Home / General / Summer Vacation in An Age of Concentration Camps, Part 1: “Setting Forth.”

Summer Vacation in An Age of Concentration Camps, Part 1: “Setting Forth.”


Protest sign left-behind at an anti-white-supremacy
march in Boston, August, 2018 now hanging in my kitchen

Ah, summertime – that fleeting period when tenured full professors like me are freed from teaching and committee work for the luxury of deep thinking, reading, writing, and unstructured time with which to travel (often on vacation with our chidren) without sacrificing our jobs.

Of course, we still work. Most years I spend it catching up on research, reviewing tenure files, and peer-reviewing articles. Much of it I spend doing what academics call “policy engagement” – that is, briefing practitioners and/or writing op-eds in my areas of expertise.

But this summer, I have been feeling a nagging sort of cognitive dissonance as I have focused my “policy engagement” on the normal national security areas where I feel I’m qualified as a scholar to write: war law, weapons policy and the protection of civilians in places where US bombs may land.

This summer I have simultaneously watched the crisis on the US Southern border unfold from behind the safety of my laptop screen and Twitter feed and in the comfort of an air-conditioned western Massachusetts coffee-shop. I’ve called my representatives, I’ve made my donations, I’ve gone to my local protests, all those things citizens do. What has chewed at me is observing in myself a curious inability to engage with this great crisis as a scholar because it seems not quite relevant to my expertise.

I don’t do refugee policy, I tell myself.  I don’t do Latin America. I don’t understand the bureaucratic politics of asylum procedures in the US. As a citizen I can weigh in on such things but as a political scientist, I must stay objective, detached, a-political. I must speak up only when my expertise matters.

How much does this kind of thinking hobble we scholar-Americans from maximizing our influence as members of the political elite in times of national crisis? As intellectuals, US academics hold both power and privilege, especially in summer where we are less constrained than many Americans by the grinding demands of our jobs. Yet little professional banalities like these have surprising stopping power. They urge people like me (well me, anyway) toward taking a vacation, burying myself in my regular projects, or planting a garden – once done with my normal quotient of everyday activism and atrocity blogging.

Not this year. Call them what you will – concentration camps, detention centers. There are human rights violations happening on our border. Children are dying. War-affected civilians are being denied refuge, in violation of international law. This summer I’m abandoning my coffee-shop, neglecting my garden, canceling my vacation plans, saying no to other professional efforts. I’m using my international law knowledge, off-contract time and relative freedom of mobility to mobilize not just policy-makers, but my fellow Americans on both sides of the aisle, in what small ways I can – whether it’s my area of expertise or not. Perhaps none of this will make a difference. But I can’t afford to be blithely doing research on faraway things, reviewing tenure files and going to the beach this year.

Responsible Scholarly Engagement ?

At Duck of Minerva recently, I wrote about the importance of scholars doing “policy engagement” in a responsible way. To be fair, another “professional banality” that holds back conflict researchers like me from parachuting into conflict zones “to help” is the realization that this is not always the best way. Situations like a refugee crisis on a border are rife with assumptions about what civilians need, misperceptions about what locals are already doing, and many actors working at cross-purposes. Conflict researchers know that the first thing to do even before arrival is to reach out to those already on the ground and determine who to talk to about what is needed.  

Fortunately, if there is a single place where US academics are most conspicuously stepping up to embody responsible public engagement this summer, using their professional power in the service of everyday politics, it is in a small and under-appreciated pocket of intellectualism on the US Southern Border: Las Cruces, New Mexico.

The Department of Government at New Mexico State University has catalyzed local activism into national media attention. It was Neal Rosendorf, an Associate Professor of international relations at NMSU, who teamed up with veteran journalist Robert Moore to help break the story about the inhumane treatment of detainees in and around El Paso. His remark that the facility he stumbled upon was like “a human dog pound” galvanized the national media when it was picked up in mid-June by the Daily Kos.

Even earlier, Rosendorf had been chronicling the inhumanity of border detentions. His heartbreakingly yet surprisingly balanced account in the American Interest, Suffer the Little Children: The View from El Paso, combines historical analysis, visual analysis, first-hand ethnographic field accounts, and facts-based analysis of contemporary commentary, with the searing sensibility of one who finds oneself both in the field as a conflict scholar and at home simultaneously, as one’s neighborhood is turned into ground zero of a battle over the protection of civilians.

On the day I visited the Tornillo camp the temperatures were so sky-high that no amount of water consumed would adequately ameliorate the physical effects. Nonetheless, a group of boys energetically played football in a dusty field near their khaki-colored tent barracks, seemingly oblivious to the scorching heat. The scene was poignantly reminiscent of World War II photographs of British prisoners of war disporting themselves in the Stalag. Many industrial-size air-conditioning units and huge portable generators rest in the open air on wooden pallets, waiting to be deployed. They serve as silent confirmation of recent news reports that the facility, which was ostensibly slated to be closed down by July 14, is not soon going away.

Them’s powerful words. When I read them, in the wake of the early June revelations by the DHS Inspector General’s office, I didn’t think of my expertise in the Geneva Conventions. I thought of my own teenage son, Liam. An elite soccer player who has traveled to five countries with his team, Liam spent his early summer weeks lobbying for “less privileged children” to have access to better turf fields in our relatively privileged home base of Amherst, MA. My son: a kid for whom ‘under-privileged’ means you’re not in an elite club, with access to elite fields, and the local Town Hall won’t invest in fixing the fields at the high school you play at. My son who never had to even imagine playing soccer barefoot in the 100+ degree heat of a concentration camp.

Seeing Liam in these Tortillo migrant kids snapped me out of business-as-usual. I saw myself in them as well. I remembered how underprivileged I had been at Liam’s age relative not just to him but to the high school kids he wanted to help, and yet how incredibly privileged I had been still compared to these immigrant boys – where they were now, and where they had come from. This privilege means responsibility.

And Rosendorf is right that these roots run deep, like a rotten tooth. Five years ago, I passed through New Mexico on a nostalgia tour with my partner Garrett and then-12-year-old Liam. I had left my laptop at home. Work and politics was the last thing on my mind.

But Garrett, Liam and I couldn’t help but make a detour from our camping and UFO-museum visits when we read a news story of a scabies outbreak at an Obama-area facility near Artesia, NM, a few hours out of Roswell where my family had landed in 1989 much as aliens supposedly had in 1947.

Artesia was a drive away from Roswell, as remote a town as you might like, baking under the heat of an endless sky. True, under Obama, children weren’t being separated from parents there, but even in 2012 they were being warehoused in inhumane conditions.

We spent three hours that day on what was both research and policy engagement: playing dumb and asking the local authorities to explain themselves, in particular precisely why we could not visit the refugees to bring them some diapers. We made little difference – other than to teach one bureaucrat about the Refugee Convention, and to teach Liam to speak up in the face of injustice instead of driving blithely by.

But these are important little things. As Ghandi said, “Anything you do will feel insignificant. But it is very important that you do it anyway.”

My old professors at NMSU are specialists in the practice of tiny, crucial interventions now. While Rosendorf courts CNN and sneaks around taking clandestine pictures of prisoners on his iPhone, my former Comparative Politics professor, Neil Harvey, communicates with interested journalists at length about the numerous forms of activism in the area in which he and his students are involved, and organizes monitoring tours with his students.

Even the emeritus professors, former ethnicity and migration specialist-turned children’s book author Yosef Lapid and constitutional law scholar Nancy Baker, are active in their own ways through the community. These scholars are personally engaged – as sleuths, activists but also as intellectuals communicating human rights research, facts and principles to the national media or the next generation, putting knowledge into action in different ways on the local and national stage.

Vacation Planning in Trump’s America

In the past weeks, I’ve heard so many people exclaim “Where is America?” America is here on the border – at Anunciation House, at the Border Network for Human Rights, at Refugee And Immigrant Center for Education and legal Services (RAICES) – and all around the nation, protesting, paying bail, hosting asylum seekers in spare bedrooms, calling Senators, and – even (bravely) at the Lincoln Memorial on Independence Day – resisting in other numerous small ways. We need more of these small acts of resistance. We need ordinary Americans to do what they can, visibly, so the world can see America is here, on the right side of history.

And as media coverage of Clint flags, and attention turns to the latest ICE raids, those voices need to get louder. One thing the concerned scholarly community can tell us right now is how. This country needs its intellectual elite to spend their summer off-contract time doing policy-relevant political engagement not just with government but with the wider questioning public.

Here’s why: many good-hearted Americans across class and political divides want to close these camps, but we are beset by all the mundane factors that – I’ll say it – kept ordinary Germans from mobilizing against the Holocaust, kept ordinary Serbs from believing what they were hearing about their neighbors in the run-up to the Srebrenica massacre, which happened twenty-three years ago this week. We are so busy with our lives and our jobs and our own children, who play soccer in shoes and in freedom and need us to shuttle them.

To overcome these natural cognitive barriers to resistance, the public needs the wisdom and leadership of social movement analysts, collective action experts, conflict scholars, refugee relief and asylum law specialists. We need conflict mediators able to tamp down tensions between Trumpers and “ClosetheCampers” at protest sites. We need more scholars like University of Nebraska’s Ari Kohen – specializing in how to get more folks to act like heroes when it counts and willing to both talk about and embody these principles in his personal and professional life – to help us answer the question of how we can do better as a nation than those our fathers and grandfathers fought and died to defeat. Even those of us who know something about what we don’t know, don’t know enough to do enough good, quickly enough.

But lots of Americans are doing a lot, and I’ll do what I can too. I’ll take my summer “vacation” this year once again on the Southern border. This time there will be no UFO museums or Anasazi ruins. This time I won’t tour a limestone cave, I’ll tour a migrant shelter. I’ll seek out anyone who will talk to me about what they are doing and how others can help and if they’re not doing anything, then try to understand why. If I camp, it will not be on White Sands under the wide stars, but outside a CPB facility somewhere in or around El Paso, with a protest sign and a generator. I’ll need it, because I’ll be taking my camera phone and Twitter feed with me. Join me if you can.

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