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Horror Stories

Horror Stories

It’s been two weeks since a whistleblower complaint involving the Irwin County Detention Center (ICDC), an ICE detention facility in Georgia, was first reported in The Intercept. The complaint, prepared by the advocacy and research organization Project South and sent to officials in the Department of Homeland Security, leaned on the testimony of several incarcerated women and staff nurse Dawn Wooten to paint a picture of wanton disregard for the life and health of the people in custody.

The public backlash was broad, swift, and almost completely detached from the bulk of the allegations, fixating on one particularly visceral claim about female detainees being given hysterectomies—the removal of the uterus and potentially other sex organs—without consent or adequate explanation. It was a grisly detail that was instantly distorted into a nationwide conspiracy before any additional reporting could occur. A feedback loop between social media, the take industrial complex, and breathless rewrite media spit out blood-curling conclusions: mass hysterectomies, an indiscriminate ICE sterilization scheme, a eugenics program implemented at high levels of government. Ultimately, none of these contentions could be backed up by any evidence. The hospital where the hysterectomies took place has now said it was the site of only two procedures in recent years, and even assuming this is an undercount, as of now no other facilities have been the target of similar accusations.

I don’t doubt that these overheated responses were manifestations of genuine outrage, but I wonder if those most strident in their dismay are aware that hundreds of ICDC detainees are also being sandwiched together during a pandemic, routinely denied Covid-19 tests, that Wooten claims medical requests were shredded and records fabricated, and that detainees with pre-existing conditions are denied treatment and medicine, all under the auspices of the for-profit prison enterprise LaSalle Corrections. All of these alleged abuses are also part of the complaint and, more broadly, the well-documented canon of the country’s detention systems, be they civil or criminal.

There’s a widespread but latent strain of thought that views inhumanity as a distasteful but ultimately unavoidable part of the immigration system, and the system itself as a sad inevitability.

I have personally spoken to a legal permanent resident who was almost killed by easily removable gallstones after ICE personnel refused to schedule the surgery in detention; an asylum seeker who developed anemia from lack of proper nutrition while in detention and was part of a group abruptly transferred away from their attorneys in retaliation for protesting their detention conditions; a man in a federal noncitizen prison whose concerns about losing his penis to a rare but treatable condition fell on deaf ears. At that same prison, I investigated the case of an elderly man who died of Covid-19 complications after staff refused any significant treatment; they subsequently lied to the other detainees about his cause of death.

Every reporter on the beat has stories like this, a never-ending stream of grotesque medical neglect for immigrants in government custody, but this state of affairs is perhaps too “normal,” too quotidian for the public’s sensibilities. There’s a widespread but latent strain of thought that views inhumanity as a distasteful but ultimately unavoidable part of the immigration system, and the system itself as a sad inevitability. According to this worldview, discrete and intentional acts of depravity are an abhorrent deviation from the baseline, but the baseline of callous indifference is just how things are. It’s white noise.

There is no minimizing the cruelty of a forced hysterectomy, and even one would be far too many. Yet additional reporting has backed up what many immigration reporters suspected when the allegations first came to light: this was an isolated case of a rogue gynecologist who, for reasons ideological or financial, subjected helpless patients to unnecessary and non-consensual surgical procedures that left them sterile. There is no national conspiracy, not for this anyway. Yet the report has prompted a hashtag with hundreds of posts, a host of sensationalist headlines, inquiries by Homeland Security, and even made the leap to widely-shared twee Instagram-aesthetic image macro—a level of attention and scrutiny that the many people who have experienced years-long, pervasive lack of care in detention did not enjoy. Last week, BuzzFeed News’ Hamed Aleaziz reported on the death of a sixty-one-year-old man who was ordered released from prison on humanitarian grounds, only to be transferred into ICE custody where he subsequently died of Covid-19. I haven’t seen any hashtags, and the House Speaker isn’t calling for an inquiry there.

To close observers, the latest spectacle of righteous indignation featured eerie parallels with the public response to the infamous 2018 zero tolerance policy, which took advantage of a rarely used federal criminal statute against illegal entry to forcibly separate families of asylum seekers arrested at the southern border. In a sea of horrors, this policy stood out as remarkably twisted, and it rightfully produced a wide-ranging backlash. Yet the liberal conception of immigration abuses seemed to get stuck there, and the “kids in cages” mantra became the be-all end-all of its agitation, even as in the background the administration has moved decisively to gut asylum altogether. “Kids in cages” is still the go-to cudgel for people who want to perform shock at the brutality of the administration’s immigration policies without quite knowing what those are. Most of those currently deploying it for effect—often accompanied by urgings to #vote, presumably so they can promptly tune it all out again under a different administration—probably don’t realize that by and large no asylum seekers are getting put in cages anymore; most are simply expelled from the country without the chance to tender an asylum application at all.

If your understanding of the United States is that it is fundamentally good and virtuous, there may be a sort of sordid comfort in dwelling on overt and purposeful transgressions.

In both 2018 and today, the spark that lit up the public imagination was the ability to draw an obvious parallel between contemporary immigration practices and remote, historical atrocities, especially the Holocaust. There is no shortage of discourse comparing ICE agents and their many subcontractors to Nazis, invoking the specter of the nation’s most plainly evil foreign enemies and in doing so depicting these agents of the state as some sort of historic rupture, an outgrowth of the current administration’s singular malevolence. I’m not the first to point out that this is myopic, casting aside a rich, homegrown tradition of systematic eugenics and genocidal violence, including forced sterilization. Yet the rush to latch on to these exceptionally vivid cultural and historical signifiers—separating children from their parents, taking away a woman’s bodily autonomy and terminating her ability to reproduce—betrays not just ignorance, but a willful ignorance of the banal and persistent force that has been crushing detained immigrants, and people in government custody more generally, uninterrupted for decades.

Through this lens, the outrage becomes somewhat suspect: What is its purpose, really? If it winds up fixating on a handful of conspicuously loathsome phenomena at the expense of everything else, is it actually serving the vulnerable people at the center of the maelstrom, or is it a cathartic balm to soothe the bruised nationalism of the American moderate? Public pressure led ICE to announce that detainees at ICDC would no longer be taken to see Dr. Mahendra Amin, the offending physician. That is indisputably a welcome change, but it would be a bit obscene to take a victory lap here as hundreds of people continue to face the prospect of agonizing and preventable death at the hands of apathetic or downright sadistic staff. Yet the urgency seems to already have died down.

If your understanding of the United States is that it is fundamentally good and virtuous, there may be a sort of sordid comfort in dwelling on overt and purposeful transgressions. These are desecrations of the American project, you can reassure yourself, and not mere manifestations of its intrinsic character. Additional detail ends up being a complication, even a threat. Perversely, the more repellent the allegations, the heavier a safety blanket they provide, protecting you from the fundamental truth that the entire immigration apparatus has relentlessly optimized for maximum suffering and minimal accountability, year-over-year, during the administrations you liked and the administrations you didn’t.

Beyond Postmodern: The Neoliberal Roots of Woke Cancel Culture

Beyond Postmodern: The Neoliberal Roots of Woke Cancel Culture

Anumber of writers on the left and center-left have recently expressed alarm at cancel culture. In some respects, their concerns match those of conservatives who’ve railed against campus deplatforming, compelled speech, censorship, trigger warnings, safe spaces, micro-aggressions and victimhood culture. These malignancies of student coddling, reflecting years of helicopter parenting and depression-induced cognitive distortions, serve many on the right as prima facie evidence that political correctness run amok is threatening the cherished liberal values of free inquiry and the tolerance of dissent. Some critics see cancel culture as the predictable outcome of the postmodern takeover of the universities that began mandating diversity and inclusion in the 1980s and now seeks to impose campus culture on wider society. Some opponents trace the rise of postmodernism to Neo-Marxism or Marxism itself. Some even accuse the US Democratic Party of staffing postmodern Marxist indoctrination campuses.

There are elements of truth within all these accusations. As George Packer has recently argued, “certain commissars with large followings patrol the precincts of social media and punish thought criminals, but most progressives assent without difficulty to the stifling consensus of the moment and the intolerance it breeds—not out of fear, but because they want to be counted on the side of justice.” As we adapt to a pandemic without foreseeable end, these cultural questions matter even more than they do in normal times—as the effects of decisions made during historical crises tend to persist for generations.

For many on the left, neoliberalism is the root cause of economic inequality, the rise of demagogues, persisting racial disparities and our unfolding climate catastrophe. Some on the right share their concerns about our prevailing economic regime. Neoliberalism may also have helped create the conditions for cancel culture, Social Justice Warriors, the postmodern Neo-Marxists and the so-called radical left who, some claim, have taken over not only the Democratic Party but mainstream media and the Internet.

The term neoliberalism has become fraught. Some regard it as a pejorative hurled by those opposed to globalized capitalism, while others simply use it as John H. McWhorter does here. But, whatever we call it, we’ve all been immersed in deregulation, privatization, free trade, deficit-driven austerity and globalized financialization. As Luke Savage observes, since the 1980s, neoliberalism has become “a feature of our collective existence, so indelible many now seem unable to recall a time before it existed, let alone conceive a future that goes beyond it.” 

Universities Were Already Wounded Before Postmodernism

Though the university has traditionally been a modernist project, guided by the values of the Enlightenment, it’s striking how readily post-structuralist and post-modernist perspectives came to predominate, particularly in the faculties of literature, education, social sciences and law. Gary Aylesworth defines postmodernism as: “a set of critical, strategic and rhetorical practices employing concepts such as difference, repetition, the trace, the simulacrum and hyperreality to destabilize other concepts such as presence, identity, historical progress, epistemic certainty and the univocity of meaning.” One needn’t be a conspiracy theorist or suggest apocalyptic implications to acknowledge that a philosophical/ideological shift has occurred within some academic fields and that this is reflected in the general language and culture of universities.

Since most university professors consider themselves leftists, and postmodernist writers condemn institutional domination over the marginalized, many have assumed that this explains academia’s embrace of both politically correct censorship and the prioritizing of group-level equity and inclusion over traditional academic discipline. The extent of postmodern academia’s influence on the culture wars is debatable, however, and evidence that professors are drawn to postmodernism’s supposed neo-Marxism seems equivocal at best. In practice, most postmodern-ish faculty merely strike radical poses, while the few actual Marxists left warn of the damage wrought by postmodernism to the entire academic enterprise. While some campus radicals of the 1960s went to graduate school and joined the academy, many more did not. So it fell to their more compliant, savvier, younger siblings to become the professors at elite institutions who saw theory and ideals as their path to tenure. Thus, tagging postmodernists as neo-Marxist obscures their far greater influence over mainstream progressives, who came of age during a new world order, when liberals began to settle for gestures and symbols in lieu of material outcomes and for social instead of income equality.

The role of liberal academics in the adoption of the inclusive administrative policies of the 1990s was probably far less consequential than has usually been assumed. To suggest that university administrations are motivated by fealty to their professors’ political ideology, let alone to their intellectual commitments, one must ignore forty years of the steady neutering of faculty power over institutional policies and priorities. Like employees everywhere, many—perhaps most—professors complain of their administrators’ preoccupation with bottom line realities. The funding of public universities prior to the 1970s was comparatively generous, but that business model was dismantled decades ago. The rollbacks of government support for education began during Ronald Reagan’s governorship when he famously argued that “the state should not fund intellectual curiosity.” Soon after Reagan’s 1981 inauguration, New Right think tanks advocated slashing federal education funding by more than 90%. The Democratic Party limited the bloodletting to about 50 percent, but this forever monetized the culture of US educational institutions.

The more relevant relationship since has thus not been between college administrators and their “cost centers” (aka faculty) but between universities as businesses and their primary revenue streams: extra-mural grants and contracts, corporate and individual donors and tuition-paying students. The ideal of the university as a community of scholars free enough from worldly concerns to devote themselves to the development of knowledge was effectively dashed as students were transformed into debt-burdened consumers of education as a product for sale.

Postmodernism Will Serve You Now

The universities’ need to fund themselves required steady tuition and fee hikes as well as ballooning student loan debt. However sympathetic most professors may have been to postmodernism, only a few of those who espoused such a view were well positioned to appeal to the biases, preferences and demands of student consumers. The postmodern approach, which celebrates difference, naturally blossomed in the post-1960s and spread easily within the humanities by the mid-1980s. These perspectives initially sought to inform area studies programs, but eventually came to dictate degree requirements, diversity mandates, speech codes, safe spaces, trigger warnings, de-platforming, callings-out and now cancellings. Students had to shoulder an ever larger share of university budgets and, as a result, understandably expected to be flattered, catered to and even coddled.

Sensing an opportunity, a coterie of 1980-90s faculty used postmodernist posturing to help them acquire positions in a dwindling academic marketplace. Sociologist Michèle Lamont argues that Jacques Derrida, for example, achieved prominence “by targeting his work to a large cultural public rather than to a shrinking group of academic philosophers,” while “in America, professional institutions and journals played a central role” in the diffusion of postmodernism. Christopher Lord has recently shown how Derrida’s signature incomprehensibility allowed nascent area studies departments to camouflage bold, unchallengeable assertions in “poetic nonsense,” thus obviating the need for traditional scholarship. As Lord reminds us, the primary enthusiasm for postmodernism was not found within philosophy departments, but in the safe spaces of Women’s Studies and Comparative Literature, freed from the confines of classical disciplines and exempted from dead white male standards. This gambit was called out at the time by Camille Paglia, who saw the importation of obscure French postmodernist thought as mere pretentious gloss to mark out people’s resumes. Noam Chomsky later criticized the cult-like insularity of the postmodernists, their irrelevance to lived experience and their abandonment of the oppressed to demagogues, even while they are, according to Chomsky, “quick to tell us that they are far more radical than thou.” Meanwhile, the careerism that Paglia and Chomsky derided had become a necessity, especially within the humanities and social sciences, due to prevailing economic realities.

There’s a cruel irony in the fact that classical liberals are now accusing postmodern socialists of single-handedly destroying the liberal values of the academy, years after the economic deconstruction of the Reagan revolution (and similar movements outside the US) turned the marketplace of ideas into a literal marketplace, where nakedly ambitious and savvy ideologues thrive, and a precarious “gig academy,” in which temporary staff, without job security, do most of the teaching and research. As in the corporations they now emulate and cater to, nearly everyone holding up the academic pyramid is micromanaged, overworked and undermined by an ever-expanding number of administrators, chosen for their business school knowledge, rather than their academic degrees. To miss the neoliberal productivity paradigm underlying academia is to be a fish unaware of the surrounding water.

From a wider perspective, then, the upheavals within modern universities are forgotten casualties of neoliberalism. Educational institutions on both sides of the pond suffered irreversible consequences from fiscal policies that upended previous social democratic traditions. Public education may have been one of the first beasts to be starved, but the neoliberal revolution was just getting started.

The Shift to Progressive Neoliberalism

Neoliberal economics—which began in the early twentieth century as the renewal and refinement of classical liberalism associated with Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek and gained prestige following the First World War, was marginalized in the wake of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s triumphant social liberalism and Keynesian welfare capitalism. The neoliberals agitated against every supposedly socialist program from the New Deal to Medicare in vain, until the early 1970s, when they returned to center stage in with the neoclassical monetarism of Hayek and Milton Friedman. Decades before postmodernists began exploiting gutted university budgets, the new monetarist neoliberals of the right (who would incite that gutting) sold themselves to governments as counter-revolutionary slayers of stagflation.

Less than a decade later in the US (and similarly in the UK and other social democracies), progressives on the left, alarmed by the rise of Reagan and his effective discrediting of the term liberal, began to adopt the previously right-leaning neoliberal label and much of the neoliberal philosophy, to distinguish themselves from bleeding heart profligates. Their goal was to signal acceptance of political reality, while maintaining a responsible social conscience. As McWhorter recalls, Charles Peters “helped usher in the new flavor of the word, as well as its reception from the left, with his aggressive ‘manifesto.’” Seemingly skeptical of the harsher laissez-faire of classical liberalism and trickledown economics, Peters’ Washington Monthly captured the zeitgeist’s growing distrust of unions and adulation of entrepreneurs, while also providing some of the most astute progressive opposition to Reaganism: his was a socially conscious but responsible liberalism, which took critics of the welfare state seriously. This viewpoint was eventually adopted as the guiding philosophy of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) and later provided both the strategy and priorities of the Bill Clinton presidency. Initially, the Democrats pointed out the growing federal deficit as a political cudgel to attack Reaganomics. They then proclaimed their prudent preoccupation with deficits and debt, making common cause with Pete Peterson cultists on the right, insisting that buying guns on credit is fine, but butter must be paid for. Influenced by the five-millennia-old deficit myth, the neoliberals prioritized monetary discipline: from Barack Obama’s grand bargain and EU troika austerity to Nancy Pelosi’s pay-go. As David Graeber explains in Debt: The First Five Thousand Years, “it is only in the current era … that we … see the creation of the first effective planetary administrative system largely in order to protect the interests of creditors.”

The DLC quickly pivoted from Peters’ noblesse oblige vision of neoliberal progressivism to an austerity focused, meritocracy-fetishizing corporatism, while dog-whistling to Reagan Democrats. The vaunted triangulations assumed to have insured Clinton’s political success were presented as the only way to protect liberal values—effectively rebranded as anti-discrimination and support for abortion rights—at the necessary cost of embracing conservative economics. By that time, as Gregg Easterbrook has noted, DC was firmly in the grip of the conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI), Heritage and Cato think-tanks who, together, “routed a generation of assumptions about government” as an “intellectual competitor for the university system,” which rendered it “dependent on not offending corporate patrons.” Just five years after Reagan’s election, Easterbrook was bemoaning the fact that “conservative thinking has not only claimed the presidency; it has spread throughout our political and intellectual life and stands poised to become the dominant strain in American public policy.” He did not yet anticipate the long term consequences of bipartisan policies that would guide American-style capitalism and the end of history, both of which were enabled by the great moderation.

This new Democratic Party approach was also a reaction to an earlier electoral upheaval. Democratic social liberals of the previous era who had taken up the principled fight for black civil rights had done so at the cost of the votes of their historical white working class base. Following the 1968 presidential election, avowed segregationist George Wallace siphoned off a sizable proportion of former Democrat voters to form the basis of the Republican Southern strategy. The Democrats were thus left with a far more meager economics-oriented base of support. By McGovern’s 1972 rout, the Democrats all but owned the issue of minority rights. To unite their supporters, both parties began to foreground cultural, gender, ethnic and sexual rights and value signaling. By the mid-1980s, centrists from both parties from Gary Hart to Joe Biden seemed eager to bury Keynes and let Hayek and Friedman prevail. A bipartisan economic consensus thus coalesced to reduce the welfare state, globalize and deregulate capital economic policies, and facilitate monopolistic rent seeking. This process was initiated by Jimmy Carter in the late 70s and championed under Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 80s, but it took Bill Clinton to both end welfare as we know it and finally repeal Depression-era financial constraints in the 90s. As Nancy Fraser observes, the marriage of neoliberalism and identity politics begat the “oxymoronic” progressive neoliberalism of the New Democrats and the “less coherent” reactionary neoliberalism of the Republican Party (who have now mostly acquiesced to Trump’s reactionary populism). Fraser’s quadripartite distinctions between right and left neoliberals and left and right populists clarify this process.

Rights over Resources

Under neoliberalism, the wealth generated by the productivity gains of the post-World War II era began to shift sharply towards the very top of society, leaving the previously stabilizing middle and working classes of the west behind and bloating the investor sector. This was the result of government policies that encouraged the off-shoring of jobs and profits while shrinking manufacturing employment, and provoked resentment from those who felt they had lost both economic security and dignity. The gradual shift in liberal focus from labor rights to civil and immigrant rights mollified the professional-managerial class, but it also suggested misplaced priorities to many of those who were treading water economically. While US defenders of neoliberal politics label proposals such as universal health care “ponies” we “can’t afford,” reactionary populists like Trump exploit working class grievances by proclaiming solidarity with the working class against a rights-obsessed liberal class for whom rights seem actionable in ways that economic policies have ceased to be. The broadly felt chronic inability to effect actual political or economic change invited ideological and moral battles to fill the void.

For nearly thirty years, progressive neoliberals have evinced a rhetorically compassionate yet fiscally inexpensive identity-centric political correctness that lets us eat diversity, as group-based rights are mainly realized by modifying civil codes and administrative policies through legislation and litigation. Put simply, liberals have been increasing people’s rights rather than their resources. This practice can increase political polarization. By 2016, voter disappointment in Obama’s tepid challenge to the economic status quo had increased and the Democratic Party seemed once again to be offering empty rhetoric instead of fiscal support for middle and working class voters—all while highlighting the needs of the marginalized. Wage earners rightly feel economically vulnerable. Liberals who focus on social and identity rights are often at a rhetorical disadvantage, since rights are viewed as acutely personal and this inspires those who feel that their own rights are being neglected to counterattack.

Deregulated and Consolidated Media

Social media has been widely blamed for exacerbating the resulting polarization. The Internet has plainly devolved into a miasmic forum where good faith arguments are routinely buried in 24/7 avalanches of weaponized mimetic franca. Yet legacy media have also been mining cultural conflict all along. Originally, broadcast TV and radio offered curated, broadly centrist and consensual, public interest focused news and opinion with the occasional heated debate over contentious issues—though fringe conservative talk radio was also available. Soon after Reagan’s 1987 FCC repeal of the nearly 40-year-old fairness doctrine, polarization could be explicitly marketed via a newly unshackled medium. Rush Limbaugh’s approach to commentary was an early example of narrow-casting. Clinton’s deregulation of all media in the Telecommunications Act of 1996 further warped the tenuous lines between the dominant networks’ news and entertainment divisions and led to greater media consolidation. As universities were forced to adapt to austerity budgets by succumbing to corporate prerogatives, nightly news executives began to sell news as just another commodity. And, as journalist Matt Taibbi argues in Hate, Inc., the end of the Cold War removed the central conflict upon which mainstream news had been focused, making deliberate widening of the fissures of American identity necessary to keep viewers glued to their screens. By the end of the 1990s—well before social media, click-bait and memes—ideological possession was presented as cable TV’s freedom of choice. Fox News and Rush Limbaugh on the one hand and Jon Stewart and MSNBC on the other soon became the two highly lucrative echo chambers that later evolved into the silos of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. The deregulated infotainment of the early 2000s yielded incentivized market-segment positioning, manufactured outrage over peripheral issues, nuance-free straw-manning and tribal-themed reality TV shows. Goaded by the media that stood to profit from these conflicts, being politically correct came to characterize left-wing identity, and being anti-liberal came to characterize right-wing identity. Almost all mainstream politicians adopted the same categories.

Cost-Free Identity and the Woke Currency of Cancellation

And so, as liberal and conservative politicians stopped substantively engaging in economic questions, group identity, group rights and value signaling became the primary bases of outreach and ideological loyalty for politicians and media alike. This bunkering escalated in social media with its attention economy, which instigated tribalism—as we saw during the cynical 2016 election campaign. Both the right and the left politics now pander to the rage of easily triggered voters, leaving fundamental economic policies mostly unchallenged and even unarticulated.

By 2018, after the corporate titans who’d been monetizing identity for generations were caught with their pants down, they quickly rehabilitated themselves by marketing woke capital. As writer Russ Douthat has observed,

corporate activism on social issues isn’t in tension with corporate self-interest on tax policy and corporate stinginess in paychecks. Rather [it] … increasingly exists to protect the self-interest and the stinginess—to justify the ways of CEOs to cultural power brokers, so that those same power brokers will leave them alone (and forgive their support for Trump’s economic agenda) in realms that matter more to the corporate bottom line.

Heralding both the arrival and true beneficiaries of cancel culture, he saw that “corporate interests themselves stand to lose little from these polarizing trends. Their wokeness buys them cover when liberalism is in power, and any backlash only helps prop up a GOP that has their back when it comes time to write our tax laws.” Substitute corporate interests for progressive neoliberals and it’s easy to see why progressive populists worry that the eventual victims of cancel culture may be the roughly 80% of us who’ve been harmed by neoliberalism’s Pareto-distributed world.

Even as postmodern historicism washes over the US, our economic context—miserly federal support during the worst economic conditions since the 1930s—has been ignored. Predictably, just as we’re told that bread is too costly, the identity-shaming circus arrives, channeling the quarantined energy of powerlessness, economic precarity and social isolation into sideshows of cancellation. Rather than support the millions of households facing sustained financial crisis, our political leaders’ clear priority has been to help the financial and corporate sectors. Now that those morally irresponsible sectors have received their financial backing, Congress remains deadlocked—no one any of the politicians personally know will be impacted by the loss of already barely sufficient supports. In the meantime, their patrons, blinded by quarterly-report myopia, persist in selling a dangerously false dichotomy between an economy that must supposedly be reopened and a virus whose spread is shrinking most markets.

Last spring’s Democratic Party panic at the electoral success of democratic socialists (who channel Roosevelt more than Marx) led them to bring their primary season to an abrupt conclusion so that, as Joe Biden put it “nothing will fundamentally change” and neoliberalism will remain the status quo. Having defeated the most credible progressive populist threat to neoliberalism in generations, the Democratic Party may once again use the touchstones of identity, race and gender to dismiss calls for serious economic debate as reductionist and insufficiently woke. If neoliberalism’s central role in the market-driven evolution of cancel culture were more widely recognized, its censorious morality could be seen as just another a tool to stoke pathological division among the economically disenfranchised and politically addicted. Until we begin to change the framework that divides the few haves from the many who have barely enough, the ersatz politics of identity will remain an effective diversion.

Uprooting Cancel Culture

Encouragingly, there is some common ground between non-ideologues on both right and left regarding the dangers of self-righteous identitarianism, the importance of democratic and pluralist principles and the economic needs of the broader majority. When Mark Fisher voiced his despair at the counterproductive call-out culture of left-wing Twitter in 2013, he was denounced by his colleagues. Now similar views have been expressed by the late Michael Brooks and by several other writers on the left.

Those who deny that cancel culture exists may be motivated by a wish to discredit its right-wing critics, but they fail to consider who benefits from the discord they sow. Yet, centrist liberals who ally themselves with conservatives in order to argue that totalitarian excess is a problem unique to the left may potentially further a century-old reactionary right-wing agenda. And, at the same time, a well-meaning but iatrogenic postmodernism is informing the worldviews of both neoliberal and populist progressives. To save the baby from this toxic bathwater we should recognize the validity of a variety of viewpoints, as Ken Wilber, Robert Wright and other integral thinkers have been attempting to do.

To solve this problem will require an honest and self-aware politics that advocates for material objectives while acknowledging differences of opinion and negotiating between different values. If those within mainstream institutions can recognize the negative outcomes of the neoliberal project, the political left should be humble enough to join forces with them. Now more than ever, we need empathetic and spirited conversation that prioritizes shared purposes and commitments and is characterized by comity and nuance, in order to lower the rhetorical heat within all our political silos.

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Ted Turner Asks Carl Sagan “Are You a Socialist?;” Sagan Responds Thoughtfully (1989)

Ted Turner Asks Carl Sagan “Are You a Socialist?;” Sagan Responds Thoughtfully (1989)

Socialism should not be a scare word in the U.S. Were it not for socialists like Eugene V. Debs and the labor movements organized around his presidential campaigns in the early 20th century, reforms like the 8-hour workday, worker safety protections, women’s suffrage, minimum wage, the abolition of child labor, and vacation and sick time would likely never have made it into a major party’s platform. The legacy of this strain of socialism in the U.S. endured, Jill Lepore writes at The New Yorker, “in Progressive-era reforms, in the New Deal, and in Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society,” all widely supported by self-described liberals.

Yet while socialist policies are broadly popular in the U.S., the word may as well be a writhing, high-voltage wire in mainstream discourse. The same was true in the Reagan 80s, when so many progressive reforms were undone: military spending ballooned, social spending was cut to the bone, and homelessness became a major crisis, exacerbated by the A.I.D.S. epidemic the administration mocked and ignored. In 1989, at the end of the president’s two terms, Ted Turner lobbed the charge of “socialism” at Carl Sagan in a CNN interview. The astrophysicist and famed science communicator refused to take the bait.

Rather than denouncing or distancing himself from socialists, he made it clear that the label was less important to him than the material conditions under which millions of people suffered as a result of deliberate policy choices that could be otherwise. “I’m not sure what a ‘socialist’ is… I’m talking about making people self-reliant, people able to take care of themselves,” he says, in an echo of Debs’ praise of the virtue of “sand.” But this sort of self-reliance is not the same thing as the kind of mythic, Old West rugged individualism of conservatism.

Sagan acknowledges the reality that self-reliance, and survival, are impossible without the basic necessities of life, and that the country has the means to ensure its citizens have them.

I believe the government has a responsibility to care for the people…. There are countries which are perfectly able to do that. The United States is an extremely rich country, it’s perfectly able to do that. It chooses not to. It chooses to have homeless people.

Sagan mentions the U.S. infant mortality rate, which then placed the country at “19th in the world” because of a refusal to spend the money on healthcare needed to save more infant lives. “I think it’s a disgrace,” he says. Instead, billions were allocated to the military, especially the Strategic Defense Initiative, called Star Wars: “They’ve already spent something like $20 billion dollars on it, if these guys are permitted to go ahead they will spend a trillion dollars on Star Wars.”

Is objecting to a vast waste of the country’s resources and human potential “socialism”? Sagan doesn’t care what it’s called—the word doesn’t scare him away from pointing to the facts of inequality. The problems have only worsened since then. Military spending has grown to an obscene amount—more than the next ten countries combined. The figure usually given, $705 billion, is actually more like $934 billion, as Kimberly Amadeo explains at The Balance.

“Monopolies have risen again,” writes Lepore, “and income inequality has spiked back up to where it was in Debs’ lifetime.” Newsweek reports that in 2018, “America’s Health Rankings found that the U.S. was ranked 33rd out of the 36 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development countries for infant mortality.” We have only just begun to reckon with the devastating policy outcomes exposed by the coronavirus. As Sagan would say, these problems are not accidental; they are the result of deliberate choices. We could have a very different society—one that invests its resources in people instead of weapons, in life instead of death. And we could call it whatever we wanted.

See the full Sagan-Turner interview here.

Related Content:

Watch a Young Carl Sagan Appear in His First TV Documentary, The Violent Universe (1969)

Carl Sagan Predicts the Decline of America: Unable to Know “What’s True,” We Will Slide, “Without Noticing, Back into Superstition & Darkness” (1995)

Carl Sagan’s “Baloney Detection Kit”: A Toolkit That Can Help You Scientifically Separate Sense from Nonsense

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness


Free Up the Prisoners

Free Up the Prisoners

Migrating to Prison: America’s Obsession with Locking Up Immigrants by Cesar Cuauhtémoc García Hernández. New Press, 208 pages.                                         

The Trump administration’s treatment of immigrants has generated anger and confusion, with deep resentment of the “kids in cages” phenomenon. Such outrage among Americans betrays a lack of knowledge of conditions for immigrants in the last twenty-five years. Previous administrations might not have made an open spectacle of separating children from parents at the border or unnecessarily locking up immigrants, but the U.S. Border Patrol could fairly be described as “monstrous” well before the Trump administration. Moreover, in 2017 and 2018, when the “children in cages” outrage was at its peak, most activists sought alleviation of prison conditions or reunification of children with parents, rather than broaching the idea of outright abolition of imprisonment.

One would have hoped that in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, prison abolition would have gained strength, but so far—both for prisoners in general and immigrant prisoners in particular—even the horrors of intensely close-range contagion barely make a ripple in mainstream news coverage. In the last couple of years, the impression has taken hold that the dire crisis of minors in concentration camps has abated, yet there are still nearly seven thousand minors held in detention facilities across the United States. Meanwhile, the vast gulag of immigration prisons, which reaches back to the Clinton administration and has only expanded with each successive administration, doesn’t receive the scrutiny it deserves because we have become accustomed to the idea that many immigrants should be in prison.

If we no longer demand outright abolition of prisons, it’s partly because our minds have become saturated with images of immigrants in steel-wire holding pens, making us believe that this is normal. Would it surprise readers to learn that in the 1950s we had all but done away with immigration prisons? Indeed, this is what President Eisenhower’s attorney general Herbert Brownell attained with the closure of Ellis Island, typically romanticized as a welcoming disembarkation point but in reality also serving as a detention center at the same time. Ellis Island, like Angel Island in San Francisco Bay, was a zone apart, where constitutional norms did not apply. The fiction that the immigrant hadn’t really landed on American soil—which would trigger due process rights—was taken to extremes in cases such as that of Ellen Knauff, who was unjustly imprisoned from 1948 through 1951 on Ellis Island; she was confronted with secret evidence and hearsay that her admittance would be “prejudicial” to the United States. There has been a lasting double-standard, applying to today’s proliferating prisons along the southern border, where migrants continue to be deprived of human rights beyond the reach of constitutional law. The principle that the courts applied to Knauff—that due process can be denied for aliens refused entry—is the same faulty standard applied to immigrants today.

The vast gulag of immigration prisons, which reaches back to the Clinton administration, has only expanded with each successive administration.

The backstory of this presumably better past, when Knauff was one of the last of the cases of extended imprisonment, is that the decline of immigrant imprisonment followed the end of mass migration to the United States in the 1920s. By the 1950s, immigration was at historic lows and most immigrants and their descendants from the early part of the century had been fully assimilated; there wasn’t a perceived need for a punitive regime. It wasn’t liberal tolerance pervading the Eisenhower administration, which, incidentally, was also pursuing Operation Wetback at the same time. Within fifteen years of mass migration resuming after the 1965 immigration liberalization, imprisonment started becoming a reality as well.

Still, even during the Reagan administration, the number of immigrant prisoners was only in the low thousands, where they stayed into the early 1990s. But after President Clinton’s creation of the conditions for mass imprisonment—expanding the meaning of “criminal alien,” escalating the enforcement of minor technical violations, depriving asylum seekers and refugees of the benefit of the doubt, and ending the possibility of circular migration—the numbers rose steadily. Almost forty thousand people were in federal detention on any given day during the Obama administration. The problem of immigrants in prison, in short, is not a new reality; it has been a full-blown crisis since the Clinton administration, which set up the entire legal apparatus to justify mass imprisonment. The construction of prisons, and increasing reliance on private prisons, also reached new heights in the same period, affecting immigrants even more harshly than the rest of the population.

While the concept of “criminal alien” has recently become established in immigration enforcement, it is noteworthy that from 1892 to 1984 only 14,287 people were formally barred because of criminal activity. In 1970 a mere 575 people were charged with immigration crimes, while as late as 1993 this was true of just over 2,487 people. Even in 1994, only 8,604 people were locked up annually while facing charges of immigration crime. Today, half a million people each year spend some time in the immigration prison system.


In Migrating to Prison, Cesar Cuauhtémoc García Hernández puts both the financial and political motives for the explosive rise of immigration imprisonment into broader context. Many small towns rely on prison as a major source of jobs and revenue, their mayors and administrators being outspoken about the financial need. Florence, Arizona—one of Garcia Hernández’s examples—relies almost entirely on prison revenue, as two-thirds of the town’s population consists of various types of prisoners. As García Hernández notes, “The immigration prison is a reminder that human bondage based on racial and economic markers of undesirability can’t be relegated to some distant past.”

The prisons García Hernández has personally explored—the Willacy County Processing Center in Raymondville, Texas, the Port Isabel Detention Center in South Texas, the Eloy Detention Center in Arizona—often go back and forth between serving Immigration and Customs Enforcement (or the INS in the old days) to the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), or in the other direction. The Cibola County Correctional Center in New Mexico “went from housing immigration offenders for the BOP to housing people ICE was trying to deport . . . while Willacy County . . . in Texas went in the opposite direction.” This is yet another nail in the coffin of deniability about immigration prisoners being a category apart.

While it may be consoling to preserve the fiction that immigration prisoners constitute a separate category, that they are not really prisoners in the ordinary sense, their actual mixing with prisoners of all sorts, in prisons and jails around the country, belies this comforting mythology. Immigrant prisoners, whether recent arrivals or long-term residents, are kept with regular prisoners serving long or even life sentences, and their treatment cannot uphold the myth that immigrants are mere “administrative detainees,” serving time for what are essentially civil violations. Prisoners wear different colored uniforms to signify whether they are there for immigration or other crimes, but they inhabit the same prisons under the same restrictions, and if that is the case, then they must be provided with the same defenses available to ordinary criminals. To call the facilities holding immigrant prisoners detention centers, service processing centers, or residential centers, rather than the prisons they actually are, is wrong and unhelpful to successful advocacy.

Immigrant prisoners are kept with regular prisoners serving long sentences, and their treatment cannot uphold the myth that immigrants are mere “administrative detainees.”

To be profitable, prisons only need prisoners, and getting paid lucratively by the federal government is what matters most, not the type of prisoner being acquired. The two leading private prison corporations, CoreCivic (which used to be CCA, or Corrections Corporation of America) and the GEO Group (formerly the Wackenhut Corporation), along with smaller corporations such as Management & Training Corporation (MTC), have the same interest as lawmakers in both parties, and politicians at the local and regional level, in promoting the imprisonment of as many immigrants as possible. The federal government, after all, pays very handsomely, on the order of at least $140 a day per immigrant prisoner, or about $60,000 to $80,000 a year. Imagine how small a sum in comparison would be needed to help an immigrant facing legal trouble, by getting him or her an attorney and providing community support to fight their case in a transparent and supportive manner. It would not only be humane, but the cost savings would be enormous.

If we accept the idea of immigrant prisons—and the justifying logic of the “criminal alien”—so easily, it’s because, as García Hernández explains, in the post-civil rights era crime and drugs have substituted for overt racism. Mass incarceration since the Reagan era has been built on the conflation of crime, drugs, and race in order to mark out the undesirables. Mandatory minimums and truth-in-sentencing guidelines have reduced judicial latitude, while the popularity of the “broken windows” policing theory has fueled the zero-tolerance approach toward crime to a point where rational distinctions fail to be made.

Precisely the same logic has been applied to immigrant policing. Compassion is missing toward immigrants who may have been in the country for as long as twenty, thirty, or forty years, yet find themselves entrapped in the prison system for minor crimes committed and paid for long ago. The same is true of the resurgent application of such concepts as “crimes of moral turpitude,” which, as García Hernández explains, first arose as racism directed toward Chinese immigrants at the end of the nineteenth century. Mass incarceration in general was boosted by the war on drugs, such as in the much harsher punishment for possession of crack cocaine compared to powder cocaine. The same unreasonable distinctions apply to citizens versus noncitizens. It’s legal to buy 28 grams of marijuana from a dispensary in states that allow it, but a noncitizen, even a permanent resident, possessing 30 grams of marijuana is subject to ICE custody. García Hernández tells us that the Obama administration pursued a case about an immigrant possessing one pill of Xanax and another about a man with a sock containing four pills of Adderall all the way to the Supreme Court.


The inordinate, though obviously justified, public attention to Trump’s child separation policy and ICE raids has blurred the continuity of policies García Hernández describes. Take, for example, the case of Kamyar Samimi, an Iranian immigrant in his sixties who had lived in the United States for decades before he was arrested in 2017 for a prior possession of cocaine in a small amount, which literally ended his life due to lack of medical treatment for opioid withdrawal symptoms in the Eloy prison. Another typical example is that of David Rodriguez, a popular chef at Houston’s “it” cafe on the east side, Tout Suite, who, like Samimi, was imprisoned for a crime for which he’d already been sentenced and punished long ago. These instances of “aggravated felonies” fail to treat immigrants as human beings full of complexity, with both good and bad features, rather than the abstractions of pure goodness supported by the zero tolerance policy toward crime in general and immigrants in particular.

The 1996 Clinton-era immigration law known as IIRIRA (Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act) has been the key instigator here, solidifying the concept of “aggravated felony,” which is often neither aggravated nor a felony, and can refer to something as minor as shoplifting or misinformation on tax returns, from which no relief can be obtained by way of judicial discretion (among the primary drivers of the rise of mass incarceration in general has been the attack on the discretion of judges), and which require mandatory sentencing and imprisonment prior to deportation. Along with aggravated felony, the other major contribution of the 1996 legislation was to establish the principle of “expedited removal,” which severely curtails the right of some immigrants to appeal deportation as in the past.

While narratives of immigrants embedded in desperation and crime provide the emotional fodder for incarceration, it turns out that even some of the most drummed-up instances of immigrant crime do not stand up to scrutiny. Though Trump has used the notorious Kate Steinle case to great demagogic effect, the immigrant charged with discharging the gun and killing Steinle on a pier has been found not guilty of the crime, and even the charge of unlawful possession of the gun (because he only picked up a gun wrapped in cloth under a bench) has been dismissed. Demonizing the “criminal alien” who murdered Kate Steinle is no different in essence from Obama’s enforcement slogan, “felons, not families,” without addressing the nature of crimes such felons are supposed to have committed, as well as the reality that felons like everyone else cannot be viewed aside from families and communities—unless we admit that crime substitutes for the racial vocabulary no longer permitted in public discourse.

It hasn’t helped that immigrant rights advocates have themselves provided much of the intellectual fuel for incarceration by separating good from bad immigrants, the good ones being the superheroes who never make a mistake, get angry, become undisciplined, lose employment, get a divorce, or commit abuse or are abused. The good versus bad dichotomy—which manifested most egregiously in the construction of the DACA recipients, or Dreamers, as superheroes without moral failings—falls into the trap of setting up desirable immigrants as the only ones deserving of public sympathy, thus leaving all the rest as ripe targets for the imprisonment trap. As García Hernández remarks, “Migrants are expected to live out the exceptionalism that U.S. citizens imagine in themselves.”

Language is important for the way we describe those who are ensnared in the immigration gulag, whether under Clinton, Bush, Obama, or Trump. It is vital to call them prisoners rather than detainees, because doing so highlights the anomaly of immigrant prisoners being treated like prisoners without having the rights of prisoners. The only solution—which immigrant rights supporters interested in seeing an end to imprisonment should consider—is to eliminate the fictitious distinctions between “criminal aliens” and normal criminals. To grant this false distinction is to open up an abyss in legal treatment, which is the foundation of immigration internment. Immigrant prisons are simply the physical space where the legal double-standard takes place in a corporeal sense, so instead of focusing on the prison, the legal vacuum behind the prison must assume centrality in advocacy work. In essence, the shadowy zone once represented by Ellis Island and Angel Island has become replicated all over the country.


In recent years, the prison abolition movement, building on the philosophical arguments put forth by Angela Davis, Calvin Dodge, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and other thinkers, has started to sound much like it did in the late 1960s and early 1970s, before it started falling victim to the law-and-order panic initiated by Nixon and followed up by every president since then. To apply Davis’s broad philosophical argument might yield a superior result than some of the knee-jerk reaction to Trump’s kids in cages abomination because our focus would then shift from the profit motive (which undoubtedly is a driver), or the temporariness of the violation, and move instead toward the dark imaginative forces that separate worthy and unworthy immigrants. We might go so far as to say that activists collaborate in the theoretical justification for immigrant imprisonment when they presume that a migrant must not have committed any sort of crime in order to be free.

Lest the reader think that abolition of prisons is a fantasy that has no chance of being applied in the immigration arena, in the strongest part of his book, García Hernández provides precisely such examples of real-life successes. These stand out even more than for the abolition of regular prisons because immigrant crimes are typically those of entry or reentry into the country, which are low-level violations. García Hernández provides examples of experiments during the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s when resources were devoted to helping immigrants deal with their cases on the outside rather than inside a prison. In a future progressive administration, advocates should work to translate these earlier experiments into national policy as we look forward to total abolition of immigrant prisons rather than to impose selective human rights principles upon a basically immoral system. Just as restoration and rehabilitation are better alternatives to incarceration for the normal population, the same applies to immigrants who should be offered every chance to integrate in their communities while awaiting resolution of their cases.

The common misconception that an immigrant, if released into the community pending disposition of his or her case, will disappear into anonymity and never show up for a court date has been shown to be baseless because that’s just not how people operate. Immigrants, like anyone else, are part of families, neighborhoods, and communities. A few might disappear, but the overwhelming majority won’t. Thus the main justification to imprison immigrants—that if we release them on their own recognizance they will disappear and add to lawlessness—falls apart upon scrutiny. In fact, evidence shows that lawfulness increases when immigrants are treated as human beings and allowed to meet court dates, prepared and assisted by the community.

Lest the reader think that abolition of prisons is a fantasy that has no chance of being applied in the immigration arena, there are examples of real-life successes.

The Family Unity Project in New York released immigrants who showed up for court dates in overwhelming numbers, with a 98 percent success rate. Before getting a lawyer, 4 percent fended off removal; after getting a lawyer, 42 percent did. From 1987 to 1999, in a program initiated by the Reagan administration, the United States Catholic Conference moved the much-maligned Mariel Cubans into the community, with similar overwhelming success. In 1997 under the Clinton administration, the INS partnered with the Vera Institute of Justice in New York, with similar results. And during the Obama administration, ICE partnered with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, and although it was a tiny program, it did have a 100 percent compliance rate in immigrants following court orders and abiding by legal requirements.

There is an obvious philosophical case to be made that if we want to elicit participation in legality, we need to make the process fair. If we imprison and harass immigrants, depriving them of the right to counsel in prison and separating them from their families and communities, they will obviously see the process as unfair and will have less reason to comply. But transparency and fairness will elicit participation in greater numbers rather than encouraging escape and hiding.

García Hernández argues throughout the book against the kind of narrow-minded “reforms” that consolidate the principle of immigrant imprisonment. But he points out other reforms that are more genuine and take us closer to abolition. Ending illegal entry and illegal reentry as federal crimes, separating ICE altogether from the criminal justice system, and providing every immigrant with a lawyer, a work permit, and community assistance are some of the most obvious means to make abolition a reality that works to enhance the spirit of lawfulness throughout the community. Opposed to these authentic reforms are the ones advocates spend so much time supporting, all of which only make the immigration prison system more resilient and permanent.

Under all recent administrations, Democrat or Republican, immigrants have often been put in prison as a matter of default. The definition of “criminal alien” becomes meaningless when we treat the act of migration itself as a crime, such as the seeking of asylum by means of physical presence, which is recognized under international law, or when we expand the definition of crimes by resorting to aggravated felonies, so that decades after the fact the immigrant finds himself paying a second, much higher, price by losing immigration status. Even more absurd is pressuring immigrants in prisons in ways that are designed to elicit resistance, which then makes one a criminal.

Migrating to Prison makes the persuasive case that the astronomical boom in imprisonment of immigrants stems from exactly the same root causes, both financial and political, as the dramatic escalation in mass incarceration. The case for abolition of prisons in general and immigrant prisons in particular rests on the same grounds. The unconscionable number of people in prison attests to the disjuncture between the actual occurrence of crime and the political interest in apprehending so-called criminals. The U.S. prison population went from around three hundred thousand to more than two million from 1980 to the present, with an even sharper escalation in the immigrant prison population; it’s not that crime went up by such an exponential amount, but that the definition of crime was altered. The starting point for defenders is to redefine whom we understand as criminals, which in turn should lead to the groundwork for abolishing prison. After paying the price for committing a crime, a person is supposed to be able to go back into the community; the same principle should apply to immigrants, rather than pretending that we can aspire to immigrants who will never commit any sort of a moral or legal violation, big or small.

Immigration prisons do not have to be part of our immigration system at all. Immigration can be administered without immigration prisons, as normal prisons can take care of the few actual criminals, a guiding principle campaigners would do well to remember. Perhaps García Hernández’s most radical idea is that “countering the dehumanizing spirit of the bipartisan embrace of immigration prisons needs to begin with a wholesale embrace of the imperfect humanity of migrants.” Unfortunately, a lot of advocacy work relies on tugging the heart strings toward blameless or victimized immigrants, as though the rest didn’t deserve equal sympathy and legal rights.

Horror Stories

Horror Stories

It’s been two weeks since a whistleblower complaint involving the Irwin County Detention Center (ICDC), an ICE detention facility in Georgia, was first reported in The Intercept. The complaint, prepared by the advocacy and research organization Project South and sent to officials in the Department of Homeland Security, leaned on the testimony of several incarcerated women and staff nurse Dawn Wooten to paint a picture of wanton disregard for the life and health of the people in custody.

The public backlash was broad, swift, and almost completely detached from the bulk of the allegations, fixating on one particularly visceral claim about female detainees being given hysterectomies—the removal of the uterus and potentially other sex organs—without consent or adequate explanation. It was a grisly detail that was instantly distorted into a nationwide conspiracy before any additional reporting could occur. A feedback loop between social media, the take industrial complex, and breathless rewrite media spit out blood-curling conclusions: mass hysterectomies, an indiscriminate ICE sterilization scheme, a eugenics program implemented at high levels of government. Ultimately, none of these contentions could be backed up by any evidence. The hospital where the hysterectomies took place has now said it was the site of only two procedures in recent years, and even assuming this is an undercount, as of now no other facilities have been the target of similar accusations.

I don’t doubt that these overheated responses were manifestations of genuine outrage, but I wonder if those most strident in their dismay are aware that hundreds of ICDC detainees are also being sandwiched together during a pandemic, routinely denied Covid-19 tests, that Wooten claims medical requests were shredded and records fabricated, and that detainees with pre-existing conditions are denied treatment and medicine, all under the auspices of the for-profit prison enterprise LaSalle Corrections. All of these alleged abuses are also part of the complaint and, more broadly, the well-documented canon of the country’s detention systems, be they civil or criminal.

There’s a widespread but latent strain of thought that views inhumanity as a distasteful but ultimately unavoidable part of the immigration system, and the system itself as a sad inevitability.

I have personally spoken to a legal permanent resident who was almost killed by easily removable gallstones after ICE personnel refused to schedule the surgery in detention; an asylum seeker who developed anemia from lack of proper nutrition while in detention and was part of a group abruptly transferred away from their attorneys in retaliation for protesting their detention conditions; a man in a federal noncitizen prison whose concerns about losing his penis to a rare but treatable condition fell on deaf ears. At that same prison, I investigated the case of an elderly man who died of Covid-19 complications after staff refused any significant treatment; they subsequently lied to the other detainees about his cause of death.

Every reporter on the beat has stories like this, a never-ending stream of grotesque medical neglect for immigrants in government custody, but this state of affairs is perhaps too “normal,” too quotidian for the public’s sensibilities. There’s a widespread but latent strain of thought that views inhumanity as a distasteful but ultimately unavoidable part of the immigration system, and the system itself as a sad inevitability. According to this worldview, discrete and intentional acts of depravity are an abhorrent deviation from the baseline, but the baseline of callous indifference is just how things are. It’s white noise.

There is no minimizing the cruelty of a forced hysterectomy, and even one would be far too many. Yet additional reporting has backed up what many immigration reporters suspected when the allegations first came to light: this was an isolated case of a rogue gynecologist who, for reasons ideological or financial, subjected helpless patients to unnecessary and non-consensual surgical procedures that left them sterile. There is no national conspiracy, not for this anyway. Yet the report has prompted a hashtag with hundreds of posts, a host of sensationalist headlines, inquiries by Homeland Security, and even made the leap to widely-shared twee Instagram-aesthetic image macro—a level of attention and scrutiny that the many people who have experienced years-long, pervasive lack of care in detention did not enjoy. Last week, BuzzFeed News’ Hamed Aleaziz reported on the death of a sixty-one-year-old man who was ordered released from prison on humanitarian grounds, only to be transferred into ICE custody where he subsequently died of Covid-19. I haven’t seen any hashtags, and the House Speaker isn’t calling for an inquiry there.

To close observers, the latest spectacle of righteous indignation featured eerie parallels with the public response to the infamous 2018 zero tolerance policy, which took advantage of a rarely used federal criminal statute against illegal entry to forcibly separate families of asylum seekers arrested at the southern border. In a sea of horrors, this policy stood out as remarkably twisted, and it rightfully produced a wide-ranging backlash. Yet the liberal conception of immigration abuses seemed to get stuck there, and the “kids in cages” mantra became the be-all end-all of its agitation, even as in the background the administration has moved decisively to gut asylum altogether. “Kids in cages” is still the go-to cudgel for people who want to perform shock at the brutality of the administration’s immigration policies without quite knowing what those are. Most of those currently deploying it for effect—often accompanied by urgings to #vote, presumably so they can promptly tune it all out again under a different administration—probably don’t realize that by and large no asylum seekers are getting put in cages anymore; most are simply expelled from the country without the chance to tender an asylum application at all.

If your understanding of the United States is that it is fundamentally good and virtuous, there may be a sort of sordid comfort in dwelling on overt and purposeful transgressions.

In both 2018 and today, the spark that lit up the public imagination was the ability to draw an obvious parallel between contemporary immigration practices and remote, historical atrocities, especially the Holocaust. There is no shortage of discourse comparing ICE agents and their many subcontractors to Nazis, invoking the specter of the nation’s most plainly evil foreign enemies and in doing so depicting these agents of the state as some sort of historic rupture, an outgrowth of the current administration’s singular malevolence. I’m not the first to point out that this is myopic, casting aside a rich, homegrown tradition of systematic eugenics and genocidal violence, including forced sterilization. Yet the rush to latch on to these exceptionally vivid cultural and historical signifiers—separating children from their parents, taking away a woman’s bodily autonomy and terminating her ability to reproduce—betrays not just ignorance, but a willful ignorance of the banal and persistent force that has been crushing detained immigrants, and people in government custody more generally, uninterrupted for decades.

Through this lens, the outrage becomes somewhat suspect: What is its purpose, really? If it winds up fixating on a handful of conspicuously loathsome phenomena at the expense of everything else, is it actually serving the vulnerable people at the center of the maelstrom, or is it a cathartic balm to soothe the bruised nationalism of the American moderate? Public pressure led ICE to announce that detainees at ICDC would no longer be taken to see Dr. Mahendra Amin, the offending physician. That is indisputably a welcome change, but it would be a bit obscene to take a victory lap here as hundreds of people continue to face the prospect of agonizing and preventable death at the hands of apathetic or downright sadistic staff. Yet the urgency seems to already have died down.

If your understanding of the United States is that it is fundamentally good and virtuous, there may be a sort of sordid comfort in dwelling on overt and purposeful transgressions. These are desecrations of the American project, you can reassure yourself, and not mere manifestations of its intrinsic character. Additional detail ends up being a complication, even a threat. Perversely, the more repellent the allegations, the heavier a safety blanket they provide, protecting you from the fundamental truth that the entire immigration apparatus has relentlessly optimized for maximum suffering and minimal accountability, year-over-year, during the administrations you liked and the administrations you didn’t.