Trivial pursuits

Meejit's perspective from the United States.


Meejit comes to you this week from the United States of America, or more accurately from the particular and peculiar states of body and mind known as New York and New Jersey.

This area, like much of the US but unlike most of the nation's territory, is in the grip of the most vibrant and active popular movement it has seen in 35 years, maybe more. Unfortunately for Iraqis who are still in Iraq, it's not the anti-war movement, but an explosive outpouring of immigrants resisting legislative efforts to marginalise and criminalise the "undocumented" people among them.

The resistance, and the arguments that sparked it, have resonance for Ireland, but it's hard to hear that resonance clearly. Partly that's because – surprise, surprise – the media here in the US reports most things so shallowly and poorly. The popular press and electronic media tread lightly around the issue, preferring to stick with hype and half-truths about the Iranian "nuke", various post-9/11 dramas (the cockpit tapes from flight 93, evidence and claims about Ground Zero health risks) and, more smirkingly, the story of a cat called Molly who was trapped inside a Greenwich Village wall for a fortnight.

The New York Times coverage of the cat story typically had it both ways, with a sneery headline about media "frenzy" and a photograph of TV reporters doing live broadcasts outside the deli where Molly had done her mousing, but also with all the feline detail its readers could need to chat knowledgeably about the story. This included the alternative to "here kitty kitty" uttered by a "cat therapist" brought in for the occasion: "I hear you, sweetheart. Come on, Molly, you can do it. Everybody wants you to come out. Nobody's going to hurt you."

The denouement was rather cleverly captured in the Newark Herald-News page-one headline: "They got meowt!"

Missing the story

In fairness, the better US papers clearly understand that the immigration debate is a big story, and they regularly throw together big opinion packages and features to show they care about it almost as much as they do about an anxious cat. Nonetheless, there is a sense that they have rather missed the story and are playing catch-up with a movement that ignored the major media when building its infrastructure. (This is what papers mean when they talk nonsense about the protests coming "from nowhere": that translates as "not from us". Thus, too, the snotty stuff about the movement's tactical naïvety, etc – Irish Times readers got a good taste of that rubbish from columnist Charles Krauthammer.)

There are two specific "nowhere" locations that help explain why the immigrants-rights movement grew up healthily under the mainstream media radar. The first location is the labour movement: unions have been doing education, outreach and activism on immigrants' legal rights while politicians in Washington have been cooking up the idea of turning "illegal" immigrants and their employers into criminal-law felons. But it's at least 20 years since trade unionists and their activities could get a look-in from most mainstream editors. (This is a situation that has become familiar in Ireland in more recent years.)

The other location is a network of formal and informal Spanish-language media, and to a lesser extent media in other minority languages. Newspapers and radio stations in Spanish have been publicising meetings and rallies, and postering is done in bodegas and on modes of transport frequented by immigrants, such as the mini-bus that runs from Manhattan to my hometown of Paterson, a city that has been constantly renewed by immigration for two centuries.

Brave new world

It's encouraging, of course, that a movement that now calls on millions of people, not just Latinos, can arise on such bases. The popular passion has other explanations – notably the nasty opportunism of the proposed laws, now rapidly being watered-down under protesters' pressure; the tightening of US borders, reducing people's capacity to move discreetly in and out of the country and thus making them more keen, or desperate, to get decent status; and the pure backs-to-the-wall guts of people who have been kicked around long enough.

For all the rallies' conspicuous displays of Stars and Stripes and reassuring talk about "family values" among immigrants, there was a sense from the waves of people I watched marching down Broadway that they are prepared to put the hard, simple question about human equality that has not yet got near the public agenda in Ireland: Who the hell are you to tell me I can't live here?