A Deep Breath

Sometimes we Progressives need to stop beating the right wing with whatever club comes to hand. We’re starting to behave like them. Here, for instance, we see the avuncular phiz of Raul Grijalva, a congressman from Arizona and the poster boy for resistance to the new law in that state which allows any deputy sheriff to approach law-abiding, innocent Hispanic-looking Americans and demand to see their citizenship papers.

Except it isn’t true. The part of the law that came closest to that–allowing  any law officer to decide whether there was probable cause to believe a person was illegal–was amended a week later to make it clear that only people already being busted for some other violation could be asked to prove their status.

The news media, including bloggers, tweeters, and honkers, preferred the simple version of the story, the one in which the fascists are loose in Arizona. Not that there aren’t plenty of them around.

Rep. Grijalva is generally OK by me. He works consistently for the things I would work for if I had his job. But the guy is crying wolf on this law, which is in line with federal immigration law as well as the California immigration statutes. Admittedly, the law is draconian–and a little loony, with its emphasis on people being able to sue if the law is NOT enforced–but it’s not unconstitutional, or at least so far it’s not. It has been challenged.

And illegal immigration might be inevitable, what with government and industry competing to see who can look the other way the hardest, but that doesn’t mean it’s OK. There are plenty of problems caused by our many thousands of illegal immigrants, not the least of which is that our economy is not quite real. And I can’t really blame people for being annoyed about it.

I think it’s important for progressives to be honest about things–heaven knows there are enough real things to be against–so let’s take a look at this law. It’s just a few pages.


I’m not a lawyer, much to my mother’s dismay, but what we have here, if you read carefully, is a law that says officers of state and local governments in Arizona are required to follow federal guidelines for the treatment of arrested suspects who cannot produce legitimate ID and give the officers reason to believe they’re illegal. Essentially, the law says, “If you think they’re illegal, you have to turn them over to the feds.”

The people who framed this charming bit of legislation are trying to make sure that officers aren’t allowed to cut slack for anybody who hasn’t jumped through all the hoops. You might agree, or you might not, but it’s not the same thing as the SS asking to see your papers.

And here’s something else: The Arizona law isn’t really that different from California law. It’s true that in California we emphasize that the arrested person has the right to contact their consulate, or whatever,–and in Arizona, it’s “oh, yeah, if you have a minute, give the Mexicans a call”–but it’s not that different.

Here’s the California version:

834b.  (a) Every law enforcement agency in California shall fully cooperate with the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service regarding any person who is arrested if he or she is suspected of being present in the United States in violation of federal immigration laws.

(b) With respect to any such person who is arrested, and suspected of being present in the United States in violation of federal immigration laws, every law enforcement agency shall do the following:

(1) Attempt to verify the legal status of such person as a citizen of the United States, an alien lawfully admitted as a permanent resident, an alien lawfully admitted for a temporary period of time or as an alien who is present in the United States in violation of immigration laws. The verification process may include, but shall not be limited to, questioning the person regarding his or her date and place of birth, and entry into the United States, and demanding documentation to indicate his or her legal status.

(2) Notify the person of his or her apparent status as an alien who is present in the United States in violation of federal immigration laws and inform him or her that, apart from any criminal justice proceedings, he or she must either obtain legal status or leave the United States.

(3) Notify the Attorney General of California and the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service of the apparent illegal status and provide any additional information that may be requested by any other public entity.

(c) Any legislative, administrative, or other action by a city, county, or other legally authorized local governmental entity with jurisdictional boundaries, or by a law enforcement agency, to prevent or limit the cooperation required by subdivision (a) is expressly prohibited.

834c.  (a) (1) In accordance with federal law and the provisions of this section, every peace officer, upon arrest and booking or detention for more than two hours of a known or suspected foreign national, shall advise the foreign national that he or she has a right to communicate with an official from the consulate of his or her country, except as provided in subdivision (d). If the foreign national chooses to exercise that right, the peace officer shall notify the pertinent official in his or her agency or department of the arrest or detention and that the foreign national wants his or her consulate notified.

(2) The law enforcement official who receives the notification request pursuant to paragraph (1) shall be guided by his or her agency’s procedures in conjunction with the Department of State Guidelines Regarding Foreign Nationals Arrested or Detained in the United States, and make the appropriate notifications to the consular officers at the consulate of the arrestee.

(3) The law enforcement official in charge of the custodial facility where an arrestee subject to this subdivision is located shall ensure that the arrestee is allowed to communicate with, correspond with, and be visited by, a consular officer of his or her country.

(b) The 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations Treaty was signed by 140 nations, including the United States, which ratified the agreement in 1969. This treaty guarantees that individuals arrested or detained in a foreign country must be told by police “without delay” that they have a right to speak to an official from their country’s consulate and if an individual chooses to exercise that right a law enforcement official is required to notify the consulate.

(c) California law enforcement agencies shall ensure that policy or procedure and training manuals incorporate language based upon provisions of the treaty that set forth requirements for handling the arrest and booking or detention for more than two hours of a foreign national pursuant to this section prior to December 31, 2000.

(d) Countries requiring mandatory notification under Article 36 of the Vienna Convention shall be notified as set forth in this section without regard to an arrested or detained foreign national’s request to the contrary. Those countries, as identified by the United States Department of State on July 1, 1999, are as follows:

(1) Antigua and Barbuda.

And etc.


Journalism Is Not a Plot

And that brings me back to the point. I think we all can agree that traditional journalism is dead. Not newspapers—they would have died anyway. Journalism. The calling. The business of seeing something that other people cannot—a forest fire, a war, a school-board meeting, a bit of corruption—and describing it clearly for those who aren’t there. The conscious practice of keeping one’s opinion out of the story and allowing those involved to speak for themselves.

I am well aware that journalism has never been perfect, and that the media have always been used to shape public opinion, but at its best the profession of journalism served society well.

And it’s gone with the wind.

Several things contributed to journalism’s demise. If you’re actually still sitting and reading this, you’re participating in one of those things. The old saying that “the Press is only free to the man who owns one” is now passé. Everybody has a means of shouting into the crowd.

Another cause of death was the realization by “leaders” of business and government alike that silence is the best policy. If you don’t say anything, nobody can prove you’re lying, and the public will move on to something else—probably involving Michael Jackson’s doctor—within weeks.

And then there’s the conscious poisoning of the well by the right wing, which learned its lesson well when major newspapers, prodded into action by The Washington Post’s Katie Graham and her boys Woodward and Bernstein, those bastards, brought down Richard Nixon and most of his crew. Ironically, by the standards of today’s Republican Party, Nixon was a squishy liberal. (Gerald Ford’s administration, responsible for picking up the pieces, included a couple of young guys named Rumsfeld and Cheney. The new director of the CIA was George H.W. Bush.)  The lesson learned by the rich and powerful—sorry for the redundancy—was, “Tell everybody over and over and over that the establishment Press is a bunch of privileged, fancy-pants liars.”

Alas, there was something to that, after Watergate. Before that, journalism was a working-class profession indulged in by people who could read and write and who were pissed off, or at least amused, by the antics of their betters. Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, and Finley Peter Dunne (“Trust everybody, but cut the cards.”) are exemplars. Those of you who spent time in the San Francisco Bay Area once upon a time might remember a bunch of guys named  Herb Caen, Stanton Delaplane, Charles McCabe and Art Hoppe. They all started by essentially following the fire trucks. (“The editor said, ‘Rewrite this. I want all those fleeing inhabitants to be scantily clad.'”— Stanton Delaplane)

But after All The President’s Men, The Lou Grants of the game gave way to the Harvard grads. I don’t want to indulge in casual character assassination, but—OK, I’m lying. The new boys, with glory in mind, big-name college degrees in hand and family connections to the publishers, didn’t have to sell out. It came with the territory. They didn’t even know they were doing it.

(Dunne, whose “Mr. Dooley” I quoted above, graduated last in his class from high school in Chicago, and that was the end of his education. He didn’t even settle on his legal name until he had tried out a couple of variations.)


This seems to be the Century of Magical Thinking. While most Americans are watching Dancing With the Stars and wishing their son-in-law had a job, a few superior people are struggling hard in vicious hit-and-run raids up and down Wall Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. They all want to be the toughest kid on the playground, se are the fuhrers–sorry–leaders of  The tea-party folks are few in number, but they glow from within, armed with the sure knowledge that they are saving the country from, uh, me. Their coffee-klatches, their newsletters and the paint for their bizarre signs portraying Barack Obama now as a monkey, now as Adolf Hitler,  is paid for by the Koch brothers, whose family fortune comes in at the very least at tens of billions of dollars.

David Koch, Libertarian

The Democrats, sharp as ever, dance anxiously around the subjects of our vanishing public school system, our literally insane healthcare system, and the emergence of a huge unemployed underclass, hoping to avoid pissing off the corporate leaders who throw them bones from time to time just in case the party manages to seize control of the Senate for a couple of weeks.

y manage to   with the help of Somehow the Leftists have ruined our logical, gentle society, but we can get it back if we only get rid of every possible way in which people cooperate with each other to make life easier. The best thing to do is to turn everything over to the people who really know how to do things—corporate managers.

Anybody else here ever work at a big corporation?

I’m a little skeptical about the triumph of rugged individualism. I remember when I was a kid. On one salary, my parents were able to raise four children and build a house. And rack my brains as I might, I don’t remember stepping over unconscious homeless people in our driveway. The auto companies cranked out new behemoths each year, and everybody expected the oil companies’ profits to grow. As they should. A triumph for capitalism. And yet we got polio shots at school—an early warning of the coming socialist takeover. I guess I just didn’t know, as I saw the union plumbers and truck drivers passing by, that we were all Soviet dupes.

It cannot have escaped your attention that we in what we choose to call “The West” are in a crisis of confidence. From financial commentary on the Charles Schwab site to the most innocuous movie reviews on the CBC, “Doom” is the tolling bell in the background. doom is the

Steady Drumbeat

Democracy’s Genetic Weakness

In August 2004 we were in the middle of another “national election”—or, if you wish, “unbelievably expensive shitstorm of lies and misdirection”—and as it happened I was also working my way through a pile of back issues of The New Yorker that I was keeping on the bathroom floor.

What.  Like you don’t do that.

Anyway, I had an epiphany, right there in the library. In an August 30 article entitled “The Unpolitical Animal,” a guy named Louis Menand pointed out (at great length) that American elections are generally decided by people with no political philosophy.

My first instinct is to think of these people as idiots. In a world swirling with issues that ultimately will decide whether any form of real democracy can survive, these folks go out and do their civic duty by voting according to campaign slogans, or the candidates’ dogs, or the color of their posters.

Menand referred extensively to the work of a political scientist named Philip Converse, who had concluded (in a sexy article called “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics”) that “only around ten per cent of the public has what can be called … a political belief system.” Keep in mind that this ten percent includes voters on both the left and right. He named these people “ideologues,” by which he meant not that they are fanatics but that they have “a reasonable grasp of ‘what goes with what’—of how a set of opinions adds up to a coherent political philosophy.”

In other words, “idealogues” are the people who see the connection between manufacturing being moved to to China to keep prices down (or, uh, profits high), and the problem of unemployment in Buffalo. Only ten percent seem to understand that you can’t cut taxes while you spend billions on war(s) and still expect your town to have a school bus. Or, in right-wing terms, you can’t allow schoolteachers to be represented by a union and still expect the kids to learn about Jesus.

Most voters, Converse said (about 42 percent in a 1956 survey), vote on the basis not of ideology but of “perceived self-interest,” which is logical, as far as it goes. Another 25 percent vote according to their sense of whether times are good or bad. Of course, in 1956 we didn’t have TV news, and Fox “News” in particular, to help us decide what our best interests might be, or to beat the drum of impending apocalypse until we don’t even hear it any more.


This absence of “real opinions” is not from lack of brains, Menand says; it’s from lack of interest.


And approximately 22 percent vote for reasons that have nothing to do with issues, self-interest, the stock market–nothing. They vote for the candidate with the nicest smile, or they vote against all the incumbents because there’s been too much rain lately.

(If you are interested in the original article, which covers a lot more ground and includes the work of many people, you can go here, or just go to the newyorker.com archives and look for “The Unpolitical Animal.”)

The meaning of that 22 percent is that, for every voter, left or right, with a coherent political belief system, there are two voters who have no political views at all.

• From 1952 to 2000, when prospective voters were asked who they wanted to win, between 22 and 44 percent of the responses were “don’t care” or “don’t know.”

• In 2000, five percent of the electorate decided who they were going to vote for on the day of the election. Menand noted that five percent would be enough to swing many elections.

• Seventy percent of Americans, according to Menand, cannot name their senators or their representative.*

This absence of “real opinions” is not from lack of brains, Menand says; it’s from lack of interest. “It’s not that people know nothing. It’s just that politics is not what they know.”

I was surprised to learn this. For years I thought I was a typical person, and that everyone went around agonizing over their political assumptions from time to time. Seemingly not.

And so in 2010, as they do after every presidential election, a sizable number of voters went out and–because their lives had not become a bed of roses–voted for the other guys.

Or, and this is much worse, believing their previous worship of Obama to have been betrayed, they stayed home and allowed the idiots in the paragraph above to sway the election.

For the love of whatever it is you cherish, I beg you: Be one of the ten percent. Regardless of how I feel about conservatives, or anarchists, or liberals, I can admire them if they are thinking. We have all heard the cliché that democracy is not a spectator sport, which usually is taken to mean that one should go out and vote. And that’s true, but I would add that democracy cannot survive too many people who vote without thinking, as if democracy were a sport.



* Kids! Try this at home! Ask your friends who their representatives are! Fun for the whole civilization!


Don’t Raise The Bar, Just Put One SOMEWHERE

Anybody else here read the “comments” that now follow almost every online news story? I know I shouldn’t. It raises my blood pressure faster than a pound of bacon, but I can’t turn away. It doesn’t matter if it’s The Washington Post or Market Watch, the commentary offers a sort of voyeurism—a direct conduit into the minds of people I don’t want to know:  The friendly neighbors who invite you to dinner, where they regale you with stories about how the Jews are responsible for 9/11.

Who decided that readers should have an instant forum? Few people know enough about a subject to add to the story, and many people are MEAN, particularly when protected by anonymity. It’s like otherwise respectable people flipping each other off on the freeway.

Once upon a time—and not so long ago, so shut up—if people felt strongly enough to make a statement about something they had read in a paper or magazine, they mailed in a letter or postcard, often using entire sentences, and put their name on it. They had to pay for a stamp, and then hope the editor chose their particular point of view to include in the “Readers Reply!” section.

But now we are in the future. I still don’t have a personal helicopter, which still pisses me off, but I can read a story about economics, or education, or religion, and immediately write to tell the author publicly that he or she is not just wrong, but also a disgusting, pathetic loser who should be beaten in the parking lot. And then I can sign it “Patriot438” or “kooldood.”

I get most of my news from Canadian sources now, primarily the CBC, but that doesn’t mean the “commentary” is polite or intelligent. If they run a story about a farmer who gets caught in a thresher and loses an arm, the comments on the story will start with “My prayers are with that poor man.” Which is annoying enough.

But within five posts, someone will clock in with: “The guys to stuped to use his own tracter. Why shoud we pay for his medical bills?” A few posts later, the full-time internet jack-off brigade will be locked in mortal combat over the question, “Is public health care the Devil’s calling card?

Yes, we have those guys in Canada, too. Most Canadians, like most people everywhere, are sleepwalking through their days, doing their best to make a living while their jobs have gone to Mexico. Why? They don’t know. Nobody knows anything. But a sizeable number of our friendly neighbors have something to say, and they say it loud.

Yeah, yeah. Me too.

So here’s my idea. We all know that myriad websites, from traditional publications to vanity projects like (ahem) this one cover the spectrum of political news and thought. We also know that most responses to news articles are naive or beside the point. So let’s just allow the work of our writer pals to stand on its own merits. Or lack of same. We don’t need to know what some misguided, resentful buttfuck in Pocatello or Hamilton has to say. We don’t need to know. Down with reader forums!

So what do you think?