Category Archives: U.S. Political Developments
Louis Agassiz was, at his death in 1873, the most famous scientist in North America. Professor of Geology and Zoology at Harvard, he was the founder and Director of the University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. The Museum’s web site calls him “a great systematist, paleontologist and renowned teacher of natural history”. Agassiz was also a white surpremacist widely known for defending slavery in the U.S. and what he considered to be the “natural” status of slaves of African origin.
Throughout his scientific career, the Swiss immigrant Agassiz lent his weight to the pro slavery theory of “polygenism”. This theory hypothesizes that different races of humankind have different origins. Most advocates would further view the biblical account of Adam and Eve’s creation as solely describing the origin of the white race. A summary of his views on the U.C. Berkeley web site reads, “Agassiz could not accept that all groups of humans belonged to the same species, and he argued vehemently for the inferiority of non-white human groups”. Several researchers have noted the influence of Agassiz and other polygenists on the Nazi racial theories and policies.
Darwin’s findings and development of the theory of evolution contributed significantly to the theory’s rejection. More recently, Stephen Jay Gould’s “devastating” account of the Agassiz position in the 1981 book The Mismeasure of Man consigns polygenism to the dustbin of other discredited scientific theories. A historian in Agassiz’s Swiss homeland began in 2007 a “Bring Down Agassiz Campaign” to shed light on the repugnant aspects of their famous compatriot’s legacy.
In 2002, a public elementary school in Cambridge just north of Harvard’s campus took off the Agassiz name from the school to honor an African-American principal instead. Other schools and institutions have removed or are in the process of considering the removal of the scientist’s name. Stanford’s Department of Psychology has requested the University remove his statue from their building’s façade. In a recent court case, however, Harvard has taken a position that seems intent on protecting the Agassiz legacy.
In the case, a descendant of slaves has demanded the University return to her family photos taken on a South Carolina plantation that were commissioned by Louis Agassiz. The photos depict “Papa Renty” Taylor at about age 65 and his daughter Delia as evidence in an Agassiz collection to support his racist theories. Lead plaintiff in the lawsuit against Harvard, Tamara Lanier heard many tales of Papa Renty from her mother and is motivated by a two fold aim in bringing the suit. She explained, “I know that this is something that should be in the public domain, and Harvard should not be profiting from the use of these images.” She continued, “Beyond that, it’s a matter of dignity and restoring the dignity to Renty.”
This year, 43 descendants of Louis Agassiz have signed a letter to Harvard in support of Ms. Lanier’s lawsuit. The family members note in the letter, “For Harvard to give the daguerreotypes to Ms. Lanier and her family would begin to make amends for its use of the photos as exhibits for the white supremacist theory Agassiz espoused”. They then appeal to the University’s humane principles, “It is time for Harvard to recognize Renty and Delia as people. The daguerreotypes are, as Ms. Lanier has said, family photos.”
I consider the legacy of Agassiz as important to us for two reasons. First, he is an outstanding example of how the social, economic and political context for doing science can affect the practitioner’s supposed “value-free” work and findings. We have ample evidence of this in our own age when a world economy built on fossil fuel consumption has influenced a coterie of dissident scientists to dispute the effect of the looming climate catastrophe. Second, the support for white supremacy brought by Louis Agassiz reminds us of the pervasive reach of such views, their public respectability until recently and of the vaunted origin of such views in this country. Harvard’s determination to hold on to the photos of Tamara Lanier’s ancestors, protecting the Agassiz collection in effect, is another indication of the scope and array of challenges U.S. “anti-racists” must grapple with.
The murders of Ahmaud Arberry and George Floyd in a southern rural town and a major urban center in the North have awakened us to how the American dream has excluded many U.S. residents for a long time. We knew that Article I of the U.S. Constitution counted black slaves as only three fifths of a person. We knew that the freeing of slaves in 1863 was followed by discrimination, degradation and lynching of black citizens in the country. We might have been awakened by the reversal of provisions of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act by the Shelby v. Holder decision of the Supreme Court in 2013. We might have known how systematic exclusion of blacks and other persons of color from the American dream drove the campaign that elected Donald Trump as President of the country.
As a student in an integrated, half African-American high school in Indianapolis, I should have learned that the nation’s founding principle in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” still has not been embraced by all our citizens. Since I didn’t learn it in high school, I should have learned it from what occurred at the 50th Reunion of my Class in 2014. Our class had seen the School make significant strides toward racial harmony and cooperation in the school and city.
When my brother graduated from Shortridge High School in 1959, fewer than five per cent of the students were black. Five years later when I graduated, there had been significant integration of black students at the School. Our class was at least half African-American. We had elected a black girl as Junior Prom Queen for the first time. A black group was finally selected to participate in the school’s Junior Vaudeville fund raiser. As Shortridge’s 100th class to study where writer Kurt Vonnegut, former Sen. Richard Lugar and other community leaders had also studied we could take pride in helping prepare the School for continuing its role in the city’s growth.
But whatever contributions we had made to the School’s healthy transition in racial composition and racial harmony was ignored at the 50th reunion. No mention was made of our struggle with racial issues and the outbreaks of conflict. I had gone to the reunion to celebrate how we had contributed some signs of progress in the easing of tensions. That none of the speakers nor any part of the program made reference to the example in race relations our class had set disappointed and finally baffled me.
The murders by police of the past month and the post-Obama era retreat from pursuit of racial justice and healing highlights that the vision of this country as championing “all men are created equal” has again been countered by political developments of recent years. One of the two major political parties has developed strategies of gaining and maintaining power by restricting the right to vote, restricting the path to citizenship, and packing the judicial system with appointees devoted to preserving rule by the minority of whites that continues to wield economic power.
The most significant change in the nation’s recoil from the dream of equal rights for all is the fact that there is now a knee on the neck of many more people of color in the U.S. Blacks are now joined by increasing numbers of immigrants from south of the U.S. border who are dominated by a system that excludes them from acceptance as U.S. citizens while benefiting from their low cost labor. It has become clearer that the Party controlling most state legislatures, the Senate and the Presidency has deliberately prevented reform of immigration laws as essential to keeping their hold on political power. It is widely recognized that overwhelming Latinx support for the election of Barack Obama helped put the first African-American in the Presidency.
So now in 2020 it is not only white acceptance of African-Americans as full citizens of the U.S. with equal rights that will signal advance in making real the country’s best version of itself. It is white acceptance of the Spanish speaker, the Asian immigrant and their children, and Arab Americans that is demanded of us all, the whites who also immigrated here and the Africans forcibly brought to these shores. Our youth know this. Our youth who are now marching in protest far out number the young citizens whose minds and souls have been poisoned with the old myths of racial superiority. The protesting youth are bent on moving the country’s reality closer to its dream.
People of all ages are now marching and demonstrating in defiance of the global pandemic and in defiance of the pandemic that has afflicted the country since its founding. The language and the myths of white superiority have been our original sin and our greatest weakness since the nation’s founding. Efforts to counter the systemic racism are being led by persons with global roots. A young Latinx labor organizer friend summed up his work as helping save the nation from itself. The police, politicians and their supporters determined to keep their knees on the necks of people of color in the U.S. perpetuate the country’s death wish. I believe they are vastly outnumbered by the persons marching in the streets and their supporters who are crying out for the breath and long life of the dream that could make this nation a great one. I hope and pray that our democracy has survived the attacks, past and future, on the voting rights of its citizens and that the November election results will reflect the marchers’ demands for real change in this nation.
Former President of the U.S. Jimmy Carter called the U.S. “the most warlike nation in the history of the world”. In his Sunday School lesson at his home church in rural Georgia last spring Carter observed that his country had experienced only 16 years in its 242 year history when it was not at war. The country that spends more on its “defense” than the next ten nations in the world combined is also the world’s number one exporter of arms and military equipment. It comes as no great surprise then that the protests against police brutality sweeping this country in recent days have been met with police forces armed for intimidation and repression of dissent as we have never seen before.
More than thirty years ago the U.S. Congress approved the 1033 program which enables the Pentagon to transfer military hardware and equipment to local police forces in the country. Since it began, this program has seen 533 planes and helicopters and over 423 “Ambush-resistant” vehicles transferred to civilian forces assigned to protect and defend us. Two years after President Obama suspended the 1033 program following the Michael Brown killing by police in Ferguson, MO President Trump reinstated it.
There has been an escalation of violence in the urban streets of our world today beyond what we experienced in the turbulent 60’s. Protestors of the U.S. War on Vietnam sat down or kneeled in front of police on horseback wielding wooden batons; today, police with guns that can fire 10 bullets per second meet demonstrators in the streets of U.S. cities. The 1033 program favored by Trump has provided local police with 93,000 machine guns.
Militarization of the police in other nations is a feature of U.S. “security aid” to some of our closest allies. Over half of our foreign aid to El Salvador in 2017 supported improving security and law and order which followed many millions in direct military and police aid during that country’s Civil War in the 70’s and 80’s. The country with the highest murder rate in the Western Hemisphere, Honduras, in 2017 received 44 percent of its aid for security compared to 30 percent for antipoverty programs. U.S. security aid for Brazil reached a height during the period of military rule in the 60’s and 70’s. Now the authoritarian rule of Jair Bolsonaro counts on violent repression to quell protests and dissent of Brazil’s citizens.
The popular view of the U.S. image around the world in my lifetime has descended from champion of those struggling for independence from colonialism post WW II to the leading ally and supplier of dictatorships stifling dissent and democracy. In the view of the current U.S. administration, our best friends among the world’s nations today are the most authoritarian, anti-democratic rulers in the world today.
The economic inequality and exploitation of people alongside the degradation of the natural environment by the global economic order has led to unprecedented human migration and public protests in many nations. It seems evident that the leader of this economic order has chosen to respond to the protests and demands for change with violence and the force of advanced weaponry. As Rev. William Barber of the Poor Peoples Campaign observes, the War on Poverty of the 1960’s in the U.S. has become a war on the poor. But not just war on the poor in the U.S. We train and equip the police and military for brutal repression of the poor, Frantz Fanon’s “wretched of the earth”, around the world.
“There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war” declared Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King in his “Beyond Vietnam” speech of 1967. Comparing the speech’s description of the state of the poor in the U.S. and the world with Nicholas Kristof’s year end New York Times article “2019: The Best Year Ever” (The focus of our last erasing-borders blog) reveals how far this country is lagging behind in alleviating the effects of poverty and inequality. No reader of King’s speech can doubt the speaker would despair over his country’s failure in the last 52 years to take leadership in championing the “world revolution” that he called for. Instead we find evidence that the “tragic death wish” King referred to has tightened its grip on U.S. political and economic life. We have, in fact, led in taking on “the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investment”.
In the Comments on Kristof’s article celebrating the advances of the world’s poor in 2019, several readers expressed dismay over conditions in the U.S. “In terms of the United States, I think of a giant ocean liner which takes several miles to turn” one reader wrote. Kristof sympathized with the reader’s view and noted, “It’s striking that life expectancy in the U.S. has now fallen for three years in a row, even as it is lengthening abroad.” Responding to another letter, Kristof wrote, “In Shannon County, South Dakota (with a mostly Native American population), the life expectancy is lower than in Bangladesh.” Another reader of the article emphasized one instance, among many, of the current U.S. administration’s opposition to joint international efforts to fight disease. ‘President Trump called for a 29% cut to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria for 2020 and his administration didn’t even show up to Global Fund preparatory funding meetings”.
The continuing tendency of the U.S. to gl
o it alone or with the support of very few “coalition” partners in its wars and policies of international politics might cause Dr. King the greatest concern were he alive today. He declared in the speech, given one year to the day before his death, “A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional.” Rather than feeding humanity’s inclinations to tribalism, suspicion and fear of “the other”, King urged, “Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.” The urgency of his call for international cooperation reaches its height in the speech’s concluding section. Turn from the national “death wish”, he pleads, for “We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation.” He pleads for love of all “mankind” on the part of us all: “History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate.”
As citizens of the U.S. begin the presidential election year of 2020 many doubt the possibility of their nation reversing its course of self destruction. Of those, many would agree with Dr. King’s diagnosis of the nation’s persistent ills in the 1967 “Beyond Vietnam” speech. But many of them would not share his vision that “America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world”, can now lead the way in this revolution of values. “There is nothing”, our nation’s prophet declared, “to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.” Certainly there are many who also have doubted the truth of the three thousand year old prophecy that “every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low” (Isa. 40)
As a person of faith in a loving Creator, as a person who has seen in my own lifetime the great vision of Isaiah become a reality in the lives of families and societies, I do believe the people of this nation can mold a new status quo and do it in the year 2020. I believe there is a presidential candidate who represents and has represented for over 40 years the kind of change the prophets Isaiah and Dr. King called for. And I believe this candidate is well on the way to creating a movement, stronger and more durable than any campaign organization, that will carry him to victory in the election and will continue to advocate and organize support for policies of peace and justice long after his victory. There is a leading candidate for U.S. President who has over a forty year career in politics fought for the “revolution of values” Dr. King spoke about. The candidate’s name is Senator Bernie Sanders.
Sen. Sanders is the only politician in the U.S. capable of leading a presidential administration committed to putting “people above profits”. He is the only candidate for president whose victory would enable pride that our democracy still can bear the dramatic change, the “peaceful revolution”, King called for years ago. With the election of Sen. Sanders as president no one loses and everyone gains a more hopeful world in 2020.
Honest, true to oneself interpretation of life in another culture is a calling in our day and age. It is also for us Americans counter cultural. The U.S. culture has not customarily celebrated what we learn and how we grow through cross-cultural encounters. As a child in the 1950’s I was assured that the U.S. was the best country to be born in as well as the most generous, best intentioned democracy on the planet. Following our leadership in defeating the fascist armies in WW II, we had seemingly become that “city on the hill” that the pilgrim envisioned in migrating to our shore.
We now know better that such youthful exuberance can lead to hubris, a sense of entitlement vis a vis other countries, and arrogance. How do we as individuals and a nation pursue relationships of equality and mutual respect with other nations when we at some level believe we know how to fix everything and can deploy the resources to do it? How do we relate to other cultures and other nations as individuals and as a nation?
Whether we embrace cross cultural encounters or view other cultures with suspicion and fear is a vital question in all eras. But it assumes greater importance in a time when the U.K. has voted to abandon its membership in the European Common Market and the U.S. foreign policy protects its “national interests” by repudiating former agreements and treaties. Since the 2016 U.S. election, the U.S. has rejected participation in the Paris Climate Accord and the Iran nuclear agreement. We have also ceased funding of the UN Human Rights Council and the International Criminal Court, and withdrawn from the Global Pact on Migration and the UN Arms Trade Treaty.
I believe we as individuals do have models to follow for mutually beneficial relationships with other cultures and nations. Consider the testimonials of U.S. citizens serving in other countries. The Global Ministries’ Division of the United Church of Christ (UCC) and the Christian Church Disciples of Christ (DOC) in the U.S. calls them “Mission Co-Workers” to emphasize how they work in a partnership of mutuality with citizens of the countries they serve in. One of the more than 100 “Mission Co Workers” now working in such a partnership has written about her life in Morocco, a majority Muslim country with very few Christians. Born in Haiti, Emmanuela L’occident wrote the following in her first year of service in North Africa:
“My biggest challenge here is to go beyond what I know of the world and grasp whatever this new country has to offer. Daily, we face some things we’ve never seen and we are sometimes prone to reject or to impose our way of thinking. Having a position of power here is a really complex dynamic where I constantly have to analyze and make sure to give my brothers and sisters, who are also my colleagues here, the opportunity to decide freely while benefiting of my input. I am forever grateful for all the things I have learned so far and how transformed I am by what I’ve seen, heard and lived.”
In a recent Opinion piece for the New York Times David Brooks urged Democrats to counter the current U.S. administration’s anti-immigrant policies and language “with the pluralist mind-set (which) acknowledges that God’s truth is radically dispersed”. In the column titled “How to Beat Trump on Immigration” (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/07/opinion/trump-immigration.html?searchResultPosition=2) Brooks suggests “Pluralism offers us the chance, and the civic duty, to be a daring social explorer, venturing across subcultures, sometimes having the exciting experience of being the only one of you in the room, harvesting the wisdom embedded in other people’s lifeways”. What Brooks calls the “pluralist mind-set” is beautifully described by another Global Ministries “Mission Co-Worker” living in San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico.
Now in her twenties, Abigail Fate writes, “My coworkers thoroughly address all my concerns and go out of their way to make sure that I have fresh coffee and that I understand what I’m doing. The children we work with in markets around the city have begun to recognize me, and eagerly tell me about their lives. They listen carefully as I explain the games we’re playing, while still giggling and correcting my Spanish.” Summing up her experience to date, she writes, “I have been met with unwavering patience and kindness in every aspect of my life here. Though there are many challenges, and it’s often difficult, I can already see this city and these people becoming home. And I can’t wait to see how my story will continue to unfold.”
Abi and Emmanuela are committed to value, respect and learn from the cultural traditions and lifestyle in their new homes. Like all “Mission Co-Workers”, they find that the mutuality approach of our international Church partnerships greatly assist in meeting the challenges of life in a very different culture. As representatives of two U.S.-based Christian denominations (U.C.C. and D.O.C.) working for mutuality and equality among cultures, they would agree with Brooks that “Only people who are securely rooted in their own particularity are confident enough to enjoy the encounter with difference.”
I am convinced that in this time of unprecedented devaluation of other cultures and of our nation’s agreements with other countries, we may discover new, larger dimensions of our “particularity” as Christians, and as human beings, in a multi-cultural world. That Jesus proclaimed God’s love is universal there can be no doubt. That it has always been challenging for followers of Jesus to reflect that love in relationships with persons of other faiths and other cultures there can also be no doubt.
Today as citizens of the U.S., the nation with the largest Christian population, we need not leave the country to respond to the calling to demonstrate love and respect for persons of other faiths and cultures. In the U.S. of our time, we are offered opportunities on a daily basis to live with “a pluralist mind-set”. In our “particularity” as U.S. citizens, Christian and non-Christian, we can progress towards a more “pluralist mind set” by learning and growing through our encounters with people of other cultures. Living today in the U.S., we all can be transformed by what we’ve “seen, heard and lived” among people of other cultures.
In speeches at the United Nations the last two years the President of the U.S. has defended national sovereignty and national interest as the pathway to global progress and prosperity. Choosing the forum created to foster global cooperation in the cause of world peace, economic development and human rights to extol national sovereignty highlights Trump’s heedless defiance of what makes for understanding and consensus building among nations. In a summary statement of his position, he declared in his September 2018 remarks, “We reject the ideology of globalism, and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism.”
This year in another September address, the U.S. President again attacked “the ideology of globalism” in the citadel of global cooperation. After acknowledging the UN as “the world’s biggest stage” in this year’s speech Trump chastised and bullied UN agencies on several fronts. He announced the U.S. withdrawal from the UN Human rights council, withdrawal from the UN Arms Trade Treaty, withdrawal of support for he International Criminal Court, and rejection of the Global Compact on Migration. In explanation of the last action he told the UN, “Migration should not be governed by an international body unaccountable to our own citizens.”
U.S. opposition to the global pact on migration stems in part from the U.S. administration’s hostility to references to a human caused climate crisis as a cause of increased migration. A leaked email of a U.S official working for the UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM) warned of U.S. cuts in funding for the agency. The US appointee stated the IOM policies and positions “must not be in conflict withcurrent [US government] political sensitivities”.
An article in The Guardian newspaper of September 11 links the warning to the rejection by UN officials of the Trump administration’s nominee to be head of the IOM. Most reports concurred that Ken Isaacs’ failure to be approved was due to his denials of human caused climate change. The Guardian noted that the U.S. has been contributing one fourth of the IOM budget.
Just this week, on November 4, the current U.S. Administration officially withdrew the wealthiest nation in the world from the Paris climate Accord. As the only developed country to give precedence to increasing fossil fuel production over reversing the ongoing climate catastrophe, the U.S. has now formally ceded its leadership role on the “world’s biggest stage”. The action is the most dramatic and decisive declaration that the U.S. considers its “national interest” the priority above the survival of coastal communities and survival of the human species.
Trump’s two speeches at the UN communicate his administration’s determination to pursue its nationalistic, “America First” ideology in its international relations. They ignore that progress in protection of the environment, in advancing world peace, international human rights and combatting world poverty all demand the consensus, compromise and understanding of other nations for which the UN was created. No nation, including the most powerful, can provide solutions to the world’s ills without cooperation and collaboration with other UN members. The bluster and aggressive unilateral actions of the U.S. in its foreign policies today are also a primary threat to world peace.
Having warned that the U.S. will not pay more than 25 per cent of the UN’s peacekeeping operations in last year’s speech, Trump boasted in this year’s speech of increased funding of the U.S. military. In an introductory segment of his remarks, he declared that the U.S. has “spent over two and a half trillion dollars since my election to completely rebuild our great military”. Such muscle flexing begs the question of whether excessive military expenditures and pride in U.S. military might have deluded foreign policy makers of this and previous U.S. administrations.
Perhaps the most revealing segment of the speech this year came at the beginning when Trump stated, “The essential divide that runs all around the world and throughout history is once again thrown into stark relief. It is the divide between those whose thirst for control deludes them into thinking they are destined to rule over others and those people and nations who want only to rule themselves.” Since the United States played such an important in the UN founding in 1946, its continual expansion of its armaments and military might suggest that our country has crossed over the divide Trump mentioned in the conviction we are “destined to rule over others”. The U.S. has deployed active troops in over 150 countries in the world and maintains bases in 38 nations today.
“If atomic bombs are to be added as new weapons to the arsenals of a warring world, or to the arsenals of nations preparing for war, then the time will come when mankind will curse the names of Los Alamos and Hiroshima. The people must unite, or they will perish.” J.Robert Oppenheimer spoke these words soon after the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The chief of the Los Alamos team that produced the first nuclear weapons joined many other atomic scientists in calling for international oversight of future development of atomic weapons and atomic energy.
The scientists’ anguish over the cataclysmic potential of nuclear bombs led to the creation of the Federation of Atomic Scientists of Los Alamos. Their December 1945 newsletter editorialized, “the preservation of…secrecy on a purely national basis would represent the defeat of any adequate program of international control.”
At the same time, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists was founded in 1945 by Los Alamos and Manhattan Project team members who “could not remain aloof to the consequences of their work.” Several of them also contributed essays to the best selling book of 1946 titled One World or None: A Report to the Public on the Full Meaning of the Atomic Bomb.
Oppenheimer continued to call for international control of atomic weapons in the 1960’s. At a series of lectures at Oxford in 1962 he declared, “[…] We think of this as our contribution to the making of a world which is varied and cherishes variety, which is free and cherishes freedom, and which is freely
changing to adapt to the inevitable needs of change in the twentieth century and all centuries to come, but a world which, with all its variety, freedom, and change, is without nation states armed for war and above all, a world without war.”
Albert Einstein was among the leading scientists who hoped the United Nations would provide the institutional framework for control of atomic weapons and atomic energy. He began his appeal to the Second General Assembly of the UN in 1947 lamenting: “Since the victory over the Axis powers – no appreciable progress has been made either toward the prevention of war or toward agreement in specific fields such as control of atomic energy”. Anticipating the argument that the U.S. or any other nation’s hegemony in nuclear weapons would guarantee security and peace, Einstein declared, “However, strong national armaments may be they do not create military security for any nation nor do they guarantee the maintenance of peace.”
Einstein’s appeal to the U.N. warned against the idolatry of national sovereignty as hampering progress toward international peace and security. “There can never be complete agreement on international control and the administration of atomic energy or on general disarmament until there is a modification of the traditional concept of national sovereignty…. Security is indivisible. It can be reached only when necessary guarantees of law and enforcement obtain everywhere, so that military security is no longer the problem of any single state.”
The hope for a world order without armed forces and weapons deployed by individual nation states soon gave way to the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The 1946 founding of the United Nations represented for Einstein and many others a departure from and repudiation of the logic of nationalism and national sovereignty. Expectations that progress in creating a world system of law and order would follow soon gave way to a new scramble to maintain control of the resources in the former colonies of Europe. It is the devotion to the defense of national sovereignty, a conception of world order most developed in the 19th Century, that drives opposition to “open borders” today.
Our “national sovereignty” is referred to as threatened by immigration to the U.S. Migrants today constitute an “invasion” of the country. Such language leads to further militarization of the 1,933 mile southern border of the U.S. Building a wall to ensure long term security ignores ample evidence that what hasn’t worked in the past won’t work in our time. The push for building a wall contributes to the hysteria surrounding immigration without contributing to the defense of the nation or clearing a path for progress in immigration reform.
Responding to increases in the number of migrants by building a wall does illuminate for us the dangers of clinging to outmoded, archaic thinking behind public policies based on defense of “national sovereignty”. Defense of our people in this nation from the potential consequences of atomic warfare, of global climate change and of mass migration from impoverished regions most affected requires the U.S. to rethink its posture and politics of “America First”. What must happen before we commit to international cooperation and control in this “one world or none”? What degree of catastrophe in the U.S. must occur before we open our minds to “open borders”?
A friend recently asked me, “Our immigration system is a mess but are you really for ‘open borders’?” The last serious discussion about immigration reform in the U.S. Congress got nowhere largely because Tea Party members and other Republicans loudly voiced opposition to any form of “amnesty” for immigrants who had lived in the U.S. for years without legal immigration status documentation. Now the tactic of anti-immigration reform activists seems to be to attack any reform-minded politician by accusing them of being for “open borders”.
This is an appropriate time then to consider what those have said who have looked at our earth and its conflicts from the perspective of outer space. So in this year of the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo moon landing, l respond to my friend’s inquiring if I am for “open borders” with the following comments from those who have looked at earth and our controversies from space.
“Now I know why I’m here. Not for a closer look at the moon, but to look back at our home the Earth.”
– Alfred Worden,
Apollo 15, 1971, USA
“You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.’” — Edgar Mitchell, Apollo 14 astronaut
“The first day or so we all pointed to our countries. The third or fourth day we were pointing to our continents. By the fifth day we were aware of only one Earth.”
– Sultan Bin Salman al-Saud,
Discovery 5, Saudi Arabia
“From space I saw Earth – indescribably beautiful with the scars of national boundaries gone.”
– Muhammad Amhad Faris,
Soyuz TM-3, Syria
“The Earth reminded us of a Christmas tree ornament hanging in the blackness of space. As we got farther and farther away it diminished in size. Finally it shrank to the size of a marble, the most beautiful marble you can imagine. That beautiful, warm living object looked so fragile, so delicate, that if you touched it with a finger it would crumble and fall apart. Seeing this has to change a man, has to make a man appreciate the creation of God and the love of God.”
– James Irwin,
Apollo 15, USA
The scientist who is most widely known for his contributions to U.S. advances in space travel, Carl Sagan, wrote in his 1980 best seller Cosmos ,
“National boundaries are not evident when we view the Earth from space. Fanatical ethnic or religious or national chauvinisms are a little difficult to maintain when we see our planet as a fragile blue crescent fading to become an inconspicuous point of light against the bastion and citadel of the stars.”
Based on the wisdom gained by those who have experienced space travel, proponents of immigration reform might say we need not fear to join the rest of the universe in advocating for “open borders” on our planet. Our science has enabled us to overcome human ignorance about the extraordinary nature of human beings and our earth in the cosmos but our ethics and our politics have bound us to human weakness and error in managing our responsibilities on earth.
The House of Broken Angels is a novel that seems destined to further build Mexican-American writer Luis Alberto Urrea’s international reputation and readership. Published in 2018, Urrea’s novel was glowingly reviewed by the Vietnamese-American novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen in the New York Times and is the Times-PBS “Now Read This” July Book of the Month selection.
Urrea was born in Tijuana to a Mexican father and an American mother and went to college in San Diego. Though identified as a “border writer” his website quotes him saying, “I am more interested in bridges than borders”. Like the filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón with the Academy Award winning “Roma”, Urrea’s work represents a clear window through which Mexican culture and family life can be viewed and a “bridge” is built between the U.S. and Mexico. It was inspired by the death of his older brother from cancer. He says on the Times book review podcast that his family threw a 70th birthday party for his brother, “his last birthday party on earth”, as the de la Cruz family does for the family patriarch in the book.
Another strong motivation in writing the book was political – particularly the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the Trump 2016 campaign. “The subtitle of the book should be ‘Go to Hell, Donald,’” the author told an interviewer. He went on to say, “I couldn’t any longer take all the rhetoric, I couldn’t any longer take all the ‘build-the-wall’ propaganda or the ‘bad hombres’ and all of the damage and harm and heartbreak this course in American politics is taking in people’s lives on a daily basis.” It is the author’s humor and love for all kinds of people that stand out and stay with Urrea’s readers. He says that after his public readings from the book, “I’m hugging a lot of people. Every night, my jacket smells like 14 perfumes and seven after-shaves. People want hugs.”
New York Times review in March 2018 of The House of Broken Angels :
“Now Read This” NYTimes-PBS Facebook group discussion of The House of Broken Angels :
Urrea talks about why he wrote the book with Pamela Paul on the New York Times Book Review podcast: