Blanket Effects

I have been busy recently, trying to finish my dissertation, teaching, and generally trying to get my future in order so that I can keep writing about things that I enjoy and that matter to me. Despite my generally hectic schedule recently, I have been mulling a post that was to begin:

I am not a patient person, which makes it all the more ironic that I don’t just plan meals out days in advance, but actually plan meals that require me to start making them days in advance.

Or something like that. The first clause, at any rate, was going to begin this way. This was meant to be a clever and thoughtful interweaving of the fact that I don’t stand in line for many things, thoughts about my faults as a student and theories as an educator, and that I spent last week carefully tending to Thing One, my sourdough starter, which is now bubbling merrily away in my fridge. (I am exceedingly proud of Thing One, not least because it makes me feel like a mad scientist.) I will probably still write this post, perhaps even tomorrow, but I spent much of today reading about the fallout from President Trump’s executive order that put a moratorium on citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. Citizens of these countries, people who have already been “extremely vetted” over the course of years and cleared to enter the United States, people who frequently risked their lives to help US military personnel or who are at risk because their family members did so, people who are fleeing persecution because of their religious beliefs in their homelands are now being detained in US airports and are at risk of being deported to countries where their lives will be threatened. In light of this, my glib remark about not being patient just seemed wrong.

This post’s original title was “Reflections on Leviathan” since reading these stories both filled me with a sense of dread appropriate for a world-destroying dragon or great sea monster, and a sense of impotence since I am not in a particular position of power or wealth and have therefore been reflecting on how the Hobbesian tradition can be inverted such that the state can oppress those most in need of protection. In fact, this sort of action is exactly what I was alluding to when I was writing up my thoughts about Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of our Nature. These are not happy thoughts that have been steeping in my mind today and I am only somewhat mollified by the actions of people and institutions more able to respond because they are nevertheless peppered with further reports about deafening silences from others.

Instead, this post remains thoroughly meta. It is full of “was going to,” “was, and “meant to,” because I am going to wrap it up briefly in order to begin composing yet another letter to my congresspeople. I don’t yet know what I am going to say, but this time I am going to also post it online because these issues are too important to remain quiet about.

(And, no, I am not ignoring the other civil rights abuses, the pillaging of the environment and consumer and labor protections for a handful of temporary jobs. These are equally important, but I am choosing to raise my voice here I am a historian whose research focuses on one of the main corridors for Middle Eastern refugees fleeing to Europe.)

There is one more closing thought for today, which is the inspiration for the title and is related to the issue of nuance that I have written about before.

I played a lot of Magic the Gathering as a teenager. Magic, for the uninitiated, is a collectible card game where each player has a deck composed of cards from one or more of the five colors. The colors are fairly cliché: white is purity and good, black is evil or necromancy, red is chaos and fire, green is nature, blue is magic and water. In the broadest context, each player was a mage and the deck represented his or her forces. The objective of the game was to use your deck to beat the other player into submission using spells and creatures, so it was frequently necessary to eliminate the other player’s creatures. Some creatures, however, were immune to spells of a particular color or, even better immune to being targeted at all, because of their unique abilities. There were ways to deal with these pesky creatures that, in terms of game mechanics, did not require “targeting” the card. One, my favorite, was to mandate that a player had to sacrifice a creature, which meant that I was no longer the one doing the targeting. A second, more common, mechanic was cards that were “blanket effects” that targeted every creature in play, thereby circumventing the individual creature’s protection. This mechanic had its downsides, though, namely that friendly creatures were also affected by the spell. The tradeoff for being able to hit that one threatening creature was to adverse affect the whole board.

One might counter that the ominously-named spell “Wrath of God” is best deployed when the flood of enemy creatures is too great and it is necessary to wipe the slate clean. This is true from the perspective of the game, but Magic the Gathering is a closed system–a duel where creatures are a finite supply of cards drawn from a deck. Outside of such a closed system, blanket effects are almost always disastrously naive.

I firmly believe that while it is important to screen immigrants, the United States should be taking in more, not fewer refugees. I believe that living in a more just, tolerant, and open world would be a boon for all human beings. And I also believe that the immigration ban is extremely myopic, not just because it will contribute to anti-American sentiment and increasing isolationism, not just because it will bar me from visiting the places I have wanted to go since I was a small boy, and not just because it is a violation of civil liberties of residents of this country, though is for all of those reasons. I believe this ban is myopic because it is emblematic of a much deeper problem, revealing an utterly uncurious way of looking at the world. A perspective that treats everyone from the Middle East as muslim and every muslim as of one type, with no appreciation for history. This problem is not exclusive to the United States, but, at the moment, it feels uniquely American.

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