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Nick Miroff On The Border Crisis

Nick Miroff On The Border Crisis

The best reporter on immigration talks us through an intractable issue.

Nick is the supremely talented reporter at the Washington Post covering immigration and DHS, and before that he was a foreign correspondent based in Mexico City and Havana. We tried to break down what is actually happening on the Southern border, and how likely it is to get exponentially worse.

You can listen to the episode right away in the audio player embedded above, or right below it you can click “Listen in podcast app” — which will connect you to the Dishcast feed. To hear three excerpts from my conversation with Nick — on how the U.S. got to “kids in cages” under Trump; on the cruelty of letting in migrants without any support; and how basically no one who enters the U.S. illegally gets deported — head over to our YouTube page.

Here is the full long dissent from our main post today:

I think you’re becoming a curmudgeon. In your episode with Emily Yoffe and your post on “queer”, you negate any possibility of conceiving of a group of people who are either L, or G, or B, or T, or any of the other sometimes-associated letters. The notion that this group is nonexistent is silly. Here are the characteristics common to the people you want to say have nothing in common:

  • We don’t conform to the expectations today’s culture has for persons of our gender, whatever that may be. Men aren’t supposed to be attracted to men. Women aren’t supposed to be attracted to women. No one is supposed to be attracted to more than one gender. Everyone is supposed to feel like the gender of their biological sex. I first heard this described as “gender-nonconformity” by — guess who? — a gay man. 

  • Because of the above, or for other reasons, we experience mental and emotional issues at higher rates than the general population. Maybe we’ve experienced homophobia by others. Worse, most of us have experienced homophobia or transphobia from ourselves. 

  • Our childhoods were generally marked by stresses due to our nonconformity that other children didn’t experience. 

  • Many of us have to make a life’s work of reaffirming our own worth in spite of the fact that we’re different from most of the culture. 

  • We can each potentially find support from other non-conforming individuals, even if they are different from the general culture in different ways than we are. 

I could think of others, but that’s enough for now. If a group can be said to be a collection of individuals that share common characteristics, of course there’s a group here. So there must be a word of some kind for it. 

Sure, raise the alarm against CRT if you want. Fine. Personally, I think this also speaks to your own experience more than logic. You (understandably) like the idea of the community that gay men represent to you, so don’t muddy the waters by broadening the group. It’s meant something to you to have that community.

But this is both/and. It’s true that the community of gay men, or even the individual experience of gay men, is not the same as other communities. I know that as a bisexual man. Polls indicate that the numbers of bisexuals is higher than the numbers of either lesbians or gay men. And we commonly report that we feel both that we are like and unlike lesbians and gay men. That’s been my experience—gay/not-gay, but most certainly not straight.

I do agree with you that straight people should not identify with groups they don’t belong in. It’s trendy to be “queer,” but it’s insincere signaling. 

But what I’d like to know, Andrew, is what word you’d allow me to use to describe broadly the group I belong in, beyond just bisexual (a word that carries an awful lot of stigma)? I used to say “LGBT” or “LGBTQ,” but now I’m to understand that those aren’t available for use. And God forbid I call myself “queer.” Learning from other “rainbow people” has helped me learn about myself. Being supported by them, and supporting them, has helped me heal. So I do identify as [Andrew-approved word]. Can you please help me out here? 

This is a great question. I’ll think some more on it, but here’s my instant thought. Many kids feel isolated from their peers because they don’t quite fit in with crude gender stereotypes — and that includes many more straight than gay kids. Feelings of lack of self-worth are universal. Non-conformity is so vast a grouping you could fit countless non-gay and non-trans people in it. And feeling you are the opposite sex is completely different than being comfortable with your sex and gender and seeking similar.

When persecution was intense, there was a reason to group similarly challenged groups. I’m not so sure that endures. The vast differences between gay and lesbian culture — vive la difference — are greater than those between men and gay men or between women and lesbians. Why do we need a collective noun at all?

After listening to our episode with Emily Yoffe, a reader makes a provocative argument:

The Title IX guidelines for sexual harassment use the phrase “unwelcome conduct”. What to make of this? Each victim may have her own idea of what is “unwelcome”, but on the whole it distinguishes the right sort of people from the wrong sort, creating yet another way to punish members of the unfavored group. This is not just the well-known historically persecuted groups — how many black men were lynched for showing “unwanted advances”? — but men who are undesirable in other ways as well: too short, too fat, too ugly, socially inept.

The world is already tilted against you if you’re unattractive. You’re less likely to get economic opportunities and more likely to be blamed or accused of wrongdoing. Now with “unwelcome conduct”, the discrimination is written explicitly into the rules. After all, who is unwelcome? If popular handsome guy says “Wow, you look great in that sweater”, that’s a compliment, but if ugly autistic guy says the same thing, he’s a creep. Which one is guilty of sexual harassment?

This is what college women want: They want icky guys to not talk to them. This tool is helping them achieve that, so in that sense the system is working. We’ve codified “she’s out of your league”.

Another reader conveys the transcendence he has felt as an atheist:

The podcast has been a welcome addition to an already crowded slate of content providers. E.g., from where else in the US could I have gotten that perspective on Boris Johnson? Or a difficult but seemingly honest take on campus due process? Kudos.

Your latest column on religion, though, provoked more than just the usual mix of agreements and dissents. Simply put, I think atheism can offer people much of what you find in religion — and I say this as a former Catholic.

When I was about 6, I would scrawl out homilies and deliver them from the hearth in my parents’ living room, my junior-sized bathrobe belt draped around my neck as a priestly stole … the epic stories of the Bible, the grandeur of the shared ritual, the togetherness of the enterprise. I’m not sure what drew me to the church so strongly, but I was quite enamored with it. And despite the presence of an eventually outed pedophile in my parish, I never saw even a moment of ugliness in my family’s first church.

A half-dozen years later, as my Confirmation neared, my perspective differed: I couldn’t shake the nagging worry that for all my sense of wonderment, I was being required to give away something precious. In eighth grade, I was only beginning to realize the power of reading, inquiry, and criticism; and the prescribed nature of Catholicism suddenly felt stifling.

When my mom asked who I might want as a Confirmation sponsor, I realized I couldn’t co-opt other people into what had become a charade. The Bible’s interwoven mix of genuine lessons and absurd fairy tales became quaint and laughable. True revelation came from history books, science labs, and even arguing with friends around the lunch table.

Atheism brought me a freedom and encouragement to explore. Not only was there no longer a specified viewpoint or answer, it seemed clear there are usually multiple viewpoints and possibly no answers. Any examined life — one that is not necessarily or merely atheistic but intellectually vibrant — is content with a lack of clarity. Much as your Christian faith seems to provide a respite from exigence of daily struggles, so too does the obviousness that many answers won’t come in my lifetime — but that they are nonetheless there, eventually revealed by a mix of inquiry and some good luck.

Surely you know that for every Andrew Sullivan who, after reciting the Lord’s Prayer, extols the virtues of the Enlightenment, there are plenty of Christians staring through the altar with dead eyes, executing a series of programmatic religious commands. And for every curious, well-travelled, unorthodox Christopher Hitchens, whom you evoked, there are legions of atheists whose dogma is mined from reflexive cynicism and bad sociology books cycling through the Times best-seller list.

You live an examined life, as did Hitchens. Ostensibly, then, you two had far more in common with one another than either of you might have with a Catholic or atheist plucked from a random street corner. Indeed, what percentage of remaining American Christians share your willingness to separate your intellectual life from your spiritual life rather than make the former subservient to the latter?

When you say, “I couldn’t say exactly how this counter-rational aspect of my life affects the rest of me, but it definitely stabilizes things,” I deeply hope all people find that same balance. Several friends from my Catholic days continue to find it in their faiths, and I’m glad it’s available to them to pray together when a congregant is ill or to bring a general sense of order to this year’s chaos.

Organized religions, however, are difficult to make compatible with pluralism and inquiry, and those are also values we desperately need. Indeed, I think the stabilizing benefits religion brings you personally only extend to society if its members are also willing to live life by the liberal values you also espouse: engagement with differing views, respectful disagreement, open inquiry, respect for empiricism, admitting when one is demonstrably wrong, understanding one’s own ignorance, et cetera. Or put another way, to show wisdom.

Speaking on the coalescing of people into political cults, you write, “[These pseudo-religions] lack the one thing that endures in religious practice: something transcendent that makes the failure in our lives redemptive, and sees politics merely as the necessary art of attending to the imperfect.” I know you were not putting atheism and religion in direct contrast, but to my mind, an atheist living an examined life needs a respect for a scientific approach, a step on an imperfect quest toward enlightenment that will stretch far beyond our lifetimes. That sounds quite a bit like what you see in religious practice. One can find transcendence and mystery to remind us of the cosmic insignificance of an average day all around us: In the pages of the Bible, sure, but also in the pages of A Brief History of Time.

Perhaps you’re right that we’ll miss religion. But I’m hopeful that many of your non-religious virtues (and Hitchens’) can bring us the same humility and wisdom you see in religion.

I’m deeply grateful for this perspective, and respect it intensely. Since Hitch has joined the great Flying Spaghetti Monster in the sky, a reader suggests another atheist for the Dishcast:

I’m not sure if this is realistic, but given the relationship over the years between you and Bill Maher, I think there are a series of topics where the two of you are likely to push at each other in a lively manner that would challenge both of you — and be quite enlightening for listeners. As someone who listens to both of you, trusts your independent thought, and appreciates that I will often disagree with you quite strongly, I think exploring the areas where you disagree in a format that is longer than the snippets that his show permits would be interesting.

I empathize with both of your views on religion — with him, in the sense of the purposeful suspension of rational thought being at the root of much human harm; with you, in the sense that the lack of direction from a moral compass for people has devolved at times into political fervor that is just as bad as the worst of religion, except without the moral component. There’s probably more agreement than disagreement, but I think you could challenge each other.

But regardless, I think that insofar as you’ve gotten some feedback to interrupt less or talk a little bit less, one alternative way of addressing that is to invite someone like Bill on who may push back at you pretty hard on some things. It may not be his cup of tea, but it’s something that I know many mutual fans would cherish and want to hear more than just once.

Another good guest — but I’m less sure of your connection here — would be Michael Lewis, who I similarly find to be a thoughtful but independent thinker.

Michael is an old friend and that’s a fantastic suggestion. Bill? I imagine he’s pretty busy, but I take your point. I guess it can’t hurt to ask.

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