[For comment on the Dems’ impromptu pre-New Hampshire debate, click here. I’m leaving the main essay below up for a while, for immigration is as crucial to our nation’s future as it is in the upcoming elections.
It was early 1963, over half a century ago. There was no Internet. There were no cell phones or personal computers. Car bodies were of heavy steel, made in the USA. JFK was very much alive.
Like most Americans then, I had never heard of Vietnam. I was focusing on my sophomore year at Berkeley, supplementing my scholarship money by working part time.
After installing towel bars in dormitories, I became a “Head Reader,” grading first-year physics exams and supervising other students doing the same thing. One of those I supervised was Man Hoo Kwong.
He was of Chinese extraction. He spoke broken English. Although always respectful of me, he didn’t seem to follow instructions. Soon I learned to speak to him slowly and distinctly and asked him to repeat what I had said. Thereafter he did precisely as asked. Eventually I got curious about him and took him out to lunch to hear his story.
Although just an undergraduate like me, Kwong was 36 years old, twice my own age then. He was married to a woman who studied at San Jose State, 46 miles away. At that time, the trip there or back took about 1.5 hours.
Kwong had an unusual work routine. He would work 36 hours straight, without rest or sleep, and then sleep for twelve hours straight.
Since 36 plus 12 equals 48, every two days he would be back in synch with the usual diurnal cycle.
But evolution didn’t build us humans to live like that, certainly not day after day. I couldn’t imagine how he did it, and I said so. So Kwong told me about his life before coming to America.
He had been an early refugee from Vietnam. An ethic Chinese in a nation that had fought China for most of a millennium, he had been oppressed. He had worked ten or twelve hours per day in a North Vietnamese jute mill. He had done that for 364 days every year, for seven years: seven years with seven days off.
experience, his 36-hours-on, twelve-hours-off life in the US seemed a vacation. So did his separation from his wife, broken only by visits every two weeks.
About a decade later, in the midst of our misguided War in Vietnam, I read a similar story. A Vietnamese grunt in the Communist North had had a heavy missile strapped to his back. They gave him nothing but that missile, a backpack, a rifle and a knife. He spent months wending his way along the so-called “Ho Chi Minh Trail,” through deep jungle, to the South. He ate all the snakes and rats he could catch. When he got to his destination, the commander took his missile, fired it at us Yanks, and told him to go back and get another.
That was when he defected, so we got to know his story. Our newspapers published it. Once I read it, I knew we Yanks would never win in Vietnam.
Why? Because we were fighting for vapid abstractions like “democracy.” You know a word is a vapid abstraction when two nations as different as ours and North Korea’s use it to describe themselves. (North Korea’s official title is “The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” or DPRK.)
We Yanks were fighting against
another vapid abstraction, “Communism.” The Vietnamese were fighting for their homes, families, and villages, and against the “White Devils” who were destroying their homes, bombing and napalming their villages, and (mostly unintentionally) killing their women and children. As if that weren’t enough, the Vietnamese had been carrying on a similar fight against a much closer and much larger giant (China) for most of a millennium.
The Vietnamese were fighting for their country and their future. We were fighting for mere words uttered by clueless pols. Relative to the Vietnamese, we were soft and lazy. Even with all our B-52s, napalm, the defoliant Agent Orange, and other high technology, we lost.
Don’t get me wrong. Enjoy the good life when you can get it. It’s not the natural state of Man, or of any other species. But it’s wonderful while it lasts.
There’s just one problem with the good life, which Man has known since Athens and Sparta. It doesn’t last long. If it does
go on too long, it makes you weak, lazy, selfish and stupid. Then life inevitably gets harder.
How can you tell this is happening to us? Just listen to a native-born college kid whine about a cell phone not working or an Uber “taxi” being ten minutes late. No Man Hoo Kwong would ever complain of such trivia. Nor would a Man Hoo Kwong ever think of voting for a clown like Trump or Cruz. That’s why, among many other reasons, we need more Kwongs, lots more.
Recently Bloomberg.com published a long bio
of another Vietnamese refugee, named Tri Tran. He’s leading the pack in a very difficult business: delivering tasty, microwaveable meals to city customers on short notice. His bio reads a lot like Kwong’s and the missile bearer’s: a tale of unspeakable hardship, followed by grasping every opportunity that came his way with both hands.
There’s nothing special about Vietnamese refugees. What makes them special is what we Yanks used to be
. Once upon a time, we were human, if not always humane. We were loyal and true to people who—against all odds and unspeakable hardship—tried to help us help them make their lives and nations better.
Our misadventure in Vietnam was a ghastly mistake from the very beginning. We picked up a colonial war from the French, not recognizing that Vietnam’s revolution looked more like our own in 1776 than a falling of fictional Communist dominoes.
But at least our intentions
were good. We thought we might help create something like South Korea, again, with our own blood and sacrifice.
When the depths of our folly finally overwhelmed us, we stayed true to the people who had helped us advance our misguided vision. We had airlifts and boat brigades. We built refugee relocation centers. Thousands of ordinary American families sponsored Vietnamese refugees and integrated them into our communities.
A comparison with today would be absolutely invidious. We fight wars half-heartedly. We sent far fewer troops to invade and occupy both
Iraq and Afghanistan than Colin Powell sent to liberate tiny Kuwait from Saddam. And now that our half-hearted misadventure is producing region-wide misery and exodus, we take only a token proportion of those fleeing the mess we made.
We know the Vietnamese now. They’ve been among us for four decades. So we no longer fear them. But Vietnamese are not somehow “better” than kids fleeing gang violence in Honduras or El Salvador, or than Syrian families fleeing Assad’s barrel bombs.
Racism is a constant, low-level fever among us, which smart leaders learn to avoid and control. It will always be with us, but it appears to be subsiding, ever so slowly. What has
changed is our Yankee sense of responsibility and opportunity. We’ve lost it. We no longer even try
to save the human refuse of our big mistakes.
And the hurt is ours as much as theirs. Who’s going to restore our nation’s greatness? uneducated racists complaining about having to endure a few words of Spanish spoken in our supermarkets? a Millennial girl complaining about her Internet streaming, who would no more think about taking a course in engineering or math than walk nude on the Moon? our young native-born college student who takes poli-sci and “communication” courses because they’re easy, and who complains about all the Asian-looking students taking much tougher courses in math, science, engineering and medicine?
Or is it Syrian refugees, like Steve Job’s father or the unknown (to me) lady chef in Cleveland who made the best baba ghanoush I ever ate? Is it the orphans from Honduras and El Salvador, who made the thousand-mile trek all on their own, on foot, at a tender age, and carry in their belly an unquenchable fire to do something, be somebody? Is it the refugees like Kwong, the missile-carrier and Tri Tran, who chew on hard problems until they are fully masticated because that’s what they’ve done all their lives? Is it the people who endure misery and risk death just to get here?
We Yanks are not really a nation at all. At least we are not a “people” in the traditional, evolutionary sense: a single ethnic tribe. Instead, we are an idea.
We are the idea that people can be happier and more productive when they are free, when they know how to “live and let live”—the credo of our Bill of Rights. With that simple credo, we have attracted the best people to our shores, from everywhere, right from our Founding.
It all started in 1619, when the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth fleeing religious persecution. Every new group that arrived to taste freedom made us stronger and better. And when the offspring of those who came before inevitably get weak, lazy, selfish and stupid, another new group has always come along to replenish our strength, rejuvenate us and remind us who we are.
Up to now, it hasn’t mattered whether the refugees wore Puritan hats and bonnets, Lederhosen, Irish green, or yarmulkes. If we start making exceptions for hijabs, beards and turbans, or for sombreros, the flow of new strength and vitality will falter and maybe halt. If really want to close the golden doors, we ought to take down the Statue of Liberty, too; for then she will have no further use.
Sure, Islamist extremism and terrorism exist. But the chance of being killed by a Syrian refugee who’s a terrorist in hiding—especially after lengthy, expert vetting—is less than the chance of dying in an airplane crash. Still we fly. The chance of being killed by a pre-teen who walked all the way from El Salvador to get here, and to escape being killed, is even more minuscule. Why would a kid who went to all that trouble and pain to live
commit suicide to kill others?
Careful studies have repudiated Trump’s demagogic notion that immigrants are criminals. The overwhelming majority are not
, and for a simple reason: for the first time in their miserable lives, they have a chance to succeed and be happy. They don’t want to blow that chance. They don’t want to break
our rules—the first fair ones they have ever known; they want to master and use them to pursue happiness, as Jefferson promised.
Unbeknownst to historians, we Yanks have solved the riddle of Athens and Sparta. We don’t, like the Spartans, have to sleep on cold, bare stone to stay strong. We can have our luxury and our indulgences, as long as we invite a steady stream of immigrants who have
slept on cold, bare stone—or worse—to renew our strength and restore our hope.
If we can’t take the tiny risk and incur the tiny collective expense to do what we have always done, from whence will come the endless energy that has powered our society and made us “exceptional” from the very beginning? Are we going to let the Germans and the Swedes take that away from us? Are we going to retire the Lady with the Lamp in New York Harbor? Are we going to decay slowly, stewing in our own juices, complaining about trivia while strong people who’ve known and overcome real
hardship never reach our shores? The answers, as Dylan sung, are blowin’ in the wind, especially in this year’s election.
Less than two weeks ago, the PBS News Hour
aired a segment
on how cities and ancient city-states created nucleuses of geniuses, such as Florence during the Renaissance. History and the data show they did it by being open to immigration and foreigners. The mixing of cultures encouraged new ideas and sparked genius, just as today it fosters marvelous “fusion” cuisine.
Rick Gladstone, “Data Link Immigrants to Low Rates of Crime,” New York Times
, Jan.14, 2016, at A8.
The Dems’ Pre-New Hampshire Debate
Once again, last night’s impromptu Dems’ debate showed their superiority. Unlike the Republican candidates, neither Hillary nor Bernie sounded like a verbal automaton iteratively calculating how to pander to extremists while saving elbow room for reason in the general election.
The two candidates disputed substance and their respective records. But both made short work of campaign trivia and gotchas. Bernie even reinforced his disdain for Hillary’s “e-mail gate.” Both wanted to talk about substance, their records and their strengths, and both did.
Yet if you want to boil it all down, there were only four big takeaways. The first—and by far the most important—was how the candidates differentiated themselves.
Hillary stressed her ability to “get things done,” often referring to unnamed experts and named endorsers of her candidacy. While trying to duck her previous self-description as a “moderate” (and Bernie’s description of her as the “establishment” candidate), Hillary touted her ability to work with others, to administer efficiently, and to delegate legislative jobs to the appropriate congressional committees. In foreign policy, she stressed her experience as Secretary of State, which Bernie graciously acknowledged.
But as is her wont, Hillary always left herself running room. Asked which foreign threat was greatest, she refused to name any single one, just as she had done in the first debate. Asked what she would try to do first
as president, she refused to answer directly. While trying to tar Bernie as an impractical idealist, she refused to accept the premise that any
president’s achievements get exponentially harder after the first big expenditure of political capital. She sounded a lot like President Obama in his “all of the above” energy policy. Unfortunately, a president sometimes has to make choices, often quickly and under tremendous pressure.
In contrast, Bernie made a logical point—a matter of cause and effect. He and Hillary agreed—even explicitly—on the most important things they would do, with differences in nuance and emphasis. But, Bernie held, if we don’t curtail the oppressive power of big money and big corporations, none of that agenda will likely get done (except by Executive order), let alone all of it. The only thing that will cause real change, he declared, is a political revolution that brings back millions of working voters who have dropped out due to apathy and despair.
The second takeaway related to Hillary’s experience. In more than one instance, Bernie bowed to her greater executive
experience as “a fact,” although Bernie has had more years in elective office. But Bernie made the crucial distinction between experience and judgment. Hillary had made a mammoth error of judgment in supporting the war in Iraq, and in doing so without even reading the National Intelligence Estimate
, which contained secret dissents of the intelligence community. There were other errors of judgment, which I outlined in 2007
The third takeaway concerns electability. Bernie said that he could win if he and his party could inspire a political revolution of working people, youth and minorities. Without such a revolution, he implied, Congress would continue to impose minority rule on the nation, and nothing much would get done.
The final point came toward and at the end of the debate. Both Hillary and Bernie acknowledged their respect and admiration for each other. While neither said so explicitly, both implied that they would support each other as the nominee.
One would hope so. If the Dems don’t win this year’s election decisively, the GOP will have captured all three branches of government. Our national drift to the right and toward oligarchy will accelerate dramatically, as will global warming.
In the final analysis, which candidate you support depends on your world view. If you believe that experience matters more than judgment, then you should support Hillary. But before you do, just think of Richard Nixon with his finger on The Button during the Cuban Missile Crisis
. And if you think that competence sells better than bold but perhaps unattainable ideas, think of Kerry and Dubya in 2004. Kerry ran on competence, but Dubya won
If you think that our democracy and our country are in fine shape and just need a little tweaking, you should vote for Hillary. But before you do, think of minority rule in Congress
, the immense power of Wall Street and the Koch brothers, the totally gratuitous Wall-Street-caused Crash of 2008, the bailouts that followed it, our three unnecessary major wars in half a century (Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan), the steady drumbeat of mass murder due to too many guns in many wrong hands, and the repetitive murder of unarmed African-Americans by racist and over-militarized police.
They say that Ronald Reagan won because of his “morning in America” optimism. So Hillary tried to paint Bernie as a pessimist and complainer—a point which MSNBC’s patently slanted first “break” reemphasized with visual propaganda worthy of Fox. (Go watch it if you want to become a “political operative.” It’s a brilliant hatchet job on Bernie.)
But optimism has its limits. Sometimes realism is more practical. Today Republicans own our governorships, the Senate, the House, and the Supreme Court. Still they use all the tools of minority rule (or minority vetoes), push hard for vote suppression and gerrymandering, and are quite successful at all of the above. Still they blame what’s wrong with us on Dems and various scapegoats, including African-Americans, Hispanic immigrants, and Muslims. So-called “conservative” philosophy has become so partisan and so extreme that a major-party candidate can vilify and scapegoat Muslims and Mexican immigrants much as Hitler once did Jews.
If you think Hillary is as skilled politically as Obama, to whom she lost, then by all means be an optimist. But if you think, as I do, that Obama and his team represented (and still represent) the apex of political skill, and you notice how small a part of his agenda he got done, then you have to recognize how little reason for optimism there is today, or in the future under “business as usual.”
An “all of the above” philosophy only goes so far. In energy, President Obama managed to secure extension of solar-energy subsidies in exchange for letting Big Oil sell the fruits of its fracking abroad. Meanwhile, global warming accelerates, as does exhaustion of the fossil fuels on which we utterly depend
Without a revolution in energy policy, our species will slip back to coal, our cities will begin to look and smell like Beijing or Shanghai on a bad day, and we will reach the exponential tipping point of climate change far faster than even today’s worst pessimists predict. (Even if we had safe
nuclear powers plants, which some day we might
, we simply couldn’t build enough of them fast enough to make a difference, either politically or physically.)
So no, dear readers, there’s not much reason for optimism today. And that’s not even thinking about the explosive, exponential threat of the Zika virus, or the state of water like Flint’s when clueless, biased pols try to handle real crises.
Most GOP pols today can’t even recognize
real crises unless their “political operatives” or major donors sound the alarm. They don’t live in the real world any more. They live in a world of vapid abstractions, ideology, propaganda and public manipulation. Some day, their loss of contact with hard reality will affect them as it has the residents of Flint. We can only hope that the result will not be equivalent suffering of our nation or our species.
The world’s leader—our nation—is in crisis and decline. The reasons are clear. To reverse that sad state of affairs, we need a political revolution like the ones that Teddy Roosevelt and FDR led. Nothing less will do. And nothing else will bring back voters who’ve, quite reasonably, dropped out of our democracy. The vast majority of working people see no use in voting; they are just trying to help themselves and their families survive.
So do your best for Bernie. He’s not perfect; no one is. But he has the judgment to see the true causes of our national decline and to foresee the sad effects if they are not remedied. If Hillary wins, she will deserve our support, even our enthusiasm, only because of the utter horror of the alternatives.