Friday, December 24, 2010

Having it both ways in the Golden State

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

California officials estimate that the U.S. Census Bureau failed to count 1.5 million of the state's residents, a discrepancy that if true could cost the state billions of dollars in federal aid over the next decade and perhaps an increase in its representation in Congress….A key challenge facing California in any census is that it is home to high numbers of the populations least likely to participate, including minorities, the young and low-income households. Ten of the top 50 "hard-to-count" counties in the nation are in California, and it has a large population of illegal immigrants, who are less likely to participate in the survey for fear that it would put them on the government's radar.

The article was troubling enough with its continued usage of a reductionism of the immigrant to criminal. But it was the commentary that followed the article including quips such as these that was truly disturbing:

It's hard to count people when their (sic) hiding.

Gee, I wonder why they might feel the need to hide….

Then there was this comment:

It is not a matter of hate… It is purely a situation where tax payers don't want to contribute to those who don't pay taxes and work for cash. This is a economic issue ,not a social issue….People will not be silent anymore so they can be PC as we watch our state be turned into a 3rd world playground of freebee's.

Once again, the myth of the tax supported services draining immigrant who contributes nothing to the economy. What a bargain – we get to bash the immigrants who provide us cheap produce, landscaping, child services and building construction while denying their contributions to our lives of privilege as well as the fact that prejudice (and thus hatred) might actually animate our comments about them.

Such a deal!

Finally, there’s this comment:

[E]verywhere you go and the news and TV are reporting yet another murder or protest of illegals waving flags from other countries.

A rather unoriginal, classic construction of the other as a dangerous, murderous threat to decent people. This is the stuff of moral panics.

In Sam Keen’s Faces of the Enemy, he lays out the images of the other from WWII era propaganda. From the German perspective, the allies were less than fully human, animalistic in their mindless, destructive tendencies. They were painted in terms of symbolic and mythical terms representing evil incarnate, enemies of G-d himself. Next to the German propaganda lay the Allies’ depictions of their enemy. The imagery is essentially identical. If one didn’t know which was which it would be hard to tell who had produced them and who they described.

Keen’s book and the provocative film that comes from it contains this poem, To Create an Enemy:

Start with an empty canvas
Sketch in broad outline the forms of
men, women, and children.

Dip into the unconsciousness well of your own
disowned darkness
with a wide brush and
strain the strangers with the sinister hue
of the shadow.

Trace onto the face of the enemy the greed,
hatred, carelessness you dare not claim as
your own.

Obscure the sweet individuality of each face.
Erase all hints of the myriad loves, hopes,
fears that play through the kaleidoscope of
every infinite heart.

Twist the smile until it forms the downward
arc of cruelty.

Strip flesh from bone until only the
abstract skeleton of death remains.

Exaggerate each feature until man is
metamorphasized into beast, vermin, insect.

Fill in the background with malignant
figures from ancient nightmares – devils,
demons, myrmidons of evil.

When your icon of the enemy is complete
you will be able to kill without guilt,
slaughter without shame.

The thing you destroy will have become
merely an enemy of God, an impediment
to the sacred dialectic of history.

Apparently some of the writers to the LA Times have this process down.

So let’s see now. Immigrants must be counted in the census because Californians want more funding and power. But they can’t be counted because Californians have created such a climate of fear in their scapegoating and demonization of them that the immigrants don’t want to be found, particularly not by agents of our government. Gee, that’s a hard one to figure out.

This all reminds me a bit of the Southern objections to the 3/5 Compromise in the original Constitution. Llike Californians, the South wanted to have it both ways - the slaves should count in the Census but Southerners would never agree to seeing the slaves as human beings with the rights of any other American citizens. The Southern aristocracy was more than happy to live off the free labor of the slave with all of its economic rewards, eating the food they grew, exporting the surplus goods they produced, while constructing their slaves as less than human and their slave labor force an ominous threat in constant need of control lest they engage on murderous insurrectionist rampages.

Sound familiar?

The Northern delegates to the convention at Philadelphia, seeking to limit Southern power, insisted that if we're going to count the slaves, they have to be freed and treated like any other citizen. With few exceptions, this strategy was motivated less by a noble concern for the slave than for the developing industries of the north whose corporate descendants dominate our world today. They simply wanted to exercise dominance over their Southern planter aristocracy kin. In the end, three of five slaves were to be counted in the census, legal importation of slaves was ended and the slave question was postponed for another day. In the process, the seeds for the American Civil War had been sown.

So California wants to count undocumented residents in the Census to gain electoral power but G-d forbid we should even see them as fully human beings (as noted by the reductionist reference in the story itself to "illegal immigrants") much less treat them as citizens. Sounds like a page right of the Southern book on dissembling and hypocrisy. And I say that as a Southerner who once lived in California. But I also say that as the descendant of Southerners whose intransigence in coming to grips with the slavery question ultimately proved self-destructive and plunged our nation into its deadliest war in its history.

Apparently we have not learned this lesson of history, to paraphrase Santayana’s famous quote.

Immanuel Kant insisted that human beings should always be seen as ends in themselves, never as means to any other end. Anything less was unjust and thus immoral. In 21st CE America, that means seeing immigrants as means of cheap labor, cheap produce and the means of attaining funding and power in the Census while demonizing them as less than fully human. Of course, that advice was a lot older than Kant when he recast it. The original version read "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." And it is found at the heart of every world religion and culture.

Perhaps the good people of California might consider that as they bash immigrants with their mouths full of the food they grow.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. +++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

1 comment:

mdesangles said...

What a great comparison! Comparing the 3/5ths compromise to what is happening today with undocumented immigrants. People are willing use them as scapegoats while ignoring the fact that the country's food system is sustained by the cheap labor these people provide. It is really easy of the American Public and the mainstream American media to use these people as scapegoats, quickly forgetting all of the transgressions this country has committed against other countries and itself in the name of greed.