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When a girl becomes her school's designated slut, her friends stop talking to her. Pornographic rumors spread with dazzling efficiency, boys harass her openly in the hallways, girls beat her up. "WHORE," or sometimes "HORE," is written on her locker or bookbag. And there is usually a story about her having sex with the whole football team, a rumor whose plausibility no one ever seems to question.
Even those of us who weren't high school sluts and don't recall any such outcast from our own school days have become familiar with her plight--through media stories and the growing body of feminist-inspired literature on female adolescence, as well as the talk shows and teen magazine spreads that have made her their focus. What's harder to understand is how the label persists when the landscape of sexual morality that gives it meaning has so drastically changed--well within living memory. If the sexual revolution didn't obliterate the slut, wouldn't the successive waves of libidinous pop stars, explicit TV shows and countercultural movements to reclaim the label have drained it of its meaning? What kinds of lines can today's adolescents, or those of the 1990s or 1980s, for that matter, possibly draw between nice and not nice girls?
Emily White's Fast Girls sets out to look at the central dilemmas of the slut label. Two earlier books that have focused on the slut--Leora Tanenbaum's Slut! Growing Up Female With a Bad Reputation, a collection of oral histories, and Naomi Wolf's Promiscuities, a reflection on girls' sexual coming-of-age in the 1970s that combines memoir with a casual survey of the women Wolf grew up with--rely primarily on the subjective narratives of women and girls to explore the slut phenomenon. Paula Kamen's Her Way: Young Women Remake the Sexual Revolution surveys the sexual mores and activities of young women, but not specifically of teenagers. White is the first to combine different methodologies in an attempt to write specifically about the functions and significance of the teenage slut--in her words, "to shed some light on that space in the high school hallway where so many vital and troubling encounters occur."
White spoke to or corresponded with more than 150 women who had been the sluts of their school (whom she found largely by soliciting their stories through newspaper ads), and she spent "a couple of weeks" observing in a Seattle-area public high school. She also offers cultural criticism--of horror movies and the riot grrrls, for instance--as well as a digest of psychological, sociological and post-structuralist theory pertinent to the subject. White's evident ambition makes it all the more frustrating that the book's impressive breadth doesn't translate into thoroughness or rigor.
When White interviewed the women--most of them white, middle-class and from the suburbs--who responded to her ads, the stories she heard had certain similarities. There was a "type" of girl who tended to be singled out: She developed breasts earlier than other girls; she was a loud, vocal extrovert; she was self-destructive, tough or wild; often she had been sexually abused; and in one way or another she was usually an outsider, whether she had moved from a different town, had less money than most kids or belonged to some peripheral subculture. Some women described themselves as having been promiscuous, but more said they were not as sexually active as their (untainted) friends, and none of them had done the things that were later rumored. Often the first rumors were started by bitter ex-boyfriends or jealous friends. Once they caught on, the ritual torments and "football team" fantasies inevitably followed.
These similarities make up what White calls the "slut archetype," and for much of the book she riffs on the common factors of the stories, with chapters dedicated to subjects like the role of suburbia, the slut's social isolation and the preponderance of sexual abuse. Though sprinkled liberally throughout the book, the women's testimonies are only a launching point for White's meditations. She writes about these interviews in a way that at times both romanticizes and condescends to the women. "She walks so confidently in her boots," writes White of one 18-year-old, "causing tremors in the ground beneath her feet. She presents herself as a girl who has crawled up out of the underworld, who has found her way through the isolation and the drugged dreams.... It is a way of coping, this tough act. It's a start." Still, despite certain problems of credibility, this overwrought style is pretty effective at conveying the anguish of the ostracized adolescent girl (if only by echoing her earnest self-dramatization). It's much less suited to considering the girl in social and cultural context.
In editing and interpreting her interviews, White emphasizes their similarities at the expense of the kind of detail that makes a particular social universe come to life. Her time observing the Seattle-area high school students inspires mostly familiar observations. ("The cafeteria is high school's proving ground. It's one of the most unavoidable and important thresholds, the place where you find out if you have friends or if you don't.") Only about half the time do we get any real sense of the sort of community an interviewee grew up in or what the social scene was like at her school. There's even less detail about precisely how she fit into the hierarchy before the slut label took hold, whether she was perceived as threatening or flirtatious, what her past relationships were like with girls, boys and teachers. Even worse is that for all their lack of texture, the women's stories are by far the most interesting part of the book; when White pulls away to supply her own commentary, it's usually vague and predictable--precisely because she's not attuned to the details that would reveal how the slut really functions in the teenage universe. Although she acknowledges that the slut myth is much bigger than any individual girl behind it, she is also attached to the literal-minded notion that the girl being labeled has some kind of privileged relationship to the slut myth--that her individual story is the slut story, and the women's emotional recollections of abuses and scars collectively explain the slut myth. In fact, to understand the myth we need to know at least as much about what the rest of the school is thinking.
White suggests that "the slut becomes a way for the adolescent mind to draw a map. She's the place on the map marked by a danger sign...where a girl should never wander, for fear of becoming an outcast." But, given the arbitrary relationship White found between the slut label and a girl's actual sex life, does the slut myth really have any practical applications for girls? Do they limit sexual activity out of fear of these rumors? Are there particular sex acts that can bring censure in themselves? Can social status insulate some girls from slutdom, regardless of how much they fool around? White doesn't directly pose these questions, but one of her findings hints that, though they may fear the label, kids themselves interpret slutdom as primarily an expression of social status rather than a direct consequence of sexual activity: "Girls who at one time might have been friends with the slut recede as her reputation grows; they need to be careful how they associate with her or they will be thought of as sluts along with her."
The slut doesn't seem to point to an actual line that a nice girl can't cross; she commemorates the fact that there once was such a line, and suggests that the idea of a line still has currency, even if no one can figure out where it is anymore. It's no surprise that she is such a popular subject for third-wave feminists; her ostracism seems to have implications not only for residual sexism but for the way that we personally experience sex and desire.
Ididn't think I had a personal connection to the slut story. For most of my adolescent years, which were in the late 1980s and early '90s, I was very good, and too awkward to attract attention from boys. In the schools I attended there were whispers about who did what, and some girls were considered sluttier than others, but there was no single figure who captured the imagination of the whole class.
Then I remembered something about one of the girls I was closest to from age 10 to about 13 or 14. We didn't go to the same school, but for much of the time we both attended Saturday Russian classes held in her kitchen by an elderly neighbor. She was the only one of my friends who was, like me, born in Russia, though her family still lived in Philadelphia's immigrant neighborhood while mine had moved to a more prosperous, non-Russian suburb several years earlier. My family had a bigger house. We had, thanks to my American stepdad, more American ways of doing things. I was a better student. I think she was more popular at her school than I was at mine; at least, she was more easygoing and sociable. I never felt in awe of her, as I did of other friends. I was not always nice to her, though usually I was.
She knew more about sex in our early years than I did, but, like me, she didn't go out with anyone in the time we knew each other. She was pretty, in a round-faced, unfashionable way that made me think I had a discerning eye for appreciating it. She always seemed more developed than I was. (That may not have been true in any measurable sense.) At some point in those years, though it didn't particularly affect our friendship, and I don't remember thinking about it while I was actually with her, I began to spend nights casting her as my proxy in every kind of pornographic fantasy I could conjure.
It's always difficult to figure out the relationship between cultural fantasies and mores, on the one hand, and actual behavior and sexual self-image on the other. You could probably spend a long time listening to teenagers and still not get to the bottom of how the slut myth filters into their own lives. Still, the site of the slut's continuous re-creation, the high school hallways, deserves closer scrutiny, and the mysteries of her endurance await further exploration.
The jury is still out on whether it can restore, let alone enhance, its influence.
As Halle Berry elegantly strode to the podium to accept her best actress Oscar, the first for a black woman, she wept uncontrollably and gasped, "This moment is so much bigger than me." Just as revealing was Denzel Washington's resolute dispassion as he accepted his best actor Oscar, only the second for a black man, by glancing at the trophy and uttering through a half-smile, "Two birds in one night, huh?" Their contrasting styles--one explicit, the other implied--say a great deal about the burdens of representing the race in Hollywood.
Berry electrified her audience, speaking with splendid intelligence and rousing emotion of how her Oscar was made possible by the legendary likes of Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne and Diahann Carroll. And in a stunning display of sorority in a profession riven by infighting and narcissism, Berry acknowledged the efforts of contemporary black actresses Angela Bassett, Jada Pinkett Smith and Vivica Fox. But it was when Berry moved from ancestors and peers to the future that she spoke directly to her award's symbolic meaning. She gave the millions who watched around the globe not only a sorely needed history lesson but a lesson in courageous identification with the masses. Berry tearfully declared that her award was for "every nameless, faceless woman of color" who now has a chance, since "this door has been opened."
Berry's remarkable courage and candor are depressingly rare among famed blacks with a lot on the line: money, prestige, reputation and work. Many covet the limelight's payoffs but cower at its demands. Even fewer speak up about the experiences their ordinary brothers and sisters endure--and if they are honest, that they themselves too often confront--on a daily basis. To be sure, there is an unspoken tariff on honesty among the black privileged: If they dare go against the grain, they may be curtailed in their efforts to succeed or cut off from the rewards they deserve. Or they may endure stigma. Think of the huge controversy over basketball great Charles Barkley's recent comments--that racism haunts golf, that everyday black folk still fight bigotry and that black athletes are too scared to speak up--that are the common banter of most blacks. What Berry did was every bit as brave: On the night she was being singled out for greatness, she cast her lot with anonymous women of color who hungered for her spot, and who might be denied a chance for no other reason than that they are yellow, brown, red or black. Her achievement, she insisted, was now their hope.
At first blush, it may seem that Denzel Washington failed to stand up and "represent." But that would be a severe misreading of the politics of signifying that thread through black culture. Looking up to the balcony where Sidney Poitier sat--having received an honorary Oscar earlier and delivered a stately speech of bone-crushing beauty--Washington said, "Forty years I've been chasing Sidney...." He joked with Poitier, and the academy, by playfully lamenting his being awarded an Oscar on the same night that his idol was feted. Washington, for a fleeting but telling moment, transformed the arena of his award into an intimate platform of conversation between himself and his progenitor that suggested, "This belongs to us, we are not interlopers, nobody else matters more than we do." Thus, Washington never let us see him sweat, behaving as if it was natural, if delayed, that he should receive the highest recognition of his profession. His style, the complete opposite of Berry's, was political in the way that only black cool can be when the stakes are high and its temperature must remain low, sometimes beneath the detection of the powers that be that can stamp it out. This is not to be confused with spineless selling out. Nor is it to be seen as yielding to the cowardly imperative to keep one's mouth shut in order to hang on to one's privilege. Rather, it is the strategy of those who break down barriers and allow the chroniclers of their brokenness to note their fall.
Both approaches--we can call them conscience and cool--are vital, especially if Hollywood is to change. Conscience informs and inspires. It tells the film industry we need more producers, directors and writers, and executives who can greenlight projects by people of color. It also reminds the black blessed of their obligation to struggle onscreen and off for justice. Cool prepares and performs. It pays attention to the details of great art and exercises its craft vigorously as opportunity allows, thus paving the way for more opportunities. The fusion of both approaches is nicely summed up in a lyric by James Brown: "I don't want nobody to give me nothin'/Just open up the door, I'll get it myself."
It has come to this: The investigation of Enron as a political scandal appears for now to depend on Senator Joseph Lieberman, an Enron Democrat who bagged Enron campaign contributions and who worked hard to block accounting reforms. Lieberman's committee agreed to issue subpoenas seeking information that could shed light on Enron contacts with the White House, but the question is, How hard is he willing to push?
For months the White House and the Republicans have put out the message that Enron is nothing but a business scandal, a strategy that seems to have paid off, judging by the dwindling media coverage. But the lack of coverage doesn't mean that the political aspects of Enron have been thoroughly probed. Far from it.
In a letter to Dan Burton, the Republican chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, Henry Waxman, the senior Democrat on the panel, noted many episodes that warrant scrutiny. Among them: Enron-friendly appointments to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission; Vice President Cheney's timely condemning of electricity price caps during the California energy crisis (see John Nichols on page 14); meetings between Enron execs and Clinton officials; and Congressional passage in 2000 of legislation exempting energy derivative contracts from federal oversight. Army Secretary Thomas White, who previously headed an Enron venture that engaged in fraudulent accounting practices, failed to disclose all his financial ties to the company. And just-released documents from the Energy Department, forced out by public-interest-group lawsuits, show that Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham met with dozens of business representatives and Bush contributors--and no consumer or conservation groups--while he was developing the Bush energy plan. But Burton, to no one's surprise, turned down Waxman's proposed investigation, and other House Republicans, again no surprise, have been more eager to jump on Enron's and Arthur Andersen's funny numbers than on those firms' political connections.
In the Senate, the Democrats have not shown much taste for this kind of probe either, at least until recently. On March 21 Lieberman announced that the Governmental Affairs Committee, which he chairs, is issuing twenty-nine subpoenas seeking information on contacts between the companies and the federal government. The subpoenas--addressed to Enron, Arthur Andersen and twenty-seven past and present members of Enron's board--request materials regarding Enron's communications with the White House and eight federal agencies, starting in January 1992. Lieberman also said his committee will send letters (not subpoenas) to the White House and the US Archivist asking for similar information. Those subpoenaed have until April 12 to respond. Lieberman's staff is quick to note that his investigation targets Enron, not the White House. And the subpoenas and letters are limited in their scope: They do not ask for Enron files on its efforts to develop political muscle. But the subpoenas and letters could produce information on how the Bush and Clinton administrations responded to Enron's attempts to gain political influence.
The Enron mess offers a view into a world where policy is increasingly shaped by money. Few members of Congress, of either party, want to run down that rabbit hole. But Enron is a political scandal, and those who want it investigated should press Lieberman to chase this bunny as far as it goes.
Was it lack of space or was it lack of time that made Katha Pollitt so bland and lenient about the current state of religious leadership in our country and our culture ["God Changes Everything," April 1]? She mentioned the obvious degeneration of the Roman Catholic Church into a protection racket for child rapists, true. She also instanced the way in which Judaism has become prostituted to the uses of messianic colonialism in Palestine. But this is merely to tinker with the problem. What about Billy Graham, who has been Protestant father-confessor to every President from Eisenhower to Clinton, and who has achieved the status of America's mainstream cleric?
Back in 1994, Christina Hoff Sommers accused The New York Times Book Review of unfairly assigning her attack on the women's movement, Who Stole Feminism?, to the distinguished scholar of Victorian literature Nina Auerbach for review. Sommers claimed that Auerbach was an unethical choice: Although not named in the book, she had been present at one of the many feminist academic conferences disparaged in its pages and was allegedly the author of a rather overbearing comment, cited in the book, scribbled on a paper written by Sommers's stepson, who had taken a course with Auerbach at the University of Pennsylvania (Auerbach denied writing the comment and suggested it was the work of a TA). Sommers's absurd bid for publicity stirred up a media chorus of sympathetic harrumphs about feminist conspiracies (the Review was at that time edited by a woman, Rebecca Sinkler): Columns ensued by Jim Sleeper, Howard Kurtz, Hilton Kramer. Rush Limbaugh accused the Times of trying to "kill this book."
None of these mavens of literary ethics saw fit to note that Cathy Young raved about the book in the Philadelphia Inquirer and in Commentary despite being vice president of the right-leaning Women's Freedom Network, where Sommers was on the board, or that Mary Lefkowitz gave it high marks in National Review despite being Sommers's very good friend. The Times Book Review ran two weeks' worth of letters (including a particularly rabid one from Camille Paglia, bashing Auerbach as if she were some PC criminal and not an important academic whom any author in her right mind would feel honored to be reviewed by, and who had been, in point of fact, much too high-minded and polite to give Who Stole Feminism? the pasting it deserved).
Fast-forward to the Washington Post Book World, which has landed in hot water for publishing a review of David Brock's Blinded by the Right by Bruce Bawer. Much of Brock's book deals with skulduggery at the Scaife-funded American Spectator--a magazine for which Bawer was a movie critic for several years prior to Brock's own stint there as, he now confesses, a hired mudslinger and fabricator of slanders against Anita Hill, President Clinton and others. Bawer did not mention his connection to the Spectator when offered the assignment, nor did he mention it in the review, even parenthetically, and having spent several years as The Nation's literary editor, I'm not a bit surprised: Reviewers were always neglecting to tell me that the author under consideration was their colleague, best friend, former lover or the editor of the magazine that was publishing their fiction. When I would belatedly find out and confront them, were they embarrassed? Dream on. One even wrote me an outraged letter comparing his panegyric on the poetry of his department chairman to Shelley writing about Keats. Caveat editor, indeed!
Did the Washington Post engineer a pan for Brock by knowingly choosing a reviewer too closely allied with the people and politics he attacks, as claimed by the Media Whores Online website, which is calling for the public beheading of the Book World editor, Marie Arana? Bawer is mentioned (briefly and favorably) in the book, but there is no index and--I hate to be the one to break this to MWO--"previewing" a book before assigning it is not the same as reading every page. (Truth in advertising: I've written a few reviews for Arana and think she's an excellent editor and swell human being, even if the Book World didn't review my last book.) Still, it's a little hard to believe that nobody at the Book World knew that Bawer is a pretty conservative fellow, and, as MWO points out, there is a bit of history here: Two years ago, the Post assigned Joe Conason and Gene Lyons's The Hunting of the President to James Bowman, who was also associated with The American Spectator. On the other hand, Bawer, who, like Brock, is gay, says he left the Spectator over its slurs against homosexuals. Gee, two gay guys who both quit the same rightwingnut magazine--had Bawer loved the book, conservatives would be claiming the fix was in. In fact, Bawer's review was fairly trivial; mostly he made fun of Brock in a feline sort of way--slyly noting his love of elegant tailoring, fancy parties, attention and money, and observing that Brock is still talking trash, only now his targets are his erstwhile friends on the right. Compared with Helen Vendler, whose poetry criticism Bawer skewered in the Hudson Review some years ago with such relish and in such detail that anti-Vendlerites bought up the entire print run within minutes, Brock got off easy.
But then Helen Vendler's taste, like all taste, is open to question, while so far no conservative, Bawer included, has seriously disputed Brock's revelations beyond expressing a general skepticism that this self-confessed liar and suck-up artist has changed his spots. Is Brock lying when he describes how wealthy right-wing foundations created and fueled a media apparatus devoted to smearing liberals, feminists and Democrats, especially the Clintons, with whatever mud it could find or fabricate? Are his unflattering characterizations of his former cronies false? Brock portrays peroxided pundette Laura Ingraham as an ignorant drunk who does not own a single book; he charges Ann Coulter with "virulent anti-Semitism"; he says Spectator editor-in-chief R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. urged him to attack women because that sold papers. He claims the only thing Simon & Schuster publisher Jack Romanos wanted to know before handing him a million dollars to write a hatchet job on Hillary Clinton was whether she was a lesbian. He says Ricky Silberman, vice chairman of the EEOC under Clarence Thomas and one of his most stalwart supporters, was thoroughly persuaded by Strange Justice, in which Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson validate Hill's claims, but helped Brock savage the book anyway. Virtually every page of Blinded by the Right makes an assertion that is, if true, embarrassing, and if false, libelous. The silence is curious, to say the least.
After much urging, the Post acknowledged that Bawer's review was inappropriate. Meanwhile, you can be sure that none of the pundits who raked Nina Auerbach and the New York Times over the coals will be firing up the barbie this time.
Black filmmakers seize the moment.
While most of the media focused, with good reason, on the huge increase in military spending and dramatic cuts in domestic programs in President Bush's $2.1 trillion budget proposal for 2003, a fe
Call it the year of the yellow notepad. Doris Kearns Goodwin, ejected from Parnassus, Pulitzer jury service and kindred honorable obligations, sinks under charges of plagiarism consequent, she claims, of sloppy note-taking on her yellow legal pads.
Michael Bellesiles, flayed for knavish scholarship in his Arming America, says that his notations from probate records, central to his assertions about gun ownership in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America, were on legal yellow pads that were irreparably damaged when his office at Emory University was flooded in May 2000, the year his book was published.
Stephen Ambrose, overtaken by charges of plagiarism, did not have recourse to the yellow-notepad defense, presumably because he had become rich enough not only to discard them in favor of teams of researchers, including his family, but to make an out-of-pocket, $1.25 million donation for environmental good works, including restoration on the Blackfoot River, no doubt hoping that water in Montana would be as efficacious as at Emory in purging the record.
The plagiarist lurks in all of us, and temptation or carelessness looms closer with the cut-and-paste function of the computer, though Shakespeare managed to steal a lot of Holinshed without electronic assistance.
With Bellesiles the stakes are high, because he addresses the issue of gun ownership in America and the Second Amendment. By the mid-1990s the battle was tilting decisively in favor of those arguing that the amendment asserts the right of individual citizens to own guns for self-defense and, if necessary, to counter government tyranny by means of armed popular resistance. (NB: The preceding sentence concludes with twenty-two words lifted from a piece by Chris Mooney in Lingua Franca.)
Like any good tactician, Bellesiles shifted the terms of discussion. He said he'd reviewed more than 11,000 probate records between 1765 and 1850 from New England and Pennsylvania, and discovered that roughly 14 percent of all adult white Protestant males owned firearms, meaning about 3 percent of the total population at the time of the Revolution, and that hence "all this talk about universal gun ownership is entirely a myth that I can find no evidence of." (More cribbing from Mooney.)
So if the people weren't armed, and if even official militias were mostly a disheveled rabble without arms, the Second Amendment was really an antic fantasy, like feudal armor in the mock-Tudor hall of a Bradford cotton millionaire.
The antigun crowd greeted Bellesiles with as much ecstasy as any relief column by early settlers in Indian Country. The Organization of American Historians gratefully pinned the Binkley-Stephenson Award to Bellesiles's bosom for his 1996 essay on the origins of American gun culture. Arming America elicited not only fervent applause by Garry Wills in The New York Times Book Review and Edmund Morgan in The New York Review of Books, but also the Bancroft Prize.
Bellesiles came under attack, but since his assailants included NRA types and even Charlton Heston (who cut to the heart of the matter by charging that Bellesiles simply had too much time on his hands), their often cogent demolitions were initially discounted as sore-loser barrages from the rednecks. Even so, the sappers pressed forward and began to penetrate Bellesiles's inner defenses.
A crucial chunk of battlement crashed to the ground when Bellesiles's most sedulous critic, James Lindgren, investigated his claim to have researched probate records at a National Archives center in East Point, Georgia. The center told Lindgren no such records existed. (Cockburn's source here is Danny Postel in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Since Cockburn once borrowed Postel's car in Chicago and saddled him with a couple of parking tickets, he definitely owes him a cite. These two tickets were probably the final straws in a load of fines that prompted Postel to flee Chicago for Washington, DC.) Then more chunks fell when other archival records cited by Bellesiles, in San Francisco and Vermont, turned out not to exist.
Bellesiles's Little Big Horn comes in the January edition of the William and Mary Quarterly. Primed in part by Lindgren, Gloria Main of the University of Colorado pounds Bellesiles with medium-range artillery, as in "[Bellesiles] found only 7 percent in Maryland with guns. My own work in the probate records of six Maryland counties from the years 1650 to 1720, ignored by Bellesiles, shows an average of 76 percent of young fathers owning arms of some sort." Ira Gruber of Rice slides the bayonet into Bellesiles with incredulous harrumphs about misrepresented evidence on casualty rates in American and European battles ("But Bellesiles has counted 18,000 prisoners among the killed and wounded at Blenheim"). In an interesting essay on guns, gun culture and murder in early America, Bellesiles is finally dispatched by Randolph Roth of Ohio State ("every tally of homicides Bellesiles reports is either misleading or wrong").
To give him credit, Bellesiles falls with some dignity ("Arming America is admittedly tentative in its statistics"), but fall he does. Now Emory is making nasty noises, and erstwhile allies are fleeing into the hills. Morgan, who whooped him up in the New York Review, says he's rethinking. Garry Wills says he's too busy now to address the matter, which is pretty lighthearted, considering that Bellesiles's phony scholarship is as devastating a blow as the antigun crowd has sustained in decades of fighting over the Second Amendment. (I speak contentedly as the owner of a 12-gauge and a .22, though I think too many discussions, pro and con, of the Second Amendment lack any sense of dynamism in the surge and ebb of class struggle in America.)
What about Knopf, which published Arming America? Editor Jane Garrett tells Postel that the house "stands behind" Bellesiles, that his were not intentional errors but the result of some "over-quick research." Knopf is renowned for its cookbooks. Suppose Bellesiles had suggested putting Amanita phalloides into the risotto. I don't think Garrett would be so forgiving.
A Mexican migrant acquaintance once told me that he'd love the opportunity to brief Congress on immigration policy. Let us imagine him now, walking into the hallowed chamber, dressed in his typical migrant attire: a fading Oakland Raiders jersey, oversized bright orange painting pants, imitation Air Jordans. He wears a baseball cap with the epigram ¡qué viva México, cabrónes! rendered in red, green and white--the colors of the Mexican flag. He reaches into his well-worn backpack and pulls out some handwritten notes on crumpled sheets of paper, and begins:
First, I would like to tell the distinguished sirs and madams a bit about the migrant life. I'm from a luckless southwestern Mexican town whose timber-based economy is in tatters--no sign of economic development on the horizon, NAFTA or no. I made my first trip to the States at 13, a solo journey that included a few months of indentured servitude to a "coyote," a real cabrón. I paid off what I owed him by picking aluminum cans out of the garbage. When I finally broke free, I took to the road.
I never had a problem getting a job. With a cheap forgery of a green card, the bosses never looked twice. As the years went by, I cruised from state to state. I got married to a girl from home and soon we were on the road together, hopping back and forth across the border that supposedly separates our nations.
Beginning in the latter half of the 1990s, our border-crossings became increasingly difficult. Suddenly, you built walls on the US-Mexico border. Big ones, made of coppery steel. These you have referred to as "interdiction measures," which include programs with names like Gatekeeper, Safeguard and Hold the Line. Since 1995 as many as 1,400 migrants died on that line, pushed by your Border Patrol into the remote, deadly desert and lonely stretches of the Rio Grande.
You recently deployed the first of more than 1,600 National Guard troops along the frontiers with both Canada and Mexico, to provide "tactical" support to the other agencies on the line. The last time you put the military on the line, the result was the shooting of an 18-year-old who was out herding his goats; you did the sensible thing and pulled them out. Now they're back; so far, thankfully, they are unarmed.
I tell you that this is a dangerous situation, and yet, in the wake of September 11--when I grieved as much as if Mexico herself had been attacked--I am mindful of your security concerns. I submit to you that you cannot secure your borders alone. I humbly suggest consultations at the highest levels between the federal law-enforcement agencies of our two countries, a starting point for recognizing that American homeland security is Mexican homeland security and vice versa.
We must re-imagine the border between us. All the money you've poured into "holding the line"--some $4 billion a year for the total INS budget--does nothing of the sort. Yes, it makes it more difficult, and sometimes deadly, to cross. But we still do cross back and forth over that line.
Dear legislators, I watch CNN en Español and have been following your recent debates over immigration policy very carefully. Let us speak frankly here: You've been playing an age-old shell game--appeasing the rabid dogs of nativism but leaving the border open enough to supply labor to big business, which keeps getting you re-elected.
What a great buzz there was in the migrant communities before 9/11! You were speaking (well, some of you) about an amnesty--pardon me, a regularization--of the immigration status of the nearly 9 million estimated "illegals" in your midst. Then for several months you shied away from such discussions. But now your President is on his way to Latin America, and he will meet with my President. It is clear to us, the migrants, that these men want to see some movement on the issue--Bush, to bolster his standing among Latinos and his business cronies, and Fox, to please paisanos like me--but this makes many of you uncomfortable. I know why. It's Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Now, I might look a bit like Caliban (especially in these surroundings), but I'm no Taliban, no terrorist! What are my weapons? Leaf blowers and dishrags?
You must place regularization and some version of a "guestworker" program back on the fast track. Everybody wins with real reform: Your labor-hungry industries will be happy, and you might even get some of that coveted Hispanic vote. But you need to understand one thing: We migrants will not accept any kind of program modeled on the infamous, exploitative Bracero Program. Braceros, my grandfather among them, had no right to leave an abusive boss, had no recourse to better their working conditions and wages, could not join unions. The guestworker program of the new century must give us the rights that all American workers enjoy. And there must be a mechanism for affording those workers who spend, say, six years living and working in your country the opportunity for permanent legal status.
When Vicente Fox rose to power two years ago, he made a statement that caused you much anxiety: He foresaw the border between the United States and Mexico disappearing within a decade. I tell you today that this prophecy will come to pass. There are no lines in nature, dear sirs and madams. The fact that I am here before you today proves that this is so. I thank you for your kind consideration in allowing me to speak before you today. ¡Qué vivan los mojados! Long live the migrants!
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