It’s time for another game of Who Gets Fired And Who Gets Promoted In The Current Year Edition. Today, our two contestants are:
* someone whose parents engaged from the Nineties to 2003 in an exhaustively documented process of bribing public officials, creating visas for jobs which did not exist, bringing immigrants to the United States, forcing those immigrants to incur debt with interest rates of 50% or 60% percent, making them sleep 10 or 15 to a room, and then extracting money from their families back home;
* someone whose father said THE N-WORD during an interview in 1983.
One of these people lost their financial support (and effectively, their job) as a consequence of an action taken by their parents. The other one was promoted to staff editor at The New Yorker. Go ahead and guess who is who…
Chances are, you guessed correctly. Conor Daly, who has Type 1 diabetes, got dropped by a diabetes medication firm after a report about his father surfaced. Apparently, Derek Daly used “the slur” during an interview almost forty years ago. Some of my readers will no doubt point out that it’s never kind or decent to use a racial slur in an interview, and they are correct. On the other hand… the notion that your children can be punished because you said something four decades ago which doesn’t fit with the mores of The Current Year? My God, what if my son loses a job in 2060 due to rumors that I said “freshman year” instead of “first-year student year” or something like that? Or because I wrote “woman” instead of “femme”, an offense which is rapidly acquiring the character of racial/sexual discrimination?
Jia Tolentino, former Jezebel writer, is the other person. A second-generation Filipino-American who grew up in a Texas megachurch then publicly repudiated her upbringing in print for profit and credibility within the media-industrial complex, she specializes in matters of race, color, gender, and grievance for the New Yorker. She wrote a book, Trick Mirror, about how other people engage in self-deception. She has been compared to Joan Didion. Her star is on the rise. Yet there is one small problem: her parents appear to have engaged in systematic and horrifying exploitation of Filipino immigrants, culminating in Federal prosecution, a cunningly arranged mistrial, and a subsequent plea deal.
Obviously Tolentino is not responsible for the sins of her parents, any more than Conor Daly is. As a member of the Twitter Bluechecks and an Approved Media Voice, however, she has a power that Daly does not have: she can rewrite the past, 1984-style, to create a narrative in which her parents are the victims, George Bush is the boogeyman who persecuted them, and Donald Trump is the racist monster who is preventing their exoneration. (The eight years of President Obama’s administration-of-color, in which her parents were never so much as considered for exoneration, goes tactfully unmentioned.) She does this knowing that the media will line up behind her without so much as checking a single fact, and that she will therefore be able to alter history from the trial record and numerous historical sources to her own wishful thinking, thanks to her ability to “signal-boost” her version of events over the historical record.
Tolentino’s blogpost on the subject is a Current Year masterclass on how to misuse authentic difficulties of race and class for personal gain. I’d like to show you a few excerpts, but first you might want to get some actual facts. The Tolentinos, operating as OMNI International, imported 273 Filipino teachers to the United States on visas for teaching work. They charged over $10,000 for this service, plus 50 to 60 percent interest, via loans which were supposed to be paid back once the teachers started working. Each loan had to be secured by property in the Philippines. But fewer than 100 of those people had real jobs waiting for them. The rest were stored in Texas apartments, 10 or 15 to a room, while the interest accrued on their secured loans. They were told that they would be deported by ICE, which was portrayed as a vicious and possibly dangerous group of thugs, if they told anyone about their situation. Eventually, some of the teachers escaped and went to ICE for help.
With testimony from several victims and hard paper evidence of the financial arrangements, the US Government prosecuted several people, including school officials who had been given all-expenses-paid luxury travel by the Tolentinos. The trial of the Tolentinos ended in a mistrial because the jurors were exposed to TV coverage of the event. The Tolentinos then pled guilty to lesser offenses.
It’s no secret that the United States Government can occasionally persecute people for little or no reason: ask Randy Weaver, whose wife was shot in the head while she held their infant daughter, or the parents of the children burned to death near Waco, Texas. In this case, however, the Feds were acting at the request of the exploited immigrants, who told Texas papers that the intervention of Customs and Border Protection had basically kept them from starving to death. The Feds could have reopened the trial against the Tolentinos, but they let it go because it was 2003 and they were busy with a little thing called “9/11”. Those are the facts. Now let’s hear Tolentino’s eloquent restatement:
In 2004, to their horror, my parents were charged with a battery of things that, if they were found guilty, would add up to over a hundred years in prison for each of them: the counts included alien smuggling, harboring and transporting aliens, conspiracy to defraud the government, money laundering, and more. The company’s open, earnest, lawful work helping fellow Filipinos move to America for good jobs in teaching had been swiftly reframed as hideous criminal activity. (Seeing people on the internet gleefully call my parents “human traffickers” has been a reminder of the vast, brutal gap between those initial charges and the reality they purported to describe—a gap in which my parents have to live every day.)… It’s been interesting, in observing the gossip about this, to see the way many white people implicitly see criminality as a status that is only achieved through egregious, malicious actions; many black and brown people understand that this is not at all the case… my dad was tortured, if you believe solitary confinement is torture, which it is… Two months later, after nearly two hundred witnesses were called against the company, the judge declared a mistrial.
Think about that. The government was able to produce nearly two hundred witnesses against the Tolentinos, all of whom just magically happened to think something bad had been done. Mass brainwashing!
on the plane to Puerto Rico, I drafted a pathetic handwritten letter begging for a pardon from the Presidential administration that had created the legal atmosphere that had facilitated all of this in the first place. My dad, surely with deep reservations, granted me permission. But my mom felt that, in the current political environment, there could be tangible repercussions for resurfacing this part of their history. I’ve never really been able to communicate, no matter how many ways I tell them, how grateful I am for the bone-deep familiarity with injustice that I acquired through watching what happened to them. Their case solidified my ethical commitments; it clarified my understanding of power, of truth and complication. I learned from their life trajectory, as I had to. And I hope, one day, under a different administration, that I get the chance to report it all out.
Look past Tolentino’s facility with language to the assertion she is actually making: that the Trump Administration is somehow responsible for her parents’ 2003 conviction and that Trump could somehow harm her, and her parents, for telling “the real story”. And she ends her insane whitewash of her parents’ activities with another reference to Trump. Guys, my parents were literally keeping immigrants in cages against their will, but… Trump! He’s a Nazi! Am I right!
Naturally, every criminal (or child of criminals) has a story about why they, or their parents, were somehow the victims instead of the perpetrators. Sit in any county jail for ten minutes and you will hear a dozen tales of conspiracy, hidden evidence, and outrageous coincidence which all somehow lead to the fellow telling the story being caught red-handed with a “slim jim”, three stolen car radios, and a cellphone video of him stealing the car radios while laughing “I can’t believe how good I am at stealing car radios!” What makes Tolentino’s situation unique is the rapidity with which she was affirmed and supported by virtually all the major players in New York Media. Senior staffers for The Atlantic, the New Yorker, the Daily Beast, Pro Publica, Vox, Esquire, Elle, Huffington Post, and elsewhere all expressed sympathy, condolences, and perfect faith. The story could have ended there, as I’m sure Tolentino would have liked — but the Internet wasn’t having it.
when your heckin' family does a small uwu human trafficking but you just wanna be a cozy bean
— Mr. Feel, Spiral Pupil Enthusiast (@mrfeelswildride) May 21, 2020
— белый дьявол (@pawgbertREAL) May 21, 2020
This democratization of media has had a variety of hugely unpleasant consequences — such as the virtual abandonment of conventional literacy, an acceleration of the rate at which our attention spans are shrinking, the existence of “OnlyFans” — but it’s also done a great deal to teach us about the various ways in which a false “consensus” is manufactured by a very small group of people who have been molded and shaped by a very small number of educational institutions into a frankly eerie similarity. Yes, the English aristocracy did this for centuries with their “public schools” and their clubby social circles, but the aristocrats in question were also fiercely proud and individual people thanks to the certainty of their birth and circumstances, so they were naturally resistant to the programming they received.
Today’s opinion-makers are taught to revile their families and cling to their institutions, which take people who are both morally and spiritually empty then remake them into keyboard-driving shock troops whose hunger to enforce the policies of those institutions is all but insatiable. The vast majority of them aren’t paid terribly well, and most of them live miserable existences in rat-infested apartments, but their sights are set on something else: power. To punish, to “cancel”, to remake the past and thereby remake the present. You fellows know where I’m going with this… the same Orwell quote as always:
There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always—do not forget this Winston—always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless.
The purest expression of this, I think, was Sam Biddle trashing Justine Sacco. Because Sacco was beautiful, and successful, and charming — everything Biddle is not. Which left him just one option: he couldn’t make himself better, but he could make Sacco’s life worse. That’s power. The power of media. You can harm people. I mean, you could also help people, but there’s no point in that. It doesn’t pay. Over the past few months, I spent a reasonable amount of time and effort coordinating a plan to get a dying man into his dream car before it was too late. I was materially assisted in this by a small group of wonderful people. The resulting story was a dead fish, a flopper on the bottom of our Analytics charts. Nobody cared. I could have done more traffic by picking some random street racing accident off Instagram and making fun of the person involved. Would have taken thirty minutes and cost nothing.
I read a couple of Jia Tolentino’s pieces today. They’re remarkable for the distance they impose between the viewer (Tolentino, directing the reader’s vision) and the subject. She has a real knack for making happy people seem unhappy; a piece on a championship cheerleading team is intended to evoke contempt, derision, and finally pity. Another piece, on “Instagram Face”, makes the rather outrageous claim that white women are stealing beauty from women of color but at the same time are also forcing all women of color to become more white, or something like that. Never do we see any affection for the subjects of her literary focus, and rarely do we get the sense that they have any redeeming qualities. She is the only authentic person in her writing, the only person to come by her emotions and accomplishments honestly. Everyone else is an evil white robot. This sort of writing must feel powerful, when you do it. It must be intoxicating. It must, in the final analysis, make you think that you can rewrite the past in the image of your own imagination.
Part of me wants Tolentino to succeed in this outrageous enterprise. Her success would then suggest that it would be possible for me to rewrite my own history, or my family history, in a softer and more flattering focus. It’s all a matter of what you emphasize, what gets air to breathe in your stories and what does not. Why, it turns out that I’ve always been a great father, a caring husband, a reliable friend, a successful businessman, a winning racer. I’ll lay it all out for you, right here, an amplification of the good and a tasteful muting of the bad. Alas, reality has different plans, both for Ms. Tolentino and for me. Balzac wrote
Le secret des grandes fortunes sans cause apparente est un crime oublié, parce qu’ il a été proprement fait
It translates (very) roughly as “The secret behind every perplexing success is a crime which has remained secret because it was done well.” Jia Tolentino’s rise to fame has, indeed, been “sans cause apparente” — but the crime which made it possible has not, as of yet, been quite forgotten.
For Hagerty, I considered the future of an LR3 used for commuting duty and stole Tom Klockau’s car.