October 2011


The news is full of the effects of Alabama’s immigration legislation. I can’t tell for sure whether the exodus of Hispanic immigrants is surprising because so many documented residents left, or if the attitude is more of the I-told-you-so variety. Either way, we are getting real-time updates of what an exodus of hard working laborers looks like – and not just in Alabama. That means we are renewing our attention to farmers’ claims that US citizens can’t or won’t do the work. A lot of those claims are anecdotal, about workers who come and leave after 30 minutes, an hour, a day. I’ve also heard, more than once, that farmers ought to turn to work-release inmate labor – if that says anything about how our society perceives the role of farm workers…

I have thought quite a bit about this one, and at least in part that is because I myself could use a job, and I wonder if I am one of the Americans who ought to be out in the fields. It’s not that I’m opposed to farm work, per say. I even worked on a farm once, and promptly quit – not because the work was too difficult but because I found out the field was a Monsanto genetic research facility [winces]. The biggest hurdle would seem to be moving my family. My six year old is in school, and my partner does have a job. Where would we stay – in a tent? A more abstract concern would be how temporary work would affect my student loan repayments. So… I’m not heading south anytime soon.

I also thought about whether the food I buy comes from these farms, and how this problem will likely affect our family’s food supply. My first thought was that food will get more expensive if much of the harvest is left in the fields. Then I remembered – aha! Our food is mostly either local or from the west coast. And then – I remembered economics.

If the harvests in Alabama (and other southern states like Georgia) rot, we can expect food costs to rise. In classic supply-and-demand fashion, if demand stays even but supply falls, then prices go up. When farmers vie to get into the market, prices fall, but in this case there is less competition between farmers. This affects our west coast producers too, because their incentive to keep costs low diminishes. Competition instead shifts to consumers, who will have to offer more to get the goods.

More than simply affecting supply and demand, though, the changes to the way we produce food will also raise prices because it will become more expensive to produce it. There are those who would harangue the farmers for paying too little, and those who accuse the workers for accepting too little (taking jobs from those who have to work for more), but it is also us – the consumers – who pay too little. Many of us are aware that organic produce, for instance, is more expensive than other, mass-produced produce. Similarly, Fair Trade products are more expensive than goods without that certification. Fair Trade products are priced deliberately to provide a fair wage to producers and harvesters. The importance of these products is diluted as the largest scale retailers offer similarly marketed goods at lower prices. However, organic and fair trade goods – and the price variation – suggest what prices might look like if we consistently paid fair, livable wages to our farm workers.

Everyone deserves dignity, and fair wages are a part of that. As we dismiss the value of the labor, we dismiss to an extent the value of the laborer as well. At some point, we must consider that if we want farmers to pay salaries that people can afford to take, we will have to help them pay for it. If not, those farmers will go out of business, and those large agri-corporations that remain will increasingly outsource their farms to Mexico – which would, in a manner of speaking, resolve the immigration issue.

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It’s Tuesday! We got some wonderful produce in this week, although the season has decisively shifted towards fall. It was a rainy, chill morning. The rain has been an interesting backdrop to some of what my family has been discussing over the IPS intersession, as a lead up to Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF. Because I’m the kind of mom who thinks that school breaks are a great time to do learning projects, we are learning about what UNICEF is and what it does, both as a research project but also so that she understands what she is raising money to achieve. It turns out that UNICEF does quite a bit, and since the girl is still six, we are focusing on a particular aspect of what UNICEF does – providing clean water. But it’s Food Themed Tuesday! Yep: water is integral to food, agriculture, and health, and our agricultural practices certainly impact the water supply, by diverting water to fields for export crops, by polluting water supply with pesticides and herbicides, by replacing tree lines with crops that do little to prevent erosion, among other things. Crops don’t only provide the vegetables we eat; we grow crops for energy, for livestock feed, for genetic breeding and research, and we often do so following agro-industrial standards that are more suited for profits than for sustainability.

We watched Blue Gold this afternoon, and while it’s obviously intended to be a persuasive film, it makes a lot of good points along the way. It reminded me that water scarcity isn’t just an issue in the Horn of Africa, but a problem for everyone – especially those of us in the industrialized countries. We have achieved a point of industrialization wherein we are able to sustain the pretense of having beaten nature. We build vast cities in the desert, ship in water (not by truck but via pipeline), and call it good. We are frontier minded, but the frontier is vanishing beneath the haze of urban industry. How many of us drink bottled water because it’s ‘safer’ than tap water, without considering how often they share a source?

It’s funny, but as I was looking up information about Veolia water, the huge transnational corporation that ran our local water utility in a “public-private partnership” since 2002, I discovered that the city ended that contract early (for $29 million), transferring control this year to Citizens’ Energy Group, a “public trust” run like a not-for-profit. Waste water is still managed by United Water, affiliated with Suez, another private transnational group. I also found out that water prices are expected to triple over the next 15 years. To review, control of Indianapolis’ water utility changed hands 2 times in 10 years, with significant changes each time.

Indianapolis is not yet at the point where most people consider water shortages a critical issue. But dry periods over the last several summers, and also spring rains heavy enough that the ground can’t hold the water, suggest that water supply will be increasingly tenuous. Farmers planted corn (an Indiana staple) late this year, with smaller yields because of the early floods, and harvests scanter still with the dry weather in July. Increasingly, nature forebodes a reassertion of its whims, and we are unaccustomed to meeting nature on its terms. A great deal of attention is paid to finding realistic water supplies in developing nations, but few people spend their time pondering the changes that we in the industrialized world must make to persist into the future. Societal collapse seems inconceivable, yet history chides us quietly to the contrary. In yet another example of how we seem to be rushing headlong into a precarious future, I wonder, what changes will come, and can we act in time to forestall the most extreme consequences?

I started with Part 1 in thinking about how society perpetuates historical ideas (and stereotypes) and the way the media discussed the name of a parcel at a ranch that Rick Perry leases. Here, I will continue that thread, looking at the example of the recent statements that Herman Cain and Michelle Bachman made about how they would deal with illegal immigration.

The notion that our nation would kill any person for the crime of crossing a proverbial line-in-the-sand is appalling. Also dismaying is that Bachman’s promise to make English the official language of the government seems pale by comparison. Bachman referenced her Norwegian ancestors as examples of how one ought to immigrate to the US. Never mind that even the more ‘palatable’ northern European Norwegians arrived to find settlements that preserved their language and traditions, or that much like other cultural groups, the nationalistic imperatives of WWI seems to have been the driving force of ‘Americanization.’ Bachman’s building (upon) a myth that suits her interpretation of history, while reinforcing her ideals in the present. The historical reality is that ethnicity has always been a basis for some to exclude newcomers, and those that argue that current objections to Hispanic immigration are not rooted in similar stereotypes nonetheless refer to assumptions – like dependency on the state, on welfare, on emergency rooms, having a lot of children, all without learning English, contributing to taxes, in a way that is somehow distinct from what other groups did in the past – that are rooted in stereotypes of ‘lazy’ immigrants looking for a handout. They are also strikingly similar to stereotypes about other minority groups who face similar problems achieving economic parity. Moreover, Bachman’s suggestion that English should be an official language doesn’t simply target people who lack a particular document; it targets anyone who doesn’t speak English – and that includes legal immigrants, refugees, asylees, and so forth – without any data that describes the use of English, the ability to speak English among what groups, or even what the benefits might be. One can assume that such an act would reinforce an idea of what it means to be “American,” but her definition of “American” ignores the poignant and significant contribution of immigrants over years (as well as the atrocities that some of those groups committed to establish the nation).

Unfortunately, the Republican field hasn’t pointed out the inconsistencies in Bachman’s myth-making, or suggested viable alternatives. Instead, Herman Cain is on an Ayn Randian roll, knocking the Occupy Wall Street protesters for their inability to find jobs (the demonstrators are also lazy un-Americans) even while members of the Tea Party lament the same joblessness. I don’t even want to acknowledge his 9-9-9 plan; an accountant from Cleveland apparently has all the answers, surely to the chagrin of all those professional economist who have spent their professional careers trying to understand the US economy. And immigration will be no problem once we electrify the border. The whole border. Or build a double fence. Because those things are possible. Apparently being robbed by gangs through Mexico, falling prey to those you hire to help you, and potentially dying of dehydration while crossing a dessert isn’t a cruel enough fate in a desperate attempt to achieve economic stability.

Both of these candidates speak in terms of a nation-state that is easily definable, in terms of belonging, defining, and even outlining. At least Rick Perry seems to recognize the border as complex. The US-Mexico border is no less intricate than the definitions of the US, and of the nation-state more generally. The relationship between the US and Mexico is a really good example of how boundaries remain fluid rather than static. Trade and commerce flows easily, increasingly so with the implementation of NAFTA and similar agreements. An interesting example is of the Tohono O’odham, whose territory crosses the US-Mexico border (if this is interesting, I strongly encourage a Google Scholar search as there are several fascinating academic papers that discuss this group and their relationship with the border).  As languages and culture flow from one side of the border to the other (both ways – consider US tourism), you could even consider the border to be expanding we define internal boundaries through similar means. Someone may find themselves as far north as Maine, yet still have one foot straddling the border, so to speak, because of language, culture, temporary or undocumented status, economic status, social alienation, and so forth.

While politicians and others may speak technically about illegal immigration, this conversation affects a much broader Hispanic population, as we are seeing in Alabama. Officers along the border may have some clear(er) idea about how to differentiate residents from people crossing the border illegally based on gear, clothing, and the like, but for many people who are removed from the crossing points, the conversation is much more blurred on who is documented or undocumented, how to identify that status, and increasingly who deserves that status – like the children born in the US to undocumented citizens. More and more, laws and discourse target Hispanics as a group. On the one hand, we are seeing and acting out a new phase in the US, where we are redefining ourselves according to changing local and global circumstances. Unfortunately, if we include or reward others who include such divisive language and rhetoric in our national discourse, while simultaneously restructuring so many of our institutions, we will foster the entrenchment of racism and class divisions for an entire generation to come. Nor will they look kindly upon us for having done so – history rarely does. Well, unless you reimagine it to suite your purposes.

About two weeks ago, Rick Perry was faltering in the polls because of a poorly named rock at the ranch he, and his father before him, leased out in Texas (also here). I started to reference this to underline how the other candidates took note of Perry’s mistakes in the more recent discussion on immigration. Instead, as I reviewed some of the articles, I realized that something was missing from the coverage, and that same something is significant to the discussion about illegal immigration.

It’s notable that the major newspapers who carried the story (Washington Post and New York Times) talked more about the impact that ‘the rock’ would have on Rick Perry, and very little about why calling a place “Niggerhead” is newsworthy in the first place. It is newsworthy, but not because it makes Rick Perry look like a backwoods clod. The bigger conversation happened away from the main pages, like at The Root, or even The not-a-news-source Daily Show (which the commentary at The Root references). The attitude that, ‘It’s just a word, get over it,’ appears in the comments section of the original breaking story in the Washington Post. There’s the rub – that a situation that employs the word ‘nigger’ should be insignificant, so long as it isn’t directed by one person to another.

Tied into the conversation is an oft expressed frustration with what it means to be “politically correct.” It may be that we all get frustrated when someone corrects us, but the idea of “political correctness” should remind us that words do have meaning and even underlying significance. Use of a word in a place-name may not constitute an insult hurled at an individual, but it does highlight the pervasiveness of the ideas the word represents in our society. Some words have a history of demeaning and pejorative use; repetition brings that history into contemporary society, even though some might regard the use innocuous. Indeed, the view that something like that can be innocuous is as problematic as anything. When a person points to words and concepts that rely on racist sentiments – i.e. are a step removed from racism yet ultimately dependent upon it – often such a person is decried as looking for racism where none exists. History (as a discipline) reminds us that society does not exist as a static point in time, but as a complex interweaving of ideas and events, while the effects of past events and ideas remain with a society through time. The benefits and burdens of those events remain as well.

One way in which the past stays with us is that we use it to build our definitions of ourselves and of others. We create narratives and discourse, our stories and ideas, such as those we use to understand the importance of the Founding Fathers in the formation of the nation. Honest Abe and The Cherry Tree are more pervasive ideas in our national mythos than are Jefferson’s slaves, let alone the stories of the slaves themselves. We, our newspapers, and our political leaders craft the discourse that fits our understanding of our nation. At one point, parts of the national discourse accepted the pervasive racism of slavery, and later that of segregation. Today we are forming a new discourse that, rather than striving to overcome the old disparities that persist in geographic and economic marginalization, are fomenting new ways of stratifying social groups. The next post will discuss how this happens, looking at the discourse of politicians regarding immigration.

Well, I lost about a week of blogging, as well as sleeping, to the Occupy Indy initiative. I lost a couple more days to visiting grandma, but that’s another story. I’m really proud and excited for the Occupation, though. I admit I’m surprised it took off here – Indy’s not exactly known for this kind of thing. While my participation has been limited, I’m excited enough to want to take a moment to describe just why it is that I’m so keen on this movement-or-whatever-it-is-and-might-become.

The Occupy movements are really exciting because they are using  long-held activist methods, while developing a message that encompasses a range of ideologies. The methods of consensus based decision-making are really interesting here. Seasoned activists may be used to the tedium of consensus meetings like the General Assemblies and often are impatient with them. After all, a meeting where everyone has to agree will take a lot longer than a meeting where a few people can decide for everyone else. But this is what is really striking about the Occupy movement. The conversations here may still reflect the same arguments with which we are accustomed; on Saturday evening in Indianapolis there was a fair bit of discussion about voting, and a couple of people attributed the current state of affairs to lack of voter participation. That’s a fairly common conversation, and it depends on the assumption that it is possible for one person to appropriately represent another’s interests in government. That is representative government. Here’s the kicker, though: the people having this fairly mundane conversation were also participating in a different kind of democratic process – direct democracy through consensus based decision-making. Ok, so maybe I’m a dork who’s easily excited by tedious processes.

To understand why I get giddy about this, you might need to understand how I perceive governance and government. I understand governance as a collective process of making decisions, rules, and so forth that apply to the whole society. Government is the institution that applies those decisions (although a lot of government works to maintain the government). In the United States, decisions are made by the Congress and the Senate, by the president, upheld by the courts, and enforced by the police – a process generally repeated at more local levels of government. We elect people to represent us in government, and we are supposed to trust those people to make decisions that reflect our needs and desires.

The Occupy movements reflect the need for people to feel they have a voice in their own governance. “We are the 99%” implicitly refers to the abundance of influence that the 1% have on government, influence that is tied directly to the amount of money the 1% has at its disposal. In effect, the Occupy movement consists of people who are standing up to demand a voice, a role, in their own governance. Frustration with corporations is a part of this, in that corporate entities are more represented in government through their lobbying and business and personal connections to the representatives. OF COURSE the Occupy message is incoherent – there is a plethora of issues that tie in to lack of representation in government, from the state of public education, the wars waged, the bail out of banks in the midst of ongoing foreclosures, homelessness, joblessness, and on, and on. These are all issues that we deal with as the middle class, the lower class – the 99%. And here, in the midst of these seemingly incoherent occupations, here are people who perhaps for the first time are participating in their own governance through the consensus process. If they, with their myriad needs and perspectives, can come to agreement on what their message is  through this process – in a matter of weeks, even – then maybe we can begin to imagine how government would work if governance were also a consensus process, wherein we all participated in governance rather than asking and allowing others to do so on our behalf.

Ultimately, I’m excited because the Occupy movement stands to be more than a movement. I’ve heard mentions of a new political party, but I don’t think that will come – the people involved have such diverse perspectives and ideologies that I don’t see them combining to a shared platform. What the people do share is a need for government to recognize them and their needs. Maybe, just maybe, the people involved in these movements will be able to experience a way of participating in their own governance in a meaningful way, and in so doing, remind us all what democracy looks like.

I was all set to publish a different post about the death of Anwar al-Awlaki. However, as I was reading over today’s New York Times daily email, a different story caught my attention: Fatal Accident Puts Focus on Deportation Program. The article describes a traffic accident that has put Massachusetts in the spotlight for the governor’s refusal to implement the Secure Communities program – a program that uses information sharing between the FBI and ICE to identify immigrants who are in the country unlawfully, especially those who have committed violent crimes.

The traffic accident involved an immigrant from Ecuador who, while driving drunk, hit, dragged, and killed a motorcyclist. Author Abby Goodnough states in typical New York Times’ passive voice judgement: “The Guaman case and several others … have become part of a growing debate over whether Massachusetts is too easy on illegal immigrants.” She doesn’t clearly outline who the participants are in this debate. While, “many here have pointed to his case as an example of why the federal program, known as Secure Communities, is necessary,” we have no information that hints as to why that might be. One must be content to wonder whether Guaman had a previous record, in which case Secure Communities might have taken steps to deport the man – otherwise the suggestion would have little bearing.

Along with another oblique use of passive voice denouncing the outrage that the incident “has stirred” in… well… someone, Goodnough opens the article by identifying the man involved as an “illegal immigrant.” Perhaps she is quoting the police, whom she credits for the information. Regardless, I am stunned at such a careless and irresponsible turn of phrase in the New York Times. Even more astonishingly, the New York Times created an email alert topic titled “illegal immigrants.”

The phrase “illegal immigrant” is neither accurate nor appropriate. Legality does not pertain to one’s personhood, but to an action, whence phrases like: unlawful entry, undocumented resident / worker, illegal immigration. One can enter the country unlawfully, they may lack the requisite documentation for residence or employment, but they do not become, themselves, illegal. I have referenced this in an earlier post, but when society creates a group and distinguishes it as “other,” marginalizes that group according to official sub-class status – like that of “illegal” – the road is set for that group to be castigated, penalized, oppressed, and subject to an array of abuses, because they are less-than-citizens.

Our government agencies are adept at creating public discourse that maintains respectful and appropriate rhetoric, which demonstrated that this is possible. Our major newspapers should be at least as adept in their use of rhetoric to frame an argument – or at least conscious of having done so – in order to sustain even a pretense of impartiality.