Friday, July 6, 2012

Status Symbols

I had a dispiriting conversation yesterday with an old friend of mine, the law professor I mentioned a few posts back.  She'd posted a link on Facebook to a CNN op-ed piece, "Why 'illegal immigrant' is a slur," condemning use of the term "illegal immigrant", and seconded the writer's complaint: "And the CNN site admits it uses this inappropriate term, as does most of the media (following AP style)." If it fits the style book, it's not "inappropriate" in that context, though of course you can claim that the style book ought to be changed, as they periodically are. We got into a sort of debate in comments that I found disturbing because she was factually wrong on numerous points in her own field, as well as others that were dubious on larger grounds.

The CNN contributor, "Charles Garcia, who has served in the administrations of four presidents, of both parties, is the CEO of Garcia Trujillo, a business focused on the Hispanic market. He was named in the book 'Hispanics in the USA: Making History' as one of 14 Hispanic role models for the nation."  He's not the sharpest pencil in the box, but that's why CNN would feature him. Try this tasty mouthful of word salad:
George Orwell's classic "Nineteen Eighty-Four" shows how even a free society is susceptible to manipulation by overdosing on worn-out prefabricated phrases that convert people into lifeless dummies, who become easy prey for the political class.
Maybe Garcia didn't mean to imply that Orwell's tightly-controlled and oppressive Oceania is a "free society," but that's what he wrote.  And of course anyone who gets to write for CNN, let alone serve as a White House Fellow under Ronald Reagan, is a member of the political class, a predator on the public.  That he's also a businessman adds another level of manipulation to the mix.  But on the other hand, it's precisely because of his qualifications that he's concerned with manipulating the discourse on immigration.  He knows how important framing and packaging are -- far more important than substance.

Given the level of discourse in our political media, then, I have to admit that terminology isn't a negligible tool.  The corporate media are very concerned with it, and will resist any attempts to change their stylistic preferences.  Gay activists spent years after Stonewall lobbying the New York Times to use "gay" instead of "homosexual," for example, and I'm of at least two minds about that.  It reminds me of the struggle I had in high school over my hair length.  "It's not such a big deal," my principal told me.  "Why won't you cut it?"  "If it's not such a big deal," I retorted, "why are you ready to throw me out of school if I don't?"  (In the end I did cut my hair, because it wasn't a life-and-death issue, but I always grew it as long as I could before cutting it after that, just to keep pushing the limits.  And it was the principal who ended up looking bad in most students' eyes, not me.)

I don't know why the AP elected "illegal immigrant" as a term of choice in their stylebook.  They claim it's "accurate and neutral," though "illegal" is a loaded term in any discourse, and the racist Right loves the word, though they don't care about legality in any other area.  Still, "illegal" is in many cases accurate, and I don't see that "undocumented" is an improvement: it still implies that the person is lacking something they should have.  If the Right adopted it, "undocumented" would be equally pejorative in a month at most.  What matters is not the word, but how it's used and by whom.  (I pointed out to my friend that "gay" went from a hard-won positive word to a schoolyard pejorative in less than a decade; she couldn't seem to grasp the signficance of that change, and indeed took a very strict linguistic-determinist line throughout our discussion.)

Garcia points to an increase in the use of "illegal immigrant" since the AP designated the term, which is hardly surprising: a term with institutional support will tend to be used in that institution.  And of course bigots love terms that are not negative in themselves, though they become so with practice; such terms are known as "dog whistles," because their overtones are audible only to those in the know, not to normal human ears.  But that's true of all language, and I contend that getting bogged down in squabbles over terminology can be a distraction from more substantive issues, a distraction that our opponents will welcome.

My friend insisted that "It's important to point out that we don't criminalize people or status, 'just' behavior. It mattered during the Red Scare, when some argued that being a Communist was criminal." In reality the distinction between "status" and behavior is as permeable as any other border.  People who behave in a certain way will be assumed to do so because of their nature, and acts can function as markers of "status."  In everyday speech and thought, a person who steals is a thief, a person who lies is a liar, depending on your view of the person in question: you may distinguish between her conduct and her being if you want to excuse her, or not if if you don't.  And this vagueness extends to elite legal discourse: in Bowers v. Hardwick, the notorious 1986 case in which the Supreme Court upheld Georgia's sodomy law, Justice White equated "consensual sodomy with 'homosexuality' per se, criminal activity, and all 'homosexual conduct'" (Marta T. Zingo, Sex/Gender Outsiders (Praeger, 1998).

In the case of membership in the Communist Party, there isn't even a status of "being a Communist" to distinguish: one "is" a Communist because one joined the Party and participates in its programs and activities.  My friend declared "Communism was criminalized, and that was struck down as unconstitutional precisely because status could not be criminalized."  And here, interestingly, my friend was completely wrong, though as a law professor she is in a position to know better.  The Communist Control Act against membership in the Party was never "struck down," and so is still on the books, mostly unenforced.  (This means it can be used again someday as expedient.)  I found two relevant court cases online: in Communist Party v. Catherwood (1961), the Supreme Court held that the Communist Control Act didn't bar the party from participating in New York's unemployment insurance system.  "In 1973 a federal district court in Arizona decided that the act was unconstitutional and Arizona could not keep the party off the ballot in the 1972 general election (Blawis v. Bolin)."  I took a look at the opinion in Blawis v. Bolin, and it was argued and decided on the basis of the First and Fourteenth Amendments; "status" seems not to have been involved.

It also occurs to me that in court, the argument doesn't involve the best, most rational arguments about the merits of a case, but the legislation and precedents that counsel thinks most likely to persuade the individual judge, based on his or her known biases; and decisions are often based on technicalities peripheral to real human interests.  Therefore, even if the Supreme Court had overturned the Communist Control Act on grounds of "status," it wasn't necessarily the most important issue involved.  I get the impression that my friend was trying to throw dust in the eyes of a layman; it might have worked if I were even twenty years younger.

My friend wanted to blame the Right for the blurring and distortion of the status/act difference, but I pointed out that the advocates for same-sex marriage do it all the time, by claiming homosexuality as a biologically determined, inborn status.  The Supreme Court of Canada based its ruling in favor of same-sex marriage partly on that claim, so it's not limited to thoughtless laypeople.  The best that can be said about the claim is that so far it's unsettled: we have no idea what shapes sexual orientation, and the research to date is fatally flawed.  To base a claim for equality on inconclusive science is to run the risk that the science may yet be concluded in a way that invalidates your claim -- and what will you do then?

But more important, the status claim is irrelevant.  When the Supreme Court overturned state laws against "interracial marriage" in 1967, it did not declare that Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving should be allowed to marry because they had a biologically determined 'racial orientation' that impelled them to marry only persons of the opposite race.  Insofar as "status" was relevant, it was the race of the bride and the groom, as in the case of same-sex marriage it would be their biological sex, not their "gender" or their sexual orientation.

Going back to immigration, then, to say that someone entered the US illegally is not to criminalize that person, though of course people do tend to essentialize people who've broken the law, if they find it convenient to do so.  Few Republican loyalists thought of Richard Nixon as a criminal, even though he indubitably was one, would have been removed from office for his crimes if he hadn't resigned preemptively, and should have faced criminal charges as well.  That's another problem.  Nixon was a criminal, but so was Martin Luther King, Jr., along with many other people who engaged in civil disobedience during the Civil Rights struggle.  (That's not insignificant: it was difficult for many respectable black people to face arrest and imprisonment, not only because it put them into the hands of abusive police, but because Nice People Didn't Break the Law and Go to Jail, only Trash.)  Jesus of Nazareth was a criminal, executed for insurrection by the Romans.  Many early Christians were criminals under Roman law, for refusing to offer due honor to the gods, including Caesar.  The leaders of the American Revolution would certainly have been hanged if their rebellion had failed.  Sometimes breaking the law is a positive good, when the law is in the wrong.  This is disturbing to contemplate for people whose attitude to the law is still that of a child.  An adult takes the law seriously, but doesn't see it as sacred.

I pointed out that the problem with "illegal immigrant" is less the "illegal" part than "immigrant."  Americans have always been ambivalent at best about the waves of immigrants that entered the country after them or their parents.  The more I watch the debate, the more obvious it is to me that, as I've suspected before, the most vehement opponents of "illegal immigration" consider all immigrants illegal.  Substituting "undocumented" for "illegal" won't change their attitude; they'll recognize it -- correctly, for what that's worth -- as a euphemism, a distraction from the issues; not that they are interested in the issues either.  Oddly, my friend conceded the point but then backtracked, because "language does matter."

Garcia makes a revealing comment himself:
Another misconception is that the vast majority of migrant workers currently out of status sneak across our southern border in the middle of the night. Actually, almost half enter the U.S. with a valid tourist or work visa and overstay their allotted time. Many go to school, find a job, get married and start a family. And some even join the Marine Corps, like Lance Cpl. Jose Gutierrez, who was the first combat veteran to die in the Iraq War. While he was granted American citizenship posthumously, there are another 38,000 non-citizens in uniform, including undocumented immigrants, defending our country.
Suppose that the situation were otherwise, and that the vast majority of "migrant workers out of status" did "sneak across our southern border in the middle of the night."  Does Garcia agree that such sneaky invaders should be sent back pronto?  At least some of the poster kids for the DREAM Act were brought across the border by their parents in just that way.  Garcia's using "status" tactics here -- some immigrants are Sneaky Dirty Trash, but these are Clean, Upstanding Americans! -- and his resort to flag-waving and hiding behind the uniforms of Our Troops is beneath contempt.

Garcia concludes with a last appeal to St. George:
In his essay "Politics and the English Language," Orwell warned that one must be constantly on guard against a ready-made phrase that "anaesthetizes a portion of one's brain." But Orwell also wrote that "from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase ... into the dustbin, where it belongs" -- just like the U.S. Supreme Court did.
"Undocumented immigrant" or "migrant worker out of status" are also ready-made phrases intended to anaesthetize a portion of one's brain, however, and Garcia is a hard-working functionary in the Ministry of Truth, an Outer Party member using worn-out prefabricated phrases to prey on the public; he's just in a different faction.  Oddly, my friend declared to me that both "illegal alien" and "undocumented immigrant" are "slurs", though "the former has more serious implications."  She went on to declare that the Right is "ignorant," and she wasn't going to bother with them.  If "undocumented immigrant" is a slur, why are Robert Garcia and other immigrant advocates pressing for its use as the acceptable term?  "Left wing doesn't want to piss off 'documented' immigrants, who want to distinguish themselves."  That doesn't make a lot of sense -- and I have to recall that she was writing her end of the exchange on her smartphone, which kept cutting her postings short -- because if it's a slur, it would "piss off" the "documented."

Even if I concede -- which I don't -- that the rabble are too uneducated for rational discourse, and so must be manipulated by Newspeak generated by their educated superiors, where is the rational discourse going on, and for whom?  My friend (who's very upset about the dearth of "critical thinking" among Americans) is a highly educated person, presumably the kind of person who is competent to grapple with issues. Yet she had nothing to offer but slogans and overt misstatements of fact.  In this she appears to be all too typical of the educated American classes, and that -- not the ignorance of the rabble -- looks to me to be the real threat to the future of humanity: self-styled elitists who aren't as superior as they like to think.

And yet I have to admit that somewhere in me lurks a naive child who believe that people with college degrees, people with jobs that don't get their hands dirty, are not just smarter but nicer than people who haven't.  That's why I get even angrier at nice educated liberals who distort facts, blur important differences, and ignore logic than I do at blue-collar folk who do the same.  The nice educated liberals should know better, and they think they do, but they don't.  Not automatically, not by virtue of having a degree.