Smart Borders

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

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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.”

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.

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.

Pacifism as Sissyfism

As a male teacher and a recent convert to pacifism in hopes of nonviolently protesting for real immigration reform, I have been made to feel effeminate in ways I had never dreamed before. Anyone who is familiar with either of these endeavors must surely be puzzled to see them “sissyfied” by America popular culture.

 

In these United States, men in the teaching profession are forever judged by their gender. It may be that K-12 education is the closest men can get to sexual discrimination. Despite one’s best efforts to keep the classroom door open and avoid one-on-one situations with female students, the media and the public seem to question a young man’s desire to go into high-school education. The all-too frequent and awful headlines about teachers abusing their privileges should surely be cause for careful accountability, but it should not tinge an entire professional gender.

 

On top of this, there are the “joto” and “gay” comments from male students trying to establish their own pubescent masculinity. To be sure, I need not take offense at the comment for its implications about sexual preference, but it is highly puzzling to walk around with a ring from my fiance and hear students question my sexuality. While teaching may not seem as hyper-masculine as raising fences, shrimp-boating, farming, or day-laboring, it is all perspective – few of these “men” are forced to work for respect on a daily basis, to discipline and motivate 130 individuals, to face high stakes and long days, or to deal with teenage pregnancy, chisme, pranks, drugs, and general apathy. All of these prove extremely challenging for me, and I know no one who finds them a cakewalk. On what, then, do we base our concept of masculinity and machismo?

 

Not only am I a teacher, but I am also a firm believer in nonviolence. While Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi pioneered this form of militant action, it has largely been ignored and branded “weak” these past 30 years. Since when did pacifism signal “sissyfism?” Armed with nothing but beliefs and trusting only in the defense of a God-endowed conscience, nonviolent activists should be portrayed as every bit as courageous as soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq, some of whom do no believe in the cause for which they are fighting. It should be noted that both King and Gandhi held strict requirements for their recruits, turning away more people than the military as they sought to find only those individuals with the steadfast spirit to endure anything, even death, in the pursuance of their beliefs and faith. The monks in Myanmar, although thus far ignored by much of the world’s media, are at least as courageous and militant as the man who grips his gun in battle, for they are willing to sacrifice all they have to forward a worthy cause.

 

And yet pacifism has always been construed as the way of the weak. The Mayday demonstrations of 2006, the Wakova ghost dance of the Iroquois, the sit-ins of the civil rights movement, the marches on Washington in the 60’s and today – all of these have been billed as a safe and indirect substitute for true action (read violence). Indeed, on the surface, violence appeals to our love of the immediate, but in the end its effects are always evanescent and victory is always marked by loss on both sides. Nonviolence, contrastingly, seeks to bring about reforms and peace by using peaceful, yet deliberate and effective, means. Nonviolence’s best attribute is that it aims to change the future not by employing weapons of the past but by utilizing the very ends it seeks. While those who dub it weak or retreatist fail to see its urgency and its power in the now, anyone interested in true reform both today and for years to come must practice nonviolence.

 

Japanese haiku is dominated by the simple plum tree. Its white blossoms are breathtaking, but its most salient characteristic is its flexibility. Unlike hardwood trees, the plum’s strength rests in the fact that it can bend. Traditional hardwood trees, though, meet violent force with violent opposition, often ending in their downfall. Nonviolence may never have trading cards or round-the-clock television coverage, but it is the only philosophy for conflict resolution which can eventually unite both sides of a dispute. What is sissy about survival for all?

 

Another week begins, and I will most certainly hear more passing remarks about Mr. Webster’s “non-heterosexual” enthusiasm in class. I am also sure to have to explain my stance on nonviolence to students and colleagues alike. While it can be tiring to constantly come back to the same issues, just think about all those teachable moments for them and for me.

Published in: on October 28, 2007 at 9:32 pm  Leave a Comment  

Forgetting what makes us strong

It’s been a long time since we lived the idea that people are innately good. Just laws, the kind of legislation our country was founded upon, enable and protect the innate goodness of the individual against the circumstantial evils of a few. Unjust laws, however, demean this innate goodness by making criminals out of innocents. The country with the most laws is the most corrupt.

 

Unjust laws of citizenship can be explained by the fixation of American culture on the unpredictable, “evil” nature of people rather than the more common goodness of the individual. Fear, or terror, born out of a single event one September, has come to shape not only our war policy but also the way we internally police our nation and stalk our borders.

 

It’s been a long time since we remembered that people are good.

 

King writes it this way: “We have allowed our civilization to outdistance our culture…Civilization refers to what we use; culture refers to what we are…” America needs, has in fact always needed, immigrants and new citizens to keep its economy and culture vital. But throughout our history, from the Alien Act of 1798 and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to the citizenship literacy test of 1917 and the first nation-based “emergency” quota system of 1921, our country has operated in a schizophrenic manner, not wanting or welcoming the very immigrants which made it great. The Know-Nothing party, created for the sole purpose of opposing my immigrant ancestors the Irish Catholics, lives on in the Minutemen and now the inglorious border wall. We have consistently despised the very things which make us strong. It was only the innate goodness of man, coupled with divine Providence, that these opposing forces never gained the upper hand and tyrannically ended immigration

 

“The great problem confronting us today is that we have allowed the means by which we live to outdistance the ends for which we live.” As a nation, America is materialistically wealthy but spiritually poor, full of knowledge but too often without wisdom. Capitalism, with its unseen hand of the marketplace, does whatever it can to keep the prices down and sales up; as a result, low-wage labor provided by immigrants has become an integral part of our national GDP. American citizens defend their rights as consumers but too often lose sight of the ends for which we live. As King writes, “As long as there is poverty in this wold, no man can be totally rich even if he has a billion dollars.” In the same vein, no one can be a citizen if there is someone living within our borders who is denied the basic rights of other residents.

 

It’s been too long since we made legislation which affirms the fact that man, made in God’s own image, is good and deserving of certain inalienable rights, alien or not.

 

IN this world of globalization, we must realize that the tenets this country was based upon do not apply merely to the continental U.S. but to the world at large. Globalization must have regulations, indeed, but we are hopelessly interconnected now so that the fate of one “illegal” immigrant is the fate of so many others. This new concept of the world begs a revised definition of the term “citizen;” how much longer can our nation exist with its double-standard for citizenship, with its 14 million right-less residents working to sustain the rights and wealth of the rest of our nation. We must come to terms that the way our nation stands right now, my rights are secured because someone else’s are denied; my paycheck is buoyed by the sub-standard wages of illegal immigrants we economically need and legislatively condemn.

 

It’s been too long since we recalled the goodness in our fellow man, in the global community, in our bordering neighbors, in all our residents of this great land.

 

The American dream reminds us that every man is heir to the legacy of worthiness.” And so, we must conclude that a nation which holds tight to restrictive, antiquated quote systems has forgotten the worth of the individual. We must reason that a nation which closes Ellis Island, hunts immigrants, and deports workers must not view people as an asset any longer, but as a burden. Far from being overpopulated, our nation’s immigration legislation heralds the arrogant notion that we already have everyone we need within our borders. But we know better than that. We must “in-source” ideas from Gandhi’s India, ideas about the importance of man and nonviolence. We must remember that people are good, not goods or commodities or without rights.

 

It’s been too long since we remembered the goodness of which we are capable and the means by which every one of us arrived at our blessed rights.

Summoning Self-Worth Amidst Obscurity

“A just law is a law that squares with a moral law…[An unjust law] does not square with the law of God, so for that reason it is unjust and any law that degrades the human personality is an unjust law.”

Martin Luther King, Jr., could very well have been addressing today’s crisis in citizenship here in the United States of America. Our antiquated laws and quota systems are, at best unfair, prohibitive, and degrading. Public discourse surrounding illegal immigrants and those who have simply overstayed their visas runs the gamut between vitriolic slander and patronizing relegation to the lowest rung of American society. Both groups have kept illegal immigrants, or extralegal citizens, out of the public discourse and unable to campaign for betterment. There are those who would happily accept these immigrants, insomuch as they maintain their status as the thankless workers of our most menial jobs; there are also those who would peg them as would-be terrorists, tax-evaders, drug-smugglers, and an evil black-market population. These are the groups behind the laws, these are the opposition to any movement towards giving rights to extralegal citizens.

In “Love, Law, and Civil Disobedience,” King writes that “…an unjust law is a code that the majority inflicts on the minority that is not binding on itself…this becomes difference made legal.” The current path towards legal immigration and lawful citizenship is based on luck or birthright rather than the ideals we Americans supposedly hold so dear – that is, education, work ethic, and the family unit. At once, it is painfully obvious that only the rich, the connected, and the politically allied will ever get a chance to enter this nation of so many citizens of birthright. In much the same way that King fought a racial battle in the civil rights movement, this movement towards legalizing extralegal citizens aims at an equality based not on the color of your skin or the color of your country on the globe but on the content of your character, your willingness to be a productive member of society.

 

This movement faces two defiant obstacles, however, obstacles which Martin Luther King, Jr. himself did not even have to face. The first is to produce self-respect and self-worth in this burgeoning population of extralegal citizens. King had the good fortune of leading a minority with enormous self-pride (after the Harlem Renaissance and their emergence as key entertainers in the 1950s and 1960s). It is difficult, however, to rally around the term “illegal immigrant,” as it is necessarily a negative, demeaning term. However, these people in their defiant desire to become members of our society exhibit the very ideals we hold in utmost esteem in these United States. It is vital to impart respect to these would-be citizens, who have been demeaned and talked-down to by every form of media available in the U.S. Few will respect them so long as they remain subservient, quiet workers of fundamental importance; yet, as soon as they lift up their heads and their voices, the entire nation must needs hear their pleas if only because of the grinding, shrieking sound of a cog in our country’s most necessary gears. Could the United States wage a war at $200 million dollars a day if these 12 million undocumented immigrants recognized their own importance and ceased working? Could the United States continually put off the pressing question of immigration and quotas if it no longer had the luxury of cheap labor in the meantime? Therefore, these immigrants’ self-respect is a vital aspect of any nonviolent movement towards legalization.

 

The second obstacle is obscurity. King’s civil disobedience thrived on the fact that “…suffering can be a most creative and powerful social force…suffering becomes a powerful social force when you willingly accept that violence on yourself.” This is inevitably true, but for too long, the suffering of illegal immigrants has been one of quiet acquiescence. All too often, raids and roundups are done quietly, and these extralegal citizens are detained indefinitely and then deported in the dead of night. Scant media coverage and the lack of key public advocates has negated and nullified much of this suffering.

Private suffering is always self-destructive, in that it validates the aggressor and belittles the victim. King writes that, “…unearned suffering is redemptive,” and I keenly understand this to be true. However, that suffering must have its witnesses. The key to transforming this nonviolent movement from one of a silent mass to a vocal, suffering minority is making these indecencies and unconscionable acts very public. Up to this point, most immigrants have suffered more or less alone, feeling cut off from any sort of legal aid, severed from community ties, and hampered by a very real language barrier. This must change if there is to be a sweeping reform of our present system.

 

“…[P]eace is not merely the absence of some negative force, it is the present of a positive force. True peace is not merely the absence of tension, but it is the presence of justice and brotherhood.” Silent suffering and a lack of self-respect are both forms of negative peace, whereas suffering made public must always reach the ears of true citizens and a people proud of their own worth have always garnered more value in society. As we discuss the means by which we can legalize much of the 12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., we must be constantly reminded that the end is a transformation of the term citizen. Ultimately, any systemic changes with quota, visa applications, and immigration policies must recognize a shift in the way we classify citizens of these United States. It is not enough to simply relax regulations for temporary work visas, because this will never address the pressing problem of citizenship. We must reexamine the future of America and recognize that we need these extralegal citizens every bit as much as they desire to be a part of our nation. Our nation is not so great, nor can we be so arrogant as to suppose that we are done developing. America has always thrived and remained vibrant culturally, economically, and socially as a result of its steady flow of immigrants from all over the world.