We have a new president who is also a new kind of president. Our previous chief executives — at least those of the post–World War II era — were not in the business of outright bigotry and misogyny. Nor did they make common cause with white supremacists, boast about sexual assault, or threaten to jail their opponents. Nor did they openly deride and undermine the traditions and institutions that it is the president’s duty to uphold. Donald Trump is different. Since he was elected in November, many Americans have struggled to assimilate our changed reality, the radical discontinuity that his victory represents. It has been a long winter, a season of fear, grief, and, perhaps above all, rage — a feeling compounded by its seeming futility. “Impotent hatred is the worst of all emotions,” Goethe said. “One should hate nobody whom one cannot destroy.” As a once-unthinkable Trump presidency gets under way, it is time to recognize that we are not as impotent as we may have felt — that even if we cannot destroy Trump, we can resist his primitive vision to the best of our abilities. There are no guarantees that we will succeed, but, as the writers in this forum all make clear, not to try would be a dereliction. A new kind of president demands a new kind of citizen.
Tim Barker is a doctoral student in history at Harvard and an editor-at-large of Dissent.
Kate Crawford is a principal researcher at Microsoft Research, a visiting professor at MIT, and a senior research fellow at NYU.
Katrina Forrester teaches history at Queen Mary University of London.
Nimmi Gowrinathan is a professor and the director of the Politics of Sexual Violence Initiative at the City College of New York.
Lawrence Jackson’s fourth book, Chester B. Himes: A Biography, will be published this summer.
Valeria Luiselli is the author of the novel The Story of My Teeth (2015) and the essay collection Sidewalks (2013).
Corey Robin, a professor at Brooklyn College, is the author of Fear (2006) and The Reactionary Mind (2011).
Sarah Schulman is the author of eighteen books, most recently Conflict Is Not Abuse (2016).
Celina Su is the Marilyn J. Gittell Chair in Urban Studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
Simone White is the author of two volumes of poetry, including Of Being Dispersed (2016).
Wesley Yang is at work on his first book.
The Dream of the Enemy
By Corey Robin
While I was fearing it, it came,
But came with less of fear,
Because that fearing it so long
Had almost made it dear.
— Emily Dickinson
Gazing back on the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot’s wife is turned into a pillar of salt. Why? Other characters in the Bible disobey God without meeting the same fate. Perhaps it is her irrepressible interest in the destruction she has been spared — her sense that the evil she has left behind is more real than the possibilities that beckon — that dooms her. Instructed to choose life over death, Lot’s wife opts to find life in death. The known past is more compelling than the promised future. Hence the salt — a substance that suspends time, that preserves things by drying them out.
As liberals and leftists confront the reality of a Trump Administration, they will face a similar question of orientation. Will they oppose Trump in the name of a transformative vision that lies beyond him — a multiracial social democracy that emancipates all men and women from the fetters of caste and class? Or will they look on Trump’s America with an apprehension, born of fear and fascination, that its ravages are realer, more in sync with the deep and ugly truths of the world, than whatever story of progress they can muster in reply? Will they welcome every act of Trump’s brutality as a revelation of our national whole? Will they make of themselves a pillar of salt?
Twenty years ago, the Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit argued that liberals couldn’t — and shouldn’t try to — erect a “decent society” on the foundation of positive ideals like justice and rights and equality. Instead, they should raise their edifices of decency on the cold, hard ground of humiliation. Negative experiences provide sturdier foundations for liberalism, he wrote, because it is “easier to identify humiliating than respectful behavior, just as it is easier to identify illness than health.” Terrible as they are, unhappy experiences — other liberal philosophers of the era would throw cruelty, suffering, and fear into the mix — are more intelligible and thus more credible than the traditional ideals of the left. It is easier to huddle around the campfire of our dread than to mass and march toward a distant light. We can believe in political atrocities in a way that we cannot believe in universal brotherhood and sisterhood. Indeed, the beauty of atrocities is that we need not believe in them at all. They’re just there, the world’s fundament, waiting for us to build on them.
So we have. In the 1990s and the 2000s, we assembled elaborate complexes of liberal theory on the killing fields of Rwanda and the Balkans and on the Eurasian plains. More than a decade later, we’ve forgotten how much the liberal imagination was seized by ethnic cleansing and genocide and Salafist and Saddamist terror. It was Michael Ignatieff, liberalism’s action intellectual, who declared,
The idea of human universality rests less on hope than on fear, less on optimism about the human capacity for good than on dread of human capacity for evil, less on a vision of man as maker of his history than of man the wolf toward his own kind.
Liberalism has needed evil for some time, at least since the end of the Cold War. While the Obama years saw the occasional reprieve from these demands — the 2008 election, the Occupy movement, and the Bernie Sanders campaign were all marked by a sense that politics might be a forward march rather than a rearguard view — the politics of fear has now come home in the form of Donald Trump. He is our native 9/11.
A liberalism that needs monsters to destroy can never politically engage with its enemies. It can never understand those enemies as political actors, making calculations, taking advantage of opportunities, and responding to constraints. It can never see in those enemies anything other than a black hole of motivation, a cesspool where reason goes to die. Hence the refusal of empathy for Trump’s supporters. Insofar as it marks a demand that we not abandon antiracist principle and practice for the sake of winning over a mythicized white working class, the refusal is unimpeachable. But like the know-nothing disavowal of knowledge after 9/11, when explanations of terrorism were construed as exonerations of terrorism, the refusal of empathy since 11/9 is a will to ignorance. Far simpler to imagine Trump voters as possessed by a kind of demonic intelligence, or anti-intelligence, transcending all the rules of the established order. Rather than treat Trump as the outgrowth of normal politics and traditional institutions — it is the Electoral College, after all, not some beating heart of darkness, that sent Trump to the White House — there is a disabling insistence that he and his forces are like no political formation we’ve seen. By encouraging us to see only novelty in his monstrosity, analyses of this kind may prove as crippling as the neocons’ assessment of Saddam’s regime. That, too, was held to be like no tyranny we’d seen, a despotism where the ordinary rules of politics didn’t apply and knowledge of the subject was therefore useless.
Such a liberalism becomes dependent on the very thing it opposes, with a tepid mix of neoliberal markets and multicultural morals getting much-needed spice from a terrifying right. Hillary Clinton ran hard on the threat of Trump, as if his presence were enough to authorize her presidency. Where Sanders promised to change the conversation, to make the battlefield a contest between a multicultural neoliberalism and a multiracial social democracy, Clinton sought to keep the battlefield as it has been for the past quarter-century. In this single respect, she can claim a substantial victory. It’s no accident that one of the most spectacular confrontations since the election pitted the actors of Hamilton against the tweets of Trump. These fixed, frozen positions — high on rhetoric, low on action — offer an almost perfect tableau of our ongoing gridlock of recrimination.
Clinton waged this campaign on the belief that her neoliberalism of fear could defeat the ethnonationalism of the right. Let us not make the same mistake twice. Let us not be addicted to “the drug of danger,” as Athena says in the Oresteia, to “the dream of the enemy that has to be crushed, like a herb, before [we] can smell freedom.”
By Wesley Yang
The term “meritocracy” became shorthand for a desirable societal ideal soon after it was coined by the British socialist Sir Michael Young. But Young had originally used it to describe a dystopian future. His 1958 satirical novel, The Rise of the Meritocracy, imagines the creation and growth of a national system of intelligence testing, which identifies talented young people from every stratum of society in order to install them in special schools, where they are groomed to make the best use possible of their innate advantages.
In the novel, what begins as a struggle against inherited privilege results in the consolidation of a new ruling class that derives its legitimacy from superior merit. This class becomes, within a few generations, a hereditary aristocracy in its own right. Sequestered within elite institutions, people of high intelligence marry among themselves, passing along their high social position and superior genes to their progeny. Terminal inequality is the result. The gradual shift from inheritance to merit, Young writes, made “nonsense of all their loose talk of the equality of man”:
Men, after all, are notable not for the equality, but for the inequality, of their endowment. Once all the geniuses are amongst the elite, and all the morons are amongst the workers, what meaning can equality have? What ideal can be upheld except the principle of equal status for equal intelligence? What is the purpose of abolishing inequalities in nurture except to reveal and make more pronounced the inescapable inequalities of Nature?
I thought about this book often in the years before the crack-up of November 2016. In early 2015, the Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam published a book that seemed to tell as history the same story that Young had written as prophecy. Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis opens with an evocation of the small town of Port Clinton, Ohio, where Putnam grew up in the 1950s — a “passable embodiment of the American Dream, a place that offered decent opportunity for all the kids in town, whatever their background.” Port Clinton was, as Putnam is quick to concede, a nearly all-white town in a pre-feminist and pre-civil-rights America, and it was marked by the unequal distribution of power that spurred those movements into being. Yet it was also a place of high employment, strong unions, widespread homeownership, relative class equality, and generally intact two-parent families. Everyone knew one another by their first names and almost everyone was headed toward a better future; nearly three quarters of all the classmates Putnam surveyed fifty years later had surpassed their parents in both educational attainment and wealth.
When he revisited it in 2013, the town had become a kind of American nightmare. In the 1970s, the industrial base entered a terminal decline, and the town’s economy declined with it. Downtown shops closed. Crime, delinquency, and drug use skyrocketed. In 1993, the factory that had offered high-wage blue-collar employment finally shuttered for good. By 2010, the rate of births to unwed mothers had risen to 40 percent. Two years later, the average worker in the county “was paid roughly 16 percent less in inflation-adjusted dollars than his or her grandfather in the early 1970s.”
Young’s novel ends with an editorial note informing readers that the fictional author of the text had been killed in a riot that was part of a violent populist insurrection against the meritocracy, an insurrection that the author had been insisting would pose no lasting threat to the social order. Losing every young person of promise to the meritocracy had deprived the working class of its prospective leaders, rendering it unable to coordinate a movement to manifest its political will. “Without intelligence in their heads,” he wrote, “the lower classes are never more menacing than a rabble.”
We are in the midst of a global insurrection against ruling elites. In the wake of the most destructive of the blows recently delivered, a furious debate arose over whether those who supported Donald Trump deserve empathy or scorn. The answer, of course, is that they deserve scorn for resorting to so depraved and false a solution to their predicament — and empathy for the predicament itself. (And not just because advances in technology are likely to make their predicament far more widely shared.) What is owed to them is not the lachrymose pity reserved for victims (though they have suffered greatly) but rather a practical appreciation of how their antagonism to the policies that determined the course of this campaign — mass immigration and free trade — was a fully political antagonism that was disregarded for decades, to our collective detriment.
A policy of benign neglect of immigration laws invites into our country a casualized workforce without any leverage, one that competes with the native-born and destroys whatever leverage the latter have to negotiate better terms for themselves. The policy is a subsidy to American agribusiness, meatpacking plants, restaurants, bars, and construction companies, and to American families who would not otherwise be able to afford the outsourcing of childcare and domestic labor that the postfeminist, dual-income family requires. At the same time, a policy of free trade pits native-born workers against foreign ones content to earn pennies on the dollar of their American counterparts.
In lieu of the social-democratic provision of childcare and other services of domestic support, we have built a privatized, ad hoc system of subsidies based on loose border enforcement — in effect, the nation cutting a deal with itself at the expense of the life chances of its native-born working class. In lieu of an industrial policy that would preserve intact the economic foundation of their lives, we rapidly dismantled our industrial base in pursuit of maximal aggregate economic growth, with no concern for the uneven distribution of the harms and the benefits. Some were enriched hugely by these policies: the college-educated bankers, accountants, consultants, technologists, lawyers, economists, and corporate executives who built a supply chain that reached to the countries where we shipped the jobs. Eventually, of course, many of these workers learned that both political parties regarded them as fungible factors of production, readily discarded in favor of a machine or a migrant willing to bunk eight to a room.
Four decades of neoliberal globalization have cleaved our country into two hostile classes, and the line cuts across the race divide. On one side, college students credential themselves for meritocratic success. On the other, the white working class increasingly comes to resemble the black underclass in indices of social disorganization. On one side of the divide, much energy is expended on the eradication of subtler inequalities; on the other side, an equality of immiseration increasingly obtains.
Even before the ruling elite sent the proletariat off to fight a misbegotten war, even before it wrecked the world economy through heedless lending, even before its politicians rescued those responsible for the crisis while allowing working-class victims of all colors to sink, the working class knew that it had been sacrificed to the interests of those sitting atop the meritocratic ladder. The hostility was never just about differing patterns in taste and consumption. It was also about one class prospering off the suffering of another. We learned this year that political interests that go neglected for decades invariably summon up demagogues who exploit them for their own gain. The demagogues will go on to betray their supporters and do enormous harm to others.
If we are to arrest the global descent into barbarism, we will have to understand the political antagonism at the heart of the meritocratic project and seek a new kind of politics. If we choose to neglect the valid interests of the working class, Trump will prove in retrospect to have been a pale harbinger of even darker nightmares to come.
Terms of Engagement
By Tim Barker
Is there a German word for an argument everyone pretends to abandon but keeps having? The American left’s debate about race, class, and gender is old: generations of radicals have asked whether one structure of domination holds the key to all the others. Almost as old is the recognition that the question is badly posed. Surely choosing a single priority is not just difficult but inadequate? Surely it would be better to see the terms as dialectically intertwined, alternative approximations from which to approach the imposing tangle of social relations?
Yet the argument — which pits, in current parlance, identity politics against class analysis — doesn’t stop. It’s only gotten louder with the twin shocks of 2016 — Bernie Sanders’s surprising success in the Democratic primary, Hillary Clinton’s surprising defeat in the general election. Squint and you see one obvious truth: the only way for the left to win is a broad social-democratic appeal to the entire working class, white people included. Blink and something else is just as clear: the prerogatives of white men have been violently reasserted against the legacy of Barack Obama and the prospect of Clinton; even if some of those racists are among capitalism’s victims, we shouldn’t give them an inch.
There is nothing more essential for our political future than overcoming this divide. But many sorts of inertia — deep political commitments, contingent social alliances, personal branding, to say nothing of the buzzing, blooming reality that will continue to provide evidence for many contradictory conclusions — will impede convergence. Everyone who feels they have a stake in the dispute about the relative importance of race, class, and gender needs to advance from their own chosen starting point toward other people who share the same fundamental commitment — liberation from oppression and domination — and, perhaps more significant, the same enemies. I want to propose two terms — “racial capitalism” and “social reproduction” — that might be helpful.
South Africa under apartheid may be the starkest example of what activists called racial capitalism. There it was perhaps obvious that the basic rules governing economic relationships — who could own things, what it meant to own something, what a boss could get away with — could not be defined apart from categories of racial subordination. It took an ensemble of popular organizations — communists, African nationalists, trade unions — more than forty years to overthrow the regime.
But in the United States as well, racial categories have their roots in numerous regimes of unfree labor, from the African slave trade to the guest-worker program. A worker with nothing to sell but her labor power is different from a worker with nothing to sell but her labor power and the family house. Given current trends, it would take the average black family 228 years to match the level of wealth currently held by the average white family. It should not be difficult to see that race is, for non-white people in the United States, a fundamental way of experiencing material (“class”) inequality.
In Italy in the 1970s, at the high point of class struggles between unions and capitalists as well as between workers and their unions, socialist feminists found themselves making use of the concept of social reproduction. How does a society cultivate the conditions of its future existence? Before wage workers could produce things in factories, these theorists reasoned, someone had to produce (i.e., give birth to and raise, feed and clean up for) the workforce. The people who performed this labor were, by and large, women; that they were not paid a wage only confirmed that their role came prior to, and was indispensable for, the parts of common life that official statistics recognized as “economic.” The Italian theorists who proposed the term considered it vital not because they wanted to assert the importance of gender identity over other identities but because without the insight it provided, no understanding of class struggle — and no organization of the working class — could be complete.
Besides these existing concepts, which offer the terms for a more fruitful future discussion, we must recognize that the struggles currently glossed as “class” and “identity” are both capable of sketching broad, universalizing horizons or narrow, particularizing ones: the causes can bring people together or divide them to be conquered. The partisans of class politics are rightfully proud that the history of socialist, communist, and trade-union organizations contains a wildly disproportionate share of the most advanced antiracist struggles. This is an index of the power that shared interests — more than good intentions or painstaking language — can have in bringing people together for effective action. These achievements also reflect the fact that labor radicals, with a vision of industrial democracy, have sometimes been able to see beyond the shabby articles of faith that mainstream politicians take for granted.
At the same time, it is trivially easy to trace a line of exclusion through the history of American trade unions and the institutions of the white left. This is a function of the limited ability white workers and radicals have to dissociate themselves from the racist common sense that structures society in general. (Think of the American Communist Party, which greeted World War II by expelling its Japanese members and supporting their internment as enemy aliens.) The tendency toward exclusion also illustrates something about the nature of economic struggles. Even though we all have material needs, there is nothing about a struggle that centers on a certain workplace, targets economic elites, or concerns issues like the wage that automatically makes the struggle universal. To the contrary: in most instances, they are parochial — defenses of the conditions of life for a specific group of workers.
The lines of inclusion and exclusion can be drawn along many axes, of which perceived racial identity is merely one: there is also language, religion, skilled versus unskilled labor, and, most commonly, sector against sector. When white strikers beat up black strikebreakers, is it about racism or economic anxiety? Just asking the question reveals how silly it is. But saying “Of course it’s both” doesn’t point the way toward a natural solution — it simply suggests that many conflicts, no matter how they are understood, have no universalizing logic.
Ultimately, the problem is not deductive but practical: how to overcome mutual suspicion, probably well justified, between people who cannot afford to work at cross-purposes. We can disagree about the exact ways that different forms of oppression overlap, and about the strategic implications of this analysis. But since most of us predicted the election wrong, and all of us face an uncertain future, this disagreement should be attended by generosity and humility. We need constructive engagement across the boundaries that currently exist. In the end, it is not a question of winning an argument but of defeating an adversary. It could not be more important that we focus on the real enemy.
By Katrina Forrester
The history of feminism is filled with backlashes, but this one looks to be especially bad. Abortion rights are under threat from the federal government. The promised repeal of the Affordable Care Act would strip many women of health insurance and could severely restrict access to affordable contraception. Social services that help low-income women (disproportionately immigrants and women of color) will likely be cut. It’s hard to imagine that the gender wage gap will improve under a Trump Administration, and easy to imagine both a rise in sexual assault and a drop in the number of assaults reported. That glass ceiling now feels like the concern of better days. Trump has licensed and unleashed a breed of misogyny that goes far beyond the soft conservatism we are used to, with its rhetoric of mothers, wives, and daughters, of women as the property of men.
A backlash signals a new reality, but of course that reality already existed. In the past decade, Republican-controlled state legislatures have forced abortion clinics across the country to close. Women have become the fastest-growing segment of the prison population, and deportations have increased — upending the lives and livelihoods of the immigrant and undocumented women deported, as well as the many left behind. The working-class women of color who constitute nearly half the low-wage female labor force have suffered because of the coverage gap created by states that decided not to expand Medicaid. The extent of the backlash depends on where you begin.
The Trump Administration will require sustained opposition at all levels. Organizations for women’s rights excel at the politics of safety, and work is already being done by hundreds of them. The National Network of Abortion Funds, Women with a Vision, the Immigrant Solidarity Network, and INCITE! Women, Gender Non-Conforming, and Trans People of Color Against Violence are among the many that provide crucial services — whether it’s patient escorts at abortion clinics or legal advice and sanctuary for those at risk of deportation or violence. They need your money and your time.
Yet feminist and progressive politics can’t survive on defensive strategies alone. Focusing only on safety sets our sights too low, and also risks handing Trump an easy victory: if he controls the violence that his campaign stirred up, by that measure at least he can claim success. A vision of a better life matters just as much. The coming years will see a new wave of local legislative and political battles — for sick pay, child care, and minimum-wage laws, and against housing and employment discrimination. All are feminist issues that should be fought for, through unions or groups like the Working Families Party. These fights will take place in an ever-harsher climate, but they are vital. They are also a crucial part of any strategy for winning over the women whom feminists can tend to ignore — from the working-class women of color whose votes the Democrats take for granted to the majority of white women who stuck with the G.O.P. Maybe they were used to Trump’s type of vulgarity, thought they could tame it, or liked it. Maybe they believed that other issues were more important.
The return of class concerns to national politics in the United States and Europe has thus far worked to the right’s advantage. But local progressive groups are already organizing successfully across class and identity lines: it is up to us to listen to them. They know it is harder to get an abortion if you are poor, and that the working class is not composed solely of white men in old factory towns but also includes black and brown and indigenous and white women in the care sector — the fastest-growing sector of the economy. To take the fight to the new administration and limit the damage it can do, feminists must be relentless in showing that there is no contradiction between protecting women’s rights and providing an alternative economic vision for America.
The potential victims of Trumpism will need to be defended at every stage, but in a way that does not overstate his power or enhance his appeal. The challenge is how to accomplish this amid a backlash in which the idea of feminism itself has suffered lasting harm. Was Clinton’s pantsuit feminism to blame, or was she simply the most recent in a long line of women who asked for too much? The D.N.C. must bear some responsibility: it weaponized representational politics but made little long-term commitment to tackling inequality, a divorce of feminism from material concerns that has done it no favors.
The pressing question now is how to confront the new politics of vengeance. Trump has tapped into a visceral, libidinal politics that centers on the identity of those who feel themselves to have been wronged. He promises redress, to return to his supporters what was stolen from them, to give back what they are owed. Such politics does not bode well for whoever is blamed, especially when Trump’s outlandish promises are inevitably broken and his supporters betrayed. Where redress fails, retribution is often the next step: the idea, put forward by Trump last March, that women who have abortions might be punished signals the possibility that it may be violent.
Threats like these make resistance hard, but the immediate difficulties lie elsewhere. To protect the rights of women, and everyone else, we must strike a delicate balance. On the one hand, we should refuse to normalize white supremacy and racism, or to allow the memes of the right — like its critique of identity politics — to seep into progressivism in a way that marginalizes feminism and antiracism. On the other, we have to find a way to do this alongside the new libidinal politics. That politics — a product both of the crisis of masculinity that has accompanied economic decline and of the white-nationalist alt-right that drives the backlash — is complex, and it takes every expression of liberal outrage as an opportunity. Here lies the difficulty for those committed to resisting it. Outrage — at sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, take your pick — energizes Trump’s core supporters, just as Clinton’s feminism alienated the women who voted for him. Both Trump and the G.O.P. will make use of this energy, for an excited base is also a distracted one. A certain kind of indignation is precisely what will keep him from having to acknowledge his larger betrayals.
Too little attention to this new politics would allow it to permeate the culture. Too much would distract us; we risk overestimating the strength of Trump’s base — or ignoring those within it who can be convinced that there are better alternatives. Meanwhile, the agenda to roll back not only reproductive and minority rights but also the welfarist, regulatory, and economic capacities of the state would go unchallenged. If the fight against this particular backlash is to be successful, we will need to aim high.
Hymn to Harm City
By Lawrence Jackson
Around the time that Ronald Reagan was elected president, my dad lost his job as the branch director of a manpower center in Baltimore. Reagan ended urban public-employment programs, accelerated mass incarceration, prompted massive disinvestment in black and Latino regions of the country, renewed the government’s friendly relations with South Africa’s apartheid regime, and covertly sponsored wars in Central America. His domestic war — the war on drugs — produced a new and magnificently exculpatory idea for the rest of the nation: “black-on-black violence.” I was in eighth grade then, and I remember finding it odd that my public school was now considering ketchup a nutrient-rich vegetable. (The actual color of the ketchup also changed, from bright red to a kind of maroon, and the packages went from foil to plastic.)
Reagan came to office on the promise of returning America to the era of Generals Patton and MacArthur, which is to say around 1944, the year World War II turned in favor of the Allies. That alliance — or at least its North Atlantic members — is what people mean when they say “the West”: the United States, the U.K., and France. The most arrogant inhabitants of these nations (sadly, often those who were leading) understood themselves to be the ordained directors of human beings across the globe, across space and time. They were committed to civilization by the sword. Yet not even Reagan was mighty enough to reinstall the American militants who ached to battle the Russians and the Chinese.
Reagan took to politics for what he couldn’t achieve in his original profession, acting. He stood in the shadow of John Wayne, a cultural hero who embodied American ethical values and social mores and whose work in front of the camera had deep political impact. In 1972, in an interview with Life magazine, Wayne declared that the problem wasn’t that the Vietnam War was folly, it was that the values of white rule weren’t being exported vigorously enough. Wayne’s films gave audiences a steady dose of what the historian Richard Slotkin calls “regeneration through violence.” Both civilization and capitalist bonanza depend on violent encounters and imperial expansion. If the country is to be healthy, it needs some frontier populated by some brand of enemy.
Donald Trump ably splits the difference between the Duke and the Gipper. He admires the strongman and instinctively maneuvers the world of the camera and the tweet. In a way that makes genuine elites cringe, Trump is known for his garish splendor, which acknowledges no possibility of excess — no volume too high, no light too bright, no gilding ever enough.
Trump’s politics first became plain in 1973, when the Department of Justice sued him and his father for systematically preventing black people from renting units in their buildings. In 1989, shortly after a jogger in Manhattan’s Central Park was reported to have been raped by black and Latino teenagers, Trump bought a full-page advertisement calling for the return of the death penalty. The convicted rapists were later proved to have been bullied by the police into giving false confessions; perhaps they were also victims of salivating advertisements. Trump’s apparent enthusiasm for extraordinary state force and his suggestion that the nation’s legal structure needs vigorous goading to carry out deadly business is what endears him to some and makes him so terrifying to others.
It’s worth remembering now, as we face down the next four years, that in the 1980s, the national government’s failures with respect to employment, AIDS, public education, drug rehabilitation, and racial justice were balanced by a groundswell of countervailing activity. Not least among that activity was the cultural movement that came to be called Afrocentrism. Afrocentrists organized protests in response to the deaths of Eleanor Bumpurs, a New Yorker who was wrongfully killed by police, and Yusef Hawkins, who was killed by a mob in Bensonhurst. They created Ph.D. programs in African-American studies, excavated thematic and sonic resources to create the golden age of hip-hop, proposed the dynastic names that people gave their children, resurrected Malcolm X, and brought Kwanzaa cards to CVS. At the movement’s forefront were unheralded scholars like John Henrik Clarke, but the milieu also fostered the success of better-known black academics like Henry Louis Gates Jr. and filmmakers like Spike Lee. Afrocentric bonhomie served up leather craftwork medallions as an answer to jewelry made from South African–mined gold and laid terra firma between professional community organizers like Barack Obama and the people in hard places like Chicago’s South Side that those organizers sought to mobilize.
The robust opposition to Reagan’s dawn had nineteenth-century precedent in Baltimore, where I still live, a town that Trump likes to insert as a refrain in his litany of municipal heretics that he intends to convert to the true religion by way of the Third Army or the Seventh Fleet. In Baltimore’s history we can actually glimpse a more wonderful future. Recall our homeboy Frederick Douglass. Douglass was a dreamer and a brooder and, for the most part, had a hard time connecting with other black people. But in Baltimore he learned the skills he needed to escape slavery. The ideals of collective mobilization that thrived during Douglass’s tenure in Charm City, in institutions such as the Sharp Street United Methodist Church, where there was an antebellum school, and the East Baltimore Mental Improvement Society, which gave him an early opportunity for debate, have rooted here with some force. Almost two hundred years later, the same soil is nourishing a legislative-reform group called Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle. Founded by a group of inner-city debaters who wanted to work inside poor black communities, L.B.S. figured out the kinds of policing reforms that were desired, built the coalitions necessary to create legislation, and started backing the progressive politicians willing to charge ahead. After the death of Freddie Gray, they took the lead in organizing marches and protests at City Hall.
A new generation of Baltimore intellectuals, activist writers, and college professors draws its members from Morgan State University’s public-health department and the Africana Studies program at Johns Hopkins University. New coalitions, including Equity Matters, a nonprofit that emphasizes the relationship between poverty and poor health, and the Right to Housing Alliance have spoken out against a corporate, profit-driven, implicitly racist program to redesign the southern part of the city’s waterfront as a hygienic white space. The Liberation Institute, a debate camp named after Eddie Conway (a Black Panther who was incarcerated for more than forty years), emphasizes black cultural identity and social justice, and helps to rear articulate leaders who won’t knuckle under. Out for Justice, an organization of ex-offenders, counsels parolees on the expungement of their records and how to invest as citizens in the communities that need them. Even the federal government plays a part, with the youth-mentorship program My Brother’s Keeper. And then there are the black businesses on 25th Street and the bookstore at Everyone’s Place.
All this is to say that when Trump’s legions rise from their podiums in Philadelphia, Mississippi, and wave banners emblazoned with welfare queens, we will meet them in the field. Our response will be direct and sufficient. And we will win.
Terrorist and Alien
By Nimmi Gowrinathan and Valeria Luiselli
terrorist: On 11/9 you and I both felt a kind of paralysis; we needed a pause to protect our raw nerves. And yet it had already begun. It started with hateful stares. A relative who voted for Trump told me, “Just don’t wear a scarf, for your own safety.” I almost said, “The scarf was on my neck, not my head,” but stopped myself; I wasn’t ready to enter the realm of the absurd. But this is the new reality: we are all, suddenly, exposed.
alien: I feel I should have foreseen all this. I am a novelist: my mind is trained to be paranoid, to read the world like a plot in which seemingly trivial events foreshadow the climax. And there were so many signs. Maybe you remember what happened to me on the day that Trump launched his campaign:
One of my neighbors approaches me as I’m locking my bike to a pole on the corner. He asks me what I make of Trump’s accusation that Mexican migrants are criminals and rapists. I say the man is an ignorant clown who understands nothing of the lives of Mexican migrants.
He says: “Maybe Trump has a point?”
And he says something about not all Mexicans being “like you guys.”
So I ask: “Like us guys?” — not sure I’ve heard him correctly.
The rest of the conversation is hazy. His argument spins between classist and racist: skilled versus unskilled labor, “inherent” worldviews and the “unwillingness” to assimilate. There is always a point at which aspirants to the American dream meet the concrete wall of racial and cultural bias.
terrorist: This story made everyone feel less lonely when you told it over dinner a few months ago. We were drinking wine; the conversation moved easily into sarcasm, satire. We believed our foundational assumptions were on firm ground. We discussed common perceptions of immigrant writers, demobilized female fighters, the difference between rights and liberties. All while our children moved quietly through a forest of adult legs, barely seen or heard yet overhearing us.
Now it feels like we’re sitting next to our children, under the table, looking up.
alien: May I remind you that your six-year-old son later told me that my novel The Story of My Teeth seemed like the silliest book in the world. He suggested I write about “more important things, like political violence.” He has it pretty clear.
terrorist: The course I teach looks at violence through the lens of gender. Women’s individual experiences with violence are different, but common to all is the fact that the state and society are ultimately responsible. What does a black woman facing police brutality in the Bronx have in common with a Tamil refugee woman living under military occupation in Sri Lanka? The lines we draw extend beyond identity.
alien: This reminds me of a nightmare I had: I assign a group of creative-writing students to read something great — say, Kafka, or Sei Sh onagon. When they come to class, and I ask them what they think, the only answer is “not relatable.” End of nightmare.
I heard that word, “relatability,” for the first time a few years ago. It took me a while to understand that it was the direct opposite of “empathy”: a piece of writing is “not relatable” when it doesn’t talk about me or reflect my experience. The point of literature is precisely to force us out of ourselves, to expand our understanding of the world by allowing us to see it through the mind of another person.
I’m done with relatability. Now when I teach any course on literature or creative writing, I go out of my way to choose texts and topics that are totally “un-relatable,” so as to teach my students how to make the effort that empathy — emotional and intellectual — requires.
terrorist: The problem is that each group has learned to protect the small political space carved out for it by identity politics. On the afternoon after the Paris attacks in 2015, a student of mine from Egypt declared that those who posted the French flag on Facebook were anti-Islam. In a tearful, confused defense, her French classmate was at once grieving and apologizing for an Islamophobia she didn’t feel.
I often ask my students why they’re interested in taking my courses. The answer always comes easily: “Because I am trans/queer/Native American/Mexican/black.” The who is easily substituted for the why.
alien: And that who is often an imposed category. I learned that I was a “woman of color” when I arrived in the United States — as if the new identity were part of my welcome kit.
terrorist: You are a Mexican woman and I a Tamil–Sri Lankan–American woman. What we have in common isn’t so much our identity as women of color as our rage at structures of discrimination. This is what we should be trying to do in class and in writing: dismantling those structures so that we can actually see each other.
alien: If only because speaking from inside a box is rarely an effective way to have your point heard anywhere outside it.
Your son was told, by someone in his first-grade class, that his skin was the color of poo.
terrorist: And he worries about the “extermination” of your daughter, his best friend, because she’s from Mexico.
alien: And she wonders if our other friends, who are lesbian, or her Argentine–African-American friend, will have to relocate to another country.
terrorist: And my son doesn’t always like the idea of resisting: “Can’t Trump just send the military and police to get us, Mom?”
alien: And my daughter suggests, as a “solution,” that we not speak Spanish in the street, “so nobody knows we’re actually mexicanos.”
terrorist: We’re back to dealing with very basic, random acts of racism. It will surely affect us internally. Can we draw on people’s individual, identity-based experiences with violence to create a collective political movement?
alien: I have no idea. How does one remain politically active in a world that strives to deny our presence within the political sphere, that wants to make people like us invisible by relegating us to identity categories: immigrants, women of color, brown, black, Mexican, Asian, Muslim — all you whatever-minority “others,” raus! I say this without an ounce of self-pity. I don’t even say it with rage. I say it with just a little regret, and I wonder: when we’re separated like this, how do we remember that we still have collective responsibilities?
Maybe we should just spend the next decades calmly rereading Hannah Arendt on a sofa; or invent new gods, make candles, and pray to them; or stop writing novels and articles, stop teaching, and instead focus on perfecting our handwriting for posters we’ll hold up in street protests for the rest of our lives.
Or we swallow the mierda and carry on. My students often paraphrase something you said to them one day: “Gotta turn all our emotional shit into political capital, yo!”
Lessons From the Last Fight
By Sarah Schulman
I was twenty-two when Ronald Reagan was elected. “Gay cancer” was recognized seven months later. For the first half of his presidency, Reagan never said the word “AIDS,” in accordance with his administration’s dehumanization of queer people, poor people, and people of color. Over eight years of governmental indifference and neglect, years marked also by the greed of the pharmaceutical industry, the crisis escalated. Today, there are nearly 37 million infected people on the planet. In the United States, 75,000 people have died. I am still here, but many of my friends are not. The mass death of the young forever transformed my generation. I know all too well that what lies ahead for us, under a Trump regime, is more suffering.
Yet I am strangely calm. I was trained in the political movements ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and the Lesbian Avengers, organizations that taught me that the key to maintaining one’s sanity is action. The strategies of ACT UP, one of the most successful social movements in recent American history, are especially helpful to examine as we prepare for what may come. Against all odds, a despised population, abandoned by their families and government and facing a terminal disease for which there was no treatment, joined together and forced this country to change against its will. Activists won laws against discrimination, instigated policy changes that increased social services, and influenced research for treatments. Their efforts drastically changed the lives of people who have H.I.V.
One of ACT UP’s most important principles was simultaneity of action. ACT UP never worked by consensus, never demanded the full agreement of all its members for any individual action to go forward. If you wanted to get arrested doing needle exchange as a way of bringing attention to the necessity of clean-needle programs, you could do that. If someone else wanted to interrupt mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in order to protest the Catholic Church’s campaign to keep condoms out of public schools, she could do that. As long as the gestures were concrete, members didn’t try to stop one another from addressing the crisis however they felt was right.
The Lesbian Avengers were equally focused on doing. The group aimed to empower a constituency who had spent their lives being grossly disrespected by and excluded from social institutions — often including their own families. We needed guidelines that would help people emerge from a position in which the only power they had was the power to refuse and into a position of vision and agency. For example, one rule was “If you have an idea, you have to carry it out.” No one could passively sit back and say, “Someone should . . . ” Second was the principle “If you disagree with something, propose a better solution.” We understood that criticism alone was unhelpful. These organizational frameworks supported us in taking responsibility for ourselves and solving problems. Nothing increases panic in the middle of an emergency like theoretical discussion without application — it is both paralyzing and polarizing. When you act directly, the Avengers liked to say, the theory emerges.
The stakes were high for both ACT UP and the Lesbian Avengers; we badly needed change, and we needed it fast. So we operated with the understanding that if a tactic had not worked in the past, we shouldn’t try it again. This precept may sound logical, but it is difficult to obey; there is a tendency to gravitate toward the known even when its problems are apparent.
Our creative approaches acted as correctives to more common but less effective strategies. Passive demonstrations, for instance — in which people stand out in the cold listening to speakers, say — are rarely very powerful. Far more potent are pointedly symbolic actions, organized and performed by people trained in nonviolent civil disobedience and accompanied for safety by legal observers and trained marshals. Consider the genius and bravery of the black students who took seats at segregated lunch counters. In breaking the color bar, they created — for a moment — an image of the world they wanted to live in.
Despite this country’s endless celebration of the heroic individual, progressive change happens almost exclusively as a result of coalition. These alliances depend on the flexibility of their members, a shared commitment to concrete action, and an ethic of mutual recognition. Our desperation for a solution mustn’t delude us into thinking any single strategy is appropriate for every circumstance. It’s in listening to others that we will find out what works.
By Celina Su
The results of this election are, among other things, a devastating consequence of almost six decades of declining political participation in America. In 2016, almost half of those eligible to vote did not exercise their right to do so. This is due not to historic highs of apathy but to historic lows of trust in government. According to Gallup polls, 71 percent of Americans had a “great deal” or a “fair amount” of confidence in Congress in 1972; in 2014, that figure was just 28 percent. People are deeply and rightfully disillusioned with the ability of electoral politics to bring to power officials who represent the interests of the communities they serve. The Electoral College, the limited choices available in a two-party system, voter suppression, gerrymandering, and the disenfranchisement of more than 6 million citizens (including many no longer on probation or parole) all contributed to the election of a racist demagogue supported by a minority of Americans.
Political participation is essential to a robust democracy, but we cannot rebuild trust in government without rebuilding government itself. The reform of electoral politics is necessary but insufficient. Equally important is the development of democratic institutions that rely on direct participation rather than representation.
First adopted in the United States in 2009, participatory budgeting is one such answer to representative politics. Typically, budget allocations — grants for computer labs in library branches, or meal programs for homebound seniors — are made by elected officials at various degrees of remove. P.B., as it’s often called, brings constituents into the process, allowing them to articulate the problems they see in their neighborhoods, deliberate over solutions, and draft the policies that will govern them.
In a moment of bigotry and autocratic opposition to free media and discourse, such processes — which require us to consider our public priorities with people unlike ourselves — are radical. They force us to broaden our definition of whose voice counts. Where the electoral system has engaged the usual suspects — older people of higher income — P.B. would give voice to people often marginalized, including the young, the formerly incarcerated, and the undocumented. When P.B. was first tried in New York City in 2011, young people were not allowed to vote, but they could develop proposals, and their contributions impressed adults enough that the voting age has been lowered almost every year since.
This expansion of the political community happened partly because P.B. enables participants to draw on lived experience and wisdom that does not depend on formal schooling. If a question is raised, for example, about which areas feel unsafe at specific hours, local knowledge carries as much weight as technical expertise, and it’s harder for elites to dominate the conversation. Participants report that P.B. deliberations allow them to inhabit more than one aspect of their identities — for example, their lives as African Americans, as parents, as sports fans, as city dwellers, as Midwesterners — and connect with people they might otherwise assume they have nothing in common with.
The goal is not consensus, which can often serve as a mask for domination, but generative conflict. Neighbors focus on changing the policies that shape their lives rather than, say, getting rid of the people down the street. The practice combats what Henry Giroux, a theorist of critical pedagogy, calls “civic illiteracy” — “the inability to see outside of the realm of the privatized self.”
The challenge lies in ensuring that P.B. experiments achieve countervailing power and do not simply pay lip service to community involvement. For P.B. to be effective, communities must have authority over a substantial portion of public budgets, certainly more than the governmental equivalent of the crumbs from a P.T.A. bake sale. When austerity economics dominates budget debates, officials can use P.B. to make citizens themselves choose cutbacks, forcing them to decide whose school gets a playground upgrade and whose doesn’t. And if P.B. is to make a dent in Trumpism, it must take account of the way budgets can reinforce racial inequality, and vice versa. One solution is to work toward public control over tax revenues as well as spending allocations. Should local governments in places like Ferguson, Missouri, earn significant portions of their budgets by overpolicing populations of color?
In a racially and economically segregated society, these sorts of local democratic experiments can reinforce existing inequities, especially in the short term. What happens at a meeting, for example, when a bully shows up? Yet in contrast to conservative movements organized around local control, P.B. aims to remake government, not weaken it. Ideally, participation prompts people to turn their attention from their plight as individuals to the conditions of their community and, in turn, to the governmental, corporate, and institutional powers determining those conditions. It shows us what democracy looks like as an everyday social practice, rather than as an institution to be visited once every fourth November.
In End Time
By Simone White
For some time, I’ve been experimenting with the possibility of my work becoming polyglot. The poems tap out from various sources an arrangement of words that are encircled by the facts of living. I had a child. I separated from my husband. I sank into a depression that did not feel like depression, that felt like revelation or the end of time or the end-time. I didn’t have enough money. I thought long and seriously about the music of Future (and superstardom constituted by a narrative of slow black death), I thought about Kanye West (not the first among rappers to anoint himself a prophet: Jesus-ish Yeezy, St. Pablo), I thought about this black art while living with and through crisis, and it was a comfort to me; it helped me to understand. I changed my life, not for the first time. I felt love again and then again. I had many jobs. I had no sex at all. I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I: I wrote as a black woman, as a single mother, as a person who is called to speech.
Nothing happens in my poems. They are not histories. I’m not in the business of telling people what to do. I think storytelling as a contemporary poetic act gives off an odor of death. (My life, my work, is counternarrative.) I push my art toward language that affixes itself to the energetic flux of events. The poem must ride the moment of danger.
For all these reasons, because I am struggling to survive the conditions of my life — a charmed life, in which I am free to exercise the right of imagination, to have pain and disturbance and loss and lack — I could barely acknowledge the political ascent of Donald Trump. This was not because I take no interest in elections or political processes or law. I trained as a lawyer because there is a part of me that believes freedom is structurally achievable, although that part is always fighting the part that believes it is impossible to eradicate hatred of black people, hatred of difference, fear of being different. As I struggled to maintain my health, my capacity to work two full-time jobs, my self-respect as a black mother entering into the narrative thicket of a failed marriage to a white man, I refused to watch Trump slither his way into a position of terrifying power on this, our only earth.
I began “MESSENGER,” the poem I have been writing for the past year, as a record of rededication during crisis to the calling of poetry, which is the practice of radical, transformative acts of imagination. I wrote in the light of the flashes of what I understood about the gap in time and language that experience had pushed me into. In my poem, which is not religious because I have no faith as such, a message is given by a figure who is variously a child, a lover, an angel, a punisher, a redeemer (whom I refer to as “?????????,” the evangelist). The writing has been a mode of communication, a lifeline, a gift, a refuge when the exterior world bore down with extreme and unbearable force.
I consider the president-elect of the United States an enemy of all that has made my life possible. But his election does not change my work, which is now and always has been imagining the possibility of un-bossed thought and life. There are no words yet for what is happening, but I listen for them gathering. The work is to wedge some language into the gap while the great change happens, to keep the space for language open. I will not be governed like that, I will not be governed by them.
????????? addresses the mother with no mate the mother who panics the mother who watches the others with dread and wonder the careless pleasure of other mothers in the presence of their children the hours spent in fear the isolation of motherhood the metempsychotic deprivation of sleep nothing you have is yours not even deposits of fat you are the nothing toward which the man nods in acknowledgment of your motherhood which is grand which is prostration which is the deactivation of all known powers which is the evacuation of power your share in the speechless condition of your baby speech rushes you freeze in the weakness of joint potentiality you cannot share yet you share you have no faith yet you must have faith this is a test this is not a test everything that was has been evacuated in your arms someone has fainted someone’s got a mote in her eye someone is pricked by ?????????, hunter.
I write books that few people read in a language that some people claim not to understand. I try to put my self and my work into the service of understanding the incomprehensible, which is, regardless, happening. I think it is possible to go crazy.
Letter to Silicon Valley
By Kate Crawford
For the past decade, you’ve told us that your products will change the world, and indeed they have. We carry tiny networked computers with us everywhere, we control “smart” home appliances at a remove, we communicate with our friends and family over online platforms, and now we are all part of the vast Muslim registry known as Facebook. Almost 80 percent of American internet users belong to the social network, and many of them happily offer up their religious affiliation. The faith of those who don’t, too, can be easily deduced with a little data-science magic; in 2013, a Cambridge University study accurately detected Muslims 82 percent of the time, using only their Facebook likes. The industry has only become better at individual targeting since then.
You’ve created simple, elegant tools that allow us to disseminate news in real time. Twitter, for example, is very good at this. It’s also a prodigious disinformation machine. Trolls, fake news, and hate speech thrived on the platform during the presidential campaign, and they show few signs of disappearing now. Twitter has likewise made it easier to efficiently map the networks of activists and political dissenters. For every proud hashtag — #BlackLivesMatter, #ShoutYourAbortion, the anti-deportation campaign #Not1More — there are data sets that reveal the identities of the “influencers” and “joiners” and offer a means of tracking, harassing, and silencing them.
Advertisers, meanwhile, have developed precise algorithms to understand our tastes and desires. These algorithms are used for everything from determining the demographic most interested in pumpkin-spice lattes to setting a driver’s car-insurance rate on the basis of how many exclamation marks they use. Combined with Twitter data, these tools can be deployed to identify and round up political organizers — a prospect of particular concern under a president who has suggested that protesters should be imprisoned and said that he would direct his attorney general to investigate the Black Lives Matter movement.
The data trails required to build a list of dissenters already exist; they are public and permanent. Past comments that had seemed ephemeral will haunt the future. Our search queries, posts, and hashtags will become the most brutal of informants.
You’re working on other tools already. Machine-learning techniques are being tested for use in predictive policing, in the criminal-justice system, and in tracking refugee populations around the world. What will you do if you are asked to modify your new facial-recognition app so that it can help identify and incarcerate undocumented people? Or if your community-mapping tool is acquired by a security company that apprehends activists? Or if the Series A–funded drone service that you designed to deliver packages is offered a government contract to patrol the border? After all, what need is there for a brick-and-mortar wall to separate us from Mexico when a GPS-enabled drone zone with high-resolution cameras and tear gas can do the job? It’s a short, slippery slope from disruptive innovation to the panoptic police force in the sky.
You may intend to resist, but some requests will leave little room for refusal. Last year, the U.S. government forced Yahoo to scan all its customers’ incoming emails, allegedly to find a set of characters that were related to terrorist activity. Tracking emails is just the beginning, of course, and the FBI knows it. The most important encryption case to date hinged on the FBI’s demand that Apple create a bespoke operating system that would allow the government to intentionally undermine user security whenever it impeded an investigation. Apple won the fight, but that was when Obama was in office. Trump’s regime may pressure the technology sector to create back doors in all its products, widen surveillance, and weaken the security of every networked phone, vehicle, and thermostat.
There is precedent for technology companies assisting authoritarian regimes. In 1880, after watching a train conductor punch tickets, Herman Hollerith, a young employee of the U.S. Census Bureau, was inspired to design a punch-card system to catalogue human traits. The Hollerith Machine was used in the 1890 census to tabulate markers such as race, literacy level, gender, and country of origin. During the 1930s, the Third Reich used the same system, under the direction of a German subsidiary of International Business Machines, to identify Jews and other ethnic groups. Thomas J. Watson, IBM’s first president, received a medal from Hitler for his services. As Edwin Black recounts in IBM and the Holocaust, there was both profit and glory to be had in providing the computational services for rounding up the state’s undesirables. Within the decade, IBM served as the information subcontractor for the U.S. government’s Japanese-internment camps.
With this history in mind, we must all ask ourselves what we will and will not do. Ginni Rometty, the current CEO of IBM, was the first to make her position clear, in an open letter in which she congratulated Trump on his victory and offered to “work together to achieve prosperity.” Peter Thiel, the chairman of Palantir and a board member of Facebook, offered advice, as well as his own employees’ time, to assist the president-elect on defense. Many leading technology CEOs were summoned to Trump Tower, and duly attended. Not everyone has been so quick to cooperate, though. Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter — who was not invited — swore to use his position to speak truth to power and to work for the common good. Such statements may be easier made than maintained, but it’s wise to articulate your convictions before the ground begins to shift.
We, the subjects of your data dominions, have limited options. If we’ve used your services, a record of our personal and political behavior is already yours. Yes, we can download Signal, an app that offers better security for phone messaging. We can use Tor, a browser that allows people to search the web and chat anonymously. But our actions as individuals aren’t sufficient to protect us from the vast turnkey surveillance system that the Trump Administration will inherit. So you, too, have a job to do.
One step is to provide end-to-end encryption in as many of your services as possible. WhatsApp has done so, and the feature has become a selling point. The creators of Signal have gone a step further, collecting only the minimum data necessary to operate. When the company was served a government order last year, it could hand over no more than the dates people had joined the service and the dates they last used it. The case is a reminder of the risks created by the current practice of storing all possible data — the risks for you and for us. Particularly dangerous is the information that people have deleted and believe to be gone; you know that sometimes it remains.
None of these choices will be easy: technically, economically, ethically. It is difficult to take a public stand, and it can come at a cost. Yet the decisions made by individual engineers and developers matter. An IBM employee has already quit in response to the company’s support of the Trump Administration. And some tech workers have signed a public pledge to refuse to build tools that could be used to assist mass deportation. If this gesture seems small, it’s worth remembering that back in the early 1940s, when everything looked hopeless, the Resistance leader René Carmille sabotaged the Hollerith infrastructure in occupied France by leaving the eleventh column of the punch cards, which indicated Jewish identity, blank. Carmille has been described as one of the first ethical hackers.
You, the software engineers and leaders of technology companies, face an enormous responsibility. You know better than anyone how best to protect the millions who have entrusted you with their data, and your knowledge gives you real power as civic actors. If you want to transform the world for the better, here is your moment. Inquire about how a platform will be used. Encrypt as much as you can. Oppose the type of data analysis that predicts people’s orientation, religion, and political preferences if they did not willingly offer that information. Reduce the quantity of personal information that is kept. And when the unreasonable demands come, the demands that would put activists, lawyers, journalists, and entire communities at risk, resist wherever you can. History also keeps a file.