Sunday, April 30, 2006

Praise the One True Lord and Bless the Vegetables (Ecumenism in Our Time)

The Rev. Ed Young of Houston’s 2nd Baptist Church, explaining the last of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, during a sermon comparing Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam, unfavorably, with Christianity, or at least his Christianity, April 30, 2006:
And then you reach the state of Nirvana, in which the goal is to become a vegetable, and that is the goal of Buddhism … There are an estimated 300 million Buddhists in the world … and the real God loves every one of those 300 million Buddhists!

Saturday, April 29, 2006

A Few Questions about that Unspeakable Crime

Long ago we learned that the quickest route to humility, or humiliation, is a leap to facile judgments about other people’s children, or other people’s parenting skills. There but for the grace of God, etc. Yet the story of the two white teens arrested in the Houston suburb of Spring for beating and sodomizing a Hispanic teen with a length of plastic pipe screams the obvious questions: Where were the parents? More to the point, where were the fathers?

At least from what can be gleaned from Saturday’s story in the Houston Chronicle, the father isn’t around in the home of David Tuck, the 18-year-old who authorities suggest was the leader of the two-main pack (Tuck’s mother answered the door “timidly” and broke into tears after a reporter knocked on Friday, the Chronicle reported … hey, that timidly really wasn’t necessary, was it?). Nor does it appear that a father is present at the house where the beating took place, where the waitress mom slept through the backyard attack that her two kids witnessed but reportedly were too afraid to bring to anyone’s attention, leaving the wounded boy in the yard until well into the morning. And not to blame the 16-year-old (or 17-year-old) victim, but where were his parents during the hours between 5 a.m. and 8 a.m. on Sunday, when investigators believe the attack occurred, according to Channel 13?

Then what about this, from Friday’s Chronicle: A neighbor said he saw Nazi swastikas painted on the fence at Tuck’s house (which his mother seemed to deny in Saturday’s story), while two other teenagers say the boy paraded around his subdivision “with the flag of a swastika” on Martin Luther King Day.

If that’s true, nobody said … anything? Nobody did … anything? Where’s the adult supervision?

Not to say that the mere presence of a father or a stronger parental force in these households would have leveled off whatever slippery slope brought Tuck and his 17-year-old friend to that party in Spring last Saturday night---that indeed would be a facile conclusion---and although highly unlikely, it may turn out that both come from stable, two-parent homes. But hanging all over this sad story is the stifling, familiar air of suburban anomie and lower-middle-class aimlessness and desperation---yet another reminder to those prone to facile judgments that the problems and pathologies of untended and misdirected youth aren’t exclusive to any race or ethnicity.

We’ve got to credit the Chronicle and other media for not stinting on the description of the stomach-turning crime; if you’re going to call something “horrifying” or “horrific” (correctly, in this case), then the reader or viewer needs to know why.

On the other hand: This is the same daily newspaper that reported on Friday, near the end of a thumbsucker on United 93 that gnawed on the already hackneyed question of whether the movie is “too soon” after the tragedy, that
The first major film treatment of the Vietnam War, The Deer Hunter, was released in 1978, more than a decade after the U.S. withdrawal [emphasis added].
So the guys we knew who went to Vietnam after the Tet Offensive were just having a bad dream, and there was no need for us to worry at all about the draft lottery … Christ a’mighty. And what of The Green Berets with John Wayne, which we believe came out in 1966, a full decade before The Deer Hunter, and, while nothing but a stale slab of hokum was indeed a major film treatment (and no more of a piece of phony propaganda than The Deer Hunter was, in its way).

The paper cautiously corrected itself Saturday by noting that a “Vietnam peace agreement was reached in 1973 and U.S. troops withdrew in 1975,” although technically the U.S. closed out its participation in ’73, and anyone who was extant then dates the cessation of U.S. involvement to ’72 or ’73---a mere half-decade at most before The Deer Hunter made its turgid way to major film treatment-dom. But who’s counting? (Obviously no one at the Chronicle!)

Kids today.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Those Who Are Ignorant of History, Etc.

Today’s message is courtesy Edward L. Ayers, from “Exporting Reconstruction” in What Caused the Civil War? Reflections on the South and Southern History:
… the clock is always ticking. Reconstructions are a race between change and reaction; they cannot last long before they seem another form of oppression. Because they are hard for both the occupying force and the place they occupy, reconstructions must make their changes quickly or they are not likely to make them at all even though the deep changed implied by the word “reconstruction” inevitably takes a long time to instill. In the American example, Andrew Johnson wasted the immediate post-war era in which the South was most pliable. By the time the Radicals took over the resistance had become entrenched, confident and determined … The righteous invocation of justice, history, and progress on behalf of a purpose that is also a struggle for power is dangerous It can create a self-righteous terror in opposition that believes itself to be on the side of God, of race, of history … Ever since Woodrow Wilson white Southerners have been the most eager in America’s efforts to remake the world. Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, in widely varying ways, tried reconstruction …
And then there are times when the weather won’t cooperate …

Monday, April 24, 2006

W.R. Morris Is Back, and He, Too, Is Concerned About the Ongoing Debasement of the English Language

We were clicking through the local channels at newstime one evening last week when our restive gaze came to rest on a once-familiar glowering visage, that of W.R. Morris. We hadn’t seen his unsmiling face for a while.

Back in the late 1980s and early ’90s, though, it seemed Morris was on the small screen or in the newspaper(s) every time you wheeled around. Despite the noble Scottish surname, Morris was the designated go-to guy when it came to calling press conferences to air sundry “Hispanic” grievances. He was sort of the brown Quanell X, except that comparison is a discredit to Morris, who was a full member of the reality-based community and never had a faithful PR attendant like the one who services Mr. X (hey now, wouldn’t it make an interesting story for some Houston media outlet to go back and look at all the allegations of racism and discrimination that Mr. X has ushered before the public in the past decade, and see how many actually panned out and how many evaporated into nothingness, leaving faint emanations of ill will all around, to, y’know, establish his credibility to continue commanding the media spotlight? We’re thinking of the allegations he raised against the Houston Fire Department a while back [we heard a vastly different story than the one he trotted before the public, not that it potentially was any more true than the one he was peddling]. Of course, it would take some intestinal fortitude to pursue that story, so never mind!)

Anyway, we can’t remember whether Morris came out of organized labor or just sprung up in the front yard one night, but eventually he was co-opted by The Man (as must we all be) and took a job with Neighborhood Protection during the Lanier administration. But now he looks to be back in the gum-beating game, thus his cameo on a Channel 11 report on the big upcoming boycott/shutdown/whatever-it-is by illegal immigrants and their supporters, in which the news gal appeared to put the old boy at a discrete distance by introducing him as a “self-described Hispanic activist,” no doubt because what came next combined the subtlety of Bill O’Reilly with the refinement of Rush Limbaugh and might have resulted in an angry call or two to the station. Here’s what he said (a rough approximation, but close):
They say they’re protesting for immigrant rights, but they’re illegal aliens---they don’t have any rights!”
And he’s right, of course. In theory, that is. In reality, illegal aliens do have rights, even though they’re not technically covered by the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment (which, y’know, is so passé it was supposed to address the plight of recently freed African-Americans---we’ve finished with that business, right?).

When, for instance, was the last time you read of someone being denied due process down at the courthouse because he or she was illegal (most likely they’ll be benefiting by the extra expense of bilingual translators)? Their kids get educated for free at the public schools (where most likely they’ll be benefiting by the extra expense of bilingual teachers) and if the parents meet the income requirements can avail themselves of two half-decent meals a day for 35 or so cents. And of course their spawn are guaranteed the full rights of citizenship, just for being born here. (And what other nation-state on this godforsaken globe extends that privilege? This is not a rhetorical question---we don’t know.).

It appears that Morris, like us, has noticed how in the past few weeks the media and various protest organizers have started characterizing the entire issue as one of immigrant rights, when a month or so ago it was simply a debate on how (not if) the U.S. should tighten its rules on illegal immigration, most controversially on whether new legislation should offer amnesty or a pathway (fully mechanized, probably) to citizenship for illegals already here. We won’t even bother fingering the locals for this transgression---it’s all over the place. And we hardly got a word in edgewise.

Morris is representative of a figure who hasn’t gotten much play in the recent media coverage: The Angry Brown Man (or Woman). Yeah, it’s true: some of the most critical and even derogatory remarks about illegal aliens that we’ve heard in our quarter-century in Houston have come from Mexican-Americans. We remember being over on Leland or Polk, one of those streets running east of downtown, not long after arriving in town and falling into conversation with a Hispanic guy who was about our age now, an accountant (self-described) and homeowner who, unbidden, began ripping and roaring about how the neighborhood was going to hell because of all the illegals moving in---“15 to 20 of 'em in a house,” we recall him saying bitterly. (He was, we might add, drinking a beer in his front yard at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, and offered us one, which, we might further add, we gratefully accepted). We hope he lived long enough to turn a buck or two from the still-a-ways-off gentrification (just goes to show ya).

W.R. Morris doesn't fit the media’s story line, so he gets to be self-described.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Day of A-Stonement (We'll Pass, Thanks)

Driving home Wednesday we caught a commentary on NPR by Marion Winick on the annual observance of April 20 by potheads the world over. Winick is an essayist who either lives in Austin or used to live in Austin (we forget), and, in addition to stories of domestic life with her now-dead-of-AIDS figure skater husband, wrote (fondly, we think, but we can’t remember that well) of shooting heroin as a younger person.

Now Winik is a longtime parent and has metamorphosed into a sort of New Age Erma Bombeck, if Bombeck had shot heroin, and she professes to be so out of it that it was not until a few years ago that she stumbled across the significance of the 4/20 date to “legions of errant youth,” as we believe she put it (we were driving, not taking notes). She acquired this knowledge by standing over an unidentified adolescent male as he instant messaged with a friend, who asked, “What are you doing on 4/20?”

We had figured out this bit of juvenilia a while back, mostly thanks to that raspy-voiced dude on KPFT’s 4:20 Drug War News, who actually sounds like he’s stoned (but maintaining). Then there was a joint that briefly occupied the old Luke’s Hamburgers next to the Galleria, and may still, called Interstate 420 or something, which according to information we received sold sex toys and dope paraphernalia.

It occurred to us then, as it reoccurred to us while listening to Winik, that while we once long ago would often get “muggled up,” as our high school self liked to put it after becoming acquainted with the written works of Mezz Mezzrow, imputing some secret stoner significance to 4/20 (which apparently has something to do with the afternoon time some high school potheads in California would light up back in the godawful 1980s) is kinda the reason we eventually swore off the stuff while still young and relatively unformed.

(It’s been a good 30 years or more since we lit up with any regularity, and on the few occasions since---none we can recall in the last 18-20 years---we were too tipsy to say no when somebody passed it our way. Today we stand ready to submit to a drug test, at random, any time, as long as the person administering the test is willing to hold the cup at a distance of 18 inches or less [our aim being not what it once was].)*

It’s not that we have any great animus toward pot---on the whole, the steady use of marijuana is a while lot less damaging than the steady intake of booze (or so we’re told), and we can see no good reason that small amounts for personal use by adults shouldn’t be legal (which we can’t say about small amounts of cocaine or heroin, but we’re no absolutist). All things in moderation, of course.

But, as the 4/20 phenomenon strongly suggests, reefer flat makes you stupid. For all the times we smoked the shit, and for all the time we wasted in pursuing its purchase, sale and cultivation, at this great distance we can only recall a few times when we actually had “fun” with it, and those were when we first started dabbling, back in “high” school. Mostly, after that, what we remember is the torpor, the witless paranoia, and the long, arid silences that inevitably fell on any room of people who had just toked up (we had a friend, a big dude, about 6’5”, who we witnessed on two occasions trying to break the strained silence by standing up, stripping himself naked and then flopping back down on the couch from which he had risen; needless to say he went on to a successful but not-so-lucrative career as a high school teacher and coach). And while we held at the time that the dope enhanced the enjoyment of sex, music and food, “better” was not a concept we actually attached to sex as a 19 year old (the mere attainment of it being good enough, despite occasional instruction to the contrary), and most of the food we ate back in those days we would now dismiss as crap. As for the music---if it was good back then, it’s still good, and if it was bad, it’s even worse now. Workingman's Dead still sounds good.

*Actually, we did get a buzz, or a slight headache, about 3-4 months ago, when we were jogging on the path that runs beside the water well next to the Jewish old folks home near our neighborhood. We found our self about 50 yards behind two guys on bicycles, both with the short dreadlock thing that screams “New Orleans,” who were passing a stick back and forth as they pedaled lazily along. We were more loping than running but somehow pulled closer and closer to the pair, as big gusts of smoke wafted back toward our lungs, until they came to a halt to finish their business near the wooden bridge over the bayou. “Good shit, fellas?” we inquired as we scooted past, but they, alas, pretended not to hear, perhaps, like us, having been made wary of cross-cultural interactions after viewing Crash .

Monday, April 17, 2006

How to Win a Pulitzer Prize

If you just have to win a journalism prize, then the Pulitzer’s the one. In a profession notorious for self-celebration and circular pud-pulling---in that mainstream journalism is almost but not quite as bad as its bastid cousin, the whatchamacallit, the blogosphere---the Pulitzer means something. There’s no need to tart up a story trumpeting your paper’s triumph with carefully vetted verbiage from the editor acknowledging his staff’s hard work and talent, such as readers are subjected to when their local newsprint service provider scores an Honorable Mention in the Real Good Writin’ contest. A Pulitzer speaks for itself.

So we were glad to learn of the two Pulitzers handed Monday to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, and one to the Sun-Herald of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, for the papers’ Katrina reportage. The story of how the Times-Picayune remained afloat (online) in the days immediately after the hurricane and flooding is already semi-legendary in the news biz (thanks in part to the paper’s own myth-tending), but even more impressive was the way the Picayune reasserted its essentiality to a broken community, the way few if any monopoly newspapers are willing or able to do anymore (and just think how much better what’s left of New Orleans would have been served had there been one or two more daily newspapers fighting to stay alive post-Katrina; we’re thinking here of the long-gone green-sheeted States-Item of our young adulthood, which brought us Doonesbury, great investigative reporting on Edwin Edwards, and the only endorsement of George McGovern south of Atlanta---all for just a dime).

We’ve occasionally peeked in at the Times-Picayune in the months since Katrina and found it indispensable to our humble efforts to understand and keep abreast of the most disconcerting public event of our lifetime (stranger, to us, than Sept. 11). We’re previously cited the fine work of the columnist Chris Rose, a finalist in the Pulizer commentary category won by the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof (and Rose wuz robbed!), but we’ve found much to admire almost anywhere we turned in the paper's wall-to-wall post-Katrina coverage, including this seemingly routine (but not really) political story that we read Saturday on the big (only, really) issue in the upcoming mayor’s race.

Maybe it’s just that everything---the journalism, the politics, etc.---seems more engaging after your city’s been devastated. It's possible that the food even tastes better.

Meanwhile, as one of our correspondents pointed out to us, the local Hearst product in Houston stretched its Pulitzer-less streak to 105 or so years, despite the reportedly obsessive efforts of its newsroom leadership to nail one (and at the expense, some critics might say, of turning out a consistently informative and interesting local product).

Oh, well. Perhaps they should join hands and pray for a Category 5 hurricane at the next editors’ retreat.

Friday, April 14, 2006

History Lesson

Last night we watched a documentary on the Freedom Summer, an installment of the History Channel’s “Ten Days That Unexpectedly Changed America” series. Prominently featured, in footage from then and now, was Bob Moses, a brilliant organizer and strategist behind that voting-rights campaign (and a campaign it truly was, with the attendant risk of death for the campaigners).

Moses long ago realized the front lines had shifted, and he continues to fight the good fight.

Meanwhile, today’s African-American leadership in Houston, beneficiaries of the risk-taking by Moses and other early Civil Rights activists, devotes its energies to crying “racism” over the demotion of a wealthy local television news anchor or to defending the indefensible expenditures of taxpayer money by an equally well-compensated university president.

History, it seems, has passed them by …

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

About Those Flags … And the Ongoing Debasement of the English Language by the Houston Chronicle

It looks as if the marchers who turned out for the not-so-big demonstrations Monday in Houston and elsewhere got the memo about the flags, judging by the profusion of red, white and blue in the pictures and video of the local protest (including one upside-down Old Glory prominent in the Houston Chronicle’s large page-one photo of the marchers headed to Allen’s Landing.)

The Chronicle got the memo, too. Whereas Houston’s leading daily newspaper studiously ignored the presence of so many Mexican flags at the student walkouts of recent days past (until the clamor over the displays got too loud for even the Chronicle to ignore, although it still hasn’t gotten around to exploring the meaning behind the Mexican flag-waving [which admittedly would be heavy-lifting for the paper]), the display of the U.S. flag at Monday’s event was big news.

“American colors fly during rally,” read the headline next to a huge picture, stretching across most of the City & State section, of an open-throated marcher brandishing (literally) the Star and Stripes, a visual that managed to project the pathos of both Stanley Kowalski and Joan of Arc. Under the headline was this copy:

In Houston-area protests held prior to Monday’s march, several protestors carried the Mexican flag, raising the ire of immigration opponents, some of whom viewed carrying anything other than the Stars and Stripes as anti-American.
This sentence sums up what’s wrong with the daily’s approach to the entire issue. First, “several” means a few, maybe five or six at the most. At the late-inning walkout from a nearby high school that we drove past last week, easily a dozen Mexican flags or representations thereof were visible. That's more than several right there. There must have been dozens if not hundreds being waved around town, at the least, during the walkouts. Several is a lie, pure and simple (perhaps the quantifying was done by whoever came up with the 50,000 figure for Monday's demonstration).

More grievous, though, is the newspaper’s persistent characterization of the debate as one over immigration, and its labeling of those who might take issue with the marchers (or favor stricter immigration law) as immigration opponents. Again, this is a lie, and it’s all over the daily paper.

The issue is illegal immigration. Outside of the three or four guys keeping the Klan together in that trailer up in Montgomery County, who’s complaining about legal immigration? This is a nation of immigrants, etc, and we damn sure need more immigrants, especially ones with the math and science skills we lack (whether we need more yardmen is debatable: the public health benefits to be derived from increasing numbers of overweight and out-of-shape Caucasians having to mow their own lawns and repair their own roofs would seem to argue against it).

This is not a small distinction.

By the way, we don’t view “carrying anything other than the Stars and Stripes” as anti-American---especially at rallies whose ostensible purpose is to influence the debate so that many of the marchers can continue to stay in this country (their outsized sense of entitlement already qualifying them to be American citizens, at least in spirit).

No, we view that as … dumb.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Oh, You Meant That Homeless

Recently we raised an alarm after reading of Alief’s “burgeoning homeless population” in the zoned Alief/Southwest section of the Houston Chronicle that’s distributed in our soon-to-be-hot-'n'-hip part of the metropolis. Down around the 17th or so paragraph of the story, on the jump page, the story quoted an official of the Alief school district as saying that Alief’s homeless population had risen to 4,000 from a very precise 435 since last year, an increase she attributed to Katrina evacuees who washed up in the many apartment complexes in the area (not her exact words, by the way).

No further explanation or elaboration was offered to what should have been a page-one-worthy figure---if true (worthy of page one treatment in every newspaper in the country, we mean). But we were skeptical. We didn’t think Alief had 435 persons wandering the streets without fixed addresses, much less 4-effin-thousand. We get over that way a bit, sometimes on the No. 4 bus (part of our ongoing effort to keep tabs on what the “common folk” are up to, especially when our ride’s broke down), and we would peg a reasonable estimate of Alief’s un-homed populace at about, say, 3. Maybe 7, tops.

Last week’s Alief/Southwest section brought a belated explanation: The school district official was using “homeless” as defined by the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act (one of our favorite bands from the late ’60s), under which Alief ISD is being reimbursed with federal funds for educating 3,000 or so hurricane evacuee kids. And what homeless means in that very narrow context is “students without permanent housing on their official records,” that is, students residing in FEMA-subsidized apartments. In homes, in other words, however temporary.

The district superintendent offered this clarification: “The connotation that they’re living on the street is not accurate.”

OK, glad were cleared that up. Alief residents can put their firearms back in the lockbox. We bet somebody caught some poo over that 4,000 figure.

(Last week’s story, by the way, contained another eye-opening figure buried down at the tail-end, one that suggested the temporary housing isn’t so temporary: A sampling by the school district of evacuee families [300 were surveyed] suggested that 80 percent of the evacuee kids will be returning to Alief schools for the 2006-07 school year in August, and half of those intend to stay for the entire school year. This survey, we hasten to add, doesn’t sound like what you might call scientific, but the numbers sound considerably less dubious than 4,000 homeless dragging the streets and scouring the dumpsters behind the area’s many fine Asian eateries.)

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Tommy Dee and the House Wreckers: One Last Song from the Land of Sugar

We haven’t taken pen in hand since our former representative in the U.S. House took his early retirement, and while we hesitate to add to the incisive analysis and penetrating dialogue that followed his abrupt departure, we couldn’t restrain our self after seeing this story on Thursday’s Channel 11 news (the following is a compressed version of the story from the station's Web site):
Nick Lampson, Democratic nominee for Tom DeLay's soon-to-be-vacated seat in the U.S. House, tried to hold a news conference Thursday at 10 a.m. on the steps of Sugar Land's City Hall. But as soon as he stepped to the microphone, he was swarmed by approximately 30 DeLay supporters who all but prevented him from speaking … 11 News discovered evidence from DeLay's team that asked Republican supporters to disrupt Lampson's event … as Lampson called for a special May election to fill the resigning congressman's seat, things began to go awry … Suddenly, the Lampson camp found itself swarming with DeLay supporters. "We do not want a Democrat in this area," said DeLay supporter Vera Kuhn. All the while the Democrat struggled to talk above the roar … Turns out, DeLay's campaign manager [Chris Homan] is largely responsible. He admits sending an e-mail urging DeLay supporters to give Lampson a parting shot that “wrecks” his press conference.
Homan, when asked twice by a Channel 11 reporter whose name escapes us, but who’s a persistent questioner, whether he had written the email, replied:
"We absolutely were interested in bringing out Republican activists to that press conference and letting Mr. Lampson know they don't appreciate him being a liberal from Beaumont. That is my e-mail where I was contacting Republican activists."
Several points, in the order in which they presented themselves:

1. These people (the DeLay supporters) are fucking nuts.

2. While we suppose you can’t directly blame DeLay for the attempted disruption, he certainly laid the table for it through his dozen or so years of slashing hyper-partisanship, and he must be held accountable for the actions of his employees, or recent ex-employees (y’know, just like Carol Alvarado!)

3. DeLay should apologize to his constituents, and to Lampson, for hiring such a turd as Mr. Homan.

4. Don’t Homan and his fellow morons realize that they’re engaging in the same sort of behavior conservatives rush to condemn every time a gaggle of pseudo-leftists tries to shut down a conservative speaker at the corner university (just insert “We don’t want [conservative speaker’s name here] on our campus” for "We do not want a Democrat in this area.")?

5. … Which leads us to wonder, again: Why did conservatives deliberately turned a blind eye to DeLay’s documented excesses for so long? The stench has been wafting off of him for a good 10 to 12 years (blind eye … stench … we’ll mix those metaphors especially for this occasion), whether or not it’s determined that he broke the law, and it’s only in the last year or so that (some) conservatives have begun even clearing their throats over DeLay.

6. … And didn’t DeLay set the table for the admitted influence peddlers and shakedown artists who are among his ex-employees (insert Carol Alvarado comparison here)?

7. Not that we want to be in the position of defending the Houston Chronicle---we’d rather go edge the sidewalk in our front yard, or do something equally as pointless---but we remember the to-do in the local blogosphere and elsewhere over a Chronicle poll suggesting that DeLay would be weakened in his Republican primary and could well be in a spot of trouble in the general election.

As we noted that the time, common sense would suggest that DeLay had been taken down a notch or two by all the bad publicity, although we expected he’d win his primary handily and prevail in the general election. In taking his leave, DeLay said the 60 percent he got in the GOP primary wasn’t what he expected (or deserved), and his internal polls showed his general election chances were “50-50.” So, um, Dick Murray and the Chronicle poll were generally just saying what DeLay, at least, already knew.

8. DeLay’s rise was as remarkable as his fall was predictable. We recall accompanying him as he block-walked in West University Place, then in his district, when he was first running to succeed Ron Paul in 1984. He was a pleasant traveling companion---self-effacing, gracious, even fun, at least compared to most politicians we ran across. It was just him and us, going door-to-door like two mustachioed Mormon missionaries. He was unaccompanied by handlers or factotums, and drove himself to the location.

Back then, he seemed to aspire to be nothing more than a footsolider in the Reagan Revolution, and while it certainly takes a goodly amount of ambition to run for and won a seat in Congress, we never would have imagined that the easy-going candidate with the helmet of bad ’80s hair possessed the maniacal drive to rise to so high, then self-destruct.

We find it impossible to square that memory with those pictures of the strange creature with the retouched face who seems to be floating as he clambers into the waiting SUV, surrounded by aides and trailed by the cameras, running away from something or other.

Monday, April 03, 2006

A Welter of Inchoate Feeling: Our Immigration Q&A, G-Rated Version

We started our day last Wednesday by driving past a walkout of Hispanic students from a nearby high school. It was early in the morning, just after classes had gotten under way, and the Children’s Crusade was already marching into the headwind: By that time, the walkouts were old news, and there were no media around to chart the trickle of this out-of-the-way tributary.

The protest consisted of maybe 15 or 20 students, many of them holding or waving the now-predictable Mexican flag. They were accompanied by four school district cops, with two supremely bored-looking HPD officers standing by as back-up. For some reason, the entire desultory procession had come to a halt in the parking lot of a CVS. It was way too far to ankle it all the way downtown, so there would be no dipping into the City Hall Reflecting Pool for this bunch.

The only visible camera was wielded by a student who was videotaping his buddies. Everyone appeared to be having a good time, mugging for the camera. Several of the girls had rolled up their shirts to show off their navels, which they’re not allowed to bare in school, and a couple of the guys seemed to be throwing gang signs at passing motorists, although we’re pretty sure they weren’t real gang signs---just the cocking of the wrists and outward gliding hand motions from the chest that are as meaningless to us as the illegible graffiti that now seems to be covering every accessible public space in southwest Houston. Pre-packaged, paint-by-numbers attitude. Nothing but blare. We could barely raise a sneer as we wheeled onward, and even felt a pang of sympathy: Yes, we too took every opportunity to miss class back when we were in high school.

Eight hours later our daughter climbed into our car in fit of high-pitched indignation as we picked her up from her school: “Do you know what (so-and-so) Bush wants to do now?” she asked. “No, what?” we replied. “He wants to send all the illegal immigrants back to Mexico!” Her friend C----, a fellow 6th grader, had been crying most of the day. C----‘s parents are illegal, and C---- feared that her family would soon be sent packing.

Naturally, this story struck a deeper chord with us than the sight of the navel-flaunting truants.

Seizing the Teachable Moment, we explained to the 12 year old that it was unlikely that C----’s parents will be forced back to their home country, as we just can’t see Americans having the stomach to sanction the round-up and deportation of 11 million or so people (much less be willing to pay for it), although it was remotely possible they might have to return to Mexico at some point and wait in line to get back in legally.

Then we tried to point out that there was a lot more than Bush driving the movement to tighten immigration laws, and that Bush, in fact, was considered a liberal on the issue by many in his own party.

“There’s probably gonna be some way that C----’s parents can stay in the country, whether it’s called amnesty or not, and hopefully C----'s family will take advantage of that, even if it costs them,” we said. “And they better do it, ’cause after whatever laws are passed it’s probably gonna be a lot more difficult to get across the border, and not so easy for businesses to hire people who aren’t here legally.” She nodded.

We went to explain that many, many people wait in line in Mexico and elsewhere for the opportunity to become U.S. citizens, and it would be fundamentally unfair to those who pursue the legal path if everyone in this country illegally were deemed automatically eligible for citizenship, with no attendant cost.

She nodded again. Fairness is a concept that 12 year olds instinctively grasp.

“So why do people come here illegally?” she asked. “Well, you know that. Think about it---who mows the lawns in our neighborhood (besides our lawn)? Who builds the houses and surfaces the roads? Works in the kitchens, sweeps out the offices … etc.” We talked of the father of her two friends who used to live down the street, a Mexican-American who ran a crew that did foundation repair, tree-trimming and whatever other hard work was available, and had his guys gather every morning in his front yard before they left for the day’s job. “Those little guys” ---none of them seemed to be over 5’4”---“were all illegal. They’re typical: They came here to work, to do the jobs that Americans won’t do, supposedly … "

But, we continued, stretching the Teachable Moment into the Teachable 15 Minutes, the reason Americans won’t do lots of those jobs is that employers can get away with paying illegal workers less, much less, and don’t have to provide them with benefits, and that dynamic drives down wages for lower-skilled workers, especially African-Americans, and … there’s more to civic life, to the culture (or “culture,” as our daily newspaper has put it) and the soul of a place or country, than cheap labor (and by the way, slavery was the ultimate in cheap labor, and look how much it did for the South---not just for African-Americans, but the 90 percent of whites [and their descendants nigh unto the generations] who never owned a slave … )

(We did not explain that what we mean by culture has nothing to do with skin tone, religion, taste in food or music or the number of cars you park in your front yard, or any other factors aside from an understanding of [no matter how unschooled] and adherence to the Constitution---what sets our nation apart from almost all others, including Mexico.)

“It’s a complex issue, but it’s good you’re paying attention to it,” we said as we turned into our neighborhood, figuring the Teachable Moment had expired.

But she had one more question: “Was your grandfather an illegal immigrant?”

Well, we replied, he might have been: Several years ago we went on a genealogical-research bender that we understand is common to some people our age, and, while chasing down the many rabbit trails our Gran’pa had strewn in the available public record (otherwise known as untruths, or lies), we never were able to determine whether he in fact was naturalized. It appears he wasn’t.

We did finally manage to document his point of origin---in a picturesque little village in the high mountains of a land across the sea---although he told county and parish authorities, Census takers, and the Social Security Administration that he had been born in New Orleans. It turns out he had boarded a ship by himself when he was 14, five years after his schoolteacher father had died, and made his way to New Orleans to join an older sister. He bounced around and somehow wound up in East Texas---we remember hearing stories about work in a circus, a stint in semi-pro baseball, a glass eye he supposedly acquired when struck by a line drive---and spent most of his life doing ass-busting labor.

But there was no free public schooling for him, no bilingual education or English as a Second Language to ease his transition. Nor was there any lingual infrastructure in his native tongue to ensure he’d never have to learn English: no newspapers, no TV or radio, no fellow native speakers with whom to shoot the shit. There was no church of his faith within 90 or so miles of where he lived. In those days the Ku Klux Klan frequently marched through the small downtowns of East Texas. He found it prudent to adopt a more “American-sounding” surname, again without going through the legal niceties.

But beyond his Social Security, we doubt that he felt entitled to much of anything from his adopted country, simply because he worked hard, and it’s impossible for us to imagine him walking down the street waving the flag of the place he had voluntarily left. He became an American, with a thick Old World accent, and, from what he remember, as an old man he was content with watching the Game of the Week with Ol’ Diz and Pee Wee on Saturday afternoons and reading the Dallas Morning News from cover-to-cover, both of which he did while chain-smoking non-filter cigarettes with an intensity that scared our little-kid self.

Really? said our daughter, sounding relieved that the ride home, and the accompanying windy lecture, was at an end.

“So, um, you see what we’re saying about all this, right?”

“Yeah!” she replied as she fled the car.

If so, we were satisfied: We had made a 12 year old as confused and ambivalent about the issue as we are.