Thursday, June 26, 2008

Immigrant Obsessive Lou Dobbs

Lou Dobbs was singled out by a Media Matters study as the talk-show host “most obsessed with the topic” of illegal immigration. Said the report, issued in May, “cable news overflows not just with vitriol, but also with a series of myths that feed viewers’ resentment and fears, seemingly geared toward creating anti-immigrant hysteria.”

There have been two futile efforts recently to get CNN to make Lou Dobbs stop lying. In April the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, made up of 21 Hispanic Democratic congressmen, fired off a letter complaining about Dobbs, and earlier this month the Washington D.C.-based Hispanic Institute called for “a Latino boycott of CNN to protest the cable news network’s ongoing distortion of facts surrounding U.S. immigration issues, especially in commentaries and reports on ‘Lou Dobbs Tonight.’”

Dobbs is still spinning fantasies for his fans, who are all too eager to believe the worst about Hispanics.

For sheer, breathtaking disregard for the facts it is hard to top his leprosy moment on 60 Minutes last year. On his own program earlier, he had shown a report claiming illegal immigrants bring diseases like leprosy, of which there had allegedly been 7,000 cases in the past three years. But 60 Minutes found out it was 7,000 cases in the last 30 years, and that no one knows how many can be attributed to illegal immigrants. Lesley Stahl called him on it.

“Well, I can tell you this. If we reported it, it’s a fact,” Dobbs said.

“You can’t tell me that. You did report it,” Stahl replied.

“I just did,” Dobbs said.

“How can you guarantee that to me?” Stahl asked him.

Said Dobbs, “Because I’m the managing editor. And that’s the way we do business. We don’t make up numbers, Lesley, do we?”

Turns out he does make up numbers. It’s fine to be an opinion journalist, as every columnist knows. But it’s not fine to spread egregious factual falsehoods.

Another lie is Dobbs’s insistence that his concern is illegal immigration and not the legal kind. He gets pretty touchy when someone suggests otherwise, like this past February when he had on his show Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza.

“Have I ever attacked an immigrant? Have I ever?” he said to her, bare teeth clenched in the inimitable Dobbs style. “Have I ever spoken against legal immigration in this country?”

Yes you have, Lou. You mix criticism of illegal immigration (some of it well-founded, some of it needlessly alarmist, some of it outright falsehoods) with attacks on the supposed threat that immigrants in general bring to America. You even think Irish immigrants of the previous century present a threat — why else would you proclaim on your show, “I don’t think there should be a St Patrick’s Day” because “we should be celebrating what’s common in this country”?

Dobbs can get pretty slick, like in this introduction to a correspondent’ s story during the big immigration marches in the spring of 2006:

“Turning to our illegal immigration and border security crisis, the White House today declared that President Bush supports making English the national language of the United States. The Senate also supports the idea. But neither the White House nor the Senate is prepared to make English the official language of this country.”

The issue of “illegal immigration and border security” is of course separate from the question of whether English needs to be made the “official language.” People who think it needs to be “official” believe that the supremacy of the English language is under siege by an overabundance of foreign-language speakers in the United States, regardless of their immigration status. And Dobbs seems to be one of those people.

He made that pretty clear last year on his show when he asked CNN colleague Rick Sanchez whether we have “reached a stage in this country in which English is not the language of commerce, is not the language of education, media and science.”

Can anybody be seriously worried that English in the United States is under that kind of threat?
In what was either a joke or an effort to make nice, last year Dobbs gave $5,000 to the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and became a lifetime member. I knew that you didn’t need to be Hispanic to join. Apparently you don’t have to be a journalist, either.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Obama’s Affirmative Inaction

People are asking: If Barack Obama can really transcend race, is he going to transcend race preferences?

The answers he has given to that question have elicited commendation, disappointment and, for me, confusion.

George Stephanopoulos asked Obama about affirmative action last year on “This Week,” and again at the Philadelphia debate in April. His response was that when his daughters apply to go to college they should “be treated by any admissions officer as folks who are pretty advantaged,” as he put it on Stephanopoulos’ show, and that “if there’s a young white person who has been working hard, struggling and has overcome great odds, that’s something that should be taken into account,” as he said in the debate.

Sounds like the build up to a ringing denunciation of socioeconomically blind racial preferences. Yet Obama pulled back from explicitly coming out against racial preferences. “I still believe in affirmative action as a means of overcoming both historic and potentially current discrimination,” he said at the debate.

Confusing? Not to DeWayne Wickham. Last week, in his USA Today column, he commended Obama for opposing ballot initiatives in Arizona, Colorado and Nebraska that would accomplish exactly what Obama had denounced — these measures ban race-based preferences in state contracting and college admissions, but allow preferences based on socioeconomic factors. Wickham quoted an Obama representative who said Obama believed those initiatives “would roll back opportunity for millions of Americans and cripple efforts to break down historic barriers to the progress of qualified women and minorities.”

That disappointed Ward Connerly, who led those anti-affirmative action efforts after winning similar battles in California, Michigan and Washington. Writing in the Wall Street Journal Friday, Connerly said he had “desperately wanted to believe” Obama would come out against race-based affirmative action, but the Wickham column dashed his hopes. “By supporting race preferences, Mr. Obama is unmistakably attaching himself to despicable ideas,” Connerly wrote.

Obama is, of course, correct to say his daughters are children of privilege. In what other way can anybody regard the family of a man who, five months from now, could well be elected president of the United States?

And he is correct to say college admissions systems should grant poor white applicants an edge. He knows it is unsustainable to argue that his kids are in more need of special help than the kids of a janitor who immigrated from Albania last year, or of a single unemployed mother from Appalachia whose ancestors came here from England 300 years ago.

So why doesn’t Obama back Connerly’s ballot measures?

Connerly’s movement is fatally tainted. It is tainted by Neanderthals from the right, to whom affirmative action represents an opportunity to play the virtuous victim, the role long ago perfected by the left. In the conservative mind, Affirmative Action America is a country of — dare one say it — institutionalized racism where guilt-ridden liberals give blacks and Hispanics all the advantages. It’s pretend, of course, a game. Nobody really believes that being white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant and male makes you the target of so much racism only NASCAR will give you a job. But crying about the unfairness of it all while proclaiming that Connerly, a black man, will slay the dragon of reverse discrimination gives these people an irresistible chance to publicly act out decades of repressed racism in a socially acceptable way.

Obama is also under pressure from Neanderthals on the left. There is no good argument for a system like the one outlawed by the Supreme Court at the University of Michigan, which awarded an automatic 20 points on a scale of 150 to every applicant from ethnic groups deemed a “minority.” That system was only defended by “minorities” who love to wallow in the virtuous victimhood that was once their exclusive domain, and by liberal whites who get secretly get a kick from patronizing them.

But pressure from either end of the political spectrum should not matter to Obama. If he truly intends to be this country’s first post-racial leader, he is going to have to create a new form of affirmative action — one that considers ethnic diversity a worthy goal but does not patronize its intended beneficiaries, and that protects all Americans from racial discrimination while recognizing most of its victims are not white.

Obama has not addressed that issue with clarity. His public pronouncements have been ambiguous, an a Google search for “affirmative action” at returns exactly zero hits.

McCain’s Hispanic Dilemma

A John McCain commercial intended to air in South Florida radio stations features Roberto Martín Pérez, who was a political prisoner of the Castro regime for 28 years until released in 1987.

“While some support a dialogue with Raúl Castro, John McCain believes we should support the courageous men and women who continue to stand up for freedom in Cuba,” he said. “Rather than resume relations with Raúl Castro, John McCain wants first and foremost for all political prisoners to be released.”

Martín Pérez does not mention Barack Obama by name, but the reference is clear: Do not elect Obama because he will “dialogue” and “resume relations” with the dictatorship, and therefore help it stay in power.

Fair enough. At the very least, Obama has sent out mixed signals on Cuba policy. In a speech before the Cuban American National Foundation last month, he said he would not lead a diplomatic effort with the Castro regime unless “we have an opportunity to advance the interests of the United States, and to advance the cause of freedom for the Cuban people.” But he also said it was “time to pursue direct diplomacy, with friend and foe alike, without preconditions.” In the rough world of presidential politics, that statement is fair game.

The spot is, of course, an effort to win conservative votes on Calle Ocho.

But will it lose McCain conservative votes on Main Street?

It will. The ad happens to be in Spanish. And the responses on the YouTube page where it’s posted came fast and furious.

Says one: “Please make English commercials ... I am getting nervous about your priorities. I am a lifelong Republican and could never vote for Obama, but I want to feel like you are also my president, not just for illegals.”

Says another: “Don’t know what to say! Are you still allowed to speak English in this country? Enough of illegal Mexican appeasement!”

Something similar happened earlier in the month, when the campaign began a series of Spanish-language ads about McCain’s plan to revive the economy. The message is conservative economics in pure form. But to that certain breed of right-wing nut, it did not matter.

“Muy estupido, Senator McAmnesty,” wrote someone on the Washington Post’s campaign blog. At the far-right Vdare Web site, there was the usual talk of “Balkanization.”

The ignorance is breathtaking. There can be no greater waste of time than attempting to explain to this kind of person that political advertisements reaffirming conservative policies to conservative U.S. citizens of Hispanic heritage have nothing at all — zilch, nada — to do with “appeasing” illegal immigrants from Mexico. And everybody knows that nearly all second- and third-generation immigrants speak English as their primary language.

But there you have it. Some people will make those connections. The Spanish language seems to cause some sort of Pavlovian negative response in the brain of some conservatives, even when the message is eminently conservative.

And that is a big problem for John McCain. Out of all the candidates in the Republican field back in February, he has always been the most likely to get 40 percent of the national Hispanic vote in November, which was what George W. Bush won in 2004. Karl Rove has said Republicans cannot win if they don’t get that much.

But some of the qualities that make McCain an attractive candidate to conservative Hispanics are the qualities that make him “Senator McAmnesty” in the far precincts of the Right.
Will matching Bush’s 40 percent without losing the right-wing loonies that are also essential to a Republican victory prove to be Mission: Impossible for John McCain?

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Forgetting Puerto Rico

Every once in a great while, the issue of Puerto Rico’s status gets a quiet mention in American political discourse. Then everybody forgets about it.

Just a couple of days ago was one of those moments. While it is an exaggeration to say that Sunday’s primary put the national spotlight on the question of whether Puerto Rico should remain a commonwealth, become independent or join the Union as the 51st state, it is fair to say the issue shone with light reflected off the star-bright candidates, Hillary and Obama.

For a minute or two, Americans actually thought about it. The candidates did, too. They both said Puerto Rico must have the right of self-determination. Which is what presidential candidates of both parties have said for a generation, right before everyone forgets about it.

Well, not everyone. Almost nobody in Puerto Rico forgets it. It is at the center of political consciousness there, so much so that the identity of the three major parties rests on their positions on the issue — pro-commonwealth, pro-statehood or pro-independence.

It’s been the Big Question in Puerto Rico since the United States acquired the island after the Spanish-American War of 1898. Puerto Ricans gained U.S. citizenship but little self-rule with the Jones Act of 1917, and in 1952 the island became a Commonwealth, or as the official Spanish title has it, Estado Libre Asociado, or “Free Associated State.” That is what it remains today.

Supporters of the Commonwealth status say Puerto Rico is culturally distinct enough from the United States to justify separate treatment, but want to preserve long-standing political and economic ties with the U.S. Under the current arrangement, the people of Puerto Rico are American citizens who elect local government and vote in presidential primaries, but have no voting representative in Congress and cannot vote in presidential elections (unless their legal residence is in one of the 50 states). They do not pay federal income tax, but do pay social security and local taxes. They can travel between the island and the mainland with no immigration encumbrances, as easily as flying from Texas to Minnesota.

Most Commonwealth supporters favor an “enhanced” Commonwealth, final form to be determined. Among the “enhancements” considered are veto power over federal legislation applicable to Puerto Rico, and the power to establish commercial treaties with foreign countries — attributes that might not pass constitutional muster.

Supporters of the statehood option say under the Commonwealth arrangement Puerto Rico is just a colony of the United States, a situation that becoming the 51st state would remedy. Puerto Rico would get two U.S. Senators and perhaps six Congressmen. Residents would lose their tax exemption and there would be no more Puerto Rican sports teams in international competition — not a small matter in a baseball-crazed island, and just one element of a serious cultural debate. Critics on the left say Puerto Rico would lose its 500-year old Hispanic culture if it became just one more state. Critics on the right, at least in the mainland’s version of the right wing, say that a Spanish-speaking island with a strong cultural sense of self should never become a U.S. state.

Supporters of independence believe Puerto Rico should be a sovereign Latin American nation, not in any way a part of the United States. Residents would lose U.S. citizenship and like other foreigners become subject to immigration law. Puerto Rico also stands to lose U.S. benefits like social security for individuals and tax breaks for businesses.

In four referendums, held in 1967, 1991, 193 and 1998, Puerto Rican voters upheld the Commonwealth status, with statehood a close second and independence far behind. In Sunday’s exit polls, however, statehood came in first with 59 percent; 35 percent favored Commonwealth, and four percent independence.

Those four referendums might as well have been exit polls, for all the legal weight they carried. What Puerto Rico needs is a binding referendum, with the backing of Congress to enact self-determination for Puerto Rico.

That’s going to take a lot of work. San Juan must figure out what final form the enhanced Commonwealth will take. Washington must consider the constitutionality of those enhancements, and debate the pros and cons of what will in essence be a Hispanic state.

But San Juan has been too mired in political fights to finalize those enhancements (in the 1998 referendum the pro-Commonwealth Popular Democratic Party instructed followers to vote for “None of the Above”). Washington? In the excitement over Obama’s historic nomination-in-waiting, it has already forgotten all about it.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Cuban Eyes Wide Open on Obama

One Hispanic politician who will not be supporting Barack Obama is Fidel Castro.

Castro complained in a recent commentary published in the official newspaper Granma that Obama’s speech in Miami last week “portrays the Cuban revolution as anti-democratic and lacking in respect for freedom and human rights.”

Which is a good description of the Havana regime. Brother Raúl indeed introduced economic changes, like letting Cubans buy cell phones and stay in resorts that used to be tourist-only. But free expression is still severely limited.

Just this Sunday, police broke up a peaceful meeting of about 30 people in the home of a leading dissident, Jorge Luis García Pérez, known as “Antúnez.” They had gathered to plan a walk through the streets of Havana to commemorate the death of Pedro Luis Boitel, a political prisoner who died in jail in 1972. Is merely talking about that kind of protest illegal under Cuban law? Doesn’t matter. The cops barged in and beat up people because they can. When the authorities want to crush somebody, they don’t look up the legalities. They just go do it.

It’s arbitrary lawlessness, and it’s the way Cuba has been governed for going on 50 years. Raúl Castro is not interested in ending it. But will the economic changes he introduced set off a demand for political reform that cascades out of his control?

More than ever, the policy of the United States toward Cuba needs nuance, flexibility and eyes wide open. It’s no good continuing on as if nothing has happened in Havana. Something is happening, and Washington should aim at helping that something spin out of the hands of the ruling elite who want to loosen economic constraints without permitting political liberties.

George Bush did right by fine-tuning the embargo to allow Cubans in the U.S. to send cell phones to Cuba. Cell phones give Cubans more contact with the outside world, which is to say more encouragement to demand basic rights. Bush saw the opening and took it. It’s one example of the nuance and flexibility that is possible if eyes are wide open.

More can be done: The time is now right to let Cubans from the U.S. send visitors to the island and send money to relatives without restrictions. Economic gains that the regime makes from the flow of dollars would be offset by Cuban-Americans bringing word of democracy.

Bush is unlikely to take those steps. And McCain has yet to show any imagination. He is just calling for more of the same — an unforgivable failure to take advantage of the regime’s vulnerabilities in the transition between Castros.

Then there is Obama. Why did the older Castro complain about him? In his Miami visit, Obama said he’d keep the embargo in place but lift restrictions on visits and remittances. He was applauded, although hard-line exiles see that as capitulation.

What would be capitulation is a unilateral lifting of the embargo, which Obama made clear he opposed, and direct talks, about which Obama did not make himself clear at all.

“John McCain’s been going around the country talking about how much I want to meet with Raúl Castro, as if I’m looking for a social gathering. That’s never what I’ve said,” Obama told the Miami crowd. “After eight years of the disastrous policies of George Bush, it is time to pursue direct diplomacy, with friend and foe alike, without preconditions.”

Sounds like a pledge to meet with Raúl Castro. A meeting with him and the American president would be worse than useless. Nobody who knows anything about the two brothers can possibly believe they can be talked into reform. There is simply nothing to negotiate, and the only effect of such a meeting is to give a regime in critical condition a formidable political and diplomatic boost. And that would be even more unforgivable than McCain’s lack of action.

Yet after the implicit promise to meet with Castro “without preconditions,” Obama went on to say that “as president, I would be willing to lead that diplomacy at a time and place of my choosing, but only when we have an opportunity to advance the interests of the United States, and to advance the cause of freedom for the Cuban people.”

The next few months will reveal whether Barack Obama has his eyes open wide enough to see not only that urgent changes are needed in Cuba policy, but also that those changes must not include direct talks that can only set back the cause of freedom for Cubans.