Wednesday, July 23, 2014


Once again immigration is making headlines in the American media as thousands of children - most of them from Guatemala - have been apprehended crossing into Texas from Mexico. To deal with the astonishing volume of these unaccompanied children, attempts have been made by the Federal government to transfer some of them to other states while their individual cases await processing. This has provoked protests from people - all descendants of immigrants (unless they're native Americans) - in some communities who fear that the children will simply be let loose on their streets, rather than processed for eventual deportation back to their home countries. They're afraid that the children will become tax burdens by attending their public schools and will - eventually - take away jobs from its legal citizens.

In 2001 I was living in Des Moines and that summer I read in the news about the discovery of a railway car that was filled with the bodies of undocumented alien immigrants, who had been suffocated in the overheated car. An investigation failed to find enough information about where the immigrants had come from, how they got all the way to Iowa, or where on earth they were going. In the nearly five years I lived in Des Moines (If you could call it living) I had three dead-end jobs, one of which was with a private security company. My duties included the patrolling of Des Moines' downtown skywalks - a public network of elevated passageways that passed over streets and through office buildings. Since they were heated during the winter months and air-conditioned during the summer, the skywalks attracted the city's many homeless people, looking for shelter from the elements. My uniform resembled a policeman's, with the subtle difference that the patches on my shoulders were shaped like shields rather than the circular patches worn by the Des Moines P.D. So I actually looked more like a cop than the cops. The skywalks were closed between midnight and six a.m., so I had to roust them out if they were sleeping in some hiding place, which were sometimes easy to find, sometimes not. With nothing but time on their hands, the homeless could be surprisingly creative when they had to be. But what surprised me the most about them was that they were relatively young, and almost all of them were white. I should add that, for various reasons, most of them suffered from some form of mental illness.

The only people who were permitted in the skywalks after midnight - besides my fellow "officers" and I - were the cleaning crews, who usually paid me no notice as they went about their work. Their jobs ranged from mopping floors to vacuuming carpets to emptying innumerable waste baskets floor by floor in the office buildings. One night on duty, a co-worker and I decided to visit the break room in one of the many buildings through which we were walking. It was on a floor below the skywalks, so we took an elevator down. The moment we entered the break room, a group of cleaning women - all Hispanic - who were sitting around a table, jumped up and fled from the room, despite my attempts to reassure them. They mistook us for cops, and, for mysterious but suspicious reasons, ran from us. Whether they were in the U.S. illegally or were simply wary of policemen, I will never know.(1)

A few years later, living in Anchorage, Alaska, I got a similar job and I came across other office cleaning people, all Hispanic, all presumably holding green cards (permanent resident visas). What always struck me was the obvious fact that these people from Mexico and Guatemala and Honduras and Nicaragua had come all the way to America - all the way to Des Moines and Anchorage and every other American city,(2) and that they must've known there was work waiting for them when they arrived. Why, indeed, would they have come so far if they weren't convinced that work was waiting for them? And the work that was waiting for them is tailor-made for immigrants: an army of men and women to clean office buildings, no qualifications required, no education, with little or no knowledge of English, unafraid of hard physical work, probably earning a minimum wage and, obviously, no questions asked about their immigration status.

Feeble attempts are sometimes made to penalize the companies that hire illegals, but nothing changes. And what about the office building managements who contract the companies that hire illegals? Aren't they also culpable? The people on the right of the immigration issue always argue that these immigrants are taking away much-needed jobs from Americans, at a time when unemployment is high. I can't claim to know how these undocumented aliens live, but I know where and how they work. Most of the jobs that these immigrants get when they arrive at their destinations are the kind that few Americans are either capable or willing to perform for a minimum wage. Only people for whom a job that pays far more than they could possibly earn in their home countries would take these jobs. Yes, their employers are exploiting them by paying them the merest minimum the law requires them to pay. Americans would be more amenable to accepting such jobs if the wage were higher. Americans could probably be persuaded to pick fruit if the wage were commensurate with the labor. Americans may be lazy, but they're understanding of quid pro quo is, by now, quite sophisticated. But, for now, who else but these immigrants, documented or undocumented, will do the work?   

(1) I also noticed, whenever I stopped at a convenience store on my way home from work, how everyone shopping in the store began to act suspicious the moment they saw me in uniform.
(2) I knew a man who got a job as a deputy sheriff in Dodge City, Kansas, who told me that more than half the population of the city, home to a huge meat-packing industry, was Hispanic.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Time Out

Yet another world sporting event has concluded (the World Cup of what we in the States call "soccer") in an orgy of flag-waiving nationalism and tears and adulation from millions of fans watching the televised games all over the world. The team from USA made it - to everyone's surprise - to the "knockout" stage for their group of teams and were - to no one's surprise - knocked out.

Brazil, the host country, spent enormous sums of public money constructing the venues for the games, spread all over the world's fifth-largest nation, only to see the home team "massacred" (to use the violent and often belligerent language of sports) by Germany 7-1.

Announcers glibly informed us that, while the games were in progress, everyday life in many countries "ground to a halt." While there is multinational money invested in the teams and players competing for the World Cup, there is a great amount of national pride as well. The wisdom of staking a nation;s self-esteem and international reputation on eleven young men in possession of an extremely dubious talent is just one of the many curiosities of world sports.

Because I am not a sports fan, such events as World Cups and Olympics hold minimal interest. Because of the overwhelming emphasis on winning, I find sports wholly unedifying. But watching the behavior of the people who watch the games is often fascinating.

As Francis Fukuyama instructed us in his eminently hopeful book The End of History and the Last Man, all the "major problems" of world history have been (or were when the book was published in 1992) solved and that we have witnessed "the end of all large disputes" and we now live in "a world where struggle over all of the large issues has largely been settled." However much you may buy into Fukuyama's claims, sporting events have clearly become outlets for people's aggressive energies. It's thanks to stricter security at major sporting events that the behavior of fans, often regardless of what's happening on the playing field, doesn't degenerate into outright brawling. Rivalry between city teams can be extreme in many countries, but in international competitions, national pride and patriotism often gives way to nationalism. Clemenceau once defined the difference: whereas patriotism is simply loving one's country, nationalism is hating everyone else's country.

George Orwell noticed the reliance of sports on nationalism:

"There cannot be much doubt that the whole thing is bound up with the rise of nationalism - that is, with the lunatic modern habit of identifying oneself with large power units and seeing everything in terms of competitive prestige."

But Orwell didn't stop there. (Let's restrict the argument to the sports that attract the most demonstrative fans - world soccer, American football, hockey, and basketball.):

"Even when the spectators don't intervene physically, they try to influence the game by cheering their own side and "rattling" opposing players with boos and insults. Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence; in other words it is war minus the shooting."

What Orwell didn't address is why "war minus the shooting" isn't a pretty good idea, that the aggression that many people - probably a majority - keep bottled up all week has to have some outlet or other and that screaming and stomping fr a few hours in a crowd of screaming and stomping fellows is probably therapeutic. It may not be that this pent-up aggression develops spontaneously or it may be that a feeling of powerlessness in people's lives, the inability to escape from debt, from an unfulfilling job, from the fear of unemployment, from the everyday mutual exploitation that our culture promotes, inspires aggressiveness in them. And because it is a group activity, there is probably a strong desire in individuals to assure others of their social availability - that they are one of them, no better or worse, and that they won;t be left out of the following day's enthusiastic talk around the water cooler.

Expecting justice is these matters is laughable, but I, for one, don't believe in a "natural" or "instinctive" aggressiveness in human beings. Such aggression must have environmental causes. Lord Wellington claimed that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. What he meant was that the British officers in his army were all educated at Eton, or at other old public schools, and that the values instilled in them there helped shape them into capable battle commanders. But what if conflicts in general could be settled on a playing field?

There is talk that Brazil's great loss at the World Cup has left a wound that will be felt by Brazilians for generations. The loss of a soccer game might even inspire a radical political response. It may sound ridiculous, and certainly some conflicts can never be resolved without bloodshed, but at least it wasn't an actual battle in which Brazil was "humiliated."

Monday, July 14, 2014

Two Ways About Love

Visiting friends once and staying with them in their home, I noticed how their two children, who were aged eight and four at the time, would follow a curious procedure whenever they wanted something. They would first ask their father for it, and if he wouldn't let them have what they wanted, I watched them as they waited and then asked their mother for it, and she would give it to them.

Evidently, children learn very early the political landscape of their environment. The father loves them, but is too practical-minded and preoccupied with qualifications. He considers what his children want, but also what they have done to deserve it. Children have to earn his largesse, whereas the mother, if it is within her power, will provide it without hesitating, and doesn't consider if they are deserving or not.

In 1960, when he was eighty-six, Robert Frost was interviewed by Richard Poirier for The Paris Review. When Poirier mentioned to Frost that he didn't "have a reputation for being a New Dealer," he responded:

"They think I'm no New Dealer. But really and truly I'm not, you know, all that clear on it. In 'The Death of the Hired Man' that I wrote long, long ago, long before the New Deal, I put in two ways about home. One would be the manly way: 'Home is the place where, when you have to go there/They have to take you in.' That's the man's feeling about it. And then the wife says: 'I should have called it/Something you somehow haven't to deserve.' That's the New Deal, the feminine way of it, the mother's way. You don't have to deserve your mother's love. You have to deserve your father's. He's more particular. One's a Republican, one's a Democrat. The father is always a Republican toward his son, and his mother's always a Democrat. Very few have noticed that second thing; they've always noticed the sarcasm, the hardness of the male one."

This sound simple, in the inimitable way that Frost has of putting even the most profound ideas, but it certainly has a ring to it.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Expended Families

Ideally, in the imaginary Best of All Possible Worlds, marriages are designed to add branches to a family tree and, taking its cue from far into the past, extend its life further into the future. For some marriages, however, that ideal is rather hard to live up to.

Marriage to a boy that our parents didn't approve of took my older sister out of my life when I was 5 years old. Henceforth, seeing her only on holidays made her seem to me more like an aunt than a sister. I lived with her for a month in her house when I was 11, and she came back to live with our parents when I was in college. It was good to have my sister back, but it simply couldn't make up for all the years lost.

When I was 12, my younger sister got married and went away to live with her husband. My parents and I moved when I was 17, and she eventually followed when her marriage faltered. We moved again, she married again. She took me in when I was discharged from the Navy, and my wife joined me there more than a year later.

When I eventually joined the Navy, a sort of (unconsummated) marriage to Uncle Sam, it took me away from home for seven years. My father died just three months into my first enlistment. My older sister died less than a year later. For a short while I experienced the strange freedom of moorlessness - what Milan Kundera called The Unbearable Lightness of Being. But when I got out, my own marriage seemed to do the rest. It took me away from what was left of my family, my mother, brother and sister, all living in the same town. 

I graduated from Army basic training in June 1997. In attendance and staying for a weekend. were my wife, my mother and my sister, who had driven all the way to Fort Sill in Lawton, Oklahoma from Denver. After the ceremony, we all ate at a place on post called the Gunner's Inn and I used my very first overnight pass to spend the night in a motel with my wife. Over the next two days, I saw little of my mother, who was 79 that year, and my sister.  I spent nearly all my free moments with my wife. The weekend over, my mother and sister left Lawton for the long drive back to Denver, and my wife took a bus to Oklahoma City from whence she caught a plane home. I didn;t know it then, but I had another eighteen months away from home to endure.

Now my own marriage is over, so many years later, my brother, sister and I (my mother died '98) have so much to catch up on that there might not be enough time. The fact that we three live thousands of miles apart is a complication that I'm working to correct. Perhaps we could forget the catching up part and simply concentrate on making the most of the time we have left, and rediscover - not what we once had, but the family we still have, binding us loosely but surely as we three ease into our golden years.

I heard a Chinese proverb the other day: "Sometimes you have to burn down your house to see the moon." Yes, but it also means you'll have to be doing a lot of rebuilding.