In a dramatic defense of the right of migrants to seek asylum when fleeing persecution and threats to their life, a Congolese-American U.S. citizen climbed the Statue of Liberty on 2018. U.S. Independence Day 2018. This year Patricia Okoumo continued her protest of the official U.S. response to migrants at the southern border by scaling the Austin, TX Southwest Key immigrant detention facility last month. Southwest Key is contracted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.) to detain and/or keep tabs on migrants who have fled their violence-plagued homelands.
In interviews following her climb to the base of the Liberty statue, Okoumou highlighted the plight of hundreds of migrant families separated by ICE detention. Despite prior pledges to reunite the families, ICE reported there were still up to 3000 children who remained in children-only detention when the climb at the Statue took place. In one interview the 44 year old protestor stated, “I felt peaceful, that I was with those children in spirit. I could feel their isolation and their cries being answered only by four walls.” Buffeted by high winds for three hours before her arrest and descent from the Statue, Okoumou said, “I was thinking of Lady Liberty above me, you are so huge, you have always been a symbol of welcome to people arriving in America and right now, for me under this sandal, she is a shelter.”
For a decade now, both the Obama and Trump administrations have sought to discourage Central Americans seeking refuge in the U.S. from their countries’ rampant violence. Although El Salvador and Honduras both rank among the five most violent countries in the world today, the Trump administration has drastically reduced the number of asylum applicants admitted to this country. For the fiscal year 2018, there was a cap set of 45,000 asylees, but only 22,491 people were eventually accepted. Further discouraging migrants who might willfully submit to the U.S. immigration process, as of July 2018 the average wait time for an immigration hearing was 721 days. While funding of ICE apprehension and detention of migrants increased substantially during the Obama years and has continued to rise under Trump, allocations for hiring more immigration judges has not kept up.
Under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees signed by the U.S. and more than 140 other countries, “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution”. A study by the UN High Commission for Refugees found that 80 per cent of the women from Central America and Mexico applying for asylum at the U.S. southern border were found to have a significant possibility of establishing eligibility for asylum or protection under the Convention against Torture.” In practice, the U.S. denied 89 per cent of the asylum applications in 2016. Among those deported to their countries of origin, there are well documented cases of asylum seekers being attacked and killed on their return.
The right to seek refuge from potential persecution and violence in one’s home country is a well established principle of internationally recognized human rights. The UN Declaration of Human Rights upheld the right which dates back at least to the time of Ancient Greece. More recently, the U.S. joined 145 other countries in ratifying the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees in 1967.
Following her arrest in Texas, the New York City court ordered Patricia Okoumou to wear an ankle bracelet to enable monitoring of her movements until her sentencing on March 19. Meanwhile, the group Rise and Resist, to which she belongs, calls for the abolition of ICE by the U.S. “We stand on the right side of history,” Okoumou said after she was found guilty by the judge in New York. “I am not … discouraged” she continued. “Today our laws sometimes lack morality and this is a perfect example of that.” In summing up the motives for her dramatic protests she declared while choking up, “I wanted to send a strong statement that children do not belong in cages”.
Zorba in Zorba the Greek , Auda abu Tayi in Lawrence of Arabia, Paul Gauguin in Lust for Life, Zampano in Fellini’s La Strada – Anthony Quinn was Mexican-American. He was born to a Mexican mother and an Irish father in the Mexican State of Chihuahua during the Mexican Revolution.
Working in East Los Angeles, I was surprised to learn Quinn grew up as a Mexican immigrant in the Eastmont Community Center neighborhood. The Anthony Quinn Public Library on East Third Street is located on the corner where Quinn’s childhood home stood. But Quinn paid little attention to his Mexican heritage in his life or his acting career. His 1952 Oscar-winning role as Emiliano Zapata’s brother in Viva Zapata was one of the very few he took playing a Mexican.
I also learned that children in the schools Quinn attended had been punished for speaking Spanish in the classroom. Anthony Rodolfo Quinn (paternal surname) Oaxaca (maternal surname) was taught that to get ahead in the U.S. you had to assimilate, leave behind your culture of origin and become “American”.
Having financed Roma with his own production company, Alfonso Cuaron left no doubt it was a Mexican film. “It doesn’t exist without Mexico” Cuaron emphasized on Oscar night. The same could be said of other enduring films like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Night of the Iguana , and The Wild Bunch. But Roma uniquely was made in Mexico with a Mexican cast and crew speaking Spanish and Mixtec.
The film also was made first and foremost for Mexican audiences. Alfonso Cuaron implied as much when in the post-awards press conference, he stated that he was most gratified by how the film had generated a national conversation about the rights of domestic workers and racism in his Mexican homeland. He also mentioned that he was proud to have strengthened the organizing and outreach of two groups, one in the U.S. and the other in Mexico, who are working on behalf of domestic workers like the protagonist of his film.
All the heralded immigrant Hollywood filmmakers – Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Ernst Lubitsch, Alfred Hitchcock – helped U.S. audiences understand the U.S. better and, in some cases, revealed for us what others don’t want us to see, as Cuaron put it on Oscar night. But the director of Roma is the first immigrant filmmaker to focus on his childhood homeland for his setting, his themes and inspiration and for the audience he wanted to reach above all. There is no doubt that Roma belonged in the Oscars’ Foreign Film category.
Roma has now raised the question of when the top award at the Oscars will go to a foreign film. Hollywood insiders have said Cuaron’s film came very close this year. With movies making more money overseas and some even premiering outside the U.S., this Mexican film signals an important, new advance in the globalization of the U.S. film and television industry. When a foreign film finally wins the Best Picture award, Oscar voters will be highlighting and celebrating movies’ potential to communicate with audiences all over the world as well as the domestic U.S. audience.
For those of us who have experienced a film’s potential to deepen our understanding and appreciation of other cultures, Roma’s success isvery good news. But it could also be said that the Netflix’s huge investment in distributing and promoting Cuaron’s film is not the first instance of Hollywood money scoring a hit financially and among critics with a “foreign” made film. The first major star of Hollywood movies was the English immigrant Charles Chaplin whose character The Tramp was recognized and loved worldwide. U.S. film historian Andrew Sarris called Chaplin’s character “cinema’s most universal icon”. There is a street in Belgrade named for Charlie Chaplin and no other film star has had as many commemorative postal stamps issued in their honor by countries on six continents.
During the era of silent movies, Chaplin’s Tramp succeeded in communicating powerfully with audiences around the world. It is worth mentioning here that the first couple of minutes of Cuaron’s motion picture is silent. By filming the chores of a domestic worker, Cuaron was able to touch audiences in a way that even surprised the filmmaker. “I least expected it (Oscar recognition) for this movie” Cuaron said in the post-awards press room. We all can attest that a kind of mysterious magic is at work in the best films. At the 1972 Oscars when Chaplin made his first U.S. appearance after a 25 year exile abroad the audience stood and applauded for eleven minutes. They stood in awe of Chaplin and in awe of movies’ potential to move us and remind us of what makes us all human.
In 1951 when I began elementary school less than 100 miles from the California border with Mexico most of the migrant farmworker children – the “second language learners”- occupied trailers next to the back fence. The only contact with the Mexican children I now recall was with a boy whose English proficiency gained him a seat in my class. His family had found year end employment and settled in the town’s barrio, a step up from the migrant families whose children were assigned to the school trailers.
A declining number of children in the United States raised in lower middle class and middle class families have much contact with children or adults who are poor. Our communities, our schools, our cities are designed to prevent interaction with the poor. The “security” industry sells us on a lifestyle and an outlook that disdains, when it does not fear, a relationship with someone of the “lower class”. In Mexico, as the middle class has grown with industrialization and urban growth, it has become customary for families to contract with the poor for domestic help who live with the family.
Having fled to the city, poor women, often of Indian heritage, work in these homes to help their families survive the harsh conditions typical of rural Mexico today. Forty years ago, in a middle-class Guadalajara neighborhood, I rented a two bedroom house with a room on the roof just large enough for doing laundry and housing a maid/housekeeper if we chose to hire one. We managed quite well without that luxury but we didn’t have four children and our mother living with us like the family in the new film “Roma”.
Alfonso Cuaron dedicates “Roma” to “Libo”, the Mixtec Indian woman Liboria Rodriguez, who served his family throughout his childhood in the Mexico City neighborhood still known as Roma. One reviewer has pointed out that Roma is “amor” – love in Spanish – spelled backwards. The film was conceived and shaped by the filmmaker’s gratitude for the heroic role of “Libo” (Cleo in the film) in caring for, watching after and ultimately saving Cuaron’s family members. By telling the story of his childhood from Cleo’s perspective the film’s script writer/director/cinematographer Cuaron enriches and deepens the viewer’s experience while revealing Mexico’s barriers and boundaries of class, ethnic origin, and language.
According to an extensive article by Marcela Valdes in the New York Times Sunday Magazine (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/13/magazine/alfonso-cuaron-roma-mexico-netflix.html) Cuaron spent long hours speaking with Liboria Rodriguez about her life serving as nanny/housekeeper in his childhood home. He wanted to depict her life of domestic labor accurately, but he also wanted to understand better the conditions in her village that drive so many to seek work in the city. In the article Cuaron is quoted as saying, “When I was a boy, she would tell me about her pueblo, and she told me about the terrible cold they suffered and the hunger they suffered. But for me as a boy, it’s the cold equivalent to ‘Shoot, I forgot my sweater to the movie,’ and the hunger is ‘[Expletive], they’re running two hours late with dinner,’ you know? I had no awareness.” Apart from the wizardry and beauty of Cuaron’s black and white imaging of his past, the triumph of the movie is the filmmaker’s coming to terms with his empathy for the humble woman who served as a second mother to him.
Having gained international recognition as a leading Hollywood film director, with “Roma” Cuaron has also come to terms with his identity as a Mexican film maker. He told the writer of the NYT article, “The film confronted me with the mystery of what I no longer am yet still am at the same time,” In his embrace of his Mexican homeland, Cuaron enthralls us with his love of the clever children’s toys, the cries of street vendors, the unrestrained lunacy and melodrama of Mexican television, the country’s fiesta traditions and much more. Applying the empathy encouraged by his relationship with Libo, the filmmaker also explores the forces which continue to divide and suppress people in Mexico – and elsewhere.
Cleo’s boyfriend in the film is seen in training and later as a member of the paramilitary mercenaries who beat and killed students and workers in the Corpus Christi Massacre on June 10, 1971 in Mexico City. Cuaron notes in his interviews with Valdes that the young man, like so many worldwide, find their adult identity as members of an undercover force who repress the aspirations of their own class. He comments, “They’re invisible, and they’re given a visibility. They’re given training. They’re given discipline, a feeling of belonging, a feeling of being needed. And what is this used for? Not to improve society, to improve social services. No.” The film also portrays members of the U.S. CIA who organize and oversee the training of the poor youth.
Few films aim to depict the social and political context operating behind the story but “Roma’s” creator paints a huge canvas. As the camera follows Cleo through a year and a half of her life we are immersed in Mexican life as lived by middle class professionals like Cuaron’s parents, hacienda owners, soldier and para military trainees, health workers, street vendors, television personalities and more. They are depicted responding to divorce, pregnancy, earthquake, forest fire, a mass political protest, death, near drowning and a lot of dog poop. By the end, I felt as though the soul of a person and a culture had been laid bare before me.
In the course of their long conversations recalling their life together nearly fifty years before, Cuaron asked his nanny Liboria if she would like to be paid for her help on the film. Her response, as reported to Valdes, was “How barbaric. I did it because he’s my child. It’s something done for love.” That also describes the filmmaker’s incentive for making this film: “something done for love”. The film tells the story of a life and a love that for many viewers will be easy to remember and hard to forget.
“For I am your passing guest, an alien, like all my forebears.” Ps 39:12b
We in the United States today are battling over what it means to be an American. The battle and the divide is taking place in many settings: in Congress, in the nation’s courts, at the airports, in the streets and most heatedly at our national borders. The conflict has been going on for many years but today with a President insisting on a narrow, exclusionary understanding of “American” the battle has intensified.
We lament the suffering of individuals and families caused by the current Administration’s aggressive pursuit of the “undocumented” while deploring his Republican Party’s standing in the way of comprehensive reform of the nation’s immigration laws for over 30 years. In effect, their stonewalling has made millions living and working in the country for many years “illegal” by their definition of “American”. Immigrants living in this country for twenty years and more have been barred from a pathway to U.S. citizenship.
In a time of unprecedented migration of refugees worldwide, some politicians may reap short term gains from their position on immigration; the anti-immigrant sentiment has swept Europe and undoubtedly contributed to the Trump electoral victory. His party blocks the path to citizenship for immigrants while engaged in a nationwide campaign to restrict and suppress the right to vote of persons of color who are U.S. citizens. This is a short sighted political strategy doomed to fail because it ignores, disrespects and ultimately devalues the nation’s highest ideals.
There is no denying that the U.S. is a nation of immigrants from all over the world. Except for the natives the immigrants displaced, all citizens of this country are descendants of people bringing to this land hopes and dreams forged on the anvil of oppression elsewhere. Whether one lives in the Middle East, Central America or West Africa, yearning to breathe free of violent oppression is not just the story of persons immigrating to the U.S. It is the human story and is a component of the DNA of the human species.
We citizens today of these United States are descendants of Jews fleeing persecution and death in Germany, Irish survivors of spreading famine, Mexicans and Central Americans escaping violence and feudalistic exploitation, English, Scots and Irish seeking religious freedom. So for two hundred forty two years the U.S. has been living a national experiment to remain true to its identity, its self image as a refuge for those storm tossed and “yearning to be free”. As a result of earth’s inhabitants finding safe harbor over decades in this country, the name “America” took on sacred levels of meaning for the country’s citizenry. The origins of the name, however, remains another cause for dispute.
Whether or not the name “America” derives from the name of the explorer Amerigo Vespucci, it is indisputable that the name originally applied to both North and South America. Vespucci himself never set foot on North American soil. A recent writer on the origins of the name “America” notes that the name came to apply solely to the United States after so many nationalities settled in the country and referred to the country in their language as their homeland. Jonathan Cohen writes, “to hear the African in the Mayan iq’ amaq’el; to hear the Scandinavian Ommerike, as well as Amteric, and the Algonquin Em-erika; to hear Saint Emeric of Hungary; to hear Amalrich, the Gothic lord of the work ethic; to hear Armorica, the ancient Gaulish name meaning place by the sea; and to hear the English official, Amerike — to hear such echoes in the name of our hemisphere is to hear ourselves”.
To hear the name one also hears echoes of the leaders who have shaped the values and self-image of this nation. Ted Widmer in a 2012 opinion piece titled “Last Best Hope” tells us it was Thomas Jefferson, drafter of our Declaration of Independence, who described America as the “world’s best hope”. Widmer then notes that “Like Jefferson (as Western as he was Southern), Lincoln believed that America’s ample interior spaces would invite millions of immigrants from around the world.”
For Lincoln, according to Widmer, the fact that immigrants continued to pour into the country during our Civil War, with many enlisting in the Federal Army, served as validation for Lincoln’s belief “that America, for all her problems, was still worth fighting for”. Lincoln concluded his first State of the Union message with words that link the freedom of the slave to the freedom sought by U.S. refugees and also speak to what is at stake for the country in his times – and in our own: “In giving freedom to the slave we assure freedom to the free — honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve. We shall nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of earth.”
So in our national debate over immigration in these times we are not involved in just a policy discussion. For many of us seeking to defend the right of persons fleeing oppression by extreme economic exploitation and autocratic rulers we seek to defend the best of what this country has offered. We seek to preserve the essence of what enables its description as “a great nation”. We seek to preserve the country’s soul.
Extreme economic inequality, attacks on Muslims, imprisoning and deporting refugees, suppressing the right to vote of U.S. citizens, I could go on but we all recognize multiple ways the “American dream” is fading away in our time. For many of our citizens, there is doubt the dream for them and most others will ever be restored. In acting on behalf of refugees’ rights today, we are reminded and bolstered by the realization that it is not just an “American” dream to live free of persecution and exploitation. It is a human dream. And it is a dream that makes the U.S.A. – and any other people struggling for human freedom – “the last best hope on earth”.
My wife and I just returned from 18 days in Andalucia, southern Spain where Islam was the dominant religion from the mid eighth century to the middle of the 15th century. We were struck by the many traces of the Muslim legacy in the architecture, language, and diet of Andalucia today. Before our trip, it was our good fortune to have read the 2002 book The Ornament of the World in which Rosa Maria Menocal describes the debt which Spain, indeed Western civilization as a whole, owes to the medieval Muslim scholars, artists and several enlightened rulers who settled in Andalucia.
The book’s subtitle “How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain” highlights what Menocal considers one of theoutstanding aspects of Muslim rule in Spain, especially in the first three hundred years. The author puts it this way, “Fruitful intermarriage among the various cultures and the quality of cultural relations with the “dhimmi” (the other peoples of the Book, the Bible in our language) were vital aspects of Andalusian identity as it was cultivated over these first centuries.” With respect to the first peoples of the Book, she writes of their advances under Islamic rule, “Here the Jewish community rose from the ashes of an abysmal existence under the Visigoths to the point that the emir who proclaimed himself caliph in the tenth century had a Jew as a foreign minister”.
The latter fact is an eerie reminder for us in the U.S. that Saddam Hussein’s foreign minister was a Christian, one of the nearly 6 per cent of Iraqi Christians most of whom in our day have had to flee a country due to U.S. foreign policy decisions. Indeed, let us not ignore that the suspicion, resentment and revenge directed at most Muslim Arab states by the U.S. foreign policy establishment and U.S. public today compares quite unfavorably with the tolerant treatment and policies of Muslim rulers in Andalucia one thousand years ago.
But more importantly, let us not ignore the fundamental beliefs shared by the three peoples of the Book, characterized by and united in their devotion to one God, Creator of all people and things of the world. Too many of us have ignored, myself included, that “Allah” is the Arabic name for God. So Arabic-speaking Jews and Christians worshipped “Allah” for several centuries before Muhammed lived. The “shahada” testimony of faith, one of the five pillars of Islam, simply declares in Arabic, “There is no god but “Allah”. Muhammed is the messenger of Allah.”
Last Saturday, October 27, eleven Jewish worshippers were killed by a lone gunman wielding an AR -15 semi-automatic rifle in a Pittsburgh synagogue. We cannot measure but neither can we deny the influence of the anti-Muslim language and policies of the current U.S. administration in creating a culture of suspicion and intolerance which leads an unbalanced person to commit such a loathsome act. In this context of our country’s aggressive hostility towards Muslim states and peoples we can be grateful for the rich legacy of the Islamic religion and the Arabic language displayed still in every town of Andalucia, Spain. We return from Andalucia with increased respect and appreciation of that legacy and enhanced gratitude for the presence in our lives of Muslim neighbors in Kansas City.
I close with some words written by one of the most widely read poets of all time, the Christian-Muslim-Sufi-Baha’i Khalil Gibran:
“I love you when you bow in your mosque, kneel in your temple, pray in your church. For you and I are sons of one religion, and it is the spirit.”
From The Prophet
A gallery of Andalucia photos follows below:
Dr. Mukwege’s Nobel Peace Prize represents an advance of the Congolese people – and all humanity. Could it be that his award will do more to bring about the political change desparately needed in in Congo than all the millions of dollars and the lives expended in peacekeeping in the still war torn nation?
On April 4, 1967 at Riverside Church in New York City, civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King spoke out against the U.S. waging war on Vietnam. His “Beyond Vietnam” sermon will undoubtedly stand as a landmark speech in the history of the United States. Among the words of powerful prophecy we read,
“The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality [applause], and if we ignore this sobering reality, we will find ourselves organizing “clergy and laymen concerned” committees for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about…
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Last month Daniel Cruz, a fourteen year resident of the U.S. from Ciudad Reynosa, Mexico, was stopped while driving with a broken tail light in the Kansas City suburb of Olathe, Kansas. Daniel paid the $300 fine for the violation and fixed the tail light. Ten days later he was met by agents of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.) in the parking lot of his apartment complex. Unable to produce documents of legal residence in the U.S., the uniformed officers immediately took him to a county jail one hundred miles away to await a hearing. His car was impounded.
Never previously arrested or detained, Daniel has worked in a variety of jobs in the U.S., most recently in construction. The money he sends weekly to his wife and two teen age children supports them and has enabled the building of a new house. Daniel’s retired school teacher father lives close by and also helps the family.
Within a week Daniel’s construction crew’s boss paid the $3000 bail for his release from detention. Kate and I drove the two hours to meet him at the jail and take him home. We felt amply repaid by the broad smile on Daniel’s face as we wished him well while friends in the Olathe apartment complex shouted their greetings.
Hard working immigrants of solid character like Daniel feel threatened across the U.S. as the Trump era’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents detain and deport non-criminals. Despite candidate Trump’s campaign promise to go after “rapists and criminals”, ICE is deporting non criminals at a far greater rate than the Obama administration. Shortly after the Trump inauguration, 200 foreign nationals were detained by ICE whose press release noted more than half were classified as “criminals”. However, Kansas-based journalist Oliver Morrison reported in February 2017 that a Wichita woman had been arrested two weeks earlier for driving without insurance. By the end of 2017, ICE had detained over 37,000 “non-criminal” immigrants, more than twice as many as in the previous year.
Contradicting its own statistics, ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Office (ERO) continues to claim that the focus is on deportation of criminals. A March 20, 2018 press release from its Chicago office was headlined,
“ICE arrests 20 in Kansas City during 4-day operation targeting criminal aliens and immigration fugitives”
The ERO Chicago commented on the arrests, “As part of this operation, we continue focus on the arrest of individuals who are criminal aliens and public safety threats.”
Collaboration of law enforcement officers with ICE agents helps blur the line between “criminal” and “non criminal” resident aliens. The U.S. Congress’ thirty years of failing to legislate reform of immigration policies also sets the stage for the Trump administration and anti- immigrant “nativists” characterization of all undocumented immigrants as “criminals”. With a few notable exceptions, among whom former Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County (Phoenix) stands out, most high ranking law officers recognize collaboration with ICE discourages immigrant communities from reporting crimes or cooperating with authorities in fighting crime.
There is also widespread recognition among law enforcement leaders that helping ICE detain immigrants risks encouraging “racial profiling” and the “targeting” of persons of color, non-citizens and citizens alike. The detention of non-criminals like Daniel adds to the fear among immigrants created by Trump’s election. In early 2017 the Olathe Latino Coalition was formed in response to the fear among the growing Olathe Latino community, now 10 per cent of the city’s population. Chair of the Olathe Coalition, Jim Terrones, told the Kansas City Star shortly after the Trump inauguration, “the fear is real”. Some Latinos in Olathe now fear going out even to church or the bank Terrones noted. Local leader Irene Caudillo, also a member of the Latino Coalition, told the Star reporter, “Our community shouldn’t look at the police and sheriff as ICE enforcers but as providing the safety and protection of everyone in the community”.
With continuing anti-immigrant rhetoric coming from the White House and increasing ICE detention of undocumented residents, more and more U.S. citizens wonder when they will become targeted for reprisals by this administration. Opposition to Trump and to the U.S. Republican Party’s obsession with holding on to power has led to a growing realization that much more is at stake than who wins in the November mid-term elections. There is growing realization that those now setting the agenda in Washington are a threat to U.S. democracy and all persons who resist their rule. There is growing realization that the day might come when we are all Daniel, targets of lies and repression coming from the executive branch and the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. There is growing realization that the country now faces a crisis akin to the Civil War era that inspired James Russell Lowell’s lines in the hymn “Once to Every Man and Nation”,
“Once to ev’ry man and nation
Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth and falsehood,
For the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some great decision,
Off’ring each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever
‘Twixt that darkness and that light.”
It is widely reported, and usually mourned, that the U.S. is more divided as a nation today than at any time since the Civil War. You might think the topic of why this is so and who or what forces are responsible for this fracturing would be highlighted in this crucial mid term U.S. election season. You might think we’d hear our politicians talking about what builds a healthy community at the local and national levels. You might think we would hear more dialog regarding depriving persons of the right to vote in the U.S. as a way to nurture more unified, sustainable community. On the contrary. Republican Party strategists and politicians keep coming up with new maneuvers to suppress the voter turnout, especially of persons of color.
The front page of the New York Times recently reported that 12 people had been arrested in North Carolina for voting in the 2016 election. A zealous County Prosecutor, and most likely one with lofty political ambitions, issued the warrants for their arrest as released felons who had been deprived of the right to vote in their State. Nine of the twelve are African-Americans.
The North Carolina arrests took place as a national movement to restore the voting rights of the 6 million released felons in the U.S. is taking shape. States have enacted widely divergent laws on the rights of convicted felons following their release. In Missouri and Kansas, only on completion of their sentence, which may include lengthy parole and probation, can felons regain their right to participate in elections. Those two states, along with every other state in the U.S., jail persons of color in numbers above, usually far above, their percentage of the State population.
Depriving targeted groups of the right to vote has become mainstream in the U.S. In both Kansas and Georgia, the Republican candidates for Governor in the November election have made illegal voting a focus of their political careers. In Kansas, the candidate has focused attention on voting by non-citizens and in Georgia on the voting of released felons whose ranks in that State are disproportionately African-American. So what is the effect of depriving fellow citizens of the right to vote on the unity of the nation? What is the effect on communities within the U.S.?
The arrests of released felons for voting in North Carolina took place the same week I learned something about creating healthy communities in Colorado. “A grove of aspens is actually one of the Earth’s largest living organisms” our bus driver declared as we climbed to the trailhead for the hike to Maroon Bells, above Aspen, Colorado. He went on to describe a network of “rhizomic” root systems that form a “colony” of aspen trees in a grove. On my return home, I read that an aspen can sprout up in such a colony over 100 feet from the “parent tree”.
The image of a “colony”, a community, of aspen trees working together to produce oxygen for other living creatures soon took shape in my mind. Aspens are like the lungs of the earth in our northern hemisphere as the rain forests are in the south. A thriving community bound and breathing together and enduring.
I also learned that an individual tree can survive for up to 150 years but there are “colonies” that have lasted thousands of years. The aspen root systems are deep enough that even the most intense fire seldom disables its capacity to propagate new sprouts above ground. In fact, forest fires enhance the growth of aspen colonies by clearing away other species and providing more sunlight for the emerging saplings. Their fast growth and the ease in which they self propagate favor their widespread use in reforestation projects.
What a beautiful metaphor for a healthy, thriving human community I thought as I admired the groves near the village named after this beautiful tree. Individual trees are bound together below the surface and their network makes them strong. Their roots spread as new sprouts seek the sunlight from their beds below ground. Aspen colonies/communities survive thousands of years in part because they spread out and enable a strong network for new trees.
Nowhere in my reading up on aspen “colonies” did I learn the result of removing individual trees and their roots from a grove. I will have to be content with the clear lesson of the aspens that a healthy, thriving “colony” is strengthened by its roots spreading and interlocking below ground, feeding on each other’s nutrients and lasting thousands of years. That’s the kind of community I want to belong to. How about you?
Thanks to Facebook I celebrate the birth of another child in the family of Dr. Jorge and wife Cristina in San Luis Potosí. I know M. Celestin Engelemba has returned to Mbandaka and helps organize community development efforts of the Disciples of Christ Church in Congo. Through messaging on Facebook, Rev. Bolembo in a remote area of the Congolese equatorial rainforest knows I am praying for those threatened by the latest outbreak of the ebola virus. I am grateful for the assurance through Facebook posts that the remarkable literacy advocate and organizer Ms. Magdalena Gathoni in Kenya remains active.
But there is another face of Facebook in the world today, especially in those countries like Kenya and Congo where access to the internet is limited and where Facebook use does not count against an individual’s data cap. As of the beginning of this year, according to the new book “Anti-Social Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy”, there are 2.2 billion users of Facebook in the world today. The new book’s author Dr. Siva Vaidhyanathan added in a recent interview on DemocracyNow!, “There are also places in the world where Facebook is the entire media system, or at least the entire internet.”
And more perniciously, Dr. Vaidhyhanathan notes, this rapidly growing use of the software has been used by authoritarian nationalists to gain power in India, the Philippines, the U.K. (through the Brexit campaign) and the United States. “In all of these cases, forces, often from other countries, interfered in the democratic process, distributed propaganda, distributed misinformation, created chaos, often funneled campaign support outside of normal channels, and it’s largely because Facebook is so easy to hijack” the media scholar explained in the interview on DemocracyNow! . He went on to say, “the Trump campaign, the Ted Cruz campaign, and, before that, the Duterte campaign in the Philippines, the Modi campaign in India, they all used Facebook itself to target voters, either to persuade them to vote or dissuade them from voting”.
The media analyst went on to say that the President of India Narendra Modi has more Facebook followers than any other politician in the world. This “master of Facebook” used the software as the primary tool of a “three part strategy”, the “authoritarian playbook”, as he describes it.
“What they do is they use Facebook and WhatsApp to distribute propaganda about themselves, flooding out all other discussion about what’s going on in politics and government. Secondly, they use the same sort of propaganda machines, very accurately targeted, to undermine their opponents and critics publicly. And then, thirdly, they use WhatsApp and Facebook to generate harassment, the sort of harassment that can put any nongovernment
organization, human rights organization, journalist, scholar or political party off its game, because you’re constantly being accused of pedophilia, you’re being accused of rape, or you’re being threatened with rape, threatened with kidnapping, threatened with murder, which makes it impossible to actually perform publicly in a democratic space. This is exactly what Modi mastered in his campaign in 2014, and, in fact, a bit before. And that same playbook was picked up by Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, and it’s being used all over the world by authoritarian and nationalist leaders, to greater or lesser degrees.”
Facebook’s reach and power in the political realm derives from its capacity to generate strong emotions in its users. Posts poking the hornets’ nest always yield more responses than thoughtful commentary. It is the author’s insights on humanity’s rule by our emotions and the vulnerability of our capacity to think that, in the author’s view, are the real source of Facebook’s power over us and the threat it poses to our social order.
Dr. Vaidhyanathan analyzed the symbiosis of Facebook’s growing use and its encouragement of human emotion over reason in his DemocracyNow! interview, “What it promotes mostly are items that generate strong emotions. What generates strong emotions? Well, content that is cute or lovely, like puppies and baby goats, but also content that is extreme, content that is angry, content that is hateful, content that feeds conspiracy theories. And this hateful, angry conspiracy theory collection doesn’t just spread because people like it. In fact, it, more often than not, spreads because people have problems with it. If I were to post some wacky conspiracy theory on my Facebook page today, nine out of 10 of the comments that would follow it would be friends of mine arguing against me, telling me how stupid I was for posting this. The very act of commenting on that post amplifies its reach, puts it on more people’s news feeds, makes it last longer, sit higher. Right? So the very act of arguing against the crazy amplifies the crazy.”
Should we get off the Facebook habit then? Its brilliant critic says this is not the answer. Only the state with our backing and direction has the capacity and the authority to oversee and shape the Facebook technology to protect its users from being exploited and preserve democratic rule by the people. In its review of the book, The Guardian newspaper reported, “Vaidhyanathan argues that the key places to start are privacy, data protection, antitrust and competition law. Facebook is now too big and should be broken up: there’s no reason why it should be allowed to own Instagram and WhatsApp, for example.” The question then emerges of when the people of the U.S. will elect a President and a Congress with the backbone, the courage and the integrity to safeguard the public and U.S. democracy, and democratic rule elsewhere, against the threat of this new technology.
The U.S. President’s repeated insults of Mexican immigrants, although the majority are from Honduras, and criticism of the Mexican government’s supposed failure to curb unauthorized border crossings will affect the result of the Mexican Presidential election July 1. We shall soon find out how much of an effect and, if AMLO (Andrés Manuel Lopéz Obrador) wins, how much change there will be in the relationship with the current U.S. Administration. It is widely acknowledged that the current President Peña Nieto’s olive branch offering to Trump soon after the U.S. election was a colossal political error. To invite for a visit the leader who has ridden to electoral victory by riding on the backs of racist stereotypes of Mexican immigrants was to ignore the disgraceful ignorance of world history and politics of the new U.S. President and the sensibilities of his own compatriots.
To help prepare us for what could be a Mexican President quite willing to match Trump’s “America First” nationalistic fervor with some nationalism of a Mexican flavor, we are reprinting an article written last year for The New York Times by Prof. Enrique Krauze, one of Mexico’s leading historians. The piece is titled “Will Mexico Get Half Its Territory Back?” and is reprinted here in its entirety. It reminds us in the U.S. of how the current border is the consequence of the U.S. war on Mexico in 1846. By going to the article on the web, the Spanish version of this article can be accessed.
“MEXICO CITY — The United States invasion of Mexico in 1846 inflicted a painful wound that, in the 170 years that followed, turned into a scar. Donald Trump has torn it open again.
Among the many lies that he has constructed, none is more ridiculous than his attempt to contradict history by presenting the United States as a victim of Mexico, a country that supposedly steals jobs, imposes onerous treaties and sends its “bad hombres” across the border.
To confront this fake history, some Mexicans are proposing to remind Mr. Trump exactly what country was the first victim of American imperialism. They are calling for a lawsuit that would aim to nullify the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (signed on Feb. 2, 1848), in which Mexico — invaded by American soldiers, its capital occupied, its ports and customs stations seized — was forced to accept the American annexation of Texas and concede more than half the rest of Mexican territory, now including most of the states of Arizona, New Mexico and California.
This effort is being led by Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, the elder statesman of the Mexican left. Mr. Cárdenas is convinced that the Mexican government — especially given the need to confront Mr. Trump’s aggression — has a solid legal case. In his opinion, the 1848 treaty violates essential international legal norms and a case can be brought before the International Court of Justice, proposing reparations and indemnification. And even if one admits the legal validity of much of the treaty, there are a number of crucial articles — such as those dealing with citizenship, property and the security of 100,000 Mexicans who remained on what became American territory — that have been ignored from the beginning.
Such an effort faces formidable obstacles, though. A former Mexican secretary of foreign relations, Bernardo Sepúlveda Amor, the leading Mexican expert in international law, believes — “much to his regret,” he said — that Mr. Cárdenas’s initiative is not feasible. “In previous times, wars of conquest did not find the same moral and legal condemnation that is nowadays part and parcel of our system of law,” he told me. The treaty would have to be challenged under the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, “for which it must be shown that the state did not expressly agree that the treaty is a valid instrument or that, by reasons of its own conduct, that state must be considered as not having acquiesced to the validity of the treaty.”
But this is not the case with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which was signed with the agreement of both governments. “Additionally, the claim to annul the 1848 treaty must be submitted to the International Court of Justice to obtain a judgment on the matter,” Mr. Sepúlveda said. “But the United States does not recognize the compulsory jurisdiction of the court in contentious cases.”
Nonetheless, juridical reasoning is one thing, political reasoning another. If the present Peña Nieto government does not adopt Mr. Cárdenas’s project, an opposition candidate (of either the populist left or the nationalist right) could legitimately assume it as a banner for the presidential elections of July 2018. Such a new president could make that lawsuit a reality.
Beyond the validity of the suit, something of much larger impact is at play: the need to nourish a debate on the true history of a war the United States has conveniently forgotten or camouflaged and which now, more than ever, should be honestly remembered as it was. It’s a matter of an enormous crime, which leads to a question: How much of the historic prosperity of the United States of America stems from the development of territories originally inhabited by Mexicans and ripped away from Mexico through an invasion and a war of territorial conquest?
Because it was exactly that. Many American soldiers were aware of it, reading William Prescott’s “History of the Conquest of Mexico” — a recounting of Hernán Cortés’s expedition to conquer the Aztec Empire — as they advanced across Mexican territory. Many important figures of the epoch, with shame and regret, recognized its nature. That “most outrageous war” (John Quincy Adams wrote) had been “actuated by a spirit of rapacity and an inordinate desire for territorial aggrandizement” (Henry Clay), and began with a premeditated attack by President James Polk, thanks to which “a band of murderers and demons from hell” were “permitted to kill men, women and children” (Abraham Lincoln).
After the naval bombardment of the civilian population of Veracruz, Robert E. Lee wrote to his wife, “My heart bleeds for the inhabitants.” In his memoirs, Ulysses S. Grant lamented that he had not had “the moral courage to resign” from what, as a young officer, he had described as “the most wicked war.” For a number of other politicians and thinkers, including Henry David Thoreau, the war contradicted the democratic and republican values on which the country had been founded and was opposed to basic Christian ethics.
Mr. Cárdenas’s initiative may have little chance of succeeding legally, but its public impact could be considerable at a time when Mexico is being attacked unjustly by President Trump.”