Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

Monday, May 27, 2013

The Troubled Mexican-American Border

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

University of Arizona historian Oscar Martinez, in his 1994 book Border People: Life and Society in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands, developed four models of interaction in the borderlands between countries: alienated, coexistent, interdependent and integrated. There may be elements of more than one in each case, but one usually predominates.

Alienated borderlands have virtually no cross-boundary interchange, due to warfare, political disputes, or ideological or religious animosity. Tension prevails and there are rigid controls over cross-border traffic. North and South Korea share such a border, as do Israel and Syria. 

Coexistent borderlands have limited cross-border interaction. There may still be disputes about the location of the border. The Russian-Chinese and Indian-Pakistani borders are examples.

Interdependent borderlands: In this case the borderlands of the two countries are symbiotically linked and there is a mutually beneficial economic system. Often the productive capacity of the wealthier country is matched with raw materials and cheap labour in the poorer one. Such has been the Mexican-American border.

Finally, there are integrated borderlands, where most existing barriers to trade and movement are eliminated and capital, products and labour move without restrictions. Internationalist ideology emphasizes peaceful relations and each country relinquishes a significant part of its sovereignty for the sake of mutual progress. This is largely the case within the 27-member European Union.

In interdependent and integrated borderlands, relatively unimpaired interaction makes it possible for people to participate in social systems that foster trade, consumerism, tourism, migration, cultural exchanges, and personal relationships.

Ethnic or cultural affinity enhances transnational interaction. Thus the American-Mexican border has always had intense activity because of the presence of large numbers of people of Mexican descent on the American side. They fused a highly interdependent bi-national system.

A strong border culture set the area apart from the main culture in either the United States or Mexico. Some cities have been almost unified entities: for example, Brownsville-Matamoros, Laredo-Nuevo Laredo, and Ciudad Juarez-El Paso, in the Rio Grande Valley; and Calexico-Mexicali and San Diego-Tijuana along the California border.

But things have changed for the worse in recent years. With increasing pressure on this border through illegal immigration and narco-trafficking, the frontier is becoming highly militarised. Is an interdependent border becoming a coexistent one?

There has been an anti-immigrant backlash on the American side. When Americans think of “the border,” they think of Mexico, not Canada. And it only too often relates to undocumented migrants and drug smugglers.

This has become a major political issue, and has become part of the larger debate about immigration reform. Washington now spends $18 billion a year trying to secure its border with Mexico; some 20,000 border patrol officers now guard the border. As well, a 1,030-kilometer barrier has been built between the two countries.

U.S. President Barack Obama met with his Mexican counterpart, Enrique Pena Nieto, in early May. U.S. officials are concerned that the new Mexican government, in office since last year, seems less inclined to provide the same level of deep coordination with U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies as its predecessor.

The border stretches for 3,169 kilometres, 595 of them in Arizona, and that state has gone furthest in attempting to control illegal movement across the border. The mistrust is exemplified by the high concrete and steel fence that now separates Nogales, Arizona, from Nogales, Sonora.

The writer Paul Theroux visited Nogales last year. He wrote about his experience in “The Country Just Over the Fence,” in the New York Times of Feb. 26, 2012. “In a lifetime of crossing borders I find this pitiless fence the oddest frontier I have ever seen — more formal than the Berlin Wall, more brutal than the Great Wall of China, yet in its way just as much an example of the same folie de grandeur. Built just six months ago, this towering, seemingly endless row of vertical steel beams is so amazing in its conceit you either want to see more of it, or else run in the opposite direction.”

In the 1990s, I visited the border between Texas and the Mexican state of Tamaulipas twice, once at Laredo and Nuevo Laredo, the other time between McAllen and Reynosa. Though it’s just a short walk or drive across the Rio Grande River, the difference is indeed astounding. It is a divide between an industrialized country and one far poorer.

The border cities were already dangerous places, and I didn’t tarry. Drug gangs have since made them considerably worse.

Monday, May 13, 2013

America: Land of Guns and Murders

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

Many years ago, an author whose name I’ve since forgotten, figuratively threw up his hands in despair at the increasingly fractured American political landscape, and remarked in a magazine article that “there is New York City, a couple of neighbourhoods in Boston, and the rest of the country is the South.” (Actually, he could have included a few more liberal cities, such as San Francisco.)

By this he meant that the United States was becoming ideologically an increasingly right-wing country. Imagine what he would be saying today.

Despite two horrific mass shootings last year, one in a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado, the other in an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, by young men with military-grade assault weapons, the United States Senate on April 17 refused to even consider the possibility of tightening gun controls. Even background checks seem too radical!

This defeat occurred despite the fact that upwards of 90 per cent of Americans, according to recent public opinion polls, backed the failed legislation. One wonders whether the National Rifle Association, which opposed the legislation, not Congress, is the legislative branch of American government.

Today the NRA, with five million members, is arguably the most powerful lobbying organization in the nation’s capital and certainly one of the most feared. Annual revenue tops $200 million. Its mission, states the organization, is “to protect and defend the U.S. Constitution, to promote public safety, law and order and the National defense.” To that end, it produces numerous pamphlets, magazines and television shows.

The NRA is heavily supported by the country’s thousands of gun manufacturers and dealers. NRA lobbying in the 1980s led to American manufacturers increasing the production of military-style weapons, including semiautomatic assault rifles and high-capacity pistols.

One Pennsylvania gun maker, Keystone Sporting Arms, even produces rifles geared toward children!

In the 2012 election cycle, the NRA spent $18.6 million, according to the Sunlight Foundation, which tracks money in political races, backing (mostly Republican) opponents of gun control.

The NRA has turned the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, passed in 1791, which refers, somewhat vaguely, to the “right to bear arms,” into a rigid doctrine that proclaims the right of every individual American to, effectively, be armed to the teeth. Today’s guns, of course, have firepower unimaginable to the founding fathers.

Its solution to gun violence is – more guns. After the Newtown massacre, it recommended placing armed guards in American schools, and suggested that even teachers carry weapons.

Americans today possess some 270 million privately held firearms. They have the highest gun ownership per capita rate in the world, with an average of about nine guns for every 10 Americans. There are four times as many federally licensed firearms and ammunition dealers in the U.S. as there are grocery stores.

Not surprisingly, the country’s gun-related murder rate is the highest in the developed world. There are approximately 45 murders committed in the United States every day, mostly with guns.

The U.S. is a statistical outlier: Americans are 20 times more likely to be killed by a gun than is someone from another developed country.

It wasn’t always this way. Until the cultural upheavals of the 1960s, guns were not a major cultural issue in the country.

True, there was a history of violence: after all, the United States emerged after an armed revolution against Britain.

This continued as Americans moved across the West, battling native peoples, Mexico, and each other in the Civil War. Hollywood films often glorified the John Wayne loner settling matters with a rifle.

But by the mid-20th century, it was assumed that this was all in the past, a matter of temporary lawlessness before proper political institutions were in place.

The culture wars following the 1960s changed that. In rural America, in the old South, and elsewhere, people frightened by the rapid changes in American life and fearful that they were “losing the country” to rich elitists on the coasts, new immigrants, and minorities, became easy targets for the purveyors of guns.

Some, spinning conspiracy theories, even formed militias, convinced that “Washington” had fallen into the hands of “un-American” enemies willing to abandon them to a UN-based “world government” that would take away their rights and impose “socialism” on the country.

We saw echoes of this type of thinking in the debate over “Obamacare” a few years ago, though the president’s health care reforms were, by the standards of most of the Western world, very mild indeed.

The NRA held its 142 annual convention in Houston the first weekend of May, attended by some 70,000 members. “This is not a battle about gun rights,” incoming president James Porter told them, but rather part of a larger “culture war.”  Added Wayne LaPierre, the association’s executive vice president, “We are in the midst of a once-in-a-generation fight for everything we care about.”

In 1964 the American historian Richard J. Hofstadter published The Paranoid Style in American Politics. He asserted that American politics “has often been an arena for angry minds.” Such people emerge into the political arena whenever they perceive “enemies at the gates.”

The NRA and the gun lobbyists did not gain their power by accident – they have had fertile fields to plow.

Monday, May 06, 2013

Nigeria's Ethnic and Religious Divisions Are Difficult to Manage

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

Africa’s most populous country, independent since 1960, is also one of its most troubled.
The 923,768 square kilometre nation of Nigeria is riven by ethnic rivalries, religious divisions, and extremism. Officially a federal republic of 36 states plus the capital, Abuja, for much of its post-colonial history Nigeria has been ruled by military men and kleptocrats.

Europeans, particularly the British, brought Christianity to the south, while in the north powerful Muslim entities like the Kano emirate and the Sokoto caliphate became bastions of Islam.

Frederick Lugard, who was the British governor from 1912 to 1919, developed the policy of indirect rule. If the emirs accepted British authority, the colonial power was willing to confirm them in office.

Though Nigeria’s 170 million people comprise some 500 ethnic groups, the three most powerful (and rival) ones are the Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa.

In the north, the Hausa, numbering 40 million, are almost entirely Muslim. Nine northern Muslim-majority states, as well as parts of three Muslim-plurality ones, adhere to various forms of figure in Nigeria.Islamic shari’a law; Sa’adu Abubakar, the current sultan of Sokoto, remains the most powerful religious

The Yoruba, in the southwest, are more divided religiously, with some two-thirds of their population of 35 million professing Christianity (mainly Protestant faiths), and one-third Islam.

The 30 million Igbo, living mainly in the southeast, are mainly Roman Catholic Christians. Subjected to horrific massacres following a coup in 1966, in which tens of thousands were killed, they formed the breakaway nation of Biafra in 1967, which was crushed by the Nigerian army three years later.

Lieutenant Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, who became Biafra’s president, fled but returned to Nigeria from exile in 1982 and died two years ago. The world-renowned Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, also an Igbo, published There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra, not long before his own death this year.

Altogether, the country is about evenly divided between Christianity and Islam, with the so-called middle belt of the country an area of mixed Christian-Muslim population.

Attempts of extend Islamic law elsewhere in the country has been a major source of discord. Recurring religious conflict has claimed many thousands of lives over the years. In the city of Jos alone, thousands of people have died and tens of thousands have lost their homes in the last decade.

Much of the violence is attributed to Boko Haram, the Islamist armed group operating in northern Nigeria, in particular in Kano. Boko Haram’s main goal is to overthrow the federal government and impose Islamic law throughout northern Nigeria.

Formed in 2002, the group has killed thousands of people, including more than 2,600 in the past two years alone. Clashes in April in the northeastern town of Baga between Nigerian security forces and Boko Haram left more than 200 people dead and some 2,000 homes destroyed. Many people accused the army of dousing houses with gasoline, setting them on fire, and shooting residents when they tried to flee.

The government is hoping to strike a deal with Boko Harem which would include an amnesty as well as a ceasefire. But previous attempts at dialogue have failed. As well, Ansaru, an even more extreme jihadist group that broke away from Boko Haram, is also now active in the north.

Corruption has been deeply engrained in the political culture of this oil-rich country. While those in power grew fabulously rich, most Nigerians remain poor, and the Nigerian state itself has been blamed for the inequality.

The most corrupt of Nigeria’s presidents was General Sani Abacha, from Kano, who ruled from 1993 until 1998. After his death from a heart attack, it was alleged that he and his family had enriched themselves to the tune of $3 billion, reportedly siphoned out of the country’s coffers and sent abroad. Some $473 million was discovered in Swiss bank accounts alone.

After emerging from nearly three decades of uninterrupted military dictatorship, the country returned to civilian rule under Olusegun Obasanjo in 1999.

Upon the death in 2010 of President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, a Muslim Hausa from the north, his vice-president, Goodluck Jonathan, assumed the office. He is a Christian from the Niger delta region in the southeast, a member of one of the country’s smaller ethnic groups, the Ijaw.

Militants in Boko Haram, displeased with the idea of a Christian as head of state, in August 2011 bombed the UN building in Abuja. Jonathan asserted that it was not merely an attack on Nigeria, but on the international community.

Given the immense problems that beset Nigeria, Jonathan needs all the luck he can get.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

The Demise of the Canadian Jewish News

Henry Srebrnik, [Toronto] Jewish Tribune

The demise of the Canadian Jewish News (CJN) is as sad as it is unexpected. Obviously the major reason for this has to do with the changing nature of the newspaper business. The rise of the internet has enabled people to get their news (mostly for free) on various electronic devices from all over the Jewish world.

I was a long-time contributor to the CJN – from 1975 to 2006 I published 91 articles, mostly op-eds, in the paper. I have been a very close friend, for 55 years now, of their best journalist (in my opinion). Since 2006, though, I’ve been writing for the Jewish Tribune.

Living far away from the Jewish centres of Toronto and Montreal, people like me have no inside knowledge about the business decisions that may have prompted this move.

But is it possible the changing face of the Canadian Jewish community might also be a factor? There has always been a perception – one to which I subscribe – that the CJN tended to be a voice of the Jewish ‘establishment,’ one closely tied to the Liberal Party. These people were particularly enamoured of the country forged by Pierre Trudeau, and many of them supported his son Justin in the recent party leadership contest.

The Jewish Tribune, on the other hand, has backed the Conservative Party of Stephen Harper, in particular for its steadfast support of Israel. In the last federal election, much of the community followed suit.

But one senses that many of the ‘machers’ still hanker for the ‘good old days’ of Liberal hegemony and have some disdain for the Tribune. In one e-mail I received, a well-known Toronto communal figure made some unflattering references to its publisher, Frank Dimant, and bemoaned the fact that with the closure of the CJN the community will lose “the voices of some of our esteemed” figures.

Are the contributors to the Jewish Tribune just burnt toast? I’m sure the Tribune will continue to do its best to continue to serve the community well.