Mar 27, 2006

Guthrie's "Deportee" and the Immigration Debate

Thought this was a bit of a positive note, in spite of the grim immigration deform legislation that's being discussed in Senate this week.

Heard Billy Bragg on the radio a couple of days ago, and learned both about his work (which I didn't know before this program) and about a really interesting bit of information about Woody Guthrie, the man who inspired Dylan to reach deep into the heart of American music to draw upon the raw truth that he eventually found.

Apparently, Guthrie read a story about a plane of Mexican immigrants that crashed, killing all 28, as well as the pilot and copilot, who were the only 2 to be named. The New York Times only mentioned the others as "deportees," neglecting even to give them some kind of final rites afforded by printing their names in the paper.

Guthrie, drawn by this insensitivity, wrote a poem called Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos) that dealt with the story. I'm surprised, and quite touched by this - it's heartening that there were people involved in folk music who would step forward and highlight injustices of this kind even before Dylan and Cash. His poem is below:

Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye Rosalita
Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria
You won't have your names when you ride the big aeroplane
All they will call you is, deportees

The crops are all in and the peaches are rottin''
The oranges are piled in their creosote dumps
They're flying them back to the Mexican border
To pay all their money to wade back again

Some of us are illegal, and some are not wanted
Our work contract's out and we've got to move on
It's six hundred miles to the Mexican border
They chase us like outlaws, like rascals, like thieves

The sky plane caught fire over Los Gatos canyon
A fireball of lightning, it shook all our hills
Who are these good people all scattered like dry leaves
The radio said they were just deportees

Is this the best way we can harvest our orchards
Is this the best way we can harvest our crops
To die like dry leaves and to rot on the topsoil
And be called by no name except, deportees

This broader consciousness is what we need today - though Springsteen is out there consistently (check out tracks on the haunting Ghost of Tom Joad and the more recent Devils and Dust, and there are others who speak up both in song and off the stage, we need more folks in mainstream music to take up these issues and broaden the debate. They need to help take it out of the hands of the right-wing talk show hosts.

But beyond celebrating the anti-jingoism that constitutes Guthrie's patriotism and particular American spirit, the lyrics underline the some of the more troubling aspects of life for undocumented immigrants in the United States. Already severely marginalized and shut out of many normal aspects of American life, they are being pushed further into the shadows (and if some would have their way, right out of the country). There are obvious overtones of racism and xenophobia afoot, but there is also a visible mean and retributive streak permeating this conversation. The pundits and idealogues are a super-minority in the United States, and as most tests and polls indicate, even basic understanding of macro-economic principles that govern "free trade" and open markets eludes the majority of the public. Hell - kids can't even find the United States on the globe, so forget a more nuanced understanding of how global market pressures and the allure of the bottomless line for greedy multinationals have precipitated the tremendous influx of immigrants, both through closely regulated channels and alternative paths, to the US.

The irony of the American backlash against immigrants is manyfold. First, the average white American doesn't know much about the rest of the world, but assumes that people come to the United States because it's the best place in the world to live. "They love us cuz of our freedoms." More like freedumb. Joe Average needs to think that the United States remains a peerless, fearless leader at the top of the world, and that other nations aspire for its greatness and yearn for its protection. The steady diet of jingo-nationalist drivel that has flooded the airwaves from the Reagan years onward has eroded the sense of independent thinking, the feeling that a truly free press would be free to openly question and criticize without being labeled liberal or biased, and that the public at large would demand truth instead of the opaque filters, smoke and mirrors, and appeals to the lowest common denominator. It is absolutely astounding that people really think that all people who come to the United States would rather be here "taking their jobs" than working in a good job in their homes, where their civil, social, and cultural networks are intact. Americans are some of the least traveled, least knowledgeable people about the rest of the world - they have a vague sense that their country is the best off and most desirable, but they have no idea nor perhaps any inclination to wonder why, or wish for a more equitable distribution of opportunity and prosperity around the world.

Second, mainstream Americans who aren't thinking very hard and are being stirred up against immigrant rights in this country aren't seeing the big picture at all. They are afraid of change, of course, and they are being pushed towards a false belief that their jobs are at risk because of immigration, when the truth is, their jobs are at risk because America hasn't kept up and figured out new ways to remain a global economic leader. The short-term strategies that fund farmer subsidies, allow for multinational corporations based in the United States to seek and exploit workers around the world, and employ temporary work programs for specialized technicians and engineers from China and India without making it easy for them to settle in the United States are all contributing to the bleeding away of competitive advantage for American workers. The corporations are going to do just fine - or as WalMart shows us, better than fine - because they are getting around unionized labor and minimum wage standards by going overseas, and the United States government is turning a blind eye to their practices. Americas failed their responsibility as world citizens because they can't see beyond their own priorities to understand how worker abuses like extreme oversea sweatshop labor make everyone a loser. Human rights are more than just feel-good ideas, and should be enforced even when it means that the American consumer won't get the lowest price on their goods. And it's too late to cry over that spilt milk now. But that's not what American conservatives think, and cry (wolf) they will, right until the bill passes.

But meanwhile, China and India are keeping more of their engineers and scientists, and even attracting some back from the US, where glass ceilings and visa headaches have made it more difficult for the best and the brightest to be all that they can be. So now, instead of "celebrating" that the low-level tech jobs that the H1-Bs were taking are not being filled as readily and as quickly (and perhaps now more Americans can take those jobs), all you see is the programming and print news that are focusing on the growing strength of the two Asian nations. Suddenly, the fear isn't only that "they" are coming here to take our jobs, but it's going to be that they are going everywhere else to take over the lead for innovation, productivity, and supply of bright labor and products. So now, instead of a fear for individual jobs (which is also somewhat baseless, considering the severe restrictions on H1-b hiring, and the fact that only some employers were hiring undocumented workers, with tremendous abuse and substandard wages), there's a vague, bordering on xenophobic reaction to the growth in other countries.

So which one is it, uninformed and emotional American public? Do you want the US to be the economic leader at the expense of the rest of the world, and keep this place the beacon for those trying to make a better life for themselves and their families in light of the impact on nations with citizens who aren't as lucky - simply by birth, not by any inherent entitlement - as you? Or would you rather that the playing field around the world were a tiny bit more level, but your labor is still not worth much because you haven't been educated in a way befitting a global marketplace. American education, as a largely mono-lingual endeavor, is not preparing the next generation for interaction with the world. The hubris that English will and should be the only lingua franca of commerce and opportunity is ludicrous. It is only the latest of the colonialist languages to have their time in the sun, but the age of colonialism may be ending, though imperialism and other strands of North/West-centric policy and dominance will remain for a long time.

I don't envy common Americans (myself somewhat included). They've been duped, bamboozled, and played for stupid for so long that their leaders, corporate bosses, and the rest of the world either regard them with a mix of pity and disdain, or they don't regard them at all.

It's sad to think that a nation founded in good principles has evolved into a place where ideal citizens are no longer breathing, hard-working persons, but rather corporations, which are considered citizens through the conventions of legal fiction, and have twisted this place beyond recognition.


flygirl said...

Noiceee. Hearing your rage, brown man. i like the juxtaposition of the "we are the greatest" jingoism and the ironic and self defeating xenophobia. nationality and identity is a strange business.

Rage said...

flygirl - they so truly are. And the funny thing is - by writing something like this, now I can be treated as "anti-American" just because I'm trying to walk away from the opiate of the American masses: blind patriotism. Slogans don't change the world, no matter how many "patriotic" names you give your military forays into the world.

Fact is, the American public isn't ready to grasp the shifting reality of how the world is changing. The Cold War is long over, Europe is getting organized, there are more unstable, elements in Africa than ever, there's a left revolution slowly taking over Latin America, Japan is aging, and India and China are rising. Repeating old "blame the immigrant" rhetoric isn't going to change the fact that America has to re-envision its place in this world (in the face of the ever-endless wars in Western Asia). Especially when an important part of our economy relies on foreign debt... The United States will keep pushing Mexico around, but some places, like China, are beyond reproach because they're holding a helluva lot of IOUs from our government.

*sigh* But at least we're not the French.

flygirl said...

america has to reenvision itself in the world and educate its population because it is a world power and its actions affect all of us. it's particularly imperative given that it prides itself on being an immigrant nation! only the right kind, I suppose.

re: identity: at the same time, reevaluation of concepts of identity has to, and is occurring in all countries of the immingrant countries like Oz, and NZ, but also European countries. Other countries simultaneously are forced to reconsider minority rights. in spite of globalisation, or perhaps because of it, every nation has been forced to do this with varying results. funny how increased communication and interaction has actually led to increased nationalism and a slide towards fascism. it's a time of insecurity for everyone!

and yes, at least we're not French ;-P