Monthly Archives: January 2017

Seven Countries

On Friday, President Trump signed an Executive Order targeting immigrants and refugees from 7 majority Muslim countries: Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen. The order has been met with strong protests, questions about it’s legality, and numerous horror stories about children detained in isolation and Iraqi interpreters – who risked their lives and the lives of their families in service to our country – being barred entry.

I’ve been trying to figure out where that list of seven countries comes from. As it turns out, this is not a particularly easy task.

The Executive Order does not refer to the countries directly. Rather, it reads:

I hereby proclaim that the immigrant and nonimmigrant entry into the United States of aliens from countries referred to in section 217(a)(12) of the INA, 8 U.S.C. 1187(a)(12), would be detrimental to the interests of the United States,

INA refers to the Immigration and Nationality Act which was originally created in 1952, though it has been amended several times since then. As the INA website explains:

Although it stands alone as a body of law, the Act is also contained in the United States Code (U.S.C.). The code is a collection of all the laws of the United States…When browsing the INA or other statutes you will often see reference to the U.S. Code citation…Although it is correct to refer to a specific section by either its INA citation or its U.S. code, the INA citation is more commonly used.

So, when the Executive Order refers to “217(a)(12) of the INA” and “8 U.S.C. 1187(a)(12),” those are two citations for the same thing, both included for completeness.

Now, Section 217 of the INA deals with “Visa Waiver Program for Certain Visitors” and 217(a) reads:

(a) ESTABLISHMENT OF PROGRAM.-The Attorney General and the Secretary of State are authorized to establish a program (hereinafter in this section referred to as the “program”) under which the requirement of paragraph (7)(B)(i)(II) of section 212(a) may be waived by the Attorney General, in consultation with the Secretary of State, and in accordance with this section, in the case of an alien who meets the following requirements:

Bullet points (1) – (11) then list the requirements for “aliens” receiving a waiver.

Now, I’m no legal scholar, but there is no bullet point 12.

The text for the INA is hosted by the Department for Homeland Security, and the text for the related United States Code, 8 U.S.C. 1187, is hosted by the U.S. Government Publishing Office. Neither website includes a point 12. So I could tell you about 217(a)(11) of the INA and 8 U.S.C. 1187(a)(11), but I can’t tell you about the law referenced in President Trump’s Executive Order: section 217(a)(12) of the INA or 8 U.S.C. 1187(a)(12).

So where does that list of 7 countries come from?

I assumed I must be going about this all wrong, and that someone else had figured it all out already.

I looked at the New York Times helpful annotation of the Executive Order. Following the paragraph referencing section 217(a)(12) of the INA, 8 U.S.C. 1187(a)(12), the New York Times annotates:

The countries are Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen.

But where does that list of 7 countries come from?

President Trump has argued that his order is not substantially different from measures taken by President Obama (Fact Check: False). The list of countries may have come from President Obama, however, as CNN indicates:

In December 2015, President Obama signed into law a measure placing limited restrictions on certain travelers who had visited Iran, Iraq, Sudan, or Syria on or after March 1, 2011. Two months later, the Obama administration added Libya, Somalia, and Yemen to the list, in what it called an effort to address “the growing threat from foreign terrorist fighters.”

This implies that the list of affected countries can be found in two press releases from the Department of Homeland Security, the first from January 21, 2016 reads:

The United States today began implementing changes under the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015 (the Act). U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) welcomes more than a million passengers arriving to the United States every day and is committed to facilitating legitimate travel while maintaining the highest standards of security and border protection. Under the Act, travelers in the following categories are no longer eligible to travel or be admitted to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP):

  • Nationals of VWP countries who have traveled to or been present in Iran, Iraq, Sudan, or Syria on or after March 1, 2011 (with limited exceptions for travel for diplomatic or military purposes in the service of a VWP country).
  • Nationals of VWP countries who are also nationals of Iran, Iraq, Sudan, or Syria.

The second release from February 18, 2016 then adds Libya, Somalia, and Yemen as “countries of concern.”

Now, Politifact has a great comparison between President Obama’s and President Trump’s policies…but I’m still unclear on how the 2016 list of countries ended up in President Trump’s Executive Order. And what is the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015 anyway?

I’m glad you asked.

The official Congressional website indicates the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015 as coming from H.R.158: An act to amend the Immigration and Nationality Act to provide enhanced security measures for the visa waiver program, and for other purposes.

This act was approved by the house and voted into law as part of an appropriations act (HR 2029).

Now, this bill includes:

(SEC. 3) Section 217(a) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (8 U.S.C. 1187(a)), as amended by this Act, is further amended by adding at the end the following: (12) NOT PRESENT IN IRAQ, SYRIA, OR ANY OTHER COUNTRY OR AREA OF CONCERN.

…in a country that is designated by the Secretary of State under section 6(j) of the Export Administration Act of 1979 (50 U.S.C. 2405) (as continued in effect under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (50 U.S.C. 1701 et seq.)), section 40 of the Arms Export Control Act (22 U.S.C. 2780), section 620A of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 (22 U.S.C. 2371), or any other provision of law, as a country, the government of which has repeatedly provided support of acts of international terrorism;

None of that is particularly helpful, though again the related Homeland Security press release identifies the affected countries as Iran, Iraq, Sudan, or Syria, with Libya, Somalia, and Yemen added a month later.

Now, while I still don’t understand why there isn’t a section 217(a)(12) of the INA, it’s important to note that this list of countries was affected by a visa waiver program. As the DHS release clarifies:

These individuals will still be able to apply for a visa using the regular immigration process at our embassies or consulates. For those who need a U.S. visa for urgent business, medical, or humanitarian travel to the United States, U.S. embassies and consulates stand ready to process applications on an expedited basis.

And it goes on – as HR 158 does – to clarify that the change will not effect foreign nationals who were in the named countries “in order to perform military service in the armed forces of a program country.”

So those Iraqi interpreters?

Yeah, we should let them in.


There have been a number of rallies, protests, and marches lately, which has gotten me thinking about Charles’ Tilly’s delightful acronym WUNC: worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitment. As Tilly writes:

The term WUNC sounds odd, but it represents something quite familiar. WUNC displays can take the form of statements, slogans, or labels that imply worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitment.

The combination of tactics used and WUNC displays, Tilly argues, is what gives a campaign its distinctiveness.

Consider the Pussyhats of the women’s march: the sea of pink emphasized the march’s impressive numbers and indicated participant’s unity. Importantly, this type of display operates on both an external and internal level. That is, observers note participant’s numbers and unity; while participants get energized by the event’s numbers and unity.

This internal effect is particularly important because rallies often serve primarily as a mechanism to energy loyal participants, rather than as tactic to achieve a direct outcome.

When I was headed to yesterday’s protest against President Trump’s anti-immigrant legislation, I was thinking about this piece in particular. Would there be some visible element that would make a person’s participation in the rally clear? Probably not with such short notice.

There was a group on my train with their protest signs out. Another passenger stopped and started asking them questions; where was the rally today? What time did it start? What exactly did the targeted executive orders do?

On my way home following the rally, I got a lot of reactions to my own protest sign. Had I been protesting at the airport? How was the crowd at Copley? One woman just honked enthusiastically as I walked by.

There are so many things going on right now; so many ways that the pluralism of our society is under attack, it seems nearly impossible to come up with a single symbol that could encompass all we stand for and all we believe.

But maybe we don’t have to. A WUNC display doesn’t need to be as tidy as matching hats or colorful pins. Perhaps a miscellaneous smattering of signage is enough. Perhaps these varied messages – some funny, some sad, some angry, some simple, each subject to the peculiarities of its maker – perhaps each of the signs are indeed united under a single banner: resist.

Science and Technocracy

Reading Warren Weaver’s 1948 article, “Science and Complexity,” I was struck by his description of science and his impassioned argument for its importance:

Science clearly is a way of solving problems – not all problems, but a large class of important and practical ones. The problems with which science can deal are those in which the predominant factors are subject to the basic laws of logic, and are for the most part measurable. Science is a way of organizing reproducible knowledge about such problems; of focusing and disciplining imagination; of weighing evidence; of deciding what is relevant and what is not; of impartially testing hypothesis; of ruthlessly discarding data that prove to be inaccurate or inadequate; of finding, interpreting, and facing facts, and of making the facts of nature the servants of man.

Increasingly, we seem to live in a “post-factual” era, where experts are maligned as mere technocrats; where knowledge is dismissed as perspective.

There are good arguments against technocracy: history has numerous examples of the dangers of sidelining personal experience in favor of detached technical expertise. But science is not technocracy. We can embrace science, embrace facts, without resorting to a totalitarian technocratic system. As Weaver writes:

Yes, science is a powerful tool, and it has an impressive record. But the humble and wise scientist does not expect or hope that science can do everything. He remembers that science teaches respect for special competence, and he does not believe that every social, economic, or political emergency would be automatically dissolved if “the scientists” were only put into control.



Demanding Dignity and Respect for All My Neighbors

It’s been a dramatic week. President Trump has signed a number of Executive Orders and Memoranda which strike at the very core of what I believe.

I have been particularly disturbed by two orders signed yesterday; the first on “border security” and the other on “public safety” – phrases which are essentially Newspeak for racial bias and immigrant hatred.  “Tens of thousands of removable aliens have been released into communities across the country,” one order claims.

I am ashamed to hear such hateful rhetoric coming from the President of my country.

But I am given hope by the millions of good men and women who don’t accept such false claims; who have worked and who reaffirm their work to supporting and welcoming all members of our community.

In his Order, President Trump claimed that sanctuary cities – those jurisdictions which have refused to enable a Federal witch-hunt for difference, “have caused immeasurable harm to the American people and to the very fabric of our Republic.”

I say that it is these jurisdictions which epitomize the very fabric our Republic. It is these jurisdictions which stand true to American values; who pursue the vision of a land where all people are created equal and endowed with the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

I am proud to live in a Sanctuary city, and I am proud that my mayor, Joseph Curtatone, has said in no uncertain terms that we will not waiver in this commitment. These are our neighbors.

I am also proud to serve as the vice-Chair of the board for The Welcome Project, a vibrant non-profit which builds the collective power of Somerville immigrants to participate in and shape community decisions.

In response to Wednesday’s reprehensible executive orders, The Welcome Project released the following statement this morning. And by the way, you can donate to The Welcome Project here. ___

President Donald Trump signed executive orders Wednesday attacking America’s status as a nation of immigrants. We at The Welcome Project are saddened but steadfast. We will not waiver in continuing the work our communities have entrusted us to do; building the collective power of immigrants to help shape community decisions and pursuing the American vision of liberty and justice for all.

We thank Mayor Curtatone, the Board of Aldermen, and the residents of Somerville as they continue to fight for America and support immigrants, community, and Sanctuary City status.  Somerville continues to be a beacon of light and a hope for many. We know that our community only becomes stronger when all people are free to participate in it; that Sanctuary Cities are not about harboring criminals, they are about reducing crime, increasing trust between the police and the community, and offering a better future for our families.

The Welcome Project will continue to work with all members of our community, supporting all immigrants regardless of documentation status. We will stay vigilant in our mission and push for the rights of all. We will work with the immigrant community to ensure their voices are being heard.  We will continue our commitment to justice, equality, and inclusion. We thank all of you for your continued support as we explore the effects these executive orders have on our organization, our constituents, and our city.

Benjamin Echevarria
Executive Director

Social Movements and Leadership

In his autobiography, appropriately titled The Long Haul, activist and educator Myles Horton writes about the leadership of social movements. While great charismatic leaders serve an important galvanizing role and go down in history as the leader of the movement, the real power of a social moment is that it multiplies leadership – it turns the people themselves into leaders.

He tells the story of a elderly black woman who started a Citizen School. She heard the idea somewhere, figured it out, and taught a few other people how to do it as well. She had no idea Citizen Schools were happening all over. It was simply an idea which she could pick up and make her own. Horton writes:

It’s only in a movement that an idea is often made simple enough and direct enough that I can spread rapidly. Then your leadership multiplies very rapidly, because there’s something explosive going on. Please see that other people not so different from themselves do things that they thought could never be done. They’re emboldened and challenged by that step into the water, and once the get in the water, it’s as if they’ve never not been there.

Perspectives on Protest

Last Saturday’s Women’s March has been widely praised as one of the largest acts of protest in US political history. Attendees talked about the amazing sense of camaraderie, and the inspiration of seeing more people than they could imagine taking to the street.

But, of course, the march isn’t without its disagreements. Now that it’s over, skeptics will ask “but how do we turn this into real action?” And leading up to the march, there were a number of difficult and important questions: who is represented in the women’s march? Who is really represented? What is the role of violence in protest?

There have been a number of great pieces about the racism of the white feminist movement, which has historically, unapologetically, sidelined women of color. In the New York Times, Jenna Wortham reflected on a picture from the Women’s March: Angela Peoples holding a sign that reads, “Don’t Forget: White Women Voted for Trump.” Wortham writes that of all the iconic images to come out of Saturday, this was the one she found most resonant: “It felt indicative of the ways in which the day’s events could be viewed as problematic: the notion that women’s rights were suddenly the most important cause in our nation, or that there haven’t been protests and activist movements worth attending until the election of Donald Trump.”

There have also been interesting discussions about core beliefs required for feminism, as a feminist anti-abortion group was removed from the list of official march partners.

Finally, the march has also raised important questions about the role of violence in protest – and the role of the police in responding to protest. The women’s march was praised for it’s lack of violence – which some have attributed to divergent police response to a largely white protest. That praise also overlooks the work of the Black Bloc – which sought to disrupt the status quo during inauguration and resulted in an infinitely meme-able clip of a neo-Nazi getting punched in the face.

In the Nation, Natasha Lennard argued that while such protests are often greeted with distain by more mainstream activists, their work is essential to to overall goal we seek. Most of us are free riders, benefiting from their actions while distancing ourselves from their tactics. As Lennard writes:

To talk with any romance for the black bloc risks falling into the worst tropes of bombastic revolutionary writing. We don’t don black masks and become instant revolutionary subjects. We don’t necessarily achieve more with property damage than a larger, more subdued rally achieves. In every case, the standard of achievement depends on the aims of the action, and all of us are far from creating the rupture we want to see in the world. One broken window, or a hundred, is not victory. But nor is over half a million people rallying on the National Mall. Both gain potency only if they are perceived as a threat by those in and around power. And neither action will appear threatening unless followed up again and again with unrelenting force, in a multitude of directions. You don’t have to choose between pink hat and black mask; each of us can wear both.

I raise this topics of disagreement around the march, because they are all important questions and they will not go away. Coalitions are hard to build and maintain, and we won’t ever agree on everything – from policy to tactics.

There’s a conventional wisdom that conservative win because they are better at collectively getting on message, while liberals are lost arguing amongst themselves.

But I don’t think that failure and disorganization are a intrinsic part of pluralism. As we continue in the work that comes out of the Women’s March, I don’t want to see us brush these disagreements under the rug – I want to see us embrace them. We need to keep raising these issues, keep having these conversations – and we need to keep working together.

I don’t think those ends are incompatible.


I’ve been thinking lately of John Steinbeck’s The Moon is Down. It’s a tale of resistance. The story of how a a small town is swiftly conquered by an overwhelming force whose power is so absolute there is nothing the people can do to resist.

Then slowly, steadily, something changes. Resistance builds. The people who have been stripped of all power find that it is in fact their conquerors who have no power at all. In the slow fight for freedom; it is the conquered who will always win.

I excerpt a long passage below:

The days and weeks dragged on, and the months dragged on.  The snow fell and melted and fell and melted and finally fell and stuck.  The dark buildings of the little town wore bells and hats and eyebrows of white and there were trenches through the snow to the doorways.  In the harbor the coal barges came empty and went away loaded, but the coal did not come out of the ground easily.  The good miners made mistakes.  They were clumsy and slow.  Machinery broke and took a long time to fix.  The people of the conquered country settled in a slow, silent, waiting revenge.  The men who had been traitors, who had helped the invaders – and many of them believed it was for a better state and an ideal way of life – found that the control they took was insecure, that the people they had known looked at them coldly  and never spoke.

And there was death in the air, hovering and waiting.  Accidents happened on the railroad, which clung to the mountains and connected the little town to the rest of the nation.  Avalanches poured down on the tracks and rails were spread.  No train could move unless the tracks were first inspected.  People were shot in reprisal and it made no difference.  Now and then a group of young men escaped and went to England.  And the English bombed the coal mine and did some damage and killed some of both their friends and their enemies.  And it did no good.  The cold hatred grew with the winter, the silent, sullen hatred, the waiting hatred.  The food supply was controlled – issued to the obedient and withheld from the disobedient – so that the whole population turned coldly obedient.  There was a point that food could not be withheld, for a starving man cannot mine coal, cannot lift and carry.  And the hatred was deep in the eyes of the people, beneath the surface.

Now it was that the conqueror was surrounded, the men of the battalion alone among silent enemies, and no man might relax his guard even for a moment.  If he did, he disappeared, and some snowdrift received his body.  If he went alone to a woman, he disappeared and some snowdrift received his body.   If he drank, he disappeared.  The men of the battalion could sing only together, could dance only together, and dancing gradually stopped and the singing expressed a longing for home.  Their talk was of friends and relatives who loved them and their longings were for warmth and love, because a man can be a soldier for only so many hours a day and for only so many months in a year, and then he wants to be a man again, wants girls and drinks and music and laughter and ease, and when these are cut off, they become irresistibly desirable.

And the men thought always of home.  The men of the battalion came to detest the place they had conquered, and they were curt with the people and the people were curt with them, and gradually a little fear began to grow in the conquerors, a fear that it would never be over, that they could never relax or go home, a fear that one day they would crack and be hunted through the mountains like rabbits, for the conquered never relaxed their hatred.  The patrols, seeing lights, hearing laughter, would be drawn as to a fire, and when they came near the laughter stopped, the warmth went out, and the people were cold and obedient.  And the soldiers, smelling warm food from the little restaurants, went in and ordered the warm food and found that it was oversalted or overpeppered.

Then the soldiers read the news from home and from the other conquered countries, and the news was always good, and for a little while they believed it, and then after a while they did not believe it any more.  And every man carried in his heart the terror.  “If home crumbled, they would not tell us, and then it would be too late.  These people will not spare us.  They will kill us all.”  They remembered stories of their men retreating through Belgium and retreating out of Russia.  And the more literate remembered the frantic, tragic retreat from Moscow, when every peasant’s pitchfork tasted blood and the snow was rotten with bodies.

And they knew when they cracked, or relaxed, or slept too long, it would be the same here, and their sleep was restless and their days were nervous.  They asked questions their officers could not answer because they did not know.  They were not told, either.  They did not believe the reports from home, either.

Thus it came about that the conquerors grew afraid of the conquered and their nerves wore thin and they shot at shadows in the night.  The cold, sullen silence was with them always.  Then three soldiers went insane in a week and cried all night and all day until they were sent away home.  And others might have gone insane if they had not heard that mercy deaths awaited the insane at home, and a mercy death is a terrible thing to think of.  Fear crept into the men in their billets and it made them sad, and it crept into the patrols and it made them cruel.

The year turned and the nights grew long.  It was dark at three o’clock in the afternoon and not light again until nine in the morning.  The jolly lights did not shine out on the snow, for by law every window must be black against the bombers.  And yet when the English bombers came over, some light always appeared near the coal mine.  Sometimes the sentries shot a man with a lantern and once a girl with a flashlight.  And it did no good.  Nothing was cured by the shooting.

And the officers were a reflection of their men, more restrained because their training was more complete, more resourceful because they had more responsibility, but the same fears were a little deeper buried in them, the same longings were more tightly locked in their hearts.  And they were under a double strain, for the conquered people watched them for mistakes and their own men watched them for weakness, so that their spirits were taut to the breaking point.  The conquerors were under a terrible spiritual siege and everyone knew, conquered and conquerors, what would happen when the first crack appeared.

Our Secrets

“None of is us perfect, and each one of us has their own secrets, no doubt. None of is is flawless…but we are sane fanatics of reality living in a treadmill of good compromises.” That is what Comrade Pánczél tells István Balla Bán to get him to spy on his best friend; to get him to give the government incriminating evidence on his friend in exchange for keeping his own dark secret private. None of us is perfect.

This scene comes from a play I saw last night: Our Secrets, by Hungarian actor, playwright, and director Béla Pintér. It’s about government surveillance and control in Communist Hungary, a topic which seemed particularly timely as our own country – which has been no stranger to mass surveillance efforts – prepares to transfer power to a strongly nationalist leader.

There are shows through the weekend at the Emerson/Paramount Center in Boston’s Theater district. I highly recommend you get tickets and go. Spoilers below.

The story focuses on a group of Hungarian folk-music performers. As the play synopsis describes, “Communist Hungary’s dictatorship labeled the cultural acts and their corresponding community events throughout the country as either ‘banned,’ ‘tolerated,’ or ‘supported.’ The folk music scene was labeled ‘supported’ by the authoritarian government, therefore becoming a supposedly safe space for anti-Communist organizers to operate clandestinely, with little government oversight or interference to disrupt communications.”

The staging of the show fully incorporates the role of music in the era, with a giant reel-to-reel playing in the background and the musicians/cast members playing on the sides of the stage.

The story explores the individual tragedies of its characters and “exposes the hypocrisy and violence of the Communist regime, which infiltrated every corner of society to stamp out any whiff of dissent and by any means necessary.”

István Balla Bán and his friend Imre Tatár are both great folk performers. And while Tatár’s girlfriend is zealously pro-Communist, he secretly works as the editor for the underground, ant-Communist magazine, The Iron Curtain. Balla Bán is a pedophile and when the government finds out they offer him a deal: inform on your friend or go to jail. None of us is perfect.

The whole show is fantastic, but perhaps the most startling moment – though undertoned in it’s drama – is when the government turns Balla Bán. They bring him in and Comrade Pánczél asks him to spy. Balla Bán refuses. Comrade Pánczél excuses himself for a moment.

Then out of nowhere another folk-dancer friend comes in. It’s disorienting at first – what is that person doing here? The friend reveals that he’s been working with the government the whole time; that he placed bugs in people’s apartments and therefore recorded Balla Bán confiding in his therapist. The government knows everything because they already have informers.

It reminded me of that moment in 1984 when heroes Winston Smith and Julia seem like they’re going to escape control of the Thought Police, only to discover that the shop keeper who was helping them was actually a Thought Police agent. The whole world gets turned upside down.

And this, perhaps, is the most insidious thing about this kind of government surveillance; about a regime’s domineering demand for control. It’s not just that the possibility of dissent carries grave punishment. It’s that anyone may be turned against you; even your closest friends.

In part, it is this ability to isolate which gives a regime it’s power: if you can’t trust your neighbors; if you have no one in whom to confide, if at any moment your very thoughts could be used against you – organized resistance becomes impossible.

Yet I can’t help but think of the saying: they tried to bury us; they didn’t know we were seeds.

Five Stages of Grief

As conceived by Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the five stages of grief are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Of course, as Kübler-Ross herself has said and as anyone who has ever lost someone knows, those stages aren’t linear or fully distinct. They all kind of jumble up in surprising and unpredictable ways. Grieving is a complicated endeavor.

Interestingly, while Kübler-Ross began her model through working with terminally-ill patients, she later expanded it to encompass any form of loss. Loss of a loved one, loss of a job, even loss of an election.

In some ways, that last seems ridiculous – while the Kübler-Ross model has been used to describe the loss felt by fans of a losing sports team, “election grief” seems like it would most likely fit into this category. You wanted something, you invested time and energy trying to get that thing, and then you didn’t get it. It is sad, you grieve, you move on. There’s always next year.

Or, perhaps, four more years.

But I think election grief – particularly around this election – is different. It feels different. My grief, my sadness, my anger, my bargaining – it’s not because we didn’t win, it’s because of how much we still have left to lose.

The sense of loss isn’t about a candidate and it isn’t about a party – it’s a loss of country, of community, of place.

What is this world around me and why do I suddenly not belong in it? Why is everything upside-down and unpredictable? Why does the future suddenly seem so unclear?

Everything is different now and it won’t ever, ever be the same.

Of course, the current election grief faced by liberals isn’t the first or only grief of this kind to be felt in this country. I imagine that President-elect Trump’s victory was fueled in part by Americans who felt this way before the election.

It is, as Joy James has said, the nature of black life under white supremacy, “being denigrated and victimized by your designated protectors is shocking to the core.”

And this, perhaps, is the most tragic thing. It’s hard to see a way forward when so many of my friends and neighbors are fearful for their very lives.

It’s hard to see a way forward when my way of living and thinking, when my very concept of America, is antithetical to the views held by so many in this country. When their views are so antithetical to mine.

After the election, there was an explosion of thought pieces about how the American experiment has failed. But when I went to look that up, I instead found this piece from 2012:  The real conclusion of the American Experiment is that democracy ultimately undermines liberty and leads to tyranny and oppression by elected leaders and judges, their cronies and unelected bureaucrats. 

Thanks, Obama.

Having alternating halves of the country feel like their way of life is being threatened is no way to run a country.

But part of me also feels like this whole thing is a bit melodramatic. Democracy is hard. Our democracy is always failing. I wonder if really, there was ever a time when democracy just worked great and we all just got along.

It seems unlikely.

But that’s not a reason to give up; that’s not a reason to walk away. That’s not a reason to declare that the great American experiment has failed and there is nothing more to be done.

It’s a reason to fight, a reason to roll up your sleeves and work, a reason to talk with and listen to those who disagree with you. It’s a chance to engage in the hard work of democratic living.

Our democracy isn’t failing; we are continually building it as we go.

The Chasm and the Bridge: Modes of Considering Social Network Structure

In their respective work, Granovetter and Burt explore roughly the same phenomenon –heterogeneous connection patterns within a social network. However, they each choose different metaphors to describe that phenomenon, leading to differences in how one should understand and interpret social network structure.

Perhaps most famously, Granovetter argues for the ‘strength of weak ties,’ finding that it is the weak, between-group ties which best support information diffusion – as studied for the specific task of finding a job (Granovetter, 1973). For his part, Burt prefers to focus on ‘structural holes’: rather than considering a tie which spans two groups, Burt focuses on the void it covers. As Burt describes, “The weak tie argument is about is about the strength of relationships that span the chasm between two social clusters. The structural hole argument is about the chasm spanned” (Burt, 1995). Burt further argues that his concept is the more valuable of the two; that ‘structural holes’ are more informative than ‘weak ties.’ “Whether a relationship is strong or weak,” Burt argues, “it generates information benefits when it is a bridge over a structural hole.”

While Granovetter’s weak tie concept pre-dates Burt’s structural holes, his paper implies a rebuttal to this argument. Illustrating with the so-called ‘forbidden triad,’ Granovetter argues that in social networks your friends are likely to be friends with each other. That is, if person A is strongly linked to both B and C, it is unlikely that B and C have no connection. Granovetter finds this forbidden triad is uncommon in social networks, arguing that “it follows that, except under unlikely conditions, no strong tie is a bridge.” This implies that Granovetter’s argument is not precisely about identifying whether a relationship is strong or weak, as Burt says, but rather it is about identifying bridges over structural holes. It is merely the fact those bridges are almost always weak which then leads to Granovetter’s interest in the strength of a tie.

This seems to indicate that there is little difference between looking for weak ties or for structural holes: what matters for successful information exchange is that a hole is bridged, and it is only a matter of semantics whether you consider the hole or consider the bridge. Yet in Burt’s later work, he further develops the idea of a hole, building the argument for why this mode of thinking is important. He describes French CEO René Fourtou’s observation that the best ideas were stimulated by people from divergent disciplines. “Fourtou emphasized le vide – literally, the emptiness; conceptually, structural holes – as essential to coming up with new ideas: ‘Le vide has a huge function in organizations…shock comes when different things meet. It’s the interface that’s interesting…If you don’t leave le vide, you have no unexpected things, no creation.’” (Burt, 2004)

It is this last piece which is missing from Granovetter’s conception – Granovetter argues that bridges are valuable because they span holes; Burt argues that the holes themselves have value. You must leave le vide.

Hayek writes that the fundamental economic challenge of society is “a problem of the utilization of knowledge not given to anyone in its totality” (Hayek, 1945). If you consider each individual to have unique knowledge, the question of economics becomes how to best leverage this disparate knowledge for “rapid adaptation to changes in the particular circumstances of time and place.” With this understanding, any network which effectively disseminated information would be optimal for solving economic challenges.

Imagine a fully connected network, or one sufficiently connected with weak ties. In Granovetter’s model – assuming no limit to a person’s capacity to maintain ties – such a network would be sufficient for solving complex problems. If you have full, easy access to every other individual in the network, then you would learn about job openings or otherwise have the information needed to engage in complex, collective problem-solving. A weak tie only provides benefit if it brings information from another community; if it spans a structural hole.

In Burt’s model, however, such a network is not enough – an optimal network must contain le vide; it must have structural holes. Research by Lazer and Friedman (Lazer & Friedman, 2007) gives insight into how these structural holes add value. In an agent-based simulation, Lazer and Friedman examine the relationship between group problem-solving and network structure. Surprisingly, they find that those networks which are most efficient at disseminating information – such as a fully connected network – are better in the short-run but have lower long-term performance. An inefficient network, on the other hand, one with structural holes, “maintains diversity in the system and is thus better for exploration than an efficient network, supporting a more thorough search for solutions in the long run.” This seems to support Burt’s thesis that it is not just the ability to bridge, but the very existence of holes which matter.

There are, of course, drawbacks to these structural holes as well. Burt finds that structural holes help generate good ideas but – as the work of Lazer and Friedman would imply – hurts their dissemination and adoption (Burt, 2004). So it remains to be seen whether the ‘strength of structural holes,’ as Burt writes, is sufficient to overcome their drawbacks. But regardless of the normative value of these holes, Burt is right to argue that this mode of thinking should be side-by-side with Granovetter’s. For thorough social network analysis, it is not enough to consider the bridge, one must consider the chasm. Le vide matters.


Burt, R. S. (1995). Structural Holes: The Social Structure of Competition: Belknap Press.

Burt, R. S. (2004). Structural holes and good ideas. American journal of sociology, 110(2), 349-399.

Granovetter, M. S. (1973). The strength of weak ties. American journal of sociology, 1360-1380.

Hayek, F. A. (1945). The use of knowledge in society. The American economic review, 35(4), 519-530.

Lazer, D., & Friedman, A. (2007). The network structure of exploration and exploitation. Administrative Science Quarterly, 52(4), 667-694.