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.

You Should Be Terrified That People Who Like “Hamilton” Run Our Country

The American elite can’t get enough of a musical that flatters their political sensibilities and avoids discomforting truths.

In 2012, Captain Dan and his Scurvy Crew, a four-man hip-hop ensemble trying to cement “pirate rap” as a tenable subgenre, appeared on America’s Got Talent. The quartet had clearly put some thought, or at least effort, into the act; their pirate costumes might even have passed historical muster were it not for the leftmost crewmember’s Ray-Bans and Dan’s meticulously groomed chinstrap beard.

The routine itself went precisely in the direction one might have expected:

Captain Dan: When I say yo, you say ho. Yo!

Scurvy Crew: HO!

Captain Dan: YO!

Scurvy Crew: HO!

The group managed to rattle off two-and-a-half stilted lines before the judges began sounding their buzzers. Howard Stern was the last to give them the red “X,” preferring to let the audience’s boos come to a crescendo before he cut the Scurvy Crew off. Stern seemed to take great pleasure in calling the group “stupid,” “moronic,” “idiotic,” and “pathetic” on a national stage (Captain Dan grimaced through his humiliating dressing-down while his bandmates laughed it off, exposing a gap in emotional investment in the project between captain and crew, one that likely led to some intra-group tension during the post-show commiseration drinks).

Howie Mandel: They have restaurants like this—like Medieval Times—where you go and you get a pirates thing and you get a chicken dinner. We didn’t get a chicken dinner with this.

In 2012, everyone (save for Captain Dan himself, along with people whose tastes range from “music from video games” to “music about video games”) was in agreement that performing high-school-history-project rap in Colonial Williamsburg garb was culturally unconscionable. Right?

Wrong. The world in which we live now includes Hamilton, a wildly successful “hip-hop musical” about the first Secretary of the Treasury of the United States of America.

Now, perhaps the America’s Got Talent audience isn’t an accurate sample of the American population as a whole. Perhaps they actually thought “when I say yo, you say ho” was clever , but were directed to boo by an off-screen neon sign. Or perhaps something happened in the past four years that made everyone really stupid.

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But what if the American public’s taste hasn’t devolved? What if Hamilton’s success is the result of something else altogether?

Brian Eno once said that the Velvet Underground’s debut album only sold a few thousand copies, but everyone who bought it started a band. The same principle likely applies to Hamilton: only a few thousand people could afford to see it, but everyone who did happened to work for a prominent New York/D.C. publication.

The media gushing over Hamilton has been downright torrential. “I am loath to tell people to mortgage their houses and lease their children to acquire tickets to a hit Broadway show,” wrote Ben Brantley of the New York Times. “But Hamilton… might just about be worth it.” The hyperbolic headlines poured forth unceasingly: “Is Hamilton the Musical the Most Addicting Album Ever?” Hamilton is the most important musical of our time.” Hamilton Haters Are Why We Can’t Have Nice Things.” The media then got high on their own supply, diagnosing all of America with a harrowing ailment called “Hamilton mania.” The work was “astonishing,” “sublime,” the “cultural event of our time.” Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune said the musical was “even better than the hype.” Given the tenor of the hype, one can only imagine the pure, overpowering ecstasy that must comprise the Hamilton-viewing experience. The musical even somehow won a Pulitzer Prize this year, alongside Nicholas Kristof and that book by Ta-Nehisi Coates you bought but never read.

One of the publications to enter swooning raptures over Hamilton was BuzzFeed, which called it the smash musical “that everyone you know has been quoting for months.” (Literally nobody has ever quoted Hamilton in my presence.) BuzzFeed’s workplace obsession with the musical led to the birthing of the phrase “BuzzFeed Hamilton Slack.” That three-word monstrosity, incomprehensible to anyone outside the narrowest circle of listicle-churning media elites, describes a room on the corporate messaging platform “Slack” used exclusively by BuzzFeed employees to discuss Hamilton. J.R.R. Tolkien said that “cellar door” was the most beautiful phonetic phrase the English language could produce. “BuzzFeed Hamilton Slack,” by contrast, may be the most repellent arrangement of words in any tongue.

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Those of us unfortunate enough not to work media jobs can never be privy to what goes on in a “BuzzFeed Hamilton Slack.” But the Twitter emissions of the Slack’s denizens suggest a swamp into which no man should tread. A tellingly ominous and thoroughly representative Tweet:

“When the Buzzfeed #Hamilton slack room has a heated debate about which Hogwarts houses the characters belong to” —@Arielle07

“Nerdcore” music (Wikipedia: “a genre of hip hop music characterized by themes and subject matter considered to be of general interest to nerds”) has always had trouble getting off the ground. The “first lady of nerdcore,” rapper MC Router (responsible for the song “Trekkie Pride”), never achieved the critical success for which she had seemed destined, instead ending up on the Dr. Phil show after an acrimonious dispute with her family over her unexpected conversion to Islam. Similarly, the YouTube series “Epic Rap Battles of History,” however numerous its subscribers may have been, has consistently been unjustly robbed of the Pulitzer. Now, finally, nerd rap has apparently found in Hamilton its own Sgt. Pepper, a lofty, expansive work that wins the hearts and minds of previously skeptical elite critics.

One should have no doubt that “expensively-staged nerdcore” is a perfectly accurate, even generous description of Hamilton. Doubters need only examine a brief lyrical snippet. Consider this, from “The Election of 1800”:

Madison: It’s a tie! …

Jefferson: It’s up to the delegates!…

Jefferson/Madison: It’s up to Hamilton!

Hamilton: Yo.

The people are asking to hear my voice ..

For the country is facing a difficult choice.

And if you were to ask me who I’d promote …

Jefferson has my vote.

Perhaps marginally less embarrassing than “when I say yo, you say ho.” But only ever so marginally.

One could question the fairness of appraising a musical before putting one’s self through its full three-hour theatrical experience. But if nobody could criticize Hamilton without having seen it, then nobody could criticize Hamilton. One of the strangest aspects of the whole “Hamiltonmania” public relations spectacle is that hardly anyone in the country has actually attended the musical to begin with. The show is exclusive to Broadway and has spent most of its run completely sold out, seemingly playing to an audience comprised entirely of people who write breathless BuzzFeed headlines. (Fortunately, when you can get off the waitlist it only costs $1,200 a ticket—so long as you can stand bad seats.) Hamilton is the “nationwide sensation” that only .001% of the nation has even witnessed.

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There’s something revealing in the disjunction between Hamilton’s popularity in the world of online media and Hamilton’s popularity in the world of actual human persons. After all, here we have a cultural product whose appeal essentially consists of a broad coalition of the worst people in America: New York Times writers, 15-year-olds who aspire to answer the phone in Chuck Schumer’s office, people who want to get into steampunk but have a copper sensitivity, and “wonks.” Yet because a large fraction of these people are elite taste-makers, Hamilton becomes a topic of disproportionate interest, discussed at unendurable length in The New Yorker and Slate and The New York Times Magazine, yet totally inaccessible to anyone besides the writers and members of their close social networks. When The New Yorker writes about a book that nobody in America wants to read, at least they could theoretically go out and purchase it. But Hamilton theatergoing is solely the provenance of Hamilton thinkpiece-writers. The endless swirl of online Hamilton-buzz shows the comical extreme of cultural insularity in the New York and D.C. media. The “cultural event of our time” is totally unknown to nearly all who actually live in our time.

Given that Hamilton is essentially Captain Dan with an American Studies minor, one might wonder how it became so inordinately adored by the blathering class. How did a ten-million-dollar 8th Grade U.S. History skit become “the great work of art of the 21st century” (as the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik says those in his circle have been calling it)?

To judge from the reviews, most of the appeal seems to rest with the forced diversity of its cast and the novelty concept of a “hip-hop musical.” Those who write about Hamilton often dwell primarily on its “groundbreaking” use of rap and its “bold” choice to cast an assemblage of black, Asian, and Latino actors as the Founding Fathers. Indeed, Hamilton exists more as a corporate HR department’s wet dream than as a biographical work.

The most obvious historical aberration is the portrayal of Washington and Jefferson as black men, a somewhat audacious choice given that both men are strongly associated with owning, and in the case of the latter, raping and impregnating slaves. Changing the races allows these men to appear far more sympathetic than they would otherwise be. Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda says he did this intentionally, to make the cast “look like America today,” and that having black actors play the roles “allow[s] you to leave whatever cultural baggage you have about the founding fathers at the door.” (“Cultural baggage” is an odd way of describing “feeling discomfort at warm portrayals of slaveowners.”) Thus Hamilton’s superficial diversity lets its almost entirely white audience feel good about watching it: no guilt for seeing dead white men in a positive light required. Now, The New York Times can delight in the novel incongruousness of “a Thomas Jefferson who swaggers like the Time’s Morris Day, sings like Cab Calloway and drawls like a Dirty South trap-rapper.” Indeed, it does take some getting used to, because the actual Thomas Jefferson raped slaves.

“Casting black and Latino actors as the founders effectively writes nonwhite people into the story, in ways that audiences have powerfully responded to,” said the New York Times. But fixing history makes it seem less objectionable than it actually was. We might call it a kind of, well, “blackwashing,” making something that was heinous seem somehow palatable by retroactively injecting diversity into it.

Besides, you don’t actually need to “write nonwhite people into the story.” As historians have pointed out, there were plenty of nonwhite people around at the time, people who already had fully-developed stories and identities. But none of these people appears in the play. As some have quietly noted, the vast majority of African American cast members simply portray nameless dancing founders in breeches and cravats, and “not a single enslaved or free person of color exists as a character in this play.” (Although Jefferson’s slave and mistress Sally Hemings gets a brief shout-out.)

Slavery is left out of the play almost completely. Historian Lyra Monteiro observes that “Unless one listens carefully to the lyrics—which do mention slavery a handful of times—one could easily assume that slavery did not exist in this world.” The foundation of the 18th century economic system, the vicious practice that defined the lives of countless black men and women, is confined to the odd lyrical flourish here and there.

Miranda did consider adding a slavery number. But he cut it from the show, as he explains:

There was a rap battle about slavery, where it was Hamilton and Jefferson and Madison knocking it from all sides of the issue. Jefferson being like, “Hey, I wrote about this, and no one wanted to touch it!” And Hamilton being very self-righteous, like, “You’re having an affair with one of your slaves!” And Madison hits him with a “You want to talk about affairs?” And in the end, no one does anything. Which is what happened in reality! So we realized we were bringing our show to a halt on something that none of them really did enough on.

Miranda found that by trying to write a song about his main characters’ attitudes toward slavery, he ran into the inconvenient fact that all of them willfully tolerated or participated in it. That made it difficult to square with the upbeat portrayals he was going for, and so slavery had to go. Besides, dwelling on it could “bring the show to a halt.” And as cast member Christopher Jackson, who plays George Washington, notes: ‘‘The Broadway audience doesn’t like to be preached to.” Who would want to spoil the fun?

Instead, Hamilton’s Hamilton is what Slate called simply “lovable—a product of the play’s humanizing focus on Hamilton’s vulnerabilities and ambitions.” The play avoids depicting his unabashed elitism and more repellent personal characteristics. And in the brief references that are made to slavery, the play even generously portrays Hamilton as far more committed to the cause of freedom than he actually was. In this way, Hamilton carefully makes sure its audience is neither challenged nor discomforted, and can leave the theater without having to confront any unpleasant truths.

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Just as Hamilton ducks the question of slavery, much of the actual substance of Alexander Hamilton’s politics is ignored, in favor of a story that stresses his origins as a Horatio Alger immigrant and his rivalry with Aaron Burr. But while Hamilton may have favored opening America’s doors to immigration, he also proposed a degree of economic protectionism that would terrify today’s free market establishment.

Hamilton believed that free trade was never equal, and worried about the ability of European manufacturers (who got a head start on the Industrial Revolution) to sell goods at lower prices than their American counterparts. In Hamilton’s 1791 Report on Manufactures, he spoke of the harms to American industry that came with our reliance on products from overseas. The Report sheds light on many of the concerns Americans in the 21st century have about outsourcing, sweatshops, and the increasing trade deficit, albeit in a different context. Hamilton said that for the U.S., “constant and increasing necessity, on their part, for the commodities of Europe, and only a partial and occasional demand for their own, in return, could not but expose them to a state of impoverishment, compared with the opulence to which their political and natural advantages authorise them to aspire.” For Hamilton, the solution was high tariffs on imports of manufactured goods, and intensive government intervention in the economy. The prohibitive importation costs imposed by tariffs would allow newer American manufacturers to undersell Europe’s established industrial framework, leading to an increase in non-agricultural employment. As he wrote: “all the duties imposed on imported articles… wear a beneficent aspect towards the manufacturers of the country.”

Does any of this sound familiar? It certainly went unmentioned at the White House, where a custom performance of Hamilton was held for the Obamas. The livestreamed presidential Hamilton spectacular at one point featured Obama and Miranda performing historically-themed freestyle rap in the Rose Garden.

The Obamas have been supporters of Hamilton since its embryonic days as the “Hamilton Mixtape song cycle.” By the time the fully-fledged musical arrived in Washington, Michelle Obama called it the “best piece of art in any form that I have ever seen in my life,” raising disquieting questions about the level of cultural exposure offered in the Princeton undergraduate curriculum.

In introducing the White House performance, Barack Obama gave an effusive speech worthy of the BuzzFeed Hamilton Slack:

[Miranda] identified a quintessentially American story in the character of Hamilton — a striving immigrant who escaped poverty, made his way to the New World, climbed to the top by sheer force of will and pluck and determination… And in the Hamilton that Lin-Manuel and his incredible cast and crew bring to life — a man who is “just like his country, young, scrappy, and hungry” — we recognize the improbable story of America, and the spirit that has sustained our nation for over 240 years… In this telling, rap is the language of revolution. Hip-hop is the backbeat. … And with a cast as diverse as America itself, including the outstandingly talented women — (applause) — the show reminds us that this nation was built by more than just a few great men — and that it is an inheritance that belongs to all of us.

Strangely enough, President Obama failed to mention anything Alexander Hamilton actually did during his long career in American politics, perhaps because the Obama Administration’s unwavering support of free trade and the tariff-easing Trans-Pacific Partnership goes against everything Hamilton believed. Instead, Obama’s Hamilton speech stresses just two takeaways from the musical: that America is a place where the poor (through “sheer force of will” and little else) can rise to prominence, and that Hamilton has diversity in it. (Plus it contains hip-hop, an edgy, up-and-coming genre with only 37 years of mainstream exposure.)

The Obamas were not the only members of the political establishment to come down with a ghastly case of Hamiltonmania. Nearly every figure in D.C. has apparently been to see the show, in many cases being invited for a warm backstage schmooze with Miranda. Biden saw it. Mitt Romney saw it. The Bush daughters saw it. Rahm Emanuel saw it the day after the Chicago teachers’ strike over budget cuts and school closures. Hillary Clinton went to see the musical in the evening after having been interviewed by the FBI in the morning. The Clinton campaign has also been fundraising by hawking Hamilton tickets; for $100,000 you can watch a performance alongside Clinton herself.

Unsurprisingly, the New York Times reports that “conservatives were particularly smitten” with Hamilton. “Fabulous show,” tweeted Rupert Murdoch, calling it “historically accurate.” Obama concluded that “I’m pretty sure this is the only thing that Dick Cheney and I have agreed on—during my entire political career.” (That is, of course, false. Other points of agreement include drone strikes, Guantanamo, the NSA, and mass deportation.)

The conservative-liberal D.C. consensus on Hamilton makes perfect sense. The musical flatters both right and left sensibilities. Conservatives get to see their beloved Founding Fathers exonerated for their horrendous crimes, and liberals get to have nationalism packaged in a feel-good multicultural form. The more troubling questions about the country’s origins are instantly vanished, as an era built on racist forced labor is transformed into a colorful, culturally progressive, and politically unobjectionable extravaganza.

As the director of the Hamilton theater said, “It has liberated a lot of people who might feel ambivalent about the American experiment to feel patriotic.” “Ambivalence,” here, means being bothered by the country’s collective idol-worship of men who participated in the slave trade, one of the greatest crimes in human history. To be “liberated” from this means never having to think about it.

In that respect, Hamilton probably is the “musical of the Obama era,” as The New Yorker called it. Contemporary progressivism has come to mean papering over material inequality with representational diversity. The president will continue to expand the national security state at the same rate as his predecessor, but at least he will be black. Predatory lending will drain the wealth from African American communities, but the board of Goldman Sachs will have several black members. Inequality will be rampant and worsening, but the 1% will at least “look like America.” The actual racial injustices of our time will continue unabated, but the power structure will be diversified so that nobody feels quite so bad about it. Hamilton is simply this tendency’s cultural-historical equivalent; instead of worrying ourselves about the brutal origins of the American state, and the lasting economic effects of those early inequities, we can simply turn the Founding Fathers black and enjoy the show.

Kings George I and II of England could barely speak intelligible English and spent more time dealing with their own failed sons than ruling the Empire —but they gave patronage to Handel. Ludwig II of Bavaria was believed to be insane and went into debt compulsively building castles — but he gave patronage to Wagner. Barack Obama deported more immigrants than any other president and expanded the drone program in order to kill almost 3,500 people — but he gave patronage to a neoliberal nerdcore musical. God bless this great land.

This article originally appeared in our July/August print edition.

When Will Pro-Trade Journalists Begin Outsourcing Themselves?

Don’t they care about global poverty?

J. Bradford DeLong, a former Clinton Administration official turned aggressive neoliberal blogger, once gave a nasty rebuke to those who lament the consequences of free trade on American workers. DeLong, like many of his peers in the media world, insists that by complaining about poverty among out-of-work Americans, we must necessarily be wishing that the Chinese had not experienced the benefits of outsourcing. He asked:

Is there a way to interpret [critics of the effects of trade with China] other than as a call to keep China a society of poor subsistence rice farmers as long as possible—keep them poor, barefoot, uneducated, and by no means allow them to work at any of the high-value manufacturing occupations we want to keep in the United States?

DeLong’s reasoning was echoed by several attacks on Bernie Sanders by liberal journalists. In Slate, Jordan Weissmann said Sanders was telling Vietnamese seamstresses that he wanted them to remain impoverished. At Vox.com, Zach Beauchamp said Sanders’ skepticism of trade means trying to help Americans while “screwing over the global poor.”

So this the phase we are in. One in which media commentators (raised in affluence and currently enjoying at least middle class incomes—who are thus, according to their own moral calculus, very economically privileged) tell Americans devastated by the collapse of the uneducated labor market that their poverty, marginalization, and hopelessness is Actually Good, because people in Bangladesh can now move from absolutely abject poverty to slightly-less-abject poverty. That is, provided the sweatshop where they work doesn’t collapse on them. And provided they are willing to endure a nightmare of nonexistent labor power, terrible health and safety standards, total impunity for their bosses, and for the women, an atmosphere of near-constant sexual threat and exploitation.

The first thing to say is that DeLong is offering a transparently bogus choice. “Help poor people in Bangladesh” or “help poor people in Yuma” is a false binary. Yes, as the working class in America have suffered, the incomes of some of the poorest people in the world have risen. But do you know who else have seen their incomes rise? The world’s wealthiest, by vast margins. Pretending that globalization is a simple matter of siphoning from the poor-but-less-poor to the more-poor is a willful deception. It completely ignores the vast explosion in the income and wealth of those at the top. If you want to know where we can get the money to help poor people in China and India and Mexico, we know where to look: the upper half of the global income distribution diagram. See below:

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Now the actual numbers of such distributions are often debated. But you don’t have to accept UNICEF’s exact numbers to acknowledge that there is a vast ocean of income that is controlled by a tiny portion of the world’s people. There is more than enough money being generated in the global economy to ensure a decent standard of living for a Bangladeshi factory worker and an out of work Ohio iron worker with a bad knee and two kids. To constantly frame this as a zero-sum game between the global poor and the American poor is an act of basic dishonesty.

But suppose you’re a journalist, writer, or academic who really does think that outsourcing is the only way to help the world’s poorest. Isn’t your own moral path then clear? Shouldn’t you be outsourcing your own job to people from the poorest parts of the earth? There are many talented and ambitious writers and scholars in China, India, Pakistan, Nigeria. If you make, say, $80K a year as a pundit, isn’t your moral duty to work with your employer to outsource your work to a poorer country? Punditry, after all, is very easy to conduct via telecommunications, unlike being a waiter, an orchard worker, or a yoga instructor. And isn’t it very possible that you could get at least a large majority of the value of your work from a team of people in India at a fraction of the cost, while providing all of them with wages far higher than the median income of their home country? You could have your employer pay five Indian writers $10K/year to replicate what you provide for the company. The Indian writers would make better than six times the Indian median annual income. And your employer gets to pocket that extra $30K—which, after all, is why outsourcing actually exists, to improve profits. Everyone wins! Well, not you. But this is precisely the bargain that you think America’s uneducated labor force should make. It is, in fact, a condition that you have loudly argued is morally necessary. Yet to the best of my knowledge, not a single neoliberal wonk has fallen on his or her sword and given up their job to a worker in the developing world, nobly sacrificing their own economic good for that of several other people, and accepting a life of poverty, despair, and opiate addiction in the devastated post-industrial landscapes of modern America. It seems that the morality of outsourcing only applies to other people, and not the kind of people who live in the tony precincts of post-collegiate cosmopolitanism. Funny about that.

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I have a particular individual who should step right up to the plate: J. Bradford DeLong, Clinton apologist, hippie puncher, and relentless enemy of the well-being of America’s uneducated labor force. As a professor of Economics at UC-Berkeley, DeLong is paid $135K a year. (As a public employee, DeLong’s salary is a matter of public record.) Couldn’t his job be performed by some of the self-same Chinese workers that he has such deep concern for? It’s not like there aren’t a lot of talented Chinese workers with degrees in economics. Let’s be generous and assume that those Chinese workers could only perform his job at 80% of his value. If you’re UC-Berkeley, and you could hire five Chinese people with MAs in economics at $20k, have them teach the three classes he probably teaches in a year via Skype, publish some research, and attack commies and poor people on his blog, all while pocketing the extra $35K? Those five Chinese people would make about two and a half times the median Chinese income for that kind of money, after all. Wouldn’t you take that deal at 80% of the quality? And wouldn’t Brad’s own moral compass insist that you were morally obligated to do so? (If you’re worried for ol’ Brad, don’t be: tenured economics professors always have side hustles, doing “consulting” work that typically pays more in a day than your average destitute former factory worker on food stamps makes in a month. He’ll be just fine.)

But let me finish with a familiar question: is there a way to interpret DeLong’s refusal to outsource his job to China other than as a call to keep China a society of poor subsistence rice farmers as long as possible—keep them poor, barefoot, uneducated, and by no means allow them to work at any of the high-value professor of economics and anti-poor class warrior occupations we want to keep in the United States?

Democrats Need to Stop Insisting That Everything Is Going Well

Trivializing people’s problems and fears is not a good way to win support.

Among members of the liberal press, the reaction to Donald Trump’s RNC acceptance speech has been almost unanimous. It was, they say, “grim,” “angry,” and “dark.” Trump painted a “Mad Max” picture of the United States, as a nation in crisis, beset by crime, terrorism, unemployment, and despair.

This picture, say the commentators, is false. Trump exaggerated crime rates, which are actually going down rather than up. He scare-mongered about immigrants and terrorism, creating threats where there are none. And he suggested that the world is going to hell in a handbasket, when it is not. As Ezra Klein put it in a blog post for his website, Trump had to convince people that “things are really, really bad” when things are not “really, really bad.”

This has been a consistent thread in the liberal reply to Trump’s rhetoric. Trump casts America as a broken land in need of fixing. Democrats respond that America is doing just fine, and that everyone is better off than they have been in years. They highlight the achievements of the Obama administration in bringing healthcare to millions and reducing unemployment. In response to Trump’s bright-red “Make America Great Again” baseball caps, the Democratic Party attempted to popularize its own brand of “America Is Already Great” hats. (They did not take off.)

All of this is a peculiar role reversal. Ordinarily, conservatives are the ones defending the status quo, while the left tries to rouse public interest in various pressing social problems. Now, Trump is the one speaking of the decline of the country’s fortunes, while liberals have become the new cheerleaders for America-as-it-is.

Of course, Trump is hardly a leftist in his diagnosis of the cause of the present troubles. In his speech, Trump displayed a downright Nixonian view of the country’s cities, as hotbeds of murder and social dysfunction. Naturally, the immigrant hordes and Muslim menace are looming over us, threatening to kill our police officers, take our jobs, and convert our children to Islam.

But some of Trump’s populist rhetoric is distinctly leftist in its tone, and there were portions of the speech that could have come straight from the mouth of Big Bill Haywood or Eugene V. Debs:

I have visited the laid-off factory workers, and the communities crushed by our horrible and unfair trade deals. These are the forgotten men and women of our country. People who work hard but no longer have a voice.

That posture presents a formidable challenge for the Democrats. Trump is (as some predicted he would) positioning himself to the left of Hillary Clinton on many economic issues, decrying the influence of big business and the “disaster” of NAFTA. In doing so, he could well appeal to the millions of people who were drawn to Bernie Sanders because of Sanders’ willingness to fight for the working class.

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Yet the response among Democratic commentators has not been to explain why Democratic policies will better serve laid-off factory workers. Instead, they have tried to downplay the very existence of laid-off factory workers, with article after article explaining that Trump has overlooked the positive. The press has even taken Trump to task for overstating how many young African Americans are unemployed, pointing out that actually, it’s only ⅓ rather than ½ (though it does rise to ½ if you count the underemployed). But it’s odd to go after Trump f0r pointing out how hard African Americans have it, considering that the facts on black wealth and unemployment are indeed disturbing.

Pointing out Trump’s statistical errors does not provide an effective counter-narrative, and it threatens to make the Democrats seem totally out of touch with people’s concerns. When people working cushy media jobs tell working class Americans that they’re better off than they think they are, one can almost hear a variant on the myth of Pauline Kael’s puzzlement that Nixon could have won the election when nobody she knew voted for him: “I can’t understand what this whole ‘widespread despair’ business is all about. Nobody I know is in despair.”

The vision of America as profoundly broken is not some delusion. Things might not be “really, really bad” for Ezra Klein, but they are for many others. Liberals may point to the low unemployment rate as proof that the Obama economy is rebounding. But those numbers conceal important truths about the state of the country. For example, look at the vast rates of consumer debt, with credit card debt alone reaching $1 trillion. Even if access to credit has positive overall effects, debt creates nightmares for people.

Consider what happened to Kevin Evans. After 25 years at his job, Evans was laid off during the recession. He was forced to sell his home, and reduced to mere subsistence. Whenever he could, he worked low-wage jobs at lumberyards and the like. At the same time, Evans build up $7,000 in credit card debt trying to pay for his daughters’ college education. In the past few years, Evans’ employment position has improved as the economy has grown; he’s back to a better-paying full-time job. But now, CapitalOne is garnishing his wages, taking 25% of everything he earns in order to pay back his outstanding debt. He continues to live in constant economic uncertainty.

The important thing about Evans’ story is that it shows how recovery can exist on paper while a person’s level of financial stress remains high. If we look solely at employment, Evans is a success. But in reality, he’s still struggling, a huge chunk of his wages disappearing to pay off debts. Stories like Evans’ are perfectly consistent with economic recovery, buried beneath ostensibly encouraging statistics. In other areas, too, the actual factors creating despair are overlooked. For example, as Matthew Desmond has recently pointed out, many people’s lives are now dominated by the threat of eviction from their homes.

Actually, these truths aren’t really any kind of a secret; the facts are well-known and frequently discussed. Whole areas of the country are “dying of despair.” In West Virginia, “the economy is declining along with the coal industry, towns are hollowed out as people flee, and communities are scarred by family dissolution, prescription drug abuse and a high rate of imprisonment.” The suicide rate is the highest it has been in 30 years. Life expectancy is actually diminishing among poor whites. Rising levels of alcoholism are destroying countless lives, with the result that the white working class holdsa shockingly dismal view of what the future holds for them.”

These facts shouldn’t have to be reiterated. It’s been explained repeatedly, by everyone from the National Review to Noam Chomsky, that Donald Trump’s success emerges from working-class anxiety over these real social problems. As writer J.D. Vance tells it:

These people–my people–are really struggling, and there hasn’t been a single political candidate who speaks to those struggles in a long time. Donald Trump at least tries. What many don’t understand is how truly desperate these places are, and we’re not talking about small enclaves or a few towns–we’re talking about multiple states where a significant chunk of the white working class struggles to get by.  

And yet right after Trump’s speech, instead of focusing on her own solutions to America’s problems, Hillary Clinton remarked that “the last thing we need is somebody running for president who talks trash about America.” That sounds like something George W. Bush would have said about John Kerry. And it’s hard to think who such a line will persuade. The despairing, angry mass of Trump supporters is hardly likely to buy into the theory that its grievances are “unpatriotic,” and people on the left are supposed to reject the idea that criticisms of social problems constitute “trashing America.”

But, we might say, economic anxiety is one thing, racially-charged national security anxiety is quite another. What about the fear-mongering on immigration, crime, and terrorism? Surely Trump’s apocalyptic image of the country’s security needs to be rebutted. Trump has explicitly tried to insist that crime is rising, when has been going down steadily for the last 20 years. And the number of Americans killed in terror attacks is minuscule.

Here again though, we see the weakness of the Democrats’ approach to countering Trump. Trump’s rhetoric is certainly ominous and paranoid, pretending that enemies lurk around every corner, that immigrants, criminals, and terrorists are tearing apart the country they love. That’s not the case. But in order to persuade people that that’s not the case, you need more than a graph of crime rates. You need a compelling alternate explanation for what is going wrong in people’s lives.

It’s somewhat important to point out that nearly everything Trump says is a transparent falsehood. But it’s also true that while Trump may lie a lot, he’s not always lying. When Trump talks about abandoned factories and bodies in the streets of Chicago, he’s not making those things up. (Nor, despite misstating his own previous positions, is he wrong about Clinton’s “failed policy of nation building and regime change … in Iraq, Libya, Egypt and Syria.”)

It’s also important to understand why it’s easy to create an imaginary crime wave, namely that when people feel a generalized and nameless sense of fear and hopelessness, they grasp at myths that help explain their feelings. Take the Brexit crisis in the U.K., which was an instructive lesson in what can happen when the working class feels excluded and angry. The consensus among elites is that Brexit voters were driven by racism and the fear of immigrants. And it’s true that, were it not for fear of immigration, the Brexit vote would likely have gone the other way.

However, in terms of a political strategy, it is pointless to simply scoff at pro-Leave voters for being racists. If people are blaming immigrants for their problems, the correct strategic response is to build a platform that shows people what the actual source of their problems is, and proposes a means of solving them. By simply lobbing charges of xenophobia, one denies that any of the underlying anxieties fueling anti-immigrant sentiment (as opposed to the sentiment itself) are real and legitimate. If you don’t have a compelling alternate vision and program, then of course people will be susceptible to demagoguery about crime and immigration. Trump and Nigel Farage may have a racist and delusional explanation for the cause of the world’s troubles, but they have an explanation. 

Creating a successful competing political philosophy isn’t just a matter of making those communities understand that immigration benefits them. (Actually, among low-wage workers, immigration may well slightly increase competition for jobs, a fact that needs to be acknowledged and dealt with.) It’s also a matter of actually proposing ways of better redistributing the economic benefits of globalization. As Fredrik deBoer pointed out here recently, we know where the economic gains have gone; they’re certainly not evenly shared across society. Global inequality has risen to the point that nearly all wealth is controlled by a tiny minority of the super-rich, and labor power is in decline. It might be wise for the left to have something to say about this. 

So far, centrist Democrats have been miserably bad at generating that kind of meaningful alternative (possibly because they are, themselves, largely the beneficiaries of inequality). In fact, by dismissing the concerns of working-class voters, and gushing about the Obama administration’s wonderful policy achievements, liberals almost seem to be mocking and taunting their working-class constituents. (Clinton’s missteps, like telling coal country voters that she would put miners out of business, have also been unhelpful.) As Emmett Rensin has written, elite liberalism has become characterized by a “smug style” that simply shouts “idiots!” at the “stupid hicks” who are getting “conned by right-wingers.” Rensin says that liberalism has come to believe in “the politics of smart people in command of Good Facts,” which has “no moral convictions, only charts.”

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One could see that after Trump’s speech. The most common response to Trump among liberal commentators seems to be the relentless fact-checking of his statements, rather than any attempt to articulate a comprehensive alternate political worldview. Barack Obama himself, in addition to adopting the “America is already great” mantra, has decided that the best way to defend his health care policy to the public is through writing a heavily-footnoted academic article for a scholarly journal. 

Clinton supporters can often seem stunningly oblivious. Pundit Andrew Sullivan (who believes that the rise of Trump proves that people are too stupid to be entrusted with democratic decision-making) responded to Trump’s criticism of Obamacare by saying that “I’m on Obamacare and I picked my own doctor.” Well, bully for Andrew Sullivan. But not everybody shares in his good fortune, and it’s both arrogant and useless to explain why Democratic policies look great from where you’re sitting. Such people fundamentally do not seem to understand what it feels like to live outside of the coastal elite bubble. Prominent liberal writers like Ezra Klein, who help shape policy priorities and set agendas, are totally uninterested in the way other types of people’s lives are actually lived. Their view of the working-class experience comes entirely from Bureau of Labor Statistics reports. Thus they don’t understand the things that make people unhappy, stressed out, hopeless, and frightened. 

One person who did appear to understand these things was Bernie Sanders. This was clear from his interactions with voters, and it’s why tens of thousands of people showed up at his rallies. It’s why he was able to rival Trump in the enthusiasm of his voters. He went from being a fringe candidate to a serious contender for the nomination, by tapping into an important part of the national mood. The fact that Sanders took off so unexpectedly, despite his total lack of traditional political charisma and a disorganized campaign apparatus, should have been a lesson.

Democrats need to pay attention to the Sanders model if they want to generate any enthusiasm or make any inroads with new groups of voters. Instead of telling people that everything is alright, they need to acknowledge that for many, many people things aren’t alright at all. Then, instead of offering terrifying doomsaying like Trump, they need to inspire people to believe things can get better. They need to run a campaign of hope rather than a campaign of complacency. If they want to successfully win Trump’s voters over, they will need to stop treating such people as nothing more than delusional racists. Yet, worryingly, many Democrats don’t actually seem to be committed to the task of winning people over. They seem to believe that Trump supporters are, indeed, just “dumb hicks” who can’t be reasoned with.

This is a fatal position to take. So long as Democrats are trying to retain support instead of grow it, Trump will continue to lure new voters while Clinton’s voter base will either remain stagnant or shrink. In order to win, you’ve simply got to persuade people. Internet theorist and perennial TED talker Clay Shirky recognizes the wonk problem, and tells Democrats that they have wrongly “brought fact-checkers to a culture war.” That’s true as an assessment of the problem, but the question is how Democrats intend to win that culture war. Do they intend to win it by trying to get people who already agree with them to half-heartedly drag themselves to the polls, and by portraying Trump’s working class constituency as the enemy? Or do they intend to win it by offering an actual principled contrast that deals with the real problems that people have?

The selection of Tim Kaine as Clinton’s running mate is not a good sign here. Kaine has no potential whatsoever to craft the kind of inspiring alternative platform that Democrats need. Hillary Clinton has not just admitted Kaine is boring, but says that she “love[s] that about him” because he fits her “fondness for wonks.” But wonks are precisely the problem; they are incapable of understanding voters’ emotions. Such people will puzzle over why Americans are “stubbornly negative” about the economy, failing to even recognize that large parts of the the country are characterized by massive inequality and poverty.

Kaine certainly doesn’t help with the Democrats’ need to reclaim a progressive populism, since he infamously tried to help banks evade consumer protection regulations. Trump will (accurately) seize on this as a reflection of Democratic obliviousness. Indeed, just hours after the pick was announced, the Republican National Committee sent out a statement pointing out that “Kaine has castigated opponents of free-trade agreements as ‘losers’ and strongly supported the War in Iraq.” By selecting Kaine, Clinton shows that she has no intention of trying to rechannel the working class anxiety fueling the Trump campaign into something positive. Instead, she’s simply hoping that people will be so afraid of Trump that they have no choice but to join her. Perhaps they will be. But consider: Trump tells people he will keep them safe from joblessness, terrorism, and crime. Clinton tells people that joblessness, terrorism, and crime aren’t problems, and that she’ll keep them safe from Trump. Which scare tactic is more compelling? 

In an age where millions of people are looking for explanations and solutions for their despair, it might be unwise to count on fear of Trump as one’s sole campaign message. So long as Democrats stick with the mantra that everything is fine and Obama is fantastic, not only will they come across as smug, not only will what they are saying be false, but it’s hard to see how they will win a presidential election.

There’s a New Entry on The List of Reasons Why Police Can Shoot You If You’re Black

When Charles Kinsey asked police why they shot him, they replied: “I don’t know.”

On Monday, North Miami police shot Charles Kinsey, a behavioral therapist who was helping his autistic patient. Before the police fired a bullet into him, Kinsey had been lying on his back with his hands held high in the air, begging the officers not to shoot him. Kinsey explained that he was a caregiver, that his patient had autism, and that the item in the patient’s hand was a toy truck and not a weapon.

Kinsey’s best efforts were not enough, and as the police approached him, they shot him in the leg. Speaking from his hospital bed, Kinsey seemed baffled by the police’s decision to shoot him. He said he thought that “As long as I’ve got my hands up, they’re not going to shoot me.” After all, he had obeyed every possible rule, taken every possible precaution. So after being shot, Kinsey asked the officer why he had done it.

The officer’s reply:

“I don’t know.”

To Jamilah King’s list of reasons police can assault and even kill you, then, we can now add a new final entry:

  1. Selling CDs outside of a supermarket.
  2. Selling cigarettes outside of a corner store.
  3. Walking home with a friend.
  4. Missing a front license plate.
  5. Riding a commuter train.
  6. Holding a fake gun in a park in Ohio.
  7. Holding a fake gun in a Walmart in Ohio.
  8. Holding a fake gun in Virginia.
  9. Holding a fake gun in Washington, D.C.
  10. Calling for help after a car accident.
  11. Driving with a broken brake light.
  12. Failing to signal a lane change.
  13. Walking away from police.
  14. Walking toward police.
  15. Running to the bathroom in your apartment.
  16. Walking up the stairwell of your apartment building.
  17. Sitting in your car before your bachelor party.
  18. Holding your wallet.
  19. Making eye contact.
  20. Attending a birthday party.
  21. Laughing.
  22. I don’t know.

We have finally reached the point, then, of abandoning even the flimsiest pretext. If the officer can’t think of any reason, even a totally implausible one, they can just shrug their shoulders and say “I don’t know,” i.e. “I guess I just felt like it.”

There’s a certain honesty to this. At least the officer didn’t pretend that Charles Kinsey deserved to be shot. He essentially just said “Because I am a cop, and you are black, and such is the nature of things.” Just as the lion must roar and the fish must swim, so must the police officer shoot when he sees a black man. It was simply impossible for the officer to imagine not shooting Charles Kinsey.

Of course, while the officer may not know his own reasons for shooting Kinsey, they’re not particularly difficult to figure out. The officer may have felt compelled to shoot Kinsey by an unseen force, but we know that the force has a name. (Racism.)

The Kinsey incident is egregious for a whole slew of reasons. First, there’s obviously the totally gratuitous racist act itself. Kinsey was shouting “Please don’t shoot me” and “All he has is a toy truck! I am a behavior therapist at a group home!” The fact that police even drew their weapons in such a situation is inexcusable, if predictable.

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Second, there’s the disability element. Kinsey said he was mostly worried for the safety of his patient, whose disability could have led him to react in ways that would have caused officers to become tense. Police officers are notoriously bad at handling people with mental illnesses, and up to half of those killed by law enforcement have disabilities. Whether choking a man with Down’s syndrome to death in a movie theater, or beating the life out of a homeless schizophrenic, police brutality toward disabled people is a national disgrace. (It is also why any movement against police killings needs to find a way to incorporate abuse of the disabled as well as race-based brutality.)

Finally, the Kinsey shooting is disturbing for what occurred afterward. Kinsey says he was less upset by the shooting than by the fact that, after it happened, police turned him on his back and handcuffed him while he was bleeding, instead of getting him medical attention. This is an aspect of police shootings that never gets sufficient discussion. The shootings themselves are frequently unjustified, but the failure to provide any medical assistance to a fully “neutralized” individual is never justified. Philando Castile was shot in the arm, but instead of rushing to his aid and getting him to hospital, the officer spent the time after the shooting pointing his weapon at Castile’s fiancée and shouting at her (before ultimately handcuffing and arresting her).

The same thing happened in the Tamir Rice killing. Rice was left to bleed to death as the officers stood around uselessly, again devoting their efforts to handcuffing Rice’s terrified wailing sister instead of taking measures that might have kept Rice alive. And when Eric Courtney Harris murmured “I can’t breathe” as he lay dying, shot by a 73-year-old reserve deputy, police officers replied by shouting “Fuck your breath” instead of administering medical help. Even if these shootings were justified (and they were absolutely not), the failure of police to make any effort to save a life would still be morally equivalent to murder.

At this point, it is difficult to be surprised by the existence of yet another horrifying video of a police shooting. But the Charles Kinsey incident is police brutality at its logically absurd endpoint. They don’t even know why they do it anymore. It’s just part of the job.

When Public Schools Disappear

Regardless of student performance, charter schools and vouchers may have other worrying consequences…

With last year’s 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, media coverage of New Orleans’ recovery also revived the debate over the city’s controversial all-charter school district. After the storm, New Orleans schools were entirely revamped, with 7,000 local teachers laid off, and the business of school administration turned over to private non-profits. The resulting system is unlike any other in the country, with traditional public schools having entirely disappeared.

Anyone looking to fair-mindedly assess the results of the New Orleans charter program faces a difficult task, since views of the experiment are strongly colored by partisanship. Conservatives think it is a wonder, a model of innovation and entrepreneurship that ought to be replicated across the country. George W. Bush hailed the New Orleans program as “amazing” and the Wall Street Journal said it proved that “disaster can be an opportunity.” Those on the left are more inclined to be skeptical, with an In These Times investigation deeming the program a “failure” that continues to produce low overall performance.

Some things are not in doubt. The graduation rates in New Orleans have jumped and the school system has gone from basically non-functional to basically functional. But it’s also true that the gains were extremely costly and have some troubling aspects: large amounts of outside money needed to be funneled in, and there are allegations that during early phases a lot of disabled and difficult students were excluded by dubious means, with the remaining public schools serving as “dumping grounds” for those who would drag down the reputation of the charters. Thus critics of the New Orleans system suggest that the numbers are misleading, that many children are being left out of the metrics.

It is common for debates over charters to focus on issues like these, examining whether the schools fulfill their stated promise. Do they in fact boost student performance significantly, or is this a bit of statistical sleight-of-hand? Much depends on how outcomes are measured, and while some make the case that charters work wonders, others see their impact as anything from neutral to catastrophic.

But discussions of performance are inevitably narrow. Even if there may be good reason to believe that charter performance is frequently mediocre or even poor, it’s important to also recognize that schools have functions and consequences beyond graduation rates. The welfare of students can be improved even as the welfare of teachers, parents, and communities is damaged.

Assessing charters properly requires assessing all costs, and when we do so, privatization looks worrying indeed. Crucially, charter proponents have spectacularly failed to deal with one of the most serious likely long-term consequences of education reform policies: the destruction of teaching as a viable middle-class profession. Jonathan Chait, in New York magazine, praised the New Orleans model for “break[ing] the traditional union model of teacher compensation,” eliminating job security guarantees that were not tied to measures of job performance. Chait blames “inflexible contracts” for the fact that the hiring process for teachers is less competitive than in other fields, and that American teachers tend to graduate lower in their college classes than their counterparts around the world. This rhetoric, that teacher tenure is killing the schools, has become one of the reformers’ most repeated clichés.

Yet there is a strange contradiction in this logic. After all, if teaching isn’t a competitive profession as it stands currently, how can reducing job security and benefits possibly make it more attractive? Education reformers want to rein in what they see as luxurious excesses in teacher compensation, yet speak in the same breath of attracting a talented pool of applicants. The two goals are in direct economic conflict; lower compensation means worse applicants, and there are already strong arguments that low teacher pay partially explains the talent deficit Chait laments. Thus the real likely outcome of education reform’s changes is that teaching will simply cease to be a realistic potential career; only inexperienced recent college graduates will be able to afford to live on teaching’s poverty-level salaries. The hardiest might stick it out for a few years, but as they begin to desire homeownership and a family, being a teacher will no longer remain an option. Indeed, in New Orleans, charter teachers burn out quickly; the punishing hours and workloads mean that few can hope to sustain a career, and many laugh at the idea of having children of their own while remaining a teacher. (This has contributed to the erosion of racial diversity among New Orleans teachers; during the city’s charterization, a majority-black workforce was thrown out and replaced with a majority-white one. The new model favors hiring young, white, wealthy recent college graduates on two-year stints, and retaining teachers of color is difficult once job security has been eliminated.)

Some education reformers remain optimistic that talent can still be attracted on this model. But the reasons they highlight are bleak. Neerav Kingsland, the former CEO of New Schools for New Orleans, was one of the prime movers behind the city’s charter experiment. He has written for the American Enterprise Institute that as more and more middle-class jobs are destroyed in the years to come, there will be plenty of highly skilled unemployed people. The unlivable low salaries therefore will not prevent the recruitment of excellent teachers, since higher pay simply won’t be available in any other sector. What’s striking is that this is the best answer education reformers have to the question of how to sustain the teaching profession. It’s a model predicated on misery: it’s true that teaching will offer guaranteed poverty, but fortunately mass unemployment will ensure that good people will be desperate enough to do it anyway.

That such an argument is seriously made in education reform circles should cause some deep reflection on the movement’s social implications. One of the other major oversights of education reform is its failure to consider the risks of spinning off government functions into unaccountable private entities. Chait describes this by saying that charters are controversial because “their structure cuts crossways through the liberal ideal of governance.” By this he means that liberals think public policy should be transparent and voted on democratically, but charters take major decision-making abilities away from the electoral sphere. Hence the complaints by New Orleans parents that even as school performance has improved, they feel totally shut out, tossed about by forces they cannot control.

Charter proponents know how wary people are of allowing standards to be determined privately rather than by voters. This is why a large controversy exists over whether to call charters “public” or “private,” with charter supporters insisting that the schools are public. But the label certainly adopts an unusual definition of the word; if entities that are both owned and managed privately are nevertheless public, so are all government contractors. The National Review said that charter schools are public because they are “paid for by the taxpayers,” but by this standard, so are Lockheed Martin and Princeton University.

Branding issues aside, it’s clear that the risks of private management are quite high. Amy Baral of the Roosevelt Institute has written about the way that charters enable the blurring between corporate and community interests. In Michigan, for example, 80% of charters are run for profit, meaning that students can expected to be treated and educated well solely to the extent that doing so makes money. And in both for-profit and non-profit charter schools, the incentive to meet standards by any means necessary can come at the expense of both teachers’ and students’ ultimate well-being. The competitive pressure explains why many charter schools adopt brutal and inflexible disciplinary policies, with students punished heavily for everything from coughing too much to wearing the wrong-colored shoes, and constantly being expelled to keep outcomes and budgets up. “Every kid is money,” as one New Orleans principal put it.

It’s also true that education reformers seem worryingly uninterested in meaningful community control. Kingsland of New Schools for New Orleans is scathing of those who believe in an autonomous and participatory model of schooling. “The future is not autonomy,” he writes. “The future is trust, risk, freedom, and accountability.” Kingsland is cynical about giving teachers increased flexibility, scoffing at the belief that “the magical moment is when you give an educator the chance to pick her math curriculum.” So much education reform rhetoric carries these authoritarian undertones, whether it is the emphasis on discipline or the suggestion that democracy is a mere inefficiency.

But there is a final major danger to education reform plans, one seldom noted, which is that even as it injects money into the school systems it touches, it ultimately clears political space for funding reductions that hurt poor children. It does this by strengthening the consensus that education should operate more like a marketplace and less like a basic universal guarantee. As the education reform movement has built power, it has emphasized the primacy of choice, which comes in the form of either charters or school vouchers, both of which are intended to create a miniature market where schools compete over students. The ultimate aim is to remove government entirely, what Jeb Bush called “total voucherization,” and proponents are open about wanting to “move from a government-operated school system to a nonprofit-operated school system.” This would not only change the way schools themselves operate, but would also change the way political conversations about schools operate.

Take the case of school vouchers. In their function, school vouchers are logically indistinguishable from food stamps. They are an in-kind benefit for the poor, redistributing wealth downward and subsidizing a basic good. Food stamps allow poor people to go to a grocery store and purchase food, school vouchers allow them to go to an educational institution and purchase learning. The two operate in precisely the same way. That might be a perfectly legitimate way to ensure a basic educational standard. But there will inevitably be political ramifications to the change. Food stamps themselves are highly controversial, because conservatives see them as an unearned subsidy to the poor. Last spring, congressional Republicans announced that they would be pushing hard to roll back food stamp benefits, on the grounds that they undermine the “dignity” that comes in “taking care of yourself.” Others spoke out against those who haven’t “contributed quite as much to society” being fed for free.

There’s no reason why this dynamic would not immediately replicate itself if education operated similarly. If food subsidies shouldn’t be guaranteed, why should educational ones? In fact, “education stamps” might be even more vulnerable to attack than their nutritional counterpart. Food is a more essential necessity of life than education, thus if conservatives reject arguments that food should be guaranteed on necessity grounds, they are even more likely to reject such arguments when deployed in favor of a right to schooling.

In fact, it’s easy to suspect that conservatives are not really in favor of vouchers, and that once public schools were fully abolished, the vouchers would be next to go. Milton Friedman even said something similar in his original proposal for school privatization. Though he strongly supported vouchers, Friedman was clear that the vouchers were only a way of getting the public to sign on to a fully-privatized system: “Vouchers are not an end in themselves; they are a means to make a transition from a government to a market system…” Friedman was perfectly honest about what the ends were, saying that ultimately “the privatization of schooling would produce a new, highly active and profitable private industry.” Friedman spoke of the advantages that businesses would get from a whole new crop of customers, and the wondrous efficiencies that would be introduced to education by a complete surrender to market forces.

A nightmare scenario is easy to picture. When education operates like food stamps, there will be pressure to cut spending on the grounds that they are a handout from the taxpayer (which they are). Just as conservatives consistently want to attach work requirements to other forms of welfare, a series of onerous conditions would be placed on poor people’s receipt of vouchers. The current system, with its absolute guarantee of schooling as a fundamental unconditional right, will quickly erode. In this situation, poor students would have to take the schooling they could afford. Most of the cheap or subsidized schools would probably be rudimentary job training centers, which only offered education in exchange for a student’s agreement to permanently indenture themselves to the school’s parent company. If this scenario seems far-fetched, remember that it’s exactly what already exists for other basic resources such as food and healthcare.

In assessing the school choice movement, it’s important to recognize both the successes of some charter schools and the dangerous, antidemocratic risks that they carry. The real worrying aspect of districts like New Orleans is less what they are right now than what they make possible for the near future. If charters run like their brochures say they do, and are decentralized, varied, open to all, then community-centered liberals should be fully in favor of them regardless of how they are classified. And it’s certainly exciting to see college preparatory programs blossoming in a city whose schools had traditionally been known for sitting firmly at the bottom of nearly every available ranking. But the gains in performance and graduation rates come with costs as well. They may well sacrifice the long-term viability of the teaching profession, and they risk destroying community control and opening education up to the same cost-slashing political pressure that food stamps are under. Before transplanting the New Orleans model nationwide, education reformers should contemplate the dark potential consequences of their political success.

How Turkey Used ISIS as a Weapon Against Kurdish Activists

The survivors of an ISIS bombing tell how the Turkish government has finally declared war… on ISIS’s victims.

In the days and even hours before the bomb went off, the atmosphere among Turkey’s young leftists had been hopeful, even upbeat. The country’s Islamist government had just failed to win a parliamentary majority, and socialist feminists in Kurdistan were managing to simultaneously keep the Islamic State, or ISIS, at bay and experiment with a new kind of local direct democracy. While some had worried that a violent backlash by the conservative ruling party might be brewing, the usual repression and harassment had somewhat ebbed. For the country’s progressives, it felt as if the region might at last be ready for a politics of secularism, environmentalism, and women’s rights.

The hundreds of student activists arriving in the southern city of Suruc last month were therefore feeling jubilant and encouraged. Coming by the busload to the Syrian border, they intended to conduct a humanitarian mission to the city of Kobani, which was still struggling to rebuild after its destruction and attempted occupation by ISIS. Kurds in northern Syria have recently worked with the US military to beat back ISIS’s advance, and have formed the most formidable front against the Islamic State. American officials are careful to specify that they work with the Syrian Kurds of the YPG, but not the closely aligned Turkish Kurds of the PKK, whose organization is banned in Turkey. Kobani’s resistance has been a major source of inspiration for the Turkish left, with autonomous municipalities in the Rojava region embodying the dual ideals of anti-Islamism and anti-capitalism. For young Turks weary of their country’s religious and autocratic leadership, Kurdistan’s experiments in self-governance were a promising realization of left-wing values.

On the morning of the trip, July 20, the group gathered in the garden of a cultural center in Suruc, and prepared to cross the border into Syria. They brought piles of boxes, filled with toys and baby care supplies for Kobani’s children, plus materials to construct a kindergarten and plant a forest. They milled about happily, drinking tea, singing songs, and making sure all of the paperwork for the trip was in order. People were raising a banner and taking pictures. In conversation, they spoke to each other of a new phase, in which Turks and Kurds would finally unite in democratic peace. On that warm Monday morning, it almost felt possible.

The bomb, however, would change everything.

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Oğuz Yüzgeç appears an unlikely candidate to help lead the movement of pro-Kurdish leftists in Turkey. He is a clean-shaven, bespectacled 23-year-old journalism student, warm and polite. He is not Kurdish himself, nor does he have any special personal connection to the cause. Oğuz says he became politicized at 14, when a government push to privatize schools caused him to think about youth issues and “made me feel as if the state was stealing our future.” At the same time, Oğuz says, as he gradually realized the extent of his government’s oppression of minorities, he committed himself to the struggle for democracy. Now, he co-chairs the Federation of Socialist Youth Associations (SGDF), which organized the aid mission to Kobani.

The SGDF’s goal is “freedom for the young,” and they describe themselves as ecological and anti-fascist in orientation. Oğuz strongly emphasizes the centrality of feminism to their mission, and a subdivision called the Red Stick Women organizes defense training against sexual harassment and rape. The SGDF has also dedicated itself to creating memorials for the victims of forgotten atrocities. The group recently built a memorial museum in remembrance of the 2011 Roboski airstrike, in which at least 34 Kurdish villagers were killed by a Turkish fighter jet dispatched to attack the PKK.

Being a leftist in Turkey has never been easy. Oğuz calls Turkey a country with a “history of its own war against its own people, a history of massacres,” with dissidents and minorities always heavily persecuted. Leftist groups, he says, face arrests, bans, and occasional killings. Indeed, in the lead-up to the Kobani trip, the police conducted raids on SGDF members’ homes, and smashed the stalls from which they hand out literature.

Activists also carry strong memories of Gezi Park. In 2013, when the government announced that a park in Istanbul would be turned into a shopping center, a small protest by environmentalists blossomed into a country-wide outpouring of dissent. In a remarkable act of rebellion, millions of people turned out to protest the authoritarian rule of Erdoğan. The Gezi Park uprising was met with a swift and violent backlash, during which multiple activists were killed, countless more were tear-gassed, and scores were arrested, including a number of SGDF members.

Yet up until a month ago, the usual grim situation for leftists had somewhat abated. The legacy of Gezi Park had helped to spur political opposition. Rallies for worker rights that would once have attracted dozens of people now attracted thousands. Gezi had been a debacle for the government, and outside of his ardent base of supporters, Erdoğan’s image was badly damaged. The post-Gezi political surge reached a high point in June, with an election in which the leftist, pro-Kurdish HDP party produced massive gains. AKP, the conservative ruling party, was unable to form a government.

The other exciting development for the left was Rojava, in Syria. A small region of Kurdistan along the Turkish-Syrian border, Rojava has been on the front lines of the Kurds’ battles with ISIS. But even as the Syrian Kurdish militia (the YPG) fought desperately to maintain control of the city of Kobani, the area was trying out a new form of vaguely socialist local governance. A visiting delegation of academics praised their “popular assemblies and democratic councils,” where “women participate on an equal footing with men at every level and also organize in autonomous councils, assemblies, and committees to address their specific concerns.” The anthropologist David Graeber called Rojava a “remarkable democratic experiment,” and an example to the left that needed defending.

Despite the signs of light, however, there were also ominous signs of escalating repression. In Istanbul, the annual gay-pride parade, which had proceeded unimpeded for 13 straight years, was immediately broken up by police, using tear gas and rubber bullets. “At the smallest demand for liberation or freedom, the state moves with massacres and attacks,” laments Oğuz.­­ Soon after the march, anti-gay posters began appearing in the capital city of Ankara, using Islamist language and giving an instruction to kill all homosexuals on sight. And with President Erdoğan eager to regain power in the next round of elections, and tensions building with the Kurds after their strong showing in June, there was a sense that conflict was on the horizon.

In the meantime, the city of Kobani was still in desperate need of support. Kobani’s infrastructure had been decimated by the ISIS occupation, and it was in need of both supplies and assistance in rebuilding. Seeing an opportunity, the SGDF began to organize a relief mission, timed to coincide with the anniversary of Kurdish control of Kobani. They held meetings in multiple cities, coordinated with authorities in Kobani, arranged buses and accommodation, and launched a massive publicity campaign.

The organizing effort was extraordinarily successful; hundreds of people volunteered. Sercan (who asked to be identified by his first name to protect his safety), a 28-year-old sociology PhD student, saw the event on Facebook and felt he had to go. “When I learned about the situation of Kobani and the Rojava Revolution,” he says, “I saw it as a very positive development and I thought it should be supported on a humanitarian and political basis…. I found it meaningful to go there.” Oğuz Yüzgeç himself was with a group from Istanbul, which took an 18-hour bus ride to Suruc, featuring periodic stops for dancing.

Also traveling to Suruc were Christopher Wohlers and Claire Keating, the sole Americans who would be present at the bombing. They had been visiting from Los Angeles, where she teaches high school and he is a physics tutor and an incoming radiation oncology student at Loma Linda University. Neither of them is either Turkish or Kurdish. But Christopher says he was compelled by a “region where people are experimenting with direct democracy, experimenting with socialist economy, with feminism.” While studying abroad at Middle East Technical University in Ankara, he was introduced to the young left in Turkey, and it energized him. When he saw the experiments in Rojava, he wanted to go back. Christopher calls the region the “bright spot of the results of the Arab spring,” and the closest existing embodiment of his libertarian socialist politics.

Christopher and Claire spent several weeks in Turkey before ending up in Suruc. Driving around the country in a rented sedan, they visited LGBT centers and a socialist bookstore. There was an atmosphere of tension among the young activists they met. “Everyone was waiting to see if the government would push the country to war,” says Christopher. But for leftists, fresh off the electoral victory, there was also a great deal of optimism and a sense of unified purpose. Claire describes meeting people from HDP, labor activists in Istanbul, LGBT activists in Ankara, social ecologists who were doing work around the reconstruction in Kobani. All of these groups finally felt as if they were part of the same enterprise, she says, making it “an incredibly hopeful political moment to be in Turkey. Political space was opening up that hadn’t existed before.” Traveling around, they saw a flurry of left-wing political activity, and in each city they visited, there were flyers promoting the trip to Kobani.

Arriving at the Suruc cultural center on the night before the Kobani trip, the two found what Claire describes as a “massive street celebration.” Their fellow activists were celebrating the Rojava anniversary with singing and line-dancing. The attendees were diverse, from Istanbul anarchists to Syrian refugee workers. One man had traveled from France, and a family with young children drove all the way from Switzerland, a distance of over 2,000 miles. Christopher and Claire enjoyed the fireworks and excitement for a while, then finished the evening in a café, where they tried some lung and spleen kebabs, and the owner told them with pride that Suruc was a city of the PKK.

The next morning, as the group gathered again at the cultural center to await the border crossing, the suicide bomb exploded. It killed 33 young activists and injured many others, and set off a chain of events that would destroy much of the Turkish left’s tentative political progress. The bombing was carried out by ISIS to send a message to those who would assist the Kurds in Kobani. But in its effects, the massacre benefited the ruling AKP party just as much as it did ISIS, creating a state of war in which the leftist victims of the bombing would be targeted a second time by the government.

Christopher, Claire, and Sercan escaped the blast through a fortunate inconvenience. Christopher and Claire had decided not to actually cross into Kobani, for fear the Turkish government might not let them back in once they had left. But Sercan was still going, and realized he ought to bring toilet paper, in case the war-torn city was in short supply. The three were leaving for the shop precisely at the moment of the explosion.

The garden of the cultural center, which had so recently been full of song and celebration, instantly became a scene of horrific carnage, with blood, limbs, and tattered SGDF flags scattered across the ground. The joyful rebuilding of Kobani was not to occur.

The immediate aftermath of the bombing was predictably gruesome and tragic. But one especially shocking aspect of it was the bizarre response of government forces. Within a few moments of the explosion, heavily armed police and tanks surrounded the cultural center. Yet instead of aiding the victims, they immediately aimed their weapons at the devastated survivors.

“They just pointed guns at people, but didn’t do anything at all,” says Sercan. As people tried to give first aid to the wounded, and carry them out of the cultural center, the police formed a blockade of armored vehicles at the exit, pointing machine guns at the crowd. The police, wearing full riot gear, closed rank and tried to keep anyone from leaving the area.

With hundreds of injured and traumatized bombing victims, the priority was to get as many people to hospital as fast as possible. But the officers stood motionless, their barricade keeping people from taking the victims to safety. Claire Keating says she was shocked to find herself suddenly confronted with hostile militarized police, many of whom stayed motionless in their vehicles. “You couldn’t even see their faces,” she says. “Nobody could communicate with them…. They were not emerging from the vehicles to help.” The police blocked off the road in front of the cultural center so nothing could get through, including the cars full of victims that people were attempting to drive to the hospital.

Instead, police began to fire tear gas at the victims. “People were trying to remove the injured and the dead,” says Oğuz, “but instead they were faced with police water cannons and gas bombs.” Claire says “it was clear that in their minds, we were the guilty ones.” Eventually, some of the survivors were allowed to take the wounded away, and ambulances showed up. But, Oğuz says, “the first reaction of the state was an indication of what was to come.”

The almost instantaneous appearance of the police directly after the attack, combined with their total eerie absence in the hours before (unusual for any kind of leftist demonstration), has raised some questions over whether the government had foreknowledge of the plot. The Suruc survivors insist there was no way for the Turkish government not to have had prior intelligence about ISIS’s intent. Oğuz says it is certain “that this attack took place with the knowledge of government forces,” since the surveillance levels in Suruc had been incredibly high. The government had known all of the names of people who were going on the trip, and the families of some SGDF members had received phone calls before the Kobani trip, warning them that their children were attempting to “join the terrorists” and risked arrest. Given the government’s tight control on social media, and the heavy presence of security around Suruc, it would have taken colossal oversight for the state not to have somehow been alerted to the risk.

But whether the government had direct knowledge or not, many still blame it for the attack, saying the President Erdoğan has turned a blind eye towards the Islamic State from the beginning. Erdoğan has consistently talked of ISIS and the PKK in the same breath, suggesting the real threat in the region is not the Islamic State but Kurdish autonomy. While the government has vowed to stop “terror” in all its forms, it is no secret that “terror” largely refers to the Kurdish movement rather than ISIS, and that Erdoğan is, as The New York Times puts it, “less interested in fighting the Islamic State than suppressing the Kurds.”

After the bombing, the fragile peace unraveled very quickly. A retaliatory attack by the PKK, which killed two Turkish police officers, ostensibly for supporting ISIS, came two days after the bombing. Since then, the government has operated in a state of quasi-war, violent clashes with the PKK intensifying, and a harsh domestic crackdown targeting anyone suspected of being aligned with “terror.”

The change was felt immediately. In the few days after the bombing, after Christopher and Claire left Suruc, they found that the Kurdish city of Diyarbakır had instantly been heavily fortified. Undercover officers were monitoring a small vigil there, and when Christopher attempted to take photographs of the gathering, police seized his phone. A peace march they attended in Istanbul was violently broken up by police. Claire found the experience bewildering. “It was very confusing to try to understand how this could possibly be the response of the government to an ISIS attack, to go in and treat the Kurdish community, which itself had been the target of this attack, as the criminals.”

For left-wing activists, this has meant an extraordinary new state of fear. Sercan says that “huge operations against leftists” have been occurring, and that while the government claims to have arrested hundreds of ISIS and PKK terror suspects, the vast majority of the arrested are pro-Kurdish leftists rather than Islamists. In the city where Sercan heads a local chapter of the HDP, 18 members of his party have been arrested. Oğuz says that numbers of home raids have sharply increased, targeting members of socialist groups, and that SGDF members have been rounded up and arrested. “Even the most legal and democratic actions can be deemed criminal activity,” Oğuz says, “and one can end up being detained or arrested.” Membership of SGDF or HDP can be deemed a terrorist activity.

“The state is using ISIS as an excuse for this, but doing nothing to arrest ISIS members,” he says angrily. This is not strictly true, since Turkey has arrested a number of suspected ISIS members in the last month. But it is the case that while suspected Kurdish militants are often fully prosecuted, ISIS members have a tendency to be released. Likewise, while much was made of Turkey launching its first strikes against ISIS on July 24, the country’s new supposed anti-ISIS resolve last only a single day. Since then, the country’s bombing campaigns have been entirely directed at the PKK instead of ISIS. This failure to adequately pursue ISIS infuriates Oğuz not just because the left is being targeted instead, but because the SGDF despises ISIS’s values, and sees it as an existential threat to the promise of Rojava. Oğuz calls them a “fascist gang” who are “at war with all humanitarian values,” and cites their heinous treatment of women as the direct enemy of his group’s feminist socialism.

But the opinions of those attacked in Suruc matter little to the Turkish government, which made clear its level of regard for the victims. The very day of the bombing, police tear gassed a protest in Istanbul held to condemn the government’s tacit support of ISIS. Then the government refused to declare a national day of mourning in honor of the victims, despite having declared three such days after the death of Saudi King Abdullah. The victims themselves have been offered no financial support or state recognition, and Oğuz says that a number of the victims’ families were refused access to their loved one’s bodies and permission to hold funerals, seemingly out of concern that the memorials would fuel opposition politics.

The belief that Erdoğan is escalating the conflict for political gain, attempting to build nationalist fervor to salvage his electoral position, especially angers them. Devrim Gündüz, a 19-year old physics student who was badly injured in the attack, and remains in hospital, is furious that the AKP government “dragged the country and our peoples to this situation just for its political gain.” After seeing so many of his friends killed, Devrim resents the fact that their deaths are being used to excuse the destruction of the cause they fought for.

In fact, politically speaking, the targeting of the SGDF by ISIS was extremely shrewd. A group of young Turkish socialists may have seemed an odd target for the group, which had been refraining from carrying out attacks within Turkey, but the consequences favored the Islamic State’s interests. The Turkish left’s attempt to build bridges with the Kurds received a heavy blow, and the Turkish government was given an excuse to escalate its assault on IS’s Kurdish enemies.

It is a tragic irony that the massacre of pro-Kurdish socialists could lead to further government repression of pro-Kurdish socialists, and that it is the victims of the bombing, rather than the perpetrators, who are now on the run. But in the eyes of the government, the leftists who were drawn to Rojava, and who were killed there in the dozens, are little more than terrorist sympathizers.

Yet anyone who speaks with these activists firsthand will find the description strange. They are radicals, to be sure, but radicals who detest all forms of oppression whether from ISIS, Turkey, or the United States. They praise revolution, but call fervently for peace. Sercan, though a self-described anarchist, is skeptical of the effectiveness of small armed attacks like those on the Turkish policemen, and believes the electoral victories are heartening.

For being socialists, their rhetoric is not particularly Marxist, perhaps because the tangles of the conflict are too intricate for the usual materialist dogmas. Rather, they talk of democracy and the liberation of women. They praise localism and community participation, often sounding more like ancient Athenians than turn-of-the-century Bolsheviks. Even the PKK itself has mellowed in recent years, its philosophy evolving from hardline communism to a more gentle kind of local democracy inspired by the Vermont “libertarian municipalist” thinker Murray Bookchin.

The survivors of Suruc are hopeful that these values will someday find a place in the world. “The general rule here,” Oğuz says slyly, “is that wherever the state attacks, that area or that group gets stronger,” and he boasts that SGDF membership has grown. Asked what outcome he ultimately wishes for, he replies that “in an ideal situation, different peoples in this region would live equally together in peace, where youths and women are free…and where capitalism doesn’t damage the environment.” Sercan says he believes “the Kurdish movement’s ideas will eventually go beyond the Kurdish population,” and notes the uniqueness of a national liberation movement that is also critical of the idea of the nation and the state. Finally, Devrim Gündüz, the hospitalized 19-year-old physics student, speaks for many when he insists that the bombing is not the end:

“My friend who was beside me before the explosion was hurled away, [and] was lying down 3-4 meters away. I could not feel my feet…. I did not know what to do…. I panicked, [but] I noticed something at that moment. [My friend] was only smiling…. smiling and hope and light was bursting out of his eyes…. [In the time since] the explosion, I have had numerous operations. My femur is broken in five places, I can’t walk, there is damage in my ankle, it gives me trouble, I lost one of my kidneys and spleen, [and] most importantly I lost my close comrades, but I have not lost one thing…I have not lost hope…. That bomb only had a physical impact, it has not affected our smiles, our resistance, or our dedication to our struggle.”