Wednesday, October 5, 2016


*Sigh*... You must have felt it too -- that twinge of nostalgia in watching the VP debate last night, when you saw Kaine and Pence up there, two chrome-plated monosyllabically-named bland middle-aged dudes with their matching ties (with the red for the Democrat and blue for the Republican, in a playful reversal that probably took some planning). I shed a silent tear, in regarding them, for the derisive left-wing blog post I might once have written, under different circumstances-- in a world, that is, in which these two and Hillary Clinton were our only candidates, and a certain hard-up real estate investor I could name did not exist -- or was safely confined to reality TV.

Ah ha! I would have said. Still further proof that the two major parties are just Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee! (and mostly Tweedle-Dum, as a wag once put it to me -- I forget who, but I know I can't claim credit for it). After all -- as has been widely noted in the press -- Pence spoke throughout the debate pretty much as if he were running for President himself and was free to offer his own opinions (which amount to pretty standard GOP fare, it turns out, noxious as that still is). Donald Trump did not appear to exist for him, at least not in any especially binding sense. And once we were taken back, as a result, to a contest between the usual trite GOP talking points and the usual trite Democratic ones, we could see how little difference there truly is between them.

We'll have comprehensive immigration reform! promises Kaine. And what this amounts to in the brass tacks is, as usual 1) an eventual path to legal status for some undocumented immigrants who are already here; 2) the usual bipartisan throwing of "criminals aliens" (often meaning in practice, say, someone stopped for a broken taillight who has a twenty-year-old marijuana possession charge on their record) to the wolves; and 3) increased "border security"-- which will mean more people forced to take life-threatening paths through the desert to avoid detection and that "recent border crossers," including asylum seekers (who will make up an ever increasing proportion of recent arrivals, by the way, as net migration from Mexico for economic reasons shrinks to zero or negative numbers) will continue to be subject to "expedited removal." (This latter form of deportation was a creation of a raft of anti-immigrant legislation passed in 1996, in the wake of the Oklahoma City Bombing (it turns out that scapegoating the nearest foreign-born population for terrorist attacks that had not even the most distant and chimerical connection to any non-U.S. citizen was a pattern in American politics long before 2016, I guess). What it means is that people apprehended at or near the border are denied the right to present their case to stay in the U.S. before an immigration judge (unless they pass a "credible fear" interview before an asylum officer, the determinations of which are not considered subject to challenge under habeus corpus), as is generally guaranteed to immigrants facing deportation under U.S. law.)

Pence fires back to all this: That's just amnesty! What he (and Donald Trump too, I guess, now implausibly enlisted under his standard) are going to do is totally different:

1) They are going to "secure the borders" (meaning, once again, driving more people to their deaths from exposure and thirst in the Arizona desert and deporting more recent arrivals without due process). As Pence puts this, in an idiosyncratic new twist, they are going to "secure the border, [... and] build a wall, beneath the ground and in the air." Huh? Has Trump's famous wall now become merely a spiritual wall, a metaphor, a barrier purely of the heart and of the mind? How else is it to be "in the air"? Or perhaps Pence and Trump are just building "castles in the sky" in a more literal sense than is usually the case with unrealizable political rhetoric.

2) Trump and Pence will "do internal enforcement, [... and] the focus has to be on criminal aliens." There they are again, those criminal aliens, those notorious "felons not families," whom all politicians, Democratic and Republican, are united to exorcise. (With the term "aliens," of course, conjuring in the minds of most listeners the image of little green men -- not the picture of the father of four with an ancient drug conviction or a mother with a DUI on her record who are the actual victims of this bipartisan policy consensus.)

3) Then comes Pence's most impenetrable utterance of the night: "[A]nd then Senator, I'll work with you when you go back to the Senate, I promise you. We'll work [with] you to reform the immigration system."

In short, they'll do exactly the same three things, these two, or at least that's what they'd have us believe. But with slightly different emphases. And one of them will dislike immigrants rather more strongly while doing it. Pence thinks you have to say "border security" first, not last, for instance, when outlining the policies. "[O]one of the last things you mentioned was border security," said Pence, as if to point out the shadow-play performance that this all really is, in case we had missed it. "[This is] the order that you should do it. Border security, removing criminal aliens, upholding with law, and then Senator, [...] reform the immigration system."

In other words, the great promise that both men are holding out to us is that things will continue along more or less in their current rotten way. The promise of some future Comprehensive Reform will forever be dangled in front of the undocumented population like some oft-delayed Millennium, while particularly egregious deportation cases from the interior continue to make the headlines but do not lead to substantive policy changes, and tens of thousands of others are invisibly detained or rapidly removed from the border without access to an attorney at the expense of the state or (in the case of recent arrivals) even a hearing before a judge.

This is not to say that there would be no difference between a Kaine or Pence Administration in practice (continuing our conceit that it is they who are running for President, not the actual heads of their respective tickets). Whatever may be the faults of mainstream Democrats like Kaine, they are not likely to do what Gov. Pence attempted last year in Indiana, for instance, when he blocked funding to resettlement agencies so as to prevent refugees from Syria (specifically) from coming to the state (a move at once racist and just plain baffling on any but the most cynically demagogic grounds. Perhaps we are meant to think that the secret ISIS agents Pence had conjured up in his scurrilous imaginings would be willing to spend years in a refugee camp and in the U.S. security screening process in order to carry out their attacks, but would balk at the trouble of crossing state lines to enter a place where they would not receive fully-funded integration services). Pence failed in this, thankfully. Even a bench of conservative justices concluded that his executive orders were blatantly discriminatory, the day before the debate.

As extreme as Pence's views might actually be in practice (and it's hard to get more extreme than instituting discrimination on the basis of national origin by executive fiat, in obvious violation of all civil rights law, the 14th amendment, and the words of the Refugee Act itself), his debate with Kaine does show how narrow is the ground, at least in rhetoric, upon which our two major parties have traditionally waged their sorties. Last night was a throw-back to the days when everyone was saying the same things from the debate stage, but in slightly different orders; when the Democrats would say: Of course my opponent is correct that [insert sop to right-wing voters]; but we need to [what the speaker actually thinks]. And the Republican would say the same, only with the two bracketed items reversed.


"But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends," (Millay), don't be fooled. It is just that -- a throwback; don't forget what election year you are actually living through. You may recall that Pence and Kaine are in fact not the two candidates for president this race, however tempting it may have been to forget that last night. There is an elephant in the room -- and it's not the GOP. It is something else, some new monstrosity.

Our "I'm voting for a Third Party Candidate" friends will, of course, deny it at this point, and ever after. They are still conceiving of this as yet another Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee election. They have never expanded their frame of reference; they have no longer list of historical examples. They are unspeakably tiresome in consequence. They will urge no end of superhuman virtues in Jill Stein's defense, that she will abolish student loan debt with a stroke of the pen; that she will legislate universal health care.

And reading Hazlitt's Table-Talk the other day, I found that he had met this sort of person too. He writes:
Of all people the most tormenting are those who bid you hope in the midst of despair, who, by never caring about anything but their own sanguine, hair-brained Utopian schemes, have at no time any particular cause for embarrassment and despondency because they have never the least chance of success[.]
He was speaking, in his day, of Shelley and some of his kindred reformers, but this applies as well -- better, actually, some of us Shelley enthusiasts might insist -- to the anti-vax, anti-GMO, post-Occupy Jill Stein voter of 2016. I mean, friends, don't get me wrong -- I enjoy a good dose of moral-purity-at-the-expense-of-any-chance-of-impact as much as the next leftist, but even I have my limits. It is probably true that total debt forgiveness for the young will fare as poorly under Clinton as under Trump. But if we care about something other than that, as Hazlitt pleads that we should, something less impossible of any success; if we can recognize that having Tweddle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee elections, year after year, is aggravating, but not after all the worst of all possible options, in a world that has also seen dictators and demagogues rise to power by popular vote -- then you will join me, I am sure, in sighing at the memory of our lost Zion -- er, Babylon, really -- that was on display in the debate last night.

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