Associate Professor of English, University of Michigan-Flint. I research and teach rhetoric and writing.
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When It Comes to Immigration, Political Centrism is Useless

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With Trump in office, things can seem absurdly bleak. But after Republicans lost the House, it became clear that Trump’s first two years were for nativists a critical opportunity to reshape the contours of the American demos. And they blew it: Republicans had total control of government yet legislative cuts to legal immigration went nowhere. Meanwhile, Democratic voters are moving sharply left in the face of accelerating Republican extremism. The percentage of Americans calling for a decrease in legal immigration has plummeted since the early 2000s—particularly but not exclusively among Democrats. Indeed, since 2006 Democratic voters have swung from a strong plurality supporting legal immigration cuts to a stronger plurality backing increased legal immigration.

In promoting attacks on “illegal immigration” and militarizing the border, establishment politicians from both major parties inflamed popular anti-immigrant sentiment. But they helped move the Overton window so far right that it snapped loose of its bipartisan frame, prompting vociferous resistance on the left. The war on “illegal immigrants” was based on a bipartisan consensus. It is becoming very partisan. That’s good.

As nativists well know, immigration means that we the people is increasingly made up of people who don’t look like Trump and his base. And they correctly worry that immigration is driving a large-scale demographic transformation that could ultimately doom the conservative movement—a prospect that the most honestly racist figures on the far-right call “white genocide.” Non-white people disproportionately vote Democrat—a trend gravely exacerbated by unconstrained Republican racism that has alienated even wealthy and economically conservative non-white people. Demographics aren’t destiny. But thanks to the foundational role that racism plays in American capitalism, they do mean quite a bit.

In August 2019, Trump finally implemented an aggressive attack on legal immigration, expanding the definition of what makes an immigrant “likely to become a public charge” and thus excludable from the country.28 The rule further empowers immigration officers to deny entry to poor and working-class immigrants, particularly from Latin America, or to deny immigrants already in the country a green card. The rule radically expands a provision of US immigration law dating back to the Immigration Act of 1882 and, before that, to New York and Massachusetts’s enforcement targeting Irish paupers. The Migration Policy Institute predicts that the rule “could cause a significant share of the nearly 23 million noncitizens and U.S. citizens in immigrant families using public benefits to disenroll.” And visa denials under Trump had already skyrocketed before the new rule was in place.

It is unclear how profoundly the rule will reshape either the size or the class, national, and racial makeup of legal immigration. But regardless, the new rule is a reflection of Trump’s inability to secure cuts or changes to legal immigration in Congress. The rule will very likely be rolled back under even a milquetoast Democratic president. The same holds true with Trump’s deep cuts to refugee admissions, and the draconian proposal pushed by some in his orbit to cut admissions to zero. Trump is effectively terrorizing migrants in the present but failing to secure the enduring legislative change that would outlast his presidency.

There is no majority constituency today for enacting such legislation—nor any viable institutional vehicle for it. Whatever opportunity existed to leverage a white-grievance-fueled presidency toward a full nativist program has faded even as the right clings to power thanks to the system’s profoundly anti-democratic features. The left is nowhere near winning. But it is at long last emerging as a real force in clear conflict with both the Trumpist right and the center that facilitated its rise.

Extreme polarization, the establishment’s bête noire, is in fact the only solution to the long-standing bipartisan agreement that immigration is a problem for enforcement to solve.

For Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Obama, Biden, Feinstein, Schumer, and a host of other Democrats, a measure of nativism was useful. Quite a bit more than that has proven necessary for Republicans. But too much nativism is a problem: no rational capitalist favors shutting out exploitable migrant labor. As Karl Marx wrote in The Eighteenth Brumaire, political stances that seem rooted in principle are in reality founded—if often in indirect, unconscious, and obscure ways—in “material conditions of existence.” This is no doubt the case here.

The United States has undergone decades of enforcement escalation, fashioning a useful scapegoat for neoliberalism and empire while maintaining a segmented labor market. But business frequently lost too, most spectacularly with the repeated defeat of comprehensive immigration reform. Business wants the undocumented to be legalized and guest workers who provide the benefits of undocumented labor without the risk. But what perhaps best reflects—but by no means exclusively reflects—the power of business is what hasn’t happened: deep legislative cuts to authorized immigration have been consistently off the table for more than two decades. This has been the case since the 1996 legislation to slash legal immigration was defeated in favor of a law to persecute undocumented immigrants and “criminal aliens.” The immigration debate has taken on a bizarre and contradictory life of its own. The unspeakability of cuts to authorized immigration, and the failure to impose effective employer sanctions and employment verification systems reveal that immigration policy was still tethered, narrowly but firmly, to the interests of capital. With Trump, full nativism is spoken. But substantial immigration reductions still cannot pass Congress.

A full examination of the complex role of business, the rich, and their various factions during the past two decades of immigration politics is yet to be written. Some of its basic contours, however, are clear. For one, the capitalist class has become recklessly polyphonic. Lumpen-billionaires like the Mercer family and the Koch brothers have spent vast amounts to promote their ideologically distinct priorities rather than those of the collective. The Tanton network is a case in point: it received more than $150 million since 2005 from the Colcom Foundation, founded by the late Mellon heir Cordelia Scaife May. Ironically, independent right-wing oligarchs who pursue idiosyncratic agendas now rival the Chamber of Commerce for influence thanks to the policy achievements of groups like the Chamber of Commerce, which helped those oligarchs make and keep their billions. But does establishment big business even care about immigration anymore?

Political scientist Margaret Peters argues that productivity gains and globalization’s facilitation of an overseas supply of low-wage labor has led to a lessening of business’s need for immigrant workers, resulting in more restriction. The evidence for this, however, is mixed. On the one hand, business has not won a major legislative expansion of immigration since 1990. But it has also not suffered a major defeat. What’s clear is that business can tolerate border security theatrics and the demonization of “criminal aliens,” and is content to exploit undocumented workers. As anthropologist Nicholas De Genova writes, “It is deportability, and not deportation per se, that has historically rendered undocumented migrant labor a distinctly disposable commodity.”34 Business opposes dramatic cuts to authorized immigration, effective employer sanctions, and mandatory employee verification. Business prefers legalization, but that doesn’t rival priorities like tax cuts and deregulation; if it did, business would abandon the Republican Party. The roles played in immigration politics by business interests with various and often bipartisan attachments require further research, which will in turn help to clarify the woefully under-studied sociology of ruling class power more generally.

Meanwhile, business’s hold on the Democratic Party has come under intense assault. The war on “illegal immigrants” that accelerated in the 1990s is facilitating a realignment of left-of-center politics in favor of a diverse, immigrant-inclusive working class in opposition to war, neoliberal oligarchy, and hard borders. The post–Cold War dominance of carceral neoliberalism had made such a popular coalition impossible; the exhaustion of that model signaled by the 2008 crisis has made it astonishingly credible. Record deportations and a radicalizing racist right triggered a revolt among the Democratic Party’s young and increasingly diverse base. That base has along with much of American public opinion moved to perhaps the most staunchly pro-immigrant position in American history—and, in doing so, toward a radically inclusive vision of the American working class. Amid a post-Recession boom in labor militancy, that portends trouble for the entire political establishment and the racist and oligarchic order it protects.

Trump’s election set that trajectory into overdrive, rendering opinions on immigration a basic proxy for one’s partisan allegiance. Border militarization that once garnered bipartisan support is now the polarizing Wall. Obama’s brutal migrant detention centers have under Trump been labeled “concentration camps.” The number of Republicans who believe that the United States risks losing its national identity if the country welcomes immigrants from the world over has increased since Trump’s election.35 At the same time, Democrats have become more hostile to enforcement. In 2010, 47 percent of Democrats said that they equally prioritized a pathway to legalizing undocumented immigrants and “better border security and stronger enforcement of immigration laws,” while just 29 percent prioritized a pathway to legalization alone. By 2018, the number prioritizing legalization alone skyrocketed to 51 percent. As the war on immigrants kicked into high gear in 1994, just 32 percent of Democrats and 30 percent of Republicans agreed that immigrants strengthened the country. By 2016, the share of Democrats who said so had surged to 78 percent.

Extreme polarization, the establishment’s bête noire, is in fact the only solution to the long-standing bipartisan agreement that immigration is a problem for enforcement to solve. Demanded and rejected, oppressed and expelled, this country’s many others have long insisted that the promise of American freedom, designed for if never truly delivered to white settlers, belongs to them too because they too are the people. And contrary to what Trump’s presidency might suggest, a growing number of Americans agree and are turning against nativism and war. Racism is, as the remarkable number of Americans embracing socialism understand, an obstacle to freeing everyone.

The issue of borders is, in turn, a simple one in principle for socialists: borders are a nationalist enterprise and thus incompatible with an internationalist workers’ creed. Migration is a symptom of social violence when it is compelled by poverty, war, or climate change. But moving to faraway and strange places is often a beautiful journey too, one nurtured by love, adventure, and the drive for self-determination and realization. Migration should be free and the choice to migrate should be freely made. The border does not protect Americans against cultural change, economic insecurity, and terrorism. It bolsters a system of global inequality that harms people everywhere by dividing them.

If Democrats stick to the center on immigration, they will find themselves fighting on two fronts.

Even with public opinion moving rapidly to our side, border controls will not fall anytime soon. To chip away at them, we must understand their historical particularity. The legal right to travel was, for most white people, a basic one for much of American history. It remains so for wealthy people, particularly those with passports from rich countries. Border controls arose in the United States not out of any neutral law enforcement principle but to exclude Asians, Jews, Italians, Latinos, blacks, Muslims, and other Others in the service of an exploitative and expansionist empire. Our land borders began to harden only alongside the rise of industrial capitalism, and were only militarized in recent decades.

If Democrats stick to the center on immigration, they will find themselves fighting on two fronts. A fight against Republicans, with the left at their back, will be far easier to win—and a more noble victory. Simple realism dictates that no legislation to grant citizenship to millions will be passed until Republicans are defeated. There’s no use trying to appease them. The bipartisan consensus supporting harsh immigration and border enforcement has fractured. Democratic elected officials need to catch up or be defeated too. It’s the task of the left to accelerate the nascent split, demanding radical reforms that correspond to our dream of a world where no human being is illegal. We must transform nation-states so that they no longer divide workers but instead are conduits for the democratic control of our social, economic, political, and ecological futures.

We must urgently develop demands for policies that will not create an open border overnight but a radically more open border soon. The border must be demilitarized, which would include demolishing the hundreds of miles of already existing wall and dramatically downsizing the Border Patrol. Criminal sanctions on illegal entry and reentry and the public charge rule must be repealed. Links between ICE and local law enforcement created by Secure Communities and 287(g) must be broken. Opportunities for legal immigration, particularly from Mexico and Central America, must be expanded. The right to asylum must be honored. And citizenship for those who reside here must be a stand-alone cause, unencumbered by compromises that are not only distasteful but also politically ineffectual—and that today would provoke opposition from both the nativist right and the grassroots left.

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all american nativism

Excerpt from All-American Nativism: How the Bipartisan War on Immigrants Explains Politics as We Know It by Daniel Denvir, published by Verso Books. Copyright © 2020 by Daniel Denvir.

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A War Fueled By Global Warming

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The region between Chad, Niger, Nigeria and Cameroon is dominated by violence, poverty and hunger and it is home to one of the most complex humanitarian crises in the world. Now, climate change is intensifying the problem.

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Vox on how misinformation overwhelmed our democracy

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"democracy cannot function without a shared understanding of reality"
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How people came to believe that individual choices could save the Earth

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It was the late 1980s, and the headlines warned of acid rain, air pollution, and contaminated water. So John Javna, then a writer best known for books found on the back of toilets, traveled from drought-stricken California to Washington, D.C., with his backpack, looking for practical advice on how to save the world.

About to turn 40, Javna had written the bestselling Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader series, full of trivia like the origin stories of Silly Putty and Gatorade. But this time he wanted to write something that would ease his fear that the world was falling apart. He showed up at the offices of the big environmental groups in D.C., collecting books and pamphlets full of eco-friendly tips (pre-internet, such things were harder to find) to cobble together a book full of green advice. Javna remembers being told by one environmental advocate that he was wasting his time.

His publishers weren’t fond of his idea, either. So in November 1989, without fanfare, Javna self-published the book he’d written in his attic in California: 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth. The guide featured “unbelievable easy” steps, like installing low-flow showerheads and bringing cloth bags to the grocery store.

And then, seemingly out of nowhere, the book became a cultural phenomenon. With sales buoyed by media coverage and events surrounding Earth Day’s 20th anniversary in 1990, 50 Simple Things topped bestseller lists. It went on to sell 5 million copies and was translated into 23 languages, including Turkish and Bulgarian. The popularity spurred more than a dozen spinoffs in the 50 Simple Things series — including a kids’ version that Chelsea Clinton read growing up in the White House — that in the end sold just as many copies as the original.

“It was a pretty odd experience,” Javna said. “You’re sitting there doing the same thing you’ve always done, and suddenly the whole world starts looking at you, jumping up and down, and calling you on the phone.”

50 Simple Things had its share of critics, inspiring a genre of takedowns. They argued that meaningful change required complex and large-scale policy changes, not simple fixes. In 1991, Gar Smith wrote the article “50 Difficult Things You Can Do to Save the Earth,” featuring hardcore tips (“go to jail for something you believe in”) and calls for collective action (“pass a nature amendment to the U.S. Constitution”). Several years later, J. Robert Hunter wrote Simple Things Won’t Save the Earth, arguing that the growing popularity of eco-friendly products and habits gave people the false impression that environmental crises were being solved.

By the mid-90s, Javna had joined the critics. “I had this vision that it would be a gateway, an entry point, for people, and that they would get more and more involved,” he said. “After a few years, it was quite clear that they weren’t.” People were just snipping their plastic six-pack rings, feeling a little better about themselves, and calling it a day.

50 Simple Things was featured on the front page of USA Today, January 24, 1990. John Javna

So Javna pulled his book from print and moved his family to rural Oregon, where he still lives today, two decades later. He even stopped taking his own eco-friendly tips.

“What did it matter if I recycled paper, if the ancient forests were still being chopped down?” Javna wrote in reflection in 2008. “Who cared if I celebrated ‘no car day’ when 80 percent of the cars on the road had one person in them? There was mercury in the air, and tons of waste was being dumped in the ocean daily. Every time I looked in the garbage and saw a pile of aluminum cans, I felt like giving up.”

While many climate activists today are demanding an entire overhaul of the economy and political system, they continue to wrestle with their personal contributions to the climate crisis: air travel, meat-eating, driving a car. At this year’s Golden Globe Awards — where the menu was completely vegan and glasses of water replaced plastic bottles — celebrities called on each other to step up. “It’s great to vote, but sometimes we have to take that responsibility on ourselves and make changes and sacrifices in our own lives,” said Joaquin Phoenix, who won Best Actor. “We don’t have to take private jets to Palm Springs for the awards.”

Individual responsibility for the environment has become what Javna calls “the wallpaper of culture” — taken for granted. Despite selling nearly as many copies as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the book that launched a wave of awareness around the pesticide DDT in the 1960s, 50 Simple Things has been largely forgotten by the public. The book doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page. Yet it might have changed how millions of people think about their role in environmental destruction — and how they act in response.

Sidewalk art from Earth Day 1990. Ron Bull / Toronto Star via Getty Images

In 2006, Javna’s 13-year-old daughter, Sophie, asked him why their family didn’t compost anymore. “You should care about this stuff!” she remembers thinking. “You’re like the person who should care.”

Sophie was close to her dad growing up. They’d go on walks on the trail behind their house in Ashland, talking about life, and as she got more excited about recycling and farmers markets, she started getting on his case. Her conversations with her dad prompted him to revive the long-dead book and rewrite it in collaboration with his kids, with a new focus.

“It dawned on me that I couldn’t afford to be cynical — I had to keep trying to make the world better — because I love my son and daughter, and because I love this planet,” Javna wrote in the introduction to the revised 2008 edition of 50 Simple Things.

The new book was still broken into steps but encouraged readers to pick one cause — like bringing back the electric car or saving coral reefs — and get involved with environmental organizations, pressure companies to do better, and lobby their legislators for their cause. In other words, no more slacktivism.


The idea that individuals could help fix the planet’s overwhelming environmental problems was already part of the American psyche in 1970, the year of the very first Earth Day, when 20 million Americans joined in the events. Across the country, demonstrators demanded that politicians clean up the air and water, and the ensuing decade brought the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency along with the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act, along with scores of environmental regulations.

“In 1970, everyone took for granted that tough laws were needed to protect and clean up the environment,” said Adam Rome, professor of environment and sustainability at the University of Buffalo.

The flurry of environmental action books that came out in the early 1970s included practical advice, like how to make your own soap, but they tended to conclude with a stirring call for citizens to demand large-scale change. The children’s book S.O.S. Save Our Earth, published in 1972, ends with a section telling kids to send postcards with examples of pollution to their city council, members of Congress, and the Interior Department, responsible for overseeing national parks and forests.

And then came the 1980s, a tough decade for the environmental movement. Ronald Reagan’s two-term presidency, in its zeal to unleash the free market, eroded faith in government action. “It was eight lost years — years of lost time that cannot be made up and where a lot of damage was done that may not be reparable,” George T. Frampton Jr, then-president of the Wilderness Society, told the New York Times in 1989, the same year that Javna self-published 50 Simple Things.

The era brought a shift in how Americans thought of themselves — not so much as citizens but as consumers who could vote with their spending power.

The strategy of boycotting Coca-Cola for its involvement in apartheid South Africa ended up working in 1986, when the company withdrew its operations from the country. Throughout the 1990s, Nike faced boycotts over low wages and poor working conditions in its factories. Environmentalists thought something similar could work for them. The focus shifted from collective action to consumer action: pushing businesses to be more sustainable and living a greener lifestyle.

A Dear Abby column from July 1990 called 50 Simple Things  “required reading for everyone entering the 21st century.” John Javna

In his introduction to the original 50 Simple Things, Chris Calwell of the Natural Resources Defense Council, wrote that institutions alone couldn’t solve environmental problems, but the sum of millions of people taking action just might. “My trash, your use of inefficient cars, someone else’s water use — all make the planet less livable for the children of today and tomorrow. But remember: as much as we are the root of the problem, we are also the genesis of its solution. Go to it!”

That kind of thinking had it backwards, Rome said. “Only people who had been worn out from a decade of fighting would say that, because it’s obviously the opposite of what you need to say. Until institutions change, we aren’t going to solve any of these problems.”


After the Javnas finished rewriting 50 Simple Things in 2008, they turned their focus to the food system. Sophie now lives in Minneapolis and serves on the Equity, Inclusion, and Justice committee of the national branch of Slow Food, an organization working for a cleaner, fairer food system. And during the Great Recession, when Javna’s local food bank in Ashland announced it might have to close some days, he decided to do something about it.

“My neighbors would be perfectly willing to give something if it was made easy for them,” Javna remembers thinking. So he helped develop a system to go door-to-door to pick up food, which turned into the Ashland Food Project in 2009. It’s still going today. Donors fill a green bag with nonperishable food once every two months and put it outside their front door. The neighborhood coordinators pick up the bags and deliver them to local food banks. The idea is that each person does a small part — a “simple thing” — but understands that their part is just as essential as everyone else’s.

“We hope that this will become a different kind of paradigm in grassroots action,” Javna said. The project has brought millions of pounds of food to local food banks, with nearly a quarter of households in Ashland participating. The model has spread to dozens of communities, spawning independent Food Projects from the West Coast to Massachusetts, Kentucky, and Florida.

50 Simple Things taught me that you can do something small in your attic, and it can have this unexpected impact on other people,” Javna said. With his work in Ashland, he’s spent the last decade figuring out how to design a system for social change that makes it easy and compelling for people to stay involved instead of losing steam. “You take somebody’s impulse to do something on their own and combine it with other people’s impulse to do it on their own, and engineer a system that makes it possible for each of them to play a part in creating a bigger impact,” he said.

John Javna

Two decades after 50 Simple Things came out, the environmental movement is gaining momentum again. Or rather, “Momentum” — a relatively new organizing strategy that’s influenced the Black Lives Matter movement as well as climate activism groups like Extinction Rebellion and the Sunrise Movement. It offers a blueprint for sustaining social movements, instead of watching them peter out after a protest or two. As Rebecca Leber wrote for Mother Jones, the idea behind it is to come up with a narrative of what you want to accomplish, attract a wider base through protests, and then round up eager new members to join in-person trainings. Filling city streets with one well-attended march is just the beginning, rather than the end goal.

“In the end, if anything works, it’s not spreading yourself as thin as possible and doing the easiest possible things,” Javna said. The path to success, he believes, is joining a community of people trying to change something for the better — and if the system is set up effectively, then doing the right thing becomes simple.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline How people came to believe that individual choices could save the Earth on Jan 16, 2020.



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Dead Birds Washing Up by the Thousands Send a Warning About Climate Change

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A new study unravels the mystery of what caused so many of these normally resilient seabirds to starve amid an ocean heat wave fueled in part by global warming.

David Irons was driving past a beach in Whittier, Alaska, on New Year's Day four years ago when something caught his eye. It was an endless line of white lumps near the water's edge—piles of something that shouldn't be there.

They were dead sea birds, and the bodies were everywhere. "I just couldn't believe it," said Irons, a recently retired biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "We started counting them, and we just counted a section and we got to 1,500."

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Predictable Identities 24: Anti-Identity

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Start building your identity by identifying as someone who doesn't have one.
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