Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Golden Door

March 28, 2013

Monrovia, California

I guess it’s time I weighed in on the subject of immigration into the United States.  Hell, everybody else has, even though hardly anyone has said anything meaningful about it.  There’s only one opinion about immigration that seems unequivocal, and that’s from those who say we should seal our borders and not let anyone else in.  I acknowledge the honesty of those who feel this way, even though I disagree with their opinion.  At least they know what they believe.  Also to be acknowledged, though not applauded, are the voices of the capitalists and agribusiness people who believe in simply continuing our laissez faire policy regarding illegal immigration so they can have a continuing source of low-level workers to exploit.

As for just about everyone else—moderates, liberals, progressives, or whatever those who are not absolutely xenophobic or rapacious wish to call themselves, well, their opinions seem to be a sad mishmash of wishful thinking and compromise and “promise” and “hope” with nothing to show for all their collective hand wringing and tongue wagging.  Like, let’s legitimize those who came here before they were two years old, or some such shit.  Let’s give people a chance to work their asses off for next to nothing then reward them with citizenship.  Let’s start the whole project next term, under the next president, or maybe in the next decade.  Let’s do something, but we’re not sure quite what.  I think of a line from Yeats from his poem The Second Coming when I hear stuff like that:  “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

The problem as I see it is that we are laboring under the misapprehension that we have an “immigration problem” in the first place.  The fault is not in our national stars, but in our national selves.  A long time ago, when this country was filled with racism and hatred and misogyny and intolerance at a level far greater than it is today, the nation of France gave us a statue to celebrate our centennial.  The citizens of that country continue to look down their long Gallic noses at us, as they did then, and not without some reason, even though their own history has been as brutal and intolerant as ours has regarding many things, and over many more centuries.  But they meant well at the time they gave us the statue, and they continue to mean well, and they are today a much more decent and humane bunch than they once were.  And their food is far better than ours. 

When the Statue of Liberty made its way across the ocean a few years later people bolted the thing together and stuck it on an island in New York Harbor, and several years after that began to think about something to put on a plaque on its pedestal.  A young woman, an aspiring novelist and poet whose ancestors had been here since colonial days, even though she was not a WASP but of Jewish heritage, wrote a sonnet and entered it in a contest for that purpose in 1883.  She died four years later, at the age of 38, but eventually her poem gained some traction in some circles, despite the fact that it was just a tad too militant for the tastes of upper class New Yorkers who were still trying to finance the pedestal project.  Finally in the early 20th century they put the poem on a plaque on the base.  The woman’s name was Emma Lazarus, and here is her sonnet, which is rarely quoted in full or taught to school children, though it should be, if only to show that this country from time to time stands for something good:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles.  From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips.  “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Here let me indulge in a bit of pedagogy.  As a poem Emma Lazarus’s The New Colossus is pretty much a product of its time.  A bit overwrought some might say.  Certainly hortatory and high Victorian and wonderfully suited to the era, when memorization and declamation of the long epic poems of Longfellow, the love poems of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and the doggerel of Kipling were in vogue.  It’s no Ozymandias, nor as elegant as many of Shakespeare’s sonnets or Milton’s On His Blindness, to be sure, but nevertheless it is precise and well-constructed along Petrarchan lines—a-b-b-a, a-b-b-a, c-d-c-d-c-d.  English teachers take note.

One reason it doesn’t get quoted in full very often is that the octave (the first eight lines) has become a bit arcane.  The author is evoking the Colossus of Rhodes (its title is after all The New Colossus), and the study of the seven wonders of the ancient world has given way to more modern and urgent subjects.  In addition, the “air-bridged harbor” over which the statue’s mild eyes look now has one big bridge across it, and a few tunnels under it as well, and the “twin cities” to which she refers are Brooklyn and Manhattan, merged a decade after her death along with three other boroughs into the greater City of New York.

Still, the arresting and really provocative thing about the sonnet is that it begins with the word “Not.”  Immediately the author stakes out her opposition to something else.  This won't be just another Colossus, but a far different Colossus, similar only superficially on account of its immensity and the fact that it acts as a sort of lighthouse.  She immediately casts aside the glorified mythos embodied in the ancient Greek representation of the sun god, and the bellicosity of the entire world, by describing an essentially gentle, welcoming, and peaceful national persona she calls Mother of Exiles.  She thumbs her nose not only at classicism and neoclassicism, but at sexism and the time-honored assumption that might makes right.  Not, I’ll wager, precisely what the Frenchman Frederic Bartholdi had in mind when he conceived and executed this idealized effigy of Liberty.

But the sonnet’s sestet (the last six lines), really packs the punch and the message.  It is frankly and strongly critical of the Europe from which the immigrants to this country had been streaming for generations, and began to do in much greater numbers in the latter part of the 19th century.  It says, in effect, “To hell with you and your supposedly glorious past and your sanctified history of oppression and feudalism and warfare and intolerance.  We’ll be happy to take the people you don’t want and the ones you treat like shit, you pigs.”  Today we read the lines with a bit more equanimity, but back then you can be sure the message did not go unnoticed on either side of the Atlantic.  Really, it’s the same message we send today, by implication, to the institutionally inept and corrupt governments and cultures of the Spanish-speaking countries south of our border and to those of the Asians and the Africans as well, where politics and religion and wealth and brutality conspire to keep people in thralldom and contribute to the age-old mistreatment of women and children and poor people generally.  Or at least it’s the message we should be sending.  And with that, back to my immigration thesis.

Here’s the main thing, and it’s the same thing as when Emma Lazarus wrote her sonnet in 1883.  People are not streaming out of the United States.  They’re streaming into it.  That should tell anyone with half a brain something about the state of the places from which the immigrants are coming.  Yeah, we wish this country were better that it is, and some of us are trying to improve it, but comparatively speaking (except compared to much of western Europe and Canada and Australia, probably), it could be a lot worse.  This fact should not be a source of pride in the U.S. so much as a reason for sadness about the nature of things elsewhere, but there it is.  Anyway I sincerely hope the reason people want to come here isn’t just for the burgers and fries and video games. 

Now here’s another thing.  Do we—do you—want to be responsible for forcing people to remain in places where they’re not wanted except as perpetual chattel, and where they’ll starve or get killed by disease or warfare or religious fanaticism?  Do you want to leave people in places where they routinely abort female fetuses and where women have to walk around in shrouds and are raped on general principles?  Didn't think so.  Neither do I.

Let me preemptively address some potential objections:

  1. If you’re worried about criminals coming into this country, remember that Georgia was once a prison colony (and is still filled, like the rest of the South, with people who are essentially dissolute and amoral).  Remember also that most of the earliest white settlers in this continent were outcasts.
  2. If you think an immigrant is going to take your job away from you, then by all means go to work pulling guts in a slaughterhouse, or bending over to pick strawberries, or cleaning rooms in a hotel, or trimming bushes for rich folks, or tarring roofs in one hundred degree heat.  The work is there for you.
  3. If you think some new religion is going to take over the country, remember that that has happened already numerous times, starting with the Pilgrims, and continuing with the Baptists and the Mormons and the whacked-out snake-handling Pentecostals and lots of others.  Remember also that there are regular church-going natural-born citizens all over this country already who think the earth was created in six days in the year 4004 B.C. or that some old dipshit in a white suit and slippers in Rome receives his wisdom directly from God Almighty.
  4. If you are worried that brown people are going to outnumber white people, recall that this continent was filled with brown people before the Europeans came, and that we imported brown people into the South for hundreds of years on purpose and that some of your ancestors fought in the Civil War because they thought that was a good idea.
  5. If you are concerned that English is no longer going to be spoken in this country, consider this:  the white guys who settled this place five hundred years ago didn’t speak English and none of the native inhabitants of the continent they discovered spoke English.  Nevertheless, since the U.S. has come into being as an English-speaking country, untold millions of people who came here from other countries didn’t know a word of English.  Despite this, most of them who came at a reasonably young age and all their children who were born here learned to speak English, and that continues to be the case today.  English isn’t just the language of our past, it’s the language of our future, though no language lasts forever.  But as a worldwide means of communicating I'll put my money on English over Spanish any day.
What’s all this leading up to?  Well, just this.  Here’s my proposed solution to the immigration problem, and it’s really quite simple, and very workable.  Every soul who wishes to come into this country and become a citizen should be able to do so.  Period.  And dispense with all that crap about making them memorize the Bill of Rights or name the planets or recite pi out to the tenth digit past the decimal point.  Just let them be citizens.  They'll get with the program, and probably do a better job of letting go of the darker sides of their ethnic pride than the New York Italians and the Boston Irish have.  Ban illegal immigration and replace it with unrestricted legal immigration.  Open the door and take it off its hinges and throw it away.

If we believe in liberty, then let’s put our belief to the ultimate test, and let people decide for themselves where they wish to live.  It will be a good lesson for us to teach, by example, to our children and to the rest of the so-called civilized world.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Putting America To Work

Monrovia, California

March 7, 2013

They say that one definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, hoping for different results.  This I believe, but I also believe that insanity can consist of, or be brought on by, the first part only—doing the same thing over and over.  By this definition a great deal of work in the modern world is a form of insanity.  Socialists call it wage slavery; most others call it something like drudgery, tedium, or the daily grind. 

On the other hand, the maintenance of sanity does require that things be predictable to a large extent.  No one is comfortable mentally when things are constantly changing in ways that are beyond his control.  The predictable things of life—hunger, pain, emotional responses of all kinds, sleep—do lend some stability and are, after all, what get most of us from one end of existence to the other more or less intact.  Going back only a few centuries, the task of most people was pure survival—struggle to obtain food, protect themselves and their families from danger, and to reproduce and carry on the species.  This was repetitious to be sure, but it was usually fulfilling when it was done successfully.  Why was it fulfilling?  Because the results were tangible and immediate and, with any luck, lasting, and because the alternative was oblivion.    

By contrast, pure repetition within a smaller context breeds an insanity and instability of its own kind, especially when the results are less immediately and existentially tangible.  I suspect that the idea of variety being the spice of life is for most of humanity a comparatively new and frivolous concept.  It may have arisen because people are not really mentally equipped to work in the modern sense of the idea of work, that is, to go somewhere and devote all their time to the performance of specified duties in the service of others, whether it be things as disparate as waiting on customers, stamping out parts on an assembly line, caring for sick patients, or repeatedly representing people before the law.  This kind of work came about as a result of the needs of a wider society which made specialization and compartmentalization of tasks more necessary, and fit into what became known as the Social Contract--the idea that a sovereign (now usually called a government) would assume the tasks of protecting people from imminent harm against enemies from without (other invading governments, for example) and within (crime, fire, disease, etc.), in exchange for service and payment to the sovereign.

When the lives of ordinary people were no longer simply a matter of day-to-day survival against the elements and predatory animals and humans, work started to become narrower and more specialized.  Instead of all persons doing a little of everything to stay alive, most people began to do a lot of only one thing in exchange for the currency with which to purchase all the other things necessary to stay alive, like food and shelter. 

This kind of modern work is just about all we think of when we say “work.” In fact, pure survivalists and  hunter-gatherers aren’t even referred to as or grouped together with “workers.”  We don’t say, when referring to primitive folks in the jungles of New Guinea or the Amazon, for instance, that they go about their day working at jobs.  We imagine they live simple (and oftentimes dangerous) lives, but we don’t call them workers.  We call them people.  We call them this the way we call cats cats or elephants elephants.  It's not meant as an insult, but instead to convey the idea that they are behaving as they are required to do to exist as a species.  And when it comes to cats and elephants we usually don't presume to expect them to do anything other than to be themselves. 

People who appear to perform ground-level survival tasks within a modern society that is supposedly operated under the Social Contract--those we call the “homeless” or “panhandlers”--are not grouped with other workers either, even though they often spend many hours a day trying to accumulate a little of the same money the rest of us utilize to live our lives.  We say they are unemployed.  Indeed, they usually characterize themselves as such because they attempt to exist within a larger society that only values the kind of repetitious work I referred to above.  A guy at the end of the freeway exit holds up a sign that reads, usually somewhat apologetically, “Homeless, no job, need work, have children to support,” and so on.  Such a person is doing pretty much the same thing the rest of us do to make a living—performing the same task over and over again for money.  The fact that the money travels directly from the pockets of the givers into their pockets without benefit of paychecks or taxes does not alter the plain fact that they’re out there trying to earn a living by means of a specialized endeavor.  That endeavor might consist of holding up a sign or collecting returnable bottles and cans, but it’s a job nonetheless, and a hard job any way you slice it.  Try standing in one place holding a sign for hours at a time enduring scorn and collecting your pay a quarter or a dollar at a time.  Try picking through dumpsters and trash cans and pushing a shopping cart filled with returnable items and miscellaneous potentially-useful stuff around all day, protecting it and yourself from others who want what you have.  Tell me that trying to stay clear of the police—heavily armed men who don’t want you around—isn’t a dangerous proposition, no matter where you live.  Thus, I suppose, those who live at the margins of society are both workers and hunter-gatherers, fighting for the right to literally survive every day, while trying to survive the way the rest of us do, by collecting money to use to buy things they can’t produce themselves.

Which brings me back to my original thesis, namely, that work goes hand in hand with insanity.  It is well known by those who study the so-called “homeless,” by which term is meant those who do not have a traditional regular indoor place of their own to sleep or hang around in, that many of them are mentally ill.  Partly this is because, in the name of humaneness (and also to save lots of money), governments have closed their mental institutions and turned people out onto the streets.  Many suffer from various psychoses, meaning that they perhaps don’t possess the mental organizational skills necessary to perform what we call regular work, which for most of us consists of the often maddening process of doing the same thing over and over again hoping for different results, or at least hoping for relief from the monotony of it all.

Examining such street folks is instructive.  It shows that work both produces insanity, but also that if insanity rises to a sufficient level, work becomes impossible.  And it also reminds us of the insanity of the persons with whom and for whom people work—the imperious and whimsical bosses in the case of traditional workers and the selfish potential alms-givers in the case of panhandlers and bums.  Virtually every person who comes into contact with a beggar is essentially his boss, who can hire or fire him at will.  Add to that the grim fact that in some cases beggars aren’t independent contractors, but work for more highly-placed persons (like the kids who worked for Fagin in Oliver Twist) who put them on the street to earn for them then take some of what they gather each day.  After a while it becomes nearly impossible to tell the difference between traditional work and the marginal work of the street people.

I hasten to add that I have no overweening sympathy for panhandlers.  I don’t feel sorry for them, but I certainly wish them no ill, and will often give them some spare change or a dollar bill if they ask.  But I don’t really like the ones who try to play on my heartstrings by declaring themselves to have fallen upon especially hard times or to be somehow more deserving of my largesse because of their status as, say, military veterans or family men or former ordinary wage slaves.  I am invariably reminded when I see the placards of such individuals (certainly geared to the same mushy mentality that causes people to buy everything else in our society) of the classic New Yorker cartoon of the guy sitting on the sidewalk holding a sign reading, "I am blind and my dog is dead."  Asking for money from strangers should be a quick honest transaction based upon a request simply for the money itself and not for buy-in to someone's personal drama.  It should call for just a yes or no (or a look away without slowing down) on the part of the would-be donor.  My motto is “Ask and ye may receive, but spare me the sob stories and bullshit.”  And I don’t care what they intend to use the money for, either.  Drink it up, stick it in your arm, buy food, whatever.  Not one of my employers ever asked me what I was going to use my money for, so what right have I to ask a panhandler the same question?

But as readers of the blog know, I have a bit of an agenda.  Given the inherent insanity of all forms of work, from wage slavery to panhandling, maybe the sanest and most honest way to get money, if one really needs it, is simply to receive it from the government for doing nothing, if one is without sufficient funds to make ends meet.  How could that be less madness-producing than what goes on now?  In my scenario those who do happen to work for a living in the generally accepted way, paying taxes and all that, ensure, through the government, that some of their money goes to support those who don’t make as much.  The richer we are, the greater percentage of our excess money should go to such support.  Properly administered on a progressive basis that wouldn't make those of us who are well off any less so, but it would make many other people less poor.

What could possibly be wrong with that?  It is, I think, a natural function of the Social Contract, wherein the sovereign agrees to provide protection to the people in exchange for certain payments, in the form of civic service, obedience to laws reasonably calculated to preserve public order, and in the form of money from those who have it.  And, despite the dire predictions of the lying liars who run our capitalist economy and the millions who thoughtlessly believe them, there will still be plenty of people who will wish to engage in the modern insane form of work in exchange for money.  Oh my God, socialism! you gasp.  Well, we should be so lucky as to have a system that guarantees an equal or even moderately equitable distribution of resources to all, but for now how about just a system that doesn't require that we all trot along behind the Walrus and the Carpenter until they're ready to feed?

Far from being the cure-all for our national economy, encouraging everyone to work for a living has and will continue to produce an excess of superfluous commerce—far too many retailers selling the same merchandise, far too many choices for simple things like coffee and sandwiches and fried chicken, and far too much utterly useless crap.  We hate to walk down the street and see beggar after beggar, but we somehow don’t mind passing endless stores that sell the same shit, whose employees or owners are trained to try to convince us that their shit is, for some reason, better than that of the guy next door to them.  But since it's done under the banner of free enterprise we tolerate it.  Nonsense.  We suffer from such a surfeit of consumer goods and services that we are in this country like the very opposite of those beleaguered denizens of the Stalinist dictatorships of yore who waited in long lines for shoes and nylons and meat and such.  The jobs our politicians say we need, or that we should all get off our asses and go out and get, are for the most parts jobs in this already repetitive and glutted and low-paying area of commerce.  On the other hand, look at the inherent efficiency of a government properly run.  When roads are needed and must be paid for by tax dollars, people don’t say, “Hey, let’s build five times as many roads as we need, and let the public choose which of them to drive on.”  When teachers and police and firemen (government employees all) are needed we don't say, "Let's hire ten times as many as we can afford to and let them loose to compete with each other for students, or to invent new crimes to prevent, or to set fires so they can extinguish them."  But that’s exactly what happens when it comes to blue jeans and toys and cups of fancy coffee and television sets.  
The word "entitlement" has been given an almost pornographic connotation in our society.  But we are a citizenry founded on the outrageous principle that we are entitled to things.  Life, liberty, and equality, for example.  Freedom of expression, freedom to worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear.  How much more presumptuous as a society can we get?  Yet the people who run the economy wish to deny us virtually all these entitlements, substituting instead freedom to express our preference for who should win on American Idol, freedom to worship money, freedom to want everything, and freedom to fear everyone.

The practical consideration underlying my modest economic proposal is that there simply isn't enough actual necessary work to be done by everyone in our country.  Take away the extra claims on our income by repetitious retailers of consumer goods and services, and many of us would have more money to spend, or to give, and many many more of us would be unemployed.  What then, you ask?  Well, take away even a modest bit of the enormous accumulated wealth of the top ten percent of the population and there would be enough for everyone--enough to feed them, clothe them, educate them, and provide them with medical care.  Even enough to maintain our worldwide imperial military presence, if we remain foolish and arrogant enough to wish to do so.  

During the Great Depression, as people love to wistfully call it, the government attempted to give people jobs, to get them a bit of money for doing a bit of something.  The critics of the day (i.e., Republicans) called these "make-work" jobs, implying that they were an unnecessary and veiled form of welfare, as if welfare were something inherently evil.  But look. Over the past two centuries we've dedicated ourselves in our nobler moments as a country to eliminating chattel slavery, to eliminating child labor, to reducing peonage, and we've tried to make occupations like coal mining and vegetable picking and laboring in sweatshops easier and less dangerous and backbreaking.  Why not take the next step and look at work itself?

Experts and opinonmakers are fond of saying that work is inherently good and ennobling, but so far nobody has really proved that.  Ask a wealthy heiress if it's true; ask a lettuce picker if it's true; ask a child if it's true; ask your pet cat if it's true. I'm reminded of a quip I saw tacked to the inside of a person's cubicle somewhere:  "Nobody on his death bed ever said, 'I wish I'd spent more time at the office.'"

You want fries with that?