This past weekend I saw a few cars flying Mexican flags.
My first reaction was fear—I live in an area where you’re as likely to see a “Si se puede” sticker on a car as you are a Confederate flag or a “Make America Great Again” yard sign. Naturally, I was concerned that whatever brave soul dared to conspicuously celebrate Mexican Independence Day was courting danger.
I honked to offer moral support. And I recalled that just the other day I said to my class of Hispanic students—in the most deadpan voice I could muster—“Soon it’ll be Hispanic Heritage Month. Yay.”
This is arguably the worst month of the year.
Not because there isn’t beauty and pride to be found in the spotlighting of folkloric dances and music, traditional cooking and the works of artists of Latin American descent. But because (like everything else these days) it is so fraught with symbolism and politics that it has become a designated period of grievance-airing.
It used to be that the “celebration” would inspire mere political pandering and insane product marketers adding a taco, pinata or mariachi hat to packaging in order to feign relevance to the Latino community.
Over the past couple of years, some have renamed Hispanic Heritage Month to “Latinx Heritage Month”—because the term “Hispanic” is, to them, passe and “Latino” is not gender inclusive enough.
Others put down the whole thing as illegitimate. Political observer Adriana Maestas recently wrote: “People of Mexican, Central American and South American descent shouldn’t have to celebrate heritage that is tied to invaders and colonizers.”
This rolls straight into bitter arguments, impassioned pleas and (hopefully nonviolent) protests sparked by those who believe Columbus Day should be renamed “Indigenous Peoples Day.”
This is all topped off by a whole October’s worth of manufacturers and retailers taking the looks and styles of the religious Day of the Dead traditions practiced across Latin America and selling them as cheap Halloween decorations and costumes.
It’s beyond exhausting. The so-called conversations about these “issues” that permeate the internet at this time of year are a colossal waste of time and energy within an already very loosely united populace. Sure, these people all share a common tie to Latin America, but they diverge widely when it comes to country of origin, language, customs, culture, political views and interest in “what it means” to be what the U.S. Census calls the “Hispanic population.”
I trace some of these troubles to the obsessive—and completely ineffectual—fixation on the semantics of Hispanic identity.
The hours and hours of time, effort, money, talent and energy that some have spent arguing about whether “Hispanic” or “Latino” is the better moniker, lobbying for the term “illegal immigrant” to be banned, and policing the use of the word “American” (the logic being that anyone from North and South America is an American, though there isn’t a soul outside the United States who would call someone from Chile or Mexico or Canada anything other than a Chilean, Mexican or a Canadian) have been fruitless.
And the next frontier seems to be the phrase “nation of immigrants.”
People who use it typically do so to defend immigrants and portray them as an integral part of our country’s fabric. Critics say that this phrase excludes and marginalizes Native Americans, Hawaiians, Puerto Ricans and blacks.
In the Chicago Sun-Times, Natalie Moore explained it: “When we hear platitudes like ‘we are a nation immigrants’ or ‘immigrants built this country,’ it feels like an erasure—not just of native people but black Americans who are descendants of enslaved Africans.”
Victor Landa, editor-in-chief of the Hispanic-focused news website NewsTaco, said in a recent Facebook Live video that we need to stop saying the term because it has become lip service: Why do we celebrate going to Chinatown or Little Italy but get mad when we see a neighborhood where the business signage is in Spanish?
These are interesting concepts to question and vital conversations to engage in—and we shouldn’t relegate them to a made-up heritage month. But it’s worth noting that while words do matter, they become a brick wall if we can’t get beyond terminology to actually participating in meaningful dialogue.
Everyone who supports President Donald Trump is racist. So said a local Facebook troll, going all in with the fashionable new tool for casting political opponents as monsters.
We have all seen the propensity of friends, neighbors and colleagues to thoughtlessly charge “racism” when someone disagrees with anything from immigration policy, to a proposal for health care reform, to tax cuts.
Most rational people despise racists, so charging another person with racism feels like a win-win for the accuser. “I’m not a racist, but you most certainly are. Therefore, we must discount anything you say.”
Unlike amateur pundits, professional media cannot whimsically lodge hate accusations. Even under today’s lowered standards of media conduct, reporters and editors know they need a third-party, authoritative “source” to accuse individuals or groups of racism and other forms of hatred.
They typically rely on the Southern Poverty Law Center, quoting it liberally as an ostensibly objective, knowledgeable source on all things hateful, racist and anti-Semitic.
This month, a group of 47 prominent conservatives asked journalists to knock it off. The signers represented groups as diverse as the Jewish Institute for Global Awareness, Refugee Resettlement Watch, the American College of Pediatricians, the Alliance Defending Freedom, and the Media Research Center.
“The SPLC is a discredited, left-wing, political activist organization that seeks to silence its political opponents with a ‘hate group’ label of its own invention and application,” they wrote, in five pages detailing the SPLC’s careless and politically motivated attacks on groups it disagrees with.
The letter explained how the Southern Poverty Law Center placed The Family Research Council, a Christian organization opposed to same-sex marriage, on a “hate map” with violent and dangerous groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. They quoted a U.S. Attorney’s evidence of terrorist Floyd Lee Corkins II using the law center’s “hate map” to target the Research Council and other Christian groups on the list.
“Having evolved from laudable origins battling the Klan in the 1970s, the SPLC has realized the profitability of defamation, churning out fundraising letters and publishing ‘hit pieces’ on conservatives to promote its agenda and pad its substantial endowment (of $319 million). Anyone who opposes them, including many Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and traditional conservatives, is slandered and slapped with the ‘extremist’ label or even worse, their ‘hate group’ designation.”
We have seen the SPLC carelessly hate-list Coloradans. The law center labeled as “anti-Semitic” a Denver-area radio talk show host who owned with a gun store. Unbeknownst to the SPLC, the man was Jewish and lost relatives in the Holocaust.
SPLC’s lawyers have every right to operate their law firm as a high-dollar, left-wing think tank that acts like a bombastic social media bully. Donors who like these tactics should feel free to send their donations to pad that $319 million endowment and the hefty salaries of SPLC employees.
Meanwhile, we remain confounded and slightly scandalized by the mainstream media’s routine reliance on this outfit, and the propensity of reporters to present the “hate map” and assorted blacklists as sources of objective findings.
Don’t expect the legacy media to accept this polite warning from 47 conservatives, but the general public should know: The Southern Poverty Law Center is a private, wealthy, activist law firm with a far-left political agenda. By labeling opponents as monsters, the law firm foments hate.
As I travel around the state talking with small groups of dedicated but depressed progressives, the most common question I hear is, “What can we do?” Here’s my answer.
1) Stop the bickering. If I read one more Facebook post on how bad Bernie is or how bad Hillary is and how reprehensible their respective followers are, I’m going to die! It’s over. Move on.
2) The old guard needs to go. I greatly admire the progressive elected officials who’ve served for decades in Wisconsin. We all owe them a big debt of gratitude. But now they need to give other people a chance.
3) Ally with progressive Republicans. There are good, decent Republican officials out there. Progressive Democratic officials should ally with them when possible, and progressive activists should salute them when they do the right thing.
4) Be authentic. People are sick and tired of politics as usual and politicians as usual. They want someone who is real.
5) Advocate for big reforms that really help people. First and foremost, universal health care. Other issues are important, too: establishing a living wage; providing free college education and student debt forgiveness; bolstering our public schools; legalizing marijuana; launching a Green Jobs Initiative; and curbing the role of money in politics.
6) Fight for racial justice. Wisconsin ranks at the bottom of several scales when it comes to racial justice. This is not only embarrassing, it’s appalling. As progressives, we need to make the fight against institutional racism an integral part of all our work.
7) Debunk the corporatist ideology. Every day, the Koch Brothers and Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce tell us that everything private is good, and everything public is bad. In this warped view, there is no place for the common good, no sense of community, no belief that we, as fellow citizens of a democracy, have any obligation whatsoever to each other, and no concession that good government programs can help us fulfill that obligation.
8) Confront the fascist threat. Donald Trump is the closest thing we’ve ever had to a fascist in the White House because he traffics in bigotry and ultra-nationalism, and he has no respect for our democratic institutions. If there’s another attack on the United States—and it doesn’t have to be anywhere near the scale of 9/11—Trump could take our democracy down!
9) Register and motivate progressive voters. We need to get progressive voters registered and we need to motivate them to go to the polls to vote for progressive politicians from whatever party. That’s basic.
10) Talk to people who don’t agree with us. Also basic is the need to get out of our cocoons, and go do the work of listening to our fellow Wisconsinites who aren’t yet on our side (most of them are not flying Confederate flags!). We need to talk with them respectfully, and engage them in a conversation about the kind of society we’d all want to live in.
Let’s go to it!