...And I'll tell it and speak it and think it and breathe it... -- Bob Dylan

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Two Stories: Immigrants in America

The oil continues to bleed into the Gulf of Mexico from this great injury to the ocean floor that was intended to be benign. As I've been despairing the past month hearing about the gulf oil gusher, I've been feeling far greater despair and anger over the fact that the state of Arizona has passed legislation, the infamous SB1070, that takes the unprecedented step of enlisting state law enforcement resources to seek out and either imprison or deport those who have come to this nation without obtaining a permission slip. I feel greater despair and anger over this because it is another example of our culture accepting that which should not be accepted; considering normal that which is anything but. SB1070 is an expression of a fundamental brokenness of a culture and her people, the culture that I have to call mine.

What's so bad about this law? Many have asked. People who are here without a permission slip, as you put it, are breaking the law, as well as overtaxing our stressed-out social services networks, job markets, and neighborhoods, and since the federal government is either unable or unwilling to do anything about it, we'll employ our own local resources to do the job right. But it's racist, I say. No, it's not – it just so happens that the majority of people who violate this law have dark skin and hair and speak no or broken English. We have no problem with similar looking and sounding people who are here legally. In fact, many of the people who support this law are recent legal immigrants who also have dark skin and speak with an accent (a fact that we'll be sure to remind you of every chance we get by featuring such people on our basest talk shows.) But it is unprecedented and un-American, I retort. So? America has some of the most generous immigration laws in the world, but we simply can't be everything to everybody. We have to draw the line somewhere. If you don't like our immigration laws, write to congress and urge them to change them. In the meantime, we're just trying to enforce the law.

See what I've done? My monologue has turned into a dialog. I've done this not because I have mixed feelings about the matter – I think SB1070 is one of the most dangerous and irresponsible pieces of legislation passed by any government in the US for a long, long time. But I've delved into a dialog because it seems sometimes that's the only way to engage something like this. Big, bad oil spill? Sure, everybody agrees that's bad, in spite of the partisans' lining up for the old familiar blame game (government or corporations, Democrats or Republicans.) Legislation that attacks and scapegoats the most vulnerable among us because we are fearful of losing our place of dominance and control? Well, let's hear both sides of the issue. (I should point out here that I admit I'm using collective pronouns liberally. I speak as a straight, white, middle-class, English-educated American male of Anglo descent who's ancestors immigrated to this country well before any federal quotas or restrictions on immigration were in place, and back when the government was still firmly in the capture-sequester-break-imprison-and-lie-to-the-true-natives-of-this-country business. When I say “we” I don't mean exclusively those who also fit this description, but if you do, I'd like to invite you to pay special attention.) Many of us can delude ourselves into thinking this “dialog” is not real or necessary. It's relatively easy in the Internet-dominated world to only listen and pay attention to those expressing views with which we're in agreement, and ignore the “other side.” But while I may find refuge reading those particular blogs and magazines and websites that only promote “my side” of the story, and only talk about this with people who I am reasonably confident will share my sympathies, to be responsible I must also pay attention to those who fail to see the tragedy of a broken dream and see instead only their own fear.

That said, let me transition back into monologue, with these words from Emma Lazarus:
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
Nope. No equivocating here. Ms. Lazarus wrote this in honor of the 100th anniversary of France's gift to the US of the Statue of Liberty, during a time, like that of my ancestors' invasion, well before the US had any immigration quotas or restrictions, back when land for the taking (literally) was a-plenty, when the poor and tired could be safely quarantined in ghettos and legally given slave-wage jobs with no protections and as such presented little formidable threat but also great service to the well-established. Okay, maybe there's a bit of cynicism creeping back in, but not in the poem, which as we all know is engraved on a plaque in the Statue of Liberty, and often quoted as one of the great and exemplary expressions of the American spirit. I acknowledge that, here and elsewhere, I often say things critical of the US, both historically and contemporaneously, and often people like me are criticized for being too negative and critical of this (allegedly) great country. But it's not that I want to be – I want to be proud. I want to feel the excitement and joy that I believe Emma Lazarus felt and was trying to express about the best part of our national spirit. Please, let me read this poem, and maybe even acknowledge the historical ambiguities surrounding it, with nothing but beaming pride for what our nation is and what we are trying to do. Can we do this? Can we live up to our highest hopes? Can we, a nation, it is often said, of immigrants – most of whom immigrated without permission slips – take pride in who we strive to be? Can we take pride in what we do?

Or have we become an “ancient land,” that might be asked to keep our “storied pomp?” I hope not, for that would imply we have no place to send the likes of Sarah “Drill, baby, drill” Palin, who uttered what surely must be the most naively ironic phrase when she said recently, visiting Arizona, “we are all Arizonians now.” Did she, or any of her cheering fans, see the irony of uttering this phrase in celebration of a law who's singular purpose is to attempt to define precisely who is and who is an “Arizonian?” If they did not see it as irony, them I'm afraid it could only be fascism. Some say that's a loaded word that shouldn't be thrown around, and I agree. But I also believe that it should be used when and only when it is precisely accurate. It is precise here because the phrase “we are all” defines “we” by association with a political body (those who agree with Ms. Palin's sentiment, and exalts this “we” over and above not only those who don't fit into this political definition, but also by implication those who are not excited by this attempt at exclusion. Exclusion and division of this sort has only one purpose (other than possibly to help keep Ms. Palin's speaking fees well in the six figures:) to put “we” above “them,” and to keep “them” in their place. Fascism is the political process of separation, exclusion, and exaltation of “we” over “them,” and this is what SB1070 aims to do. It aims to do this indirectly, not by any specific mandate or prescription contained within it, but by fanning the flames of exclusion and intolerance in order to bolster many a politicians' standing and to appease people's resentments at having to live in a changing world.

At the time most of my ancestors immigrated to the US, what is now Arizona was not even a part of the US, it was a part of the very country from which most of these undocumented travellers, these huddled masses, are coming. Then the US Army illegally immigrated and quickly planted their flag. Not too long before that, what is now Arizona was not part of any colonial empire. But then came the first round of illegal immigration – or illegal invasion it might be called: the unwanted, uninvited, and often hostile onslaught of Europeans and whites with all their trappings of colonial civilization. The whole time they were putting up various artificial boundary lines attempting to define, claim, and control their “own” territory, the masses continued to migrate, as they had done for generations. They wandered the vast reaches of the Mexican-American west, following buffalo and cattle and harvests, without much concern for artificial lines drawn across the desert. Years later their children still travelled while new masses of sun-loving, air-conditioning-dependent city folk immigrated from cold and dying cities in the northeast to build sprawling metropolises like Phoenix (rising from the ashes?) and Las Vegas, benefiting mightily from the legions of (then) mostly invisible migrants who mowed the suburbanites' well-manicured lawns and harvested their mass-produced vegetables. These suburban immigrants never had to obtain a permission slip, and their migrant supporters with darker skin and broken English seldom were asked to present them.

But then something happened. We lost control. (Yes, the possessive plural pronoun again.) We lost control of all these people, some of whom may have decided that being invisible was kinda humiliating. We lost control of the numbers of these people coming over, more and more of them coming not so much because they worshiped old glory but because the nation that it represented started flooding theirs with cheap goods, factories, and money for the drug gangs that took over their towns and economies. Perhaps most importantly, we lost control of the very world that we used to believe was ours and ours alone. It was ours to define, ours to take pride in (or not, as we chose,) and ours to limit. More people of darker skin, who often spoke a different language, who did not always feel obliged to hide their heritage, started coming over, started becoming visible, started shaping “our” world. And all the while this was happening, our world itself was facing its own limits. It was shrinking. And we were getting scared.

So we lashed out. We began to separate and vilify those who were different, those we found it easy to blame for changing our world. We began to get upset about all these “illegals” coming over and taking, taking, taking (even though the only thing they were really taking from us was our shit.) Demagogues in the media, supported by advertising dollars made by companies who profited from cheap labor, became celebrities. Vigilante groups who preyed on the most vulnerable among us became heroes. And fascist attitudes became law, such as SB1070.

Many of my friends and compatriots – those who I count on to agree with me when talking about these things – don't like SB1070 because it is racist or will encourage racial profiling, or because it invokes feelings of living in a police state, or because it blurs the traditionally useful line between federal and state jurisdiction in law enforcement. These are all very good reasons for disliking SB1070. But the thing is, I don't just dislike SB1070, I hate it. I hate it not because of any specific words or mandates or clauses in it; I hate it, I freely admit, having not read one word of it. I hate it because of what it represents: the effort of the privileged people – who's ancestors illegitimately took over one part of the world and claimed it as their own – to feel legitimate. While they lambast those they think are claiming entitlements, they claim the biggest entitlement of all. While they raise the flag of community heritage they ignore any part of their own history they don't like. While they face the limitations of an irresponsible economy they lash out and blame those who eke a living out of its crumbs and, incidentally, help keep their prices down. To every single person who has ever complained about the “problem” of illegal immigration and who also has ever bought cheap supermarket food at the likes of Wal-Mart, Safeway, or any restaurant chain, I say to you: you are a hypocrite, nothing more, nothing less.

Now, you may have noticed, I am not using the collective pronoun “we”, but instead have reverted to something akin to calling “them” names. Perhaps I can even be accused of the kind of fascism I described above. And that is precisely why I hate this law so much – because it is not about them – illegal immigrants or xenophobes. It is about we. It is about me and my people. So I have to hate it, I have the responsibility to hate it and to not tolerate the self-centered, irresponsible protection of privilege of which it is expression.

There are, it could be argued, two versions of US history. The first is the story of a glorious nation, a shining city upon a hill, founded by noble freedom-seekers and open to all who share the dream. This story is the one in which our founders were men (and, let's say, even women) of vision; that in spite of Thomas Jefferson's slave-ownership, they were deeply and unequivocally committed to the ideal of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, to the realization of a dream of a new country unhinged from all the tyrannical and exclusive aspects of the old world. In this story, yes, we have had flaws and made mistakes, but we have been, since our founding, and always will be, committed to the noble attempt to live up to our highest aspirations. Told in this manner, this story might be deemed the “progressive” story (though that doesn't wash with our current popular definition of "progressive") – we ever progress toward achievement of the American dream. The other story, arguably more popular with what are called political progressives today – is the story of empire and greed. In it, our “founders” were really invaders from foreign lands who came here to wreak upon a bucolic civilization and impose a slightly different form of the tyranny from which they had come. Only they wound up upending the tyranny so that they were on top rather than their old masters, the aristocrats. They came seeking only their own glory and gold, and proceeded to take over the whole continent and subjugate it to their will. In this story, our past is all mistakes except for the various movements (think abolition and suffrage) of the common people – people who in their time and place were marginalized and not thought of as “legal” in the full sense of the term – who forced an otherwise evil empire to change, to better live up to it's own professed ideals.

Historians can, and will, debate the legitimacy of these two stories for some time, and the truth is there is truth in both of them. But it is not only historians – the debate rages on in contemporary political discussions about issues such as immigration. It seems, sometimes, that the main determinant of where one falls on the political spectrum is which story one believes. Liberals are obsessed with the negative aspects of our history, and conservatives see our past with rose-colored glasses. History, in this sense, creates our current dilemmas. But we can also reverse this unhelpful conundrum – rather than letting history determine our fate, we can, and should, remember that we are creating our history every day. We can let our actions in the here and now determine which version of our story turns out to be true. If we
choose to close our doors, seal our borders, and protect our privilege now (a process, I admit, started nearly a century ago; but one that we seem on the verge of codifying and making permanent now) then we will seal our nation's fate solidly in the second story. As soon as cheap land ran out and things got a little dicey for us, we simply abandoned all those lofty ideals and shut ourselves up in our own little refuge in this world, making it painfully clear that we never were very serious about those lofty ideals, we just used them to legitimize our own greed. On the other hand, if we choose now to open our borders, and welcome those who come here seeking work, freedom, opportunity, and yes, even some piece of the advantage that comes with living in a well-developed economy, if we chose to do this in spite of some perceived difficulty it might engender in that it may change our comfortable world in some not-so-comfortable ways, then we'll prove to the world and future historians that we always did mean it when we said “All men are created equal, are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights...” We can make this choice today.
I would suggest, furthermore, that if we do choose the former path, if we decide that our ideals are only legitimate so long as our own privilege is not threatened, then we should at the very least do two things to clear us of hypocrisy: The first is we should remove the plaque containing Emma Lazarus' famous poem from the base of the Statue of Liberty and banish it to a museum somewhere. In this museum it can be displayed beneath a plaque that explains how the sentiment expressed in this poem, while at one time important enough that officials decided to display this plaque at one of our most popular historical monuments, is today merely an archaic expression of one minor, short-lived trend in US history. I can even see the museum guide explaining to a group of wide-eyed schoolchildren (many with dark skin, most descended from immigrants) with a chuckle in his voice about how silly people were back in those days. The other thing we should do to insure we are not hypocrites is to take the US Constitution, including the Bill of Rights, and in every place where the word “person” appears replace it with the phrase “US Citizen and those carrying a proper work Visa and who try their best to speak clear English and only display the flag of their native country on special holidays or on the menus of popular Mexican restaurants.” If we did that, our Constitution would more accurately reflect the true nature of what it means to be a a citizen of this shining city upon a hill.

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