Is there any substance more essential to life than water? More precisely, clean and plentiful water for drinking? A person can survive weeks, and even months, without food; without water, a person can live at most a week. Water is so essential that in 2010 the United Nations (UN) passed a resolution recognizing access to a clean and plentiful supply as a basic human right. There were not any “no” votes, because after all what nation wants to go on record as being indifferent to the plight of poor children without access to wholesome drinking water? There were, however, 41 nations abstaining, taking the coward’s way out, and among them was the United States.
Besides moral cowardice, that abstention reflects the undue influence of enormous corporations such as Nestlé, which wants to corner the market on potable water for profit. People the world over do have to pay for food, though complete private ownership of all the world’s drinkable water goes too far, a plan the UN resolution attempted to forestall. Into this dispute about the human right to water stepped an organization called No More Deaths which has been dispatching volunteers into the Arizona desert to deposit supplies of water and non-perishable food for Hispanic immigrants crossing into this country.
A water drop. Photo by José Manuel Suárez.
Four young women volunteers for No More Deaths were found guilty on January 18 by a federal magistrate for the misdemeanors of doing just that in the summer of 2017. They appeared before a federal magistrate because they committed their offenses in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge. Federal authorities charged them with littering, entering the refuge without a permit, and operation of a motor vehicle within the wilderness area. They did these things in the interest of supplying humanitarian aid. Meanwhile, during the current partial federal government shutdown, vandals are tearing up national parks solely for their own twisted sense of fun and getting away with it.
Are the Hispanic immigrants crossing into this country illegally? Yes, they are. Did the volunteers for No More Deaths enter Cabeza Prieta without a permit, riding in a motor vehicle, and then leave behind items? By all accounts, yes, they did. In the larger picture those points disappear before the undeniable fact the immigrants are human beings in need of water for survival as they cross a desert, and the survival beacons maintained for them by the United States Border Patrol are either inadequate or suspected by the immigrants of being traps. Humanitarian organizations stepped in to provide aid when they saw the deadly effects for the immigrants.
In this scene from the 1959 film Ben-Hur, directed by William Wyler and starring Charlton Heston in the title role, a chain gang of criminals overseen by Roman soldiers pauses in Nazareth on their way to a seaport, where presumably all the criminals, like Ben-Hur, will be put to hard labor at the oars of ships. The fellow who mercifully gave Ben-Hur water was fortunate not to be clapped in irons for His transgression. No doubt the authorities caught up with Him eventually.
As part of the current presidential administration’s callous disregard for human rights, Border Patrol employees in uniform have been pouring out onto the desert the water from the jugs they find left behind by humanitarian groups. It’s difficult to say which officially sanctioned action is more inhumane – depriving desperate people of water or wrenching children away from their parents. What sort of people are we? More precisely, how much can decent people tolerate the brutality of indecent people who claim to be doing righteous things? And whether the brutes are true believers or disingenuous opportunists matters not one bit to those who suffer at their hands.
Archaeologists recently uncovered the remains of a public library in Cologne, Germany, which they surmise was built in the second century of the common era by the Romans or the workers of the Roman client state in control of the region. The architecture follows the model of other large Roman libraries of the period, such as the one in Ephesus, on the western coast of modern Turkey. The reason for thinking it was a public library rather than a private one is the great size of the structure and its location in the public forum of the ancient city, where all buildings were public.
Bookplate of American painter and illustrator Edward Penfield (1866-1925). Bookplates are labels people paste into the frontispiece of their books to declare ownership. They were more popular a century ago than now, and as seen here some readers contrived custom bookplates.
A public library of two thousand years ago was not the same as a public library now, offering books on loan to members of the general public. Because books were hand copied into scrolls or codices, they were limited in number and expensive to produce. No one could walk in to a public library of two thousand years ago and expect to walk out with one or more books under their arm, to be returned after several weeks. People read the books in the library and the books never left the premises.
The meaning of “public” was also limited at that time to those who were literate and therefore had a reason to be there accessing the books. These would have been scholars of one sort or another, whether in the employ of government, academia, or a wealthy individual, and they would have been almost certainly all male. Lending libraries did not come about until the Renaissance, after the invention of the printing press made available large numbers of copies of books at lower cost.
Even then, the number and type of people who could borrow books was limited. Universities and colleges had their own libraries, with their collections available not to the general public but to students and faculty of the institution. That model persists to this day. Private societies lent out books to their members, who also contributed books. They were lending libraries, but in no sense were they public. It was not until civic groups and prominent citizens in Boston, Massachusetts, created the Boston Public Library in 1848 that the institution of the lending library as we know it came into being. The Boston Public Library was the first institution in the country that was open to all and was funded largely by taxpayers, with some assistance by private endowments and gifts of books.
An 1855 engraving showing the future building of the Boston Public Library on Boylston Street. The library moved into the building in 1858 and stayed there until 1895, when it moved into the grand building on Copley Square where it has remained to this day.
The model caught on, obviously, since today there are over 16,000 public libraries around the country. In the past 30 years or more, two great changes have affected those public libraries, and they are no longer what they were during their heyday in the twentieth century. The first change came from the effects of cutbacks in social programs starting with the Reagan administration. Homeless numbers increased as politicians undercut the social safety net and as mental hospitals could no longer afford to house indigent patients, setting them loose on the streets. Shelters that took in homeless people overnight often turned them out during the day, and the homeless gravitated toward public libraries for safe daytime shelter with access to bathrooms.
Boston Public Library Reading Room in October 2013. Photo by Brian Johnson.
The second change came about with the rise of computers and the internet. Public libraries have gamely kept up with the technological changes despite cutbacks in taxpayer funding, and for the most part they have successfully integrated patrons’ interest in checking out electronic books as well as traditional paper books. Where conflict has arisen it is in affording access to library computers to patrons, some of whom had little interest in setting foot in their local public library until it installed computers with free internet.
With the influx of people who are not readers as much as internet users and are likely as not indifferent to norms of behavior in the library, and homeless people who sometimes abuse library facilities and even other patrons, librarians now have their hands full with duties that have nothing to do with their traditional training in library science. Patrons who are readers and have used their local library’s services in person for decades no longer feel comfortable there, and now often prefer checking out electronic books from the library’s website rather than visiting the library in person. Pity the unfortunate librarians then, who cannot escape the loud cell phone users, the raucous children who have been dumped by their parents in the young readers’ room as if it were a free day care center, and the homeless people who, often through no fault of their own, have been thrown on the good graces of the librarians, but who complicate the work day for those overburdened librarians by the criminal or mentally unstable acting out of some of their number.
Much printer’s ink and digital pixels have been expended the past few years by writers and mental health professionals attempting to analyze the current president’s psyche, which admittedly appears to be a mess. Amid all the speculation, two things appear to be certain about Supreme Leader’s mentality, and those are his overarching narcissism and his unhealthy obsession with Barack Obama, specifically with outdoing Mr. Obama if not in deed, at least in Supreme Leader’s own mind and in the minds of his followers. To that end, Supreme Leader is most likely obsessed by the possibility of coming away with a Nobel Peace Prize as a result of his recent talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
President Barack Obama with the Nobel Prize medal and diploma in Oslo, Norway, in December 2009. Photo by Pete Souza.
Nothing of substance was settled between the United States and North Korea during the June 12 talks, but that apparently hardly matters anymore to the Nobel committee after they cheapened the prize in 2009 by awarding it to the new American president, Barack Obama, for no evident reason other than he was NotBush. Some thought the committee awarded Mr. Obama the prize as an incentive to engage the United States in more peaceful behavior in the future. If that was the case, the committee members must have been chagrined at the very least over the next seven years as Mr. Obama expanded George W. Bush’s drone assassination program, and otherwise did little to validate their faith in his peaceful intentions. Mr. Obama was a tool of the American power elite, charming as his personal nature may have been, and if he hadn’t been the elite would not have allowed him to get anywhere near the seat of power.
No doubt the current president cares little about whether the Nobel committee was misguided in awarding the Peace Prize to Mr. Obama in 2009. All he cares about is that Obama got one, and now he wants one. His childish neediness requires it, and he may possibly be fueled by a need for revenge against his predecessor. None of that really matters to everyone else in the world except in the sense of how they are affected by the whims and personality foibles of a person at the head of the most powerful government and military machine on Earth.
An excerpt from the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in April 2011.
Some of the Roman emperors in the first few centuries of the Christian era were also mentally unstable individuals who led capriciously and selfishly. None of them had the powerful weaponry at their disposal such as that available to the current leader of the United States, and on the other hand they did not have the constraints on their exercise of power equivalent to those put in place by the founders of the American republic over two centuries ago, eroded as those constraints have become. The peasants of the empire still need to go about their business every day, and can do so today just as peasants did thousands of years ago largely unaware or unheeding of what was happening at the central seat of power, with the difference being that now far more more than then a disastrous decision by a mentally unbalanced person at the helm has the capacity to upend their lives. The deluded Roman emperors also sponsored games and awarded themselves prizes, but there is no evidence the lives of the peasants under their dominion were any better for it.
This Memorial Day marks the 150th anniversary of the holiday. When it was first formally celebrated, the holiday was a remembrance of Civil War dead and was called Decoration Day. Since 1868, Americans on Memorial Day have taken to visiting the graves of not just fallen soldiers, sailors, and marines, but those of their friends and relatives regardless of whether or not they died in military service to the country. Officially Memorial Day is for remembering and honoring the country’s war dead, but it has also become a day for remembering and honoring the near and dear, and most Americans usually do that by decorating the graves with flowers.
In western societies, placing flowers at grave sites goes back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, and even before, to the stone age, as archaeologists discovered not long ago. Since then, as Jews and Muslims have asserted their own cultural and religious preferences for honoring the dead, the tradition of remembering with flowers has remained mostly a Christian one in the west. There is an entire symbolism of flowers dating from the ancient Greek and Roman mythologists and carried on by Christians, but it’s a safe bet to guess most people pay little attention to such subtleties when picking out a specific flower or an arrangement of flowers to place at the grave of their loved one. Most likely they pick out something they themselves enjoy, or that they know was a favorite of the departed.
Common poppies blooming in May 2015 in Guelma, a district in northeastern Algeria. Photo by Yaco24.
There is one flower symbol that remains widely understood, and it is the red poppy originating from the battlefields of Flanders in World War I, which has come to specifically memorialize military members dead from service in all wars since the so-called War to End All Wars. “In Flanders Fields”, a poem written by John McCrae, a Canadian who served in the war with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, noted the red poppies growing among the graves of soldiers buried after the Second Battle of Ypres. The fame of McCrae’s poem established the common red poppy, Papaver rhoeas, a tough plant long known in the region as a colonizer of disturbed ground, as the Remembrance Poppy thereafter.
It is worth noting that the opium poppy,Papaver somniferum, is native to the Mediterranean region and the Near East and yields opiates such as morphine, named for Morpheus, the god of dreams. Opium poppies were well known to the ancients for their anesthetic properties, a blessed relief for those wounded in battle or near death. It’s flower is not a symbolic reminder like the red poppy of those lost to the violence of war, but its value in easing suffering and bringing on the forgetfulness of sleep to those maimed and agonized by that violence makes it more important to those poor unfortunates, and certainly more useful. Rest in peace.
The urge to leave a personal markon the relatively permanent structures around us is strong enough to prompt some people to break laws against vandalism and trespassing and paint, mark, or scratch into public view an announcement of their existence. Is it graffiti, street art, or defacement? We can see these markings on buildings that are a few thousand years old, but beyond that, as a recently published scientific paper asserts, everything gets ground up, mixed together, compressed, and dispersed, making it hard to determine anything conclusively about human civilization and its discontents as expressed in graffiti. Caves have preserved paintings on their walls for tens of thousands of years old, but that artwork tells a very different story of humanity before what we consider civilization.
Sometimes graffiti addresses social and political issues, though more often the concerns of the artists are more mundane. It’s overstating to call a scatological scribbler a street artist, or even a graffiti marker. It doesn’t take much imagination or skill to scrawl the image of a phallus across a stone wall, whether it was done two thousand years ago or yesterday. Similarly with personal insults, the boorish nature of which have not changed at all over the centuries. The best graffiti is illustrative of a unique frame of mind, an altogether personal view of the world. The same definition can apply to art.
In Kansas City, Missouri, a 2008 rendition of the graffiti made famous everywhere during World War II by American servicemen. Photo by Marshall Astor.
John Cleese as the Centurion and Graham Chapman as Brian in the 1979 satirical film Monty Python’s Life of Brian.
Tagging, which is marking or painting of initials, nicknames, or symbols, and is often used to mark territory, is not a particularly enjoyable or meaningful form of graffiti to anyone but the marker and others who need to interpret the signs. They rarely exhibit any wit, and are usually straightforward signs meant for specific groups instead of the larger society, hence their often cryptic appearance to those not in the know. The signs say, among other things, “Keep out”, “This is our territory”, or “I am here”. The humorist Jean Shepherd, in a video essay about roadside features in New Jersey, speculated about the confusion of future archaeologists as they attempt to decipher the graffiti of our times, attaching to it perhaps more importance than it warrants. The entire television special is a treat, featuring Mr. Shepherd musing with philosophical delight about what constitutes art as he observes all the commercial kitsch he finds along a New Jersey highway. All our artifacts and graffiti will be gone in a millennium, of course, crumbled into disconnected bits, but for now they say “I am here”, and “We were here”. — Vita
And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
― Luke 2:10-11, from the King James Version of the New Testament.
Just in time for Christmas, the Congress passed its giveaway to the rich known as the Republican tax reform package, and the Thief-in-Chief signed it into the law of the land. Afterward much merriment was enjoyed by them and their kind on the South Lawn of the White House, where boot licking was the order of the day. The corruption and depravity oozing from the swamp of Washington, D.C. is too disheartening to dwell upon at this festive season of the year.
Moving on from the fairy tale that the Republican tax plan does anything at all for anyone but the wealthy, there is the fairy tale that has taken hold in some quarters that the Nativity of Jesus Christ was devoid of political ramifications at the time or in today’s world, and that therefore Christmas should be devoid of politics. A straightforward reading of the Gospels should dispel those ideas. Herod the Great apparently had no illusions about the threat posed by the birth of Jesus to the political future of himself and his progeny. Even taking the Gospels at face value, the Nativity story is loaded with politics.
Saddled Donkey, a painting of the Nativity by Finnish artist Aleksander Lauréus (1783-1823). Donkeys were the mount of the lower classes when they could afford them, while the upper classes rode horses. In addition to providing transportation for the Holy Family to Bethlehem and then to a temporary exile in Egypt, a donkey would be the mount of choice for Jesus when he entered Jerusalem to complete His mission.
The dramatic tension of the story derives from the methods that the adult Jesus would teach to change people’s lives, with eventual political change as a by product, as opposed to the immediate political change some of His followers hoped for and most of His opponents feared. And it starts in the Nativity when individuals on both sides refer to Him as a King, though they mean different things by that term. Herod the Great was correct to see the birth of Jesus as a threat to his world, however he may have perceived that threat.
The relation of the Nativity as an innocuous story about a baby and some shepherds is alright for small children who cannot grasp the larger political and humanitarian dimensions of the birth of Jesus, but for adults to ignore the story’s radical aspects and still profess an understanding of it borders on cognitive dissonance. The events set in motion by the birth of Jesus and the principles he taught in His later ministry were a radical departure from the politics of His time. Blessed are the meek? The rich have no chance at salvation until they give away all they have? Those were not standard beliefs then, nor are they now, despite what many people profess.
There is no “War on Christmas”, at least not in the way some conservatives formulate it. That is nonsense made up by people who, if they were confronted by the real Jesus today, rather than their Jesus of fable, would be horrified and demand that He be hauled away to prison. Based on what He is quoted as saying in the Gospels, He certainly would not have been there last week on the South Lawn of the White House ghoulishly celebrating the passage of a tax bill that steals from the poor to give to the rich. He would not have sided with evangelical voters who deem the election of any Republican, no matter how cretinous, better than the election of a Democrat. Who are these people to make war on Christmas by celebrating the birth of a baby who preaches war, hate, and intolerance rather than peace, love, and understanding? That story feeds the needs of empire and is on the side of the Romans. That’s not the true Christmas story, and there’s nothing funny about it.
While infrastructure in the United States crumbles from neglect and is starved of public funds needed for its repair, the owners of sports teams seem to have little trouble extracting public funds for what are ultimately private facilities. Most new stadiums, arenas, and ballparks are financed with a mixture of private and public funds, and when a municipality refuses to throw taxpayer money into the pot, team owners threaten and cajole until they either get their way or successfully shop their team to another municipality that will contribute financing to their liking. It’s a corrupt bargain, and the benefits of a new facility for the municipality are not nearly as great as city and team officials would conjure when they are selling the plan to taxpayers.
TheColosseum in Rome, Italy, at dusk in April 2007; photo by Diliff. The ancient Romans had their bread and circuses, too, but they built things to last.
The National Football League’s Raiders, after long negotiations with Oakland city officials in which the city was prepared to bend over backwards to keep the Raiders, but refused to contribute taxpayer money for a new stadium, will move sometime within the next few years to Las Vegas, Nevada, where city officials bent over backwards and kicked in taxpayer money to help build the team a new stadium. Once the new stadium is built, it won’t be named for the good people of Las Vegas, or the Raiders, or even the team’s owner, Mark Davis, but for a corporation, in the form of advertising sold as naming rights. Tickets and concession stand items for a family of four can cost over two hundred dollars for an afternoon or evening of entertainment. Add to that a higher tax bill for years to come to pay off a luxury with nebulous benefits for the fans and the city, all of it ultimately benefiting a handful of team owners and banks, and it’s a wonder ordinary people put up with it.
But put up with it they do and, remarkably, mostly without complaint. People are so rabidly engrossed in their sports team affiliations that they allow greedy team owners and craven city officials to raid the public treasury to finance luxurious private facilities, the revenues from which will mostly go to others, and little to the taxpayers. The ordinary people allow this while they themselves depend on roads, bridges, water supplies, and public facilities that are neglected, derelict embarrassments. They point with a kind of perverse civic pride instead to the new, billion dollar plus stadium or arena or ballpark in their city, a facility which isn’t even their own, despite having helped pay for it. Why do they care a great deal about something that means little, when all about them meaningful things crumble to dust?
Through the middle years of the twentieth century, Americans built the great hydroelectric dams and the major roads, including the interstate highway system we rely on still today. In those years, three of the four major sports – football, basketball, and hockey – were peripheral to the lives of most people. Only baseball took a central place, and even it wasn’t the enormous business it is today, with billions of dollars at stake. What changed all that?
Aqueduct of Segovia, Spain; photo by Bernard Gagnon.
Television and mass media played a part, starting in the 1950s and gathering momentum and power through subsequent decades. The NFL Super Bowl, inaugurated in 1967, is now annually the most watched television event. The next day at work, people buzz with their co-workers about the Super Bowl commercials. Another factor is the lack of civic involvement people feel, particularly in big cities. The 1950s and 1960s gave rise not only to mass media, but mass man and woman as well. Faceless cogs in the corporate machine. One person’s lonely voice doesn’t matter. You can’t fight city hall, and the Chief Executive Officer of your company is out of reach.
Remains of the Via Appia (Appian Way) in Rome, Italy, near Quarto Miglio; photo by Kleuske.
But you can sing your team’s fight song from your seat in it’s sparkling new stadium, the stadium you may have grumbled about having to pay for, but in the end you didn’t speak up and object. It’s your team, after all, one of the few things you have left to cling to in this uncertain world. Try taking your enormous foam hand with the forefinger raised in a “We’re Number 1” gesture and going to a nearby highway overpass, one where the concrete has crumbled away in spots, exposing the rusting reinforcing bars, and sit underneath that bridge on the sloping concrete revetment, with your enormous foam finger in your team’s colors, and start pointing out to passing motorists the decay all around you, and see where that gets you.
“God does not play dice with the universe.”* ― Albert Einstein (1879-1955)
There are patterns throughout nature, from the rhythm of waves striking the shore, to the sand dune crests farther up the beach, to the leaves and flowers on plants and trees inland. Many of those patterns arise because of physical constraints operating through a medium, for instance the waves rise and fall regularly due to tidal influences from the Moon above and gravity from the Earth below, while sand grains in the dunes react to wind and water, and leaves and flowers allocate space for themselves in tune with the Sun and their plant neighbors.
The beauty of Coconut (Cocos nucifera) with its radiating pattern of fronds; photo by Krajaras.
An Italian mathematician of the 13th century named Leonardo Fibonacci, more commonly known just as Fibonacci, described natural patterns mathematically and he has since become well known for the Fibonacci sequence of numbers that add to each other infinitely, and for the Golden Ratio of 1.618, denoted in equations by the Greek letter Phi, which when employed in the Fibonacci sequence eventually yields Fibonacci spirals on a large scale. Less well known is that Fibonacci advocated the change from Roman numerals to Hindu-Arabic numerals in his 1202 book Liber Abaci, a book on calculations.
The shell of the nautilus is often cited incorrectly as a Fibonacci spiral. It is actually a logarithmic spiral. For whatever reason, the idea of Fibonacci spirals has taken hold popularly on the internet, to the point that some people appear eager to impose Fibonacci spirals on nature where patterns either hardly exist, or where they could be more accurately described with some other mathematical model. Perhaps the appeal lies in being able to ascribe patterns to a model proposed by one man, and saying “Fibonacci” has a more poetic feel than “logarithmic”. At any rate, there are many more patterns evident in nature than can be put down to chance, and that after all is the definition of a pattern.
Looking up along the deeply fissured bark of Cottonwoods (Populus deltoides) into the sunlit canopy of leaves; photo by Atiwis.
Barakais a 1992 non-narrative film directed by Ron Fricke, with music by Michael Stearns. Fricke has described his film as a “guided meditation”. Baraka means “blessing” in a multitude of languages.
We seem to prefer patterns over chance, and order over chaos, and therefore we sometimes struggle to impose a pattern where perhaps none exists. It comforts us. It can even be a matter of belief. Some of us, maybe most of us, find it unsettling to contemplate a natural world and a universe where things happen randomly with no rhyme or reason. How can you set a schedule for yourself and your family in such a universe when you are unsure what might happen from one moment to the next? How can you plan your life, if you are so inclined? Depending on your belief in the reliability and predictability of the patterns you see in nature, you may be able to conduct your daily life with some confidence everything will go mostly as planned. With that in mind as you go about your everyday affairs, you may take time to notice how the patterns in the natural world around you guide your beliefs, whether or not you believe there is, in turn, someone or other guiding those patterns.
It seems it is human nature to need someone or some group to look down on and cast as the reason for one’s misfortunes. From vilification of Jews and now Muslims, to hatred of black people and now brown people, a lot of folks are always looking for a scapegoat. The rich and powerful know this as well as anyone, and are quick to take advantage of this tendency when it serves to turn away the attention of the masses from the true source of their economic stagnation, which is to say the kleptocracy of the rich and powerful.
Hadrian’s Wall; photo by Mark Burnett. People have always built walls, with varying degrees of effectiveness. This one was built by the Romans in the reign of the emperor Hadrian on the border of England and Scotland, to keep the Scots out of England. It turns out the Scots had more to fear from the English, just ask any Scot.
While it is no longer acceptable in open civil discourse to rant about the evils of the Jews and the blacks, and that sort of talk has been relegated to private conversations among like-minded peers, feelings of xenophobia and revulsion at The Other have found their outlet in public condemnation of Muslims and brown people as long as it is couched in terms of protection from terrorists or crackdowns on illegal immigration. There is probably just as much racism and visceral need for scapegoats as ever, it’s just that now, at least in public, peddlers of base emotional venting know to use code words and dog whistles. Everyone knows what the peddlers mean, but everyone can maintain deniability, whether plausible or not is a matter left to an individual’s tolerance for hypocrisy.
Regarding illegal immigration specifically, the facts are not as scary as the current administration cynically pretends they are, and there is a decent compromise solution called “permanent non-citizen resident status”, which the political science scholar Peter Skerry explains at length in a 2103 article in National Affairs. It’s interesting to note that since many Hispanic illegal immigrants are young men away from home and family and view their presence in the United States as a temporary employment situation only, they tend to be insular and not always on their best behavior, two characteristics which contribute to a poor view of them by the resident, mostly Anglo population.
The workers were “settlers in fact but sojourners in attitude.” . . . Not surprisingly, such transience is not confined to the workplace. Young people detached from the constraints as well as the supports of families back home exhibit what one sociologist refers to as “instrumental sociability,” characterized by transitory friendships, casual sexual encounters, and excessive drinking to a degree uncommon back home.
― Excerpted from “Splitting the Difference on Illegal Immigration” by Peter Skerry.
The phrase “instrumental sociability”, when referring to Hispanics, can conjure up a tinge of Tortilla Flat stereotyping, but the more accurate similarity in reference is to another subgroup in our culture, the military. The military also is composed of mostly young men who are away from home and family in what they view as a temporary situation, and they maintain an insularity from the community at large where they are based out of what amounts to a mutual, tacit agreement with the locals. The analogy doesn’t go far before breaking down, such as in discussions of the presence or lack of strong leadership and policing within the subgroup, but still it is ironic that many of the people in the larger culture who adulate the military with nearly onanistic devotion are the same ones who most loudly berate brown-skinned “illegals”.
Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard together sang the most famous version of “Pancho and Lefty”, a song written by Townes Van Zandt. Here, at a tribute to Willie Nelson, Rosanne Cash sings a stirring version.
Before people with middle class and higher incomes, with college or higher educations, and with supposedly refined ethics, start congratulating themselves over how they are above looking down on people and scapegoating one group or another, they might reflect on the rhetoric following the 2016 presidential election when people just like them, and perhaps they themselves, were quick to berate stupid, bigoted rednecks for the disastrous outcome. The caricature that emerged of the typical voter for the Republican winner was of an Anglo male, middle-aged and older, working class and possibly unemployed, and an uneducated bigot as well. While that demographic did make up a significant part of the winner’s constituency, it was not the majority. The picture that has emerged of the majority is of people with middle class and higher incomes, with college or higher educations, possibly with refined ethics, and a great many of them were female. It is simpler and more satisfying, however, to berate the stupid, bigoted rednecks living in the trailer park on the other side of the railroad tracks than it is to grapple with how it is that your neighbor on your suburban cul-de-sac, the nice one you’ve known for thirty years and who looks after your place while you’re away on vacation, how that kindly neighbor could have voted that way and done that to you.
This is meant as no defense for being a redneck, because unlike other personal characteristics it is not intrinsic and immutable, but rather the culmination of a number of repugnant beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors. People confuse rednecks with good ol’ boys. They are not the same. The protagonists in Deliverance were good ol’ boys; the moronic backwoodsmen they tangled with were rednecks. All this appears to stray far from the discussion of scapegoating illegal immigrants, but not really, because the outcome is ugly whatever the source, high or low, and whether the people at the receiving end are “bad hombres” or “deplorables”.
So when they continued asking him, he lifted himself up and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him be the first to cast a stone at her.
― John 8:7 (Jubilee Bible 2000)
In any discussion of government surveillance, such as has been revealed by the recent WikiLeaks “Vault 7” release of CIA documents, there are some folks who are apt to pipe up with “Let the government spy on me – I have nothing to hide.” By that they presumably mean for their listeners to understand they are not terrorists, criminals, or perverts, and to drive home their utter lack of impure intentions they will often add a feebly humorous aside about how government agents would fall asleep from the boredom of eavesdropping on them. How reassuring to learn that government flouting of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments to the Constitution is okay because there are some among us who are without sin! Whether these folks realize it or not, their smug pronouncement comes out of them because in their lives the presumption of innocence has always been a given, and therefore government agents would have no interest in their good citizen behavior. It doesn’t seem to occur to them there are others in our culture who, through no fault of their own, are presumed guilty, and there are still others who are just as law abiding as the “nothing to hide” crowd, but may be concerned about hackers and thieves accessing their data, or simply want to be left alone and feel that their affairs are their own and should not be the concern of the government. We can use locks on our doors not only to keep out criminals after all, but nosy neighbors and government snoops as well.
Jesus and the Adulteress; drawing by Rembrandt.
The digital age has changed the game somewhat by introducing new channels of communication and cheap storage for vast quantities of information. The Fourth and Fifth Amendments are no less valid, however, in stating that citizens should be secure in their “effects”; that government officials need warrants; that citizens cannot be compelled to testify against themselves; and that government shall follow due process of law in proceedings against any citizen. Naturally the Founding Fathers did not foresee the age of computers, smartphones, and the internet. They didn’t need to foresee those things, because in looking back on thousands of years of ancient Roman and Greek law and English common law, they were able to extract valid principles which were applicable to the general human condition whatever the particulars of any one era might be. Since their time, we have moved from postal mail and personal messenger to phone calls and telegrams, and now to blog posts and email. Government snooping amounts to the same thing whatever the means of communication, and it is protection from the ends that the Founding Fathers wrote into the Constitution.
That much should be obvious, yet the erosion of the Bill of Rights continues bit by bit, often with the excuse that technology has wrought different contingencies in our modern era. There are no different contingencies – what has changed is that the state of emergency appears now to be permanent because it suits the agenda of powerful interests in the military-industrial complex. In the past, the United States government trampled rights for various reasons which seemed sensible to many at the time, from the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, to the Palmer Raids of 1919 and 1920, to the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II. Always the advocates of such policies invoked a state of emergency to justify the abuse of state power, but eventually calmer heads and changing circumstances would prevail and the balance would be corrected.
A segment of Eisenhower’s January 17, 1961 farewell address, with commentary.
As long as there are enablers of government snooping who complacently and self-righteously announce to everyone within earshot that they “have nothing to hide,” dislodging the powerful interests invested in the current status quo and restoring a constitutionally correct balance between citizens and government will be a protracted struggle. Those who value the privacy of their communications enough to take measures to protect it, such as by using the Tor internet browser or encrypting their emails, are thereby presumed guilty of possible anti-state, criminal, or sexually deviant enterprises by government snoops and their sanctimonious “nothing to hide” enablers because the very action of taking privacy measures draws scrutiny from those groups and is something they deem an admission of being up to no good. It is as if the Fourth and Fifth Amendments have been turned upside down, and objecting to having snoops looking in the windows of your house and walking in through the front door any time they please is fussy obstructionism, definitely unpatriotic, and possibly prosecutable. The “nothing to hide” folks are unconcerned over these developments, secure as they are in the comforting knowledge of their own innocence, though they may want to keep in a corner of their uncluttered minds the notion that the perception of innocence by those in power can shift capriciously, and so they are well advised to note this paraphrased bit from a poem by the German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller: They came for the Privacy Advocates, and I did not speak out – Because I had nothing to hide.