Action Item: If you’re an American academic, please sign the petition against the Immigration Executive Order. (There are already more than eighteen thousand signatories, including Nobel Laureates, Fields Medalists, you name it, but it could use more!)
I don’t expect this petition to have the slightest effect on the regime, but at least we should demonstrate to the world and to history that American academia didn’t take this silently.
I’m sure there were weeks, in February or March 1933, when the educated, liberal Germans commiserated with each other over the latest outrages of their new Chancellor, but consoled themselves that at least none of it was going to affect them personally.
This time, it’s taken just five days, since the hostile takeover of the US by its worst elements, for edicts from above to have actually hurt my life and (much more directly) the lives of my students, friends, and colleagues.
Today, we learned that Trump is suspending the issuance of US visas to people from seven majority-Islamic countries, including Iran (but strangely not Saudi Arabia, the cradle of Wahhabist terrorism—not that that would be morally justified either). This suspension might last just 30 days, but might also continue indefinitely—particularly if, as seems likely, the Iranian government thumbs its nose at whatever Trump demands that it do to get the suspension rescinded.
So the upshot is that, until further notice, science departments at American universities can no longer recruit PhD students from Iran—a country that, along with China, India, and a few others, has long been the source of some of our best talent. This will directly affect this year’s recruiting season, which is just now getting underway. (If Canada and Australia have any brains, they’ll snatch these students, and make the loss America’s.)
But what about the thousands of Iranian students who are already here? So far, no one’s rounding them up and deporting them. But their futures have suddenly been thrown into jeopardy.
Right now, I have an Iranian PhD student who came to MIT on a student visa in 2013. He started working with me two years ago, on the power of a rudimentary quantum computing model inspired by (1+1)-dimensional integrable quantum field theory. You can read our paper about it, with Adam Bouland and Greg Kuperberg, here. It so happens that this week, my student is visiting us in Austin and staying at our home. He’s spent the whole day pacing around, terrified about his future. His original plan, to do a postdoc in the US after he finishes his PhD, now seems impossible (since it would require a visa renewal).
Look: in the 11-year history of this blog, there have been only a few occasions when I felt so strongly about something that I stood my ground, even in the face of widespread attacks from people who I otherwise respected. One, of course, was when I spoke out for shy nerdy males, and for a vision of feminism broad enough to recognize their suffering as a problem. A second was when I was more blunt about D-Wave, and about its and its supporters’ quantum speedup claims, than some of my colleagues were comfortable with. But the remaining occasions almost all involved my defending the values of the United States, Israel, Zionism, or “the West,” or condemning Islamic fundamentalism, radical leftism, or the worldviews of such individuals as Noam Chomsky or my “good friend” Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Which is simply to say: I don’t think anyone on earth can accuse me of secret sympathies for the Iranian government.
But when it comes to student visas, I can’t see that my feelings about the mullahs have anything to do with the matter. We’re talking about people who happen to have been born in Iran, who came to the US to do math and science. Would we rather have these young scientists here, filled with gratitude for the opportunities we’ve given them, or back in Iran filled with justified anger over our having expelled them?
To the Trump regime, I make one request: if you ever decide that it’s the policy of the US government to deport my PhD students, then deport me first. I’m practically begging you: come to my house, arrest me, revoke my citizenship, and tear up the awards I’ve accepted at the White House and the State Department. I’d consider that to be the greatest honor of my career.
And to those who cheered Trump’s campaign in the comments of this blog: go ahead, let me hear you defend this.
Update (Jan. 27, 2017): To everyone who’s praised the “courage” that it took me to say this, thank you so much—but to be perfectly honest, it takes orders of magnitude less courage to say this, than to say something that any of your friends or colleagues might actually disagree with! The support has been totally overwhelming, and has reaffirmed my sense that the United States is now effectively two countries, an open and a closed one, locked in a cold Civil War.
Some people have expressed surprise that I’d come out so strongly for Iranian students and researchers, “given that they don’t always agree with my politics,” or given my unapologetic support for the founding principles (if not always the actions) of the United States and of Israel. For my part, I’m surprised that they’re surprised! So let me say something that might be clarifying.
I care about the happiness, freedom, and welfare of all the men and women who are actually working to understand the universe and build the technologies of the future, and of all the bright young people who want to join these quests, whatever their backgrounds and wherever they might be found—whether it’s in Iran or Israel, in India or China or right here in the US. The system of science is far from perfect, and we often discuss ways to improve it on this blog. But I have not the slightest interest in tearing down what we have now, or destroying the world’s current pool of scientific talent in some cleansing fire, in order to pursue someone’s mental model of what the scientific community used to look like in Periclean Athens—or for that matter, their fantasy of what it would look like in a post-gender post-racial communist utopia. I’m interested in the actual human beings doing actual science who I actually meet, or hope to meet.
Understand that, and a large fraction of all the political views that I’ve ever expressed on this blog, even ones that might seem to be in tension with each other, fall out as immediate corollaries.
(Related to that, some readers might be interested in a further explanation of my views about Zionism. See also my thoughts about liberal democracy, in response to numerous comments here by Curtis Yarvin a.k.a. Mencius Moldbug a.k.a. “Boldmug.”)
Update (Jan. 29) Here’s a moving statement from my student Saeed himself, which he asked me to share here.
This is not of my best interest to talk about politics. Not because I am scared but because I know little politics. I am emotionally affected like many other fellow human beings on this planet. But I am still in the US and hopefully I can pursue my degree at MIT. But many other talented friends of mine can’t. Simply because they came back to their hometowns to visit their parents. On this matter, I must say that like many of my friends in Iran I did not have a chance to see my parents in four years, my basic human right, just because I am from a particular nationality; something that I didn’t have any decision on, and that I decided to study in my favorite school, something that I decided when I was 15. When, like many other talented friends of mine, I was teaching myself mathematics and physics hoping to make big impacts in positive ways in the future. And I must say I am proud of my nationality – home is home wherever it is. I came to America to do science in the first place. I still don’t have any other intention, I am a free man, I can do science even in desert, if I have to. If you read history you’ll see scientists even from old ages have always been traveling.
As I said I know little about many things, so I just phrase my own standpoint. You should also talk to the ones who are really affected. A good friend of mine, Ahmad, who studies Mechanical engineering in UC Berkeley, came back to visit his parents in August. He is one of the most talented students I have ever seen in my life. He has been waiting for his student visa since then and now he is ultimately depressed because he cannot finish his degree. The very least the academic society can do is to help students like Ahmad finish their degrees even if it is from abroad. I can’t emphasize enough I know little about many things. But, from a business standpoint, this is a terrible deal for America. Just think about it. All international students in this country have been getting free education untill 22, in the American point of reference, and now they are using their knowledge to build technology in the USA. Just do a simple calculation and see how much money this would amount to. In any case my fellow international students should rethink this deal, and don’t take it unless at the least they are treated with respect. Having said all of this I must say I love the people of America, I have had many great friends here, great advisors specially Scott Aaronson and Aram Harrow, with whom I have been talking about life, religion, freedom and my favorite topic the foundations of the universe. I am grateful for the education I received at MIT and I think I have something I didn’t have before. I don’t even hate Mr Trump. I think he would feel different if we have a cup of coffee sometime.
Update (Jan. 31): See also this post by Terry Tao.
Update (Feb. 2): If you haven’t been checking the comments on this post, come have a look if you’d like to watch me and others doing our best to defend the foundations of Enlightenment and liberal democracy against a regiment of monarchists and neoreactionaries, including the notorious Mencius Moldbug, as well as a guy named Jim who explicitly advocates abolishing democracy and appointing Trump as “God-Emperor” with his sons to succeed him. (Incidentally, which son? Is Ivanka out of contention?)
I find these people to be simply articulating, more clearly and logically than most, the worldview that put Trump into office and where it inevitably leads. And any of us who are horrified by it had better get over our incredulity, fast, and pick up the case for modernity and Enlightenment where Spinoza and Paine and Mill and all the others left it off—because that’s what’s actually at stake here, and if we don’t understand that then we’ll continue to be blindsided.