Smart Borders

All future postings from blogger Matthew Webster will now appear on:

http://smartborders.wordpress.com

Duty Free

        The border is a fascinating anomaly. Here, pesos and dollars can be spent on either side of the Rio Grande. Spanish and English are accepted at most places of business, and the schools teach countless students who cross a bridge every day for their education. Everyone knows medicines are cheaper in Mexico, and just a 90-cent toll to walk across. Animals cross in broad daylight unhindered by la migra.

Which brings us to the singular case of duty-free goods. A host of duty-free shops on either side of the border sell discounted liquor and tobacco products. The buyer gets a claims ticket, walks to the bridge, and as they are passing through the turnstile, their product is then handed to them. All that is left is to walk across to Matamoros, then turn around and head back through U.S. Customs. The very idea seems ludicrous, laughable, and yet thousands of people do it a week.

Duty-free stores highlight the absurdity of our current, unresponsive, dehumanized borders. They are set up to be impermeable for people (think the 2006 Secure Fence Act), and yet goods and products are encouraged to cross the border many times. When the United States moved many of its automobile and textile manufacturers over to Mexico, this free movement of products was surely brokered into the deal. Why then are people viewed so differently by the current immigration laws?

America’s immigration laws are being disobeyed covertly nationwide. Some 12 million illegal immigrants currently work and reside in the United States. The problem, is, that those businesses which lured them to the United States do not want to “declare them” to customs or fight for a real path to their citizenship. No, instead, American capitalism is content to keep them illegal (read exploitable).

In his publication Young India, Mohandas Gandhi worded it in the following way.

We have too long been mentally disobedient to the laws of the State and have too often surreptitiously evaded them, to be fit all of a sudden for civil disobedience. Disobedience to be civil has to be open and non-violent. (emphasis mine)

Gandhi clearly saw that the rules were being bent freely. He decried this form of evasive disobedience, though, because it merely bends the law and encourages lawlessness. The world is a different place because men like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. chose not to bend bad laws but instead break them, openly and fully intending to accept the state’s punishment. Only then can true change happen.

Starting with the Bracero Programs in 1942 which sponsored about 4.5 million migrant workers, the United States has uneasily bent its laws concerning immigrants it deems it needs economically but does not want socially. Countless restaurants and fields and factories across these United States currently employ Mexicans and other illegal immigrants at substandard wages and without benefits. This “duty-free” work force is capitalistic cowardice.

If we truly welcome immigrant labor, our immigration laws must be reformed immediately. For too many years, government policy has been “hard” on immigration and soft on enforcement. This sort of double-speak, this mental disobedience embodied by the border has allayed the conscience of Capitol Hill, has freed it of its duty to its citizens, those Americalmost immigrants, and those businesses valuing an economic edge above social welfare.

However, we are never free of our duty to any resident of these United States. Pretending that 12 million living and breathing and loving and working people are negligible simply because of they lack a classification that came to many of us freely at birth is to ignore our duty. For Americans, our borders have been “duty-free” places for decades. Our modern wars abroad do not touch us anymore with rationing, peace-gardens, and can drives and so cease to be real; in the same way, Americans are granted an international bill of rights at birth which enables them almost carte blanche access to the rest of the world. How different it is just a few hundred feet across a river!

There is no such thing as “duty-free” living, and it is our duty to speak out against border policies and immigration laws which are unjust and limit residents’ rights. As Gandhi famously wrote, “Noncooperation with evil is as much a duty as cooperation with good.”

The Effects of Not Choosing Nonviolence

“’You are unleashing certain things in a human being we don’t allow in civic society, and getting it all back in the box can be difficult for some people’, said William C. Gentry, an Army reservist and Iraq veteran who works as a prosecutor in San Diego County.” (Sontag, Deborah)

As the United States erects borders and infiltrates more and more countries with its military, it is chilling to see the effects of choosing violence over nonviolence. Today’s New York Times article entitled “Across America, Deadly Echoes of Foreign Battles,” states that 121 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have been involved in a killing after returning home. The stories are heart-wrenching because everyone is a victim. Sadly, peace is not a choice we make after war happens. Nonviolence must be the means if it is to be the end.

Martin Luther King voiced it this way in Loving your Enemies..

Another reason why we must love our enemies is that hate scars the soul and distorts the personality. Mindful that hate is an evil and dangerous force, we too often think of what it does to the person hated. This is understandable, for hate brings irreparable damage to its victims. We have seen its ugly consequences in the ignominious deaths brought to six million Jews by a hate-obsessed madman named Hitler, in the unspeakable violence inflicted upon Negroes by bloodthirsty mobs, in the dark horrors of war, and in the terrible indignities and injustices perpetrated against millions of God’s children by unconscionable oppressors.

But there is another side which we must never overlook. Hate is just as injurious to the person who hates. Like an unchecked cancer, hate corrodes the personality and eats away its vital unity. Hate destroys a man’s sense of values and his objectivity. It causes him to describe the beautiful as ugly and the ugly as beautiful, and to confuse the true with the false and the false with the true.

It is startling to look back on the last 50 years of American history and cringe at the spiraling cycle of hate from WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. Our nation, as well as our soldiers, suffers from PTSD. How can we pay men and women to travel to other countries to engage in actions which will endanger their lives, their minds, and their souls, yet has never been proven to work and in fact has done exactly the opposite? We shiver to imagine the future of a world which continues to up its use of violence.

“’Seth has been asked and required to do very violent things in defense of his country,’ Captain Tiffner wrote. ‘He spent the majority of 2003 to 2005 in Iraq solving very dangerous problems by using violence and the threat of violence as his main tools. He was congratulated and given awards for these actions. This builds in a person the propensity to deal with life’s problems through violence and the threat of violence’.” (Sontag, Deborah)

In this century, we must dust off the proven theory of nonviolence and assert that it is not only the effective tool of the African-American girl marching in a civil rights demonstration, but also the path to diplomacy and lasting peace in the Middle East and the Midwest. Nonviolence is much more than the civil disobedience of Gandhi’s satyagrahis; it can also be a national policy which works with the opposition to create two winners and true progress. Nonviolence cannot be solely left to those of impeccable character like Martin Luther King, Jr., or the ascetics like Gandhi, or even the ornery curmudgeons like Henry David Thoreau. We have seen enough; it is high time the United States and the United Nations take the lead in truly employing nonviolent strategies not just in conjunction with military power but in stead of violence. Nonviolence is more than civil disobedience, noncompliance, more than sit-ins and hunger strikes, more than boycotts and speeches and marches and voting. It is love in action.

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear…” (1 John 4:18a, NASB)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sontag, Deborah and Lizette Alvarez. “Across America, Deadly Echoes of Foreign Battles.” New York Times. January 13, 2008. Web:

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/13/us/13vets.html?_r=1&hp&oref=slogin

 

This is part of an ongoing series entitled “War Torn.” Look for it in upcoming issues of the New York Times.

Whose Story is History?

     “History is written by the victors.”

     This means history is written by a scant few cultures about meager few “victories” over the silenced vanquished. History, then, is focused on violent clashes where one language, one culture, one “truth” is imposed on others. As Gandhi writes in his book Indian Home Rule, “History, then, is a record of an interruption of the course of nature. Soul-force, being natural, is not noted in history.”

     Forgiveness is not made famous. Love is rarely lauded except as the cause of events such as the Trojan War. Nonviolence and civil resistance, as a recorded mass movement, is a relatively recent development; however, nonviolence has always existed at least as long as violence. There are multitudes of people in the world too, because love is the rule.

The fact that there are so many men still alive in the world shows that it is based not on the force of arms but on the force of truth or love. Therefore, the greatest and most impeachable evidence of the success of this force is to be found in the fact that, in spite of the wars of the world, it still lives on. (Indian Home Rule)

Violence is the aberration, a suspension of sense. Cain’s selfish choice as opposed to Abel’s sacrifice

     A scan of our children’s history and geography textbooks is an overview of violence and borders slashed with swords. How much more should we teach peace and community? Nonviolence and civil disobedience should be at the heart of every child’s education. Whether or not students attain full satyagraha or not, they must understand the efficacy of nonviolence and the ridiculous futility of violence perpetuating violence. If all they are taught is war and power, then these things will seem inevitable and necessary.

     As a result, the civil rights movement has been bronzed in our minds but not bequeathed to our hearts. SNCC has disappeared and nonviolence is relegated to the Sixties. Martin Luther King did not copyright nonviolence any more than Gandhi or Thoreau. It was the reason the civil rights movement was successful, but its effectiveness is not limited to a single such issue. It can be adapted to such different issues as colonization and segregation and discrimination and education; it is only dependent on the soul-force of those willing to practice it.

     Immigration reform, education inequality, our increasingly militarized country- all of these need to be civilly disobeyed. Instead of merely looking up to the civil rights heroes of the past, we and our children must start to stand on their shoulders and continue their nonviolent soul-force to the current inequalities.

We have nothing to fear but our reaction to fear…

     Despite our loud exclamations otherwise, change brings out fear in all of us. Though change may be a constant, our fears and our fear-induced responses are the variable which brings about community and communication or violence and separation. While Roosevelt said we have nothing to fear but fear itself, it is only as true as the misquoted Bible verse “Money is the root of all evil.” Neither is entirely correct, because both leave out the human element which always has the power of making change redemptive or destructive. We have nothing to fear, then, but our negative reactions to fear.

 

     “No matter how much I say I support open borders and immigration, there is still this little part of me that doesn’t want to see all this change,” she says, motioning to Minne-snow-ta. “It seems like all this is pretty good; people getting along, helping each other out, maintaining their own traditions. I want my kids to have this same place.”

     She was voicing something with which everyone inevitably struggles. Mistakenly, our guttural instinct is to preserve what we love, though it be in formaldehyde. Paradoxically, though, the best way to honor that which we love the most is to let it grow and change. If something is worth keeping, it will survive. Though detractors will dub this cultural suicide, it is more akin to a cultural “survival of the finest.”

     This phenomenon can be witnessed by simply driving through our nation’s urban centers. New York, that wonderful amalgamation of cultures and races and tastes and lifestyles somehow manages to be a cohesive whole. The Dominicans in Washington Heights learn English out of necessity, using it on the subway and at the bank even as they continue frying plantains and yucca for their dinners. Israelis, Germans, Italians, Irish, Puerto Ricans, Kenyans, Eastern Europeans, Chinese, Korean, Russian – all of these and more find their way to the 5 boroughs, releasing some of the less desirable characteristics of their culture while maintaining the finest of their homeland.

     Although this might seem overly optimistic, it is possible. Certainly the United States has much to learn from other cultures and other country’s ways of thought; to open ourselves to renewed immigration would strengthen our most praiseworthy and fundamental values while complementing our culture with the best of the world. Rather than listening to xenophobic shock jocks such as Bill O’Reilly, Lou Dobbs, or other fear-monger media sources, the inevitable effects of a globalizing population must be greeted with an informed welcome. We have much to learn from the world, and as “perfect” as certain corners of our country may seem in their idyllic state, it would be fear-based and fear-producing to build walls when we should be building bridges. Ultimately, our nation cannot hang a “No Vacancy” sign on the outstretched arm of Our Lady Liberty; at this Christmastime, it is all too easy to realize what and whom we might be turning away out of ignorant fear.

Learning to Communicate

Humans thrive on communication. To feel that your morals and ideas are understood and validated is a fundamental desire of all people.

It is precisely this desire for direct, clear communication which drives violence even in our modernized, technological world. Violence is direct and clear, if nothing else. War polarizes sides, forces people to have an opinion, clearly delineates right and wrong, and establishes lines of communication (granted, these “lines” of communication are bombs and bullets, but the message is still clear). Contemporary society is still most adept at voicing hate, and still clumsily silent or muddled with its other stances.

Ultimately, violence thrives because it is more immediately gratifying and seemingly more direct. And yet, no meaningful, substantive dialogue can be born out of the negative negotiations of military conflicts. Because we have been and continue to shy away from engaging in civil discourse, we persist in military engagements which only silence real communication. It is one of the most damning indictments upon our civilization that it killed because it was at a loss for words, that nuanced discussion was avoided in favor of seanced apologies and regrettable military conflicts.

Violence too often appeals to those who are passionate for immediate action. And violence itself can take many forms; the true definition of violence could be the physical combating of spiritual conflicts and moral issues. Read in this manner, violence is much more than the Iraq War – it is the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which seeks to physically impede immigrants we ignore in Congress. It is detention centers which strip detainees of human rights because of a lack of creativity and dedication to immigration reform. It is the over-funding of the Border Patrol and the under-acknowledgment of immigrants’ true contribution to America.

Overcoming violence, then, is simply learning to communicate. We do not need more divisive rhetoric, more negative nativism or xenophobic partisanship. We do need real immigration reform, we do need deep discussion about our business relationships with Canada and Mexico. We do need to bring our country to a unified whole which does not exclude 12 million immigrants nor the qualified millions waiting for their chance to work in the United States.

Let it be said of us that ours was a generation which learned how to communicate. Martin Luther King and Gandhi pioneered the modern era of true communication sans the ultimately distracting and self-defeating implements of violence. May we carry on this commitment to communication within these United States and to our neighbors of the world.

Bring Democracy Home

On June 27, 1950, the United States invaded North Korea, attempting to bring democracy to some 9 million individuals under the rule of the communist Soviet Union. The Vietnam War was supposed to bring democratic ideals to the 80 million Vietnamese Muong, Hoa, Khmer Krom, Dao, Tay, Thai, and Nung. Both conflicts in Iraq presumably sought to bring freedom and democracy to the some 20 million Iraqis, though an estimated 2 million have fled this democratic startup process.

The professed aim of bringing democracy to unwilling or unwitting peoples, though, must be little more than a euphemism. It has rarely, if ever, worked, and most times it brings hardships to already beleaguered people. Additionally, our nation has turned a deaf ear to some 12 million individuals living within our own borders who are themselves crying out for democracy and human rights. If our government were to pass some form of immigration reform, it could begin the nonviolent process of bringing democracy to 12 million extralegal citizens who are currently residing in the United States and are already contributing to our GDP and our MTV.

How can our nation not become greater by adding 12 million freedmen to its 303 million currently? It is estimated that 12 million Africans were brought to America as slaves. When these African-Americans were freed, our nation changed drastically and was forced to address its own injustices. Had these African-Americans not been freed, Martin Luther King and his nonviolent civil rights movement may not have happened and our country would not have become greater for it. It would be ruinous to expend vast resources attempting to deport even a fraction of the extralegal residents currently in the United States; therefore, we must concentrate our resources on the few who do not wish to become legal, who are not working toward the American dream, who are not self-sustaining and motivated. Our Border Patrols and Homeland Security could have manageable tasks if we reduced the number of undocumented residents in the United States through immigration reform.

Bring democracy home.

A River Runs Through It

     There is more than enough criticism in the world. Films and books, in my estimation, should be reviewed as to what they awaken in the viewer rather than attempting to base it off some shifting aesthetic truth. Like wine aficionados imploring you to envision dark cherries and raisins when you taste a chianti, perhaps we could all get more out of our media experiences if we discussed what it awakened in us. For that is the ultimate point of the arts, to awaken memories and fan passions and serve as a catalyst or an encouragement for some change.

 

     Last week I saw A River Runs Through It for the first time. Its sweeping epic, the gorgeous shots of Montana and its nostalgic views of fly-fishing all made me feel as if I were partaking in a classic. They reminded me of my own life, reminded me of the dreams I had as a child, as well as excited in me the desire to take up fly-fishing.

     What spoke to me even more than the stunning landscapes, though, was the idea that someone can make it something beautiful simply by loving it. Paul Maclean, the rebellious son who is embroiled in gambling and drinking problems, somehow elevates all those around him through the simple act of his beautiful casting. As a child he wanted to be a professional fly-fisherman, and even as he grew older and was forced to take other jobs, that driving passion still propelled him and gave his life meaning. To go fishing with Paul was to almost guiltily snatch a glimpse between a man and his true love.

     It strikes me that this is the fundamental act of teaching. Teaching is about many things – imparting responsibility, engendering independence, drilling the basics, and preparing students’ goals – but it is most especially the act of communicating a passion despite its utility. Surely writing and reading are noble classroom subjects, but for me they are more than that, the essence of what holds us together and the foundation of understanding. Literacy is the path to independence, to expression, to nonviolence, to a heightened sense of self.

     On a daily basis, my job is to communicate that emotion I get when I read a paperback with the rain drizzling just outside my window. I try to make my classes sense the excitement of new worlds offered in readings, the pleasure of saying something both necessary and beautifully. At times, this makes teaching the most frustrating job in the world. Rarely do we put our passions on display for others, and one always risks a profound un-appreciation which is both depressing and disheartening. To come to class ready to discuss Holden’s motivation for cleaning off the bathroom walls, only to discover not a single student has read that chapter, is to contemplate whether or not this is the profession to which you were called.

     But, in those instances when you see the flicker of the flame of interest, it is all worth it. Nothing in life compares to the sight of a pupil’s pupil changing from a black hole of disinterest to an open portal of independent discovery. A teacher never teaches an entire class; to hope for 100% passionate students is to set oneself up for failure. But, we do teach for those children who are waiting to get turned on to something meaningful, who have as of yet not been introduced to beauty by someone who loves it to distraction. It is my hope as a lifelong educator that I might be able to share my loves in such a way that my students cannot help but be curious about the power of writing and the self-fulfillment of reading. If only I can love it deeply enough, openly enough, and communicate it truly enough. This is an educator’s dream; this is the river which runs through us.

Published in: on December 9, 2007 at 10:44 am  Leave a Comment  

Suspenders

I wore suspenders for the first time today.

     One of my heroes at school is a 77-year-old man who has lived four lives and still has more gumption than most football teams. He has served as a missionary in Latin America, transported and sold fish from coastal Mexico, and taught for over a decade at a struggling border school. He is a bastion of faith, an indomitable man who volunteered to teach the toughest kids, the “failures,” when everyone else was running for high ground clamoring for AP classes. My hero has helped me bring in a speaker who worked with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers. He supported me as I bungled through my first year teaching. My mentor drops off articles of interest, invites me to observe him, and offers me his encouragement and advice.

      When my hero told me today that he was leaving teaching after this semester, reality suspended. He has been teaching for me. My school and its students will lose the chairperson for junior English teachers. It will sorely miss his administration of the ACTs, his tutorials, his willingness to accept challenges, his dedication to bringing social activism into the classroom. We English teachers will miss a man who wholeheartedly loved to discuss Yeats, the Spanish Armada, politics, cavalier poetry, Shelley, Chicano history, etc.

      Most of all, I will miss my friend and mentor. No Child Left Behind is in the process of leaving lots of teachers behind, with its high-stakes testing and accountability measures which are doing little to drive up success but plenty to increase stress.

     I wore suspenders for the first time today because they are his signature wardrobe choice. He has different suspenders for every day of the week. I vividly recall one of my first days at my new school when Jimmy told me, “Suspenders allow maximum freedom. They don’t clamp down on you; they give your body room to breathe and be free.”

      I would have to agree with him. As I taught today’s lesson about gratitude, I could not help but appreciate the novel feel of loose-hanging khakis. Jimmy would have been proud, but only in equal amounts to my own.

Published in: on December 5, 2007 at 9:25 pm  Leave a Comment  

Lessons from European Immigration

     America loves to think it is the only country dealing with a certain issue. Surrounded by only two countries, our nation is insular and isolationist in its thinking. Few issues highlight this more than that of immigration.

     The rhetoric often focuses on the fact that we have a problem with immigration, that too many people want to come to our country with a surging economy. A quick look at Europe shows that is most certainly not the case. According to the November 24, 2007 issue of The Economist, “…immigration in Europe has outstripped even inflows to America.” As a result, xenophobia and nationalism are rampant in many EU countries, with 29% of the Swiss voting for the anti-immigration Swiss People’s Party, with an anti-alien party coming in second in Norway’s last elections, and 20% of Flemish voters favoring a far-right party. Our own nativistic desire to fence in our Southern border is simply a more drastic and costly measure than these European nations thus far.

      But, that is not the whole story. Britain, Sweden, and Ireland, all with pro-immigrant policies, have brought in thousands of immigrants since they opened their borders to workers from the east, Europe’s equivalent of America’s southern neighbor. Laudably, Spain has over 547,000 working-age adults from Romania and Bulgaria, and yet 43% state that immigrants are a boon to Europe and 55% believe they are good for the economy. (“The Trouble with Migrants” The Economist)

      All of these countries have thriving economies, and while the cause/effect relationship can be debated, they are most definitely correlated. In the United States, we became most nativistic when our economy was worst. Perhaps that is why the immigration issue is currently clamoring on all the major media networks.

      Looking to Europe, we can learn and realize what closed border policies create. Germany, with its labor pool closed to the EU until 2011, just recently opened up its borders in an attempt to lure the skilled workers it lacks. Our quotas have much the same cause, prohibiting thousands of skilled Indian, Chinese, and Mexican workers (to name a few) simply because too many applications are coming from their specific country. Beyond being racist, nativistic, and xenophobic, these restrictive immigration laws will no doubt have serious ramifications in the next decade as the United States attempts to maintain its status as a world power.

Our current system is akin to an unaffirming, negative affirmative action. It sets max quotas on countries when it should be setting minimum quotas on specific labor forces. Any immigration law must address our nation’s true needs, rather than the opinions of some outspoken few. Immigration must be legislated by viewing immigrants as assets rather than a kneejerk response to a short-lived economic downturn. If we continue to turn away so many willing and able workers, there will come a time when we need them and they are nowhere to be found.

Published in: on December 5, 2007 at 8:30 pm  Leave a Comment