Saturday, January 23, 2010

SYMPATHIZING WITH TEA PARTY MEMBERS

I may be every bit as mad at my local, state, and federal government officials as any Tea Party member. I know that its party members have no monopoly on discontent or anger. They are not alone in thinking that elected or appointed government officials are too often inattentive or unresponsive, incompetent or ineffective.

I have been politically active for nearly 60 years. I have rarely signed a petition or a mass letter. I have usually written my own letters and placed my own phone calls. At 11, I wrote my Congressman to urge him to vote against the proposed Echo Park Dam in Wyoming. When I was 30 or so, I wrote my Senator to urge him to vote against one of President Nixon’s nominees to the Supreme Court. I got a page-and-a-half letter in reply detailing his agreements and disagreements. Invariably, my letters or calls to executive or legislative branch officials got replies.

No longer. A case in point is certified letters sent to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and NM Senator Jeff Bingaman in which I gave reasons for revising the annual Medicare guide sent to millions of seniors. Its poor organization and writing make it inconvenient and confusing. Many flip through it, file it, and forget it; others discard it. As a result, even those who consult it first usually end up calling Medicare staff for help. I suggested that revision to make it more usable would save money wasted on a Medicare staff made larger than necessary by bad writing, to answer questions from those finding it useless.

You might think that government officials would welcome a suggestion to improve services and save money, but you would be wrong. I got no response for over two months. When I finally called one of Bingaman’s local aides yesterday, she insinuated that I had sent no letter; then, when I provided proof, she insinuated that I had sent blank pages (unless, as she backtracked, “radiation” had erased them).

Many citizens offer suggestions to elected or appointed government officials for improving government performance or saving money. Most vote and pay taxes; some have an opinion and take the trouble to express it. This experience suggests a new indifference to citizens, to service, and to tax dollars. Apparently, we have phony representation but real taxation—precisely what the Tea Party members claim.

Officials who do not communicate with citizens about their concerns and do not act frugally with their money are not likely to address important problems and develop sensible solutions. Instead, they appear to regard holding office for the public good as less important than maintaining office for the private benefit of financial gain or ego gratification or both.

An argument to the contrary has to consider that state Democrats and Republicans have gerrymandered federal Congressional districts to ensure the election of fellow party members in predominantly Democratic or Republican districts, respectively. Thus, the real political campaigns are not fall elections but spring and summer primaries between incumbents and more extreme challengers either from the Democratic left or from the Republican right. The result is ideological polarization which makes politics—also known as the art of the possible—increasingly a lost art, increasingly not possible.

The resulting acrimonious stalemate in Washington creates in the country a desire for something which does not and, in present circumstances, cannot exist: bipartisanship. Candidates invoking bipartisanship recognize citizen discontent but are either naïvely nostalgic or cynically manipulative in calling for it. For in gerrymandered districts, candidates must use harsh ideological rhetoric which later precludes frank talk about real issues in the campaign or actual cooperation in Congress. One reason: media coverage exposes any deviations from campaign promises. Ideology relieves candidates from addressing the issues and offering realistic solutions to problems, and rescues incumbents from running on (or from) their records.

Anyone who wanted bipartisanship would work to end gerrymandering. But anyone who worked to end it would face opposition from everyone else because politically more balanced congressional districts would decrease chances of retaining party power and increase the election risks of party members, including incumbents. Even term limits cannot address the problem because, in gerrymandered districts, one set of ideological rascals would simply replace another set.

The political prognosis is not good because the problem is structural. In America, we face the turbulence, stresses, and uncertainties of a global economy; the magnitude of economic and environmental effects; the deterioration of American education; and, today, crowning all, ideological rigidity and political gridlock. Thus, we are likely to worsen our lot by compulsively seeking relief by switching from one party to the other in successive elections. Thanks to the recent Supreme Court decision, unlimited spending by corporations, unions, wealthy individuals, and single-issue groups will likely diminish the electorate’s ability to influence their representatives or to make smart policy choices.

Tea Party members may be happy with this decision in the short-run. Many seem to regard big corporations as favorably as they regard big government unfavorably. If dire forecasts of the influence of big-money political advertising on state and federal officials come true, Tea Party members may realize too late for the freedom which they want to protect that we have less say in our lives than before. At that time, I shall have no sympathy for them.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

STRANGERS IN THE LAND OF EGYPT

“The New Colossus,” Emma Lazarus’s sonnet inscribed on The Statue of Liberty, ends with a sestet spoken by Lady Liberty:

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Among the first immigrants were a few men and women of noble, or at least gentle, birth; and, among later immigrants, few men and women of breeding. But not most. Most voluntary immigrants were, for whatever reason, social failures and misfits, outcasts, losers, ne’er-do-wells, and criminals. Are we proud of ourselves yet?

I think not. Only so long as we think of the Puritans elders in the north, the Royalist plantation owners in the south, and their descendants, our Founding Fathers (and their wives), can we think of most immigrants as amounting to anything. With the exception of a few educated immigrants evicted from their countries because of politics or religion—I think mainly of German Jews in the 1850s and the 1930s—most were no-account.

(Lady Liberty did not summon the involuntary immigrants; we called them “slaves.” Some people still do not think that they belong here. Isn’t Obama from Kenya?)

Whatever we have made of ourselves, we have come from humble stock. And as we have made something of ourselves or at least acquired seniority, we have scorned later arrivals. These new nobodies reminded us of who we had been—poor, uneducated, and, at best, semi-skilled. We should be able to do better. We are instructed to do better: “You shall not oppress the stranger, for you know the soul of the stranger, having been strangers in the land of Egypt.” So we should respect more recent arrivals who, like our progenitors, were desperate enough to risk rough seas or tough lands to come to America, and who got jobs, learned English in a generation or two, and became citizens.

A few years ago, I was driving Interstate 10 in southern Arizona. In hot, arid, hilly, and rocky land—formidable for hundreds of miles to the south—I exited for lunch and gas in a tiny town consisting of a Subway’s and a Shell station. Standing in line ahead of two Border Patrolmen, I initiated a chat about their work. They were friendly enough and not at all defensive about it. I was surprised when they asked me what I thought about illegal immigrants. My answer was not some high-falutin’ one, but a down-to-earth-like-the-earth-right-outside, one. I paraphrase what I said in less time than it takes to read.

Look at the country which they cross to get here. Anyone willing to risk life and limb, and the lives and limbs of family, to make that passage must really want to be here. We should welcome them and help them become the good Americans which they can be and have the commitment to be if welcomed and helped. Hunting them down and returning them to Mexico too often means having to do so again and again, for they seldom give up. (Do you like your work so much that you like doing it over and over again?) And failing to catch them but treating them as criminals means forcing them to live in sub-standard housing, earn sub-standard wages in menial jobs, forego basic medical services, and avoid public schools. We make it harder for all of them to become the Americans which we complain that they are slow to become, but we make it easier for their youth to join gangs and become criminals. (Do you like enforcing the law which creates criminals for INS and others to hunt, harass, and arrest?) I think that they are smart to come here, and we are stupid not to greet these strangers at the gate.

Their response flabbergasted me. They looked at each other, then at me; and then smiled. Then they agreed that I had a point because the work frustrated everyone they knew in the BP or INS. I did not explore the nature of their or others’ frustration. I have no doubt that agents are united in doing a duty defined by law, but divided about the merits—political, economic, and moral—of that duty. The rest of us certainly are.

As yesterday’s immigration reflected ordinary peoples’ responses to conditions elsewhere, so, too, today’s immigration. Our response to this social issue has been, as our response to many another social issue—abortion, alcohol, death penalty, drugs, homosexuality, marijuana, pornography, prostitution—too often is, a legal one; we criminalize and punish behavior instead of coping with it constructively and charitably. The reason is a simple one: we are not secure in our identity as a people—the Melting Pot turns out to be a Stew Pot—and are afraid of those whom we regard, and apparently need to regard, as “them.”

I hope that we can do better by remembering where we came from and why, and extending a helping hand. My two Border Patrolmen give me some hope that, even just a little bit north of South of the Border, we can overcome xenophobia and racism against Hispanic immigrants.

Feliz Ano Nuevo!