Mother Jones published one of the most hideous takes imaginable on April 21. The piece, by Daniel Setiawan, was titled “If There’s Going to Be a Wall, Let It Be This Collaboration Between American and Mexican Designers.” The title is the high point; it all goes downhill from there.
The story itself is pretty simple: Trump solicited proposals for his inane barrier, and two hundred large-souled applicants sent in their applications. All the heroes of the human race were there: the buck-chasers, the ambitious apartheidists, the satirists. Two hundred groups sent in their plans for the megafence. One of these plans was by a trendy, multinational design firm called MADE. Their design was the glossiest and wokest of a rotten lot. MoJo (Mother Jones) thinks MADE’s hip, greenwashing concept is worthy of coverage. And so, they did a feature on it. Just why this story is uniquely terrible will take explanation. MADE’s suggestion is terrible enough, but the sensibility behind it is even worse.
As Setiawan describes it:
When President Trump appealed to the public to submit proposals for his “big, beautiful” border wall, you can be pretty sure that the plan presented by the Mexican American Design and Engineering Collective (MADE) was not what he had in mind.
MADE’s result was the classic stuff of Behance portfolios and heavy coffee table books: an “ecotopia” called Otra Nation. The article explains the details of Otra Nation: you see, their eco-friendly barrier won’t be a wall at all, but a Starbucks-style biometric fence with all kinds of keen, sleek, Apple-store additions to it. I call it The Woke Fence. I wish I was making this up.
Far from the wall Trump envisions, the MADE collective wants to build a high-speed, electric hyperloop connecting different parts of Otra Nation. According to the group’s proposal, the new co-nation would be six miles wide and span the 1,200 miles from San Diego/Tijuana to the Gulf Coast. The land would be “drill free,” and used for a “regenerative agricultural system that will become a bread basket for the two countries.” To top it off, the whole thing would be powered completely by solar and other renewable energy sources, creating thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in trade.
MADE’s spokesman is also quoted: “We actually think that we can remove the physical borders that have already been put up,” said Cruz. But wait:
According to the MADE spokesman, Otra Nation would provide better border security than any physical wall could by using a high-tech system of biometric surveillance and universal smart ID cards. “The ID system that we are proposing is the toughest ID system in the world,” Cruz said. “It is far more stringent than anything the US government has right now.” The idea may have some Orwellian undertones, but for environmentalists Otra Nation’s wall-less border is a welcome alternative to Trump’s vision. Still, many conservationists stress that it’s not just the wall, but the roads, the vehicles, the buildings, the noise, the high-powered lights, and other security installations, all of which will take its toll on the land and its inhabitants.
Have you ever had an ex-Republican college roommate who decided one day to get into reggae? Have you heard them fumble through an explanation of what “Zion” means? Or perhaps, when you were in high school, you had friend explain what Ayn Rand’s Galt Gulch would be like. If so, you have a good guess as to what Otra Nation entails. It was an earnest attempt, as the hangman said to the stone-thrower.
There is no acceptable answer to the wall except “Fight like hell to destroy it.” Here’s Setiawan again:
Among the 200-plus proposals submitted to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) by the April 4th deadline, Otra Nation was definitely one of the more idealistic. At the other end spectrum were walls made of wire mesh impossible to climb or cut, or constructed with one-way plexiglass panels so that US citizens could look into Mexico, but not the other way around
More idealistic. Then the motherlode arrives. The italics are mine:
From comical to xenophobic, the range of ideas submitted to DHS highlighted just how divided the US is when it comes to issues of immigration and border security. But while many of these proposals included green technology like solar panels or windmills, none acknowledged the true environmental consequences of building a wall along the border.
Yes, why stop there?
“If President Trump must resettle Muslims, let them ride on electric trains. There are true environmental consequences.”
“If we must drop nuclear weapons on innocent people in Pyongyang, let’s make sure the missile’s carbon footprint is neutralized. There are true environmental consequences.”
“If we really must fight a crusade against the rest of the world, this new genetically modified war-corn we’re growing atop mass tombs is really the cat’s pajamas. Otherwise, there are true environmental consequences.”
“If we really must have killer robots bomb weddings, can they not sing showtunes?”
The last one is a personal dream of mine. I am exaggerating only slightly. The tone of whole report is just along those lines: a technocratic, clipped-tone, value-neutral analysis of this horrible idea. The account reads like a vicious conservative parody of liberalism; like the RAND Corporation writing a long love letter about how much foreign farm land Pentagon planes can liquidate in how many hours.
MADE, Trump’s wall is not a cool problem for you to hack. Even if the wall doesn’t happen—it probably won’t—your treatment of this problem is craven and glib. The energy you spend on figuring out how to make this medieval containment device palatable is an offense. The article cites an Arizona Congressman, Raul Grijalva, who is challenging the wall on environmental grounds. It quotes Randy Serraglio, who uses the words “It would be the end of jaguars and ocelots in North America.”
So in conclusion: the chief problem with the wall is that the environmental impact is bad. This would be terrible enough, but the next section begins with the title “There’s Got to Be a Better Way.”
Yes. There is. Don’t build it. Fight building it. Don’t even entertain the prospect of building it. Don’t write articles which entertain hip versions of terrible solutions. Your paean to environmentalism meets state power meets the helpful hand of groovy design is the worst form of progressivism I have ever seen. We are considering how ocelot-friendly our paranoid Kafka barrier will be.
It is not surprising that MADE is on the make: “MADE spokesman, Memo Cruz, says that members of the group have worked with the last four US presidents and the last two Mexican ones.” What is truly mystifying is why the editors of MoJo, who are usually wiser than this, would have run such an article.
There’s a tired, ah-well, shrugged shoulders feeling to the piece:
Despite these inconsistencies, the president seems hellbent on fulfilling his campaign promise to build a “great” wall to keep immigrants out of the United States. His budget already sets aside $1.4 billion for the initial development of the project, and the bid process is moving forward with the DHS expected to announce a shortlist of 20 proposals by the summer. Those chosen will then build 30 ft. prototypes of their design in the Otay Mesa Community outside of San Diego.
Ah, whaddaya gonna do? The outrage on Twitter to the MoJo piece was swift and just. Defenders of the Woke Fence feature complained that the haters and losers had not read the feature close enough. Critics just had to gaze deeper and then we would penetrate its godawful mystery. But this was illusion and folly.
Stop trying to make Woke Fence happen. Like “fetch,” it’s not going to happen. You cannot hack the wall. You cannot redeem it.
It’s not really about the wall, the defenders of the piece replied. It is, though: the essay makes clear there will be cameras and scanners, even if there is not a literal boundary. But ignore that. That’s not really what people are objecting to. What they despise is how dumb and craven MADE’s approach to this problem is, and how dismal the thinking is behind it.
Neoliberalism always wants to have its cake and eat it too: be woke, and have power at the same time. Literally everything they do is informed by this principle. If you believe that the key to government is enlightened, elite people holding the power—if that is the most important thing—then you can bend your principles in the most expedient direction. “If we’re going to build a wall, a really cool design firm ought to do it!”
If you believe the process is what matters—if that’s the only holy thing to you—then you can excuse anything. Trump’s proposed wall is an ethical nightmare, a bad fantasy, and here is an article about the application process to build it. Process and meritocracy, you see, are the important things here. This worldview is afraid to fight power.
Stranger still, the entire feature—which is ostensibly about a very important political and ethical challenge—is really a long ad for this one collection of smug, hack-the-problem designers and their totally radical solutions to a raving, alt-right fever dream. You can’t nuance this away. “If this guy in the bar is going to hit me in the face, let him do it with an ethically-sourced, free-trade boxing glove.” Maybe stop him from hitting you in the face? Maybe hitting people in the face is an outrage that shouldn’t be normalized, even rhetorically? Even if the outcome is really kewl designs? Maybe applying to design the boxing glove is a kind of blasphemy?
Why is this a problem? Because this is what always happens. Here’s how it works: the far right, in whatever form, lays down an unspeakable goal: a wall, a travel ban, a war. The neoliberal solution … is to finesse the issue. There is no fighting. There is no resistance. There is massage. That is all. “Make the wall woke” is identical to “Gorsuch won’t be so bad.” Of the many poxes the Clinton years bequeathed to us, triangulation is one of the worst. The Woke Fence is a classic example of it.
Listen to the coda. This is the end of MADE’s interview with Mother Jones, a periodical named for a great American who spent most of her life in labor camps and prisons:
“I know we’ve got a million to one chance of getting selected,” said Cruz. Still, he hopes that MADE’s Otra Nation proposal will at least generate conversation between members of the US and Mexican governments about alternative ways of looking at the border that don’t involve a wall. “Even if we’re not selected, to get the two governments to sit down and look at what we’ve done with these solutions, that will be a huge win for us.”
Go to hell.