Archive for April, 2011


Immigration (A Tragedy In Three Parts)

Let’s face it, despite American myths about rugged individualism and an honest day’s labor, historically speaking, the back-breaking labor has always been preformed by someone else (usually non-Caucasian and dirt poor). There were slaves in the cotton fields, Chinese immigrants on the railways- there were even attempts at enslaving Native Americans at various points.

And today, things haven’t changed much.

Mexicans, Guatemalans, Hondurans, El Salvadorans, and other Latin American immigrants have been streaming north over the years to find work in the United States. However, the ease of immigrating into America has changed dramatically since the time of Ellis Island. While once an immigrant could enter the US with few stipulations other than he not be carrying an infectious disease (and even then, he might be quarantined for a period and then allowed in), few of us seem to realize just how difficult of a process immigration has become.

Let’s take a look at some of the requirements:

English Requirement: When your ancestors immigrated to America, how many of them could speak English? Alright then, how much did their (initial) inability to speak English keep them from being productive members of society? How many of us would be here today if the English requirement was in place a century ago?

Moral Character Requirement: Essentially, one is required to produce proof that he hasn’t been convicted of any crimes anywhere he’s lived in the past two decades. Considering that (1) most immigrants are poor and may have needed to commit certain crimes to survive and (2) with rampant police and judicial corruption, the chance of getting a fair trail is small or the chance of being framed is high, it seems likely that a number of immigrants who would otherwise be good members of society are prevented from being so.

Civics Requirement: Immigrants are required to have an understanding of American civics, but let’s face facts- most natural-born US citizens don’t have a knowledge of civics. Can you, off the top of your head, state which constitutional amendment protects citizens from unwarranted search and seizure (not that the TSA cares)? What about the difference between congress and the senate? Who was the 15th US president? Not only did immigrants to Ellis Island not have to know these things, but many of their descendants don’t know them either.

So most would-be immigrants find themselves between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, the conditions they live in now are so miserable that they are forced to leave behind their homes, culture, and (in many cases) family to find work in America (and the trip is hellish in and of itself). On the other hand, immigration requirements are so stringent, many are unable to legally enter the US. The only option: become illegal immigrants.

Now if you’re a company in the US, who are you going to want to hire? A citizen protected by minimum wage laws, working condition regulations, unions, hazard pay, and so on? Or are you going to want to hire an illegal immigrant- a person in such a desperate need for work that he’ll slave away for long hours in dangerous conditions for almost no pay?

And so it goes- corporations, companies, and individuals use illegal immigrants as a renewable source of cheap labor. If Mike winds up in an industrial accident, his employers have to pay some sort of compensation. If Manuel gets hurt, who cares? Since he’s not in the US legally, he’s not protected by any law. Indeed, as an illegal immigrant, his employer has additional sway over him by being able to report him to the INS if he ever gets out of line.

Of course, the abusive, exploitative nature of many illegal immigrants’ jobs are lost on many Americans. Some are ignorant of how difficult immigration has become and assume that illegal immigrants are circumventing the system to “leech” off of the US- taking jobs that once belonged to blue collar American workers. Others are racists and xenophobes- pure and simple. And of course politicians are complicit in the perpetuation of anti-immigrant sentiment, using illegal immigrants as a scapegoat for various problems, promising that their platform of strict immigration reform will ensure American jobs go to American workers. Whether these politicians actually believe in their own rhetoric, or are merely keeping immigration requirements strict to ensure a constant supply of cheap labor for the corporations backing their campaigns, I cannot say- there’s probably a lot of both. Either way, the end result is American workers, rather than finding sympathy and solidarity with their Latin American counterparts, are pitted against them. Racism is fomented, and illegal immigrants are stereotyped as thugs, criminals, and indolent cheats- and this prejudice quickly spreads until it’s widely applied not just to illegal immigrants, but to all immigrants and all Hispanics. So what’s the sum of all this? A society twisted against the very people whose hard, thankless labor this society rests on. Bigotry is able to hide under the mask of patriotism, while the people ultimately responsible for the labor crisis here and abroad make a clean getaway.

Let’s look back at the situation in total: Due to insufferable conditions in their homelands (often as a result of American corporations, like the corn subsidies putting thousands of Mexican farmers out of work, or Chiquita Brands International’s banana republics), immigrants are forced to the search for work in the US. However, harsh immigration rules force many to become illegal immigrants, losing all rights or protection and become exploited and abused by corporations in the US. Finally, these people- the poorest of the poor who even now are grateful for what little they have- are spat on by their fellow American workers for “taking their jobs”, and targeted by racist elements within the states.

And all because of what? Capitalism: a system that puts profit before people.


Free Things

In our capitalist, consumerist society, we find ourselves in an odd predicament. We want to fulfill our desire to enjoy art, cinema, music, literature, etc., but more often than not the things that we want are “owned” (more on that later) by individuals who insist we pay through the nose to do so. Now I don’t have any problem with supporting artists or musicians or the like- I believe any artist should create art, and be in turn supported by the public. However, this isn’t the world we live in. For the most part, the better elements of our culture aren’t moving straight from the artists to the public but from the artists to record companies (who leave the artists with about %10 of the overall profits) and only then to the public. Speaking for myself, while I’m all for art, I’d rather not pay an exorbitant fee when only a sliver of the money is actually getting to the artists. So I thought I’d list off a few of the ways of getting around the system.

Just a quick note before I get to the list. While a lot of the sites I’m going to talk about will allow you to enjoy music or films for free, let’s keep in mind that there are plenty of aspiring artists out there struggling to make a living. If you like their work enough, please, find some way of getting payment/donations directly to them so that they can continue doing what they do.

Now the list.

Hulu (Movies, TV Shows): While this website does have commercial breaks at various points (and a “plus” option you can pay for, in which greater variety is offered), it’s still a step up from watching on TV. You get the ability to watch, pause, and resume whenever, and while you might have to sit through a thirty second ad from Geico, it’s still a decent exchange.

Youtube (Movies, TV Shows, Music): While the quality, legality, and chances of not getting rickrolled are dubious on Youtube, you can generally listen to music, watch some movies, and see various tv show episodes without having to pay anything or sit through ads (though commercials are starting to become a more common annoyance). Again, there’s no guarantees that you’ll find what you want, or that it will be in decent condition if you do, but it’s still a nice to have the chance.

Pandora (Music): This site allows you to create “radio stations” based on songs, artists, or genres you select (after you’ve stipulated what you want, the site will play similar music, giving you the option to fine-tune your station along the way). While you will have to sit through a few commercials every once in a while (from what I’ve seen, fewer than when Pandora first started) and there’s a limit on how many songs you can skip, it’s still a good way to find new artists, and content itself is generally high-quality.

Grooveshark (Music): This site allows you to actually search for and play whatever music you want without paying a cent (there is an ad bar on the side, but otherwise no commercials). While the quality isn’t always great (varies a lot from song to song), it beats paying a twelve bucks for an album on iTunes.

iTunes (Audio Files): While iTunes is certainly part of the industry I was bashing in the first paragraph of this post, iTunes can actually be used to get some great free stuff. For example, I use iTunes to get free podcasts, like Mumia Abu-Jamal’s essays or lectures from the 2010 Socialism Conference.

Netflix (Movies, TV Shows): Now you might be thinking “Netflix? You have to pay for that.” and you’d be right. There is, however, a month-long free trial that you can use. It’s not much, but it’s still better than having to rent (though in Netflix’s defense, the system they use is infinitely better than the disposable DVD system some corporations have created).

Project Guetenburg and other Online Sources (Books): A number of classic works (Dickens, Nietzsche, Eliot, etc.) can be found online for absolutely free. Why pay twelve dollars at Barnes and Noble when you can get a PDF or HTML file online for nothing?

Libraries (Everything): Now that I think about it, I probably should’ve put this section at the beginning of the list.

Like all my lists, this is by no means comprehensive, and any and all suggestions are welcome.


The Royal Wedding (A Rant)

What is it that makes us as a society so taken with the idea of royalty? Why is it that we label certain people as celebrities just for having been born to the right family? Granted, kids are told from the beginning stories of enchanted worlds where princes save damsels in distress, and princesses can feel a pea through forty mattresses (inbreeding apparently producing super-sensitivity). But is that really it? Do a few old fairy-tales about Prince Charming and Sleeping Beauty really drive our fascination (and in many cases, creepy adoration) of actual royalty?

Now to clarify, I don’t tend to have a problem with most fairy-tales. Classism and swooning aside, some of the characters are fairly admirable. Princes ride around on snowy steeds, righting wrongs (the princes, not the steeds- though I’m sure they help). Princesses exhibit kindness to beggars and orphans (who tend to be fairies in disguise- but at least their hearts are in the right place). Kings and queens rule fairly and justly- all in all, they royalty isn’t half bad.

What I don’t get is how people think the royalty in our world is anything like that.

Let’s face the facts, historically, the nobility has been anything but noble. Inbreds, psychopaths, murderers, rapists, egomaniacal hedonists- these are the actual individuals who’ve comrpised royalty over the millennia. The kings and queens who weren’t dementedly evil (your Caligulas, your Bathorys, etc.) were either incompetent (your John Lacklands, your Ramses Vs, etc.) or apathetic (your Charles VIIs, your Louis XVIs, etc.). These were all individuals who, to varying degrees, claimed to have the go-ahead from God (or the gods- depending on the situation) to do whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted, without fear of repercussion. Combine this with the constant threat of assassination by someone within your own family, and you’ve got perfect formula for producing self-absorbed, emotionally imbalanced maniacs capable of sending their own people to the slaughter at a whim.

“Ok,” you might argue, “but what about the good ones? Elizabeth II? Charlemagne? Asoka? What about all the iconic men and women associated with their nation’s golden ages?”

An interesting point, but I don’t think not running your empire into the ground is quite enough to constitute being a “good” monarch. The fact that every once in a long, long while, some ruler would actually make an effort to establish justice says more against royalty than for it.

“Alright,” you might reply, “but the days of the Draculs and the Romanovs have long since passed. The royalty of today are ceremonial at best.”

And that’s most of the problem right there. For being born to the right family, certain men and women still find themselves enjoying wealth, protection, and the inexplicable admiration of a number of fellow citizens. Imagine if, out of the blue, it was decided that Steve the mechanic was somehow special. Imagine if we had Steve’s face on every stamp, coin, and if before every film we had to rise for a short video of Steve walking around (a Thai thing- not British). Imagine if every major news outlet on earth had special coverage of Steve’s daughter’s wedding, for the sole reason that she was the daughter of Steve, and therefore her life is somehow special.

This is what bugs me. By accident of birth, some people are entitled (literally entitled) to enjoy fame, security, and luxury. It flies in the face of all our affirmations of basicĀ  human equality. It’s a withered relic of a more ignorant time. It’s a continued waste of public money. How much goes into maintaining these people? Actual “incomes” (quotations required here- “income” implies work) aside, how much goes into the cars, the bodyguards, the pomp and circumstance? This is all hard-earned cash from the public that by all rights should be serving and protecting the public- not one random family whose distant ancestors happened to be megalomaniacs.

Now with all that in mind, I’m against protesting the upcoming (April 29th) wedding of William Windsor and Kate Middleton. I’m not saying I’m for celebrating it either. Ultimately, my issue is with the mindless inequality the whole concept of royalty is based on. William and Kate, despite the clamor being made about them, are just two people, and I think that people ought to have the right to marry each other without being screamed at. Don’t get me wrong- the wedding is almost certainly going to be a grotesque display of excess, decadence, and opulence, but in the end it’s just two people- two perfectly ordinary people- getting married. Screaming ourselves hoarse on the 29th is going to be just as bad going along with the royal fever. Again, don’t misunderstand me. I think the royalty- all royalty– should be abolished, and if we’re going to burn Buckingham to the ground, let me throw the first molotov. It is because I believe Windsor and Middleton are no different than you or I that I am against protesting their marriage. I believe that they should be given the same treatment as everyone else- no better, and no worse, and I’m guessing we can all agree that we would all want the opportunity to get married without having crowds roaring outside.

That said, I hope you’ll all join me on April 30th in “calling off with their heads!”.


A Scene at the Airport

A couple days ago, I was stuck in Buffalo Niagara Airport. The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) had shut down flights into Chicago for an hour, and the chaos that resulted wound up getting my flight canceled, and being the beginning of spring break, all other flights out were full until Sunday. Now I’m not a fan of airports (The increasingly Orwellian security screening especially, though with my black jacket, black beret, and Palestinian keffiah, I will admit I was daring them to “randomly” select me) but I try to keep things in perspective. With the majority of the world living in abject poverty, hunger, and lacking even the semblance of basic rights, getting one’s flight canceled isn’t so bad. So when I saw one of my fellow passengers pacing back and forth angrily, I shrugged and commented “Such is life”.

I shouldn’t have done that.

That passenger (a lawyer, from what I could tell) took my words not so much to be an observation about us having it relatively easy and more of an invitation to expound on exactly how awful it was that the flight was canceled and what idiots the airline employed and who was going to burn for eternity for this gross miscarriage of justice. Once the airline representative (I’m not entirely sure what else to call the guy that have at the gate) arrived to apologize and to help people find new flights, the lawyer rushed up to the counter to be the first in line- not because he was in a rush to be anywhere, but so that he could take forty-five minutes (no exaggeration) to chew the representative out.

Now let me paint a picture of the scene. On the right, we have the airline representative; a diminutive Hispanic man in a blue uniform with an ID card so large he might as well have been hanging an albatross around his neck (ten points to the first person to get that literary reference). Across the counter from him is the lawyer, medium build, graying hair, green legal paperwork, and a suit that was stolen from a yacht club in the mid 1950s. Behind him is a long line of irritated customers, who are wishing the lawyer would just make a decision already so they could get their turn calling the representative a liar and a scumbag. The whole thing could’ve been taken right from a Diego Rivera mural.

Now needless to say, I wasn’t exactly happy with the whole scenario. This lawyer was throwing a full-blown tantrum, berating and insulting the guy who was trying to help him, and all because his flight was canceled. When there are people in this world who will be lucky to live past the age of thirty, or who are faced constantly with the threat of genocide, enslavement, disease, drought, and starvation, having a flight canceled doesn’t seem so bad. Indeed, if the worst thing that happens to me all day is on the level of been stuck in an airport, I should be weeping tears of gratitude. Yet this smug, paper-pushing leech gets it into his head that he’s so important, he’s justified in spending nearly an hour railing on the one guy in the place trying to help him out.

I guess it got me thinking about the way people treat members of the working class- specifically waiters or customer service reps and the like. It seems the way our society is set up, we see people serving us not as people but just as means to an end. When we look at a waitress, as we seeing Jane Prol, who’s been working hard all day and has her own problems, or do we just see the thing (“person”, isn’t the right term) that will be bringing us our food? When there’s something wrong with the product we ordered, do we politely register a complaint with John Worker, who’s just a guy and doesn’t have all the answers, or we demand to know why we didn’t get what we wanted when we wanted it and what the company (because the voice at the other end of the phone controls the company) will do for us? Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems that we’ve become so consumerist, that not only are we focused on ourselves, but we’re egocentric to the point where we can’t even imagine there being anyone other than ourselves.