Dec 12 2009

Writing news that affects non-writers too

Published by Reesa at 12:40 pm under are you activist or enabler?

For those of you who haven’t heard this yet, a Canadian writer (Peter Watts) was assaulted and detained by American border guards as he was leaving the US to return home. For those of you who aren’t near enough to a border to have the experience: you are often searched when entering or re-entering (if US citizen) the US from traveling abroad. It’s historically much more unusual for them to conduct exit searches, though these days the frequency is rising. Setting aside questions of what exactly happened and who was provoked when, as there’s already enough unpleasant debate engaging elsewhere on those topics…

Why should you, average (or not so) citizen, be concerned about this? Hasn’t that crap already been happening for a while now? Well, sure. But how, exactly, do you think fascist states get formed? You don’t wake up one morning and suddenly the cattle cars are rolling down your street to cart off dissidents when everything was fine before. It’s much more the “how to boil a live frog” concept. Those in power who want more of it encroach on our rights and liberties a little at a time, and for quite a while it’s in areas the Average Citizen will never encounter or notice. A few years ago, en route to a protest at the capital about the suspension of habeus corpus, I encountered a Good Citizen — middle aged mother and white-collar wage earner, member of her community. This person in complete seriousness tried to argue us out of going, by stating that after all, if you followed all the rules, that suspension only applied to terrorists and communists and Bad People. And she really, truly believed in that, you could tell in her arguments. She did not understand why we were concerned unless we had something to hide.

This attitude is not only common, it’s encouraged by those same folks attempting to take power. They want you to not notice what is going on and changing behind the scenes until your ability to effective stop them has been neutralized. They want you to make their arguments for them as your civil rights trickle away. So up until recently, most of the increasingly concerning signs of what’s happening in our country have been limited to the less enfranchised: the poor, the prisoners, the foreign guests and business folk and travelers that have to come here or choose to come here. (Though America is also suffering a marked decrease in incoming foreign tourist dollars since about, oh, when Dubya went into office. None of our foreign “allies” seem to believe that Obama is any different in action or making this country safer to visit; just a prettier face on the Same Old Shit.)

When Steve and I were in Ciudad Juarez last year, we were shepherded around by a delightfully charming married couple, Irena and Sergio. On the long, slow wait to get back across the border from Mexico into the US, they told us an incredibly unpleasant story about increased issues with the US border. Sergio had, a couple of years previously, been working in El Paso and crossing the border daily for several months. One morning, he entered the US normally and worked a full day. On his return (again, while trying to leave the US and re-enter his native country), he was arrested and detained without legal representation or notice to his family. Irena, five months pregnant at the time, spent several days tracking down what had happened to him, to finally find where he was and learn that his name had matched one of the names on the most recent list of “suspected terrorists and dissidents” that all border guards receive regularly, and they arrested him without any further checking to see if, perhaps, there might be more than one person with that name. He was held for two months with no lawyer, no trial, no other reasons given, and no legal rights. The only reason he isn’t still there today is near serendipity. Sergio was a former mariachi singer and had been in a classical mariachi band for many years. They had toured in the US, and the governor of Arizona had been particularly fond of their performance. Irena contacted the Arizona governor with a request for help, and he was willing to write a letter stating that he had met Sergio and was confident he was not a terrorist. Irena and Sergio assured me that theirs was in no way an isolated case. At that point (last year), nearly every family they knew in Juarez had had conflict or family members detained or personal property stolen by the US border guards and on and on the stories go. Nearly all of them have much fewer resources than Irena and Sergio did to get some semblance of their normal life back. They told us this story as we were passing by Bush’s Folly, the half-finished wall being built between the Mexican and US borders. My fellow US citizens: a wall that is designed to keep people out is also quite well situated to keep people in.

Peter Watts is a writer. If your goal is more fascism, after you’ve cowed the lowest rungs and the foreigners, you start moving your influence further out. Writers, artists, political activists, and other iconoclastic categories that might have a chance to spread the awareness of what is happening around us to large groups of people — these are usually the next prime targets. This is worth my notice and attention, and yours, because it’s one more sign in an already-ongoing and concerning trend. You know how these things keep going, we’ve seen it before. Silence perpetuates injustice. Looking the other way perpetuates injustice. An “it can’t/won’t happen to me” attitude perpetuates injustice.

I’ve seen a lot of people quoting the “first they came for the Jews” famous poem. As Steve pointed out, perhaps the most sad and telling bit of this is, that is an incorrect quote. The actual quote begins, “First they came for the communists…” and so anyone who misquotes it has already committed the first step, unconsciously, in this overall pattern of deciding that there are some groups that it’s ok to treat this way and some it isn’t.

This is Not OK. For anyone. No more silence, No more inaction. All of you reading this: if you are not speaking and acting on the injustices you encounter when you encounter them, you are part of the problem. I’m not trying to tell you how to do those things, as I think that’s dependent on the individual. Some people can speak out publicly like this, some can’t. But all of us can speak up in various ways in our daily lives, when we encounter people spreading ignorance, and help present and spread a different point of view. I think the era of protest marches is dead (possibly a discussion for another post), but I also think that there are still ways you can be more activist within your community or beyond it. For those of you financially flush, don’t forget to donate to good political, activist, and humanitarian causes — but for gods’ sake, do at least a little research to make sure your money is going where it should, before you hand it over.

Peter Watts’ own account of the event is here. It’s also being discussed on Boing Boing, Making Light, and many other places around the ‘Net if you wish to educate yourself further.

And just so you all have the correct quote everyone is mangling, from a German pastor speaking out against the inactivity of the German public during Hitler’s time to do what they could to stop the Nazi power takeover (his Wiki article is pretty interesting itself, check it out):

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak out for me.

Martin Niemöller

10 Responses to “Writing news that affects non-writers too”

  1. Lynnon 12 Dec 2009 at 1:36 pm

    Excellent post, I agree with all your points here.

    An illustration of your point: I went to the link with Peter’s account of the incident; one of the comments was:

    Holy fucking shit man! That’s absolutely insane! I hope this blows over without anymore incident. ~ Chris J.

    I hope he meant that Peter gets no more trouble from this personally; I hope he didn’t mean ‘let’s hope that we don’t have to think about it anymore.’

  2. Barnabyon 12 Dec 2009 at 1:38 pm

    Thank you for a good article. Being German I know the quote well since school days, and it influenced me a great deal. Unfortunately the majority never seem to learn, and things are essentially not different from the days of the Roman Empire. The human psyche has not changed, and people are blissfully unaware or prefer to only look out for themselves. Many are not even educated enough to care, or to recognize the pattern. Many are just too busy with their own lives.

    Divide and rule.

    Then in the not so distant past we had the Punk movement being critical of power and putting an emphasis on a “think for yourself” life-style, and apart from the few again the majority of people did not take away anything from it. They refused to listen and learn ‘cos “these people” looked weird, and perhaps did not subscribe to the same value system entirely.

    So it seems that we are condemned to forever repeat the mistakes of the past. Or perhaps, hopefully, not.

    Btw, whatever you think of Jello Biafra, the Dead Kennedy’s, Henry Rollins, their recordings still have a lot to offer. But you gotta be disposed to critical thinking, and that’s where a lot of people will just shut off.

  3. Reesaon 21 Dec 2009 at 8:48 am

    @Lynn - Right, the naivete in that ocmment is telling; for Watts at least, even if they showed up tomorrow on his doorstep with an “oops, our fault, let’s drop everything” message, there’ll still be the incident of having to get all his stuff back, and the emotional scars left, any physical ramifications from said unpleasant treatment, and so on and so on. So yeah, it’s hard to see how “without anymore incident” could mean anything more than “that sucks, now never tell me about it again”. And if so, that’s one of the big attitudes we need changed.

    @Barnaby - Sorry for the late response, I just reconfigured where my comment notifications are sent since I missed these two this week! You won’t get complains about Punks from me, I think it was one of the many subculture movements with some nice ideas and some less effective manifestations of those ideas. I think the Punks would hate being compared to the Hippies of the 60s, but viewed from over here it’s a largely similar pattern of good ideas being twisted far from the original goals by waaaay too much idealism.

    And I strongly agree, that the lack of widespread teaching of critical thinking skills is a big part of our current problems. Obviously those of us who have spawned can work on fixing that in the next generation on an individual basis, and we can all do work as adults to hone our own critical thinking skills. Other than the tactics, largely ignored, of those worthies you’ve mentioned already, do you have ideas or suggestions on how to spread critical thinking skills as something more people seek out and want to learn?

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