The Austin Chronicle

Point Austin: Living in Emergency

One day at a time in the former republic

By Michael King, February 17, 2017, News

Well, it's been a very strange week in the Republic of Woebegone, formerly known as the U.S. of A. You remember that country, where as recently as December 2016, one could pass a week or two without futilely attempting to suppress the thought that the world is about to end, or just trying to dodge the news cycle altogether. Life in America has become a version of that childhood mind game, Don't Think About a Hippopotamus. Except the hippopotamus is orange, he and his pathological cronies have been put in charge of the country, and he won't go away.

Last week conservative pundit Andrew Sullivan (who spent far too much of the previous decade longing for the return of Imaginary Reaganism) managed to put his finger on the specific mental burden – the "emergency" – of living in Trump World. "One of the great achievements of free society in a stable democracy is that many people, for much of the time, need not think about politics at all. The president of a free country may dominate the news cycle many days – but he is not omnipresent – and because we live under the rule of law, we can afford to turn the news off at times. A free society means being free of those who rule over you – to do the things you care about, your passions, your pastimes, your loves – to exult in that blessed space where politics doesn't intervene. In that sense, it seems to me, we already live in a country with markedly less freedom than we did a month ago. It's less like living in a democracy than being a child trapped in a house where there is an abusive and unpredictable father, who will brook no reason, respect no counter-argument, admit no error, and always, always up the ante until catastrophe inevitably strikes. This is what I mean by the idea that we are living through an emergency." ("The Madness of King Donald," New York, Feb. 10.)

Threatening Our Neighbors

The emergency arrived home to Austin in a much more visceral and devastating way over last weekend, when many of our neighbors found themselves subject to the whims of a police state in a way that most of us can afford to ignore, most of the time. Mayor Steve Adler, in an open letter to the community, described the effects of arbitrary raids by Immigration and Customs Enforce­ment agents: "The overly broad way these ICE raids are being conducted is making our community less safe and causing disproportionate harm by dividing the families of non-serious offenders and others who are of no threat and have been caught merely in the wrong place at the wrong time. … These raids are sowing distrust, not just with ICE but even with local law enforcement, and that makes our community less safe." In a post to the online news site Mic (reposted on his Facebook page), City Council Member Greg Casar described some families in his District 4 as so frightened they're not leaving their houses, and keeping their children home from school. He called the raids "reprehensible," upholding neither the law nor public safety, but imposing a national political agenda of "scapegoating immigrants for our problems." Similar raids have been reported in at least five other cities.

Finding a Balance

There's a substantial difference between devising some political response to the latest daily outrage, and wondering whether the hammer of deportation is about to descend upon and destroy your family. Yet every bit of public business is acquiring a shadowed, almost surreal double standard: Do we devote all our energies to the emergencies being manufactured in D.C. – from Muslim bans to immigration raids to Russian election hacking – or do we try to maintain daily sanity and only allot to politics its due proportion of attention, while we continue "to exult in that blessed space where politics doesn't intervene"? It's a question that won't have a single answer for everyone, or the same answer every day.

On a more minor scale, you'll see the doubleness of our current predicament played out on the City Council dais. Mayor Adler, CM Casar, and the others will spend a bit of time Thursday employing admittedly minimal municipal powers – despite howls of rage emanating from the Capitol, nobody is offering anyone real "sanctuary" – to help defend a few families from the raids. Then they'll spend the rest of the afternoon and evening trying to adjudicate bitter neighborhood fights over "zoning variances" and "floor-to-area ratios." That's what city councils do – it's important work, and yet it increasingly seems inadequate to the times in which we are living.

Nevertheless, public official or ordinary Austin resident, we can all try to respond in whatever way possible to the mayor's heartfelt exhortation: "In this difficult situation, it is so important for us to show our neighbors and the world who we are and what we're made of. Let's take care of each other." Indeed.

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