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The Lost Cause by Cory Doctorow: Interview Part Four

Hardship, fear, and climate migration

The Lost Cause

The Lost Cause is Cory Doctorow’s new book about a near-future America where the Green New Deal has come to pass, but MAGA holdovers and crypto utopians are keeping the dreams of the far-right alive. Today’s post continues our far-ranging interview, discussing some of The Lost Cause’s most important themes (check out Part One, Two, and Three).

In Part Four of the interview, we explore deep topics of war, climate migration, and the politics of fear.

HILL HEAT: One thing for people to know about the book that I as a reader enjoyed is that you have these characters who are engaged in this literal life-and-death fight with the conservative factions, and they’re also having parties. And I appreciated that you’re like, “Look, you can write an erotic scene that doesn’t talk about bits.” There’s a real celebration of life that doesn’t feel cheap.

That was something that I think Walkaway went even harder into. The characters were genuinely joyous. And then at the end of the book, I was thinking about it. And they’re all basically war veterans who had objectively horrific experiences. But that wasn’t the story that they saw themselves, because they were free.

CORY DOCTOROW: One of the things about war veterans and war-veteran narratives is that they’re often about the deep relationships that you build through that kind of hardship with people and with a sense of mission that you get, which I think is the difference between, say, a war narrative and a mercenary narrative. The Saving Private Ryan story of the intense camaraderie, and the knowledge that you did something that mattered, is hard to beat.

There are smaller versions of this. When I was growing up, one of the big things that kids from Ontario used to do was go plant trees in the bush, because Canada had allowed the forestry industry to self-regulate. And so they had this thing where they would just chop down old growth trees that were of mixed varieties, and replace what what has been called pines in a line, which all turned out to be incredibly flammable, which is one of the reasons the wildfires in Canada are so bad, but they would send kids out into the bush to plant trees for all summer long. And you would work these incredible hours, under brutal conditions, 100 degrees Fahrenheit, 80% humidity, black flies, and deer flies and mosquitoes, and no running water, and eating out of a camp stove. And you’d be choppered in and out of the worksite every day. But the sense of mission was incredible. I never did this, but all my friends would come back, tanned and brown and having spent the whole summer having crazy sex and, super strong and having done this thing that was extraordinary, to their physical and mental limits, as a group, and the friendships that they made were really intense.

And so if that can happen with planting trees in the woods for a weekend, imagine what saving the whole city would be like.

Burly youth packing in their equipment up a steep trail

A crew of Canadian tree planters. Credit: Luc Forsyth

HH: I get a little worked up about that. Because I think we need to figure out how to think about what our present time is, without having it be that we’ll just let the the young people save us. But one element is getting out of the young people’s way, not being afraid of them.

When I, as a job, had to watch a lot of Fox News, they had a coherent narrative: “You know how you feel locked away in your retirement community where you never see your grandchildren? Does that make you feel like maybe they hate you? And they don’t like you? Those feelings are right. They do hate you. They don’t understand you, you can’t understand them. That’s why they have abandoned you to die.”

It’s real effective propaganda, because it hooks into these problems that we’ve constructed for ourselves as an industrial society like—I’m trying to say it in a way that doesn’t sound like a right-wing narrative—the breaking up of the village or the family. But it’s a mistake to assume that technology bridges all the distance.

DOCTOROW: I think that old people, like young people are a mixed bag. Demographics aren’t entirely destiny.

HH: But we need to be in community with each other. And being isolated is one of the most powerful effects of the car. It allowed us to have a society in which we are segregated from each other, most notably by race, but also more generally. I’m lucky that I grew up in a city. I can’t handle suburbs, and I’m surrounded by people who grew up in them.

DOCTOROW: I grew up in a suburb. I hear you. I’m reading Limitarianism by Ingrid Robeyns now. One of the points that she makes is that there are just a few places where people of different classes used to gather. One of them was compulsory military service, and another was church. And one of the one of the underappreciated changes to our society is that secularization and the end of the draft dissolved one of the last places where we had class mixing, and took the stratification of class that neoliberalism delivered and supercharged it.

Limitarianism: The Case Against Extreme Wealth

Climate Migration and the Politics of Fear

HH: Interacting with people that don’t have the same shared experiences as you is uncomfortable. I can understand there’s a certain appeal, and I think it’s an exploitable appeal, to say here’s a solution that will remove the sharp and jagged edges of life. One of the big themes of the book is internal migration. The politics of that end up reflecting the politics that we see right now in international immigration politics, which is something Paolo Bacigalupi explored in somewhat grim detail in The Water Knife. One of the core realities of global warming is this internal displacement and the politics that come out of that.

In The Lost Cause, you have the competition between people trying to find equitable solutions that are positive, that are rooted in community, and also people trying to figure out the “solution” of essentially building the wall. I think it’s an incredibly important issue. And I don’t see that many people talking about it even now, even outside of science fiction, in the real world.

DOCTOROW: My dad was a refugee, and people, because I’m a white educated guy, even when I’ve lived abroad, even living in the UK and so on, people often assume that I am going to be sympathetic to rants about refugees, and asylum seekers and economic refugees, and so on. I often hear this. And I’m often exposed to it. And one of the things that just made me crazy, was after years of hearing this from other people, I started to hear it from members of my own family. A cousin whose mother was born in a camp who became a Trump voter.

It’s very easy to stampede people into thinking that refugees are a problem instead of a solution. And the reality is that—speaking as someone who is a twice migrant who’s taken citizenship in two countries apart from the one I was born in—the people who go abroad, like me, voluntarily, we tend to be a little weird. We’re not necessarily the best fit for filling in the cracks in your society and settling down and being part of the thing. I am not very assimilated into either British or American culture, because I am—as our friends on the right would say—a rootless cosmopolitan.

Whereas, when there’s a refugee push, that’s all the normal people who you want to have as neighbors who will do normal stuff when they get to your town, and be normal drivers who want to have kids and whatever.

This is a thing that, weirdly, the GOP briefly understood after Romney’s trouncing, when they were like, “Hey, you know what, people who leave Latin America, because of poverty, war and political instability, and come here, are intrinsically family people, a lot of them are religious, some of them are very religious. There are a lot of things in the Republican program, apart from the racism, that is not a terrible fit with the median Honduran, who doesn’t want their kid to be drafted into a gang or murdered. And we could probably bring some of those people into the fold.”

And the response to that, after four years of trying it, was Trump. It was “Build the Wall” and get rid of them all.

And so, I like migration. Mass migration, apart from the fact that it’s chaotic, is actually really very good for your town.  Assuming you have strong labor protections, and assuming you have access to capital, and you don’t have political challenges to upzoning, you just build the spaces for those people to live. They don’t need your jobs. They’re bringing their own jobs. For example, they’re building the job of building the place where they can live. They’re building the job of building the school where their kids will attend. They’re building the job of teaching in those schools, they’re building the job of taking care of one another’s health and opening stores that sell each other groceries. All of this stuff is a huge influx of economic activity. And it is good for your prosperity, especially if you’re a gerontocracy, like everywhere in the rich world, where we have this incredibly top-heavy retirement system that is full of old people who are expecting an ever-dwindling number of young people to do all the productive work that will keep us from living lives of privation.

It’s really amazing, particularly that the right has managed to get old people to be freaked out about migrants, given how dependent on young people or services you become as you get older.

Ayla Machado, 16 of Boyle Heights, right, holds up her sign alongside others at the Keeping Families Together rally, at city hall steps in Burbank on Saturday, June 30, 20128. Speakers included State Senator Anthony Portantino and assemblymember Laura Friedman.

Protest against Trump’s immigration policy in Burbank, Calif., June 30, 2018. Credit: Paul Roa

HH: Maybe it’s because I live in Washington DC so I’m overly exposed to the weird national framing. It’s terrible in here, but it is fascinating. If you take actually stopping global warming off the table as a direction for politics, then there’s this challenge that nations having a border comes into conflict with global warming not stopping. Right now I see that the Republican Party of United States and a lot of the right around the world, they have a response to this problem: the eco-fascist building the walls and blaming the victims. And in the Democratic Party, I don’t see it. The left flank of the Democratic Party, even, certainly is not in charge, and has not seized the narrative.

And so our answer is to tack right. What we’re seeing right now in the national party, the Democrats are saying, “Look, we we have embraced the Republican agenda on immigration, and they won’t give it to us. But well, we’ll maintain it rhetorically.”

DOCTOROW: I think that’s entirely right. I think that there’s a weird game theory that two-party systems have, which is that the worse the other guy is, the less good you have to be. Because you can say, to people from Central and South America, “Sure. We’re being dicks about the border. But Trump wants to do a genocide. Who are you going to vote for?”

And this is the bargain being offered to Middle Eastern people and people who care about genocide in Gaza. “You think that this is a bad genocide? Wait ‘til you see the genocide that Trump would make.” The lesser of two genocides.

Palestinians survey the destruction at Al Shifa Hospital after Israel's withdrawal, April 1, 2024.

What was once Gaza’s largest hospital, Al-Shifah, April 1, 2024. Credit: Dawoud Abu Alkas

In the upcoming conclusion of the interview, we discuss more good readings, reservoirs of ideology for good and evil, and what it’s like to be an old author writing a young protagonist.

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