take a heart of inhuman moral fiber to truly regret the sudden vanishing of New York City, whose existence serves no beneficial purpose for humanity that I’m aware of. But my general feeling is that our fondness for dystopian narratives is a pretty nasty indulgence, especially for those of us who live mostly comfortable lives, far-removed from the visceral realities of human suffering. Watching scenes of destruction from the plush chair of a movie theater, or perhaps on our small laptop screen while curled up in bed, heightens our own immediate sense of safety. It numbs us to the grinding, intermittent, inescapable reality of violence in neglected parts of our world, which unmakes whole generations of human beings with terror and dread.

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Immersing ourselves in narratives where 99% of the characters are totally selfish also engrains a kind of fashionable faux-cynicism that feels worldly, but is in fact simply lazy. I say faux-cynicism because I don’t believe that most people who profess to be pessimists truly believe that humanity is doomed, at least not in their lifetimes, or in their particular geographic purviews: if they did, then watching a film that features the drawn-out annihilation of a familiar American landscape would probably make them crap their pants. But telling yourself that everything is awful, and nothing can be fixed, is a marvelously expedient way to absolve yourself of personal responsibility. There is, happily, nothing about an apocalyptic worldview that obligates you to give up any of the comforts and conveniences that have accrued to you as a consequence of global injustice; and you get to feel superior to all those tender fools who still believe that a kinder world is possible! It’s a very satisfying form of moral escapism. No wonder our corporate tastemakers have been churning this stuff out.

And there’s no doubt that it’s often hard to make utopias seem dramatically sophisticated. Star Trek is renowned, even by those who love it, for being campy as hell. Moral tales in general are too often sugary and insubstantial. They’re suitable for kids, or maybe emotionally-stunted adults, but they’re not something to be taken seriously. We have come to view utopian narratives as inherently hokey, and preachy. But dystopias are, of course, their own form of preaching; they are preaching another hypothesis about humanity, which, due to moody lighting and oblique dialogue, has an entirely undeserved appearance of profundity, and the illusory farsightedness of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

TWO PLEAS FOR THE FUTURE OF HUMANITY

But don’t we all want a world without lawyers? Isn’t that, at least, something that our whole species can agree on? Star Trek tells us that there are two hurdles between us and this great goal: global economic justice, and warp-speed technology. These may take several more centuries to achieve. But here are two things we can all start working on now.

1. Make utopias popular again.

Fictional narratives are a huge factor in shaping our expectations of what is possible. However, as discussed earlier, utopias are hard to write. You have to forfeit a lot of the cheap tricks that writers use to generate dramatic momentum. After all, it’s always easy to create tension when all your characters are self-serving, back-stabbing bastards; less so when your characters mostly get along. (The writers of Star Trek: TNG famously tore their hair out over creator Gene Roddenberry’s insistence that all the main cast had to be friends.) Constructing plots that are based primarily around problem-solving takes a lot of intricate planning. But we’ve seen a thousand narrative iterations of societal collapse: why not write some narratives about societal construction? What would a better world look like, at different stages of its realization—at its inception? Weathering early internal crises? When facing an existential threat? We should put more imagination into thinking about what this could look like, and how to generate emotional investment in the outcome.

Aspirational fiction seems especially important at this moment in our national history, when a significant number of Americans cast a ballot for a candidate they disliked, or were even disturbed by, simply because they wanted something different. There’s always been a gambling madness in the human spirit, a kind of perverse, instinctive itchiness that suddenly makes us willing to court disaster, simply on the off-chance of altering the mundane or miserable parameters of our daily lives. If we could transform some of that madness into a madness of optimism and creativity, rather than boredom, rage, and despair, that could only be a good thing.

2. Don’t let assholes win the space race.

Do you know who’s really excited about interplanetary exploration these days? Silicon Valley tycoons, and white supremacists. Elon Musk wants to set up a creepy private colony on Mars for ultra-rich survivalists who can shell out $200,000 for their spot, and has stated his own intention of dying on Mars. Meanwhile, a fresh-faced crop of racists are convinced that if the U.S. would only give up trying to provide social services and education to its citizens, lily-white geniuses could easily be conquering the galaxy at this very moment. As Richard Spencer (of “Heil Trump” fame) has it:

“[O]ur Faustian destiny to explore the outer universe. That is what we were put on this earth to do. We weren’t put on this earth to be nice to minorities, or to be a multiculti fun nation. Why are we not exploring Jupiter at this moment? Why are we trying to equalize black and white test scores? I think our destiny is in the stars. Why aren’t we trying for the stars?”

These dickheads are trying for the stars! The rest of us therefore need to make sure they don’t get there first. If the likes of Elon Musk and Richard Spencer are humanity’s ambassadors, our entrée into outer space will simply be a high-tech recapitulation of all the moral horrors of our last Age of Exploration. Thankfully, I’m pretty sure Richard Spencer is no astrophysicist, and Elon Musk’s would-be spacecrafts keep exploding on the launchpad. Now is our chance to thwart them!

Space exploration doesn’t have to be a last-ditch effort to save the species after we screw everything up on earth; nor should it be an alternative project to building an egalitarian global society. We still have time to make a better world here, on the planet we do have, before we inflict ourselves on other parts of the universe. Space travel may well have an improving effect on humanity, but we should also make a point of improving ourselves before we head out into the interstellar beyond. Only then will we have earned the privilege to Boldly Go.

Starfleet or bust!

Illustrations by Mike Freiheit 

The New Alternative Right (And How To Get Rid of Them Quickly)

To get rid of this horrifying pestilence, the left will need to ask itself some serious questions.

With attention-seeking pests, it is often unclear whether the wisest course is to ignore them or confront them. By ignoring them, one does nothing to stop them festering and multiplying. By confronting them, one gives them precisely what they want, and possibly makes them grow even faster than they otherwise would have.

This dilemma has become acute with the rise of the “alternative right,” the catch-all name for a bizarre new trend in American conservatism, one that everyone seems to agree exists but nobody seems to know quite how to define. This “movement,” such as it is, appears to have arisen as a sort of filmy spume atop the wave of the Donald Trump presidential campaign, which brought previously fringe far-right voices into the relative mainstream.

One of the difficulties in analyzing the alt-right is the fuzziness of its boundaries. Nearly every broad generalization you can offer about it alt-right is not quite correct. In fact, even classifying the alt-right as a “movement” is somewhat of a misnomer. It is highly decentralized, and its membership has hitherto been active almost exclusively in internet communities, not in political circles or in grassroots organizing.

Certain observations can be made, though. It appears to be an overwhelmingly (but not exclusively) male, overwhelmingly (but not exclusively) white collective of gamers, gym rats, tech enthusiasts, climate change skeptics, anti-vaxxers, anti-feminists, men’s rights advocates, white supremacists, sci-fi geeks, so-called “pick-up artists,” and various species of troll. Though they are a disorganized bunch, and despite a certain predictable level of infighting, their worldview has a fairly high level of consistency across their many platforms.

We can divide them roughly into two general groups, though there is overlap between them. Some alt-righters are “futurists,” the kind of Silicon Valleyites that Corey Pein has aptly described as “mouthbreathing Machiavellis.” They believe that a society governed by computer code would be preferable to the vagaries of popular democracy, and frequently discuss their desire to establish autonomous island kingdoms where entrepreneurs can conduct social experiments outside the jurisdiction of United States law. This worldview has found support in Trump-loving Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel, who believes that America has been in decline since women got the vote and that Apartheid was an admirable example of economic efficiency

But the more numerous and perhaps more influential group of alt-righters are those sometimes labeled “natural conservatives,” who feel strongly about traditional gender roles and race-based nationalism. They believe that “Western values” must be preserved against outside contaminants. If you think that sounds rather like a throwback to the ‘50s, you’d be correct. Of course, the vocabulary is different: alt-righters profess to believe in something they call “human biodiversity” or “race realism,” meaning that there are biological differences between races, and irreconcilable differences between cultures produced by different races. The prominent “race realist” website American Renaissance is quite direct in its statement of purpose: “It is entirely normal for whites (or for people of any other race) to want to be the majority race in their own homeland. If whites permit themselves to become a minority population, they will lose their civilization, their heritage, and even their existence as a distinct people.”

Online, this mutated form of white pride manifests itself in often inscrutable ways. Pro-Nazi memes proliferate across rancid corners of the internet. A cartoon frog named Pepe (since designated a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League) has become the unofficial mascot of anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic rhetoric. Entire blogs and forums are given over to obsessive litanies of disgust against women who sleep with men outside their race, or against white couples who adopt non-white children. On these websites, thousands of men complain about “the feminization of society,” which they view as closely connected to racial and cultural adulteration, and confer with each other about effective strategies for keeping women in their place.

Well, that all sounds thoroughly demented, you may be thinking. Why would anyone want to associate themselves with these people? Perhaps it’s because the alt-right is a new and exciting flavor of right-wing conservatism, which presents itself not as the steady hand at the wheel in turbulent times, but as an edgy, transgressive, youthful, fun-loving force in a repressive world: a world where, supposedly, all meaningful discussion has been stifled by cultural shibboleths about gender and race. It is “liberals” now, not “conservatives,” who are overly attached to received ideas, to unquestionable mantras, to behavioral protocols; liberals who are humorless, inflexible, and easily scandalized; liberals who selectively punish and censor ideas they consider dangerous, or even merely distasteful. In this context, the alt-right paint themselves as countercultural. They encourage people to express the primal urges and instinctive beliefs that The Man has been telling them to repress for most of their lives.

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There are many ways to approach the voice that lives inside your head, whispering unkind assumptions about others—you can think of it as a kind of original sin, as a vestige of some rejected part of your upbringing, as some automatic cognitive process that you choose to separate from your volitional identity. Or you can see it as the voice of truth, which other people are trying to program out of you for their own self-interested reasons. If a particular racist thought occurs to you often, says the alt-right, it’s because deep down, you know it’s true. You can stop wasting so much mental energy fighting your inclination to favor people who resemble you, because favoring people who resemble you is the natural order of things. As the left insists at increasing volumes that everyone—especially white people, and even more especially white men—must engage in constant soul-searching, in exhausting self-interrogation, the alt-right tells you that you can simply trust yourself.

It’s all the more rewarding to have this kind of self-congratulatory inner faith dressed up as a form of hard, uncompromising realism. The alt-right, in the classic mode of conspiracy theorists, is extremely fond of claiming that it alone is willing to accept truths that the rest of the world is determined to ignore. Being an alt-righter is also intellectually easy, in the sense that its ideas are few and simple and make no moral demand upon those who hold them. The day-to-day life of your average alt-righter seems to consist of savaging people on Twitter and then, possibly, going to the gym. (When writing about their work-out routines, the alt-right’s rhetoric switches from a vicious racist screed to the drippiest self-pitying sentimentalism, such as this tragic bit from blogger Mike Cernovich:

We all hit the gym for one of two reasons. We were too skinny or too fat. That is, we were inadequate or scarce rather than full and abundant. We grind away that old body. Fat peels off and muscles surface. We start to look great, in some cases super human. Yet we don’t feel that way. We stay home alone, or we date women who aren’t hot enough for us, as we believe a hot woman would cheat. The man looking at us in the mirror is one we don’t recognize. But what about the man we can’t see? What about our souls? Have our souls experienced the same changes as our bodies?”)

Though they are vocal about the things they despise—immigration, any celebration or deliberate inculcation of racial diversity, women entering previously male-dominated spaces and professions, restrictions on free speech—the alt-right has few positive policy positions, which doubtless saves them a lot of mental effort.

The difficult question is how much anyone should care about the “rise” of such people. White supremacists are frightening, but online white supremacists are mostly just pitiful. But what if their rhetoric and their pet theories begin to migrate into mainstream discourse? Right now, the alt-right is like the creepy guy whom you’ve suddenly noticed following you as you walk home alone late one night. What do you do now? Should you confront him? Maybe he’s just messing around, and if you ignore him, he’ll go away. But what if he was just playing around, but then when you confront him, he suddenly changes his mind and decides to murder you? But what if you’re overreacting, and then the interaction is just a huge embarrassment? But then what if he murders you?

In other words, it’s hard to know how to feel about these people. One loathes what they stand for, obviously, but should one actively fear them? Their real-world political influence may be limited by the fact that white males do not by themselves have an electoral majority. But the alt-right could still use its disruptive influence to foster racial divisiveness in ways that could be frustrating, if not fatal, to progressivism.

The left has been talking a great deal lately about the inadequacy of the concept of colorblindness, which was the paradigm within which many millennials were brought up to understand race. In the context of the Black Lives Matter movement and police shootings of unarmed black people, article upon article has carried headlines like “Colorblind Ideology is a Form of Racism,” “Why Color-Blindness Is A Counterproductive Ideology,” and “Why It’s Racist To Be Colorblind.” Within the space of a couple years, young people have been instructed to completely discard a worldview that was transmitted to them as gospel through textbooks and after-school specials throughout most of their lives. Colorblindness was once understood to be synonymous with racial inclusiveness, but now it is yet another way to be a racist. Not only is contemporary America far from being colorblind, so the argument goes, but colorblindness itself is a “racial utopic vision,” fundamentally unachievable and thus pointless even to strive for.

The backlash to colorblindness is understandable. After all, it has been disturbing to watch conservatives seize the language of Martin Luther King in order to justify policies King himself would have recoiled at, such as dismantling affirmative action and making voting more difficult. But left-wing arguments for recognizing the importance of race carry a perverse consequence: by reinforcing racial categories, they encourage white people to preserve their white identity. This is a strange tension that many on the left seem to find it difficult to talk about. Progressives accept the existence of minority affinity groups as self-evidently worthwhile and necessary, but it is important to nail down in very precise and comprehensible terms how the left’s views on race as a category differ from the “racial realist” framework embraced by the alt-right. Demographic changes will only continue to make this question more complicated. As the racial makeup of the U.S. changes, and parts of the U.S. become increasingly minority-majority, will it be socially acceptable for white people to have some form of explicitly-stated group identity that is racially-defined without being “racist”? If we wish to build a society that is both multiracial and truly egalitarian, we are going to have to revisit this question, and we would do well to make sure the alt-right or its successor is not the only group with a ready script when we do.

This may mean introducing some additional considerations into the way we presently discuss race relations. For example, the recent fad of professing to hate “white men”—however amusing and cathartic it might be—is clearly counterproductive, as it lets racist white men feel themselves justified in throwing around accusations of “reverse racism,” and encourages them to form a group identity based around the notion that they are despised and embattled. Ultimately, things like the #KillAllWhiteMen hashtag are not worth the amount of energy they take to explain, and make it harder to have good-faith discussions about other nuances of inter-race and cross-cultural communication. The left should stop this kind of talk.

But even more important than forms of speech are matters of substantive policy that affect individual people’s lives. Here the alt-right could cause serious trouble. If the Republican party is driven toward its racist fringe, we can expect the mainstream left to move rightward as well, as it seeks to cadge votes from alienated party moderates. Cleverer members of the alt-right have tried to cast their movement as a localist, populist antidote to a creeping globalization puppeteered by out-of-touch elites: this was the narrative that was woven around the Brexit vote, and such a narrative might well gain similar traction in the U.S. A new political paradigm where one is asked to choose between an isolationist, anti-immigration, explicitly racist “right,” and a “left” that defends global capitalism by making emotional appeals to the virtuousness of superficial diversity, would be extremely difficult terrain for those interested in real economic justice.

The left has always had a difficult balance to strike between localism and globalism: On the localist side, the left generally supports policies like food sovereignty and environmental preservation against the depredations of multinational corporations. Yet lefties are also globalists, who believe that individuals worldwide have the right to migrate freely, and who should be wary of protectionist economic arguments that demonize companies for employing foreign workers rather than demonizing companies for paying those foreign workers pitiful wages. Allowing the alt-right to take proprietary control over anti-globalization rhetoric, and thus force the left into a false choice between defending globalization or defending racism, would be a terrible mistake.

The left’s failure to offer a compelling alternative may be partly responsible for the alt-right’s success. Certainly, this is the claim made by movement provocateur and spokesman Milo Yiannopoulos. Yiannopoulos is known primarily for going around college campuses giving lectures with titles like “Why Do Lesbians Fake So Many Hate Crimes?”, inevitably sparking protests, which in turn increase his infamy. (Yiannopoulos also splashily debuted a “privilege grant” college scholarship for white men, raising $100,000 online through a nonexistent charity and then proceeding to deposit the money directly into his own bank account.) Yiannopoulos argues in a co-written essay that the alt-right’s ugliness has been spurred by the left’s retreat into some kind of dreary, preachy totalitarianism:

Had  [the political establishment] been serious about defending humanism, liberalism and universalism, the rise of the alternative right might have been arrested. All they had to do was argue for common humanity in the face of black and feminist identity politics, for free speech in the face of the regressive Left’s censorship sprees, and for universal values in the face of left-wing moral relativism… Young people perhaps aren’t primarily attracted to the alt-right because they’re instinctively drawn to its ideology: they’re drawn to it because it seems fresh, daring and funny, while the doctrines of their parents and grandparents seem unexciting, overly-controlling and overly-serious.

Much of this is idiocy. One need only look at the statistics on black wealth, or on female representation in Congress, to see the continuing necessity of “black and feminist identity politics.” The white men who write off these movements as mere irrational ideology have spent very little time trying to understand the lives of people different from themselves.

Still, one should accept a certain part of the caution. It’s true that the left too often lacks (1) good arguments and (2) wit. It’s very easy, when one is convinced of one’s own moral correctness, to denounce one’s enemies as evil and keep them from speaking. In doing so, one can indeed take on the very kind of bullying, close-minded disposition that the left is supposed to detest. The left should be empathetic and curious, and should never be seen as opposed to “universal values” or “freedom of speech,” both of which are foundational to its historical struggles.

It’s also worth confronting the alt-right’s actual arguments head on, rather than simply closing one’s ears and denouncing them. Yiannopoulos and others insist that feminists and progressives are afraid to debate Actual Facts, because the left is ideological rather than rational. Leftists then reinforce this perception by merely scoffing and dismissing Yiannopoulos and his ilk as racists, and attempting to have them kicked off college campuses. This is unfortunate, because it allows the alt-right to feel as if their arguments are indeed so strong that their enemies are terrified of having to deal with them.

Once their one or two serious critiques are addressed, the alt-right has nothing else to offer beyond mystical blood-purity theories and Nazi frog memes.  

Nobody need be terrified, however. Underneath all the rhetoric, the alt-right have few actual arguments. Their most convincing points are their attacks on left-wing hypocrisy and self-contradiction (the silencing of dissent in the name of dissent, simultaneously trying to dismantle and reinforce racial and gender identities, a failure to apply consistent moral standards). Once those critiques are taken seriously and addressed, the alt-right has nothing else to offer beyond mystical blood-purity theories and Nazi frog memes.

It’s not yet clear whether the alt-right will be influential in the long run. Seen one way, its rise is encouraging news for progressives. After all, it is fueled by the success of progressive ideas; the alt-right is a backlash to advances in racial equality. Perhaps the clownish Trump campaign, and all of the racist memes, are the last gasp of a doomed demographic. It’s hard to know if this lunacy is merely the theatrical death-throes of a Republican Party whose time is passed, or if it’s the birth of a terrifying new right-wing ideology that threatens to define America’s future political life.

But nobody should wait to find out the direction of the movement. Neo-Nazism is also nothing to kid around about, and the percentage of the country who embraced Trump is truly alarming. We should take advantage of the present upheaval in our national debate and begin organizing around a morally coherent alternative. The causes of this new movement need to be identified, its ideas countered and extinguished. The alt-right are hideous, and it is not enough to take note of them. They must be gleefully squashed.

Illustration by Benjamin Saucier

Some Troublesome Questions for Liberals on Borders

We might want to be careful about arguments like “immigration is good for the economy” and “these are jobs Americans won’t do.”

Broadly speaking, there are two perspectives on open borders: the liberal and the libertarian. They are not totally aligned, but they have certain points in common. On the libertarian side, open borders are mandated because the ability to move about as one chooses is a fundamental exercise of freedom. Movement is permissible because the state has no right to restrict it.

The liberal argument is more complex. Unlike free-market libertarians, liberals believe that governments have an obligation to provide social services to residents. For liberals, the state takes on certain administrative responsibilities when it admits new residents. For libertarians, admitting a new resident is costless to the government, because it is not the job of the state to provide a safety net. Thus, when a liberal says that anyone who wishes to should be allowed to cross the border, they are asking the receiving state to incur a certain level of obligation that libertarian open-borders advocates are not.

As a result, liberal open-borders advocates have felt pressured to justify the expenditures that come with immigration. They often do so by arguing that immigration “grows” the economy, and thus, in effect, pays for itself. By this logic, open borders, or any less restrictive immigration process, will economically benefit both incoming immigrant and currently-resident Americans. It has become commonplace in liberal pro-immigration articles to see many citations to studies showing that immigration is an economic boon, and refuting accusations that immigrants over-collect benefits, commit disproportionate numbers of crimes, and take away jobs from American citizens.

There is no doubt a great deal of truth to these arguments: the available statistics certainly seem to show that there is no truth to widespread public perception that immigrants are more likely to commit crimes and less likely to pay taxes than native-born Americans. It’s important to neutralize bogeyman scare tactics, and to set the facts straight.

However, we might be wary of the philosophical underpinnings of this particular argument. The economic case for immigration may be attractive—and, for the moment at least, persuasive—but it is essentially a conservative argument, suggesting that human beings ought to be treated in a certain manner because it generates economic benefit, and not necessarily because it is morally required. Of course, liberals don’t really want to look a gift horse in the mouth: with the political climate hostile to the humanitarian plight of even the most sympathetic of migrants, liberals are thrilled to have statistics and pie charts and suchlike to lay before a skittish American public. It isn’t every day that the right thing to do is also the rationally self-interested thing to do, and we should certainly celebrate those joyous occasions when they arise. However, it’s important not to lose sight of the moral dimension of the argument, and in that context there are a few questions worth asking.

1. What about immigrants who aren’t potential job creators?

Should borders only be opened for immigrants who are likely to be economically successful? What about people who are too sick to work? Too old to reenter the workforce? What about people suffering from trauma and PTSD, multiplied a thousandfold by culture shock and the incredible intellectual labor of mastering a new language? The economic argument surely doesn’t hold for these vulnerable individuals, but the idea of turning back certain classes of people at the border as “undesirables” should rightly make us feel queasy. Our current system already operates this way; high-skilled workers can get visas far more easily, and business owners who promise to create jobs can get fast-tracked approval. But the people who are most desperately in need of being admitted may often be the people who are the least “productive.” Are those people less deserving of the freedom to move from place to place? If pro-immigration advocates make the argument that immigrants should be admitted because they make excellent workers, they risk endorsing the argument that immigrants who aren’t excellent workers shouldn’t be admitted.

2. Are immigrants really only doing “jobs that Americans don’t want to do”?

Even if immigration grows the economy overall, it’s possible that those benefits come with costs to people who are extremely vulnerable, and already suffering from extreme structural disadvantages. Among certain categories of low-income workers, immigration may well depress wages and increase competition for jobs. It’s not unreasonable to think that sometimes immigrants and native-born workers do in fact compete for the same jobs. That doesn’t create a moral justification for restricting immigration; native-born workers don’t “deserve” jobs more than immigrants. But it means being honest about the fact that immigrants may displace certain workers.

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3. If Immigrants are doing jobs that Americans won’t do, why is that?

But perhaps immigrants are mostly only doing jobs that Americans don’t want to do. If that’s the case, though, it is because those jobs are so degrading, dangerous, and poorly-compensated that no legally-resident individual would take them. In those cases, employers are paying so little that the positions can only be filled by someone with no work authorization, in desperate need of money and in constant fear of deportation. If there’s a job that native-born Americans literally will not do, it’s probably a job that shouldn’t exist in the first place. The jobs in question are often unsafe. Workers have no bargaining power, and can easily have their wages stolen by employers. Agricultural work, for example, is one of those jobs that native-born Americans supposedly refuse. But that’s because those who work in fields across the country—including children—work punishing hours, are exposed to dangerous pesticides, and are paid pittances for their hard labor. The construction industry, too, has notoriously lax safety standards on work sites with immigrant laborers. In New York City, the skyscraper construction boom has coincided with a 53% increase in injuries, including dozens of fatalities, mostly among undocumented immigrants. (Companies have found that simply paying the OSHA fines is more cost-effective than improving worker safety.)  Is this something to celebrate? Is is something that can even be tacitly accepted as a necessary premise of an economic system? The “jobs Americans won’t do” line has become a key part of the pro-immigration argument, yet it endorses a situation that runs contrary to basic liberal principles of justice. Don’t we want these jobs to get better? Don’t we want them to be well-paid, secure, and humane? But in that case, they would become the sort of jobs Americans would be perfectly happy to do. Will we then have scuppered a major argument for immigration? Anyone who makes the “jobs Americans won’t do” case is implicitly defending a system of morally reprehensible, exploitative labor.

4. What if immigration fails to grow the economy?

What if, as a result of instituting better worker protections, or simply as a result of a variety of economic and social factors, immigration ceases to have positive economic effects? What if it has no economic effect, or someone can produce statistics showing that it is having a negative effect? Do we, at that point, stop allowing immigration? Do we have a global caste system, in which people can enter the U.S. only to the extent that they generate benefits for Americans who happened to have resided there from an earlier date? Of course, immigration may well be an economic boon. But one can conceive of a situation in which it isn’t (if immigrants were poor and depended heavily on government services, and were unable to find jobs, for instance). If the argument for immigration is an economic one, then pro-immigration activists need to be certain that immigration will never have an economic cost. The left has something to learn from the moral clarity of the libertarian case for immigration, which asserts that human beings simply have a natural right to migrate freely. The moral argument is far more robust than the economic one, because it is true universally regardless of changing economic conditions. One doesn’t need to prove that immigrants grow the GDP or that they will never compete for the same jobs as Americans. The better point is that there is no good moral reason for putting up walls and keeping people out. And just as Americans feel entitled to the freedom to go anywhere in the world they please (and would be surprised to be turned away at a border), so everyone else should be granted the same basic entitlement. It’s also worth emphasizing the inherent arbitrariness of global inequality. Given that the earth’s resources are unevenly apportioned, and people’s life circumstances depend on the geographic accident of their birth, shouldn’t we understand this to be a moral evil, and strive to correct it where we can?  Perhaps such arguments will fail to persuade. But they are far more sound, and ultimately, far more honest. Increased immigration should be allowed because it is morally right, not because it is in our narrow economic self-interest.

Deporting Criminal Immigrants Is Both Unwise And Immoral

There’s a left-right consensus that immigrants who commit crimes should be deported. That consensus is a mistake.

“The killer was an illegal alien gangbanger from Mexico, released from jail with a deportation hold, three gun charges, and an assault and battery on a police officer… Only Trump mentions Americans killed by illegals.” So spoke Jamiel Shaw, Sr., the father of a black teenager murdered in Los Angeles in 2008, in a speech at the Republican National Convention last week. The facts of the case are harrowing: the 19-year-old killer, Pedro Espinoza, was a member of Los Angeles’s 18th Street Gang. The shooting was sudden and unprovoked, apparently prompted by the fact that Jamiel Shaw, Jr. had the misfortune to be wearing red, thereby resembling a member of the rival Bloods gang. Espinoza showed no remorse at trial. Smiling openly at his victim’s family members, he announced that he had no intention of paying any restitution money.

Most commentators would probably agree that Espinoza is exactly the kind of “criminal alien” who deserves to be deported. There is a broad left-right consensus that, no matter what one’s general opinion on immigration is, those who commit serious crimes ought to be expelled from the country. Though Espinoza had lived in the U.S. since he was an infant, he was born in Mexico and his presence in the United States was therefore a violation of the law.

As an unauthorized immigrant, Espinoza is far from typical, since immigrants are actually less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans. It may therefore be fair for Trump’s opponents to argue that deliberately highlighting his particular story mischaracterizes the makeup of the immigrant population.

But even as they pointed to the lower crime rates among immigrants, many liberals would likely concede that Espinoza should have been deported. The progressive approach to immigration, after all, is to focus on “Felons not Families.” Espinoza was a sociopathic felon and gang member who murdered people over the color of their handkerchiefs. If the task is to get rid of the “bad” immigrants, he probably ought to have been the first one booted from the country.

Yet while deporting Espinoza seems instinctually smart and fair, it’s worth thinking twice about. Espinoza was briefly detained on an assault charge before he was released back into the community, at which point he encountered and murdered Shaw. The pro-deportation argument goes that, when Espinoza was first arrested and discovered to be undocumented, he should have been immediately shipped off to Mexico. But knowing for a certainty, as we do now, that Espinoza was capable of murder, we should consider whom he might he have abused or murdered in Mexico, had he been sent there. As Current Affairs has previously argued, deporting someone because we believe they might commit a crime means wishing that crime upon some victim in another country. And if Espinoza had murdered someone in Mexico, there would have been far less recourse for his victim’s family there—a 2016 study estimates that only 7 out of 100 crimes are reported in Mexico, and that of the crimes that are reported, only 4.46% result in convictions. In other words, it’s highly likely that Espinoza would have had the opportunity to harm a lot more people, had he been so inclined. That doesn’t mitigate the suffering of Jamiel Shaw’s family. But it’s important to be aware that ejecting criminal offenders from our territory doesn’t actually reduce crime; it simply foists it onto people elsewhere.

The deportation of criminals is also bad foreign policy. Espinoza was born in Mexico, but despite recent rhetoric about dangerous influxes of “Mexicans,” immigration from Mexico is actually down these days. Most of the immigrants apprehended on the southern border are actually Central Americans, predominately from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. Many of these individuals are quite literally fleeing for their lives: the murder rate in El Salvador is higher than in any country on earth that is not an active war zone.

The ever-increasing prevalence of transnational gangs, or maras, has been both a product and a driver of this violence. Young men in gang-controlled neighborhoods are effectively conscripted from the time they are children, and women and girls are routinely targeted for sexual violence. Businesses and households are made to pay “war taxes” to the gangs; rape, kidnapping, or murder of family members is a common tactic to coerce payment. People risk the dangerous overland journey across Mexico—a journey during which many travelers are robbed or even murdered, and approximately 80% of women and girls are raped—because they know they will incur few risks on their journey that they have not already faced on a daily basis in their own hometowns.

The Los Angeles street gang to which Pedro Espinoza belonged—the 18th Street Gang, known in Central America as “Mara 18” or “Barrio 18”—is one of the major transnational gangs that currently dominates the Northern Triangle. Their chief rival, MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha, also has its origins in Los Angeles. The growth in those gangs has a lot to do with U.S. immigration and deportation policies. A number of Central American families, impoverished and traumatized by the horrors of civil war, fled to the U.S. in the 1980s and settled in Los Angeles, without immigration status. Their children were exposed to existing L.A. gang violence, and some of them joined gangs. Then, as young adults, these gang members were deported en masse to El Salvador and Honduras, countries many of them could barely remember: countries which were still fragile after decades of violence, undertaking the difficult work of political and economic reconstruction.

Banished from the U.S., the only home many of them had ever known, with few prospects for employment, these deportees predictably founded satellite branches of their Los Angeles gangs in their new Central American neighborhoods. Over ensuing decades, these gangs’ territorial battles spread across most urban areas, and have now penetrated outlying suburbs and rural counties as well. Today, there are a staggering 85,000 gang members active in the Northern Triangle. (To give some perspective, that’s nearly triple the estimated membership of ISIS.) Corruption within the police and in local government institutions is endemic, leading to a widespread culture of impunity. On the rare occasions when gang members are jailed for more than a token period of time, this has posed little obstacle to their operations: gangs exercise considerable internal control over prisons, and can direct subordinates and run telephonic extortion schemes from the inside. The chaos created by the gangs means that even crimes committed by non-gang members—rapes, murders, domestic violence, child abuse—are almost never prosecuted.

The fact is, when we deport criminals, vulnerable people in the receiving country suffer, often on a massive scale. Sending gang members to Central America means sending new recruits to Central American gangs. Those gangs then terrorize civilian populations. When that happens, the victims naturally run someplace where they think they will be safe—and often, that’s the United States. Deporting criminals doesn’t stop immigration. On the contrary, the mass deportation of criminal aliens to countries ill-equipped to deal with them generates a cycle of increasing numbers of refugees.

For some, that’s an excellent justification for sealing the border; let’s just deport all the criminals we currently have, then stop letting any new immigrants in. First, that’s unlikely to work.After all, the Border Patrol itself does not think the border is truly sealable, no matter how big and fancy a wall you build. More importantly, the moral implications of this strategy need to be fully appreciated. By attempting to seal ourselves off, and sending crime to other countries, we risk creating and then shutting our eyes to an unbelievable amount of suffering. Before anyone signs on to a Trumpian strategy, they should ask themselves whether they’re truly willing to condemn the men, women, and children in our neighboring countries to be brutally murdered by criminal organizations that are, in fact, our own country’s export.

So, if deportation isn’t the answer, what is? Is the United States supposed to become a warehouse for criminals that other countries don’t have the resources to incarcerate? Obviously that’s not a real solution. But we need to stop thinking about violence as a product of immigration, and start thinking about violence as an impetus for immigration.

To avoid deaths like that of Jamiel Shaw, it would be wise to examine domestic policies. The problem of kids joining gangs affects both immigrants and native-born Americans. Fixing it requires examining how social policies support or fail vulnerable children. Are mothers given the childcare support and paid leave they need to raise their kids well? Do parents have good jobs? Are schools providing children with adequate opportunities?

It’s also important to think about why people choose to leave Mexico and Central America, rather than simply trying to stop them from coming in (or casting them out once they’re here). If families were safe in their homes, if young men and women were growing up with satisfying employment, they wouldn’t have reason to attempt the perilous journey across the U.S. border. And we may have to ask ourselves a few highly discomforting questions. How, for example, are U.S. drug policies contributing to the success of Mexican drug cartels? And why did our State Department maintain a calculated neutrality in 2009, when a coup overthrew a democratically-elected government in Honduras?

Our approach to our neighbors is, at best, indifferent and disorganized; and at worst, opportunistically tailored to serve the short-term self-interest of a small elite. As always, thinking seriously about stopping crime means thinking about its causes. Those that truly care about deaths like that of Jamiel Shaw need to take into account the social factors that breed gang violence. One of those is U.S. deportations. Expelling criminal aliens may feel satisfying and just. But it doesn’t magically cause crime to disappear; it simply moves it around. And while U.S. citizens might not mind watching Central America collapse into violence, the consequences of that violence may well find their way back onto U.S. soil.