Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The Wretched Refuse Huddle Up

Last week, I wrote a note to a good friend of mine, in which I mentioned how circumstances sometimes happen to take us beyond the reach of fear (and how they may yet do so again). I had no idea at the time that I'd see this reflection illustrated with such intensity as it was over the weekend in L.A. and elsewhere across the nation.

Psychologically, the situation is very simple—so simple that the wonder is that anyone was even mildly surprised at the overwhelming mass of these demonstrations. Of course, in the message I wrote, I was talking about a near future in which the planet itself was under attack from a strange, self-invading force. But the inner dimension of what happened this weekend resonates clearly with I was describing: people driven to a point of desperation where they had nothing more to lose—nothing.

Where does fear go when it has no further objects for its trembling heat? Where does the fixation with appearances, with one's social image go, when the mask lies shattered beside a crumbling wall in the desert sun? How can any fat cat in Washington or elsewhere be astonished that hundreds of thousands who have already been condemned to a lifetime of despair now join as one in a final cry of human feeling, naked animal urgency?

I felt the tone of these questions in The Poor Man's profanity-laced paragraphs this morning (read it, it's very good). His shock was at the supreme ignorance of these fat, banal old men and women in Congress and the White House, who could have been so blind amid their self-indulgence and petty political bickering.

Another voice of sanity, Paul Krugman, reminded us of the roots of this mayhem: they can be found on a poem written on a copper green statue in New York Harbor of a woman in a robe, holding a book and a lamp. The history of America is a story of people coming from afar—servants, bondsmen, the down-and-out, the cast-offs of other nations, and the most unwilling of immigrants, the slaves—who had made a final, desperate choice at a moment when they had nothing left to live for, nothing left to hope for, nothing left to fear.

They are your ancestors, my fellow Americans. These others around us now are the progenitors, perhaps, of another America—one that may sense the dangers of globalization and its penchant for creating overwhelmingly vast generations of "huddled masses" through the international guest-worker game of geopolitical slavery. I suspect that these folks who clogged the streets of L.A., Chicago, and Washington this weekend know damned well what a "guest worker" is, without having to be told the truth outright. They know slavery when they see it, when they hear it, no matter what rhetorical or advertising dress it happens to be wearing today.

How, after all, could they not recognize it? They have lived with it all their lives; it is what has brought them to this last moment of desperate resolve. As Mr. Krugman pointed out, we cannot possibly accommodate all, or even most of them; but we ignore their voices, their urgent message born of desolation, at our own peril, and at the peril of our nation's future.

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