Category Archives: U.S. Culture
“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”.
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.”
It’s been a miserable week. Monday morning at 6 am it began at the Poor People’s Campaign rally with someone reminding me that the Trump administration would that day confirm the transfer of the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. In protest of the provocative change in U.S. policy and the conditions of their virtual incarceration in Gaza, over sixty Palestinians were shot and killed and 2700 wounded by Israeli troops on the border. Official U.S. response was to condemn the Palestinian support for Hamas as their true representatives followed by opposition to any U.N. investigation of Palestinian unarmed civilians being shot down by the Israeli Defense Force.
As the week ends, the first death from the ebola virus is confirmed in Mbandaka, Democratic Republic of the Congo where I lived more than two years and have many friends. Monday a friend had posted on Facebook that in the town of Boyeka where he pastors 14 persons, 11 from the same family, had died from ebola back in January and February. Rev. Prosper Elombe’s reports of the deaths to Congolese government health officials had gone unheeded.
Another friend, Dieudonné Boleko, who works in the Disciples of Christ headquarters in Mbandaka wrote on Facebook of Rev. Elombe’s efforts, “No one paid attention to your cries of distress. Finally (with the deaths in the more populated Bikoro area) the national government has awakened and declared the cause to be an ebola outbreak.” On Monday Boleko commented further, “I remember well your warnings and you should now be considered a hero. It’s a disgrace that the health services of the State did nothing.”
Alarmed by the disease’s potential to spread in the city of one million people, international health agencies have now sent equipment to protect those treating the ebola victims in Mbandaka’s Equateur Province. The Disciples Church administers 6 hospitals, 9 maternity centers and 42 health clinics in the Province and its first hospital, established in Bolenge over one hundred years ago, is located only fifteen kilometers from Mbandaka. To educate the populace on ebola’s symptoms, precautions they need to take, and to avoid the overwhelming of the health services by those wanting to be tested for the disease, Dieudonné Boleko is coordinating a team to present information at churches, schools and markets in the Mbandaka area.
The week concluded with the news from Texas that 10 more children had been shot and killed – by a classmate this time – and 10 wounded. As I sat down to write this, I was distracted by thoughts of how the epidemic of mass shootings had become our ebola crisis in this country. As I compared the response to the scourges challenging our two countries, there was little doubt that Congo was far ahead in stemming the spread of ebola. In this country, those favoring the absurdly dangerous proliferation of sophisticated weapons have halted any progress on diagnosing the cause of the U.S. epidemic of mass killing. As a result we lag far behind in agreeing on and implementing measures of prevention or cure.
One diagnosis and cure for the illness afflicting the U.S. has been offered through the leadership of Rev. William Barber and others organizing the nationwide Poor People’s Campaign. I celebrate their reminding us all of Martin Luther King’s diagnosis in 1967: “A nation spending more on weaponry and armaments than on services for the poor and disadvantaged is approaching spiritual death” King declared. As for the cure, King called for, and Barber emphasizes today, the need for “a revolution in values” in this country.
A story told of Dorothy Day casts light on a life dedicated to the “revolution” King envisioned. On inquiring where she might be found in the Catholic Worker house in lower Manhattan, a journalist was told she was in the kitchen. As the writer approached the small gray headed woman helping wash oversized pots, Dorothy Day asked if he wanted to speak with her or the shabbily dressed, homeless man next to her. On recalling the story this time I realized it is not about Day’s humility. In the context of mourning and concern for the devaluing of human lives on display in our international interventions and current U.S. domestic policies, Day’s respect and love for the worn down man with her stood out. Her love for all human beings, all children of her Creator, that drove and shaped her whole life shines forth as the cure we all need.
Respecting the privacy of my Congolese friends, I have changed their names for this blog posting.
GIANT director George Stevens leaves no doubt where his political sympathies lie early on in the film. At the Thanksgiving dinner table at their grandparents’ home in Maryland, the three children under age five are wearing self made feathered head bands and commence bawling inconsolably when they learn the turkey is their beloved friend “Pedro”. The children identify with the Indians at the Thanksgiving meal but the film’s director identifies with the many Mexican workers at their ranch home back in Texas. The brutal living conditions of the Mexican-Americans along with the racist attitudes of the Texas ranchers are depicted glaringly and powerfully in the film. “It (GIANT), more than any other Hollywood film of its time …… directly addresses the great American dilemma, race, and its implications, and not from the familiar racist, white supremacist point of view” according to the IMDB (Internet Movie Data Base) biography of Stevens.
While watching the film for the first time this past week, I was stunned by the eerie relevance of the film’s graphic portrayal of the Texas ranchers’ views and behaviors, the grotesque lies and the dehumanization of both the perpetrators of racism and their Mexican-American targets. Throughout our viewing I became convinced that in throwing the covers off this racism and the ensuing conflicts within the life of one ranching dynasty family this film helps explain a lot about Texas politics today. In one example of its contemporary commentary, on her first visit to the workers’ village, the Maryland bred newlywed (Elizabeth Taylor) learns the fevered baby she holds in her arms would not be able to see a doctor. Sixty years after the movie was shot in South Texas, the State has the highest number of medically uninsured people in the U.S.
When the movie was shot in 1955, California was not a lot better than Texas in its treatment of Mexican American laborers and their families. That the State of the world’s movie making capital now can boast of recent progress toward medical care for the poor, protection of the environment, ethnic inclusiveness and welcome of the stranger can be in part attributed to the impact of Hollywood, its films and its fortunes, on the State’s and the Nation’s politics. The movie gives a happy ending to the story of what had been a lock step conservative dynasty’s grip on the future. It’s a thoroughly plausible ending that is yet to be seen reflected in Texas politics.
While verging on melodrama in its treatment of the James Dean character (the icon died before his Best Actor Oscar nomination for the role), GIANT is spot-on with its depiction of some of the characteristics of Mexican-American culture – its piety and close family ties, its love of country and willingness to sacrifice life and limb for it, its warmth and openness to all people, including the racist oppressors. The beauty and simplicity of the villagers’ little church brought tears to my eyes as an image chosen by someone with a deep love and appreciation of the character of its builders.
In summary, GIANT is a movie worthy of Jean Luc Godard’s statement that “cinema is truth shown twenty four times per second” (formerly the number of frames passing across the projector’s lens each second). There are some scenes in the film so true to the movie’s characters and to the life of human beings (the rancher family’s conversation in the hotel suite toward the end is one) we know this is film art that people will grow up with in the future. It’s the kind of movie that makes me, thankful to be retired and have the freedom to discover the courageous work of a great film maker, a true artist, who was devoted to realizing the potential of movies to bring people of all kinds and cultures together. George Stevens, like Charlie Chaplin and a few others, knew movies could play an important role in making this a more loving, peaceful world. This movie made me believe he succeeded.
POST SCRIPT: In the U.S. Army at the end of WW II, George Stevens filmed the Army’s liberation of Dachau and another German concentration camp. The film footage was entered as evidence at the Nuremburg trials of German war criminals and used in de-nazification trainings. Stevens’ bio on the IMDB web site notes that his War experiences “engendered in him the belief that motion pictures had to be socially meaningful to be of value”.
View a four minute sample of Stevens’ film record of the liberation of Dachau here: