Bits of a Puzzle - Part V
That's Capital Publisher Chosen As Top Member of American Business Leadership Council

What Do You Speak? Where Are You From? To What Do You Belong?

For my money, the best reality television the past few weeks was on C-SPAN.  Namely, coverage of the immigration issues erupting all of a sudden. America's donor free/commercial free network has been much better than other television media in following the surprisingly robust rallies that seemed to erupt spontaneously across the nation.

Two weeks ago, 500,000 people marched in Los Angeles. Two weeks later, another 500,000 showed up to march in Dallas. Yesterday hundreds of thousands showed up for rallies in Washington DC, Seattle and New York, slowing down a range of industries depending on low paid labor across the nation.

The crowds have been overwhelming Latino, and in yesterday’s Washington D.C. event, the speakers were always bi-lingual. Sometimes English came first, other times second. But when Senator Ted Kennedy got up to speak, his Spanish translator was drowned out by crowds cheering without any need for the translation.

And when a nine-year old girl was featured on the podium to lead everyone in a “Pledge of Allegiance,” with all the American flags raised, it could have been a particularly emotional Fourth of July. But a weird one. Because even while they were holding up this nation's flag, there was a palpable connection to other countries.

A friend of mine in Seattle accidentally came upon her city’s rally, and told me how she found herself “thrilled,” more from the energy of the crowds as from the cause.

“I just start to think we’re all so apathetic and then you see this,” she told me. “I am not quite clear what we should do about open borders but the feeling in the crowd was great.”

C-SPAN doesn’t analyze news so much as show its formation. And so far I’ve yet to see much media analysis of the momentum of these crowds and insights about what, beyond the obvious, it might mean. It deserves more attention, specifically about mobilization in America today.

To me there was something clearly absent from the rallies: the voices of immigrants from outside of Latin America. Today I checked The New York Times for coverage, and found a front page photograph of a political rally full of folks who were clearly Asian. Then I read the caption and realized it was shot at an anti-government demonstration in Thailand.

While Mexicans dominate immigrant populations in the United States (approximately 49 percent of America’s 11 million “illegals”), where were the masses of non-Latino immigrants, whether originally from South America or South Asia?

In Minnesota, for example, the fastest growing group of foreign born are not from any Latin American country. They’re from Africa. In California, Spanish may be the second largest spoken language, but Mandarin, Korean and Farsi have their own substantial number of speakers.

But in the last few days, these rallies have been primarily Latino. Washington D.C. has over 70,000 Ethiopians. What would have happened had the speeches been in English and Amharic? How might that have impacted the cause? What does it suggest about the cause that Spanish is so overwhelming its language?

More about that in the near future. This post will focus less on the “cause” than how it’s been waged. I have spent the last six posts wrestling with issues around developing infrastructure, specifically how collectives of people can commit to something together, and how other parts of their lives (their rituals) play a part in that process. 

The entire immigrant issue is a great reflection of the limits and opportunities of mass action. And also how, in our modern world, identity gets played out among a public collective. The ability of Latin Americans to organize so quickly seems so relevant - especially the activism from a particular demographic among them, the Mexicans.

In the last 15 years, Mexicans have been building populations in states ranging from North Carolina to Wisconsin to New York. But except in border states like Texas and California, up till now they were awfully quiet politically and socially. These past two weeks they have emerged with an intensity which demonstrates equal measures of longing and ambition. That emergant-type energy has implications for all of us.

Think of the crowds. Half a million people at a time. These were folks for whom a day off means losing critical wages.  Demonstrating for them was no lark. I guess you could say that these rallies are proof that fear can be a great force to galvanize action. But I bet fear also prevented a lot of African, Chinese, and South Asians from joining the protests.

In fact, the pride with which people spoke their native Spanish suggested that while feeling vulnerable, these are not a group who feel marginalized to the shadows. Or, more accurately, perhaps they had suddenly caught the full extent of their potential power.

What did they have that helped them? Three things seemed apparent. First, they had the memories of where they came from, expressed in the passion and pleasure with which they chanted together in Spanish. Secondly, they had affiliation with a church, Catholic or born-again Christian.

Finally, they hold the threads of a emerging sense of what they want. Not the entire fabric. Rather, they have a vision in the making. Something about opportunity and home which is expressed in the form of a green card. Together, these shared institutions of language, church and legal document gave them the generative DNA of meaning, ritual, and place.

Collective meaning is the first step in creating infrastructure. It allows the building of trust, which in turn lead to rituals centered around place. These two pieces, ritual and place, then work together to reaffirm meaning and trust. And perhaps the tensions around yearning, the act of working towards something, then takes on a creative force of its own.

The immigrants who came to Washington may not have organized previously, but their lives lend themselves to organically building a cultural infrastructure which is transforming into a political force. They gather for work together, they room together, they spend a lot of time together.

They also have a model to base themselves on. It's called the Christian Right. Whether or not you're a fan, that is a group who have turned cultural concerns into a political infrastructure that's been amazingly resilient. For the last two decades, they have been brilliantly leveraging place and ritual. It is a lack of place and ritual that eludes liberals. Outside of visiting Starbucks, what do they have? Not much.

In New York, for instance, the middle class move to private schools (when they can afford it) has robbed the city of its most potent advocates for better public education. Against the war in Iraq?  Well, the military is primarily composed of a population of Southern and Mid-Western white recruits.  As the brilliant (and ignorantly criticized) Robert D. Kaplan writes, they are forming an unacknowledged caste.

Because of a decreasing lack of regular attachments in the public sphere, moderates, liberals and even elites in this country, however “well educated” are effectively voiceless politically. Every four years many of us start arguing who will make a better president, but between elections that process is dead.

It's not multiple identities that weaken political action. It's lack of regular, conscious and, very important, public ways to partake in those identities. And to wrestle with them.

For the last few weeks, I have been writing about a gaming mentality that has impacted this country, and perhaps the world. I wonder whether living in game spaces can lead people to question power and then impact it. Perhaps these immigrants are proving you can.

Certainly people play in games. But part of that play is "trying on" identities. Then they adopt pieces of them or they move on. Sometimes such a process can remind us where our most resonant sympathies live.

Look at sport. As a friend told me about visiting East Germany before the destruction of the wall, outside any local soccer games you would always see at least half a dozen tanks. Soldiers would follow the departing crowd till it would disperse. For good reason.

British soccer crowds, fueled by class-based aggression and too much beer, can be furiously destructive at home and abroad. Fired up, they are an identity in drunken emergence, expressing themselves with careless abandon.

For a haunting example of another type of crowd in emergence, remember the figure whose lone actions nearly caused a revolution in China. Nicknamed Tankman in Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government have spent the last 20 years doing their best to vanquish his memory. Give a group of people a place sense to learn (or be reminded of) its power and... well, watch out.

The Mexican "illegals" demonstrating yesterday were so interesting to me because they seemed as they as much in the midst of an internal as well as an external struggle. You could see it and hear it as they momentarily looked proud, then uneasy, then excited.

It was as if, in those moments of joining a demonstratin, they were coalescing as a collective, navigating their way into "becoming" something other than what they had been. Illegals to citizens. Mexicans to Americans. But also fighting to retain something else that they could not leave behind.

I'm not sure they are yet clear what they ultimately want. But their willingness to dive into figuring it out makes them a force. Those rallies were game spaces to claim a complex identity. And it's that conflicting journey, a process that they travel with passion but also discipline, traversing "the system" into prominence, balancing who they have been, are, and want to be... that can make them particularly effective players in the modern public sphere.

Because if these marches are a series of game spaces for them, for now they are using each space wisely. Taking each seriously. And for now they are managing it without the rootless violence of soccer fans from Liverpool, or frustrated Muslims around the world, whose institutions right now serve them no further than theirs bars, mosques or privacy of their homes.

We native born-Americans have our own rootlessness. Which is not a problem until we ignore it. Why? Because as fewer of us share rituals connected to "public space," we have fewer connections to the "public good." Such rituals and spaces don't need to be heavy. Or serious. Think of national holidays. The one day a year that the mass of us share with real joy is Thanksgiving.

That may be unfair. People interact with their neighbors. Parents around the country certainly socialize with other parents, looking after their children. And America has always had a transitory "moving on" attitude which provides oxygen to the national psyche.

But any existing (or even healthy) restlessness is probably amplified by fears around globalization. We are, to increasing degrees, creating gated communities. Which reinforce the ability to personalize private space at the expense of the public.

Here. Let me take a leap: however heavily accented their English, anyone in yesterday’s crowd of Latin Americans was probably more capable of shaping the direction of this country than many of us who were born here, especially a non-married, childless blogger like me.

Without strong emotional ties to larger real world collectives, a person is an individual in the most negative sense. Alone. It’s why the buying power of straight, single Americans as a demographic will never translate into political power. Especially single straight men.

Gay men and single women don't have the rich social ties generated by children but, so long as they face perceived discrimination, they do have cause.  They are actively navigating roles. Even that is fading as they rise in status.

Those "illegals" marching belong to larger communities which are actively in emergence. They have a cause that's not simply about discrimination. It's a shared identity about a journey that was visible (and audible) watching them on C-SPAN.

You could see it in their complex ability to juggle English and Spanish. You could sense the memories of what they left but also what they seek. It was in their eyes as well as the words from their mouth and heart.

They may not have deep roots in this country, but they have connections to institutions whose roots run very deep, are rooted in place, yet extend beyond simple concepts of geography: church, ancestral home and... seeking to create someplace they can someday claim as home.

As useful as the web can be to create collectives like “My Space,” we still live in an atom based world. Gravity matters. Nothing is more proof of that than seeing the gathering of these crowds of immigrants.  In today's world, if you're not religious (even if its the religion of the secular), and can't collectively share a sense of memory as well as longing, you will find yourself more and more isolated.

Advice to moderates and liberals, find your own offline institutions with places and rituals that support and nuture things you hold dear. The conservatives have them. Radicals (right or left) tend to be utopian and create their own. The only other adult group I'd say are the haplessly deluded who believe they need neither, outside of holding on to avoiding any commitment which may end in loss.

Finally, while my comment about Starbucks may have seemed flippant, the truth is I think potential rituals and places will (or can be) inevitably be rooted in brands. Businesses with whom we form conscious and unconscious relationships. Markets exist as much as to reflect as to reinforce values.  Those brands operate in markets that can impact their success or failure.

There’s an email making the rounds right now, for instance, about fighting high oil prices. It suggests a focused boycott of ExxonMobil, action which would ask drivers to spend several months actively avoiding purchases from this business' gas stations. It points out a “don’t buy gas day" would be of limited impact. Rather, target this powerful brand with behavior which takes a cumulative toll over a period of months rather than one day.

It would certain transform a weekly (daily?) chore of "filling up" from a drag to a statement. It would, in fact, ritualize it. Give it meaning. And if you don't think gas stations can offer rituals around a place, come to New York City's Houston and Lafayette, where cabbies hang out at the car wash.

Can your local ExxonMobil-alternative help you create such a ritual by creating a relationship with you? Do you have a relationship with the folks where you buy fuel? Can you convince the franchisees who pay their money to headquarters to threaten to make their own switch? Worth a try.

For my money, I say the boycott should be less about prices and more about energy choices: pushing Exxon to invest a healthy portion of its profits in R&D on alternative fuels. And lobbying the government to use our tax dollars to do the same. Cheaper gas to me is just... cheaper gas. It further extends our willful ignorance about how disconnected we are to our resources.

Regardless, an e-mail generated boycott is an interesting outgrowth.  Perhaps America’s politically charged and multi-lingual immigrants are teaching the rest of us a lesson. It pays to speaks to a few languages, be flexible in one’s identity, and, not least, be ready to join with others to commit to something you believe in. To put a stake in the ground that says, I am here with you. We belong.

by Jonathan Field


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