Monday, April 17, 2017

Reading Is Resistance: Tell Me How It Ends

The ability to incorporate abstraction into our lives is one of humanity's greatest intellectual strengths. That we can understand zero and pi, extrapolate from vague gestures, imagine what is impossible, and in general, live with, cope with, and even thrive on that which is ill-defined is how we were able to, not just express ourselves in the usual media we think of as “abstract,” but also put a person on the fucking moon, grow food just about fucking anywhere, and build fucking solar panels.

But that comfort with abstraction is not without drawbacks. Just because something can be shifted into an abstract idea, does not mean the best way to think about it is as an abstraction. In fact, one could argue that if abstraction is our greatest intellectual strength it is also our most dangerous intellectual ability, as pretty much every grand tragedy humanity has inflicted upon itself happened because of our ability to create abstractions out of people. For some reason, the ability to turn an understanding of numbers into the fucking internet includes the ability to turn people into numbers.

As a reader, I've almost always thought of books as one of the best ways to cultivate that innate human ability for abstraction, developing it, deepening it, expanding it to realms of thought we would normally prefer to be concrete. In some ways, empathy--that great superpower of reading--is an exercise in developing our abilities of abstraction by building connections to that and those which we have not directly experienced. Reading is often the crackle of electricity across that synapse between experience and emotion.

But there's a reason why Anne Frank is important. That abstraction of empathy through reading can also be an antidote to the catastrophic dehumanizing abstraction. Somehow, along with firing across that synapse, reading can bring other people; foreign people, distant people, out of the realm of historical, statistical, or numerical abstraction and closer to something real. Despite often being an engine for our abstract understanding, books can turn numbers back into people.

Valeria Luiselli's latest, Tell Me How It Ends is a book that turns numbers back into people. Tell Me How It Ends is an essay using the questionnaire undocumented immigrant children must answer when seeking one of the more permanent residency options in the United States.

From starting his campaign with a racist tirade, through his attempted Muslim bans, his silence on hate crimes committed against American Jews, Muslims, and people brown enough to look like Muslims, and his horrific “unshackling” of ICE, Trump has politically survived entirely on two fundamental principles; fear of otherness and (and I think I'm being very generous here by breaking this into a separate principle) Republican indifference to the consequences of that fear. To put this another way; there is absolutely no data that makes mass deportation practical, there is no illegal immigration crisis, there is no crime wave coming from Latin America. The only reason to tear families apart, turn communities upside down, and greatly destabilize or even endanger whole industries, including our food production and distribution industry, is abstract fear.

And we know it is abstract fear of otherness, because we have seen instances when person-to-person connection breaks through that abstraction and turns “Muslim” into “my neighbors” and a conservative community questions the new anti-immigrant push when a pillar of their community is arrested for potential deportation. (Just a bitter side note here about how frequently “conservatives” adopt more liberal viewpoints about shit that affects them. Anyway...) So let's use Luiselli's book, the story of Manu, her students who became activists, and the other children to de-abstract the South American refugee crisis. Let's use Luiselli's substance to turn numbers back into people.

Think about the pressure on your brain, the whisker of anxiety that brushes across your chin by fundamental questions posed by the best books: why are we here, what does it mean to be safe, who is your family, what dangers face you...Then, imagine your life depended on those answers. Then imagine you had to answer them when you were ten years old.

Picture a child in your life smiling at a balloon they've been given. That smile is about to be shipped back to Honduras like a defective product.

Imagine you were willing to ride on top of a train for hundreds of miles, a train known as La Bestia because so many people were hurt or killed while riding it, for something and then someone threatened to take it all away.

Explain to your child why their best friend's father was taken away.

Would your child survive in the desert with a coyote?

What if you had to put a piece of paper in your child's pocket to maybe save their life? And not even just maybe save their life. What if it was a police report on the shooting and killing of their best friend? What if they were so afraid they could not attend their best friend's funeral? What if they escaped the gang that threatened them, made it to safety, and their life hung by the thread of that piece of paper that had been in their pocket for thousands of miles.

Luiselli is writing about your child, your niece, your child's best friend.

Finally, why the fuck does Luiselli and all the other advocates have to do work to get you to empathize with fucking children?

Every immigration statistic is a reduction of people. And not just any people but quite often children, minors, people who have (for good reason) limited legal responsibility for their actions. Not just any people and children either; but people who risked their lives and endured hardships no native-born American would likely tolerate, all so they could work twice as hard for half as much money as native-born Americans would make because, whether it's delusional, relative, or true, they believe in the promise of opportunity America makes to the world. One fact becomes abundantly clear from Luiselli's book: whenever we go after immigrants (whether they followed all of the procedures or not) we attack people who are both utterly vulnerable and have demonstrated remarkable courage. In many ways, in most ways, in damn near every single way, the refugees fleeing violence in Central and South America for the safety and economic opportunity are exactly like the pioneers we valorize in our mythology as having built this nation.

It matters what we call people, even beyond the legal ramifications of calling the people fleeing the crime and violence engendered in large part by U.S policies, “refugees” instead of “immigrants.” I wonder what the state of our debate would be if Republicans, conservatives, and other immigration hardliners had to refer to the people they wish to deport back to the dangerous lives they fled, as “children.” This is, of course, another aspect of how reading is resistance. Sometimes in the direct ways here and sometimes in more subtle ways, books affect the language we use, they affect our lexicon, our diction, our word associations and thus, how we talk about and to each other.

Of course, there are problems here, too. The children who do get more permanent residency still have to contend with gangs and drugs and other forms of violence. They still have to navigate our education system and our employment system and, if they don't do well enough in those systems, potentially our criminal justice system, all three of which infected with systemic racism that disadvantages them. And, now, they have to do it in a country whose racists have been emboldened by an incompetent man getting three million fewer votes than his opponent. They have to survive in a country that constantly, relentlessly brags about its wealth and power while being the only nation in its economic class that doesn't provide universal healthcare and paid parental leave and has an essentially meaningless minimum wage and many of them will have to do it without having access to the thin shroud we call a social safety net.

Perhaps, our goal shouldn't be sifting through children to decide which of them deserves to stay. Perhaps we shouldn't be spending our time and money arresting and deporting people who just want to work hard for their families. Perhaps we shouldn't turn our backs on the consequences of three or four decades of meddling in the governments of Central and South America.

Instead, perhaps we should strive to become the place all these children were imagining while they road La Bestia.

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