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Allegory and Alterity: Regulating Labor, Immigration, and the Ruinous Emblems of Hate in Michigan

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Michigan is the site for draconian laws from a Republican Governor and Arizona-copying cowboy legislators, yet perhaps the undead symbol of white supremacy should be legislated most of all.

by Mike Mosher


I. Against Teachers and Crossing Guards

Michigan's the United State's eleventh biggest in area, eighth largest in population, but you knew that. One could say its cultural history is rich in emblematic symbols: Henry Ford's Model T, United Auto Workers' organizer Walter Reuther's being clubbed in the "Battle of the Overpass", "Flying Fortress" B-29s rolling off the Willow Run bomber plant, tail fins on big 1950s cars and the sleek muscular Mustang in the '60s. Motown performers dressed beautifully to croon smooth love songs, American flags and White Panther emblems graced the MC5's stages, the male body was pushed to extremes on the Stooges'. In each, it is the connotations that carry meanings, intensely sociopolitical, beyond the strict and literal definitions of what you’re seeing and hearing.

“May you live in interesting time” goes the ancient curse, and these are interesting times for Michigan politics. Over a thousand irate citizens rallied to the call of the AFL-CIO to assemble at the state capitol in Lansing on March 16, 2011 to protest the budget proposed by Governor Rick Snyder. Snyder ran in 2010 as a “tough nerd” against Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero, despite having moved jobs offshore in his Gateway Computer Company executive experience. Snyder’s state budget contains generous tax cuts for corporations, yet institutes taxes on pensions and social security for the first time in Michigan.

Unions are more than just an organization of their members. They instigate the passage of workplace legislation, and each win that raises wages generally raises the prevailing wage for all workers in the area. To defeat unions is a symbolic victory for the business community, even while the workers have less money to spend, less security and less loyalty to the job. Compared to union-busting Republican Governors in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana, Snyder affirmed the right of public employees to collectively bargain as protests against Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker surged in the state capitol in Madison. Walker follows the Republican strategy of painting union members as the Other, depicting labor organizations stuffed with overpaid union bureaucrats (don’t notice salaries infinitesimal compared to those of corporate executives) rather than discuss America’s moderately compensated rank and file. As government workers and school teachers are among the best organized sectors of the nation’s employed, failure to organize other sectors, this fits into Ronald Reagan’s tradition of representing government—the public sector—as the enemy. And his administration’s favorite, Grover Norquist, who added the grisly image of government “strangled in the bathtub” to our political discourse. As teachers’ unions have numbered among the nation’s most progressive in recent years, they are especially in the crosshairs of foes of public education, the home-schoolers and creationists.

A former Democratic Speaker of the House railed against the teachers’ union’s “Cadillac” health plan (costing him his party’s nomination for the 2010 Gubenatorial race). But that plan probably saved my own life, and allowed me to have cardiac surgery at a leading university hospital downstate, rather than the local one that a few months before gave me a salty baloney sandwich while suffering salt-induced pulmonary edema. The unionized teachers and public workers’ problem isn’t that they have good health care, it’s that we have done little to organize our neighbors’ workplaces so they could collectively bargain for health care. Health care, internationally (except in the US) recognize as a human right, of all a society’s citizens.

Without Walker-like salvo aimed specifically at organized labor, some of us hoped, however naively, he would be temperate and moderate, a business Republican of a generation ago, in the tradition of the US President that Michigan produced,Gerald Ford. Then Snyder proposed sweeping emergency management powers for municipalities in fiscal crisis, which caused Rachel Maddow to conclude “Michigan is Screwed”. This is an odd solution, since the emergency administrator of Detroit Public Schools Robert Bobb has not proven to be the hoped-for savior of that system. What organized labor in Michigan clearly realizes is that one power that the administrator of a bankrupt city, county or government agency—starved of revenues into insolvency by tax-cutting Republican politicians—would be to dissolve all union contracts. The hidden meaning within the narrative is a return to the bad old days of the open shop again.

Maddow returned her gaze to Michigan, the de-industrialized and predominantly African American city Benton Harbor on Lake Michigan, where the emergency city manager appointed by Snyder is proven to have financial interest in the obliteration of a lakeside city park for a private development. We return to the most craven graft and cronyism of nineteenth-century America.

This is the political climate around labor in Michigan, rife with allegory. To this has been added a campaign against illegal immigrants.

II. Raising Arizona

House Bill Number 4305 was introduced February 22, 2011, by Representative Dave Agema of the 74th District around Grandville. It was given rhetorical flourish as "the support our law enforcement and safe neighborhoods act" and co-sponsored by Republican Representatives Thomas Hooker, Peter Pettalia, Bob Genetski, Ray Franz, Matt Huuki, Marty Knollenberg, Joel Johnson, Anthony Forlini, Ben Glardon, Dale W. Zorn, Philip Potvin, Paul Opsommer, Kurt Damrow, Bill Rogers, Matt Lori, Paul Scott and referred to the Committee on Judiciary. It claims drily to be:

A bill to provide for the determination of the immigration status of persons present in this state under certain circumstances; to allow for the enforcement of immigration laws in this state and the detaining and transportation of persons unlawfully present in the United States; to allow for certain civil actions; and to provide for certain civil fines and criminal penalties.

It begins with its compliance with federal laws "regulating immigration while protecting the civil rights of all persons and respecting the privileges and immunities of United States citizens." It goes on to require all state agencies to “verify the lawful presence in the United States of any natural person 18 years of age or older who has applied” for any benefits. It goes on to magnanimously NOT require "verification of lawful presence" for emergency medical care" not related to an organ transplant procedure, or for short-term non-cash emergency disaster relief, even some public health services.

Verification is required… but there's plenty of room for interpretation, as item 6 reads:

Agencies or political subdivisions of this state may adopt variations to the requirements of the provisions of this section that demonstrably improve the efficiency or reduce delay in the verification process or to provide for adjudication of unique individual circumstances where the verification procedures in this section would impose unusual hardship on a legal resident of this state.

There’s a lot of wiggle room in that.

Section 2 requires any law enforcement officer who

has lawfully stopped, detained, or arrested, for a violation of a law of this state or any political subdivision of this state, a person who is or should reasonably be suspected of being unlawfully present in the United States,

then:

a complete, full, and appropriate attempt shall be made to verify the person's immigration status with the federal government. The person's immigration status shall be verified through a query to the appropriate entity of the federal government,

and provision of a drivers' license is considered sufficient ID to allay suspicion.

In section 3, the alien who is unlawfully present in the United States and convicted shall serve their time, then "transferred immediately to the custody of the United States immigration and customs enforcement or the United States customs and border protection.

Section 5 reads:

A law enforcement officer, with or without a warrant, may arrest a person if the officer has probable cause to believe that the person has committed a public offense that makes the person removable from the United States.

Conspiracy (in league with their parents) to Appear Mexican, perhaps?

Law enforcement agencies shall exchange information as they wish. While somebody who feels wrong can bring suit in circuit court, the fines are limited and the law enforcement officer shall be indemnified against costs and expenses, including attorney's feels, incurred with the action.Anyone who fails to carry alien registration document is:

guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment for not more than 91 days or a fine of not more than $500.00, or both. In addition to any other penalty prescribed by law, the court shall order the offender to pay jail costs and an additional civil fine of $500.00 for a first violation and $1,000.00 for a second or subsequent offense."

Does this mean someone might be incarcerated 91 days and fined $1500 for failing to carry their ID a second time?

The bill's primary sponsor Dave Agema is the State Representative from the 74th District. This district is centered around Grandville, a suburb of Michigan's second largest city, Grand Rapids; solidly Republican for decades (perhaps a century or more, though I haven't checked), and the home of the aforementioned Gerald Ford.

This is an emblem of western intolerance, as surely as if Dave Arizona, I mean, Agema and his posse had donned cowboy hats and muttered "We don't like your kind around here" over clenched teeth around a cheroot. But I don't believe Michigan has an immigration problem. Few in my town, even the unemployed, are concerned with the status of the Mexican men visible in the kitchen of the Chinese buffet when the door swings open. Since our move from northern California to mid-Michigan in 2000, my wife has marveled at how few agricultural laborers we see, remembering the populous fields around Half Moon Bay, or Watsonville, a stronghold of Cesar Chavez's United Farm Workers. Labor in the fields mid-state is best characterized by a single farmer, steering an enclosed-cab tractor. In the southwestern part of the state, migrants pick cherries or succulent berries. In the 1990s a colleague on the board of a northern California public access television facility was a Latina from the western part of Michigan. She laughed how she was the only brown face among the pink ones in her community heavily populated by the descendants of settlers from the Netherlands.

Very quickly people of conscience began to oppose Agema's bill. On March 1, 2011, a press conference was held at St. Francis Church in Traverse City. Hosted by Citizens for Immigrant Rights and the Alliance for Immigration Reform (AIR) Father Wayne Dziekan, Peace and Justice Secretariat of the Gaylord Catholic Diocese, along with Justin Grimm, pastor of the Advent Lutheran Church in Lake Ann, and Joshua Wunsch, fruit farmer on the Old Mission Peninsula all spoke against this bill. The press conference was attended by about 50 people. Besides that, there has been opposition by the Asian Pacific Americans in Michigan, and a piece in the Arab American News articulated that community's skepticism of the motivations behind the bill, and its grim results should it pass.

III. What Agema Was Thinking

Yet Representative Agema has defended his bill when criticized. When the Holland Sentinel editorialized against HB 4305, Agema wrote them:

HB 4305 does not discriminate. If the editor would have read the bill and understood existing law, he would have noticed the only thing new for police officers is that they can take illegal immigrants across state lines if necessary and bring them to ICE (Immigration Control Enforcement). The law already allows police to check for legal status when someone has committed a crime and has no identification. Current law also allows punishment if profiling occurs—you missed that important detail in the bill.

Then why do we need to take the Legislature's time to reiterate this? Well, Agema added:

The new law would punish cities that become “sanctuary cities,” by intentionally harboring illegal immigrants, which is already against federal law.

And this impetus is rich in allegory, for liberal Ann Arbor and majority African-American Detroit are the only cities that have declared sanctuary of illegals. When the Other has control of government, cooler heads around the State must prevail. Ann Arbor declared itself a Sanctuary City in 2003, and in 2008 its Interfaith Council on Immigration Rights asked its City Council to direct local police to stay out of any immigration enforcement. The website of Ann Arbor's Washtenaw Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights, suggests Michigan would resemble wartime Casablanca with a video clip from the classic movie of that name.

Agema goes on to claim:

Nationally only about 3 percent of illegal immigrants are on farms, 97 percent are in construction on roads, bridges, roofing, drywall, and in hospitality. These are all jobs Americans need.

Says who? Agema then brings up the source of his figures:

FAIR (the Federation for American Immigration Reform) estimated we spent $929 million last year in Michigan on illegal aliens for health care, education, welfare, jails and human services. This is an important issue, not one to be dismissed.

In a March 20 letter to the Sentinel, Robert Jara pointed out the risk of racial profiling. He cited analysis by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), tireless chronicler of racial instigation in our land, of FAIR’s racism, its “veneer of legitimacy” and disturbing ties to white supremacist groups.

Source credibility, Mr. Agema.

On January 12, 2011 I posted my own opinion on Representative Agema’s website:

Why do you hate Michigan business? Friends in Arizona tell us the boycott (which we support) of the state and its products after its anti-Mexican bill is having an effect. Now you're introducing a similar hateful bill, HB 4305, and we are deeply opposed to it. HB 4305 is not Michigan Republican policy in the tradition of George Romney and Gerald Ford, but something shameful. Please withdraw your support for HB 4305.

On January 14, Rep. Agema was courteous enough to email me a personal response, again, citing FAIR:

According to FAIR we spent $929 million on illegals for health care, education, welfare, jails and human services- so it's a budget issue. It's a security issue because we are a border state and have huge numbers living in various parts of the state, including DTW [airport code for Detroit and surrounding Wayne County]. It's a jobs issue because they take jobs from legal citizens and only 3% of illegals are on farms, the rest are in construction, roads, bridges, hospitality etc.. All jobs that Michigan citizens deserve since we have 12% unemployment.

It's not hateful to protect our citizens from people who take advantage of our system at the expense of others while breaking our laws. I wouldn't be doing my job nor honoring my oath of office if I overlooked this issue.

I was a pilot during 9/11. I have seen thousands of illegals entering our country on my flights prior to 9/11. Since then we were one of the easiest states to get a drivers license in the USA; hence, they came here to get them then migrated to other states as well.

Countering my call for him to retract HB4305, and my terming the bill “hateful”, he summed up:

You obviously don't know the expense nor the security risk we are under. It's a jobs issue, fiscal issue and security issue. I will not retract nor will I permit people that know so little of the issue call it hateful. It's hateful for you to allow people to break the law at another’s expense. Come here legally, or don't come, period. My forefathers did. They can too.

Rep. Dave Agema

When confused by the logic of contemporary events, law-and-order Republicans seem to bring up those forefathers and founding fathers a lot. The richest political allegories, across the globe, center around ancestors; blood and soil.

I sent my concerns to District 96 Representative Charles Brunner, who also courteously emailed me to point out the bill had not moved out of committee by April 14th. He wrote:

This bill as it is currently written is not something that I would support. I want you to know that I do not want Michigan to adopt this Arizona style legislation.

One might expect report from the cosmopolitan and multiethnic business group Global Detroit to write of the important role of immigrants to its business community, but in northeastern Michigan, equally conservative and Caucasian as Dave Agema's turf, Up North Live Kate Fox reported on the Michigan League for Human Services' report "Good for Business: Rolling out the Welcome Mat in Michigan” on proven benefits of welcoming immigrants to the state and the bad consequences of anti-immigration legislation. These statistics stand in contrast to FAIR's, for this report warns:

Michigan stands to lose over $3.8 billion in economic activity, $1.7 billion in gross state product, and approximately 20,000 jobs with the removal of all unauthorized workers from the labor force.

It is refreshing to see business admitting this fact. The report goes on to note how unauthorized immigrants are subject to sales and property taxes and many pay into the Social Security system, but fail to collect benefits. A story by on illegals voluntarily paying income taxes also appeared on NPR Latino USA in March, 2011.

Ms. Fox also cited how immigrants are responsible for 33 percent of all high-tech startups, making Michigan third among all states in its new high-tech business opportunities. In 1994, as California was embroiled in the campaign for its anti-illegals Proposition 187, Philippe Kahn, CEO of the successful business and developer software company Borland, pointed out that he came here from France as an illegal alien himself. Proposition 187 saw its most controversial plank, the denial of health care to illegals, voided five years later.

Cool heads in the private sector look at the numbers. Michigan Republicanism has been traditionally concerned more with profits from factory, small business or farm than demagoguery. What Dave Agema and his fellow Republican co-sponsors of the bill fail to recognize is the negative impact on Arizona’s business that its own immigration bill has generated. Last summer the listed the numerous municipalities and organizations boycotting the state.

This winter the New York Times noted how new anti-immigration bills died in the Legislature after Arizona’s business lobby rejected them, and how:

Sixty chief executives signed a letter to the Legislature saying the harsh immigration measures were having “unintended consequences” — boycotts, lost jobs, canceled contracts…. The chief executive of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Glenn Hamer, said the reaction to Arizona’s extremism had already cost the state $15 million to $150 million in lost tourism revenue.

I know that my household boycotts Arizona, since its voters passed laws against illegals (allegorically, Mexicans) and ethnic studies. We've told each professional organization to which we belong we won't travel to conferences there. We easily avoid the sports teams, the airlines, the pet food, truck rental and hotel chain based in the state. The hardest, saddest company to give up is Fender Musical Instruments, yet I don't recall the company speaking up, or organizing musicians to fight Arizona’s un-American laws. If my Telecaster has become a symbol of racism, it'll stay in its case. Guess it's a good time to play piano (OK, I'm better on it too) instead.

So this is what Agema and the Republican Agemites, in their rush to legislate without sufficient research, are willing to bring upon Michigan.

The New York Times noted April 14 that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a trial judge’s ruling that blocked parts of Arizona’s immigration law, deciding that requiring police check immigration status intrudes onto federal responsibilities. Judge John Noonan wrote:

That 50 individual states or one individual state should have a foreign policy is absurdity too gross to be entertained.

III. Righteous Indignation

Let me offer a counter proposal, a call for a law more necessary than HB 4305. Despite rich ongoing histories of many communities--Chicana/o, Arab, Gay/Lesbian--the predominant or central racial narrative in Michigan, especially in its southeast and the industrial cities northeast of Detroit, has been that of whites and blacks. There are significant ways in which the immigration wave called the Great Migration, bringing black people in large numbers from the rural south to the industrial cities of the north from the 1920s through 1940s, created a social wound that has yet to be fully healed. Atop that, the civil rights achievements of the 1960s, the flowering of African-American culture, white political reaction and ensuing “flight” into enforced hegemony or cultural evasion have, in concert, maintained tropes of race and emblems of identity deeply loaded with sub-rosa meanings.

I would support a law making it illegal to display in public the Confederate battle flag. The sole exception to the rule might be a municipality’s single annual Civil War enactment (like Bay City, Michigan’s River of Time This might result in a wave of “historic pageants” across the southern US.

The historical record shows 14,790 men from Michigan who went to fight in the war died, from violence, accident or incarceration. Another 279 were listed as "Missing in Action" and probably killed. As I’ve watched too many Presidents in my lifetime send troops overseas to die needlessly, I've felt America's war, after the American War of Independence, on the most sound moral foundation was the war between the states, the Civil War of 1861-65. When I see a Confederate flag, I ask why does its bearer hate these men?

I write this shortly after the 150th anniversary of the firing upon Fort Sumpter, and anniversaries of the Battle of Manassas and other battles loom upon us. As a child I was impressed by statues in each Michigan or Wisconsin small town I visited of a Union Soldier, honoring the farmers and their sons who, a hundred years before, marched off to preserve the nation. Similarly, it is inconceivable to me that statues of insurrectionist soldiers remain to this day in town squares in the southern United States. The obliteration of the terrorist statuary on Stone Mountain, Georgia is of course imperative.

I am angered when I (surprisingly often) see pickup trucks sporting the Confederate flag in mid-Michigan, but know this display is rooted in the fact that about 1960 the flag was re-introduced as a banner of opposition to racial integration and civil rights for black people. The inclusive and progressive Mississippi intellectual Vernon Chadwick tried in the early 1990s to reclaim the symbol in his critical journal the Southern Reader, publishing a version that was redrawn by his brother, with flowers instead of stars to serve as as a symbol of peaceful, “green” regionalism.

If a Confederate flag is so distasteful to me, how must it read to an African American? Jack Wood of TIME magazine has called it "the American swastika", and the mark of the enemy.

Similarly, I support the ban on Nazi regalia and the swastika in European countries that suffered under it. Like the Confederate flag, some images may be simply irredeemable, and thus should be proscribed, for where they appear, bad things happen.

A generation ago when the Nazis marched in Muncie, Indiana, it was clearly insulting and distasteful to World War II veterans and Muncie's Jewish residents, including Holocaust survivors. The American Civil Liberties Union defended the Nazi march. I understand their argument, that its ban in our nation could then lead to the ban on the hammer and sickle or any other imagery.

I lament that Michigan’s Senator Debbie Stabenow voted for the flag-burning amendment in 2006. I know how the act of burning an American flag would be about the worst thing to positively influence my patriotic neighbors, which include many military veterans, on any issue. One recalls historic images of numerous American flags and mammoth pictures of Washington and Lincoln at CPUSA rallies in the 1930s and Popular Front years, in hopes of catching the attention and heart of the average Joe and Jane. The flag and the historic Presidents were also prominently displayed at Nazi-supporting Bund rallies of the same era.

When a Nazi group considered such a march in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1979, law student David Lockard considered renting clown suits, and attending the rally with a bunch of clown-suited friends carrying signs with mottoes like Bozos for White Culture. The intention was to draw away all the media attention from the racists and their message. Humor and parody might ultimately prove the best democratic solvent to hate speech, but prohibition of its symbols remains worthy of debate.

The Confederate flag has been displayed onstage by Michigan's Kid Rock, who likes to present himself as a good ol’ stoner from Troy like the men working on its assembly lines (until the factories moved offshore). Yet Rock was nevertheless honored by the NAACP at the Detroit chapter’s 2011 dinner. Kid Rock justifies his use of the flag as a symbol of southern rock n’ roll, not racism. And if you truly believe that he believes that, there’s a bridge from Detroit to Canada I’m willing to sell you.

And the Governor has only the citizens' best interests at heart. The immigration law won't result in racial profiling. Things in Michigan are always what they seem.

IV. Comes Marching Home

In pondering allegories in The Origin of German Tragic Drama (1925), Walter Benjamin determined that:

The word ‘history’ stands written on the countenance of nature in the characters of transience. The allegorical physiognomy of nature-history...is present in reality in the form of the ruin... And in this guise history does not assume the form in the process of an eternal life so much as that of irresistible decay. Allegory thereby declares itself to be beyond beauty. Allegories are, in the realm of thoughts, what ruins are in the realm of things. That explains the baroque cult of the ruin.

Or the Republican cult of the ruin. The non-union workplace. The border impermeable to illegals, patrolled by honest non-prejudiced cops. The Old South. These are numinous allegorical ruins various members of the GOP and retrograde forces in my state are trying to restore.

The noted Civil War documentarian, Michigan-raised Ken Burns wrote in the New York Times of "the acoustic shadows" of the conflict that persist to this day. He might have called it America’s richest allegory, for every one of its symbols in the popular imagination—Uncle Tom, Honest Abe, Gone With the Wind—has a meaning beyond the literal. Meanwhile, the entire constellation of phenomena adding up to the southernization of the United States—non-union manufacturing, fundamentalist Christian hegemony, more single-race public schools and stalled integration of neighborhoods, distrust of immigrants, and Lynyrd Skynrd singing about that damn Governor (George Wallace, famous segregationist)—is deeply disturbing.

This political season is Michigan's Manassas, a battlefield between forces committed to vastly different visions of society and justice within it. I lament that public unions like my own haven't worked harder to support the goal of a 100% unionized workforce, one that would further bridge remaining gulfs between black and white. And to somehow, by some method beyond my own comprehension as I write this, to organize the illegals, to prevent their victimization at the hands of politicians like Dave Agema.

Let us repurpose timeworn patriotic mottoes for the ongoing fight in Michigan against defining an Other in terms of immigration status or race. I can think of one, in Latin on the Michigan state seal, that might sit well with a good line from an otherwise dubious pledge:

If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look around you. With liberty and justice for all.



Michigan-centric Mike Mosher has been a Bad Subject since 1994. Graphics © Mike Mosher 2011.

Quote on ruins from Benjamin, Walter, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, Introduced by George Steiner, Translated by John Osborne, London, 2003, Verso, p. 177-178.

Copyright © Mike Mosher. All rights reserved.
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