NOT CINCO DE MAYO BUT CUATRO DE JULIO.
Celebrations of the Fourth of July and this country’s Independence Day are booming all around us. In my neighborhood that’s literally the case, with mocosos exploding firecrackers at all hours of the day, scaring the hell out of my cats. Benchmark occurences such as Independence Day give us a chance to step back and evaluate the significance of events in this country and how they have historically shaped our socio-political consciousness and our cultural and historical frame of reference.
Stick with me; I intend to get to the point.
When we look at Independence Day it conjures the notions of what this country presumably stands for and strives to achieve. We hear words and phrases such as “liberty” and “freedom” and “equality” bandied about. Nice words, but what about the actual context associated with them? To me, the story of the United States is the story of a country struggling to live up to the noble ideas upon which it was presumably founded. It’s a constant struggle and it has often been a losing battle for those who are oppressed and marginalized in this society – today and throughout this country’s history.
Three developments in the last few weeks help illustrate that, I think. First, there’s the passage by the U.S. Senate of the immigration reform bill. Second, there’s the 60th anniversary of the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for supposedly giving “the secret of the atomic” bomb to the Soviet Union, occurring as the world plays “Where’s Waldo” with NSA leaker Edward Snowden. And, finally, there’s the publication of an excellent, meticulously and exhaustively researched book on the U.S.- Mexico War of 1846-1848. It may not seem so at first glance, but there are links among all of these events and issues that give us a look at what often drives this country, its attitudes and ultimately its policies.
IMMIGRATION REFORM BILL.
A lot of folks were surprised that the Senate passed the current version of the immigration reform bill. For people who want a genuine revamping of the nation’s immigration laws this was a pretty weak bill that doesn’t come close to providing a fair deal to the nation’s estimated eleven-million undocumented workers and their families. Still, getting half a loaf was seen as an achievement. The ridiculous emphasis on spending 50 billion additional dollars to “beef up the border with Mexico” was an inevitable part of the package. How about beefing up the border with Canada? At this moment, it looks like passage of a comprehensive immigration reform bill in the House of Representatives has a snowball’s chance in hell.
Underlying all of this, especially if you listen closely to what right wing Republicans and Tea Party types are saying, is the fact that Latinos are still regarded as “other.” They are regarded as inferior and somehow unworthy of being full-fledged United States citizens. It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to detect that reality.
THE MEXICAN-AMERICAN WAR.
The just-published book “A Wicked War” by historian Amy Greenberg gives us an evidence of how long that attitude has persisted. Like the war in Iraq, the U.S.-Mexico War was launched by a president’s lies and was kindled by what can politely be called “official misinformation.” George W. Bush claimed there were weapons of mass destruction. James K. Polk claimed, “American blood was shed on American soil” by Mexicans. It was all bullshit. But back to the attitudes toward Mexicans.
Greenberg’s book is bursting with examples of the racist attitudes toward Mexicans – an attitude which drove the imperialistic notion of Manifest Destiny and was used as justification for the invasion of Mexico. She quotes Sam Houston as saying simply, “Mexicans are no better than Indians.” A newspaper of the time blithely states: “The people of Mexico are clearly facial inferiors, but little removed above the Negro.” And Greenberg summarizes the prevailing attitude of the populace: “They saw Mexico as an immoral nation and Mexicans themselves as an inferior race practicing a suspect religion.”
Those attitudes are still beneath the surface today when issues such as immigration reform come up.
SPY vs. SPY.
Another intriguing notion from the era of the U.S.-Mexico War is the way the White House regarded newspapers that provided information about the atrocities committed by U.S. soldiers in Mexico and the speeches made by politicians opposed to the war. President Polk lashed out at them, saying they were “giving aid and comfort to the enemy.” Not too far removed from today’s attitudes toward whistle-blowing leakers such as Edward Snowden and presumed “spies.”
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed at Sing Sing Prison in New York state on June 19, 1953. Among other crimes, they were charged with “conspiracy to commit espionage.” Edward Snowden is also charged with, among other things, “conspiracy to commit espionage.” A look at those cases, although very different from each other in crucial ways, highlights the paranoia of the U.S. government when it comes to secrecy and the government’s interference with the right of citizens to their privacy.
Fundamentally, the Rosenbergs were convicted of “giving the atomic bomb to the Russians,” as preposterous as that sounds. The evidence at the trial included crude rudimentary drawings. Scientists have said there is no way something as sophisticated and complicated, as a plan to build an atomic bomb could be hand-scrawled on a napkin. The Rosenbergs, like Snowden, were a symbol. They had to be punished and made an example of.
The Rosenberg case is complicated. Writers Walter Schneir and Miriam Schneir spent many years researching the case and produced two solid, comprehensive books on the case. Basically, the U.S. government used prosecutorial sleight of hand to convict the Rosenbergs. However, information made available from Soviet sources after the collapse of the U.S.S.R. seems to suggest that Julius Rosenberg did hand over some materials to the Soviets, even though they were certainly not “the secret of the atomic bomb.”
Yet, the anniversary of that case – caught up in anti-communist hysteria, government paranoia and possibly racism (the Rosenbergs were Jewish) creates an opportunity for us to closely examine the way the government operates. Independence Day is a good time for reflection on all of that, it seems to me. This country’s state apparatus routinely gives lip service to citizens’ rights that are supposedly protected by the Constitution. Protections of free speech outlined in the First Amendment. The guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizure outlined in the Fourth Amendment. Those and other presumed protections go right out the window cuando les conviene. A careful examination of events in the news will confirm that. So, we must be ever vigilant and we must keep up the struggle for the protection of Constitutional rights.
Oh, and one other thing: Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they ain’t comin’ after you.
Copyright 2013 by Luis R. Torres.
Luis Torres, a journalist and writer from Pasadena, California, is at work on a book that examines the 1968 East Los Angeles high school student walkouts. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org