Last week, I attended the 2017 Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference and Book Fair in Washington, D.C. The AWP conference is an annual event that draws more than 12,000 attendees from the ranks of writers, teachers, students, editors, and publishers. With hundreds of panels, thousands of attendees, and a book fair showcasing hundreds of presses and journals, it is a golden opportunity to meet other writers and become acquainted with the ‘official’ literary community.
It bears mentioning, however, that I am mindful of the drawbacks of a conference organized by ‘gatekeepers’ of the literary world. The AWP conference is an opportunity to engage with the literary community, and to promote one’s contributions to that community. But as a standard-bearer for the literary community, AWP is like any standard-setting organization: its raison d’etre is to define the parameters of compatibility. In this case, it is to promote and uphold standards of literary achievement to which writers can aspire, or as the AWP website explains: ‘Our mission is to foster literary achievement, advance the art of writing as essential to a good education, and serve the makers, teachers, students, and readers of contemporary writing.’
Thus, to attend an AWP conference is to hear contemporary writers discuss how they are working to improve their craft. It is also to learn about the more practical aspects of active participation in the literary community, such as how to write query letters, how to get your short story published, and how to sell a book to an agent or a publisher. But to navigate this mass of intelligence on how to survive and succeed in the literary ‘industry’ is to learn not only the language of literature, but also the language of diplomacy. This is not altogether unproductive. It is to learn, for example, the importance of being a good ‘literary citizen’ by encouraging the work of others and not simply gloating about your own work. It is to recognize that people appreciate when you talk about your work with an artful balance of pride and humility. It is to discern that an effective way to charm others is to talk about your failures and let others talk about your successes. It is to observe that panelists who are long-winded are not as well-liked as panelists who are pithy, and that audience members who ask long-winded questions are not as well-received as audience members who allow time for others to ask questions. It is to discover that a long-haired man dressed in hosiery and a jean skirt does not get a double-take like he would at a black-tie affair or in a neighborhood bar. It is to see that iconoclasm is welcome, so long as it defers to the quirky over the capricious, the idiosyncratic over the fastidious, the deferential over the affected. It is, in short, to acquire as many secrets as you can on how to impress the literati.
Earning this privilege has its perks, but it also makes one wonder whether laboring in the shadows of obscurity is a better portal to truth and wisdom, as one is not blinded by the obligations of success. When one sits on the throne of success, one must be content with a certain whitewashing of his thoughts and speech if he wishes to continue wielding his scepter of cultural influence. In politics, in sports, in academia, in business, one acquires a sensitivity that comes with the responsibility of being a leader in the field. There is only so much one can say in voicing an opinion if one wishes to avoid controversy. Seeking to distinguish himself in ways that allow him to remain uncontroversial, one inevitably risks becoming inseparable from the herd. One aims to be edgy without being impolitic, provocative without being disruptive, transcendent without being revolutionary. What holds true in politics, sports, academia, or business also holds true in the world of literature.
Diplomacy, then, is one of the main obligations of success if you wish to remain ‘compatible’ with the AWP community. Failing to appreciate what is permissible and what is improper can make you as unwelcome, or despised, as Donald J. Trump. Our current political environment admittedly does indicate, however, that many of our countrymen do not necessarily consider being a pariah to be a bad thing. Trump’s supporters love his disdain for political correctness. Trump’s callous disregard for civility enamors him to millions of supporters who mistake his boorish lack of civility for a refreshing pugnacity that hits back at a biased media and a rarefied establishment. I share their disdain for political correctness, yet I do not condone the extreme rhetoric in Trump’s wildly undisciplined tweeting and unhinged orations, which encourage racist, xenophobic fanatics and distract from the legitimate concerns of anyone dismayed by the intolerance so prevalent among adherents to sanctimonious liberalism. Trump’s rhetoric unfortunately drowns out reasonable voices which could trenchantly articulate the genuine scorn many people feel for the ever-present threat of a social media storm should one off-the-cuff remark be ‘appropriated’ by the ‘word police’ and turned into a banner case for derision and shaming. Trump, in short, acts only to further polarize the nation rather than nurture dialogue about political differences.
Thus, in a conference with many of the nation’s most esteemed authors, Trump’s unapologetic combativeness intensifies the pressure to toe the line of predictable dissent. But Trump is a monster. Most people sitting on the throne of success tread more carefully, lest they offend militant social justice warriors (perhaps by not going far enough) or stir the attention of vicious trolls lurking among right-wing zealots (perhaps by going too far). One certainty needing no consultation from a publicist, however, was that if you wanted to make yourself a persona non-grata among the AWP literati, all you had to do was openly declare your support for Donald Trump. Not that anyone did that. At least not that I know of. But even if there was a silent minority harboring sympathies for the 45th president of the United States, my attendance at the AWP conference did little to dispel my belief that writers are more likely to veer left in the realm of politics and world affairs. As a conservative, I long ago reconciled to the ubiquity of progressive politics in the literary community. But as a conservative who nonetheless espouses many progressive ideas, I don’t begrudge writers for their overwhelmingly searing disdain for the current occupant of the White House.
I am no supporter of the narcissist-in-chief. I was intent on avoiding politics during the conference, but the undercurrent of resistance was unmistakable, even heartwarming. I could hear it in escalator conversations. I could see it in the sneers that formed on the faces of people who glanced at one of the many television screens blaring news headlines from CNN, during a week in which an appeals court review of Trump’s ‘travel ban’ dominated the news. I felt it in every parenthetical remark during panels that advocates for public funding of the arts do not have a friend in the White House.
Indeed, if there was one singular vibe I detected throughout the conference, it was that writers do not like President Trump.
When keynote speaker Azar Nafisi began her speech by asking everyone to raise their imaginary wine glass to toast to the decision by a three-judge panel from the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to stay Trump’s travel ban, the audience erupted with cheers. When one panelist took a swipe at Trump by implying that a certain person has a lot of bad karma coming his way, the audience chuckled. When a ‘Candlelight Vigil for Freedom of Expression’ attracted more than 1,000 people to Lafayette Park across from the White House, attendees listened to speakers discuss issues like immigration raids, Standing Rock, and the so-called ‘Muslim ban’. When a spontaneous demonstration of anti-Trump solidarity erupted during the book fair on Friday morning, dozens of people hooked their arms together in a long chain across a center aisle and raised their voices in collective chants, distracting attention from a panel I was attending in that same hall.
I share many of the concerns about Trump’s extreme rhetoric and the ramifications of his policies. However, the atmosphere of hysteria stemming from the election of Trump struck me as reminiscent of the political atmosphere during the 2004 election season when protests erupted throughout the United States to denounce the Iraq War and the foreign policy agenda of former President George W. Bush. It made me realize that Dr. Nafisi would have received the same roomful of cheers had she toasted eight years ago to former President Obama’s executive decree, upon assuming office in January 2009, to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, and it was not lost on me that I would have been sitting there as someone who has spent countless hours studying declassified files on Guantanamo detainees and concluding that many of the detainees deserved to be there, as I explain in an article here.
The anti-Trump histrionics made me realize that, fine as Dr. Nafisi’s speech was, it was entirely predictable. It was a speech that, for all its eloquence, was preaching to the choir. I must confess I did not stay for the meat of her speech. I attended primarily to see if my expectation would be born out that a prominent Iranian-American writer would take the opportunity to lambaste Trump’s travel ban, while predictably giving voice to the usual bromides about the need for writers to resist tyranny and defend free speech. I didn’t disagree, but I was nevertheless disappointed with how seamlessly it fed into an atmosphere of self-satisfied liberal solidarity that, not unlike right-wing fundamentalism, tends to obscure nuance in favor of generalities.
What would have been surprising, and more edifying, is if she launched into a nuanced analysis of the travel ban and began to elucidate reasons why it was not only hastily implemented and ill-conceived, but also maybe not as radical as it has been made out to be. I suppose a sober analysis would mean her speech would sound like a monotone recitation of the full Appeals Court decision and opinion, and would not have had the ring of a keynote speech. Fair enough. But gaga-eyed cliquishness and its cousin, gullibility, are among the reasons I tend to avoid celebrity speeches. After the hagiography, there is little left to see and hear but collective adulation and rhetorical theatrics.
The choir preaching is unfortunate, however, because the suspension of critical thinking makes one susceptible to the same kind of paradigm-worshiping that one finds at a Trump rally. It does not foster and sustain the kind of critical dialogue that sidelines ideology in favor of a rigorous examination of facts.
Take the ‘travel ban’, the details of which are laid out in the executive order here. The ‘ban’ imposes a 90-day suspension of ‘immigrant and nonimmigrant entry into the United States of aliens’ from seven countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and Sudan (it also reduces the cap on the number of refugees allowed into the U.S. to 50,000 from 85,000, suspends the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program for 120 days, and indefinitely suspends entry of all Syrian refugees). While the purpose is to revamp and improve the visa-issuance process, the targeting of seven Muslim-majority nations has led opponents to interpret the executive order as the fulfillment of a campaign promise to ban Muslims from entering the United States (‘until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on’), which former vice-president Dick Cheney, among numerous others, has characterized as going against ‘everything we stand for and believe in.’
Some have noted that the ban does not apply to immigrants from Saudi Arabia, even though the executive order cites as a motivating factor the 9-11 attacks (15 of the 19 hijackers were of Saudi Arabian origin). But this is a red herring. The ban suspends immigration from active conflict zones where stable, functioning central governments are lacking (Iraq, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen), or where the ruling regimes are active state sponsors of terror (Iran, Sudan, and Syria), to allow time for the government to revamp its vetting procedures. It is not meant as a punitive measure to punish the 9-11 hijackers’ country of origin, but as a preventative measure to keep jihadists from exploiting refugee populations that come from active conflict zones. Moreover, there is nothing in the executive order that explicitly bans Muslims. The ban does not even apply to the most populous Muslim countries.
The order, then, is not entirely without justification. It is true that the vetting process for refugees is already a lengthy, arduous process that can take an average of 18 to 24 months. But when the Obama administration proposed taking 10,000 Syrian refugees in 2015, FBI director James Comey testified that our government did not have the capability to thoroughly vet each one of the 10,000 Syrian refugees. Obama administration officials themselves warned of the challenges of screening Syrian refugees.
Jihadi terrorists will exploit this vulnerability as best they can. For example, the mastermind of the November 2015 Paris attacks, Abdelhamid Abaoud, boasted in Islamic State’s online magazine Dabiq how he evaded surveillance authorities. Jihadist organizations have become highly skilled at manipulating vulnerabilities in the security infrastructure of Western nations. Weekly Standard writer Lee Smith provides several examples of ‘U.S dual-nationals, not aliens, from the seven states, as well as permanent resident aliens, [who] have been involved in successful terrorist attacks and plots against the United States.’ Jihadists who have attempted to penetrate the American national security infrastructure include the famous case of Yemeni-American Anwar al-Awlaki, as well as Mansour Arbabsiar, ‘a naturalized American citizen who was also an Iranian national [and who] plotted together with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps to kill the Saudi ambassador to the United States in a Washington, D.C. restaurant.’
Though attacks on the U.S. since 9-11 have been few, any national security expert will tell you that jihadi plots abound. Though the executive order cited the 9-11 attacks as an example of the importance of reviewing the visa-issuance process, the order was directed at seven countries that, as Mr. Smith notes, are listed ‘because they are either state sponsors of terror (Iran, Sudan, Syria), or have dysfunctional central governments or none at all (Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Yemen), which make it more difficult to vet visa applicants with their home country.’ Active terror plots in these conflict zones are undoubtedly rampant. Iran, for example, is a key facilitation point for Al Qaeda operatives.
The intent of a temporary ban is to maximize the resources of agencies involved in strengthening the vetting process. Though there have been vast improvements in vetting since 9-11, it was only last year that four of the seven countries subject to the Trump travel ban were subject to tighter visa requirements under the Obama administration. Incidentally, in a twist that did not receive the same degree of attention last year, Iranian BBC reporter Rana Rahimpour tweeted that she was turned away at Heathrow airport when trying to board a plane to the U.S. because she was born in Iran.
But if arguments can be found in favor of the Trump executive order, the main drawback of Trump’s ‘travel ban’, aside from arguably being downright illegal, was how hasty and poorly-implemented it was. As the National Review correspondent David French explains, ‘the administration enforced the order in a haphazard and unnecessarily cruel manner, initially including even green-card holders in its scope. By slamming the door (at least temporarily) in their faces, it created a crisis atmosphere that not only ramped up the political stakes, it told the court that the administration didn’t exactly know how to interpret its own order. This invites judicial meddling.’
And judicial meddling there was.
While agreeing with the appeals court that the Trump administration was wrong to seek ‘unreviewable authority’, Mr. French convincingly argues that (1) ‘the court used the possibility of specific harm [to individual immigrants] to confer general standing on states to act on behalf of immigrants as a class,’ a finding he describes as ‘extraordinary’, and (2) the court granted ‘potential claims’ of ‘possible due process rights’ for illegal aliens, a finding he describes as ‘astonishing’.
Mr. French also notes ‘the administration’s inexplicable failure to include in the executive order or the record the extensive documentation and evidence demonstrating the threat of jihad from the seven identified countries (including terror attacks in the U.S., plots in the U.S., and a record of plots and attacks abroad),’ and further notes that ‘whether an attack has been completed in this country is not the standard for implementing heightened security measures.’ It is not attacks, but plots, that weigh on a president’s national security judgment: ‘The president doesn’t have to wait for completed attacks to protect the U.S. from dangerous immigrants. He can see the deteriorating security situation on the ground, evaluate the intentions and capabilities of the enemy, and then act before the enemy can strike. Indeed, that’s the goal of national defense — to prevent attacks, not respond after the carnage.’
Ultimately, Mr. French advises the administration to ‘redraft its order, lay the proper foundation, and fight from higher ground,’ and something like this appears to be among the options the administration is considering. Whatever happens, it is clear the fight is far from over, and Trump has largely himself, and his incendiary tactics, to blame. Meanwhile, he can include among his opponents a large community of writers who convened on the capital last week to attend the AWP conference, listen to a keynote speech which began with a toast to the appeals court decision, and share their additional fears that free speech is under attack in Trump Nation. Many of their concerns have merit. But as a thousand attendees assembled in Lafayette Square to listen to fellow writers derail the so-called ‘Muslim ban’ and other Trump policies, they seemed to overlook the details of a policy that makes no explicit reference to banning Muslims, and presumably had not bothered to recall that, in 1975, several of their ideological comrades on the left, chief among them California governor Jerry Brown, were leading the charge, as Richard Pollock recalls, to refuse ‘any Vietnamese refugees when millions were trying to escape South Vietnam as it fell to the communists.’ Not even orphans. Sounding a bit like the chorus of isolationists in Trump Nation, liberals argued that refugees from Vietnam would take American jobs. According to Julia Taft, head of President Gerald Ford’s Inter-Agency Task Force on Indochinese refugee resettlement at the time, liberals ‘said they had too many Hispanics, too many people on welfare, they didn’t want these people.’ As Governor Brown stated, ‘We can’t be looking 5,000 miles away and at the same time neglecting people who live here.’
Thus, in succumbing to the chorus of dissent, AWP attendees would be easily led to a simplistic conclusion that Trump’s travel ban was nothing more than a tyrannical right-wing decree wholly without merit, rather than a decree aimed at a substantive problem which unfortunately was poorly implemented by an administration which seems to excel only at fanning the flames of controversy and polarization. But though I wholly acknowledge that Trump is unworthy of the office, and that his administration has proved thus far to be a chaotic tinderbox of bombast and divisiveness, I would take umbrage with the view that expressing concerns about jihadi infiltration of refugee populations is equivalent to xenophobically siding against refugees. But since I did not expect my view to be greeted with open arms at a conference where ‘progressive’ sympathies were ubiquitous, I reserved my annotations and objections and offbeat commentary for this article. Thankfully, I am not a celebrity author, so I’m not worried about creating a viral storm in the literary community.
Not that I should have to worry, since I don’t support the travel ban as currently designed. That does not mean, however, that I think some of the concerns expressed by Trump, in the few lucid moments he manages to have, are entirely without merit. Even a broken clock is right twice a day; but more to the point, it strikes me as inevitable that when one pays attention to nuance, one will find areas of agreement, even with the likes of Trump. But those areas of agreement tend to get ignored when the obligations of success tint the lens with which one guides an audience into spectacle rather than truth.
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