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My current argument is not one about what the substance of our immigration policy should be (I’ve made such arguments in, e.g.,  A comprehensive overview of the immigration issue, Legality, Morality, and Reality Regarding U.S. Immigration Policy, Godwin’s Law Notwithstanding, Basal Ganglia v. Cerebral Cortex, Basal Ganglia Keeping Score, The Nature of the SB 126 Colorado ASSET DebateGodwin’s Law, Revisited, and A Humane & Rational People), but rather about what the process for determining our immigration policy should be. As always, this argument is just one instance of the larger argument that we should commit ourselves to striving to apply reason to evidence in service to humanity, rather than engaging in careless habits that result in the application of irrationality to ignorance in service to inhumanity.

The focus of this essay is one clearly fallacious argument, that is, in fact, the principal argument used by those who take a stand unyieldingly hostile to millions of people, of a certain status, who currently reside in this country (and, by implication, millions more who would like to, but have no legal pathway toward doing so). Debunking this one argument does not, by itself, debunk their entire position, but rather merely forces the debate into a more appropriate framework, where any and all substantive arguments they may have can compete with any and all substantive counterarguments, in a process which best serves our better angels by giving our baser demons fewer shadows in which to hide.

The fallacious argument to which I refer is that the current widespread hostility toward undocumented immigrants and residents, in which these particular ideologues actively participate, is not only legally warranted but legally mandated. Their error is their failure to understand that the law, in the final analysis, is our servant, not our master. (Yes, in an intermediate sense the utility of the law is that it is binding and not optional, but it is designed to be a malleable and adaptable tool rather than, in its particulars, a fixed and permanent shackle.)

As an aside, the irony of this error is one thread of a larger hypocrisy: The people who make it are overwhelmingly the same people who insist that they are the most committed to “Liberty,” while in reality being the most committed to authoritarianism. But that is a topic for other essays (see, e.g., The Catastrophic Marriage of Extreme Individualism and Ultra-Nationalism).

The argument frequently invoked by this particular faction, that their hostility is not directed toward immigrants but rather only toward illegal immigrants, and that the word “illegal” conclusively supports their public policy positions on the issues of immigration and residency, reflects a fundamental misconception of the nature of law and the responsibilities of citizenship in a popular sovereignty. They mistakenly believe that a current legal status quo is the definitive refutation of both any public policy arguments that critique it, and any public policy arguments that defend other aspects of the current or proposed legal status quo that they erroneously consider somehow legally prohibited by some presumed inconsistency with the aspects they prefer. In other words, they presume that public policy arguments can’t challenge existing laws that they do like, and, at the same time, can’t defend existing or proposed laws that they don’t like, the latter based on some presumption of a legal prohibition against the existence of any laws which presuppose the violation of other laws. Both of these beliefs are easily debunked, and their mobilization in service to a blindly ideological position easily demonstrated.

Laws are something we make, implement, interpret, modify, and rescind according to processes that are themselves established by law (see The Fractal Geometry of Law (and Government)). They do not define what the conclusion of public policy debates and legal processes should be, but rather what they thus far have been. They obligate, with varying degrees of flexibility, individual behavioral compliance, not collective ideological conformity, rigid administrative enforcement, or perpetual universal legal consistency. The fact that laws do not mandate the latter three is in large measure how they evolve and adapt to changing circumstances, values, and understandings.

The response to an argument that we should, within the constraints and according to the guidelines of our current legal framework, alter or reinterpret or modify our implementation of our legal framework, with the counterargument that we can’t because the current substantive legal status quo is different from what the modified legal status quo would be, is like arguing a century and a half ago that we can’t abolish slavery because the right to own slaves is protected by law (an argument which was, in fact, frequently and persistently made). And to argue that we can’t pass laws short of a comprehensive change of paradigm because it would be an affront to that dominant paradigm is analogous to having maintained that we couldn’t have made the morally laudible step of allowing escaped slaves to attain their freedom in non-slave states because to have done so would have simply encouraged more slaves to escape.

Let me be clear: I am not comparing current anti-undocumented immigrant ideology to slavery. Rather, I am comparing the defense of one set of laws that we recognize in retrospect to have been morally repugnant and well worthy of being changed with the defense of a current set of laws that some (including myself) argue is also morally repugnant and well worthy of being changed, in order to illustrate that the public policy debate should focus on the value of the law rather than on the fact of its existence. A debate can and should be had about whether the current set of immigration and immigration-related laws are ideal or morally repugnant or somewhere in between. The mere fact that that set is the current law is irrelevant to that debate.

(It’s worth noting, however, that there are some similarities: Slaves were considered not to be citizens, a perception codified in law by the Supreme Court’s infamous Dred Scott decision. Abolishing slavery would have admitted this formerly excluded class into national membership. Allowing escaped slaves to attain freedom but not necessarily citizenship in non-slave states would have been analogous to allowing undocumented immigrants to enjoy some of the opportunities afforded citizens and legal residents without being automatically granted that status itself. The 14th Amendment’s establishment of jus soli, the doctrine that anyone born on American soil is an American citizen, was part of the long-unsuccessful attempt to demolish the legacy of slavery, root and branch, and still has implications relevant to immigration policy. Though the differences are greater than the similarities, the fact remains that exclusionary policies that tend to dehumanize those excluded inevitably resemble one another to some degree. See, e.g., Godwin’s Law Notwithstanding.)

It is our responsibility to determine what our laws should be, while also considering how best to implement and enforce the laws that currently are. Those with a zero-tolerance attitude toward undocumented residents, insisting that we are legally required both to in no way accommodate their presence here and to remove them all regardless of the costs (fiscal, economic, social, demographic, and moral), should also, for consistency, insist that every motorist who ever drifts even just one mph over the posted speed limit should be caught and fined regardless of the costs, and that laws which presuppose violations of the speed limit (e.g., prohibiting driving in the passing lane, even at or above the speed limit, on the basis that it obstructs other motorists who might want to pass) are somehow unacceptable (or themselves “illegal”).

Or, to pick a more illuminating example, even though it is illegal to jaywalk, a motorist is still legally obligated to yield to that law-breaker, who is thus protected from some of the negative consequences of his or her infraction by another law accommodating it. (After all, aren’t we just encouraging more people to jaywalk by requiring motorists not to run them over?)

Again, let me be clear: I am not comparing illegal immigration to speeding or jaywalking.  I am, rather, debunking the fallacy that no law can or should exist which presupposes, or even at times accommodates and implicitly “encourages,” the violation of another law. Our laws neither require nor benefit from that kind of rigid consistency: We can, and should, have laws which both prohibit certain activities, and that protect or accommodate those who violate them. Such laws are particularly well advised when the infraction is non-violent and non-predatory, the protection vital to that person’s safety or sustenance, or the accommodation ultimately in the public as well as private interest (such as by giving all residents of the country maximal opportunities to become productive members of society, rather than denying such opportunities and thus increasing the rate of socially, fiscally, and economically costly dependency and predation).

When people oppose, for instance, a law which would allow in-state undocumented high school graduates to attend state universities at in-state tuition rates, with the argument that the current law somehow prohibits the passage of such a law (“what part of ‘illegal’ don’t you understand?!”), they are inventing a legal doctrine that doesn’t exist (a requirement for perfect consistency among all laws), in order to insist on a particularly vindictive and counterproductive policy position.

Our national debate regarding immigration (as with all issues) needs to focus on what set of policies realized through what legal paradigm best serves our national interests and values. Citing the current legal status quo as an argument in that debate is, in reality, an attempt to insulate preferred elements of that status quo against criticism without having to mobilize any rational or informed argument, or address any rational and informed counterarguments, to do so. At the same time, citing one aspect of the current legal status quo (e.g., the laws against entering and being in the country without legal authorization) as an argument against another aspect of the current legal status quo (e.g., administrative policies not to target for removal those who have not committed other crimes) is an attempt to argue in favor of a change in the legal status quo without having to mobilize any rational or informed argument in support of such a change.

These are not just irrational and, to put it politely, “information-disregarding” arguments in our national debate on immigration policy, but are also instances of a larger contest in American political discourse: The contest between, on the one hand, a commitment to reason applied to evidence in service to humanity, and, on the other, a commitment to irrationality applied to a disregard of the evidence in sevice to inhumanity. It is a contest which those of us who champion the former must win both issue-by-issue, and in more profound ways as well, transcending the individual issues, reaching into the heart of our collective consciousness, transforming with the spirits of reason and goodwill the memes and emes of our own persistent inhumanity.

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

In the Perspective section of last Sunday’s Denver Post, Ray Mark Rinaldi wrote an excellent piece exploring the two competing development visions for Denver’s Union Station (Who’s on the right track with Union Station plans? What I like about this article isn’t just the informative discussion of a single issue of current significance, but rather how it focuses on one instance of a more general challenge we face: Public Entrepreneurialism.

In all of the ideological noise, the competition of those who consider government the enemy and those who consider corporations the enemy, we don’t discuss enough the shared enterprise we are in, in which both government and corporations are problematic but indispensable players. Treating the public sphere as a popular entrepreneurial challenge, with one of the issues being how best to articulate that public entrepreneurship with the private sector to maximize our welfare through the most robust and efficacious utilizations of both, is exactly what we need more of. This is a wonderful discussion of that oft-forgotten but critically essential aspect of public participation and discourse: How we can act together in productive ways to improve our social institutional landscape. Let’s hope that is the kind of conversation we have more of in the future, displacing the one we already have far too much of.

Public entrepreneurialism is a concept that can join the pantheon of entrepreneurialisms, along with commercial, political, and social entrepreneurialism. Commercial entrepreneurialism requires no elaboration: It is what is normally referred to by the term. The development and implementation of a commercial idea in pursuit of private profit is commercial entrepreneurialism, and it plays a vital role in the ongoing evolution of our social institutional landscape.

Political entrepreneurialism involves political leadership outside of the established and official political landscape, in service to fomenting fundamental political change rather than preserving or operating through the status quo. Gandhi, King, revolutionary leaders and leaders of radical political movements, are examples of political entrepreneurs. They might leverage assets, mobilize resources, and divert profits of other enterprises toward the political goal. Clearly, commercial entrepreneurialism can be a strategic component of political entrepreneurialism.

And, similarly, political entrepreneurialism can be a strategic component of social entrepreneurialism. Social entrepreneurialism isn’t about changing regimes or merely expanding the franchize; it is about altering the culture. Changing the political landscape may be a means to that end, but, for social entrepreneurs, it is not an end in itself. Political entrepreneurs are often also, to varying degrees, social entrepreneurs: Certainly, King was a social entrepreneur to a very large extent, and Gandhi to a lesser extent. (Gandhi’s goal was primarily political: Indian independence. King’s was primarily social: The end of racism.)

But political entrepreneurs do not need to be social entrepreneurs: Many revolutionary leaders are simply trying to topple the current political power structure and replace it with what they believe to be a preferable one, because they believe the preferable one better serves either the public interest or their own interest, or the interests of those close to them, or some distribution among these, depending on the degree to which they are acting idealistically or cynically, and selfishly or altruistically.

All three of these forms of entrepreneurialism, on average, involve a higher proportion of charismatic authority than other forms of leadership (see What is Leadership?), though rational and traditional authority may well be invoked as well.  Social and political entrepreneurship probably rely more than commercial entrepreneurship on charismatic authority (though commercial entrepreneurs are often charismatic; think Steve Jobs), if only because the rewards of the former two are less immediate and less fungible: Those who follow, or work for, a commercial entrepreneur can do so for the promise of income without being otherwise persuaded, while those who follow political and social entrepreneurs generally have to be convinced of the ideals for which they are working.

Public entrepreneurialism is something different from all of these, articulating them into a single enterprise, and doing so from or through the established power structure rather than in opposition to it. It involves the mayor who has a vision for his or her city, the governor who is focused more on long-term development than short-term indicators, the president who has a vision for the country that guides his or her policies as much as or more than the ephemeral tides of political exigency.

It also involves those who try to influence them, not to change the nature of the game, but to play the game that exists more beneficially. Commercial entrepreneurs exist on a continuum ranging from the purely profit-motivated to the socially idealistic and visionary, and political and social entrepreneurs exist on continua ranging from extreme radicalism to subtle tweaking of existing institutions. Those who occupy the ranges closer to the latter poles become more involved in public entrepreneurialism, in partnership with others who occupy the more visionary range of elected and appointed office and bureaucratic careers.

Martin Luther King Jr., for instance, was less radical, less rejecting of the status quo, than Malcolm X; the American Revolutionaries less revolutionary than their French counterparts. The former were more willing to retain much and make changes mostly on the margins, moving the sophisticated package of human history along a slightly diverted trajectory rather than trying to destroy what was and replace it en masse with what they believed should be.

Public entrepreneurialism is characterized, for instance, by the vision touted by recent Denver mayoral candidate James Mejia, involving developing the river front in much the same way that San Antonia did in the latter’s creation of its famous River Walk; and by the vision espoused by now Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper during his campaign, in which he discussed a vision for Colorado that revolved around articulated roles for political, social, and commercial entrepreneurs (see A Positive Vision For Colorado).

Public entrepreneurialism can emphasize different aspects of our social institutional landscape: The economic, the cultural, the aesthetic, the charitable. It can focus on improvements in education, or in the delivery of social services, or in the production of wealth, or in the promotion of fairness and justice and human decency; but, at its best, it involves at least a little of all of these, emphasizing one more than others in each project, but pursuing projects which, taken together, emphasize all of these values.

We are indeed in a shared enterprise, one which we can participate in by “railing against the machine,” or one which we can participate in by “rallying agents of the organism.” The former is often more emotionally gratifying, assuming the role of someone external and superior to that which is. The latter is more productive and realistic, recognizing that we are indeed a part of something larger than ourselves, something that has a history and a value worth preserving and developing. Public entrepreneurialism can be bold, idealistic, even radical at times. But it is the kind of change realized through the realization that no viable change occurs that does not leverage what is to create what can be.

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

Most readers are aware that the title phenomenon is commonplace in human affairs, but, especially in the blogosphere, it is so pervasive, so ubiquitous, that the direct and constant encounter with it is overwhelming. On various blogs and comment boards, I have found that merely by relentlessly questioning people’s assumptions and conclusions, arguing on-topic and without ad hominems, I have consistently become a lightening rod for the most persistent, obsessive, and abusive vitriol imaginable. I regularly attract virtual stalkers and harassers, some of whom react with an almost Tourette-like reflexiveness to any scent of my existence.

On a prominent (and, in many ways, exceptionally good) Colorado political blog on which I participated for years, after such experiences repeated at an accelerating rate over that entire period of time, in an email exchange with the nominally anonymous owner of the blog, I felt as though I had stepped through the looking glass, for this individual (who, along with his real or imaginary partners, strives mightily to assume an aura of disembodied authority, using the first person plural in all self-references, habitually assuming a dismissive and disdainful tone), for he ascribed the vitriol to me, while blithely exonerating the stalkers, harassers, and frothers-at-the-mouth, implicitly agreeing with them that the publication of relentless intellectual arguments that cause discomfort in others is what is the true affront to human decency.

Don’t get me wrong: I do not claim, and have never claimed, that my personal defects and faults are not a part of this dynamic. Clearly, I could be more diplomatic, more solicitous of other people’s sensibilities, less “pompous” and “condescending” (some of the kinder descriptors of me favored by my detractors). I won’t try to determine to what extent these perceptions of my personality are an artifact of the broader dynamic I am describing, and to what extent they are truly my own, but I will admit that I believe that both components are implicated.

But our humanity is always a part of the equation, our imperfections and personality flaws always affecting our interactions. Why would extreme, explosive, obsessive expressions of rage or hatred be considered less vitriolic than the perceived pomposity and condescension of compelling and focused arguments? Both the “more legitimate” reason that such perceived pomposity and condescension communicates a lack of respect, a lack of acknowledgement of one’s own reality, and the “less legitimate” reason that the perception of such pomposity and condescension is an artifact of one’s own investment of ego in the false certainties that are being challenged, point to the same thing: Such discussions are perceived in terms of competing egos unless great pains are taken to ensure that they are perceived otherwise.

In a sense, I’ve just brought into question my own premise described in the title of this post: Is such “belligerence” really irrational? Isn’t it, on some level, true that what those others perceive as my pomposity and condescension is, in fact, an expression of my ego gorging on my ability to “win” an argument? And isn’t that an aggressive act, a kind of assault on others that invokes legitimate feelings of rage?

Yes, on some level I think that this is true. But it is also like resenting your opponent in an athletic match for out-performing you, because those same people are engaging in the same “competition,” striving to assert their own egos through their arguments on the topics of discussion. One woman, for instance, insisted that to believe in god was to adhere to a neolithic absurdity, and became very upset with me when I presented what I think was a pretty sophisticated argument why this is not necessarily so (see A Dialogue on Religion, Dogma, Imagination, and Conceptualization, though the ad hominems are omitted). Another became very hostile when I challenged her passionate insistence that the best thing progressives could do now would be to withdraw all support from the Democratic Party. Another regular poster reacted with similar (though more clenched) hostility when I effectively challenged his assumptions on education reform. In all these, and other, cases, their egos were no less invested than mine; they, no less than me, in a contest that they wished to win.

Yet, it all depends on what set of rules you have implicit in your mind while playing this “game.” For instance, few if any regulars on the blog in question appear offended by, or even cognizant of, the disdainful and dismissive aura of disembodied, superior authority cultivated so assiduously by the blog owner(s), though I find it far more “pompous” and “condescending” than my own form of argumentation, which never fails to admit to my own defects and humanity, but focuses intensely on mobilizing compelling arguments both untempered by social niceties and unreliant on ad hominem attacks.

I believe that this is because the rules of their game are: 1) Do not ever challenge the premise that, while people have strongly held conflicting opinions, the goal is not to reduce mutual false certainty and arrive together at improved understandings, but rather only to win political victories that advance one’s own dogmatic beliefs at the expense of the dogmatic beliefs of others; 2) It is perfectly acceptable to be vitriolic, disdainful, and dismissive of others, if you do so without violating rule number 1.

In other words, it’s acceptable to argue a position, but only if it is done without any intention of actually challenging the assumptions and conclusions of others; rather, it must be done in service to superficial political victories rather than any attempt to affect human consciousness. This is why it’s just as acceptable among these particular actors to focus in on completely irrelevant issues with which they might score political points as to make a compelling argument, and, in fact, more acceptable to do the former than to do the latter if the latter is done in a way which too profoundly challenges people’s assumptions and conclusions.

This was in fact summed up by one poster on the same blog, less inclined to vitriol and less antagonistic toward me than others, who counseled that I shouldn’t keep asking people to question all that they think is true. I replied that that’s not such a bad role to play, and there should be room on each forum for at least one person to play it.

And that gets to the crux of the matter: He or she who plays it becomes the center of a storm of vitriol for playing it, because what people least want is to have their comfortable false certainties challenged. One of the posters recently most antagonistic to me, assuming the job of posting constant, meaningless, snide attacks following every comment or post of mine, summed this up in an unintentionally flattering way: He wrote, “just drink the hemlock already, Socrates” (the point being that Socrates, who was famous for forcing people to question their own assumptions and conclusions, was sentenced to death for “corrupting the youth of Athens” by inducing them to question the certainties that the Athenian people considered sacrosanct).

A column printed in last Sunday’s Denver post, by syndicated columnist Froma Harrop, “The Op-Ed Pages Are No Tea Party” (, addresses one aspect of this issue: People resent compelling arguments that challenge their beliefs. As she writes:

My definition of incivility is nonfactual and uninformed opinions hidden in anonymity or false identities, and Internet forums overflow with them. When the comments gush in from orchestrated campaigns, other thoughtful views get lost in the flood. That can create two desired outcomes for the organizers. One, the writer gets cowed into thinking he or she has done something awful and holds back next time. Two, commentators outside the group see what’s up and don’t bother participating.

Vitriol without a smart argument is a bore. It’s not the vitriol alone that makes people most angry. It’s a strong argument that hits the bull’s-eye.

I would amend what she says slightly: It’s not only orchestrated campaigns that drive out other voices, but spontaneous group think, especially the highly aggressive and vitriolic kind. This is one aspect of the dynamic I’ve experienced, particularly on that Colorado political blog on which I participated frequently for a long period of time: While I was quite popular at first (winning or being runner up in their periodic “poster of the months” elections several times in succession), the belligerent voices of resistance to the role I was playing grew in number and intensity, while the calmer and more friendly voices correspondingly fell silent.

It wasn’t, I think, initially that very many of the latter group defected to the former, but rather that they ceded the field to them, loathe to get mired in the muck of contesting those angry voices. Then, over time, the growing imbalance creates a self-reinforcing impression of general consensus, that more and more people feel compelled to either acquiesce or actively adhere to. In fact, the one poster who has been most relentless most recently, appears to have been so to gain entry into the “clubhouse” with the sign out front “no stinky Steve Harveys allowed.” The vitriol serves to help consolidate a group-identity defined by the unwritten rules I stated above, rules which I consistently violated.

This dynamic permeates political discourse and political action, pushing out the questioning of assumptions or the quest for anything transcendent of current realities, enshrining and entrenching a certain kind of shallow ritualism, a competition of relatively arbitrary (and underexamined) opinions, played out professionally by strategists and tacticians rather than by those whose aspirations look beyond those exigencies of politics. And all of this is in service to the definition of borders between in-groups and out-groups, ultimately the least progressive and most regressive of all human forces.

An example of the professional political dimension is apparent in a correspondance I had with Senator Mark Udall’s office. First, I want to emphasize that I like Senator Udall, and do not aim this criticism particularly at him or his staff; it is, rather, indicative of something endemic to politics as it is currently practiced, and understandably so.

I sent Senator Udall (and a slew of others) a synopsis of my “Politics of Reason and Goodwill” proposal (see The Politics of Reason & Goodwill, simplified). His office sent back a letter, signed by him, blandly thanking me and stating his belief that, yes, reason and goodwill are laudable goals. It was clear that whoever responded to my proposal either did not read it or did not understand it, because it really has very little to do with some bland reaffirmation that “reason and goodwill are good” (rather, it’s a detailed, systemically informed plan for how to increase the salience of reason and goodwill in public opinion and policy formation).

The generic response from his office, totally missing the point, to a novel idea reaching beyond the mud-pit of politics is illustrative of how foreign these concepts (i.e., reason and goodwill) really are to politics, so beaten out of the actual practice that the mention of them triggers a reflexive dismissal of the reference as naively oblivious to political reality. As I said, I don’t really blame Senator Udall and his staff: This is how they’ve been trained and socialized. This is what experience has taught them. And that, combined with the time pressures on them and the volume of correspondence they receive virtually guarantees such a knee-jerk response (if any response is given at all).

Neither among the rank-and-file, nor at the highest levels, can we easily break through our investment in our current level and form of consciousness. Among the chattering masses, pushing in that direction violates a jealously guarded norm of conduct. Among the seasoned professionals, it violates the perceived lessons of history and experience. But it is precisely the most profound and important of all challenges facing us.

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