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Illegal Immigration & Social Security 31 March 2007

Posted by Todd in Capitalism & Economy, Inequality & Stratification, Politics, Race & Ethnicity.
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My mother forwarded an email to me today about how illegal immigrants may be granted social security benefits in the near future. It really pushed some of my buttons (this anti-immigrant hysteria is getting irritating in the extreme), so I wrote a detailed response and committed the internet faux-pas of replying to all. Here’s the original email my mother sent:

RE:  Soc. Sec. benefits:

Mom was a homemaker and Dad worked all his life and paid into SS.  Dad  has  passed away and now Mom can barely make ends meet.  While the possible  “illegal” alien in front of her at the grocery store buys the name brands, Mom goes for the generic brands, and day old breads.  She doesn’t have  out of state calling on her phone, because she can’t afford it and shops at the thrift shops and dollar stores.  She considers having a pizza delivered once a week “eating out”.  She grew up during the depression,  watched her husband go overseas to fight in WW II a year after their marriage,  and then they went on to raise,  feed and clothe 5 children, struggling to pay tuition for parochial schools.

The Senate voted this week to allow “illegal” aliens access to Social Security benefits. (Benefits they themselves don’t contribute to, but use nonetheless.)  I’m sorry, but how can the Senate justify this slap in the face to born and bred, or naturalized citizens.  It is already impossible to live on  Social
Security alone.  If they give benefits to “illegal” aliens who have never contributed, where does that leave us that have paid into Social Security all our working lives?

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Attached is an opportunity to sign a petition that requires citizenship  for eligibility to receive Social services.  If you do not wish to sign the petition yourself, please forward on to anyone you think might be interested.

And here’s my response:

That email was so full of factual mistakes I don’t even know where to begin. But I’ll just give you the two big ones:

1) the vast majority of illegal workers in American work in SWEAT SHOPS and AGRICULTURAL STOOP LABOR, usually making (if they’re lucky) minimum wage and living in third world standards. They are not living high on the hog while grandma buys generic mac-n-cheese and can’t make long-distance phone calls. The rest of them are in non-skilled labor, such as washing dishes or pulling up weeds or raising middle class people’s children or cleaning their homes. Most of them send a large portion of their pay home to support their families in their sending countries. They live multiple individuals and sometimes families to every housing unit because they cannot afford anything else. They also on average WORK more hours a week than the average american. These are well documented and extensively studied phenomena, so such alarmist, nativist nonsense does nothing to help the real social problems caused by illegal immigration, but simply stirs up hate and fear. [It also may interest you to note that Latinos in the U.S. are the LEAST LIKELY to apply for welfare benefits, even when they qualify. WHITE PEOPLE are the MOST LIKELY to receive welfare when they qualify.]

2) If undocumented laborers are not employed in domestic labor (i.e., childcare and housecleaning for middle class people), they are actually receiving a wage and THEY PAY FICA TAXES. Contrary to the alarmism of the email, illegal migrant workers PAY social security BUT DON’T COLLECT the BENEFITS.

Let me end by saying that I’m firmly in favor of LEGAL immigration and *not* ILLEGAL immigration. However, the issue is a complex one, requiring FACTS, research and cool heads instead of punditry and alarmism. Americans today are feeling economically insecure (with good reason) and feeling the pressures of globalization, and instead of looking to the economic and trade policies of their government, they are blaming the migrants who are ALSO victims of those same global processes. For example, United States’ economic policies have decimated the economy of Mexico, destroying local markets (especially agricultural) and displacing millions of peasants in central and southern Mexico. (For example, our *subsidized* corn is allowed under NAFTA, but Mexico is NOT allowed to subsidize its corn production.) Displaced, unemployed peasants have migrated north over the past 15 years seeking jobs to feed their families. Meanwhile, U.S. industry loves and supports illegal immigration because it is cheap labor. In the low end of the U.S. labor market (i.e., unskilled jobs), the flood of workers has had two effects. First, it has dampened wages, but only on the low end of the market (that is, it doesn’t effect middle class wages at all).  Second, it has created new job markets: for the middle class, it has changed their lifestyles, allowing them for the first time to have access to cheap child care and housekeepers, luxuries that used to only be available to wealthy people.  Finally, “illegal” labor adds billions of dollars to the economy, through productive labor and through consumerism and yes, through TAXES; losing that would be a major blow to the U.S. economy and to the budget of governments around the U.S.

SOLVING the illegal immigration problem is not a matter of grabbing your lawn chair and your shot gun and going and sitting on the border with your fellow scared white retirees; NOR will punishing people who are doing their best to feed their children by denying them the benefits they have earned with their hard work do anything to help the problem.

Instead, it requires 1) fixing NAFTA, which has done nothing more than enrich a few hundred American and Canadian businessmen (with no consumer benefit in the U.S. or Canada, and with devastating effects in Mexico), so that Mexico can expand its economy and raise the standard of living of the 50% of its population who live in poverty; 2) being a good neighbor by helping the Mexican government fight corruption, gang wars (which have flourished as the Mexican economy has foundered) and establish a more open, more democratic society (historically, our policy has been to keep mexico unstable so they remain weak); and 3) addressing the business culture of U.S. firms who reap enormous economic benefits through illegal immigration and addressing the lifestyle culture of the middle class who are growing accustomed to having a vast pool of underclass brown people from Mexico to do their shit labor for them for substandard wages.

[I’ve focused only on Mexico here—although many asian countries and guatemala and nicaragua are also major sources of illegal immigration—mainly because Mexicans receive the brunt of nativist hysteria at the moment.]

Take home message: Illegal immigration emerges out of nexus of multinational economic and social relations and problems. It is not about individual evil immigrant actors coming “here” to “take your mother’s social security.” Please.


‘Hometown Baghdad’ Web Documentaries 29 March 2007

Posted by Todd in Documentary Film, War & Terrorism.
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I just spent a half hour watching the mini-documentaries about three men — Adel, Aussama, and Saif — living in Baghdad. The filmmakers followed them around over the past year in an effort to break through the banality and machine-like rhythm of news reporting on the Iraq War. For me, watching the lives of people in a war zone, trying to be “normal” and to still believe in their lives’ dreams snapped me out of a low-level anger and irritation over the war. I realized how, even though my objections to the war include its human cost, my primary objections have been political and intellectual. Here you cannot help but confront the day-to-day impact our ill-conceived invasion has on people whom, under normal circumstances, we would sit around in a coffee house and debate literature, talk about our lives, and enjoy the company of a friend.

The mini-documentaries are up on Hometown Bagdad and also on Salon.com. They have started distributing them through YouTube, through it’s New York based producers Chat the Planet, for maximum publicity. And they are available in vid-cast form through iTunes.

Watch them and spread the word. Here’s the most recent episode, “Symphony of Bullets.”

From Hometown Baghdad‘s description:

Hometown Baghdad
A documentary web series following the lives of a few Iraqi 20-somethings trying to survive in Baghdad.

The everyday life of the Iraqi citizen has been the great untold story of the Iraq war.

The Distribution
The brave Iraqi subjects and crew risked their lives every time they turned on a camera to make this series. They want to show the world what life is like when your hometown is a war-zone. We believe that people who see their stories will want to share them with others. That’s why we’re distributing the series online. So please – watch the videos, rewatch them, tell friends about them, comment on them, and link to them.

The Language
The intention of the Iraqi filmmakers and subjects was to show the world what Baghdad is truly like. That’s why they usually speak English and not Arabic.

The Producers
It is a co-production between NY-based Chat the Planet and a group of Iraqi filmmakers in Baghdad. The subjects also turned the cameras on themselves when it became too dangerous for our crew to travel through Baghdad.

And from Salon.com’s description:

What we immediately found absorbing in “Hometown Baghdad” is not the fear, confusion or carnage we’ve grown to expect from documentary reports out of Iraq. It’s the three men central to this series — Adel, Ausama and Saif — whose lives we see unfold in short, telling vignettes. We see them eat dinner and go to school, watch them go swimming and practice in their rock band. But in a war-torn, religiously divided city, even these simple actions are fraught.

On the fourth anniversary of our invasion of Iraq, when many of us have become hopelessly inured to reports of yet another bombing, the simple struggles of regular people take on a greater, more chilling power; we watch a way of life deteriorate before our eyes, and come to recognize the horrors of war in a way that the bold headlines or CNN news alerts no longer convey. We think you’ll find them compelling and thought-provoking, and hope you’ll write in to the Letters section to tell us what you think. The first three episodes appear in the left-hand column (and here). Additional installments will appear every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for the next few months.

The shooting of “Hometown Baghdad” was led by directors and producers Ziad Turkey and Fady Hadid over the course of the past year; the series was co-produced by New York-based Chat the Planet, which will distribute these videos, after a short period of exclusivity on Salon, to a variety of online outlets (including YouTube.com, Joost and the series’ own Web site) for maximum exposure.

California High Speed Rail Now! 28 March 2007

Posted by Todd in Commentary, Environment, Urban Planning.
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O Say, What Is Truth? 28 March 2007

Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Cognitive Science, Evolution, Philosophy of Science, Postmodernity and Postmodernism.
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[Posted this on FLAK earlier today, and thought I’d cross-post it here.]

I find the American Pragmatists’ definition of truth to be the most helpful (esp., Charles Pierce, William James, and John Dewey). They were able to combine the idea that there are objective facts independent of human perception (i.e., that truth isn’t located in perception) with the idea that human perceptions of those facts changes over time (i.e., that human knowledge arises from changing experiences in their environments). They argued that, in terms of human knowledge, truth is a process and is functional. This isn’t a kind of postmodern relativism (although they were relativisitic in the narrow sense), but rather the admission that human knowledge is always incomplete. First, truth is a process because it arises in its environment in human experience, rather than existing as a Thing-in-itself. Second, it is functional, because human being know truth based on whether it “works” in their environmental experience.

P, J & D argued that science is simply a formalization and refinement of the natural way that human brains gather knowledge from and about their environments: through experiencing them and thinking about their experiences. Science merely takes that natural, biological process and makes it rigorous. But science also only works because it has built into it the notion that new experiences may bring new knowledge tomorrow.

Dewey took this a step further to argue that whereas human history is about the Quest for Certainty (i.e., humans seek to understand perfectly their environments in order to control it (a theme which has since been picked up by cognitive science and most interestingly by evolutionary psychologists)), and that philosophy & science have been about achieving Certainty. Dewey argued that, since we now understand how human brains work (he was drawing this conclusion in the 1930s, when cognitive psychology was still relatively new), and since we know that environments constantly change (which he took from Darwinism) and that our brains thereby constantly adapt to those changes, that in formal searches for truth (i.e., scientific and philosophical), we must jetisson the Quest for Certainty and embrace the fact that knowledge is always Uncertain already.

What is Known at any given time by any given group or individual is Known precisely because it Works in the environment at hand (i.e., truth as function). But that Known will constantly change as the organism (human individual or group) moves through time and the experience changes (i.e., truth as process). But the objective truth which exists independent of human perception is also knowable, if only Uncertainly and impartially, through the processes and methods of science (small-s), which are to be open to experience, hold all ideas in solution to replace them when knew information demands it, and to actively seek to understand it without ever believing you have achieved Ultimate Truth. Truth is dead the instant you think you have it and that there is nothing more that can be said; truth only works, or rather it only works Correctly, when it is understood as a Process.

Hitchens on Free Speech 15 March 2007

Posted by Todd in Christianity, Commentary, Democratic Theory, History, Islam, Judaism, Law/Courts, Religion.
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I have a love-hate relationship with Christopher Hitchens, whose columns in the Nation I used to love to read, but who continues to baffle me with an almost irrational support of the war in Iraq. But lately he has emerged as a modern-day Voltaire (at the risk of overstating), poking at sacred cows (i.e., religion) and insisting on the necessity and ultimate Good of radical free speech. Like Voltaire, he seeks purposefully to offend his reader-listener precisely because he can and believes he should be able to do so.

In Canada, hate-speech is against the law and several European countries are leaning toward outlawing “offensive” speech. This is a dangerous gigantic leap backward to Voltaire’s day, when people who said things offensive to the powers-that-were (i.e., the king and the church) were imprisoned, tortured, fined, or killed for speaking their minds. Here, Hitchens speaks at Hart House at the University of Toronto during a debate about the possible decriminalization of hate speech in the frosty country to our north.* Hitchens offends everyone from Canadians, to gays, to muslims and christians, to women, Austrians and people from Yorkshire. But he does so to make his point: Free speech must remain inviolate. Watch it knowing you’ll be offended at least once, and then listen for its core argument.

Thanks be to One Good Move for posting the speech. Here are a couple of excerpts on Youtube.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

*Canadian multiculturalism is in some ways extreme in its niceness and its fear of offence, but rises to the level of anti-democratic principle as the government reifies racial, ethnic, linguistic and religious identities by funding them merely to exist. I love Canada, and was probably a black jewish lesbian from the Northwestern Territories in my last life; but I fear their efforts to create a pluralist utopia may actually end up destroying some basic freedoms.

Literary Criticism Is Anti-Intellectual 8 March 2007

Posted by Todd in Academia & Education, Literature, Philosophy & Social Theory, Science, Social Sciences.
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I just read this irritating article by Tom Lutz on Salon.com excoriating people who don’t like literary theory. Here’s my response.

Earlier letter-writers [responding on Salon.com] have already made two solid arguments against the current state of English departments in academia: first, the language employed by literary theory is messy and imprecise; and second, much of what passes for literary studies today is thinly veiled political advocacies or social studies through the lens of literature. I would argue that these critiques don’t go far enough.

1) Literary criticism borrows from social theory (e.g., Marxism) without any anchoring whatsoever in the empirical data behind those theories or the long history of empirical engagement them, which has modified and challenged and in some cases rejected them altogether over time. Lit-crit picks up theories that appeal to them with no training in how to ask the related empirical questions other than “using” theory to “read” a text. And so social theories aren’t treated scientifically — as “best possible answers given current data, but changing as we gain more data” — but instead are treated as “lenses” through which to “see”. [These people still take Freud seriously, for God’s sake.]

2) Ironically, lit-crit simultaneously deconstructs the idea of “truth” (usually from a Derridean perspective) even as they treat their disconnected theories as such and while willfully ignoring a raft of scientific data about how our brains actually produce knowledge. They already know that science is a suspect (or Western, or colonial, or sexist, or racist, or whatever) “universalising discourse” and therefore NOT true [e.g., see the writer’s blithe and ignorant dismissal of sociobiology.].

3) Lit-critics are not trained in science or in social science, yet the pretend to be able to speak authoritatively about society and culture and human nature. Not only do they not do actual research, they don’t know how to conduct that research; and worse, they usually spend a lot of time arguing that such research isn’t possible. In other words, lit-crit makes claims about society and culture for which they have ZERO evidence or justification for making.

So the problem isn’t with the anti-intellectualism of the ignorant masses who “just do not get” lit-crit. The problem is that lit-crit is itself anti-intellectual, having set itself up as the purveyor of true-sight while dismissing whole fields of empirical research psychology, social interaction, or even human biology. [They reject this criticism, however, because they know that privileging “empirical” research is situated, dominating discourse and relies on a subject they’ve already “proved” to not exist.]

I’m not against complex social analyses of literature; and I would also argue vehemently for the value of the humanities, the study of human meanings and human aesthetics. But as a social scientist, I’d appreciate some good old-fashioned humility from the lit-crit crowd, and admission that they study LITERATURE, which is an ART FORM, and that they are limited in what they can with any degree of scholarly seriousness make reliable claims about.

Todd’s Hammer a Threat to the People’s Revolution 3 March 2007

Posted by Todd in Blog, Democratic Theory, Political Commentary.
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It’s official, folks. My URL has been blocked by the People’s Party of China. I guess there’s way too much freedom-talk and fornication here abouts, and we know how talk of freedom and sex disrupts the Maoist project of religious, social, sexual, intellectual and political repression (but not economic repression, of course: the Free Trade Zones are among the most Laissez-Faire in the world–hence the massive human rights and workers’ rights violations occuring there (not to mention massive polution)).

All hail the Great Mao!

See if the People’s Firewwall blocks your website: Great Firewall of China.

Standup Economist 1 March 2007

Posted by Todd in Academia & Education, Capitalism & Economy.
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You know you’re a nerdy social scientist when this brings you to tears: