Friday, July 29, 2016

A Modest Proposal for the Refugee Problem

While Donald Trump and his GOP rivals were competing to claim who would take the most extreme measures to keep refugees out of the US, from the liberal side we’ve heard a stream of platitudes about what a boon to the country the arrival of tens of thousands of refugees will be, and how the diversity of the population has been a source of strength and variety.

Yes, it’s true. We now get to eat pizza, hot dogs, tacos, spring rolls and even soul food at adjacent stands in shopping mall food courts throughout America. We forget how long it took, or is taking, for the groups who brought these foods to be fully accepted by the mainstream population.

People seem to prefer to live among people like themselves. It’s not just blue-haired ladies with matching eyes in the gated communities of South Carolina. Urban liberals in NY or  LA, who insist on eating in a restaurant of a different ethnicity every day, don’t really want to see or talk to people who shop at Walmart or vote Republican. The US may be a great melting pot but the ingredients are only amalgamated up to a point. The segments of the population remain segregated and stratified to the point where most districts and most states are never politically subject to change.

Here in rural Umbria we have an ex-pat community of people from all over the world, but their similarity in tastes and attitudes is far greater than any of their national differences. While some may be more economically conservative than they let on in public, they are all rigorously socially progressive. Social conservatives and people with strong religious views are looked upon askance.  As for the local people, there is a similar degree of conformity, however superficial.  Being hunters, most wear the same camouflage outfits, drive the same Suzuki jeeps, and share a predilection for becoming prematurely overweight.  Whatever their political views, they all display the same paralyzing level of cynicism about politics and politicians.

The local and ex-pat communities seem to get along well, given that the latter bring money and work. Refugees can be seen in the nearby towns and cities, mostly begging in the supermarket parking lots, but in the countryside, they are rarely visible. Our immigrant foreigners are predominantly women from Eastern Europe who have come to be live-in help for aging people who can’t manage on their own. They blend in. Interest in the cultural diversity they bring is minimal but they are certainly well integrated. Italy was accommodating and assimilating immigrants fairly well until the French, English and Americans decided that Colonel Gaddafi had to be overthrown. Since then, not so well.

In theory, liberals and conservatives may be split on whether to welcome or send back potential refugees but their visceral reactions are probably not all that different.. Those reactions will depend on whether they can find some common ground and reciprocally advantageous dealings, or whether the newcomers simply come to be seen as “the other”.
Aren't they cute
less cute

Before considering what to do with the refugees, it might be worth considering why there are suddenly so many of them, and where they’re coming from.

In the US, where Donald Trump wants to build the Great Wall of Mexico, Mexicans have been coming to the US to pick crops, tend gardens and do a number of other jobs that Americans citizens don’t want to do and that agribusinesses and other businesses want done on the cheap. It’s a Republican nightmare. Republican voters resent competing with illegal immigrants (now officially referred to as undocumented workers) for low wage jobs while big Republican donors want the cheap labor. This dilemma crosses party lines but the redder the state (e.g. Texas), the more strident the hypocrisy. Working conditions on both sides of the border are fairly bad and from the latest statistics that I’ve seen, it appears that about as many Mexicans are now going back to Mexico as are entering the US. There are still lots of people coming illegally, so what’s going on?

Much of the flow of refugees across the US border consists of people fleeing what were often referred to as the Banana Republics, i.e. Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. What those countries have had in common, besides bananas, are brutal fascist regimes, either installed by, propped up by, or trained by the USA. Some of our politicians are referring to the border crossers as murderers, rapists and drug dealers, while more kindly disposed politicians tend to call them people seeking the American dream. Rather than seeking the “American dream”, I would tend to see them as people fleeing a universal nightmare. Young women are being raped and slaughtered in those countries.

A US backed coup in 1954 installed the first of a long series of military dictators in Guatemala. A civil war between the government and Mayan and Ladino peasants lasted from 1960 until 1996, with a death toll of 250,000. The Guatemalan Government earned recognition as the first Latin American country to “disappear” its opposition in large numbers. Former leader Efrain Rios Montt was convicted of genocide and sentenced to eighty years in 2012 for genocide but his conviction was overturned quickly when he was deemed too old for such a sentence. In recent years corruption seems to have superseded genocide as the country’s major problem.

El Salvador has the closest relationship of all Central American states with the USA. Oligarchy dominated the 19th Century, to be displaced by military dictatorships in the mid-20th Century. El Salvador’s civil war was shorter than that of Guatemala, lasting from 1980 to 1992, during which time El Salvador actually made news in 1989, even in the US, when a US-trained death squad murdered a group of Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter. Many El Salvadorans live in the US. A significant number of them joined US street gangs and were deported back to El Salvador, where they joined up with armed survivors of the civil war to establish street gangs at home. They deal in extortion, kidnapping and drug trafficking and have infiltrated the government, the police and the military. The murder rate is El Salvador is just over 100 per 100,000, the highest in the world.

In 2008 Manuel Zelaya was elected President of Honduras. He was deposed in 2009 by a coup financed by CEAL, a business group in Honduras, represented by Hillary Clinton’s friend Lanny Davis. She prevented Zalaya from returning to Honduras and helped arrange the elections which he was kept out of. The US immediately recognized the new government and provided military assistance to it, despite the law saying that the US can not assist a government established by a coup d’etat. The State Department simply claimed that it was not a military coup. Since then Honduras has become a militarized state and by 2010 it had the world’s highest murder rate. We don’t know whether that title is currently held by El Salvador or Honduras but people are fleeing for their lives from both countries.

There seems to be little talk about this flight from terror in the American media, just that a lot of people are illegally crossing the US border. Ending US support for the Banana Fascist military regimes wouldn’t solve the crisis overnight but with time, the people would regain control of their countries. They might then be the ones to build walls-- to keep the gringos out.

The subject of refugees from the Middle East comes up a bit more.  Here again, there are decidedly different takes. I have a friend who talks about his wonderful doctor from Syria. Others don’t want to see any damned Muslims. Does anybody ask about why there is now an abundance of refugees from the Middle East? Perhaps they know but just don’t want to think about it.

In 2003, the USA, under President George W. Bush, invaded, occupied and destroyed Iraq, one of the few secular countries in the Middle East, for no rational, strategical or defensible reason. Members of the Baathist Party, made up of the dominant Sunni sect, were dismissed from the military and all government positions, and declared to be unemployable. Just imagine Ohio and Pennsylvania being invaded and occupied by an unstoppable superpower which decreed that anyone who was a Roman Catholic or a registered Republican was not fit to be employed in any capacity! It has taken some time but after being pushed out of their jobs, their homes and their neighborhoods by the invasion and the ensuing civil war, the younger and more energetic Sunnis have emerged, with Saudi money and US weapons, as the new ISIS or ISIL or DAESH or the Islamic Califate. The older or more pacific Iraqis have fled to whatever adjacent country they could escape to, mostly Jordan and Syria. Those countries, flooded with refugees, are in dire straits. Syria’s dictator, who has kept a lid on sectarian strife, however ruthlessly, now faces internal opposition, reinforced by personnel from Al Qaeda and other Islamic radical groups, while also receiving support from the US (which, led by Senators John Mc Cain and Lindsay Graham, always seeks to find the good guys, i.e, the “moderate rebels” and ply them with advanced weaponry) and “America’s best ally in the Middle East apart from Israel, Saudi Arabia”. This alone would have been enough to set off a huge flow of refugees, but alas, the neo-cons struck again, following Sarkozy’s lead, to support the overthrow of Col. Gaddafi. Sarkozy at least admitted to having a motive. He was after a large share of Libyan oil, but what were Cameron and Obama/Clinton thinking? Oh wait, it was destroy them to save them, that recurrent American theme.

Let’s put aside the tall walls and the cheerful platitudes. We all know the china shop policy: break it and you’ve bought it, but we prefer to adhere to supermarket policy. That bottle of ketchup that fell and shattered as you reached for something else is just a small bit of the supermarket’s overhead, so don’t worry, somebody will be there to clean it up before anyone can track ketchup all over the store. Life and shopping go on uninterrupted. Comforting, but let’s be serious folks. It wasn’t a bottle of ketchup. We brought a whole herd of elephants into the china shop, or to reshift the analogy, we set off a containerful of explosives in the supermarket. They’re out of business! Surviving customers and employees are fleeing the wreckage.

We Americans don’t deal with moral debts too well, partly because we have trouble acknowledging them in the first place. We did eventually get rid of slavery but it took a very bloody civil war. There was talk of forty acres and a mule for the freed slaves but neither the forty acres nor the mules ever materialized.

We did better with war reparations and war crime trials when imposing them on other countries, but somehow, the laws we established in Nuremberg have never been applied to our own misdeeds. Our moral debt to the world is growing even faster than our our balance of trade deficit. What’s to be done about all these refugees that we’ve displaced?
cat skulls being cleaned by bugs- photo by Trip Advisor

Among the adventures of my distant youth, I spent a number of months in the State of Oklahoma undergoing military training. I can vouch for the terrain being every bit as challenging as the Arabian desert, where fate also led me to spend a significant amount of time. Oklahoma in those days was notable for countless little Mom and Pop museums featuring large snakes, scorpions, centipedes and God knows what other poisonous denizens of the desert. Among my most vivid memories there was the ten day period when the temperature never went below 41°C (107°F), day or night. Then there was the bug epidemic in Oklahoma City. Large brittle bugs were all over the streets and sidewalks to where you couldn’t take a step without crunching one. Some people have made a life for themselves in Oklahoma- mostly football coaches- but it is a challenge. If Syrian and Iraqi refugees have survived through the destruction of their desert kingdoms, they can thrive in Oklahoma.

Jim Imhofe proves climate change is a hoax
Oklahoma’s most important political leader is Senator Jim Imhofe. Americans are terrified by fanatical Islamic terrorists and the widespread rejection of refugees from the Middle East is largely a function of the this fear. I would suggest that refugees in America have as much to fear from our homegrown religious fundamentalists as the other way around.

I hereby propose that one half of the territory of Oklahoma, excluding that already set aside for Native Americans, be set aside as a new colony for refugees from the Middle East. If they survived under the bloody regimes of Saddam Hussein and Assad, they can make it in the desert fiefdom of Jim Imhofe. The more fervent Islamacists believe that 72 virgins await each martyred jihadi in Paradise. Jim Imhofe believes that the environment of this planet is in God’s hands and that it’s presumptuous to think that man can influence it. That could be seen as a standoff between two rival belief systems, except that while there is no scientific evidence confirming or denying the existence of Paradise or the presence there of compliant virgins, there is actually a broad scientific consensus that man is mucking up our climate and our atmosphere.

I see the settling of a few hundred thousand refugees in Oklahoma as a win-win situation. If they quietly assimilate, we’ll just see more Arab specialties in our food courts.
shawarma may be the new pizza
If they turn out to be mostly hard-core religious fanatics, they’ll have to compete with the very tough and well armed locals. We’ve seen competition between rival sects before. Jehovah’s Witnesses vs. Seventh Day Adventists, Scientologists against everybody. Look at Utah. Mormons were thought to be a subversive group. Mitt Romney’s grandfather was driven out of the US for his polygamous views, but by 2012 Mitt got to run for President, the dream of every aspiring American.

Our views of marriage have opened up a lot recently so we should have no trouble accommodating traditional Islamic customs. We’ve seen Irish terrorists, German terrorists, Italian terrorists, southern white terrorists, so why the unique obsession with the Islamic faction? The IRA was largely financed in Boston and New York, the Likud in NY and LA. It may be tough but it’s time to move on. I can understand and even feel the widespread aversion to the Other, having just watched parts of the Republican National Convention, but I’m betting that all those Syrians and Iraqis will make Oklahoma a better place.