The writer is a US-based author of Alive and Well in Pakistan and Home Free: An American Road Trip, among other books.

Last October, in a local email group I belonged to in Seattle concerned with activism on behalf of undocumented immigrants to the United States, a woman proposed gathering a book of immigrants’ stories. I thought that was a wonderful idea. And since I have become, in a modest way, a publisher of narrative nonfiction books on international and topical subjects, I raised my virtual hand and said that I would love to work with her and others to compile, publish, and promote such a book.

I saw it as a mission-driven nonprofit project, and as a contribution that I was in a position to make toward fostering compassion among Americans for vulnerable people. We had a couple of meetings, and the woman who would have been the book’s editor was enthusiastic. At the end of our second meeting, she and I decided that the next step should be for her to write to the full email group, summarising the state of play to that point and encouraging others to participate. So she did.

The leader of the group replied promptly. “I think for me to participate in this project,” he instructed her, “I need to understand what goal your group hopes to achieve with the book. Put differently, how is this project a form of activism? I admit that I have not followed discussions on the book very closely, so I apologize.”

was unimpressed, to the point of being a bit stunned. I took exception partly because, as I told the group leader candidly by private email, he was blithely calling into question my own entire career and vocation. What goal did we hope to achieve with the book? The question was vulgar and betrayed a stunted imagination. The book itself was the goal we hoped to achieve. And to those of us who believe that books matter, that goal is enough. But how is a book a form of activism? Well, why should I have to explain to a self-appointed activism gatekeeper how such a book, or any book, would count as what he would consider activism? Is what he would consider activism more important than books? Also, by the way, instead of apologizing for not paying attention, he should have been paying attention in the first place. Call me a pointy-headed intellectual if you like, but writing and publishing, the honest and meaningful use of language, is my activism.

A couple of months later, the same activist leader urged me to drop everything and call my United States Senator. “Making some pretty words, and then at the 11th hour doing nothing, is not going to fool anyone,” he wrote in a group email on December 19. “It’s critical that everyone on this list make themselves heard on this issue in the next day or two. Call every day and be direct: if our senators can’t fight a fight like this, it’s time to replace them with Democrats who have the resolve to do so. This is the kind of failure that cannot be undone for those young people who lose their status and are deported.

I confess that the clarion call left me cold. Not at all because I didn’t share his humane hopes and fears for vulnerable undocumented immigrants to our country. I did, and I do. But I had offered to contribute to our shared cause work that I felt both well prepared and motivated to do, and my offer had been disdained. Was my pique personal? Partly. But I had many other things to do, all of which I considered important. And I saw his smack-down of the woman who wanted to compile a book of immigrants’ stories as a failure of leadership on the part of someone who had willingly taken on a leadership role. (The book didn’t happen, by the way.)

But the episode also raised questions about what any of us should or should not be doing, in these appalling times, and in America in particular. Is supporting or defeating elected officials the most important or efficacious way for citizens to give material and moral support to immigrants? Is the state even necessarily the most effective or important vehicle for social and political action? What if the very institutions to which our elected officials are elected are terminally dysfunctional?

The tempest in a teapot that I just recounted took place half a year and more ago, privately among a small number of well-meaning private citizens, in one small corner of a very large country. In a way it doesn’t matter much, because all that’s at stake is so much bigger than any of us. But it’s depressingly illustrative, and it came back to mind recently because of the enormous national political and moral crisis ignited by Trump’s order to separate more than 2300 children from their would-be immigrant parents at the border between Mexico and the U.S. state of Texas.

Like every other American crisis, this one became instantly, virally politicised on social media. So it’s almost pointless for me to opine or even write about it as a current story. Who knows what the new crisis will be by the time you read this? And the political effect is also dangerously unpredictable. In the midst of the crisis Trump went to Minnesota, where he ranted unapologetically to an arena full of his rabid, red hat-clad followers. In such a cult-like atmosphere, what can we hope for from the midterm congressional elections planned for November? That’s a real and urgent question. I don’t have much confidence that anything can be done to mitigate the national and global disaster that is Trump, short of mass civil disobedience in America and/or a genuine rebellion from within the Republican Party that he has made his own.

So, a genuine question: In today’s America, is it more efficacious to write a letter to my senator, or to tell stories of human striving and suffering? •