11 April 2008

Acting Out

Hope and change has been the slogan of this political year. Unfortunately, politics has inspired little hope and has instead planted seeds of despondency that the United States is on a one way path to epic failure. All aboard the fail boat!

The immigration debate has inspired such despondency within me of late. It was highlighted by a small news story that slipped under the radar recently. Absolut Vodka ran an ad campaign in Mexico in which (in an attempt to celebrate Mexican heritage) it ran the slogan “In an Absolut World” over an image of 19th century North American, where all the territory west of the Rocky Mountains was Mexico. Outrage arose, not from within Mexico, but rather from several conservative groups and journalists in the United States that called for a boycott of the brand. Absolut apologized for its campaign and stopped running the ads; A politically correct, profit minded and truly “American” response.

This reaction is representative of the deteriorating status of Mexicans and US/Mexico relations in light of the immigration debate. All politicians are dealing with the influx of illegal immigrants into this country, but the kind of rhetoric and ideas that are being thrown around reveal a dehumanizing of Mexicans.

In this debate Mexicans and Hispanic immigrants coming from the south are referred to as problems and often as “illegals.” Some might argue that terminology is harmless, but I think otherwise. Referring to fellow human beings in such negative ways creates immediate prejudice and devaluing. As a result the identity we project on Hispanic immigrants is one centered on notions of rejection, objectification and immorality. We refer to them, not as people, but rather as amorphous entities that exist in the realm of illegality and encroachment.

The discourse of solution is not a positive one. Illegal immigration (and the millions are human beings associated with it) is referred to as a problem that needs to be rectified. Immigrants are objectified and treated as commodities as we decide their worth in our economy and culture, or as we decide which ones to ship back and how to do so. There is not talk of moving forward, only of creating stasis by cutting off the routes and purging our country of these dirty, illegal and problematic bodies that are corrupting true American values.

Stephen Colbert joked with Mike Huckabee about building a catapult along the border to fire illegals back into Mexico. The idea seems ridiculous, but his satire is not far off. It highlights the dehumanization of Hispanic immigrants. Not only are their identities essentialized to that of “Mexican” but they are considered inherently illegitimate. Whether we agree with it or not, the immigration debate has stolen the status of equality from Hispanic immigrants. We are living in a world where “freedom and justice for all” is a farce and instead, human status is determined by economic worth and genealogy.

To be Freudian for a moment, can we examine the illegal immigration debate, and responses like those to the Absolut ad, as an acting-out of some deep seated problem? I think we can. The crisis we are facing here is not one of population, jobs, culture or globalization. No, what we are facing is an identity crisis of a national sort.

We are facing many problems as a nation, namely our economy and our political reputation. As the European Union and China grow stronger our role as super-power is being contested. We are accused of anti-intellectualism. Culturally we are divided over gay marriage, abortion, religion and wealth. Every day I see hopeless efforts to establish and secure the idea of “America” and a greater number of individuals and ideas that contest such an identity at fundamental levels.

The role of the United States and our future is uncertain and possibly quite bleak. As a result we are acting out and building fences on our borders to keep out those seeking better lives. As we become ever so deeply involved in contentious conflict in the Middle East, we are troubled and take our frustration out on those illegals that indisputably have broken the law and assailed our “American” values.

This debate is not about immigrants, they will continue to come and there’s nothing we can do about it. If we were a healthy nation, we would have confidence that our economics and culture would adjust accordingly. What I see through examples like that of the Absolut campaign, is that these crises we face are more likely unhealthy and counterproductive projections of our own cultural and identity crises.

We are freefalling downward into a pit of cultural crisis and shutdown. We are so insecure with who we are a nation that we are threatened by the Spanish language. Eventually, we will end our descent and hit rock bottom. We will be confronted with tumultuous and violent conflict as we run out things to cover our problems. Shall we focus of catapulting illegals back to Mexico? Shall we continue to obsess ourselves with the lives of celebrities? Shall we fill the voids of our political lives with debates over tiny and insignificant questions and comment? Or, shall we being to look deeper and find those bugs and irks deep within our cultural being and face our problems and the world’s problems head on?

I have not yet completely resigned myself to the bleak outlook I have defined here. I still have confidence that what we need is simple change on our own parts. Instead of breeding dogma, we need to breed understanding. I hope that one day we will be known as the generation of understanding that rose to the great challenges we are facing now and moved forward.

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