Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Good work by Obama?

As the great grandson of an immigrant from a group that until recently faced xenophobic backlashes and because of my recent life circumstances, I am somewhat nauseated by the political construction of the recent immigration debate. Immigrants frequently become dehumanicized, functioning as mere representations of their connection to a legal document.

As many other politicians, Barack Obama has utilized some of this recent xenophobia throughout his campaign and presidency. His advocacy utilizes a wider notion of security (more than armies that threaten the country) to be resolved by a more narrow security method (traditional ways of securing objects of the country) for the traditional security object (the country or nation). The actual White House policy suggests:

President Obama will remove incentives to enter the country illegally by preventing employers from hiring undocumented workers and enforcing the law.

The web site also tells us that he will fix the dysfunctional immigration bureaucracy and address the problem holistically within its economic context:

President Obama believes that our broken immigration system can only be fixed by putting politics aside and offering a complete solution that secures our border, enforces our laws, and reaffirms our heritage as a nation of immigrants. He believes our immigration policy should be driven by our best judgment of what is in the economic interest of the United States and what is in the best interest of the American worker. President Obama recognizes that an orderly, controlled border and an immigration system designed to meet our economic needs are important pillars of a healthy and robust economy.

Of course Obama remains extremely political in this instance. As Gramsci suggested some time ago, the very notion of common sense remains a political object, constructed by intra- and inter-class struggle. The notion of the immigration "problem" and the means of addressing it seem natural to many people: Too many people are not following the rules (immigrant and citizen) so we need more and better legal enforcement for the good of everyone. This problem, then, becomes a threat to our nation-state (our ability to regulate people flows across borders and remain cultural homogeneity) and way of life (standards of living brought down by an influx of labor), according to many people within the debate. While these formulations get articulated in slightly different ways and levels of urgency, their speakers make appeals to everyone's common sense, suggesting the problems and solutions are simply natural, thus limiting the scope of rhetoric and semantics.

Against common sense, let me suggest that labor remains the main problem, though not in the way one might think. People without legal work place protections and the ability to organize are threatening those with such protections. The solution should not be top down (enforce regulation of employment and punish employees and employers). The solution should be bottom up. It should enable employees. People who work in sweatshops, without workplace protections, or the ability to organize -- especially in the case of recent immigrants -- are not criminals, but victims.

Rather than dictate reality from the center like the Politburo, let's take a page from the rational choice handbook that suggests institutional design fosters individual behavior. Let's reform our labor institutions to allow greater and easier organizing by workers (and thus let workers take problems into their own hands). On the civil side let's support groups that are organizing workers in spite of the law (for a great example see http://www.ciw-online.org/). On a common sense level let's aide those undermining the hegemonic common sense.

It may be too early to tell, but Obama may be taking small steps on the issue of common sense (from Border Action Network:)

[The] Department of Homeland Security has canceled Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s 287g Agreement, revoking his deputies’ authority to make immigration arrests in the field. Though Arpaio wanted to renew an agreement with DHS to allow both field arrests and immigration checks at his jails, a DHS official recently gave him a document allowing only jail checks.

It seems too early to tell if this is random act, something in contradiction to public policy, a preview to centralizing raids entirely in ICE, or something else. Our common sense will dictate where we stand on these interpretations.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Emperor is Naked!

It would seem that there is little to no respect for honesty on this planet. In an upset win, Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize, while human rights activists from China got sidelined yet again. The Nobel Foundation claimed that Obama won: "for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples." (http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/2009/) But how different is Obama's foreign policy from that of the previous administration? I thought I'd do a quick comparison.

Early this year, Obama bowed to the Saudi king and kissed his hand. Bush held the king's hand. The US still has military bases there protecting an unpopular ruler--one of Bin Laden's main beef's with the US and reasons for 911.

Bush started the War in Iraq and gave free handouts to Halliburton and the like. Obama keeps promising he will pull out most US troops in Iraq by 2010, but is diverting war efforts to Afghanistan, where he hopes for a greater international presence. Obama says his war is against al-Qaeda, not the Taliban. Poor people in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province pay the price, irrespective.

Both protect the rich. In Michael Moore's documentary, Farenheit 911, Bush called the richest corporations his "base". Obama bailed out Wall Street.

Both lack credibility in the developing world. Bush promised $15 billion to fight HIV/AIDS in Africa, but nothing followed. Obama, in his visit to Africa this year, lectured its political leaders to "clean up" their act, but ignored all the ways the US aides and abets their "acts" and impoverishes those nations.

As far as human rights go, both are a joke. The policy on China is so much the same, one doesn't wonder why Muslim dissidents didn't win the Nobel Peace prize. North Korea and Iran, as well as Cuba, remain "problems." And it's US, USSR, Israel, and China that hold the world's stockpile of nuclear arsenal.

Granted, most of us who hoped he would win in 2008 didn't expect Obama to offer anything new, but to claim he's done something revolutionary and that too for "world peace" is like saying the emperor has new clothes! Clearly, the only difference is this--Bush's empire did not apologize for colonization. Obama wishes to rule by consent, or at least poses to. He's invited the Europeans back to the table, after all.

In fact, Obama's America is no less a threat to world peace as Bush's. Like a shameless self-seeking power it understands "money" and not human rights, let alone world peace. Over 300 US corporations still do business with Burma's oppressive military regime. What has Obama done about this?

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Minutemen and Klansmen

I recently reviewed The Rise of the Ku Klux Klan by Rory McVeigh (University of Minnesota Press, 2009) for the academic journal American Studies. The book is a little dry, but there were some notable lessons in it for understanding anti-immigration organizations today.

The Klan originated after the Civil War to restore white supremacy by terrorizing ex-slaves and antislavery whites during Reconstruction. This generation of the Klan ended when Reconstruction did in the 1870s. McVeigh’s book studies the second generation of the KKK, which started in 1915 (coinciding with the release of D.W. Griffith’s famous pro-Klan movie The Birth of a Nation) and exploded in growth from 1920-1924, with a membership of over four million people at its peak.

McVeigh argues that this version of the Klan emerged as a white Protestant response to the rise of large-scale manufacturing and retail, which squeezed small businesses and farms, diminished the political influence of the heartland, and strengthened the power of the cities—and the ethnic communities that lived in them. Klan organizers successfully mobilized White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs) by playing on their fears of losing their economic, political, and social power as a result of these economic and political changes.

McVeigh argues that while the 1920s Klan was racist, its focus was not primarily on anti-Black terrorism like the Reconstruction-era KKK. Rather, the 1920s Klan was essentially an anti-immigration social movement. Most social movements, he notes, seek to win power and status for the powerless. But right-wing movements “act to preserve, restore, or expand rights and privileges of a relatively advantaged social group” (38). The 1920s Klan is an example of this. They used a populist rhetoric that attacked industrial elites above them for manipulating labor markets and the “rabble” below them (i.e. ethnic, Catholic working class communities) for flooding these markets and for being culturally alien. The top and bottom of American society, they charged, conspired to squeeze the virtuous, hard-working, upright, white Protestants in the middle.

The KKK argued that “true Americans” were losing ground to immigrants, that immigrants burdened public resources, and that they degraded American culture. The Klan mobilized anxious WASPs by presenting itself as a “one-hundred percent American” organization that promised to restore their status. The fears of these relatively privileged WASPs, combined with effective mobilization techniques by the Klan, led farmers and middle class white Protestants to join the KKK in droves.

These arguments—and many of the quotes McVeigh provides from Klan papers—could have come from the Minutemen today.

What this suggests is that the key to understanding today’s anti-immigration movement—as well as anti-Obama organizing such as the “tea parties”—is to see it as a “virtuous middle” movement. In other words, these are movements whose members see themselves as a virtuous middle—religious, moral, hardworking, patriotic and truly American—who face the threat of losing their relatively privileged social status. They fear that they are under attack by a bewildering global economy and unscrupulous corporations that are moving their jobs overseas. Even more, they feel they are being attacked by cultural elites—Harvard and Hollywood, the universities and pop culture—who undermine the moral values of this virtuous middle with moral relativism and sexual permissiveness. They also fear that they are under attack by the rabble below them—lazy people who live off public benefits paid for by the virtuous middle’s tax dollars (these folks are often secretly coded as black) and illegal aliens who are flooding the country, stealing jobs and degrading American culture (these folks are often coded as brown). The virtuous middle fears that cultural elites from above and the black and brown rabble from below are conspiring —now with the help of a black president!—to undermine their social status and by extension the moral, political, and economic foundations of America. The fall into Sodom is right behind.

This fearful “virtuous middle” (or the “silent majority,” to use Nixon’s term in the 1970s) is a commonplace in American history. Jacksonian Democrats used it in the 1830s to attack corporate elites and slaves (but not masters), populists used it in the 1890s to attack corporate elites and defend segregation, the Klan used it in the 1920s to attack economic elites and Catholics and immigrants, Nixon used it in the 1970s to attack cultural elites and Black and student protestors, and now the anti-immigrant right is using it today.

From the perspective of participants in the anti-immigration movement, this is an effective strategy that should be continued, for it has often worked in U.S. history. From the perspective of those who support immigrant rights, it seems to me that the task is to convince this middle that their true interests lie in a united front with the black and brown “rabble” below them against the capitalist elites above. That would be hard, but it would also make for interesting times.