Wednesday, April 20, 2011

IMMIGRATING NORTH: A Glimpse into the Opression of Latin America

Border Wars

The discussion of Mexican immigrants in America is often truncated by political debate, leaving the humanitarian crisis affecting millions largely unaddressed. But the region is a historic hotbed for conflict that ought to be examined at the institutional level-- as well as the personal level-- in order to gain insight into the bigger picture of immigration.

It begins around 150 years ago, as the political and economic borders that we so passionately defend today were first drawn. Indeed, the entire southwest portion region of the US was owned by Mexico until the Mexican-American War. Mexico invited American settlers to homestead in the fertile soils of the Texas territory, and the number of white settlers soon exceeded that of the native Mexicans. Mexico’s condition that they not bring slaves was unfavorable to the American settlers, and they revolted, successfully. The new Republic of Texas was annexed to the US a decade later however, just in time to become a committed pro-slavery state in the American Civil War. California, Nevada, Utah, and the rest of Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico were ceded later for 15 million (~300 billion adjusted), only after the US invaded central Mexico and forced them to sign the treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. West of the Rio Grande, an additional 29,600 sq miles was purchased for 10 million in the Gadsden Purchase in hopes of establishing a trans-continental railroad through the deep south. This land makes up the infamous desert border of Arizona, where so many have perished by nature or by man. Besides being geographically significant, these “acquisitions” made by the US immediately located hundreds of thousands of indigenous Mexicans and mestizos North of the border, setting the precedent for the xenophobic and territorial altercations that continue today.

Mexico was weakened greatly by the war, and after a brief occupation by a French Habsburg emperor, then a re-institution of the Republic, in 1876 a dictator Porfirio Diaz established a relatively stable 30 year totalitarian regime which was very friendly to foreign investors. American capitalists and wealthy Mexican landowners established factories, or maquiladoras, which exploited the cheap labor of women and children in impoverished areas. Mostly located on the border, they are distinguished for the practice of importing raw materials duty-free and re-exporting them, sometimes back to the original country at large profits.

Today, the NAFTA agreement and agricultural subsidies in the US allow American farmers to under-price their southern counterparts in staple crops and meats, causing Mexican farmers to have to sell a significant portion (around 20%) of their goods below production cost. Global competition has also hurt the Mexican economy. Indeed in a simple glance at North American history, it is painfully obvious how corruption and profiteering in both countries have caused a condition of serious economic disadvantage to the citizens of Mexico.

Occupational Hazard

However, undocumented US immigrants are from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and from around the world. They come to the US for a variety of reasons, but typically a provider immigrates first for economic reasons, then relatives come to join the family, legally or otherwise. The difficulty of gaining legitimate citizenship status begins with obtaining permanent residency (the green card). In order to do this, you must already have a job lined up or family members in the States (there are some exceptions-- mostly business or academic related). Once you are a permanent resident, you must live here for five years before being eligible for citizenship. Often the immigrants’ situation is too dire to wait half a decade or more. This is all also very difficult, especially nowadays that US citizens themselves are having massive unemployment issues. In fact, evidence shows that the illegal immigrant population has fallen by as much as 13.7% (Camarota) between the summers of 2007 and 2009. This indicates that America’s own unemployment problems have been a serious deterrent for impoverished asylum-seekers.

Once an undocumented immigrant has made it to the US, he or she must face an entirely new series of tribulations in their quest for economic prosperity. They must find an “under-the-table” gig, or a furnish false documentation just to land a minimum-wage job. Many work in the fields as migrant laborers following the seasons throughout the United States. Others find jobs in the city as janitors, construction workers, maids, or waiters. No matter where they work, without documentation, these folks are highly susceptible to exploitation and almost always work for less than minimum wage. Although some do not pay taxes while utilizing social services, their cheap labor essentially balances out any effect on the US economy. They also must risk the constant fear of deportation, the equivalent of a dirty secret they must keep just so they may feed themselves and their family. Civil rights are human rights, and undocumented immigrants are not afforded them.

A Culture of Clash

What they do encounter is a climate of intense discrimination—and violent racism—in border states and around the nation. Groups like the Minutemen and the American Neo-Nazi movement represent the worst of their oppression on the personal level. These organizations are noted for being highly irrational and sometimes militant, the Minutemen ‘volunteer border monitors’ often murder immigrants crossing the Arizona border. They receive no mercy from the government either, with an additional 6 billion dollars in the 2011 budget to help hire more border agents and complete a ‘virtual wall’ along the desert border. Public officials often run along the platform of anti-immigration to reach the wide range of moderates and conservatives who see immigration as a threat to the country’s way of life (which is ironic to those who realize that Anglo-Americans took the land by force from the millions of darker skinned indigenous peoples who lived here before us). These and other forms of cultural imperialism mark the intense Eurocentricism that plagues American discourse.

Although the US was indeed founded with European-Christian ideals, this cultural paradigm has come to be regarded by many as outdated and problematic. While traditional Americans look to the Bible for a spiritual guide, others recognize a wider pool of available texts, from the teachings of the Dalai Llama to the metaphysical systems of Indigenous Americans. What I am suggesting is that our sense of entitlement to the land and ‘way of life’ is based off a self-perpetuating belief system which ignores the homogenizing effect of globalization upon world cultures. This is based on the observation that throughout history, cultural exchanges between two distinct groups can happen cooperatively and beneficially. When Europeans first began to interact with the indigenous Americans, just as many if not more whites were quite willing to convert to the indigenous culture than vise versa. When some indigenous Americans chose not to adapt European-Christian culture, the domineering aspect of it got the better of them.

The point is, people will move to wherever there is opportunity. When cultures clash, one can integrate with another to adapt to new social and technological conditions, or ignore those new social conditions and stubbornly impose one’s own beliefs. In the future of America, some will continue their pointless discrimination and cultural imperialism even as whites become the minority. Others however, will welcome the natural shift towards a pan-American national identity. By not regarding different cultures as contradictory to ones own, we can be free to facilitate the growth of the most natural and relevant culture possible.

Monday, April 18, 2011


For the photo-narrative project, I decided to project a possible future for planet earth, more specifically, North America. Instead of taking photos of the planet, however, I had to synthesize them myself.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Protest in Modern Music

 Mapping key moments in protest music along a timeline from 1970-2010, one can easily notice a declining trend in its popularity. Like a good childhood friend, politics has been by rock and roll’s side since the beginning. Its rich history begins with the likes of the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, two bands of modern youths who expressed a deep understanding of society during a time when governments were trying new things; like communism. Naturally a socially conscious youth of the mid twentieth century would have been engaged in the dialogue of politics.

 Inspired by the legacy of Pete Seeger’s message “We Shall Overcome”, folk singers like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez started providing the soundtrack for the Civil Rights movement throughout the 60’s. As the decade progressed, rock musicians joined them in protesting the Vietnam War. There seemed to be an increasing trend in protest in rock when the Sex Pistols, the Clash, and the Ramones brought forth to the nation the style known as punk rock. The movement would cement its identity over the next two decades, with Minor Threat, Fugazi, and Dead Kennedys marking some of the loudest and clearest anti-capitalist bands ever to play. Bikini Kill and Bratmobile were feminist punk bands who rallied many against chauvinistic hypocrisies of the patriarchal structure. This period also witnessed the bright beginnings of hip-hop, with Public Enemy and NWA pioneering protest music from the black urban perspective. In 1992 Rage Against the Machine’s self-titled album masterfully combined the two aforementioned styles, debuting at number one on American charts.

 In the year 2000, something odd happened to the way music was sold and distributed; the sales of audio CDs began to drop, marking the shift towards MP3 and other digital music storage methods not involving individual copies of artists’ work (ie; vinyl records, tape cassettes, compact discs). This helps explain why LPs are so glamorized, people covet the square foot of album art space and needle-in-groove tactile sound. In contrast, the new generation of listeners will be accustomed to 300 pixel squares of RGB album art, and lossy downsampled music files. From the first visit to the record store to the day you bequeath your album collection unto your kids, the experience of owning music is becoming lost and confused with the frustratingly intangible world of digital media.

  In this climate, an unlikely Armenian-American alternative metal band known as System of a Down released Toxicity, a political album which rocketed to #1 on the charts within two weeks of radio play. Their hit single “Chop Suey!” forced listeners to ponder their sweeping, unsubstantiated chorus “angels deserve to die.” This use of intentionally ambiguous lyrics helped their album reach widespread success by disguising their unpopular radical ideologies, and was more importantly a calculated step in a larger campaign. Toxicity would act as an easy-to-swallow mainstream advertisement for the greater SOAD project, which is as well an anarchist propaganda machine as a rock band. Both their 1998 self-titled release and 2002’s Steal This Album! would be more completely political, the previous being an active protest of the faulty mechanisms of religious and political society: “...revolution / the only solution / the play was mastered and called genocide..., thinkers are dangerous...” Steal This Album! was the pinnacle of SOAD’s activist and music career, criticizing pervasive advertising, the invasion of Iraq, and other global political issues while still managing a #15 spot on the charts. The physical album was also a clever critique of the new culture of Kazaa and burned CDs. The release was designed to mimic a CD-R in a standard jewel case with ‘Steal This Album!, System of a Down’ sharpied on it, showing the confidence to dare their listeners to pilfer music, and the audacity to question them about the implications of it.

 Nowadays it would seem absurd for a sharply critical band to dominate the pop-charts, and I will return to this point later. SOAD’s success can be attributed in part to their immense talent and innovative techniques as visionary musicians. Their signature extended use of syncopation between perfectly toned instruments and the hyper-dynamic vocals is both aesthetically sucessful and helps amplify the meaning of SOAD’s lyrics.

  In reality, much of their popularity was garnered through their association with the New Wave of American Metal (sometimes referred to as nu-metal), a movement that was combined the high-fidelity richness of pop & rap with the speed and distortion of grunge & metal. In the late 90’s, bands such as Linkin Park, Limp Bizkit, Korn, Godsmack, and Disturbed drafted off Kurt Cobain’s hearse right into the center of the alt. music scene. Most nu-metal eventually became mired in the profiteering behemoth of popular music, and unlike punk or grunge before it merely feigned the appearance of being anti-establishment.

 The pop scene would remain free of any notable political music in pop&rock until the beginning of this decade, when Gorillaz released their third full length Plastic Beach, which could only manage to grasp the second spot on American charts. But besides falling short of number one, Plastic Beach is an outstanding piece of innovation in the area of contemporary protest music. Using the technique of lyrical obfuscation for the purpose of accessibility, Gorillaz were able to deliver a critical viewpoint of our fossil-fuel run society without any significant pushback. Songs like “Superfast Jellyfish,” a goofy number about fastfood and mystery-meat, and “Sweepstakes,” which congratulates Western society for our winning luck, allow the less engaged to be simply entertained while still providing fodder for artistic interpretation and critical thought. They attached the artistically political lyrics to an upbeat brand of electronic-rock/hip-hop, the increased interest in electronica and dub-step corresponding perfectly with current tends. Their pastiche of these styles mirror System of a Down and Rage Against the Machine’s in popularity and affluency. The difference between Plastic Beach and its two distinctive predecessors can be recognized immediately in the names of the projects; Gorillaz is, although revolutionary in their own sense, not dedicated solely towards promoting political messages. Nevertheless their place in protest music history is sealed by this epic release which includes collaborations with such 20th century music icons as Snoop Dogg and Lou Reed lending their voices to the message.

 Since the inception of their ‘virtual band’ in 1998, Gorillaz has always challenged what it means to be modern makers of music. Gorillaz fourth album The Fall, was released later in 2010 and was recorded almost entirely on an Apple iPad while on tour promoting Plastic Beach. Like Steal This Album!, it demonstrates to listeners that the trends in music distribution ultimately affect music production. Although Steal This Album! was meant to evoke the idea of a homemade (burned) CD, it was still sold and distributed in record stores. The Fall is actually currently available for free online, and has a self-reflexive for-the-computer-by-the-computer ethos. Gorillaz goes beyond simply acknowledging the media shift, they produce an album which actually uses the quick-and-easy distribution and consumption capabilities given to us by the age of smartphones and iPads.

 The evidence I have presented suggests that today’s protest music is an intelligent adaptation of yesterdays, as it must be presented in a pastiche of culturally relevant styles in order to catch the listener’s attention and presumably to assure her that what she’s listening to is safe within the status quo. In addition, the political message must be obscured to some degree to keep the listener from feeling indoctrinated. Lastly, the most successful protest albums of the past two decades have been from projects who are also interested in critiquing the politics of music itself. During the 60’s and 70’s “Revolution” and “Beggars Banquet” were popular tunes, but that was when the youth had open ears for differing opinions. As the cultural, political, and technological climate continues to change, it will be interesting to see whether protest music will be able to further adapt to increasingly unfavorable conditions, or if it will simply become a thing of the past.

Friday, April 8, 2011

An Appeal to My Peers

In the reductive partisan world, there are only dirty hippies incapacitated by idealism and neo-nazi teabaggers blinded by ignorance. But in the real world, there is a vast spectrum of 'moderates' whom, by leaning in varying degrees either towards the left or right, accomodate the actions taken by the far wings of those sides. What is the real world? Who are these so-called moderates? And why is it all so racist?

I partied on Saturday in Portland at a very nice house. I don't remember much talking to the owner that evening except that he flew predator drones for Boeing. He is a very well-liked and generous man, but he told me he sold his soul to the Devil. (Note: I sold my own soul in 2002 to Doug Hutton for five dollars and a Reeces). Actually, On Friday I was at my good friend Mark’s house. He used to make a living working for the Military-industrial complex too. He hurt his back pretty bad in Iraq so he doesn’t fight anymore, but his house is also very nice. In fact, my best friend from back home is in basic training in Missouri ‘cause he was getting sick of job at the Mobil station. I’ve always considered myself a typical B’s-and-A’s kind of person, so naturally I’m interested to see where my friends are getting the corresponding incomes. Should one have to choose between selling out to a corporation, or slaving for another?

I ask again, what is the real world? In juicy bite of irony, it is a reality show on MTV, which is also their longest-running show and a very potent brainwashing mechanism for socializing young Americans. We watched three hours of a similar program the next morning after that trip, flipping back between Ronnie and his obnoxious 'Kill Your TV' t-shirt and some other show about people who were struggling with terrible addictions to fast food. They became overwhelmed at the prospect of eating anything but a plain burger, or fries. Perhaps someday soon we'll be able to get cable right on our phones.

I think the real world is actually just a social climate, infrastructure and specifically the norms that govern movement within it. I shouldn't have to convince anyone that global climate change is a real danger to prove that the status quo is a problematic one. But some of the time I do. Whether this is a result of the failure of the public education system is another discussion, but one thing's for certain; some very highly educated people have worked hard to create an environment for dissent, against Mother Nature herself.

It is not my job to pass judgement, but I will. Some people, when faced with the reality of a global climate emergency, react with denial (ignorance), apathy (malevolence), or both. They will justify their actions by telling you that you are a dirty hippie and are foolish to think you can solve the world's problems on your own. This is bad.

This is just a defense mechanism against the maddening complexity of contemporary society, the keystone of which is modern technology which, understandably, the modern man is obliged to defend for its great convenience and ability. The introduction of advanced medical and agricultural technologies essentially negated laws of natural selection. This has caused the human population to expand at an exponential rate, and resulting moral dilemma wherein it was no longer clear in nature who was fit to live or die. Some people retain the right to discriminate so, though, and society is forced into an identity crisis where ever-marginalized populations must band together and assert their right to live as they please against those whom feel they shouldn't. Ironically, a large portion of the discriminators are religious, and can also be found asserting the right of life for everyone including unborn fetuses whose sexual-orrientation and mental/physical capacities are yet unknown.

So ask yourself, what is the real world? What does it mean when someone tells you to “get real?” Are they asking you to consider the socio-political reality of America, 2011? Or are they just telling you to conform to the social climate, like something found on the Jersey Shore. Or perhaps, The Real World.