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Op Ed

Ito Romo
San Antonio author Ito Romo's The Border Is Burning is one of several prominent new books by Latino and Latina authors unrepresented at this year's Texas Book Festival.

See Texas Book Festival Literary Director Steph Opitz’s response to the following op-ed here.

Over the past few years I’ve been losing my faith in the Texas Book Festival as a vehicle for bringing Tejanos and Texans together for a culturally inclusive literary experience. Yet each year I optimistically ask myself: Will this year’s festival better represent Latina and Latino writers? Will a Latino or Latina be honored with the Texas Writer Award? Will Texas’ independent publishers and bookstores have a more equitable presence? Will poetry be restored to its rightful place among the festivities?

The website for the festival’s 2013 edition features teaser text that reads: “Recognize these faces? They are all appearing at this year’s Festival!” Pictured are 10 authors—five men and five women. Only three are writers of color, and nary a Latina or Latino in the bunch.

When former Texas first lady Laura Bush envisioned the inaugural event in 1995, the goal was to have “a book festival to honor Texas authors, promote the joys of reading and serve to benefit the state’s public libraries.”

The festival’s definition of “Texas authors,” then and now, meant mostly white writers. Recent changes have resulted in the inclusion of more non-Texas authors, but fewer Latina/o writers. Of the 250 writers featured at the 2012 festival, less than 10 percent were Latinos. This year’s lineup features only 15 Latina and Latino writers out of 230 invited writers.

To allow this egregious marginalization to continue into the second decade of the 21st century is not only reprehensible but unacceptable.

Why hasn’t the festival’s overwhelmingly white board of directors and advisory committee bothered to ensure that the state’s fastest-growing demographic group (now accounting for 37 percent of the state’s population, according to the U.S. Census, and 50.3 percent of the state’s school children, according to the Texas Education Agency) is adequately represented?

Pardon my Tex-Mex roots, but are the festival gatekeepers even aware of the boom in Latina/o literature and its growing place in American literature? We are everywhere: on national bestsellers lists, as finalists and winners of the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award and more.

As I scrolled through the festival website’s 2013 list of authors and panelists, I searched for the names of Latina and Latino writers with new books, whose presence would have made for a more inclusive festival.

Former Texas Book Festival Bookend Award winner Sandra Cisneros has a new book out, but she won’t be at this year’s Texas Book Festival.
Former Texas Book Festival Bookend Award winner Sandra Cisneros has a new book out, but she won’t be at this year’s Texas Book Festival.

Where was Tim Z. Hernandez’s Mañana Means Heaven, a fictionalized account of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road romance with Bea Franco, a young Mexican-American farm worker? Where was The Border is Burning, San Antonio writer Ito Romo’s new collection of borderland short stories? Where is Richard Rodriguez and his first book in ten years, Darling, A Spiritual Autobiography? Or Bolivar: An American Liberator, Marie Arana’s critically acclaimed biography of Simón de Bolivar?

Where is the new deluxe edition of Junot Díaz’s This is How You Lose Her, with illustrations by Chicano artist Jaime Hernandez? Or his brother Gilbert Hernandez’s young-adult graphic novel, Marble Season? And why isn’t the festival’s former Bookend Award (later renamed the Texas Writer Award) honoree Sandra Cisneros’ latest book, Have You Seen Marie?, at this year’s festival?

Granted, some of these authors are non-Texans, but so are several of this year’s festival headliners.

Another shocker is the virtual elimination of poetry from the Texas Book Festival. This flies in the face of the festival’s mission to serve all writers, including poets and lovers of verse. Many Latinos begin their journeys in writing with poetry. Does the fact that Latinos have gained prominence in a literary genre once reserved for a largely white audience have anything to do with poetry’s new absence at the festival?

Why wasn’t Texas Poet Laureate Rosemary Catacalos invited to kick off the festival with a poem about Texas literature? Or San Antonio Poet Laureate Carmen Tafolla, or Houston Poet Laureate Gwendolyn Zepeda? And just as important, why wasn’t Richard Blanco, the country’s first Latino and gay inaugural poet, invited? Blanco’s forthcoming memoir, For All of Us, One Today, centers on his journey as an inaugural poet. What a missed opportunity!

Years ago the festival hosted a lively and exciting poetry scene centered at the Poetry Tent. Poets of all ages and styles took to the mic and generated passionate response. Poets sold their self-published books, Xeroxed chapbooks and CDs. Many wonderful poets made their debut there. Not anymore. The poetry tent has been dismantled and poetry has been relegated this year to an hour-long panel featuring four poets. None are Latinos.

Small presses and independent bookstores are also getting little respect at the festival. One proprietor of a small Texas press told me, “they seem to put us in a corner.” For small presses, the publishing and nourishing of homegrown Texas writers is a labor of love that should be right in line with the festival’s goals. Yet when they submit books for festival consideration, they are often turned down.

This year, San Antonio’s Wings Press and Houston’s Arte Público, each of which publishes many Latino writers, submitted a stellar roster of their newest releases. The festival’s selection committee chose none of them. In contrast, the University of Texas Press is represented with 15 authors at this year’s festival.

El Paso’s Benjamin Alire Saenz became the first Latino to win the Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction with <i>Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club</i>, but he won’t be present at this year’s Texas Book Festival.
El Paso’s Benjamin Alire Saenz became the first Latino to win the Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction with Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club, but he won’t be present at this year’s Texas Book Festival.

The Texas Writer Award is usually given to a writer with a long and distinguished career. It isn’t unusual for the award to be shared by two Texas writers (Sandra Cisneros and Cormac McCarthy; Bill Wittliff and Edwin “Bud” Shrake), but this year’s award will go to only one. How sweet it would have been to have also given a nod to two worthy El Paso writers, Benjamin Alire Sáenz and John Rechy.

Sáenz became the first Latino to win the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction this year for Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club. He also won two Lambda Literary Awards, one for Kentucky Club and another for his young-adult novel, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe.

Rechy’s first novel, City of Night, was published 50 years ago, and made him the first Mexican-American author to occupy the New York Times bestseller list. The book has remained in print for half a century. His body of work ranks as a major achievement in American, Latino and LGBT literature.

The Texas Book Festival’s bottom line is the money it raises to support libraries and literacy in Texas. Yet one might ask if the books featured at the festival and the grants dispensed to libraries adequately reflect the state’s increasingly diverse population. Will children and young adults of color see themselves and their families in these books? The real issue here isn’t Latino-authored books for Latinos, but diversity writ large—books and writers through which all readers can experience the richness of all Texans’ stories and cultures.

If books can bridge cultural divides—and they can—then let this spirit be reflected in the way the festival provides access and representation for all Texans.

Make this feria de libros a literary celebration we can all take pride in.

Attorney General Eric Holder
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder

On August 12th, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that “too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason.” The speech has garnered lots of coverage—mostly positive—but there is one word in that oft-quoted sentence that has not received the proper attention: “Americans.”

The Department of Justice, under Eric Holder, has imprisoned record numbers of undocumented immigrants. But they were nowhere to be found in Holder’s speech. People convicted of immigration crimes make up nearly 12 percent of the federal prison population. The vast majority of those prisoners have been convicted of what is known as a status offense: being in the United States illegally after deportation. Their crime is returning to the United States, usually to work or be with family, after the federal government has deported them. An effort to shrink the federal prison population should include those whose crime is, in essence, international trespass by reducing their sentences, releasing them, or not charging them in the first place.

The numbers are staggering. The feds brought 81,496 immigration cases between September 2011 and August 2012. It looks as if the numbers have increased significantly since then, with one projection forecasting more than 100,000 immigration prosecutions this year. According to Human Rights Watch, the number of immigration prosecutions increased more than 650 percent between 2002 and 2012. More than half of the federal criminal cases brought this year will likely be immigration cases.

Although immigrants didn’t merit a mention in Holder’s speech, the same reasons he gave for rethinking drug prosecutions apply to immigration prosecutions: They cost too much, the crime rate is declining and there is a growing realization of the questionable morality of jailing people for non-violent crimes. The federal government spends $1 billion per year on jailing immigration defendants, according to Grassroots Leadership, a non-profit dedicated to fighting private prisons. As Sam Sparks, a federal district judge in Austin stated, the cost of immigration prosecutions, in which the immigrant doesn’t have a significant criminal record, is “simply mind boggling.” Those jail costs alone could fully fund the U.S. court system, which saw its budget cut by $350 million dollars in fiscal year 2013 due to the sequester.

Crime rates have been steadily declining in America, requiring a rethinking of drug prosecutions. So too with immigration. Mexican nationals comprise an estimated 58 percent of undocumented immigrants in the United States. But between 2007 and 2011, the number of undocumented Mexicans living in the U.S. actually decreased. And between 2002 and 2012 apprehensions at the border fell by more than half. As law enforcement officials and even judges have noted, the increasing focus on immigration cases has diverted resources from more serious crimes. So why was Holder silent on immigration prosecutions?

We need to think about the human cost of incarcerating thousands of immigrants. Although many of my clients have indeed made mistakes in this country—some serious, some not—they also support their parents, spouses and children, emotionally and financially. The unprecedented incarceration of immigrants has moral and social costs to society. Texas has been the staging ground for the prosecutions that have led to the increase in the immigrant prison population (increasingly in for-profit prisons). Over the past five years, the Southern and Western Districts of Texas, which together cover our state’s entire border with Mexico, have vied for first and second place in the race to lock up the most immigrants. Although the federal government picks up the tab and many border crossers caught in Mexico may have been bound for other states, many residents of Texas have had their fathers, mothers, children or siblings detained, prosecuted and deported.

It’s also important to note that much like the War on Drugs deterring immigrants by locking them up is a failed policy. Jail doesn’t deter people from coming back to be with their families. And, as Human Rights Watch has noted, economic immigration rises and falls based on economic circumstances, not on putting an ever-larger, but still limited number of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in prison.

Maybe Holder didn’t mention immigrants in his speech because his boss is still holding out hope that the comprehensive immigration reform bill (which includes billions of dollars for increased immigration enforcement) will become law. Maybe he genuinely sees unauthorized immigration as a more serious offense than “low-level” drug transportation and sales. But whatever the reasons for Holder’s silence on one of the most-criticized aspects of our federal criminal justice system, any real conversation about reducing the prison population needs to include more than just “Americans.”

David Peterson is an assistant federal public defender in Austin.

Part of the border wall damming floodwaters in Nogales, Mexico in 2008.

With flood waters from the swollen Rio Grande inundating the community, a mandatory evacuation order was issued for the small border town of Los Ebanos on July 12, 2010. Hurricane Alex, with a tropical depression close on its heels, had poured rain onto the mountains around Monterrey. Water rushed into the Rio Grande, flooding Roma, Rio Grande City, Los Ebanos, and other riverside communities.

Those towns were still underwater eight days later, when Customs and Border Protection (CBP)met with the U.S. section of the International Boundary and Water Commission (USIBWC)and the State Department in Washington D.C. For three years CBP had been trying to convince the USIBWC to allow them to build border walls in the Rio Grande flood plain, but USIBWC had repeatedly refused, citing unacceptable risks to lives and property on both sides of the river.

CBP opened their presentation by stating that because the Mexican half of IBWC continued to oppose walls “we need [US]IBWC and Department of State’s support for an unilateral decision to proceed with the fence construction.”

The International Boundary Water Commission is a bi-national organization charged with reaching consensus on actions that one country might take that would impact the other. By asking USIBWC to allow unilateral action in the face of Mexico’s objections CBP was asking them to violate the treaty upon which their agency is founded.

CBP’s presentation made no mention of the flood waters that were at that moment ravaging Texas border communities, submerging the sites of the proposed walls.

Mexico has good reason to fear the harm that border walls could inflict. In July of 2008 seasonal rains swept through the Sonoran desert, inundating the sister cities of Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora. The border wall that separated them acted as a dam. Water reached the tops of doorframes on the Mexican side, but was only ankle deep north of the wall. In Mexico two people drowned.

The same storm passed over Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, where border walls became clogged with debris, causing them to act as dams. Water in usually dry washes reached depths of up to six feet and traveled along the wall until they reached the Lukeville, Arizona port of entry, causing millions of dollars of damage.

After the 2008 floods Baker Engineering was hired to examine the walls from El Paso to San Diego, and make recommendations for avoiding future flooding. The resulting report documented “debris build-up which sometimes reached a height of 6 feet,” and concluded that because of this, “fencing obstructs drainage flow every time a wash is crossed.”

At Baker’s recommendation $24 million was spent installing flood gates in the border wall, but when another seasonal rainstorm washed over Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument last August walls once again clogged with debris and acted as dams. This time the force of the water tore down a forty-foot wide section of the border wall.

The border walls that CBP wants to build in the floodplain adjacent to Roma, Rio Grande City, and Los Ebanos would look a lot like those that are standing, and sometimes falling, in Arizona.

According to documents obtained by the Sierra Club through a Freedom of Information Act request, in 2009 CBP hatched a plan to get approval for the walls that IBWC had rejected. They would not move them out of the floodplain; instead “the new strategy involves developing a new floodplain model.” In contrast to a previous IBWC model that “predicted noteworthy floodplain impacts from the fence […] this model will demonstrate the impacts of the proposed fence will be minimal.”

Eight months after CBP forecast its results, the new floodplain model was delivered by Baker Engineering claiming, not surprisingly, that border walls would have a “minimal effect on the Rio Grande floodplain.”

In an attempt to allay Mexico’s fears that walls in the United States would deflect water into their cities a key change was made to the walls’ design. The walls were now intended to “split” the flooding river, with part of the flow channeled along the northern, U.S. side. To reduce the volume of water deflected into Mexican cities more floodwater would pour into Roma, Rio Grande City, and Los Ebanos.

Each border wall section would begin close to the river, but as the river twisted and bent the wall and river would grow farther apart. Floodwaters split off at a wall’s western end would therefore flow into homes and farms set back from the river that without the wall might have been spared.

To ensure that waters were sent into the United States rather than Mexico, the wall next to Roma now included a 100 foot wide opening designed to take in flood waters, and Rio Grande City’s would have a 275 foot wide opening.

Los Ebanos, which sits atop a deep bend in the river, would likely suffer the most from splitting. Where the wall and the river would meet the river runs south, away from homes and the local school, but the wall and its channeled flood water would head due east, directly towards them. On the other side of town the wall would make a ninety degree turn, heading north and preventing the split floodwaters from flowing back into the Rio Grande.

Customs and Border Protection tried to use the new model to convince the USIBWC to permit these walls, but on January 21, 2010, USIBWC Commissioner Edward Drusina again rejected them, citing the likelihood of “substantial increases in water surface elevations and deflections of flow at several points of all three projects.”

Throughout 2010 CBP repeatedly asked USIBWC to ignore their treaty obligations and approve unilateral action. Acting Chief David Aguilar, for example, asked that“ USIBWC and Department of State reconsider your position and approve a unilateral decision .” A few months later, with Los Ebanos under an evacuation order, the meeting with IBWC and the State Department was held to again push for unilateral action.

Baker Engineering was hired to develop yet another flood plain model in 2011 to bolster CBP’s argument that walls would be harmless The new model envisioned a line of eighteen foot tall steel posts spaced four inches apart, identical to the border walls that stand north of the levees near Brownsville. Baker claimed that because of the spaces between the posts only 10-25% of the floodwater would be blocked, so there would be no significant deflection of water into Mexico or additional flooding in the United States.

The report provided no evidence to support this estimate, and overlooked the likelihood of debris turning the otherwise permeable structure into a dam, as had happened in Arizona. This is the same contractor who, just two years earlier, had found that every time this type of wall crossed a wash in the desert debris built up to depths of up to six feet.

There is no precedent for a debris-free flood. An incident report from the 2010 flood stated that “The actual river contains and is carrying [a] lot of natural debris consisting of trees, branches, reeds, and other man-made objects.”

But something happened at the US half of the International Boundary and Water Commission.

In September of 2011, and again in November, John Merino, the US section’s Principal Engineer, wrote to his Mexican counterpart to say that US IBWC had read the Baker report and “concluded that the project will not cause significant deflection or obstruction of the normal or flood flows of the Rio Grande.” Mr. Merino recommended approval of the border walls.

Mexico did not buy into the US section’s reversal. In December the Mexican section of the IBWC responded, “…the location, alignment and design of the proposed fence represent a clear obstruction of the Rio Grande hydraulic area, since in the towns of Rio Grande City and Roma, TX, the fence would occupy nearly all of the hydraulic area on the U.S. side, causing the deflection of flows towards the Mexican side. If you consider that, given the design characteristics, the fence obstructs 60-70% of the hydraulic area in a direction perpendicular to the flow, and if you add to that the effect of the current retaining trash and debris, the significant length that is located in the floodplain, and the position of the fence relative to the direction of flow, the fence constitutes a serious obstruction and deflection of the Rio Grande flows towards Mexico. […] We reiterate our opposition to the construction of the proposed fence in the Rio Grande floodplain given the impacts stated above.”

Two months later Mr. Merino responded, telling Mexico that the US section of the IBWC would permit construction of the same border walls in the floodplain that it had rejected since 2007. Customs and Border Protection was then given the green light to take unilateral action and build walls in the flood plain.

The US International Boundary and Water Commission’s reversal is clearly a capitulation, and their lack of spine is not just a treaty violation for diplomats to fret over; property will be damaged and people may drown on both sides of the river if these walls are built.

Of course it is Customs and Border Protection that will erect these walls, and who bears ultimate responsibility for their impacts.

When CBP argued for unilateral action in 2010, they claimed that, “The construction of O-1, O-2 and O-3 [Roma, Rio Grande City, and Los Ebanos] is critical to our Nation’s security.” But two years earlier CBP stated, “The Rio Grande Valley Sector Chief has determined that operational areas that contain the PF225 fence segments such as O-1 to O-2, O-12 through O-14, and O-17 through O-21 to be in “effectively controlled” level at the current time.”

They needed these walls, they said, because undocumented traffic through these areas might increase in the future and overwhelm agents. But it didn’t. The number of apprehensions in the Rio Grande Valley dropped by 20% from 2008 to 2009, and since that time the number of crossers has continued to go down, while the number of Border Patrol agents has gone up.

These three isolated border wall sections will have no impact whatsoever on immigration, smuggling, or national security. But if they are standing when the next big hurricane roars up the Rio Grande they will send flood water into homes, businesses, and farms on both sides of the river, and people could die as a result.

Customs and Border Protection has become so fixated on building border walls that they are prepared to violate the treaty that established the border, and sacrifice the lives and property of those of us who live beside it.

Scott Nicol is co-Chair of the Sierra Club’s Borderlands Team. He lives in McAllen, a few miles north of the border wall.

Photo by Eugenio del Bosque
Migrant children deported into Reynosa, Mexico.

Despite border fences, increased militarization and drones patrolling our southern border, every year thousands of children from Latin America traveling without parents or adult relatives risk death to reach their loved ones in the United States. Illegal immigration across the southern border has dipped to historic lows, yet this year the number of unaccompanied minors is expected to reach 14,000 children — an 86 percent increase from previous years. The influx took government officials by surprise. Since early spring, they have been scrambling to find shelters to accomodate all of the children — some as young as six years old. Many of these children are arriving in Texas. Government officials shouldn’t be surprised. The root causes of this tragedy — the poverty and violence back home as well as our outmoded immigration policies have existed for decades. Nonprofit agencies such as the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants who work with these children daily have been sounding the alarm for years to no avail. In this following op-ed by Lavinia Limon, CEO of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, Limon urges that Congress do something to address the unfolding crisis.

Unfortunately, with regards to Congress and immigration reform nothing has changed since 2010 when I wrote Children of the Exodus about unaccompanied children deported to Mexico. While reporting the story I witnessed children in shock after their mother died before their eyes as they tried to cross the desert to be reunited with family in the United States. Children were exploited by criminal gangs, kidnapped and risked death swimming the Rio Grande. What I witnessed on our southern border was nothing short of a humanitarian crisis.  It’s only gotten worse. For the U.S. government to continue to ignore the causes of all of this pain and suffering is the worst tragedy of all.

— Melissa del Bosque

Op-ed by Lavinia Limon, CEO of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants

We are witnessing the slow unfolding of a tragedy on our southern border today. Annually, thousands of immigrant children from Central America and Mexico continue to turn up in search of parents, family, and an escape from violence. In spite of a significant drop in adult migration in recent years, child migration continues to increase. While the media reports that there is a sudden “surge” of these unaccompanied children, the truth is that there is a steady increase which strains current resources to house and care for them. Policy makers in Washington have a responsibility to look for causes, and more importantly, to find solutions that will prevent child migration. I think the answer lies in the one place it has not yet been sought: in the patchwork of failed U.S. immigration policies.

The current problem came to the public’s attention only last month when it was reported that more than 200 children, unaccompanied by any parents, crossed the U.S. border from Mexico into southern Texas over a short period last month. Existing capacity to hold the minors, normally a function of the federal Department of Health and Human Services, was overwhelmed. For the first time, it was necessary to seek temporary housing from the Air Force at an unused Lackland AFB dormitory.

What explains the continued increase of unaccompanied migrating children? The media and politicians have engaged in speculation, but none of it is supported by hard proof or cited by the children themselves. According to a story in the Wall Street Journal, the principal cause is a 2011 Mexican law that permits more migrating children to remain there for humanitarian reasons rather than being returned to their home countries. Under this novel theory, these children then push on northward to the U.S. border. This theory is irrational; humane treatment of children in Mexico does not encourage migration to the United States.

Gov. Rick Perry of Texas joined the debate and garnered attention when he released a stern letter to President Obama recently. He wrote that the increase of unaccompanied children was one of the “consequences of having an unsecure border” which works as a “temptation”, luring the children, mostly from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, to make the long, dangerous trek to the United States. Perry chided the President and called for the children to be immediately repatriated as a deterrent to others.

But the children we’ve been working with for over five years say they come because of grinding poverty, violent gang recruitment, orphan hood, and especially the desire to be reunited with their parents. These are the reasons why so many children are fleeing to the United States seeking asylum, a future, and their families.

This is a regional problem and requires a regional response including increased educational and development assistance in Central America and Mexico. But, we must also look at our own policies for causes of increased child migration and, hopefully, for solutions. As long as the U.S. continues its inhumane immigration policies dating from the early1990s – the last time immigration ‘reform’ occurred – the problem of unaccompanied migrant children flooding our borders will continue.

The central fact of our existing immigration policies is that they keep families separated. The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, passed by the Congress in 1996 created the current problem. All at once it erected a major barrier for parents here illegally from ever seeing their young children again. The law established 3 and 10-year bans to re-entry to the United States for certain undocumented individuals. The risks of returning home, for parents who came to the U.S. to find work and send money back to Central America to support their kids, were too great. Well aware of the new policies, many of these parents have not seen their children since just after they were born.

Other half-measures from that period, including the Immigration Act of 1990 and the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act of 1997, served only to create more uncertainty for many undocumented parents from Central Americans by establishing only piecemeal immigration benefits that did not extend to their children back home. Simultaneously, enforcement along the U.S. border was stiffened, making it harder to leave and return.

Most of the unaccompanied migrant children who have made the dangerous trip over thousands of miles to the U.S. say they came to be with one or both of their parents. The average age of the children coming from Central America and turning up in Texas and Arizona is fifteen years old. Is it a coincidence that the punitive ban on re-entry to the United States for undocumented parents was put in place exactly fifteen years ago in 1997?

It is hard for children who live separated from their parents for nearly their entire lives. Our current policies provide no opportunity for the children of the undocumented – and those possessing only temporary legal status – to ever visit their parents in the United States, much less reunite. Since our policies fail to provide a way, the children, unsurprisingly, are taking matters into their own hands.

Congress bears the largest measure of responsibility for the current surge in unaccompanied migrant children. Until real immigration reform is enacted, founded upon the principle of family reunification, we will see more of it. For years now these parents in our country, who have been sending money back home to support their kids, await real immigration reform to occur so that they may come forward and show that they are upstanding members of the community. Without true immigration reform, they will continue to wait, separated from their children, in the shadows and their children will risk their lives to join them.

Lavinia Limon is President and CEO of the U.S. Committee on Refugees and Immigrants

Prophetic Politics

Charting a healthy role for religion in public life.

Does God take sides in the elections? Is there a voters’ guide hiding in our holy books? Should we pray for electoral inspiration?

Secular people tend to answer an emphatic “NO” to those questions, as do most progressive religious folk. Because religious fundamentalists so often present an easy-to-caricature version of faith-based politics — even to the point of implying that God would want us to vote for certain candidates — it’s tempting to want to banish all talk of the divine from political life.

But a blanket claim that “religion and politics don’t mix” misunderstands the inevitable connection between the two. Whether secular or religious, our political judgments are always rooted in first principles — claims about what it means to be human that can’t be reduced to evidence and logic. Should people act purely out of self-interest, or is solidarity with others just as important? Do we owe loyalty to a nation-state? Under what conditions, if any, is the taking of a human life justified? What is the appropriate relationship of human beings to the larger living world?

These basic moral/spiritual questions underlie everyone’s politics, and our answers are shaped by the philosophical and/or theological systems in which we find inspiration and insight. Since everyone’s political positions reflect their foundational commitments, it doesn’t seem fair to say that those grounded in a secular philosophy can draw on their traditions, but people whose political outlooks are rooted in religion have to mute themselves.

Rather than trying to bracket religion out of politics, we should be discussing how religious traditions can play a role in a healthy politics, and one productive place to start in the context of the Christian tradition is Walter Brueggemann’s new book, The Practice of Prophetic Imagination: Preaching an Emancipatory Word. Building on the book for which he is most known — The Prophetic Imagination, first published in 1978 with a second edition in 2001 — Brueggemann moves beyond sectarian politics and self-satisfied religion to ask difficult questions about our relationship to power. He makes it clear that taking the prophetic tradition seriously means being willing to make those around us — and ourselves — uncomfortable.

In that earlier book, Brueggemann argued that the tradition of prophecy demands more of us than a self-indulgent expression of righteous indignation over injustice or vague calls for social justice, what he calls “a liberal understanding of prophecy” that can serve as “an attractive and face-saving device for any excessive abrasiveness in the service of almost any cause.”

Brueggemann wants more from those who claim to stand in the prophetic tradition, which he asserts is rooted in resistance to the dominance of a “royal consciousness” that produces numbness in people. Prophetic ministry, Brueggemann argues in that first book, seeks to “penetrate the numbness in order to face the body of death in which we are caught” and “penetrate despair so that new futures can be believed in and embraced by us.” And make no mistake, Brueggemann’s concern is not the royal culture of Biblical days but dominant culture of the contemporary United States and its quest for endless material acquisition and constant expansion of power.

Brueggemann also makes it clear that the prophet is not a finger-wagging scold. The task of prophetic ministry is to bring to public expression “the dread of endings, the collapse of our self-madness, the barriers and pecking orders that secure us at each other’s expense, and the fearful practice of eating off the table of a hungry brother or sister.” In other words, prophets speak the language of mourning, “that crying in pathos,” that provides “the ultimate form of criticism, for it announces the sure end of the whole royal arrangement.”

More than three decades after the publication of that book, Brueggemann returns to explore the implications of taking seriously the prophetic imagination, specifically for clergy. But while the book is aimed at preachers and their struggles to bring the prophetic imagination alive in a congregation, Brueggemann’s words are relevant to any citizen concerned about the health of our politics and the state of the world.

The new book begins by arguing that the gospel narrative of social transformation, justice, and compassion is in direct conflict with the dominant narrative of the United States: “therapeutic, technological, consumerist militarism” that “is committed to the notion of self-invention in the pursuit of self-sufficiency.” The logic and goals of that dominant culture foster “competitive productivity, motivated by pervasive anxiety about having enough, or being enough, or being in control.” All this bolsters notions of “US exceptionalism that gives warrant to the usurpatious pursuit of commodities in the name of freedom, at the expense of the neighbor.”

Right out of the gate, Brueggemann makes it clear that he is going to critique not just the problems of the moment but the political, economic, and social systems from which those problems emerge, and that to speak frankly about those systems means taking risks. Preachers who put the articulation of this prophetic imagination at the center of their work — and he makes it clear that preachers don’t have to claim to be prophets but should see themselves as “handler[s] of the prophetic tradition” — will most likely encounter intense resistance to the message. The dominant narrative does dominate, after all, and critics are rarely embraced.

Just as the prophets struggled to persuade a royal culture that preferred to ignore the message, so do contemporary preachers need to connect the dots and make a case that goes against the grain. Central to this process is that dot-connecting, that naming of reality.

“Prophetic preaching does not put people in crisis. Rather it names and makes palpable the crisis already pulsing among us,” Brueggemann writes. “When the dots are connected, it will require naming the defining sins among us of environmental abuse, neighborly disregard, long-term racism, self-indulgent consumerism, all the staples from those ancient truthtellers translated into our time and place.”

What masks those sins, Brueggemann writes, is “a totalizing ideology of exceptionalism that precludes critique of our entitlements and self-regard,” and the prophetic imagination helps us see that.

Once we accept this critique of the systems that surround us, the next step is dealing with a sense of loss and the accompanying grief as we let go of the illusions that come with wealth and power. “That function of prophetic preaching is important because in a society of buoyant denial as ours is, there is no venue for public grief,” he writes. “It is required, in the dominant narrative, to rush past loss to confident ‘recovery’ according to a tight ideology of success.”

Brueggemann does not suggest we stay mired in grief; when society’s denial has been penetrated, prophetic preaching has the task of giving voice to “hope-filled possibility.” But he reminds us to be careful not to jump too quickly into an empty hope: “Hope can, of course, be spoken too soon. And when spoken too soon, it may too soon overcome the loss and short-circuit the indispensable embrace of guilt and loss. The new possibility is always on the horizon for prophetic preachers. But good sense and theological courage are required to know when to say what.”

This is our task — the tearing down of systems inconsistent with our values and the building up of something new, dismantling and restoration — not only for preachers seeking to be handlers of the prophetic tradition, but for anyone interested in facing honestly our political, economic, and social problems. The task, in Brueggemann’s words, is “to mediate a relinquishment of a world that is gone and a reception of a world that is being given.”

Again, Brueggemann’s goal in the book isn’t to advocate for specific politicians, parties, or political programs but to articulate the underlying values that should inform our political thinking. He seeks to confront truth (against denial) and articulate hope (against despair) in the face of a “denying, despairing, totalizing ideology” that presents itself as the only game in town. While it is difficult for many people to let go of the dominant ideology, Brueggemann argues that people “yearn and trust for more than the empire can offer. We yearn for abundance and transformation and restoration. We yearn beyond the possible.”

Brueggemann’s analysis may resonate with many progressive people who aren’t churchgoers or don’t consider themselves spiritual in any sense, but who may ask whether his arguments need to draw on a religious tradition. Wouldn’t most of his arguments make just as much sense in the language of secular politics? I think they would, but there is great value in Brueggemann’s approach.

First, whatever any one person’s beliefs, the dominant religion in the United States is Christianity; around three-quarters of the U.S. population identifies as Christian in some sense. The stories of that tradition are the stories of our culture, and the struggle over that interpretation is crucial to political and social life.

Even more important is the fact that church is still a place where people come to think about these basic questions. Even in the most timid church, the question of “what are people for?” is on the agenda, and hence there is potential to challenge the dominant culture’s values.

“The local congregation continues to be a matrix for emancipatory, subversive utterance that is not amenable to totalizing ideology,” Brueggemann writes. “People continue to sit and listen attentively to the exposition of the word. People still entertain the odd thought, in spite of the reductionisms of modernity, that God is a real character and the defining agent in the life of the world. People still gather in church to hear and struggle with what is no on offer anywhere else.”

Brueggemann’s invocation of “God” may put off secular people, who assume that any use of the term implies supernatural claims about God as an actual being that directs the universe. But that is not the only way to understand God, of course. In fact, one of the greatest conversation-starting aspects of this approach is the always provocative question, “What do you mean by God?” When someone cites God, we can — and should — ask: Is God a being, entity, or force in the world? Is God the name humans use for that which is beyond our understanding? What is God to you? Rather than closing down conversation along sectarian lines, our religious traditions have the capacity to open up the conversations about meaning that are difficult to have in a privatized, depoliticized, mass-mediated, mass-medicated world.

To ask whether we should understand our world through a religious or secular lens is to misunderstand both — it’s not an either/or proposition. We have the tools of modernity and science to help us understand what we can understand about the material world. We have faith traditions that remind us of the limits of our understanding. In the church I attend (a progressive Presbyterian congregation, St. Andrew’s) those two approaches are not at odds but part of the same project — to understand a world facing multiple crises, drawing on the best of religious and secular traditions, struggling together to solve the problems that can be solved and to face the problems that may be beyond solutions.

In a world in collapse, these realities often seem too painful to bear and the work before us often seems overwhelming. The prophetic tradition offers a language for understanding that pain and finding the collective strength to continue.

The Plow and the iPhone

Conservative fantasies about the miracles of the free market are just that.

A central doctrine of evangelicals for the “free market” is its capacity for innovation: New ideas, new technologies, new gadgets — all flow not from governments but from individuals and businesses allowed to flourish in the market, we are told.

That’s the claim made in a recent op/ed in our local paper by policy analyst Josiah Neeley of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think-tank in Austin. His conclusion: “Throughout history, technological advances have been driven by private investment, not by government fiat. There is no reason to expect that to change anytime soon.” 

As is often the case in faith-based systems, reconciling doctrine to the facts of history can be tricky. When I read Neeley’s piece, I immediately thought of the long list of modern technological innovations that came directly from government-directed and -financed projects, most notably containerization, satellites, computers, and the Internet. The initial research-and-development for all these projects so central to the modern economy came from the government, often through the military, long before they were commercially viable. It’s true that individuals and businesses often used those innovations to create products and services for the market, but without the foundational research funded by government, none of those products and services could exist.

So I called Neeley and asked what innovations he had in mind when he wrote his piece. In an email response he cited Thomas Edison and the Wright brothers. Fair enough — they were independent entrepreneurs, working in the late 19th and early 20th century. But their work came decades after the U.S. Army had provided the primary funding to make interchangeable parts possible, a transformative moment in the history of industrialization. In the “good old days,” government also got involved.

As Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway explain in their book Merchants of Doubt, the U.S. Army’s Ordinance Department wanted interchangeable parts to make guns that could be repaired easily on or near battlefields, which required machine-tooled parts. That research took nearly 50 years, much longer than any individual or corporation would support. The authors make the important point clearly: “Markets spread the technology of machine tools throughout the world, but markets did not create it. Centralized government, in the form of the U.S. Army, was the inventor of the modern machine age.”

That strikes me as an important part of the story of the era of Edison and the Wrights, but one conveniently ignored by free-marketeers.

Even more curious in Neeley’s response were the two specific products he mentioned in his email: “The plow wasn’t created by government fiat, and neither was the iPhone.”

The plow and the iPhone are the best examples of innovations in the private sphere? The plow was invented thousands of years ago, in a world in which governments and economic systems were organized in just slightly different ways, making it an odd example for this discussion of modern capitalism and the nation-state. And the iPhone wouldn’t exist without all that government R&D that created computers and the Internet.

Neeley didn’t try to deny the undeniable role of government and military funding; for example, he mentioned the Saturn V rocket (a case made even more interesting, of course, because Nazi scientists were brought into the United States after World War II to work on the project). “But the driver of these advances’ adoption and relevance outside the realm of government fiat has always been the private sphere,” he wrote in his response.

Neeley is playing a painfully transparent game here. He acknowledges that many basic technological advances are driven by government fiat in the basic R&D phase, but somehow that phase doesn’t matter. What matters is the “adoption and relevance” phase. It’s apparently not relevant that without the basic R&D in these cases there would have been nothing to adopt and make relevant for the market.

We’re in real Wizard of Oz territory here — pay no attention to the scientists working behind the curtain, who are being paid with your tax dollars. Just step up to the counter and pay the corporate wizards for their products and services, without asking about the tax-funded research on which they rely.

There are serious questions to be debated about how public money should be spent on which kinds of R&D, especially when so much of that money comes through the U.S. military, whose budget many of us think is bloated. More transparency is needed in that process.

But anyone who cares about honest argumentation should be offended on principled grounds by Neeley’s sleight of hand. His distortion of history is especially egregious given the context of his op/ed, which argues against public support for solar energy in favor of the expansion of oil and gas drilling. Neeley focuses on the failure of Solyndra — the solar panel manufacturer that filed for bankruptcy after getting a $535 million federal loan guarantee — in trying to make a case against government support for alternative energy development. When public subsidies fail, there should be a vigorous investigation. But the failure of one company, hitched to a highly distorted story about the history of technological innovation, doesn’t make for a strong argument against any public support for solutions to the energy crisis, nor does it cover up the fact that the increasing use of fossil fuels accelerates climate change/disruption.

The larger context for this assertion of market fundamentalism is the ongoing political project to de-legitimize any collective action by ordinary people through government. Given the degree to which corporations and the wealthy dominate contemporary government, from the local to the national level, it’s not clear why elites are so flustered; they are the ones who benefit most from government spending. But politicians and pundits who serve those elites keep hammering away on a simple theme — business good, government bad — hoping to make sure that the formal mechanisms of democracy won’t be used to question the concentration of wealth and power.

Throughout history, the political projects of the wealthy have been driven by propaganda. There is no reason to expect that to change anytime soon, which means popular movements for economic justice and ecological sustainability not only have to struggle to change the future but also to tell the truth about the past.

During a particularly heated exchange between Mitt Romney and Rick Perry at last week’s Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas, the governor of Texas attacked the former governor of Massachusetts for using a landscaping company in 2006 that employed undocumented immigrants. “You hired illegals in your home, and you knew about it for a year,” Perry said. “And the idea that you stand here before us and you talk about that you’re strong on immigration is on its face the height of hypocrisy.”

That’s not exactly what he said. What Perry actually said was: “You hired illegals in your home, and you knew about it for a year. And the idea that you stand here before us and you talk about that you’re strong on immigration is on its face the heighth of hypocrisy.”

Now, if you were to look up “heighth” in the dictionary, I promise you’d find nothing, for the simple reason that “heighth” is not a word. Still, when Gov. Perry said it nobody seemed to notice. So you have to ask yourself: Are we so numb to politicians’ malapropisms, mispronunciations and assaults on the English language after eight years of George W. Bush that we just don’t hear them anymore?

Perry’s mispronunciation is a common phenomenon in Texas. For the two years I’ve been covering Austin city politics I’ve sat through countless Zoning Commission, Planning Commission and City Council meetings where seemingly everyone pronounced “height” with an imaginary “h.”

So what’s going on here? Some kind of mass linguistic psychosis—or groupthink on a statewide scale?

No, according to Lars Hinrichs, a professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin and the director of the Texas English Project. He told me that people who throw an “h” at the end of “height” are just heirs to a longstanding, though idiosyncratic, linguistic and phonological tradition.

Hinrichs explained it this way (my apologies to anyone who knows anything about linguistics; I will try my best):

Words like “height” and “width” are the result of a morphological process whereby a suffix is added to an adjective to make a noun. So “high” plus “t” equals “height,” and “wide” plus “th” equals “width.” The phonological term for the hard “t” sound is the Alveolar Stop; for the softer “th,” the Interdental Fricative.

For unknown reasons, in Rick Perry’s rural West Texas dialect the same adjective-to-noun process was applied to “high” as it was to “wide.” Since the community was most likely isolated at some point in the 18th or 19th century and didn’t interact with other dialect communities, that process became routine. The “th” suffix—and the Drawling West Texas Good Ol’ Boy Interdental Fricative—stuck, for good, on “high.”

That’s how the governor of Texas, who is running for the most important job in the known universe, came to pronounce the word “height” like a 3-year-old with a lisp.

Jerry Patterson is the current Texas Land Commissioner and has declared himself a 2014 candidate for lieutenant governor. Patterson has been in the news quite a bit lately because he sponsored a proposal to allow Texas drivers to display the Confederate flag on their license plates. Patterson submitted the idea on behalf of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a group of which he says he is a “proud” member.

The proposal has generated a strong reaction. Last week a coalition of groups opposed to the proposal submitted over 22,000 signatures to the Texas DMV board slated to make the final decision. As with all boards and commissions in the Lone Star State, every member of that board is a Rick Perry appointee. While Perry himself has tried to keep a low profile on this issue, he has sided with SCV in the past.

Why did Patterson sponsor the license plate? Apparently it was because of his “personal heritage” and “commitment to Texas history—even the history others might find offensive” To those who question the wisdom of his efforts to place the Confederate emblem on something as public as license plates, Patterson refers critics to his earlier sponsorship of a similar license plate on behalf of the Buffalo Soldier National Museum in Houston. “I think we can honor both of them,” he says. “If we can honor those who killed Indians and imprisoned them, why is it bad to honor those who theoretically fought for slavery, which is not accurate?”

As someone familiar with the black and Indian history of Texas, let me venture to furnish Mr. Patterson with a response. I will not focus on the obviousness of the reasons (of course it was slavery) behind Texasʼs decision to leave the Union and join the Confederacy. Those reasons were made clear on February 2, 1861, when the secession convention published its “Declaration of the Causes Which Impel the State of Texas to Secede from the Federal Union.”

The story of the Buffalo Soldiers is a history of the meanings, understandings and contradictions of American freedom, whereas the story of the Sons of Confederate Veterans is primarily a history of the glorification and uncritical admiration of racial oppression and white supremacy. Both Indians and blacks were victims of that white supremacy, with one oppressed group utilized to fight against another oppressed group, hardly a novel proposition in American or Texas history, indeed World history.

A Texas license plate for the former is justified; allowing a state sanctioned license plate in honor of the latter would not just be an insult to the stateʼs African American and Indian populations, it would once again send the message, as I first noted eleven years ago, that Texas remains the most unreconstructed state in the nation.

Inter-marriage between blacks and Indians on the sparsely settled frontier was common. Some of the soldiers serving in Buffalo Soldier regiments were themselves descendants of slaves formerly owned by the so-called “Five Civilized Tribes”—some of them were of mixed race. The term “Buffalo Soldier” was intended as a sign of respect on the part of Indians the soldiers encountered. Indeed there are many members of Indian tribes today who are proud of their African-American roots and boast of having a Buffalo Soldier in their family line.

Pattersonʼs focus on the killing of Indians by blacks might seem somewhat strange at first glance, but upon further reflection comes into sharper focus as a decidedly neo-Confederate point of view. That members or fellow travelers of the Sons of Confederate Veterans not only sanctioned but conducted dozens of lynchings in Texas—and that there is not one historical marker commemorating a lynching—seems to have escaped Mr. Pattersonʼs notice. Thatʼs the true history of the organization of which he is a “proud” member.

Historical commemoration is both a private and public matter. While I personally believe that membership in the SCV should disqualify someone from holding public office, if Mr. Patterson or Mr. Perry choose to be proud of their Confederate heritage thatʼs their business, just as it is a Naziʼs personal business if he or she chooses to memorialize or admire the ghoulish philosophies and unspeakable acts of the German government during the National Socialist period (full disclosure: my maternal grandfather fought and died in World War II on the German side, whereas my father was a part of the post-war American occupying force). In a post World War II Germany, however, it is not legal nor socially acceptable to prominently display the swastika.

Unlike the Sons of Confederate Veterans and its sister organization the United Daughters of the Confederacy, whose historical agendas remain apparent by simply examining a random sample of historical markers and commemorations across the state such as the 1959 “Children of the Confederacy Creed” plaque currently mounted at the state Capitol, modern Germans long ago had the good sense to not fool themselves into believing that the sordid mission of genocide and white supremacy largely based on American racial norms somehow constituted a Lost Cause.

Wes Jackson spent the weekend at The Land Institute’s annual Prairie Festival talking up—with his usual precision and passion—the science and strategy behind plans to revolutionize the way we grow food using perennial polyculture grains.

A leading figure in the sustainable agriculture movement, Jackson has been pursuing the science and tweaking the strategy for more than three decades, building an impressive body of knowledge with his colleagues at “The Land,” as it’s known to everyone there. (The group also has produced an impressive full-bodied bread that was on the dinner table during the festival, made from an intermediate wheatgrass grain they’ve developed and dubbed “Kernza.”)

But, perhaps ironically, my faith in Jackson’s vision deepens not when he speaks from the depth of his knowledge (or when people happily bite into the bread) but when he emphasizes the uncertainty of what he knows. More on that, after some background.

Jackson, who co-founded the research center in 1976 after leaving his job as an environmental studies professor at California State University-Sacramento, believes that shifting from fragile annual monocultures to more hearty perennial grains grown in a mixture of plants (polycultures) is the key to a truly sustainable agriculture. Instead of a brittle industrial agriculture dependent on fossil fuels, Jackson’s research team is working to build a resilient agriculture modeled on natural ecosystems.

A plant geneticist who grew up farming, Jackson’s experiences in the fields and the laboratory give him the credentials to talk authoritatively about how to develop agricultural practices capable of producing healthful food without the soil erosion and contamination that comes with today’s highly toxic conventional agriculture. Delivering that message with a style that hybridizes the prairie pulpit and the graduate seminar, Jackson inspired the Prairie Festival audience in Salina, KS, with his sketch of the next step—taking The Land’s work international in the coming decades.

When he gets revved up in front of an audience, Jackson is eager to share all that he knows, but one of the things he knows is the danger that comes with being sure you have the answers.

After the festival ended, Jackson made the rounds of the lunch tables to chat up folks informally. Leaning into one group, the topic turned to the problem of arrogance and certainty, and Jackson suggested an important first step to solving big problems such as agriculture is recognizing that sometimes “we’ve got to give up on what we know.”

If there was one sign he could hang above everyone’s desk, Jackson said, it would be this daily affirmation: “This day I will do everything I can to fight the problem of reassertion.” Reasserting, over and over again, what we think we know is trouble, especially in the sciences, he said.

Don’t mistake Jackson’s warning for the anti-science, know-nothing rhetoric that is popular in some conservative circles. He’s trying to bolster, not undermine, faith in science by encouraging scientists not to get stuck in comfortable approaches. In agriculture, such inertia has led researchers to assume that the so-called “Green Revolution” emphasis on chemicals is the only way to maintain high yields. Research in initiatives such as perennial polyculture grains, Jackson argues, may well reveal the conventional wisdom to be conventional foolhardiness.

With the health of our soils and our own bodies at stake, Jackson says, we can’t afford to assume old approaches can cope with coming crises. Because humans like to resolve ambiguity, we reward researchers who appear to do that within existing systems—such research may be right but irrelevant, if the real problem is at the level of the whole system. Solving individual problems within a system that can’t be sustained actually creates problems.

Jackson believes that’s the trap of much of contemporary research into agriculture, and that’s why he’s hoping to find support for an ambitious program to fund new research into The Land Institute’s approach to sustainability in partnership with other researchers and institutions around the world. He’s confident in the basics but recognizes how much work in the lab and the research plots remains.

He also recognizes that science alone won’t solve the problem; serious changes are necessary in economic, political, and social systems. He diagnoses a large part of the problem of those systems to be their love of abstraction. In contemporary financial capitalism, for example, countless decisions about money are based on abstraction, not on the reality of economics rooted in ecosystems.

“Milton and Blake both acknowledged that the demonic is the abstraction without the particular,” said Jackson, who’s as likely to quote poets and philosophers as scientists.

The particular is the reality, and science helps us understand it only when it remains rooted in that particularity. Farmers work the land in a specific place within a specific ecosystem, where they must attend to the uniqueness of place, Jackson said. That means an idea such as perennial polycultures is valuable not as a monolithic answer in the abstract, but as an idea tested out in specific places, whether that be wheat fields in Kansas or rice paddies in the Philippines. Jackson is not out to make The Land Institute the center of sustainable agriculture, but instead wants to see the ideas developed in as many places as it is sensible.

Jackson also cautions that our specific places must be understood as part of larger systems. To experience our place in that larger living world, sometimes we have to step outside of science.

Jackson offered an example. We know the earth revolves around the sun, but our daily experience is of standing on ground that doesn’t move. To correct that, he said we should take the time to feel the earth move. Jackson was off and running:

“I have actually felt the earth turn. I can tell you how to do that. I’ve gone out there and laid down on the hill when the moon is full, and if you will look when the moon is coming up in the east and the sun is setting in the west—you’ve got to live in Kansas to do that, or Nebraska, someplace flat—and you can actually feel the earth turn. Do that sometime. It’s a great moment. You’ve got to do that extra exercise to experience reality. Otherwise we live with the illusion,” Jackson said, pausing before adding, “which is fun enough.”

Jackson took a moment to delight both in his memory of the experience and the smiles on the faces of the people at the table. Then he smiled and, before moving on to the next table, said, “I suppose that in order to experience reality, you have to be a mystic.”

The Corporate Money Rolls In

SuperPACs in a democracy—what could go wrong?

In January 2010, then-Observer editor Bob Moser wrote that the “Supreme Court’s appalling and unconscionable 5-4 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission means, essentially, one thing: Corporations will not just dominate, but rule, American politics for the foreseeable future.” Five justices had deemed that corporations have free speech rights, just as individuals do, and thrown out the federal ban on campaign ads funded by corporations.

Were Moser’s words brash, written in the heat of the moment? We think not. Well into the presidential campaign season, we can see the decision’s poisonous fruits.

Stalking the presidential campaign are so-called Super PACs, a new type of political action committee that can raise unlimited money directly from corporations, unions and individuals. Though Super PACs can’t coordinate with campaigns, they can spend freely attacking or supporting candidates. But don’t bother trying to follow the money; Super PACs have no obligation to disclose their donors.

Giant pools of corporate cash from secret sources sloshing around a democracy—what could go wrong?

Make Us Great Again—a ridiculously-named Super PAC backing Gov. Rick Perry’s presidential campaign—plans to spend $55 million during the primary season alone, according to internal documents obtained by MSNBC. The Perry campaign claims to have no knowledge of Make Us Great Again, which, even if true, is beside the point. The Super PAC is run by former Perry chief of staff and Austin corporate lobbyist Mike Toomey. We hate to pick on Mike, but the words “democracy” and “Mike Toomey” do not belong in the same sentence.

Perry is not the only presidential contender with a Super PAC. But he may quickly come to represent new levels of political corruption.

“If you’re saying I can be bought for $5,000, I’m offended,” Perry said to Michele Bachmann at the CNN/Tea Party debate in September. He was talking specifically about contributions he received as governor from pharmaceutical giant Merck (which Toomey lobbied for at the time). But the implication—the price of corruption keeps rising—is well taken. More anonymous money keeps pouring into our political process. It’s a wonder citizens have any voice at all.

We do have a powerful weapon at our disposal: shame. We need to shame politicians, certain Supreme Court justices and corporate America into coming to their senses. Citizens United was a misguided decision that must be overturned.

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