Note: This is the backstory to Jacobin’s censorship of a story about immigration activism. The piece in question can be found here.
For over five years, I have been gathering information, data, studies, and interviews with various sources as I work on an in-depth investigation and analysis of the current state of the immigration rights movement in the United States.
Over this time, I have uncovered a movement which bears the high gloss of radical politics but is in fact directly and indirectly driving more people towards deportation, even as it seems to be so righteously doing the opposite. The current immigration rights movement has no interest in ending the immigration crisis, and is far more invested in creating new identity categories of sad, pathetic immigrants who will be granted literal and figurative asylum in exchange for their silence about the nature of the real problems with immigration. This larger story, of which only the bare contours have been drawn above, has never been examined even in Left media venues, and most academic studies tend to err on the side of caution by praising the current movement for its supposed bravery.
We have seen the rise of conservative legislation like the DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors), which compels eligible young immigrants to enter the military in exchange for the possibility of citizenship, and the criminalisation of great numbers of other immigrants of all ages. The immigration movement in the United States is punitive, dismissive of the needs of millions who desperately need real legislation, and powerful in its silencing of those who might dissent from its mainstream, neoliberal agenda of only guaranteeing safety and relief for the chosen few.
This is not the story I wrote for Jacobin. This is not the story that was, ultimately, censored by a publication that takes such pride in being l’enfant terrible of the Left.
Instead, what I pitched to Jacobin was a detailed analysis of one increasingly prominent segment of the immigration rights movement and a study of the construction of a very particular identity category, that of the Undocumented activist. My piece considered the history of how the Undocumented movement came to prominence around 2006 and the powerful metaphorical tropes it deploys as it exhorts immigrants to “come out” as undocumented. In brief, I traced the ways in which the current immigration movement creates and dwells upon identities amenable to neoliberalism, but leaves the brutality of capitalism unquestioned.
Jacobin censored this story by refusing to publish it (for more on why this was censorship and not simply a refusal, see below), at the very last minute, just before it was set to go to the publisher. For the following account of what happened, I have relied on the feedback of Peter Frase, my primary editor on the piece, as well as conversations with friends and colleagues who could give me reliable facts.
Frase worked closely with me on edits, and was himself taken aback by the decision. He was the only one who behaved like a professional throughout, making sure that the publication also paid me the entire agreed-upon amount of $200, not just a kill fee, given how late and arbitrary the decision was, with the understanding that I could do what I like with it.
As will become clear in the following analysis, Jacobin failed to adhere to the basic if unstated rules of publishing, and this debacle is also part of its failure to grasp the reach of capitalism in the realm of activist organising. But its failure is a complex and complicated one.
Ultimately, Jacobin’s inability to function with any sustainable practices is reflective of the larger malaise of Left publishing in general. In that sense, I offer the back story and a critique as a way to not simply bring down a publication, but to begin a conversation, however fraught and difficult it might become, about the Left’s failure to actually function as the Left.
I was persuaded to take the story to Jacobin by friends who acted in good faith, and who believed that this would be a place for an astute, critical analysis of the DREAMers. The process began with an initial pitch, followed by a phone conversation with Frase. Frase and I agreed that, given that Jacobin’s readers were unlikely to be familiar with all the twists and turns of the bigger story, it was best to begin with a piece that focused on one segment, about the Undocumented movement.
I submitted the piece by the deadline. Frase placed my essay in Jacobin’s draft folder, where it remained for three weeks without comment from anyone. After this period, he began working on edits with me, having opened up the essay in a Google document, which he also shared with about a dozen of the editors and staff. As I worked on the edits, I noticed that no one else was on the document, and the only questions, edits, and suggestions came from Frase himself.
Eventually, we worked on the changes to our mutual satisfaction, and the piece was set to go to the typesetters. I felt relieved and happy. Given my past experience with the so-called Left publishing world, which has been wary of being critical of DREAMers, I had anticipated resistance or outright rejection. When Frase wrote to let me know he was sending it on for final edits, I thought I had finally found a place that could become a springboard for a more complicated and nuanced analysis.
I was shocked when I received an email three days later from Frase, letting me know that, to his surprise, several editors expressed strong objections to running the piece, even though they had originally seen and approved the pitch, and even though they had had ample time to decide before I began working on final edits. The decision to yank my piece was made as it was going to press. Frase supported my piece, but couldn’t win the argument to publish it.
There are certain expectations that even beleaguered and vulnerable writers have of publishers. The act of refusal needs to take place at the right time, and it needs to be accompanied by an explanation of why the piece is being rejected.
Jacobin had at least four options in working with me: it could have rejected the pitch outright, it could have rejected the piece on spec, it could have run the piece with a response from someone in the immigration rights/undocumented movement. Or, it could have contacted me and worked with me on revising the piece.
Instead, to date, Jacobin has not even sent me any explanation of why it chose to reject the piece, despite Frase trying to get the editors to explain matters to me.
They treated a writer like shit, and they, perhaps even more importantly, treated their primary editor like shit, by letting him do a considerable amount of work, from the labour involved in the first phone call, to seeing the pitches, to the actual (and excellent) editing. To then yank the piece at the very last minute, without even the standard process of explaining to the writer why it was yanked, put Frase in a terrible position of having to not only relay the news to me, without the courtesy of any real explanation but also completely discounted and disregarded his place as the primary editor who had commissioned the piece. He later summarised the points on the phone, because he did not want to forward anyone’s email criticisms without their permission, and none of them had responded to his request to communicate their issues to me.
As I’ve gathered from all my conversations, Jacobin had two main issues with my piece. The first was what some felt was an unfair characterisation of the DREAMers and undocumented activists, and that I was coming from an “ultra-Left” position. I’ll let the piece speak for itself on those matters.
The second main criticism was that I had no right to speak as someone who was clearly not undocumented herself.
This second part reveals that Jacobin is incapable of handling a more nuanced conversation about difficult issues, but it also reveals the discomfort of the Left with regard to issues like immigration, which are generally relayed only in narratives that evoke white guilt and which depend on comfortable narratives about identity.
The discourse on immigration currently follows limited trajectories. Leftists of all colours are deeply terrified of being called out as racists if they offer so much as a peep against even the most problematic work by immigration activists. Immigration activism in its current state in the US also depends on deeply affective modes, particularly that of story-telling, which I’ve critiqued here, and authenticity.
This means that there can be no investigations of the real nature of the movements like those of the Undocumented, and that journalistic coverage of their work needs to be of the fawning sort. In effect, only two kinds of people are allowed to produce work on the Undocumented and their work must be cast in very specific ideological terms: White, Brown, or Black people who have citizenship can write about the Undocumented, but only if they praise the latter as brave new activists. Undocumented people might be allowed to write about the undocumented movement and might be allowed to be critical (although, to date, there have been no such critiques published, and the absence of that should make us wonder why). And no matter what undocumented people do or write, they must perform their identities as sad immigrants with tragic stories about families torn apart or brutality.
As I wrote in this short piece, “Confession, Neoliberalism, and The Big Reveal,” I’ve been thinking a lot about confession, lately, and the ways in which the world I occupy—a putatively radical one, where there’s a great deal of confessing and revealing to do, where people are constantly standing up and trying to outdo each other in what they can reveal about themselves—exerts a constant pressure to always be the Confessional Subject. I feel like I’m constantly dancing on the Precipice of Confession.
People of colour and women in particular are denied discursive access or claim to theoretical and analytic rigour. There are formal and informal gateways we must pass through, and our only acceptable credentials as women of colour who write about the brutality of state and oppresive regimes are our presumed experiences. To that end, a brown immigrant who dares to question the strategies of immigration activists is immediately questioned on the basis of her experience, her analysis be damned.
But we all inhabit contradictions. When someone comes to me for help because they need to file for asylum, I don’t scoff and lecture them about the problematics of asylum’s place in the neoliberal state: I simply help them find the best attorney or immigration organisation that can give them the most thoughtful attention and care. I also don’t reveal their identities or cases publicly or privately because I know what is at stake for them.
A number of my friends are social workers or immigration activists and/or lawyers: none of us have any illusions that the discourses of the state are anything but problematic, even as we use any means necessary to solve problems in real time. But we are all also engaged in a massive struggle to simultaneously shift paradigms so that matters might become that much less excruciating for millions of the world’s exploited.
Our work and analyses face the greatest obstacles not from the familiar bogey-man, the Right, but from a Left which is terrified of being called racist because it has painted itself into the corner of identitarianism, where politics is judged solely by the history of oppressions that can be claimed.
It does not matter what my revelations are or are not, and it does not matter if Jacobin is comprised mainly of white hipsters or not. Just as it’s perfectly possible for a relatively privileged white hipster to engage a thorough and critical analysis of race and inequality, it’s also possible for a brown person to critically analyse and investigate a movement which depends upon pathos and guilt-inducing narratives, without having to come out as part of an oppressed category.
Besides, those, like Jacobin, who insist upon A Big Reveal to justify critique, might want to be careful: They could get what they ask for.
I’ve been assured by Frase that there were no insidious funders working behind the scenes to shut down the piece, and I believe him. However, while there may not have been direct pressure exerted, Jacobin eventually gave in to political pressure, even if on its own terms. As I know too well, several immigrant organisers and thinkers, including DREAMers, actually support a critique of the movement’s tactics. Jacobin’s refusal to open up a conversation means that the movement now has more power to exert one and only one tactic upon people and organisations. It means that those who have had and continue to have issues with the DREAMERs’ failed strategy of “civil disobedience” (as discussed in “Undocumented”) will be even more unlikely to speak out.
At this point, however, the piece did in fact make its way to publication, to this website. The end result is likely to raise questions: why would I still call this censorship, and why have I bothered to take this back story so public, instead of quietly taking my money and walking away?
Jacobin’s actions speak to both a structural incoherence of a publication that, to put it bluntly, simply cannot get its act together, as well as a larger symptomatic problem with the Left wing of the publishing world whose politics on issues like immigration challenge its ability to actually think and act as the Left. When a publication decides to not publish something, without any kind of feedback or even a comment to the writer, that is in fact a silencing without explanation and censorship. When its rationale is that the subject could not adequately confess to being oppressed, it is creating unreasonable demands that can never be adequately fulfilled—the point of a Culture of Confession is also that there can never be enough revelations. The Confessing Subject is doomed to dance the Seven Veils of Oppression for all eternity, and with every step comes the demand for more, even more tragedy and calamity: Rape! Murder! Incest! War! Famine! Hunger!
There also needs to be an appraisal of the state of Left publishing in general and Jacobin’s place in it in particular. Jacobin is by no means the only or the most powerful or really even the most significant publication of the Left. But it has built up a tremendous and unique level of cultural cachet and it has done that with the goodwill and support of a cadre of well-placed intellectuals and academics. As I understand it, many of these people either write for free or for much less than they would ask for elsewhere.
Jacobin’s cultural cachet emerges, perhaps somewhat ironically, from a very particular set of circumstances bred by neoliberalism.
The breakdown of the stability of university jobs, the dwindling prospect of tenure for many in academia, and the fact that professors are increasingly being admonished to publish in the “real world” to prove that their work is “relevant” has meant that publications like Jacobin are able to depend on a large number of highly educated (but not necessarily qualified) writers who don’t depend on writing for their source of income and whose names lend a star quality. These kinds of publications also attract established writers looking for newer, hipper markets for their writing. Whether or not we discuss such people as scabs, moving in to take writing jobs that could be filled by people who need to write for money is perhaps a topic for another day, and I want to recognise that this is a more complicated conversation that needs to had. I’ve written about the issues of writing for free in my Make Art! Change the World! Starve!: The Fallacy of Art as Social Justice, and Sarah Jaffe has a list of reading materials here.
All of this is part of the larger context of censorship which played out at Jacobin. It’s not just about a piece being turned down at the last minute, but about larger systemic and structural issues.
I’m well aware that Jacobin in particular has long been subject to a degree of sneering and, let us be honest, outright envy in some quarters. The most commonplace criticism has been that it’s run by and for a group of over-privileged and hipster Marxists with too much time and money on their hands. To the best of my knowledge and based on conversations with people I trust, this publication is not run on trust funds and most or all of those involved sustain themselves on day jobs. Putting even aside even the question of whether or not this is true: I have no interest in replicating such criticisms because I find them problematically reductive and simplistic and embedded in a populist idea of what “The Left” should look and talk like. This popular meme demonstrates the hopelessly outdated and reductive version of “class warfare” that sustains too many conversations about economic inequality.
I’m far more interested in using this moment to expose the frailties of Left discourse and publishing, the uneven and unequal labour conditions in the world of Left publishing, and to consider how we might collectively go about dismantling the prevailing problematic narratives about guilt and oppression that have so long dominated the Left.
As far as the issue at hand, of immigration and the Undocumented movement, is concerned: Jacobin lost its chance to publish a piece that shows only the tip of the iceberg. In recent weeks, one of my contacts Zé, an undocumented immigrant, has issued this statement (I’m in touch with various people named here to see if groups, not just individuals, have a response, but have received no group responses yet). The point is not that Zé’s narrative, which calls out the professionalisation of the Undocumented, is the only one to take into account but that “we” on the Left have to confront how it is that only one side of the Undocumented movement—the good, brave one— has received such wide play in media. My own plan is to continue working on the larger and far more detailed investigation of how matters came to this point, where some clearly feel silenced and brutalised by their very own.
I had hoped that Jacobin would be the springboard for a long-simmering, nuanced, critical discussion of the Undocumented movement.
Instead, Jacobin is, in the worst way possible, now part of this story.
(See the piece in question here: “Undocumented”: How an Identity Ended a Movement.)
Yasmin Nair lives and works in Uptown, Chicago, and her work is archived at www.yasminnair.net. She wants to thank Richard Hoffman Reinhardt and Kate Sosin for their feedback, Alexander Kramer for suggesting the title, and everyone at The North Star, particularly Dario Cankovic, for their support of this and the accompanying piece.