Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Of Tribes and Territory

Chris Matthews is annoying at best. Today, he was simply bizarre.

To begin, he lambasted Hillary for “changing her position” on drivers' licenses for undocumented immigrants--this after having spent the previous week lambasting her for not taking a position. He doesn't seem to understand that she can't possibly change a position she never took, or that we remember exactly what she said and exactly what he said about it previously. In my assessment, this makes Chris a partisan hack liar still yet again one more time.

But what struck me today was Chris's fury at unauthorized immigrants. As he lobbed comments at guest Pat Buchanan (that legendary humanitarian), and Rachel Maddow about "illegal immigrants," I noticed Chris's barometer rising visibly and I started to pay attention to see if I could figure out what was heating him up.

I can't say for sure, not being Chris, but it seemed to me that for him, the main trigger word is "border," and the problem he perceives is personal. His affect suggests that national sovereignty may be the rational consideration he articulates, but there is another issue, an emotional charge buried somewhere beneath it.

I think that grenade may be this: Undocumented workers, whom I think Matthews visualizes as mainly male, represent an intolerable symbolic challenge to himself as jefe, as white territorial patrón.

I'm saying that, lacking something of such an intense, felt nature, I, for one, don't understand the personal quality in his anger or its level.

I can see that someone whose ranch is a highway for coyotes and their miserably exploited charges could be personally furious because she or he has experienced a threatening and often despoiling personal imposition.

Even though I haven’t experienced it personally, I also understand why I feel fury at Bush's espousal of torture. It's because my trust has been betrayed. And I can understand why any one of us would be furious at an armed occupation, because that would indeed be an act of domination and ego obliteration. But I just don't experience several hundred thousand people crossing a border because they’re desperate for a means to live in anything like that way.

And that is why I think they must represent something else for Matthews, Dodd, and Buchanan and those they speak for.

Each immigrant represents an irrepressible, autonomous Self with the impertinence to believe that his or her survival need overrides an arbitrary line in the sand. As I write, the image I see is a serf or slave being beaten but not defeated. The immigrant's persistence is a refusal to be defeated. There's something intolerable about that for any man or women who is accustomed to privilege and expects to be met with deference.

In this analysis, privilege is crucial. So I don’t think it’s a coincidence that in the debate about giving out drivers' licenses and green cards, privilege is a key theme. The license and the card convey legitimacy and status, and legitimate status is exactly what is being contested.

Call it arm-chair psychologizing, call me Michael Moore, whatever. There's something deeper than meets the eye that’s playing havoc with this national debate. And that “something” is deliberately poked and prodded by the rhetoric from the Far Right.

They are well aware that the immigration problem isn't about socially acceptable concerns: wages, jobs, national sovereignty, crime, etc. Those memes have been debunked time and again by respectable, nonpartisan academic studies of the impact of undocumented immigrant on our economy.

The “crisis” they’re selling is about white male domination. At its surface, it's about who gets to vote and how many of them there are. At its deepest level, it's is about tribe (race, culture, religion) and territory, and it’s atavistic: primitive and dangerous. The post-9-11 summons to our atavistic selves is, after all, what accounts for our having acquiesced to torture.