Monday, August 30, 2010

Arizona in Rochester

When I was working on the Encyclopedia of New York State for seven years, from 1998 to 2005, the Amtrak connection between Rochester and Albany was my second home. I knew all the conductors; the guy in the club car who always saved me the last can of sparkling water on the way home on Fridays. And train travel is my favorite means of locomotion. Jane would drop me off, all tired at 6 AM. Shut my eyes for a few minutes, and then I roused myself, and read blissfully for the next four hours.
Imagine my surprise, and my extreme consternation to read Nina Bernstein’s powerful article in the Times this morning on the role that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement service now regularly plays on trains (and busses) on the Empire State corridor, on trains that never cross into Canada. Regularly going up and down the cars, asking people “what country were you born in?” a question that people are free not to answer, but rarely fail to give a response. And if you give the wrong answer—any country but the USA—you have to show your papers, and if you can’t satisfy the border guards, you are taking off the train In Rochester in 2008 over a 1,000 people were arrested. The numbers have dropped since evidently because immigrants are avoiding the busses and trains. In my seven years of traveling Amtrak, hundreds of trips, I was never once asked for my country of origin. Why have people been making such a fuss about Arizona when the same thing was going on in recent years in Rochester?
This will only end in one possible way, if the current trends continue. To avoid what is obviously going on, as Bernstein describes, wholesale racial profiling, everyone will have an internal national ID card, and everyone, on penalty of being taken away, will have to be able to produce it any time. And then this will be implanted with a chip, so the police and the government will be able to keep track of us. Okay, the latter is perhaps a bit paranoid, but we are going down the route of a permanent internal passport, sooner than later. Our native xenophobia, our unreasoning fear that every immigrant is a terrorist, our willingness to justify all sorts of abrogations of our rights in the name of security, will take away our rights, step by step. And unbeknowest to me, right here in little Rochester, the process seems well advanced.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Specters of Beck

In 1946 the distinguished African American religious writer Howard Thurman wrote an interesting (and somewhat uncharacteristically political) essay, “The Fascist Masquerade.” He was worried about the revival and extension of a native American fascism. This was a very common worry at the time among progressives. Vice President Henry Wallace, writing in the New York Times in 1944, wrote that a “fascist is one whose lust for money or power is combined with such an intolerance toward those of other races, parties, classes, religions, cultures, regions or nations as to make him ruthless in his use of deceit or violence to attain his ends.” With “several million Fascists in the United States,” Wallace claimed that one of the great challenges to face the United States after the war will be the fight against fascism “within the United States itself.” Thurman was broadly sympathetic to this perspective, and in his article, he pointed to several characteristics of an incipient American fascism, which was “committed to a fundamental inequality among men,” including a stalwart defense of Jim Crow, opposition to the rights of labor, a conservative Christianity, all wrapped in the mantle of an aggressive patriotism. Thurman identified certain organizations as manifesting these traits, including the revived Ku Klux Klan. They were pseudo-populist organizations, which had their support and sustenance from mid-sized and often large sized businesses who saw these reactionary groups as supporting and helping to institute their broader agenda. And these front organizations were useful in disseminating and obscuring the real source of this crypto-fascism. “Watch for the signs [of fascism] in your community,” Thurman cautions, “ whatever may be the banner or masquerade.”
This concern with fascism, and fascist subversion in the mid to late 1940s has sometimes been labeled the “brown scare,” an ironic precursor to the red scare, the irony being that many of those who were most concerned about fascist subversion, like Henry Wallace, found themselves subject to accusations of subversion themselves. If anything, the episode is a good reminder not to be too eager to make accusations of subversion. But Thurman was definitely correct that the Klan, and later the White Citizens Councils, were main bulwarks in the fight to retain segregation, and the “right to work laws” pushed by many of the groups he discusses played a major role in retarding the cause of labor in the post-war period.
So, is Glenn Beck a fascist? Was Glenn Gould a hypochondriac? Was Glen Miller ever not in the mood? This is a serious question, and Frank Rich in the Times this morning amasses evidence, quite similar to that assembled by Thurman and Wallace, to argue that Beck is in the end a self-promoting puppet for a vast right wing conspiracy. The answer to the question of Beck’s fascism is less important than posing it, and the need to be alert to the forces of reaction, which continue to be, even in the era of Obama, more resourceful and tenacious, it would seem, than anything the good guys can muster. Much has been made of the symbolism of the Beck rally on the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. The tragedy of America since 1963 is that in many ways it is a far better, and far more egalitarian society in some ways; and far worse and less equal in others. Whether or not Glenn Beck is masquerading as a fascist is for the reader to decide; what seems beyond doubt is that he has become perhaps the leading spokesperson for what might be called the “new inequality.”

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A Mayor, a Governor, and a Muslim Community Cener

The demands of my job directing the American Studies program at Rutgers-Newark have dramatically reduced my free time for posting on "Greater New York." However, the controversy over building a Muslim community center in lower Manhattan rouses me to post--in praise of Mayor Bloomberg and in condemnation of Governor Paterson.

Mayor Bloomberg got it right: this is a civil rights issue in a city that thrives on tolerating differences. Back off from either of these and we'll be in a terrible place. The terrorists who staged 9/11 will have scared us into tearing up the Constitution and frightening us into abandoning the open, welcoming spirit that has long made New York a destination and beacon for people all around the world.

To his shame, Governor Paterson has not risen to the same heights. He acknowledges the constitutionality of the community center, but he understands the pain of the families who want to see it elsewhere. To ease their pain, he's willing to consider using state land to build the center elsewhere.

Mr. Governor, what part of the constitution and the history of our city do you misunderstand? In the days of Jim Crow, if someone got uncomfortable eating alongside a black person at lunch counter, would you have offered to build a separate lunch counter to spare them their trauma? Of course not. You would recognize that constitutional rights, like freedom of association and religion, aren't things to be bargained with. Stand up for the Muslim community center in lower Manhattan.