April 28, 2005
Notes on Misplaced Autonomy
Why I'm Not Standing with the Gringo Vigilantes
By GREG MOSES
SouthWest Border Vigilantes say gringos should drop everything they are doing and go stand shoulder to shoulder at the Mexican border to prevent anybody from walking North.
In response, I'm not saying gringo vigilantes are altogether stupid people, because there are most likely many areas of life where they display dignity and intelligence. The sooner they return to those areas the better.
Yet suppose for the sake of peacemaking that we find common ground with vigilantes in their pure anxiety about the border. What they are worried about is a swamped labor market where more people share fewer jobs and declining pay. That anxiety has some basis in reality.
But it is misleading to see the chief cause of the labor problem along an imaginary line that separates the USA from Mexico. Blame America's problems on Mexicans? The battle cry of the border vigilante is evidence that we live in desperate and confused times.
Where border vigilantes should look is toward the tallest skyscrapers of their hometown cities, up to the penthouses where business plans are being hatched to pay ever fewer American workers ever smaller paychecks. There is where the vigilantes should stand shoulder to shoulder not letting anyone down the elevators until a national labor plan is laser printed and signed by each and every penthouse occupant and posted on the internet in pdf format.
Not only will a national labor plan manage existing American workers toward peak participation, but it will also show how immigrant workers will continue to be integrated (or re-integrated) into an expanding labor market.
America has always been able to do this for gringo immigrants -- work them in. And so the sons and daughters of gringo immigrants should demand a plan to "work in" immigrants yet to come. Do unto others, etc.
It is just plain sick to see gringos standing at the Mexican border as if their own gringo forefathers walked the Bering straits or paddled the great oceans to get here 10,000 years ago, got to know all the plants and animals, bred corn and tapped pulque, discovered tomatoes and tortillas. Inhospitality however is a gringo specialty and the sickness we are quite used to seeing, even when they have their mouths stuffed with fajita enchilada specials. For shame.
We must remind border vigilantes that unemployment was nowhere to be found in America prior to gringo arrival which means essentially that gringos have to figure out how they are going to take responsibility for solving at least one problem they carry with them everywhere they go. Because now that everyone has adopted the advanced gringo economic scheme that is never offered as an option, unemployment has spread like smallpox.
Blaming Mexicans for the effects of a poorly managed USA labor policy is a sign of intellectual and moral weakness, as if the leading question asked by the vigilantes is not who is most responsible for this mess but who can we most easily pick on.
But those are the easy truths to face, because they are all rooted in the past. More difficult truths of labor anxiety reach into the future, because gringo nation for the first time in history is about to get old. This is the truth of the social security crisis.
As gringo nation prepares for old age, it will have more to figure out than where to get its retirement checks from. Because retirement checks must be spent. And in order for there to actually be an economy in which to spend the retirement checks, old gringo nation is going to have to figure out how to get some youth into its economy -- youth that gringo nation cannot itself provide.
Nor will the cure be found in proposals to deport lower paid immigrants in a dim-witted attempt to raise the average taxable income of an aging nation. Gringos who offer this plan seem not to be aware that where there are no lower paid workers there cannot be any higher paid ones. This systematic failure of their economic comprehension arises most naturally from gringo assumptions that wealthy people make themselves rich.
And yet, we have to sympathize a little with gringo illiteracy in economic theory, because they are just repeating what they are taught in schools. They are taught for instance that gringos themselves made gringo nation rich. And so they assume that gringo nation will be richer without lower paid Mexicans. The logic is as deluded as it is explainable once you see what gringo nation really means by excellence in education.
Now you could unionize the lower paid immigrants and get their paychecks raised up to a living wage. But if you do away with the labor that lower paid workers provide you would have what Douglas Turner Ward called a "Day of Absence" (1965) more recently dramatized in "A Day without a Mexican" (2004). What gringo ideologues tend to forget is that so-called menial labor gets done because without it no fortunes can be built. If you deport all the immigrants who do that work, someone will have to be found to take their places. If it's a higher average income that you want, why not raise the wages?
So when gazing across the economy from penthouses high atop the USA, planners will have to tell us, are they capable of solving this problem of working in immigrants as usual -- just like they did for their own gringo selves -- or not? If not, then gringo vigilantes will have found a proper place to lose their tempers.
Where planners won't do their planning, that's where activism is needed, autonomously creating the economy that planners have abandoned.
But for the time being, it turns out to be a very handy exercise to have gringo vigilantes standing at the borderlands where they can look around. Because just to their South bubbles the fountain of youth that their aging economy needs. It will come as a gift if they let it in.
As they stand there looking around at the great crossing grounds that is their last best hope for a grateful old age, they can ask, what do we need to build here as welcoming mats?
And I have no doubt about it, as soon as the gringo vigilantes begin to work out answers to the "welcome mat" problem, we'll see how intelligent and creative they can be. They will still be gringos, God bless them, but they won't be vigilantes anymore.
Greg Moses is editor of the Texas Civil Rights Review and author of Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Philosophy of Nonviolence. His chapter on civil rights under Clinton and Bush appears in Dime's Worth of Difference, edited by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair.