Sunday, July 11, 2010

Tea And Xenophobia

Somehow or other, this past week I ran across a short essay by James Howard Kunstler, a social critic whom I have mentioned a couple of times on this blog. He is the author of the Long Emergency, a book I read in 2007 concerning Peak Oil and its likely societal impacts. Anyway, the title of the essay I read this past week was, “My Tea Party.”

The essay made a few good points, but it also contained two errors, one quite serious. The first error is a technical, factual error. Kunstler takes great pains to badmouth radical Christian fundamentalism, and I am sure he would hold up examples such as Sarah Palin and Pat Robertson. However, this is not quite accurate. Genuine, orthodox, by-the-Good-Book Christianity bears very little resemblance to the materialistic, jingoistic, greedy, violent, hyper-patriotic religion that is American evangelicalism. There are many Scriptures I could quote to prove this point, especially from the New Testament, but I won't take the time in this post. (Feel free to check out some of my other writings.)

I have to say, however, that this error of Kunstler's doesn't bother me all that much. For too long, too many of us who have called ourselves Christian have tolerated a freak show, to put it bluntly. We should have all risen up long ago and excommunicated the Republican Party, the moneychangers who have infiltrated our worship, and a number of key figures in the American Religious Right. Maybe it's not too late for that...

His other error bothers me much more, for it is a moral error with serious societal consequences. Kunstler writes, “My tea party would reduce legal immigration to a tiny trickle and get serious about enforcing sanctions against people who are here without permission...The truth is that neither party really wants to do anything about the extraordinary influx of Mexican nationals because they want to pander to a growing segment of Hispanic voters (or secondarily want to maintain the pool of cheap labor for US businesses). My party does not believe in unbounded multi-culturalism.” And, “My party views the global population overshoot problem as a condition that requires a more rigorous defense of US territory, sovereign resources, and even whatever remains of American common culture.”

There are several problems with that line of thinking. First, it undermines the whole concept of the American society as a society of immigrants who have chosen a common new identity that transcends the original cultures from which we came. That concept is what was taught to me in countless hours of grade-school civics classes, and it is the concept embodied in the present form of the Constitution. If being American is no longer defined as the acceptance of this new common identity, then who gets to define what an “American” is? Whose culture shall we all adopt? And shall we then eradicate all other cultures and expressions of other cultures in this nation?

The problem is that over the last ten years, one dominant group has tried to force its own culture and the culture of its ancestors on every other group in American society (not to mention the world), while doing its best to stamp out any expressions of genuinely different cultures. These other cultures have a lot to offer, and we can learn a lot from them. People from other cultures, especially those found in lower-income countries, have a lot to teach us native-born “Americans” concerning how to be happy and not neurotic when confronted with having to live on less.

We might also ask why Mexicans are coming to the United States. It's not like they're coming here to steal jobs from architects, engineers, investment bankers, brain surgeons or college professors. No, rather, they are taking some of the dirtiest (in some cases, most dangerous) and least respected jobs in the United States – from meat packers to day laborers to gardening/landscaping workers to nannies to house cleaners. (In fact, I recently got a flyer in the mail from an outfit called the “Cleaning Authority.” The front of the flyer shows a picture of a blond, blue-eyed dad reading a bedtime story to a blond, blue-eyed child, with a caption that says “Life's too short to clean your own house.” On another page is a picture of a Hispanic woman dressed in a Cleaning Authority uniform, and holding a vacuum cleaner.)

As has been true in the past, it is still true today that many Mexicans and other Hispanic people are coming here to take jobs that no American wants, jobs that pay so poorly that often two or more families are forced to share a cheap apartment or small house. Why do they do it? Could it be that what they have in their home country – what they have left behind – is far worse? The honest answer in many cases is “Yes!” And why is this? Could it be because of predatory “free market” capitalism as practiced and pushed by the wealthy citizens of the United States and other First World nations, the policies that destabilize and rob ordinary citizens of Third World nations while trashing their homeland?

Certainly we see this in Europe and the African continent. European nations have instituted Draconian crackdowns on illegal immigration from Africa – even as these nations continue to plunder Africa while polluting it. Think of things like European factory fishing vessels despoiling African coast fisheries, or the many oil spills caused by the activities of Royal Dutch Shell in the Niger Delta. When we look at Mexico (and much of the Caribbean and South America), we can see the same things being done to the citizens of those lands by the United States. What, for instance, has the Deepwater Horizon blowout done to Mexican coastal cities and villages? You probably won't hear many people in U.S. mainstream media asking this question. And where do the Mexican drug cartels get their money from? And who gets to keep most of the wealth now being generated by American-owned or multinational factories and assembly plants now operating in Mexico?

It goes back to this: The United States – five percent of the world's population – gets to consume 40 percent of the world's oil, and a huge fraction of the rest of the world's resources. We've got an excess of prima donnas, muscle trucks and cars, gigantic houses, fat people, lame pursuits and stuff – “mountains, oh, mountains of things” – and so few people in this country ask how things got to be this way. Too many Americans seem genuinely surprised and distressed at the thought that maybe disadvantaged people from disadvantaged lands might want a few crumbs of our bounty. The Mexicans have no trouble grasping climate change – anthropogenic climate change caused largely by the refusal of the First World to give up its conspicuous consumption. See, for instance, “Bad News Blues (the Writing on the Wall)” from Aimee's blog, New To Farm Life, or “Hispanic Health” from Baylor University. What do you think they will do as we continue to make their land unlivable? What would you do?

“Population overshoot” is a convenient code phrase used by some to communicate the idea that our societal problems are the result of too many people on the earth – especially the “ignorant people from other cultures who don't look like us,” rather than the result of excessive consumption on our part. But if many who are now afraid of immigrants want to reduce immigration to this country, they should start by consuming a lot less. That will remove the profit motive from those who are now making a killing by robbing other countries to enrich the United States.

In the meantime, I think it's wise for people who want to build resilient neighborhoods to realize that multiculturalism is here to stay, in one form or another. Forward-thinking people who live in mixed ethnic neighborhoods would do well to learn something of the languages and cultures of their fellow residents, and to begin to make friends and build bridges among them. Go with the flow - learn to be flexible and open to others. Or, as the Good Book says, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”

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