Monthly Archives: December 2013

Fasting for (Which) Families: Commonsense Immigration Reform?


On November 12, 2013, immigrant rights, labor, and faith leaders announced an action called “Fast for Families: A Call for Immigration Reform and Citizenship.” As the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) put it, “Leaders committed to a daily fast in front of the U.S. Capitol and at locations across the country to send a clear and visible message to Congress about the moral crisis caused by our country’s broken immigration system and its impact on millions of families.” Fasts are not a new protest strategy, and relying upon family rhetoric is certainly not a new approach in the immigrant rights community. Is there anything unique about this fast, this issue, and this historical moment? As has been acknowledged many times, President Obama has both championed immigration reform, while simultaneously deporting more people than any previous administration in the history of the United States. Immigrants and immigrant rights advocates have angrily challenged Obama for his immigration policies, and for some, it seems that staging a fast in the traditions of King, Chávez and Gandhi is the only way to compel action.

The Fast for Families has drawn national media attention from outlets like Democracy Now! and the Huffington Post, and it has gained support from an array of groups and individuals. Even the Obamas stopped by the fasting tent on the National Mall in Washington, DC to offer support. What is the “clear and visible message” that the fasters are trying to send? According to the Fasters’ Declaration, they fast in order to promote “commonsense immigration reform.” They state, “We will fast and pray until the bonds of families are no longer broken. We will fast and pray until immigration reform is no longer a notion, but a reality. We will fast and pray until citizenship is no longer a dream for 11 million aspiring Americans.” The fasters want the House of Representatives to pass S. 744, the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act,” which in June of this year, the Senate approved.

The bill has unsurprisingly stalled in the House of Representatives. Democrats have accused House Speaker John Boehner of preventing the reform from even getting a chance in the House. Boehner has recently signaled that he may be changing his tune, but with a “pathway to citizenship” built into the bill, many Republicans have vowed not to support it. If Republicans hate this bill so much, and immigrant rights advocates are risking death by starving themselves to support it, the bill must be pretty good for immigrants, right?

The bill is complex, and numerous groups have attempted to boil it down to its main parts, including the American Immigration Council, which provided this summary. My personal favorite summary is that provided by the Moratorium on Deportations Campaign, a Chicago-based collective that seeks the end to all deportations, detentions and criminalization of immigrants (they also seek the end of national borders).  Their comprehensive videos in English and Spanish, “Immigration Reform 101,” paint a sobering image of the proposed reform. In brief, S. 744 would provide a pathway to citizenship for only an estimated 7 million of the 11 million undocumented people living in the United States. Those who qualify would be eligible for what is called “Registered Provisional Immigrant” (RPI) status. Those who qualify for the DREAM (Development Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act, and some agricultural workers would be given a somewhat accelerated pathway toward citizenship (at least 5-10 years after applying for RPI status). These two groups would not have to wait for the so-called “triggers” that must be in place before other people with RPI status can begin the naturalization process. Most undocumented people will not be allowed to apply for naturalization until several militarization (“security”) measures have been successfully put in place and evaluated. Over $46 billion has been proposed to further militarize US national borders, especially the Mexico-US border. If those measures would pass the very ambiguous barometer for success, then that triggers the pathway to naturalization—assuming those who originally qualified haven’t found themselves unemployed, or in some other violation of law that would preclude their qualification. By some estimates, those who qualify after this extended process can expect around a 20-year process before they will be US citizens. For those who don’t qualify, both the four million who are immediately excluded and the others that might find themselves excluded somewhere along the way, there is no hope of every attaining citizenship. Among other provisions, the bill also does a lot to further criminalize future clandestine crossings, creates new categories of temporary visas, and addresses issues such as human trafficking. The bill would turn future migration preferences toward those with desired labor skills and away from family reunification by eliminating some of the family categories that one can currently use for sponsorship (i.e., adult siblings and married offspring).

If S. 744 is what’s being proposed as “commonsense” reform, will families actually be helped? And if the answer to this is, at least in part, no, then what’s the Fast for Families really all about? As Dana Cloud showed in her 1998 essay, “The Rhetoric of Family Values,” “family” and “family values” function as powerful ideographs that have enduring rhetorical power in the US public sphere. In discussing the specific context of the 1990s, she revealed how the use of family values rhetoric positioned successful and middle class black families against the so-called underclass plagued by a culture of poverty. I fear the family rhetoric in the Fast for Families campaign operates similarly—certain members of certain families who do everything right will be worthy of an arduous and extended pathway to citizenship, while others won’t be considered families at all (the campaign’s logo clearly indicates what counts as a family), and the rest, “the unworthy,” will be left behind.

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Poison or Panacea?: Lessons from My Mother’s Kitchen

Fridge full of raw milk, from Flickr user kthread.

Fridge full of raw milk, from Flickr user kthread.

This post is part of a two-part, multi-author series on the raw milk debate in Wisconsin. View the last installment, by KC Councilor, here.

About two years ago, I was home visiting my parents outside Raleigh, NC. It had been a long morning of defending my liberal political beliefs from my brother’s relentless teasing and my parents’ quiet disagreement, and I had worked up an appetite. We didn’t have much time before my mother’s appointment with her acupuncturist and weekly visit to Whole Foods, so I went to the fridge to find a quick snack. Greeted by the familiar Romney/Ryan campaign magnet, I opened the door to find a milk bottle labeled “Pet Milk, 9/10/2012.” Cheerfully, my mother explained to me that the “pet milk” was actually raw milk, and had been recently purchased through her local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) provider. By labeling the milk as intended for animal consumption, my mother’s farmer had circumvented North Carolina’s ban on the sale of raw milk and made the product available for human consumption. I popped the plastic lid off and took a big swig. The milk was delicious–thick, creamy, and the most milky milk I had ever tasted. The Platonic milk.

By this point, my mother’s food politics were well-known to me. An ardent supporter of the whole, slow, and natural foods movements, she–and I, in case she’s reading this–believe(s) in food’s capacity to maintain healthy and productive bodies and to help cure those who are ill. My mom’s perspective on food resonates with her larger philosophy toward wellness. A regular at chiropractic, chelation, and acupuncture centers across the Triangle, she veers toward the fringes of western medicine, a position many of her conservative friends might label as “hippie.”

Or maybe they wouldn’t. Because like my mom, they perhaps go in for regular spinal adjustments and meridian releases. Perhaps they buy organic and vote Pro-Life, bemoan the state of American public school lunches and work to repeal Obamacare. Or maybe they also support the raw milk cause, not because of any belief in its superior nutrition, but because of their commitment to maintaining personal liberty.

The raw milk debate offers us a reminder that people hold complex political beliefs that don’t fall neatly along party lines. No one is all Republican or all Democrat. Instead, we are ever-evolving subjects constituted through competing and sometimes contradicting ideologies and commitments that ultimately render our political categories unstable. Unlike contentious partisan issues like reproductive rights and gun control, food has a unique ability to promiscuously cross our party lines, to create connections and coalition where there is too often hostility and dissension.

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Offense and Defense: Bob Costas Weighs in on the Washington Redskins Name Controversy (Part II)

Bob Costas weighs in on the Redskins naming controversy. Image originally from NBC.

Bob Costas weighs in on the Redskins naming controversy. Image originally from NBC.

This is a continuation of last week’s post.

In his prepared remarks, Costas begins by clearing the air of potential accusations and affirming what Redskins fans themselves have stated time and again: that there is “no reason to believe” that Snyder, Redskins players, or their fans harbor any “animus toward Native Americans or [wish] to disrespect them.” He also acknowledges that, despite the Cowboys vs. Indians overtone to the evening’s game, the Redskins name controversy is not simply a matter of race, as “even a majority of Native Americans” are not offended by the name. These opening remarks seek to acknowledge that the people defending the name “Redskins” are not wrong before attempting to demonstrate that the name itself is.

Then, Costas presents his case. He explains that “there’s still a distinction to be made” and proceeds to present a list of other sport teams with Native American nicknames and mascots as a grounds for comparison—a kind of litmus test for when Native American-inspired team names are respectful (or, at least, innocuous) and when they occasionally cross the line. In his first tier he includes “names like ‘Braves,’ ‘Chiefs,’ ‘Warriors,’ and the like” as nicknames that “honor, rather than demean,” asserting they are “pretty much the same as ‘Vikings,’ ‘Patriots,’ or even ‘Cowboys,’” and notes that objections to them “strike many of us as political correctness run amok.” These nicknames get a free pass from Costas, though opponents of Indian mascots and team names have protested against them for years. Next, Costas lists a second tier of teams, with names that are “potentially more problematic,” but “can still be okay provided the symbols are appropriately respectful.” This leads him, implicitly, to a third tier, in mention of the Cleveland Indians, a team with a tier-two nickname that has “sometimes run into trouble” with its caricatured and hyperbolic Chief Wahoo logo. Fourth, Costas distinguishes a tier of teams, like the Stanford Indians, Dartmouth Indians, and Miami of Ohio Redskins, that acknowledged the potential for offense and changed their names, calling particular attention to Miami of Ohio. Washington is listed last and, at this point, Costas distinguishes it in its own tier, at the bottom of the list of increasingly problematic offenders. He asks viewers to “think for a moment about the term ‘Redskins,’ and how it truly differs from all the others. Ask yourself what the equivalent would be, if directed toward African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, or members of any other ethnic group” before using this reflection and distinction to assert “When considered that way, ‘Redskins’ can’t possibly honor a heritage, or noble character trait, nor can it possibly be considered a neutral term. It’s an insult, a slur, no matter how benign the present-day intent.”

It is an original and potentially persuasive tactic. Through this series of distinctions, Costas breaks out of the stalemated, repetitive cycle of debate over Native American mascots as a whole and instead singles out the Redskins as a particular case. He is striving, here, it seems, for mutually satisfying compromise in a debate that rarely sees it. His description of team names in the first and second tier echoes perennial defense of Indian mascots, while his indictment of the lower tiers aligns more with the Indian mascot objectors’ familiar words and stance. With distinction between types of team names, Costas is seeking to affirm the arguments of both sides but also make room for compromise.

Yet we might also question the efficacy of such tactics. By excusing some teams with Indian-inspired nicknames of any offense, his words let some potential racism and insult off the hook. By equivocating and distinguishing between names and mascots, he is, in some ways, conceding parts of the “Change the Mascot” fight. Advocates of abolishing all potentially offensive nicknames might accuse Costas of throwing opponents of names like “Chiefs” or “Blackhawks” under the bus in his effort to critique the Redskins. Distinctions like these, while seeking to forward the anti-mascot cause on some fronts, stifle future efforts on others. The images, for instance, that appear on screen when Costas excuses the Braves, Chiefs, and Indians as less offensive incorporate tomahawks, arrowheads, and men saluting one another while concealing raised axes behind their backs. Costas does not call attention to the negative history surrounding such images when he uses them as he excuses the top tier teams. And, of course, any distinction between kinds of Indians or tiers of quality among Native American peoples or symbols hearkens uncomfortable associations with blood quantum laws and brown paper bag tests.

October 13 was not the first time Costas has dabbled in political or social commentary during a sportscast (see 8, for instance) and it is unlikely to be the last, but he seems to rankle viewers each time it happens. While seeking compromise, it’s likely that Costas pleased neither the most adamant anti-mascot campaigners nor the staunchest pro-mascot defenders. Then again, perhaps that was not his intention. Perhaps, in ending with the assertion that “’Redskins’ can’t possibly honor a heritage,” he intended his remarks as an open rebuttal and challenge to Dan Snyder’s letter. Perhaps he sought only to prompt discussion with the hope that progress made now would lead to other progress in the future, chipping away at offensive sporting nicknames bit-by-bit over time.

Whatever the intent, the situation remains unchanged. At the end of October, Goodell met separately with Snyder and with Oneida Nation representatives. The stalemate persisted. The Redskins name remains, as does the controversy. And while we have an interesting new perspective in the ongoing discussion, the defenses are familiar and offense, as Costas phrased it, continues be taken.

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Poison or Panacea?: Denaturalizing the Raw Milk Debate, Part 1

This post is part of a two-part, multi-author series on the raw milk debate in Wisconsin. Stay tuned for Kelly Jakes’ contribution next week.

In America’s Dairyland, the national debate about whether dairy farms should be allowed to sell raw milk to retailers, restaurants, and institutions has been especially contested. Dairy is Wisconsin’s largest industry—nationally, the state is second only to California in production—and is arguably the most cherished and widely recognized marker of its cultural identity. Audiences across the nation associate Wisconsin with the styrofoam cheesehead hats visible at every Packers game, our restaurants are often measured by the quality of their fried cheese curds, and the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board even claims the state’s “dairy industry has roots in prehistoric times.”

Raw milk rally in downtown LA. From flickr user cheeseslave.

Raw milk rally in downtown LA. From flickr user cheeseslave.

The raw milk legislation has significant political and ideological ramifications; if it didn’t, we wouldn’t hear about it so frequently in the news. Current state law allows farmers to drink raw milk from cows on their farms, and to sell raw milk on the farm premises. The Wisconsin state Senate will soon be voting on SB 236, which would allow farms to distribute raw dairy products if they adhere to a set of regulatory standards. In 2010, a similar bill  was passed by the full legislature and vetoed by Gov. Jim Doyle; Gov. Scott Walker has expressed solidarity with the powerful dairy lobby that advocates pasteurization and the medical community that rejects raw milk as unsafe, but has not committed to a veto. He’s caught between two key Republican ideals, which, in this case, are on opposing sides. Dairy is the largest industry in the state, and its lobby is both economically and politically powerful—crucial to keeping Wisconsin “open for business.” The raw dairy farms, however, are the very picture of Wisconsin small business, and their supporters demand the free market liberty to buy and eat what they wish.

The debate centers around the delicate balance between a desire for consumer freedom and the necessity of regulation to ensure consumer safety. Public health officials warn that unpasteurized milk is a perfect host for foodborne illnesses like E. coli, Listeria, and Salmonella, and large-scale dairy producers fear outbreaks might further the already declining consumption of dairy. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) claims that raw milk is one of the riskiest foods to consume, noting that the invention of pasteurization drastically reduced diseases transmitted by milk without significantly altering its nutritional value. The CDC goes so far as to name pasteurization “one of public health’s most effective food safety interventions.”

On the other hand, raw milk advocates laud unpasteurized milk as a natural food with superior nutritional properties. They decry pasteurization because it kills the enzymes present in milk, properties they believe are vital for the body to absorb calcium and fat. Further, they abhor the synthetic vitamins and chemicals added to pasteurized milk to improve taste, claiming that these substances have been linked to cancer and heart disease. Clearly, neither side is advocating for unsafe practices (or the benefits of Salmonella); in fact, they both lobby on behalf of consumer health and well-being.

In a debate where at least one side’s arguments rely upon notions of the “natural,” we would do well to remember that none of our food practices or values are natural—they are socially, politically, and historically constructed. Historian Melanie DuPuis, author of Nature’s Perfect Food: How Milk Became America’s Drink explains that “since the mid-nineteenth century, milk has been a part of the American social change agenda, from the temperance movement to the Progressive movement, the New Deal, and finally the current movement against genetically engineered foods.” The “milkman” and the “milkmaid” are iconic images of America’s past, and the long-running, celebrity-studded “got milk?” campaign has become a pop culture phenomenon and widely parodied catchphrase. Even the terminology used to describe milk reveals the cultural assumptions about its consumption. The word “milk” signifies to us the pasteurized, packaged liquid produced by cows, not other mammals. Milk as it flows from the cow is labeled “raw,” denoting that its final and preferred form is “cooked”; similarly, we mark other foods as raw—raw fish, raw almonds, raw eggs, raw onions—fish, almonds, eggs, and onions are presumed to be cooked, roasted, fried, or baked in their “natural” state. My point here is that “milk” does not flow naturally from a mother cow to our glass. It is filtered through a series of rhetorical and cultural processes, alongside the agricultural and industrial processes. The debate is not just about milk, but what counts as good, natural, and healthy; it’s about consumer rights and the role of government in food regulation.

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Offense and Defense: Bob Costas Weighs in on the Washington Redskins Name Controversy (Part I)

Bob Costas weighs in on the Redskins naming controversy. Image originally from NBC.

Bob Costas weighs in on the Redskins naming controversy. Image originally from NBC.

This is part of a two-post series on Bob Costas’ commentary on the Redskins naming debate.

It’s been an eventful year in the decades-old controversy surrounding the National Football League’s Washington Redskins franchise and its allegedly offensive team name. In 2012, the Kansas City Star publicly reiterated its policy of not printing the “Redskins” name in its articles and a bevy of other publications, including the Washington City Paper, San Francisco Chronicle, and Richmond Free Press soon followed suit. In March, U.S. House Representatives introduced a bill to void any trademark registrations disparaging Native American peoples and, in May, ten members of Congress sent a letter to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, Redskins team owner Dan Snyder, and FedEx, the team’s primary sponsor, requesting that the team’s name be immediately changed (1). Snyder responded with a series of statements swearing the name would never change under his watch and polls conducted in May suggested that 4 in 5 Americans agreed that a change in name should not take place (2;3). Meanwhile, the Oneida Indian Nation expanded its “Change the Mascot” campaign through demonstration and advertisement across the nation and, in October, President Obama was called upon to comment in an Associated Press interview, stating that if he were the owner of a franchise with a name that was “offending a sizable group of people,” he would “think about changing” it (4). On October 9, Snyder published an open letter to fans in The Washington Post, again defending the team’s name as not offensive to Native Americans but, rather, a tribute to those people and the franchise’s own proud heritage (5).

These arguments are, by now, familiar ones across the United States. Protests against and arguments defending the use of Native American names, terms, and images as sporting mascots gained momentum in the 1970s and 80s and have since led to name changes at the high school, college, and professional level, while also inspiring, in some places (including Wisconsin, for instance) recent legal efforts to protect Indian mascots in spite of community or Native American complaint (6). Critics of team names like “Redskins,” “Indians,” and “Braves” assert that these terms rob indigenous peoples—already mistreated grossly by American history and heirs to a weighted, unequal social position—of their own cultural words and symbols, their own ability to define themselves, while reducing sometimes sacred elements of their culture to frivolous, commercialized, and insulting caricatures in the dominant culture’s control. Defenders of the team names and mascots often contend that the names are not meant to offend but rather to honor Native peoples, that many polled Native Americans are not offended, that the sporting symbols ultimately preserve Indian heritage for Indians and non-Indians alike, and that, in the modern day, such symbols are as much a source of traditional pride for decades-old sports teams as they are for Native Americans themselves.

While names have been changed and logos have been altered, these two camps in the debate have done little to achieve consensus. In many cases—including that of the Washington Redskins—the groups have reached a kind of stalemate, both staking their claims to the names and traditions as a matter of personal passion, heritage, and identity, as Snyder does in his letter when he reiterates, “Our past isn’t just where we came from—it’s who we are” (7). These kinds of appeals are difficult if not impossible to refute, as both sides are entitled to claim their own tradition and heritage for themselves. Both proponents and opponents of the names rally around claims to pride and tradition with self-determined certainty. When team names are changed, resentments still linger. When team names remain, often the best outcome is a vocal vow to respect each other’s opinions but agree to disagree.

For this reason, sportscaster Bob Costas’ October 13 comments on the controversy are particularly interesting. Costas, speaking during halftime of a game between Washington and Dallas (a potent ground for commentary, with the implicit Cowboys vs. Indians overtones) during NBC’s highly-rated Sunday Night Football broadcast, took two minutes and twenty seconds to address the controversy before a national audience not by taking up the old, tradition- and identity-based arguments championed time and again in the Indian mascot debate but by seeking compromise and distinguishing between some team names as harmless and others, like Redskins, as offensive. His novel approach invites a close analysis.


See Part II for continuation . . .


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