We, The Other People

November 15, 2016 § Leave a comment

constitution

The election of Donald Trump to the presidency last week has many people in the United States worried or scared, or both.  Anxiety is running rampant across the nation.  He was elected with something less than 25% of the vote of the voting age public, which is a problem in and of itself.  He lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton.  These are all things we must keep in mind.  Many people are feeling worried about their place in Donald Trump’s America.

Many of us feel like we don’t belong, like the nation held a referendum on our right to exist, and we lost.  People of color, immigrants, women, Muslims, LGBTQ people, disabled people and many others find themselves devalued and vulnerable to harassment. Let’s join together to hold the incoming President accountable for the fear, anger and hate he has stirred in our country. Let our voices be heard; we will not allow hatred to hold sway.

We believe that if we speak truth from the heart again and again and again, our words and stories have the power to affect change.  We create a record of our dissent.  We demand our system of government work for us, not against us.  We stand our ground in a way that honors the office of the Presidency and the promises of freedom and justice for all. ’

We, the project organizers, are documentary filmmakers and public historians who are deeply committed to making sure that all people are able contribute to the historical record. We believe that stories matter and that everyone has a right to make their voices heard.

We, The Other People is a project to collect letters from Americans and immigrants who live here.  We are all protected by the Constitution of the United States of America.

So why letters? Glad you asked:

Letters to the President of the United States (POTUS) have a long tradition. Revolutionary War veterans wrote to President Washington seeking pensions that were promised but not delivered.  Escaped African American slaves petitioned President Lincoln on behalf of their families. Children beseeched President Roosevelt to help them survive the Great Depression and Jewish Americans pleaded with their President to help get their relatives out of Nazi Germany.   Japanese Americans wrote to Reagan asking him to remember the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as the Cold War raged.

Across centuries, letters to the President have expressed the concerns, hopes, fears and expectations of our nation’s people. They have called on the holder of the seat of power to hear them and to be their leader.

We are collecting them for now on our website.  But, come January, we will deliver them to the White House, to deliver our message for an inclusive United States, to the president.  This will also ensure that the letters enter the official record and eventually end up officially documented in the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

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Immigration in the United States, plus ça change

August 7, 2014 § 8 Comments

I am doing a bit of research into the Know Nothing movement of the 1840s and 50s in the United States.  The Know Nothings were a secret society that eventually evolved into a political party, based on the premise that immigration was bad for the United States.  In short, the Know Nothings, who also formed one of the bases of the nascent Republican Party in the late 1850s, were nativists.  They believed in a United States for Americans only.  We could, of course, note the irony of that statement, given every person not of Native American heritage in this country is of immigrant stock.  But, we’ll leave that alone.  They were called Know Nothings not because they were ignorant (as my students always suppose), but because, as a secret society and asked about the society replied that they “knew nothing.”

I came across this list of things that Roman Catholics hate about the United States from the Boston Know-Nothing and American Crusader in July 1854.  The Know-Nothing and American Crusader was one of the main newspapers of the Know Nothings, and Boston was a major centre of the nativists.  Boston was ground zero, in many ways, in the ‘invasion’ of Irish immigrants and refugees in the years of the Famine and afterwards.  Here’s the list:

  1. They HATE our Republic, and are trying to overthrow it.
  2. They HATE the American Eagle, and it offends them beyond endurance to see it worn as an ornament by Americans.
  3. They HATE our Flag, as it manifest by their grossly insulting it.
  4. They HATE the liberty of conscience.
  5. They HATE the liberty of the Press.
  6. They HATE the liberty of speech.
  7. They HATE our Common School system.
  8. They HATE the Bible, and would blot it out of existence if they could!
  9. The Priests HATE married life, and yet by them is fulfilled the Scripture, to wit: ‘more are the children or the desolate, than the children of the married wife.’
  10. They HATE Protestants, and are sworn to exterminate them from our country and the earth.
  11. They HATE the name of Washington, because he was a Republican and Protestant.
  12. They HATE all rulers that do not swear allegiance to the Pope of Rome.
  13. They HATE to be ruled by Americans, and say “WE WILL NOT BE RULED BY THEM!”
  14. They HATE to support their own paupers and they are left to be supported by the tax paying Americans.
  15. They HATE, above all, the ‘Know Nothings,’ who are determined to rid this country of their accursed power.

The author of this wonderful list signed his name as “Uncle Sam.”  Newspapers in general allowed correspondents to use anonymous pseudonyms in the 19th century, so this isn’t surprising.  But the nom de plume of our correspondent is telling of the cause of the Know Nothings.

As I am doing this research, I’m thinking back to my experiences in June, when I was told by a table mate that the AP Reading I was at that I don’t belong in the United States because I “don’t love America” (I don’t “love” Canada, either, for the record).  And, thenthen, on the way home, at a layover in Dallas, another traveller, watching the news, told me that all immigrants should be rounded up and deported (this one didn’t know I was an immigrant).  And as I watch the drama unfold about the refugee children from Central America in this country, and see the horrible rhetoric coming from the right wing, I can’t help but think that, even if 170 years have passed since “Uncle Sam” published his list of things Catholics hate in The Know-Nothing and American Crusader, in some ways, nothing has changed.  The rhetoric of “Uncle Sam” echoes that of some far right politicians, commentators, and regular citizens I’ve seen on Twitter in the past month.

Of course, the Know Nothings were never a majority of Americans, any more than those so violently opposed and hard-hearted to the plight of children today are even close to a majority.  The overwhelming majority of Americans then and now do not have a problem with immigration and immigrants.  But, then as now, the squeaky wheel gets the grease.

On Immigration, Redux

June 21, 2014 § 2 Comments

In response to my post on immigration and immigrants, my friends and I got into a discussion on Facebook, comparing the political rhetoric in the US, Canada, and the UK.  Certainly, attitudes such as that expressed by my Dallas friend exist in Canada and the UK.  And there are similarities and differences between the old Anglo-Atlantic triangle.  Canada takes in more immigrants per capita than any other nation in the world (bet you didn’t know that) and the United States takes in more immigrants in absolute numbers than any other nation in the world (bet you did know that).  Canada, however, while it does have some undocumented immigrants, does not have the same issues as the United States (which likely has the highest number of undocumented people in it) and the United Kingdom.  The UK gets the undocumented through Europe and its former empire, as aspirants sneak into the nation, or overstay their visas (if you want a heartbreaking account of the undocumented in the UK, I point you to Chris Cleave’s Little Bee, or, as it’s called in Cleave’s native UK, The Other Hand).

But. There is one fundamental difference between the three nations.  In Canada and the United Kingdom, the political parties that pander to racism and anti-immigration positions (and let’s leave the undocumented out of this for now, ok?) are not in the mainstream.  Certainly, these types exist in Canada’s governing Conservative Party, but they are not in the centre of the party, at the cabinet table, etc.  And in the UK, there are certainly a few in the governing Conservative Party that express these views, but they are also similarly on the margins, and the odious UKIP party is a fringe movement.  Whereas, here in the United States, the Republican Party panders to this mindset.  It doesn’t mean, of course, that the GOP does much about to tighten immigration laws when in power, but, it still gives credence to arguments such as my Dallas friend’s.  It seeks the vote of the likes of him.  So, ultimately, anti-immigration positions are very much nearer the mainstream in the United States than in Canada or the United Kingdom.

On Immigration

June 20, 2014 § 8 Comments

Earlier this week, I was told I shouldn’t be living in the United States because I don’t “love America.”  Dismissing this comment was easy enough, it came in response to the fact I am not cheering for the US at the World Cup (France, Argentina, and then any underdog, if you must know).  But. Yesterday, at the Dallas/Fort Worth airport, a wealthy-looking, white, middle-aged man went on a rant about immigrants (not knowing I am one, he assumed because I was also white and middle-class, I must be American).  Something was on FoxNews on the TV in the lounge, I wasn’t paying attention.  I presume that’s what set this guy off.  He told me that immigrants do not belong in the United States, that they do not bring anything to the country, that they’re a drain on the resources of “this great nation.”  He opined that no immigrants whatsoever should be let into the country.  He didn’t go so far as to suggest they be rounded up and deported, though I have seen that opinion expressed on Twitter a few times.  At any rate, when I told him I was an immigrant, he looked a little confused for a second and then said, “Oh, I don’t mean you.”  I pointed out he clearly did, he said “all immigrants” are a drain and that “none” should be let in.  I walked away, leaving him looking like the idiot he was.

This unsettled me.  It’s one thing for an idiot to get mad at me for not cheering for the US in the World Cup.  That’s just knee-jerk idiocy.  It’s another for a guy to have a well-formulated, if ignorant, argument about the cost of immigration.  And before someone dismisses this as “well, that’s Texas,” let me point out that Texas is an immigrant-rich society, and not just Mexicans and other Hispanics, but also South and South East Asians.  And, for the most part, Texas, at least the cities, have integrated cultures.

At any rate, I stewed over this the rest of the day and on the flight home to Boston.  And then I got a cab home. My cabbie was from Guinea.  He couldn’t be much older than his early 30s, and he said he’s been in the US for 11 years, and made sure to note he has a Green Card.  We talked about the heat (it was hot here yesterday), the World Cup, and Montréal, and we spoke some in French.  I was his last fare of the day, the end of a 12-hour shift, 6am-6pm.  The end of a 6-day run driving a cab around Boston and the North Shore.  Today, he was up at 3am to get to work at 4am, at Dunkin’ Donuts, where he worked 4-12, as a baker.  Tomorrow, he’s back in his cab, 6am-6pm, but he is off Monday.  He works 60-70 hours a week driving a cab, and another 8-16 hours baking at Dunkin’ Donuts for a very simple reason: he needs to take care of his parents, his brother, his nieces and nephews back in Guinea.  He hasn’t been home in four years, but he keeps working to send money home.  Meanwhile, he’s also got a son here in the States, who he gets to see sometimes when he’s not working, though he supports his kid.

We often talk about how tired we are, because we’re always busy, working, etc.  But this guy was exhaustion personified.  He had dark rings under his eyes, and though he was at least pretending to be happy, his exhaustion came through.  And I thought, well, here is the face of immigration to the United States (or Canada. Or Britain.  Or France.  Or Germany).  A guy working himself to the bone at two jobs, partly to get himself ahead a little bit, but also to take care of his son, and to take care of his family back home.  He estimated if he just had to worry about himself and his son, he could quit Dunkin’ Donuts and only work 3-4 days a week driving a cab.  But, he has responsibilities and obligations.

I enjoyed talking to him, though I feel horrible for him.  But I respected his attitude, that he had to do this, it was his responsibility to his son, his parents, his brother, his nieces and nephews.  This is the immigrant life.  It is not, as my Texan friend claims, collecting welfare (immigrants can’t, just so you know, though refugees are entitled to some support), procreating, and being drug dealers, prostitutes, and terrorists.

Immigration: The More Common North American Experience

September 6, 2013 § 4 Comments

The scenery as we drove across the United States and back was amazing.  So were many of the place names.  There is a town in Colorado named Rifle.  Another town in Colorado is called Cahones.  I kid you not.  But perhaps my favourite highway road sign in all of the United States was this one we saw on the side of I-84 in Eastern Oregon.

photo The sign pretty much says it all.  Canadian and American culture is full of stories of the successful immigrant, the ones who came to these shores with nothing and made lives for themselves, who made fortunes and found fame.  And while certainly there were a few who experienced this good fortune on North American shores, the majority did not.  Most settled somewhere in between fame and fortune and poverty and despair.

Certainly, pop culture contains references to the downside of emigration.  In Canada, university students in Canadian history and literature are tortured with perhaps one of the worst books in Christendom, Susanna Moodie’s interminable Roughing It In the Bush, Or, Life in Canada, about the trials and tribulations of Moodie and her husband, John Weddiburn Dunbar Moodie, a down-at-the-heels member of the British gentry, in the wilds of Upper Canada in the 1830s and 40s.  While Moodie was a horrible writer and her husband an even worse poet, the book is a key text on the struggles of even wealthy emigrants in the British colonies in the mid-nineteenth century (it worked out ok for the Moodies, they ended up moderately wealthy and living in the thriving town of Belleville, Ontario).

One of my favourite Pogues songs is “Thousands Are Sailing,” which is the story of downtrodden Irish emigrants in New York City in the 19th century.  The song is actually kind of heartbreaking.

So this sign for an exit on I-70 in Eastern Oregon struck me as a remarkable site.  Old Emigrant Hill Road is on the northern side of I-70, and it runs into Poverty Flat Road on the southern side of the highway.  Obviously, these two roads have been there for a lot longer than the Interstate.  And, as you can see from the terrain surrounding the sign for the exit on the highway, the landscape around Poverty Flat Road isn’t exactly all that welcoming.  This was also a common experience for emigrants to the “New World” in the 19th and 20th centuries: they ended up farming lands that were not conducive to growing much of anything.  Generations struggled to make a living on these farms until someone, whether out of optimism or desperation, decided to clear off the land and make his or her fortunes elsewhere.

Perhaps this is the more common story of the immigrant in North America than the one of fame and fortune.

Arrival Cities: The Book

December 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

I have touched on Doug Saunders’ Arrival City previously on this blog here and here. This review was also in the works with Current Intelligence before I left back in 2011.  So, I am sticking it here for my own purposes.

Doug Saunders.  Arrival City: The Final Migration and Our Next World. London: William Heinemann, 2010.  ISBN: 9780307396891. 356pp.

Doug Saunders’ Arrival City was published to almost universal acclaim last fall.  The Guardian nearly fell over itself hailing it as “the perfect antidote to the doom-laden determinism of the last popular book on urbanisation, Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums” and declaring it “the best popular book on cities since Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities half a century ago.” Saunders’ own newspaper, The Globe & Mail hails his calming certitude on the wonderful nature of progress that the city provides us.  And the Wall Street Journal praises Arrival Cities for its optimistic view of globalisation.

Certainly, Arrival Cities is an important book, its well-written and is clearly and cogently argued. It is also somewhat of a disappointment, at least in the first half of the book.  Saunders is the European Bureau Chief for  The Globe & Mail and his reportage and columns generally provide a balanced view of the world; his is one of the few columns in that newspaper I actively seek out. Thus, I expected more from Arrival Cities.  I did not get it.  While Saunders does give us a counter-narrative to Davis’ doom and gloom, it occasionally reads Pollyana-ish.  And at times, Saunders’ journalistic eye overwhelms his argument. Indeed, Dwight Garner in The New York Times notes this problem: his lengthy quotes from the people he talked to in arrival cities around the world sound formulaic and too easy.

Certainly, Planet of Slums was an overly statistical analysis, and statistics are on the aggregate level, they do not always us to view the micro- and quotidian levels. But Arrival City is plagued by the opposite problem: in focusing on a success story or two from each of the arrival cities he visits around the world (and Saunders has certainly been travelling the world), he over-personalises his arguments, which gives the impression that he’s choosing to extrapolate the success stories he saw, not the marginalised.  Certainly, all of the people in arrival cities are marginalised in the larger sense of the word, but within the poor, there are class/caste divisions.

More fundamental, though, is Saunders’ reliance on Hernando de Soto’s arguments that all people need in the slums and favellas of the world is security of tenure, if they owned their own homes, all would be good. As Davis notes, the problem with titling in the slums is that it perpetuates the problem of class, in that the wealthier squatters win and the poorer lose, or continue to lose. And de Soto has also been criticised for over-estimating the amount of wealth land titling would create.  The other problem of de Soto’s claims is the very notion of property: generally speaking, slums and favellas work due to the co-operation between residents.  The creation of private property is at diametrical odds to this economic system. Saunders parrots de Soto throughout large part of Arrival City, arguing that private ownership of homes and security of tenure would encourage slum-dwellers to, essentially, take pride in their homes and communities and would give them a base of capital to invest in the economy.  This is not to suggest that de Soto and Saunders are all wrong and their critics all right, but it is to suggest that life does not work quite as neatly and systematically as de Soto and Saunders would hope.

The first five chapters of the book are also plagued by an alarming ahistoricism as Saunders takes us on a tour of arrival cities across the globe from London to Dhaka, Nairobi, Los Angeles, and Shenzhen. In Chapter 5, he looks a the historical growth of cities in the west, focussing specifically on Paris, London, Toronto, and Chicago. Oddly enough, even in a historical chapter, one is left alarmed at Saunders’ ahistoricism.  In discussing the differences between urbanisation rates in the United Kingdom and France in the mid-19th century, Saunders somehow manages to overlook the major impetus behind urbanisation in that century: the Industrial Revolution.  The Industrial Revolution is the determinative factor behind the wildly different rates of urbanisation in France and Britain in the 19th century, plain and simple.

Also, a cardinal crime to an entire generation of historians, Saunders attempts to take on E.P. Thompson and The Making of the English Working Class. The problem is that he seems not to have read the book.  He says that Thompson sees his working class heroes as “passive victims.” This is just plain wrong, the key argument that emerges from The Making is that the working classes were not just passive victims, that they employed agency in agitating for their rights through corresponding societies, proto-unions, and through the church.

In addition, one is left rather flummoxed by Saunders’ apparent naïveté in looking at housing projects in Paris.  He criticises the project builders for not soliciting input from those who were to be the future residents of the projects. Seriously. Nonetheless, he does make the point that the lack of accountability on the part of both the authorities and residents in the projects, to say nothing of their discombobulating impact on community.

Following this, however, Arrival City improves exponentially, in the final five chapters.  In this sense, it is as if the book is split in two.  In the second half of the book, Saunders seems to adopt a more complicated approach to the arrival cities of the world.  This includes pointing out the ridiculousness of immigration policies in Canada and the United States.  Canada and the United States take in the largest number of immigrants in the world, at least on a per capita basis for Canada, a relatively tiny (population-wise) country.

But it is Saunders’ chapter on the geçekondus that surround Istanbul that really shines.  Here, we get a detailed, excellent study of the politics of the geçekondus from the 1970s to today and the struggle of the resident of the slums to attain regularisation and integration into Istanbul.  Istanbul, of course, is one of the fastest growing cities in the world.  In 1950, Istanbul’s population was 983,000; today, over 13,000,000 call the city home.  The slums on the Asian side of the Bosporus grew up in the 70s as impoverished rural Turks migrated to the great city.  They established their slum housing outside the boundaries of the city and then agitated for the right to have such luxuries as running water and sewers.  The organisers of the 70s and 80s were almost all radical lefties and, during the military dictatorship and its aftermath in Turkey, many spent time in jail and saw their homes routinely torn down.  By the turn of the millennium, their geçekondus had been integrated into Istanbul (a large part of what saw the city’s population triple in the past thirty years).  Today, these old geçekondus are now part of the inner ring of Istanbul suburbs, fully integrated into the city, and the children of these old radicals are Istanbullus.  However, the geçekondus aren’t simply a case of de Soto’s economic theories being put into practice, the regularisation of the geçekondus and their residents, the geçekondullus, required state assistance.

In the second half of the book, Saunders also goes beyond the role of banks and business in the regularisation of the arrival cities.  He also notes that the state needs to take an activist role, whether of its own accord or spurred on by the arrival city residents.  In order to do this, however, the state needs to have the resources to do so.  This is simply not possible in many impoverished and/or corrupt developing world nations, like Bangladesh.  Instead, it requires the intervention of richer nations like Turkey, which could afford for Istanbul to absorb and regularise its geçekondus.  But more than this, the integration and regularisation of these arrival cities is necessary for local schools, jobs, health care facilities, water and sewer services, and transportation.  And then, finally, Saunders strikes a balance between the de Soto right and the Davis left:

What comes from this work, and form the experiences of families like the Magalhãeses in Brazil and the Parabs in India, is a conclusion that is unlikely to please the ideologues on the socialist left or the free-market right: to achieve social mobility and a way into the middle class for the rural-migrant poor, you need to have both a free market in widely held private property and a strong assertive government willing to spend heavily on this transition.  When both are present, change will happen [p. 288].

What we are left with then, is half a great book. The first half of Arrival City is done in by its overly simplistic and journalistic approach, its lack of historicity and its over-reliance on de Soto.  In the second half, though, Saunders finds his feet, and finds his own original argument that more than splits the difference between de Soto and Davis.  I remain unconvinced that the urbanisation of humanity on such a level as we are seeing today is a good thing, but it is also a truism throughout history, at least in the West, that periods of urbanisation have spurred on trade, the economy, and general human progress. And during periods of de-urbanisation, such as in the Dark Ages following the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, Europeans were only slightly more evolved than cavemen, at least in relation to the rest of the Mediterranean world and the Middle East, as David Levewing Lewis points out in God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 579-1215Either way, there is no simple answer to the question of the massive urbanisation of the globe today, despite what the Mike Davises and Doug Saunderses of the world would have us believe.

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