Beyond the Biosphere
In Texas, state Rep. Debbie Riddle is publicizing intelligence she’s received of a “nefarious plot” to train immigrants’ “anchor babies” as “little terrorists” in their home countries, then return them as adults to bring down American democracy.
In New York, patriots are decrying a cultural center and mosque, slated to rise a few blocks from Ground Zero, as “a citadel of Islamic supremacy.” Sarah Palin is tweeting appeals to “peaceful New Yorkers” and “peace-loving Muslims” to “refudiate” the project “in [the] interest of healing.” Newt Gingrich is denouncing this “Islamist cultural-political offensive designed to undermine and destroy our civilization.”
At the Capitol, Republican Senators Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina are gunning to repeal the portion of the Constitution’s 14th Amendment that grants citizenship to anyone born on U.S. soil. Birthright citizenship, adopted after the Civil War to enfranchise African slaves, distinguishes America from other democracies as a nation that recognizes it is built by immigrants.
In the White House, even as the Obama administration sues Arizona to overturn its law authorizing local police to demand identification of anyone who appears to be Mexican — er, undocumented — the president reaffirms his toughness on wetbacks and towelheads by spearheading a $600 million border-security buildup.
And here in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, we are being asked to help defend the besieged homeland. According to the Hardwick Gazette, a federal border-patrol agent paid a call to the Craftsbury select board to inform them the feds will be setting up mobile checkpoints on Route 14.
“It’s every American’s job to be alert as far as homeland security,” Newport officer Fernando Beltran declared. He clarified that the problem isn’t Canadians sneaking over the border but, in the reporter’s words, “aliens using Canada as a conduit.”
Ah, aliens. Local resident Dan Pittenger decoded this comment in his letter to the next week’s Gazette: For the 96.4 percent of other Vermonters “with pale skin,” he wrote, the checkpoint stops will be easy.
More’s the woe, then, for the Mexican farmhands whose toil is helping keep Vermont’s sinking dairy industry afloat. On the other side of the state, where most of the roughly 1500 undocumented laborers are employed, activists have moved a few town police departments to adopt don’t-ask-don’t-tell policies regarding immigration status — unless the person is suspected of a crime.
But cops elsewhere feel free to suspect people who look foreign and ask them for their papers. Hardwick’s practices fall somewhere in between. “We have a non-racial-profiling policy here,” police Chief Joe LaPorte told me. “Obviously, if people are committing a violation … and there is a question [of their immigration status] that may come up, we’d have to report that to the authorities. But if someone is just walking in the store, we’re not going to target people based on their appearance.”
State police decline to raid farms that might be harboring aliens (a crime carrying a 10-year sentence), and the agency has new antibias policies addressing racial profiling. But those regs fail to mention — much less prohibit — immigration interrogations. That’s because the state police sometimes back up federal agents.
These inconsistent practices and cozy relationships between state and federal enforcers send a clear message to the Mexican farmworker: Keep your brown ass out of public places.
Meanwhile, Officer Beltran assured the good people of Craftsbury that the feds trawling their back roads will create little inconvenience. “I don’t think it will affect a lot of people,” he said.
And therein lies the problem. For if the campesino’s invisibility protects his employer as well as himself, it also protects Vermonters from themselves — and the world.
Vermonters love localism. At the same time, in a state where “diversity” can be bought for the price of a samosa at the farmers market, they also like to think of themselves as socially tolerant. But as the nation grows feverish with nativism, this self-contained self-regard, no matter how innocent, will be strained. And as the local goes global, this tolerance will be tested.
Consider the following.
Scene 1: a wine-and-cheese party at a splendid hillside summer house in Greensboro, where Sterling College is cultivating friends for its experiential, “place-based,” environmentally centered education. The writer and college trustee John Elder gives a charming talk in which he comments that the tripartite frame inside which academics understand the world — race, class and gender — can be much enriched by a fourth category, place. He praises the idea of working within one’s biosphere. Will Wootton, Sterling’s president, continues on the theme of place, touting the students’ commitment and contributions to the college’s own community. Asked what experiential education taught him, an alumnus says he learned, among other things, “interpersonal relationships.”
While everyone smiles, it occurs to me that the community to which the 100 nearly all white, middle-class students are donating their talents, and with whom they are honing their interpersonal skills, is the equally white, increasingly wealthy, well-educated village of Craftsbury Common, in a biosphere of almost Edenic perfection: the high Black River Valley, lush in summer, snowy in winter, brilliant in autumn. And then I am reminded of the first time I heard a speaker — Kirkpatrick Sale, more than 20 years ago — promote the biosphere as the optimal sociopolitical entity. A woman shouted from the audience: “In my biosphere, they wouldn’t let me have an abortion.”
In other words, the fervent commitment to place, especially if that place is homogenous and happily situated, can insulate you from the struggles of race, class or gender, or the lack thereof.
Scene 2: the Hardwick Town House, where a good-sized crowd has gathered to watch “Silenced Voices,” a documentary by the Vermont Migrant Farmworker Solidarity Project, and “Neighbors,” East Hardwick’s Meredith Holch’s animation about her own relationship with the Mexican workers at a nearby farm. Questions from the audience follow. They reveal two things: concerned curiosity, and a general ignorance of an issue that could turn the next two national elections.
In other words, in a place like Hardwick, lately branded as Locavore City, USA, you might be lulled into thinking there is such a thing in the 21st century as a local agricultural economy and a purely local politics, and that all you have to do to better the world is join the town rec committee and eat your neighbor’s organic tomatoes instead of the ones shipped from Israel in Styrofoam.
You might get so pleased with yourself for acting locally that you forget to act — or even think — globally.
In a later conversation, Wootton distinguished between localism and place-based learning. The former, he said, “is about politics and attitude” and is sometimes ignorant — the idea, for instance, that Vermont could be self-sufficient. “We don’t make stainless steel,” he pointed out. “So, how are we going to cook all this good food?” The latter is an educational strategy: Students “stand in the stream” of local experience to learn universally applicable ways of thinking: “A college is a specialized universe whose job is not to be of a community but to take young minds and keep them for a while and push them back out,” Wootton said.
He defends Sterling’s focus on environment and agriculture while letting social politics “come up” in class or independent studies; a small college’s curriculum can stretch only so far “before it gets so skinny it disappears.” But does he connect this focus with his frustration in diversifying Sterling’s student body and faculty? I mean, an Indian American scholar studying the global inequities created by the genetic engineering of rice might notice the difference between localism and an educational fealty to this little “place.”
Sooner or later, the global comes tiptoeing into your biosphere with foreign sand on its shoes. And on its tail follows a patrol car, blaring anxiety into your peaceful community. Nation-states will fight over the fate of “illegal aliens”; sometimes policy will be liberal, somtimes restrictive. But as long as capital wealth keeps zipping wealth through cyberspace from stock market to stock market, laboring bodies will cross national borders to create that wealth.
Contrary to Officer Beltran’s promise, “it” will affect a lot of people, indeed, all people.
Our first responsibility is to know this. Then, to act on it.
How? Invite your local farmworkers to church. Persuade the town police to adopt consistent, immigration-status-neutral practices. Stage a demonstration when the feds park on the road. Push state and federal immigration reform in the opposite direction of Arizona’s.
And come out of your place. For those who choose to act only locally may be doing nothing more than tending their own gardens.