Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Faith and Myths: Activism and Illegal Immigration

Post subtitle: How Myths Are Made

Mexico-U.S. relations have been complicated for some time by a triplet of crippling problems: drug trafficking, economic recession, and illegal immigration.* These, in turn, are driven by the moral evils of greed and violence. The intellectual puzzle comes in trying to sort all of these out and pinpointing the one problem whose dissolution would largely do away with the other problems. I certainly have no solution, but I do have a modest, unoriginal recommendation for finding one: honesty. We cannot get murderes and traffickers of drugs and humans to be honest and own up to what they have done and that it is wrong. We can, however, try to be honest when discussing economic theory and immigration policy--their purposes, effects, and effectiveness.

Rubén Figueroa
I was reminded of how easy it is to slip into unintentional untruths and, from there, to quickly create myths that just fester and spawn more until we have a huge globbed-up issue. I interviewed Mexican activist Rubén Figueroa, and he made (at least) a couple of assertions that made me internally frown.

I should first give just a bit of Rubén's background. By his own admission, he is a "radical." This engenders both admirable engagements to help those in desperate need, as well as questionable rhetoric. The small movement of which he is a part, Movimiento Migrante Mesoamericano, runs a shelter on the Guatemalan border of the Mexican state of Tabasco. The shelter, called La 72 in memory of 72 Central-American migrants who while passing illegally through Mexico to get to the U.S. were brutally murdered by drug thugs (Los Zetas). Rubén is inspired to help these people, in part, because he was an illegal in the U.S. for five years and experienced what it is like to be viewed as second-class/undocumented/marginalized.

For now, our interview is only in Spanish, though I hope to transcribe and translate it to English when I have time. The main claim that he made that made me question his credibility a little does not come out in the video. But in our continued discussion (of which I have an audio recording), he asserted that Wells Fargo runs prisons for illegals along the U.S.-Mexico border. This claim is not, in itself, necessarily very important. Its effect, however, is to produce shock that such a large, well-respected bank could be involved in something so questionable. The purpose of the claim is to make the listener question the morals of Wells Fargo and, by extension, broader Western, capitalistic, "neo-colonial" society. Now, though the U.S. is up to its neck in complicity with drug violence, it cannot be said that the whole American society or Mexican society is encouraging drug violence or violence against illegal immigrants.

Furthermore, the claim must be examined. In fact, Wells Fargo does no such thing. It does, as a huge bank, have shares in a company that administrates private prisons, some of which the U.S. government does lease for illegal detainees before deportation. Is that so bad? Of course not.

I am largely for what people like Rubén do. But I am also for honesty and myth-busting, not myth-creating. And while it's true that we all have to resort to faith on these issues at some point (I cannot know everything that's going on with every government that is being immoral and even breaking its own laws), we can maintain a continual progress towards the truth by being careful with the partial truth we already have.

*I use the phrase "illegal immigration" or "illegal immigrant" rather than other common terms such as "undocumented" or simply "migrants." I choose this not to stigmatize the over-stigmatized "illegal," but simply because it reflects reality as best as any phrase I am aware of. It does not mean I agree with the status quo that continues to criminalize certain immigrants (particuarly in the North- and Latin-American contexts, although I am also interested in the situations in East Asia and Western Europe that have a lot in common with the American problem). In fact, if I were dictator of the world I would probably make most of these people "legal" in some sense of the word. If that makes me ethically suspect in your book, then feel free not to write me in on the ballot in the next presidential election.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Faith and Myths: Reflections on JFK's Assassination

This post attempts to begin to bring together a few lines of thought from previous posts and current events. A couple of future posts will spend more time on some of those lines of thought, but this one focuses primarily on JFK's assassination, the 50th anniversary of which has just passed.

Apparently there is a huge intellectual community that vigorously explores myriad theories surrounding the events of that fateful day that saw the last successful assassination attempt of an American president. I know almost nothing of that community, much less the facts and theories of the JFK assassination. In the absence of knowledge, I ask myself, probably naively, why one man's death should so obsess us and whether it could ever have nearly as much significance and impact on the subsequent 50 (or more) years as we like to think. There are a lot of myths to unpack here, and of course the biggest obstacle is identifying what the myths are.

For example, 1) who really killed Kennedy and why (answers to both questions would explode all of the other well-documented theories as myths).

2) Also, is it a myth that Kennedy really would have had nearly as big an impact, positive or negative, on American history as people like to think had he survived November 22, 1963?

3) If the early 1960s were full of sociopolitical myths that had the standing of truth (the existential threat of communism, the accompanying omnipresence of covert communist agents, the existential threat of racial integration), what myths have become American truth in 2013?

In sorting out these questions, I stumbled across a profound reminder in an article by David von Drehle on the assassination, in this week's TIME magazine. Speaking of the bewildering (in number and content) conspiracy theories, he mentions the inevitability of faith, which he defines as "that set of beliefs that frames our approach to data and mystery. Each of us must have some sort of faith because we can never have perfect knowledge, no matter how much information we accumulate. Faith fills in the gaps" (emphasis added).

That reflection on faith brings to mind Paul's statement in 1 Corinthians that "knowledge puffs up" and yet how foolish that pride is, because that human knowledge is certainly never complete. In the pride-fraught endeavor of critiquing others' myths, and trying to tease out our own, then requires the constant recognition of those gaps in our own knowledge, and that they will always be filled with something until we have perfect knowledge one day.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

A New Blog / Un Nuevo Blog

In my new job/studies at the University of South Carolina, I am taking my first graduate Spanish course with Dr. Raúl Diego Rivera Hernández. He has had some of us graduate students start a blog about the themes that we are interested in relating to the intersections of literature and current events, as well as announcements regarding events and conferences at USC.

The title of the blog is Información Artificial, a play on the title of the novel by Ricardo Piglia, Respiración Artificial. As we examine pressing issues from both the academic and popular perspectives, the title of the blog also reminds of our own vulnerability to giving a skewed perspective of the truth. I suppose it is in keeping with this that I should mention that the blog is not mine (though I will be posting to it fairly frequently), so not everything that appears on it represents my view of the issues.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Today in Language: Émile Nelligan

Le poète canadien Émile Nelligan est mort le 18 novembre 1941. Rue St.-Denis à Montréal dans le parc Saint-Louis.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

A Business Professor on Mexican Drug Violence

This is a very professional video, by a professor with first-hand knowledge of both Mexico and business culture--and he makes the case for reconsidering the general approach to drug violence (though he gives no specific plan). He also reminds us that Americans, as much as anyone else, are complicit in the drug trafficking and related violence. He also touches briefly on the plight of migrants in Mexico (in relation to the drug traffickers). All of this raises the problem of myths. What political myths do we believe? What myths may be inherent in his own approach to the issue? How do we go about untangling all of the issues in such a complicated problem?

Sunday, November 10, 2013

What Myths Do You Believe?

Because you most assuredly do believe some.

I have just started reading Subverting Global Myths: Theology and the Public Issues Shaping Our World by blogger Vinoth Ramachandra. I am sure the book will alternatively annoy me, convict me, and educate me. I have recently thought about myths that even the most educated believe because of things I have heard and participated in this week in courses and conferences at the University of South Carolina (more on that later this week). But ultimately, we do believe and propagate certain myths (e.g., the earth is flat, many times in accord with society and its pressures, but other times against those pressures, forming our own countercultural tendencies. Getting out of our myths may be the most difficult undertaking.

This is not a quotation from the book itself (I don't think) but from a summary of the book on the Barnes & Noble website:

It is a myth that only the uninformed masses believe in myths and that power brokers, media moguls, leading scientists, financial tycoons, political luminaries and intellectual elites don't. The myths that the ruling classes believe may be more sophisticated, but they are myths nonetheless.

Friday, November 8, 2013

La Semana del Migrante

After Wednesday's post, I found out that this week was the "Semana del Migrante" in Mexico (perhaps other Latin- and Central-American countries as well?). I do not know exactly what that means, other than a week to focus attention on the plight of the immgrants (almost universally poor and illegal) who either cross Mexico to reach the U.S. and, they hope, a better life, or else who die/disappear in Mexico.

This interested me in particular because of some of my work related to a course on contemporary Spanish-American narrative. My classmates and I had the opportunity this week to meet with, interview, and attend a conference with a Mexican activist who works in a shelter on the Mexico-Guatemala border. I hope to post both video and transcript from the interview, as well as further reflections on the topic of immigration (from the perspective of the U.S., though this activist is primarily concerned with Mexican policy) and related political and philosophical issues.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Los Invisibles - The Invisibles

A course I am taking this semester has led me back to the immigration issue, although from a bit broader perspective than just U.S. immigration law to the situation in Mexico and the harrowing experiences of Central American immigrants (almost always illegal). I will soon be posting the text of an interview I have done with a Mexican activist but this documentary was drawn to my attention by a professor. Even if you don't know Spanish, you can still watch it and basically just understand everyone as saying, "We are living the American nightmare, not the American dream. In attempting to cross Mexico, I/we have been assaulted/tortured/mutilated/raped."

Monday, November 4, 2013

Language, a/the Bridge to Understanding

What do you think of this assertion: "El lenguaje constituye el único puente (aunque también un obstáculo) entre el hombre y el conocimiento" (Language constitutes the only bridge (although an obstacle as well) between man and understanding).

That comes from an article by Jimena Ugaz on a novel by Ricardo Piglia. I would certainly be inclined to agree with the staement, although the possibility of mentalese would make me back off a bit from the assertion (unless mentalese is understood as language in its own right). What really interests me in the statement, due to some of my recent work on postmodernism and poststructuralism (whatever you may take those terms to mean), is that language is also an obstacle to our understanding at times due to ubiquitous ambiguity. That truth is one of the greatest reminders given to philosophy and literary theory in the 20th century.