Icosian Reflections

…a tendency to systematize and a keen sense

that we live in a broken world.

What is there to say?

My grandfather was a career scientist at Oak Ridge National Labs for 36 years. He was an international traveler and an international collaborator, advancing human knowledge of materials science as best he knew how -- by sharing what he knew with fellow seekers of truth, regardless of nationality. As a young man, he left a country rent by war to seek an education -- and a home -- and a future in the United States. Here he raised three sons, international travelers and collaborators themselves -- a businessman, a public servant, and a professor of Law.

I can't count the friends I have with friends and colleagues, seeking an education -- seeking a future -- seeking to advance the knowledge of all mankind -- who have had my nation slam our door in their faces this weekend. I feel sick for what my nation has done in my name, though Scott Aaronson expresses it far better than I can:

To the Trump regime, I make one request: if you ever decide that it’s the policy of the US government to deport my PhD students, then deport me first. I’m practically begging you: come to my house, arrest me, revoke my citizenship, and tear up the awards I’ve accepted at the White House and the State Department. I’d consider that to be the greatest honor of my career. (...)

Of course there's more to it than that. The fact that Sudan is not the scientific powerhouse that Iran is makes its people no less deserving to join their futures to ours. It is not merely those who are useful to us who we should offer help, and shelter, and a home. It is not merely those who flee war who deserve at least as good as we can offer, when we welcome them to build their futures here.

It's important to remember that, but it's hard to take it all in. So I think of the scientists and I think of the students and I think of the refugees and I think of my grandfather's memory. That my country's leadership seeks to extinguish the lamp of welcome and close the golden door to them is already too much to handle.


Then again, I think there's a danger to framing it this way -- in terms of scientists and scholars (and Army translators, and...)

Scott Adams (who is an unrepentant Trump supporter, but on the other hand, was one of the first people I read to honestly believe the man could win, so maybe worth reading so long as you handle his ideas with ten-foot tongs...) has a theory about what this executive order was intended to achieve:

[H]e just solved his biggest problem with immigration and you didn’t notice. The biggest problem is that his supporters on the right want more immigration control than he can (or should) deliver while his many critics on the left want far less. Normally when you negotiate there is only one party on the other side. But in this case, Trump is negotiating two extremes in two different directions. It’s the toughest possible situation...

The left sees Trump’s executive orders on immigration as pure Hitler behavior. That gives him plenty of room to negotiate to the middle. The initial orders are too broad, and clearly target too many of the wrong people. As he fixes those special cases he will be moving away from the Hitler model toward the middle. And people are more influenced by the DIRECTION of things than the absolute position of things. As long as he is moving away from the Hitler analogy, people will chill out, even if they think he was too close to that position before. Direction matters...

But what about Trump’s critics on the far right who want more extreme immigration? Trump needs to negotiate with them too. And he is. He did that by showing them that his temporary offer was so extreme that people took to the streets... And the worse it gets, with protests and whatnot, the more leverage Trump has to tell his far right supporters that he has gone as far as the country will let him go. He needed that. The protests are working in his favor. He couldn’t negotiate with the extreme right without them. (...)

The overreach, this view claims, is part of the plan. The Army translators being detained in American airports? That's an intentional flourish to make the President's most hardline supporters happier about accepting a less-than-total compromise later. The green-card holders and MIT students stranded while visiting their family for the holidays? Once we on the left have shouted ourselves hoarse over that outrage, and the order is unceremoniously "interpreted" to say, no of course we didn't mean that they were banned, just the really bad people, of course not students or military personnel or green-card holders---

I'm not entirely sold, but I think that there's something true to the idea (which, to be clear, I hate). And so I think it's worth being perfectly clear that this is an outrage in many more ways than just the most salient examples -- of PhD students and mothers of young children -- and that even if every person profiled in a news story were granted prompt exemptions, the pieces of the order that don't make for nice personal anecdotes would still comprise a humanitarian disaster.

Tell the stories of friends and colleagues, but remember that the tragedy here comes down much, much harder on people with very different stories than theirs.


I'm not a lawyer, and so I don't want to ruminate about the legality of President Trump's executive order. And I've seen many bloggers that I respect try to explain the current situation, and be caught up in the confusion and shifting information trickling out of the administration. So I won't try to explain what the current state of play is, or who is and is not affected, or what legal rulings have been handed down by whom.

What I do have is a voice and money. I can use my voice to write confused, rambling posts like this one, and I can use my money... well, I can use my money with a lot more precision than that. As yet another Scott A. once phrased it: "I’m taking this abstract representation of my resources and using it exactly how I think it should most be used."

Here's what that means for me today:

  • I'm donating $200 to the American Civil Liberties Union, who fought the good fight to win a temporary stay ordering the release of dozens of visa-holders being held in American airports.
  • I'm donating $200 to the International Refugee Assistance Project, who was on my radar even before they started showing up in news articles about lawyers fighting to be allowed to see and represent detainees they'd never met before. (IRAP also appeals to my EA leanings; the Open Philanthropy Project awarded them a grant last year, and it seems likely that their work has only become more important since.)


"The New Colossus" is an apt verse for the times, though at the moment I'm finding myself preferring a bit of Auden my mother shared with me back in November:

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
“I will be true to the wife,
I’ll concentrate more on my work,"
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State;
And no-one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.