Friday, April 30, 2010

La burqa and racial profiling in Arizona

And so, it has come to pass. With France's new law banning the burqa and Arizona's new law allowing racial profiling, SB 1070, we have inaugurated a new era in political farce and distraction. Those in power have for a long time used racial, religious, gender, and sexual prejudice to scapegoat and distract their subjects, it seems that using the legislative process to enact laws enforcing these prejudices in a Western Democracy is an example of the reversal of the expansion of freedoms that we are made to believe is still occurring. Despite all the rhetoric about the protection of freedom, never before has our freedom been so under attack by the forms of government which were meant to protect it. In 1942 FDR used the power of the executive order to force Japanese and Japanese-Americans into internment camps in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, but he did not go through congress. He always was fond of a little secret though wasn't he that FDR? I can't think right now of any other examples, but I'm sure my lovely readers can.

Although the two laws are clearly very different in scope, people whom they target, etc. I believe that they are in response to similar, if not the same worldwide issues. Distraction, distraction, distraction. Both laws are at their core about the use of unimportant, misleading issues having to do with difference by people in power in order to distract voters from the important issues at hand that seem insoluble or at least very difficultly-soluble in the present. Much like what I do when I have a paper to write and go on facebook instead. I'm sure that many of you share my experiences in this regard. The problem is that, when politicians do it on a national stage they can actually cause some real damage, whereas I might just see some photos of old flames that I didn't really want to see. Yikes!

Let's talk about the laws themselves. In France, Sarkozy instigated a debate on national identity starting around last November. As this Christian Science Monitor article points out, This imposed national conversation was clearly aimed at securing the right wing vote for the regional elections (which by the way, was a spectacular failure since the PS basically swept the regionals albeit with only a ~50% turnout rate). I have to say that I unfortunately agree with the impulse to ban the burqa. I say unfortunately because my opinion is shared by this French professor of philosophy and political science whose blog is interestingly titled, Moral Health. In her post about la burqa she claims that Sarkozy is right to want to ban the burqa in public spaces because although most women claim that they wear it voluntarily it still represents an internalization of oppression that eliminates the female identity in a public space. This is undoubtedly true. The crux of the issue is highlighted through the strange comparison that she makes to the internalization of oppression represented by the burka and that which is represented by the Uncle Tom character.

Uncle Tom of course was a character from Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin who was morally superior, but ultimately passive and subservient to his white masters. The term came to refer to a black person who, after the Civil War was over and slaves were freed everywhere, retained the mentality of slavery and remained subservient to white people. She claims that this is another example of internalized oppression, which no doubt it is, but the fact remains that you cannot legislate people's mentalities. Since Laurence is fond of using the Bible as a resource, here's a citation for her. God didn't make an 11th commandment saying that the Jews must rid themselves of their slave mentalities. Instead they wandered in the desert for 40 years until every last one of the old generation who had lived under slavery in Egypt had died. Only a new population who had never known slavery could live in the Promised Land and forge their own destinies.

I don't mean to say that they only way to combat oppression is to just wait for people to get over it. Political action, education, and activism are all important and necessary ways to combat it. But the fact remains that these need to come from the ground up, not from the top down. Sarkozy's actions have not freed Muslim women from the burden of the burqa (I believe that this law although only targeting burqa wearers, has implications for all Muslim women). They have only exposed them to the tortures of their own psyches. Forced to choose between going out uncovered and not going out at all, most will probably choose the latter. Here I am assuming that most burqa-wearers in France are immigrants, the verity of which I am not sure to be full. Anyone who can clarify on this issue is welcome to do so. In coming to France in the first place immigrants are exposed to new ways, a new culture. Continuing a custom from the old country is one way of bridging the traumatic gap between an old life and a new one. It also happens that this particular custom tends block out the outside world completely. Customs die hard, even the most incendiary ones. The only way to get rid of burqas may be to get rid of burqa-wearers, i.e. wait until they die. At least until then the French people can be contented that these women will be trapped in their homes by an insensitive law and their own troubled psyches.

Ultimately, this surge in the conversation in France about National Identity has more to do with trying to distract voters from really important issues like real actual security in the face of real actual danger from terrorists and a real actual economic crisis that is gripping Europe right now as we speak. "Don't think about the plummeting value of our currency," Sarkozy is saying. "Think about burqas." Apparently this strategy is working. In fact, only a miniscule percentage of women actually wear burqas in France (if anyone has any figures he or she would be welcome to share them) which is why this issue is unimportant.

Although SB 1070 in Arizona is clearly also about distraction, in no way do I agree with its impetus. This law is not about internalized oppression, but about sheer oppression, racial discrimination, hate and fear-mongering. It is about scape-goating a group of mostly innocent people for an economic downturn which is actually the fault of incumbent interests associated with Wall Street and unregulated finance capitalism, and for a rise in crime which is actually the fault of lax gun restriction along the border and unfettered American demand for illegal drugs (the necessity of whose smuggling across the border would be significantly diminished if we simply legalized marijuana, as CA is set to do in November!). But hey, blaming brown people is so much easier than dealing with real problems, right?

An editorial published today in the LA Times in support of SB 1070 contains some rather striking rhetorical fallacies that diminish the effectiveness of his argument. Besides being generally inaccurate about the information that he presents, Stein offers some scareperson quotes from an LA cardinal and a representative from ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) in order to pigeonhole the other side's argument. He continues to justify it using anecdotal evidence about "the killing last month of rancher Robert Krentz -- police suspect by an illegal immigrant" and how it "is only the latest graphic example of the impact that rampant illegal immigration has on ordinary Arizonans." Since when has suspicion meant guilt, and on top of that, even if the crime were committed by an illegal immigrant, how is the action of one person a call to claim that all illegal immigrants are criminals? The article is also plagued by some rather grievous circular reasoning, saying that "Reasonable suspicion might include the lack of any sort of valid U.S. identification documents that police officers routinely request from anyone who is lawfully stopped." Hello! How do you know if somebody does or does not possess a valid form of identification? Because you have already stopped them! And why did you stop them? Because they were brown. 

In fact, most illegal immigrants come here in order to work and have no intention of committing crimes, besides the one that is represented by their very presence and is now, more than ever thanks to this brave new law, marked by the very color of their skin. Never mind the reasons, many that they are, that have been used to justify the law or even the wording of it. Any law that expressly or inexpressly designates racial profiling as a valid reasons for search and seizure is an evil, if not unconstitutional law.

This post has grown to a monstrous size and also, I'm hungry, so I will end it. Sorry for giving short shrift to Arizona, but I do feel that the issues there are a bit more straightforwardly black and white, like most things seem to have become in America these days. I will leave you with this last bit, directed to me from my friend Corina's facebook. The political theater that has arisen out of the passage of this law is getting to be a little frightening when we see that a U.S Congressman is saying that we should deport U.S. citizens. Have a racial day! You can't really help it in this great country of ours.

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