The Political Stupidity Index; or, What separates the USA from the world to its south

Some US presidents not powered by petroleum

The July issue of Counterpunch just showed up in my mailbox; I suppose I could have read it weeks ago if I subscribed to the email version rather than the paper-and-ink one.  If I did that, however, I wouldn’t be able to leave old copies in laundromats and doctor’s offices and wonder who is getting a shock from them. 

There are three pieces remembering the late and much lamented Ben Sonnenberg, founder of the (alas, equally late and much lamented) literary quarterly Grand Street and a longtime eminence of the American Left.  I want Alexander Cockburn and Jo Ann Wypijewski to write my obituary.  As they went on about Sonnenberg’s historical greatness, profound learning, unfailing humility, inexhaustible compassion, and cheerful lovable-ness, I started to wonder why he hadn’t risen from the tomb on the third day.  Still, they do show that Sonnenberg devoted his life to celebrating and advancing the achievements of the human intellect, and that he was fearless in bringing reason to bear when entrenched interests intimidated others into accepting the official story.  

Two muckraking pieces tackle official stories which claim that the US government protects its citizens from menaces approaching the country from the south.  Jeffrey Saint Clair’s “How BP and the Obama Administration Have Been Joined at the Hip” tells how Mr O has overseen “a profound bureaucratic lethargy that ceded almost almost absolute control over the response to the spill to BP.”  While he might have invoked powers under the 1968 National Contingency plan and “seized control of both the well and the cleanup operations,” leaving BP’s officers with nothing to do but “sign checks for billions of dollars,” Mr O in fact sidelined all advisors who showed any sign of independence from the oil giant, instead relying on former lobbyists for and executives of BP.  The administration did little to nothing to contain the damage the leak would do to the Gulf coast, its wildlife and fisheries, but a great deal to help BP contain the damage to its public relations.  Most of Saint Clair’s facts are also reported in this Rolling Stone piece.   

Frank Bardacke’s “Why the Border Can Never Be ‘Secured'” introduces the phrase “the Political Stupidity Index,” which Bardacke defines as “the difference between the words politicians say and the way we actually live.”  Bardacke argues that the national debate about immigration registers a remarkably high level of this sort of stupidity, taking it to a level where “the words at the top have nothing to do with life at the bottom.”  “Despite what may be said in the public debate, people know there is no way to stop Mexicans coming to the USA, as long as Mexico remains poor and the USA relatively rich,” writes Bardacke.  More enforcement at the border only means more corruption among border patrol agents and more power for criminal enterprises that have set out “to make border crossing a big, corporate business.”  Amnesty for undocumented workers, whether marketed under the label “a path to citizenship” or under some other brand name, will only increase the rate of illegal immigration, as the upsurge in immigration after 1986 legalization definitively proved.  Guest-worker programs are “a bad idea all around,” as the experience of the Bracero Program showed.  By the mid 1960s, the poor working conditions to which braceros were subjected had raised the ire of liberals who objected to the program because it was a form of indentured servitude, while conservatives were alarmed by number of braceros who left their places of indenture to blend into the general population of the USA. 

I’m not at all sure Bardacke is right that the border cannot be “secured.”  Israel has certainly shown that walls can keep highly motivated people from crossing borders, and enforcement of citizenship requirements at points of employment need not be any more difficult than enforcement of laws  that require employees to be at least a particular age or paid at least a particular wage.  In order to implement those measures, the US government would have to confront the people who profit from the current system.  Considering the absurd timidity our current government has shown in its dealings with BP, it is rather difficult to imagine a future government that would be prepared to take on all the interests that benefit from keeping US wages from rising too far above the Mexican average.  Difficult though it may be, it is hardly impossible that such a thing might happen, and therefore unjustified to say that “the border can never be ‘secured’.” 

Whether it should be secured is of course another question.  If a government ever does come to power in the USA that has the backbone to stand up to the low-wage lobby, that government would likely be the result of a profound change in the country’s whole political culture.  If that change ever does come about, it might reveal more attractive possibilities for the US-Mexican economic relationship than fortifying the border and adding a new layer of policing in employment.  Maybe if working people get hold of real political power they will find ways to work together to develop the US and Mexico in tandem, rather than submitting to policies that exacerbate economic inequality and hollow out industry on both sides of the border.

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