Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Why Were They Waving Foreign Flags?

Right-wing blogger** Mickey Kaus is, predictably, caught up in a symbolic issue that lets him hint at a conservative stance on substantive policy without having to actually state it or back it up: the large number of Mexican and other Central American flags being waved at the huge, peaceful, friendly L.A. march against the vicious immigrant- and immigrant-helper-bashing Sensenbrenner bill.

**Kaus is allegedly a Democrat, but as a Slate blogger, his ratio of snark/dismissal/mockery to praise towards progressives and Dems runs well near 20:1 or 30:1 - and on the radio March 23, he "tried not to agree with everything Hugh [Hewitt] said" - so, objectively, as a blogger, he's a 'winger.

Naturally, although he went down to the rally itself, Kaus did not actually ask anyone holding a Mexican flag why they were doing so - nor does he contradict the LA Times' account that vendors were running out of American flags for sale, and that some marchers were holding American flags in addition to foreign flags.

Personally, I've been to plenty of neighborhoods and St. Patrick's Day parades where the number of Irish flags overwhelming outnumbered American ones - yet no one ever seems to get upset about such a display of affection for another country, so long as it's European (France excepted if you like your bigotry O'Reilly style). (And yes, the Irish-American community was definitely a political force for liberal immigration laws, and against crackdowns on undocumented workers, during the decades when the Irish economy resulted in a huge population of undocumented Irishmen working in the U.S.; who knows whether that will continue, now that the Celtic Tiger's roar is summoning Eire's sons and daughters back to unprecedented opportunity at home.)

Thinking of those St. Patrick's Day parades, I can only imagine that most people would say - and I'm certain Irish-Americans would say - that it's entirely possible to hoist an foreign flag, express affection for the land of your forefathers, and still remain a devoted and patriotic American citizen. There's no non-bigoted reason not extend the same presumption to hard-working people when the flags hoisted are Mexican, Salvadoran, or other.

Still, the visual symbolism - or "optics" as the non-physicist community has taken to calling it - certainly isn't too good when the issue under consideration is a bill to crack down on undocumented immigrants, and everyone understands that the immigration presently at issue is largely from Mexico and Latin America, and people opposing the crackdown appear to have chosen this moment to express their devotion to another country. Xenophobia is a powerful strain in U.S. politics, and Kaus may have a point when he says that the very size of these rallies, when coupled with the pro-illegal immigrant sentiments and the Mexican flags, might hurt the cause of the ralliers. It seems likely to make many non-PC voters think, "Jeez, next year's rally will be even bigger. We'd better build that wall quick!"

So, why were they waving so many Mexican flags, along with the American ones? Was it a miscalculated attempt at making a show of numbers, to frighten off their political opponents with a huge display of opposition? Was it an attempt to show their defiance of those who would treat them as criminals - perhaps a slightly different style of political tug-of-war more common in Latin America?

Perhaps, but my girlfriend had a more likely thought - this was just a chance to show some ethnic pride and sense of self-worth. It likely wasn't what the lead organizers had in mind at all, but as anyone who's been to a standard left-wing protest march well knows, you can never impose perfect message discipline - back in college, the running joke that whatever the issue, the socialists would always turn up with their End U.S. Imperialism banner. Try to have a rally opposing the invasion of Iraq, and you got folks who turned up determined to use the occasion to tell the world about environmental protection, the CPUSA, human rights abuses in Uzbekistan, Mumia, the Bush economic agenda, gay marriage, what have you.

I always get exasperated with these people, because the whole point of a massive public rally, if it has a point, is usually to convince other people less certain, less ideological, less committed, maybe more moderate and apathetic, to take your side. Sometimes you just want a show of solidarity among your own members, as with a union picket line, but most of the time you want to convince outsiders to support your cause. I suspect the organizers of the LA rally were thinking the same thing - and would have preferred to see only American flags.

But you can't get half a million people (organizers claimed a million) to come to your rally and expect all of them to toe the line. Attending political rallies is something that most people don't do most of the time. In this case, many of the people attending the rally appear to have been folks who are undocumented and are usually afraid of asserting their ethnic identity, lest it draw attention to themselves. On this one day, people heard there was a huge event taking place, their friends and neighbors and relations were all going, and they decided to participate in the way that made sense to them personally. Here was a chance to join a public event so large, and to mix in with so many others, that waving a Mexican flag was sure, for once, to be a safe thing to do.

Another thing about rallies: you just can't get 500,000 people to express, in unison, a complicated, nuanced argument. The intelligent argument for Mumia, for instance, wasn't "Free Mumia Now!", it was "Give Mumia A Fair New Trial Now And Watch Him Probably Get Convicted But Don't Apply The Death Penalty Which Is Immoral And Should Be Outlawed!" Not only can you not ask hundreds of people, let alone hundreds of thousands, to stick to the text when the text is that long, you couldn't even motivate them to come to a rally in the first place if the emotional appeal was that diluted. Similarly, some critics in late 2002 - early 2003 were asking why the anti-Bush demonstrators why they didn't have a concrete, detailed response to waht we should do about Saddam. The answer is/was, because you can't get half a million people to enunciate a concrete, detailed plan - the most you can hope to get them to do is to show their support for a simple idea: don't kill Mumia. Don't invade Iraq.

Likewise, when the policy you're advocating is "McCain - Kennedy, But Maybe With Some Adjustments! But Definitely Not Sensenbrenner! And We're Not Satisfied With the Compromise Specter Is Hammering Out!", you can barely fit that on your pamphlet, and no way does it get on a banner. As for the rally, the most you can realistically hope to do is to tell the world that hard-working immigrants deserve support and sympathy, not a harsh, mean-spirited crackdown. And that's perfectly appropriate - the real motivation for the Sensenbrenner bill isn't some dry white paper from Heritage, it's an equally simple, emotional feeling, in this case a feeling of xenophobia - find 'em, kick 'em out, and throw up a wall so no more can get in. So countering one simplistic, heavily symbolic message with another one isn't inappropriate at all. It's too bad that the foreign flags in LA may have interfered with the simple message that day, but in another way, as an expression of pride and self-worth, they may have amplified the message. Either way, as I say, free expression at a rally is unavoidable.

No comments: