Monday, January 31, 2011

Freedom Frontiers

The Conservative Political Action Conference will be held this year on February 10th in Washington, DC, with confirmed speakers including Rep. Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Sen. Mitch McConnell, Sen. Rand Paul, Hon. Mitt Romney, and Hon. Rick Santorum. Hon. Sarah Palin is not yet confirmed, but she’s invited. It is hosted by the American Conservative Union Foundation (ACUF), a nonprofit that describes itself as representing “the views of Americans who are concerned with economic growth through lower taxes and reduced government spending and the issues of liberty, personal responsibility, traditional values and national security.” For more information, go to the organization’s website.

The first panel listed for this year’s CPAC is “Reagan at 100: Role Model for the Next Generation,” an appropriate choice given Reagan’s early role at the conference. The transcript archives of past CPACs on the ACUF website contain 12 speeches by Reagan between 1974 and 1988, followed by a notable 18-year gap in transcripts until 2006, two years into the second term of the second Bush presidency. Reagan ended his 1974 speech with this humble line: “We are indeed, and we are today, the last best hope of man on earth.” He ended his 1988 speech, as President, with these words from an American soldier stationed in Korea: “Mr. President, we’re on the frontier of freedom” and he followed that quotation with his own: “Well, so are you.”

Conservatives today might agree with that 1988 message from Reagan, but they probably have a different idea about where the frontier of freedom actually is. That frontier is no longer at the edge of the great United States of America—instead, these new Republicans might depict the frontier graphically as a boundary separating the middle of the country (red) from the two coasts (blue), or as a ring around Washington D.C., which they aim to conquer and “take back,” for freedom’s sake.

One frontier of freedom that these new Republicans do not support is the issue of gay rights, specifically the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and any legislation or court decision granting gay marriage rights. In a January 27th article, the NYT reported on a disagreement as to whether a gay conservative organization should be allowed to co-sponsor this year’s CPAC. Several conservative groups, such as the Liberty Family Research Council and the Heritage Foundation, have refused to participate in the conference this year because of the co-sponsorship. The organization in question, GOProud, believes in “limited government, individual liberty, free markets, a strong national defense and a confident foreign policy.” That sounds like a pretty reasonable platform. Interestingly, it’s also much more consistent than that of most conservatives who fiercely support business interests, limited government, free markets, and individual rights for…most people.

I can bet that Reagan would also object to the involvement of GOProud in his favored conference, though I’m seeing from a quick scan on the internet that his attitude towards homosexuality was a little more complicated than that of many conservative politicians. In any case, this current narrow-minded stance on gay rights is perfectly in line with history on the subject, and it fits well with the retro, Norman Rockwell view of America that conservatives hold dear. What will it take for hard-line conservatives to move into the 21st century and truly embrace the “individual liberties” for all that they claim to support?

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Finding Spaces in Houston

I visited Houston for the second time over the weekend. The first time was two years ago, in May, when it was already very warm and humid and summer was just around the corner if not already there. This time it’s still winter, and it drizzled our first day and rained steadily the next. The plants seemed grateful, and it felt special and necessary, the way rain feels in Austin too.

Marjorie is my host this time, as she was on my last visit, and indeed seeing her is the primary goal in going to Houston—at least for my mother, her husband Randy, and me. Marjorie is Randy’s mother, and she is in her nineties. She and her husband bought the land where their house still stands in the late 1930s, and the first house they built on it burned to the ground two months after Randy was born, in 1947.

The family built the current house in 1950 or thereabouts, and it could be a museum to the 1950s and 1960s: beautifully preserved period furniture whose descendants are now sold as “retro” in hip furniture stores, blue metal cabinets in the kitchen that have not been altered since the house was built, narrow twin beds that were bought when people were shorter, slighter, and more modest, a guest room papered with a vibrant yellow floral pattern and a bed skirt that matches it, an entire wall in the formal living room covered in beautiful copper panels that have not gone green with age, and another wall in the same room almost entirely made of glass.

Outside of the house are a garden and a medium-sized pool, and then woods that stretch out in every direction until you reach the boundaries of the property: a private school in one direction and a busy street in another. These piney woods are all that was here when the family first moved to Texas, and all that connected them to the city of Houston were minor roads paved with crushed shells. The woods separate the house and the property from the rest of the city, and it is hard to believe, as you are looking out a big window into the quiet greenery, that we are in a bustling city of about 2.3 million people. Both Marjorie and her husband predicted that Houston would become a megalopolis, and of course they were right. It’s now the biggest city in Texas and the fourth largest city in the United States.

When I’m in Houston, I think a lot about space—specifically, the way that people find and make oases within a massive, traffic clogged, center-less city. Marjorie’s house and property is one such oasis, and so is the Asian buffet where we ate dinner on Sunday, Kim Son. We got in two cars with the six of us to drive about 25 minutes to dinner, passing mostly shopping malls and some residential areas. If we hadn’t been navigating it for the first time, we probably would have taken a freeway that would have shortened the trip. As we got closer, we realized we’d entered a pocket of Asian culture: Asian supermarkets, restaurants, dentists, salons, law offices, etc. (I later learned that this is considered Chinatown).

When we arrived at the restaurant, we parked and then walked all the way around the corner of the building where we had first seen the sign for Kim Son Buffet, and finally found the entrance with stairs and elevators up to the large buffet room. Inside, it seemed we were far from the huge parking lot and strip mall that we had just passed through. The room was filled with big groups, probably families, seated at large, round tables, and the fragrant buffet line was set up at the back of the room. Almost everyone in the room was Asian, and most people looked as though they were familiar with the restaurant, that they came often for Sunday dinner. It felt as though we had found a real community center.

Homes and restaurants are the main oases, as far as I can tell, but a third kind that we found was churches—more specifically, the Live Oak Friends Meeting in Houston (Quaker meeting). I had an assignment from a relative to check out the building and ask people in the neighborhood about it (specifically a special skylight in the roof of the meeting room that creates light patterns at sunrise and sunset). My mother and I had a hair-raising drive to the building—via the freeway of course—on a rainy Monday, and the meeting house was closed. It being a workday, and a rainy one at that, we couldn’t find many people to talk to, but we did catch one guy as he walked his dog in the adjacent park. He has lived across the way from the meeting for the past two years, and he fairly gushed about the Friends and the work that they do to build community. According to him, Friends not only host many open houses at the meeting house, they also open the building up to community associations and other groups that need a meeting place.

Another significant contribution of the Friends was to purchase and protect the aforementioned open space behind their building to be used as a lovely park for the whole neighborhood. In any city, and especially in Houston, green space is sorely needed. Here was one such space, protected by the Friends and enjoyed by the larger community. It even looked as though a whole row of neo-Victorian houses was built facing the park after the meeting house and park were established.

I hope to go back to Houston soon for more observation of this unusual city—every visit will bring new discoveries and surprises, and I think I’ll come to like it more as I discover each new oasis. It’s impossible to predict exactly what will happen when it becomes too expensive to drive as much as Houstonians do today, but I think the city may evolve in some fascinating ways…

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Mourn, and Then Act


On Saturday, Representative Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona was shot during a public meet and greet with her constituents at a supermarket in Tucson. Her assailant, a 22-year-old Tucson resident, also emptied several rounds of bullets into the crowd of people at the parking lot, killing six people and wounding several others. Incredibly, Ms. Giffords is still alive but in critical condition, with a bullet lodged in her brain.

In all of my conversations with friends and family after the tragedy, the subject of gun control has been raised. I read in the BBC online that New Jersey senator Frank Lautenberg has already said he would try to ban high-capacity ammunition clips, the use of which allowed Giffords’s attacker to wound and kill so many people in so little time. Though most Americans (69%) still support the legality of handguns, according to a 2009 poll by the Times and CBS News, 54% of Americans would support a ban on assault weapons.

It seems incredible that major acts of gun violence, such as Columbine and Virginia Tech, have not already brought about stricter gun control. But those incidents, while providing fodder for gun control advocates, also bring out the tired and illogical argument that honorable citizens can prevent and curtail murderous rampages by carrying, and using, their own weapons. I would be very interested to know just how many such citizens have successfully protected themselves or others by using firearms—I imagine that the number is extremely low. After Virginia Tech, only 30% of Americans polled thought that stricter gun control laws could have gone a long way towards preventing that catastrophic act of violence. It’s almost as though we do not have the example of nearly every other industrialized country with strict gun control laws, and significantly fewer gun deaths, to guide us.

Today in Tucson, President Obama will attend a memorial service for the six people killed and more than a dozen wounded in the attack. Let’s hope that even as the publicity for the horrors on Saturday dissipates, policymakers will gain strength and momentum in an effort to ban certain weapons and enact much stricter gun control in our country.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Naturalized Citizen


Yesterday I attended my first naturalization ceremony. My grandmother's housekeeper Viviana, an Argentinian, was successful in her application for citizenship, and she invited my grandmother and two aunts to the swearing in ceremony in downtown Philadelphia. She has worked for my grandmother for the past few years, cleaning her apartment, changing beds, providing moral and physical support for the bigger organization projects. While working at one aunt's house three or four years ago, she met Brian, a carpenter, and they are now married.

Aunt J drove us to the ceremony at 1600 Callowhill St, a large brick building that houses the Philadelphia Field Office of US Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS. After a 15-minute wait outside in a long line of aspiring US citizens, we were let into the warm lobby and passed through metal detectors. Aunt J shakes her head at that security measure; my grandmother says she appreciates it if it can keep us safer. We take an elevator up to the fourth floor and sit down in a medium sized room whose deep green walls are adorned with pictures of famous Philadelphia landmarks. At the front of the room is a built-in wooden podium and desk with a Department of Homeland Security seal hanging on the wall. Viviana’s husband Brian sits near us, and Viviana sits near the front with all of the other soon-to-be citizens. The room is nearly full, and the applicants are mostly dressed in business casual: slacks, sweaters, skirts, cardigans, sports jackets; some wear jeans and sweatshirts. The crowd is racially mixed, as emphasized later by the myriad countries around the world from which the immigrants have come. Africans, Asians, Central and South Americans, Northern Europeans, and a couple of Middle Easterners were in attendance. From the conversations I overhear, I gather that some of the applicants for citizenship have American wives, husbands, and/or children.

After about 20 minutes, the Philadelphia field office program leader kicks off the ceremony. He is a middle aged man with glasses and short brown hair; his manner is friendly and respectful. He begins by listing more than 30 countries from which the 73 new citizens come. Argentina, Belize, Canada, and on and on. As he lists each one, the citizens native to that country stand up. Then he asks the applicants to recite the oath of allegiance to the United States. Probably written long ago, the oath starts off by requiring new citizens to renounce their allegiance to any other prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty. I realize in that moment what a huge step it is to become a new citizen in another country. The idea of definitively cutting ties to ones natal country seems impossible, and yet that’s what we require of new US citizens. How many people, I wonder, can fully renounce the country of their birth and family, and no longer feel some loyalty or allegiance to it?

The program leader now addresses these new citizens, and thanks them for coming to the United States: “Whatever your reasons for coming, the United States is better for your presence,” he says. He also reminds them that with opportunity comes obligation, and he encourages them to participate in the American political process by voting. He concludes by quoting another naturalized citizen who stated that the day he arrived in the United States became more important to him than his own birthday. “Each of you can now add today’s date to your calendar of life,” the program leader says. Another USCIS officer turns on a video message from President Obama that conveys many of the same ideas as the program leader’s speech. “Together, we are a nation united not by any culture or ethnicity…” and “in America, no dream is impossible...” At the end of the video, a montage of American scenes rolls by, accompanied by a rousing version of “Proud to Be an American.”

Now the program leader announces that he will dispense certificates of naturalization to the new citizens. The other officer calls out names, and the program leader hands out certificates to each applicant. Family members move to the front of the room with new citizens to take pictures of the certificate hand-off.

At the end of the ceremony, the room fills with animated conversations, and we move to join Viviana near the front of the room. She seems happy and contented, but she’s not the sort of person to be effusive about it. She and Brian are going out for lunch at a nice restaurant downtown to celebrate.

Later, I go online to see what the oral citizenship test entails. Questions generated by the USCIS website to quiz applicants range from incredibly general (What is the economic system in the United States? “Communist economy,” “Capitalist economy,” “Socialist economy,” or “None of the above”) to specific (When must all men register for the selective service? “At any age,” “Between 18 and 26,” “At 16,” or “Men don’t have to register”). They don’t seem unreasonably difficult, but there are 100 possible questions, 10 of which would be asked during the test, and 6 of which have to be answered correctly in order for the applicant to pass. In addition to memorizing a whole lot of information about the US government, much of which people born here don’t know, applicants have to show proficiency in English. That, for many people, is the biggest hurdle. Again I think about how very small this group of new citizens is, in comparison to the vast numbers of immigrants who struggle to gain citizenship here. But for Viviana and those 72 others in the room at 1600 Callowhill Street, the struggle is over.