One of my favourite novels is B. Traven’s Das Totenschiff (“The Ship of the Dead”). Written in the mid-1920s, this novel tells the story of an American seaman who accidentally gets left behind with no papers when his ship sails from Rotterdam. Suddenly he is a stateless person. He tries to get help from the US consulate, but gets a Catch 22-like sermon, along the lines of, “I would of course help an American citizen who was stranded here without papers, but I am unable to assist you without proof that you are indeed an American citizen.” All the officials he encounters treat him as some sort of ghost, a man without identity papers being a contradiction in terms. (This reminds me of Bertrand Russell’s comments on the imposition of passport requirements for international travel after the First World War, a tyranny that until then had been thought characteristic of Russian despotism.) Since no one wants to deal with a ghost, they find ways to dump him across a border, taking him further and further west, until he lands in Barcelona and ends up being signed on, not entirely willingly, to the Yorick, a ramshackle ship, a floating hell of labour, crewed by other unpersons from all over the world, its hold stuffed with useless cargo that is just being carried around the Seven Seas in the hopes that it will eventually sink and yield an insurance payment.
Anyway, I thought of this surreal novel when I read the recent New Yorker article by William Finnegan, about a US citizen with a minor criminal record and mental disabilities who, for no reason that anyone can reconstruct, was targeted by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) for deportation to Mexico. He was born in the US, had never been outside the US, was not Hispanic, but somehow when he was booked into a state prison for a short sentence his birthplace was listed as Mexico, and that was enough to get him deported to Mexico less than a year later. And the Mexican authorities, since he wasn’t Mexican, managed to ship him off to Guatemala. He eventually got returned to the US, though more by accident than design. When he flew into Atlanta, with a passport issued to him by a vice consul in Guatemala City, the immigration officials there noted that he had already been deported and had him arrested, intending to redeport him.
Continue reading “Exile in the modern world: Can a country deport its own citizens?”
I was just working through the sheet music for “As Time Goes By”. I don’t remember ever having heard the intro — it was left out when the song appeared in Casablanca, and seems never to have been performed since. It begins with the lines
This day and age we’re living in gives cause for apprehension,
With speed and new invention, and things like the third dimension.
Yet, we grow a trifle weary with Mister Einstein’s theory,
So we must get down to earth, at times relax, relieve the tension.
“Third dimension” — pretty scary! (Those interested in the influence of geometric ideas on early 20th century literature, in particular the work of Franz Kafka, could look at this paper. Though typically the anxiety about dimensions started at four.)
I’ve commented earlier on suggestions that math education should be confined to the rudiments to spare children from math anxiety, and the use of math anxiety by unscrupulous politicians to distract attention from their policies.
According to the NY Times, “The Guilt Trip” is a “mild-mannered dud” of a comedy, in which Seth Rogen and Barbra Streisand play son and mother on a road trip together for some not very interesting reason. But I’m amused by the German version of the title, above, which translates to “Travelling with Mum”. It has many of the classic qualities of German film titles that I catalogued in “What’s German for G.I. Joe?“: The modest wordplay of the original title has been stripped out, replaced by a straight three-word description of the plot. But then, you wouldn’t want the audience to fail to notice that the film is a foreign import, so the English “Mum” has to be in there. Except, the film American, so it really should have been “Mom”, but who knows the difference?
Of course, a really classic German film title would have played the description out longer, something like “A Totally Crazy Week in the Car Travelling Across America with Mum” (on the model of “The Unbelievable Trip in a Wacky Airplane” — “Airplane” in the original — since it helps to be sure the audience knows it’s a comedy).
One linguistic phenomenon that fascinates me more than it probably should is when a word or phrase can have opposite meanings in different contexts. Like the English word cleave (e.g. Genesis 2:24 “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife”, as opposed to a meat cleaver.)
I recently watched Ken Burns’s controversial 15-hour documentary Jazz. One segment, focusing on Miles Davis’s turn to fusion and electronica, was titled “Tennis Without a Net”. This quotes the critic Gerald Early, who appears in the segment, but of course refers back to Robert Frost’s bon mot about free verse (“tennis with the net down”). The implication is that music is a game, whose spectators are judging above all the players’ adroitness in accomplishing inherently simple things under complicated artificial constraints. Free jazz has also been tagged with this undead witticism.
So playing “without a net” means making things too easy, too safe, since no one can say if you’ve gotten it wrong. But “performing without a net” can also mean taking exceptional risks, as in the title of the Grateful Dead’s 1990 album “Without a Net”. There the metaphor is the circus acrobat’s net, and the implication is that the band’s free improvisation is particularly risky, since they are performing live without the support of a predetermined musical structure.
And this reminds me again of Natalia Cecire’s fascinating attack on statistics as an “inherently puerile discipline”, because its highest priority is “commitment to the rules of the game”. (I should make clear, as I argued before, I disagree with Cecire’s opinion of statistics, but I find the framework she lays on it both creative and useful.) Are statisticians making their research too safe by performing with the net of mathematical methodology, or are humanists like Cecire setting themselves a too-easy task by playing with the net of rigorous quantitative analysis down?