Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Threat Narratives, Personal and Collective

Fear and ignorance have a way of creating massive story lines about reality. Anyone who has watched the news lately, or read a mainstream newspaper, has seen articles about drug related violence in Mexican border towns that is supposedly sliding into the United States. Indeed, if you listen to nearly every politician these days, you would think the United States is close to being under attack by roving Latin American drug gangs. The Obama Administration which, when it took office was claiming a new, more humane approach to immigration in general, and the U.S./Mexican border "issue" in particular, has rolled out more of the same in dramatic increases in militarization and undocumented immigration detention monies. Others, like Republican Senator John McCain or his counterpart in the Arizona Governor's office, Jan Brewer, are drumming up hysteria with draconian legislative efforts and talk of a nation under siege.

I found this interesting article this morning, which looks at the actual murder rates in U.S. border towns, and considers them in relation to national perceptions about the border. The following lines I found particularly compelling:

The same week Obama announced his troop increase, Texas Sen. John Cornyn—who wants to redirect $2.2 billion from the stimulus for border security—wrote in an op-ed: “Our porous border endangers every American, yet Washington refuses to make border security a priority.” When reporters pressed Cornyn in a phone conference about the violence he so feared, the senator got stuck. “As far as the Texas border is concerned, to my knowledge, we have not had spillover violence, per se,” he told reporters. It was actually “the threat of potential spill over violence,” he later clarified.

More accurately, it’s the perception of that violence. Because the realities simply do not support the rhetoric about public safety in border states.

Perceptions. Ah, anyone who has spent some time in a Buddhist community or even in a psychology classroom should some familiarity with how faulty are perceptions can be.

Now, I'm not going to say that things along the border are peaceful; that would be another lie. There is some trouble and it's coming from many directions. Latin Drug gang members. Rogue U.S. Border Security members. White Supremacists who think they are border guards. Starvation and dehydration amongst undocumented people attempting to cross into the U.S. There are many locales of violence one can point to, but it's not flowing in the single direction the mainstream media and our political leaders are claiming. And yet, poll after poll, including one by CNN after the passage of the controversial Arizona immigration law, suggest that many Americans believe our nation is in some kind of grave danger:

The poll, which questioned American adults rather than registered or likely voters, revealed the following changes:

* Those who want the number of illegal immigrants decreased went up three points in seven months to 76%
* Those who want all illegal immigrants expelled increased four points to 41%
* The split on whether immigration reform should focus on normalization or enforcement increased from 41/56 in December 2005 to 38/60 today
* Support for border fence went from a steady 45% over the last 4 years to 54%
* Support for stiff employer fines rose from 58% in 2006 to 71%
* Increasing federal agents at the border now supported by 88%, up from 74%

The reporting source of this information itself, Numbers USA, is one of the many anti-immigrant think tanks spreading lies and distorted information into the U.S. media, government, and corporate worlds. In fact, if you take any time to examine such things as polling questions about immigration, you'll quickly discover that they are frequently leading questions littered with loaded words. In other words, it's really easy to lose track of the realities when it comes to issues like immigration and violence.

Here are a few statistics to contrast with the attitudes expressed above:

The murder rate in San Diego, Calif., dropped by 25 percent last year. Phoenix’s decreased by 27 percent. El Paso saw a 29 percent drop in murders, bested by Tucson, Ariz., which saw a 46 percent decline in murders. The national murder rate went down just 10 percent from 2008 to 2009.

When it comes to violent crime more generally, all four of these border cities hover around four to six violent crimes per capita, just under the national average of 6.6.

Here's the thing about all this: it's pretty easy to go back and forth about statistics in an effort to defend your position. I expect someone will probably try this tactic with this post because every immigration-related post I have done, especially those where I have explicitly called out the racism behind a lot the "security measures," has had such responses. That's easy. I've heard every argument under the sun in support of border security, stopping undocumented immigrants, and lowering immigration numbers in general - and I can argue U.S. immigration policy and history with the best of them. But you know what, who cares?

I'm more interested these days in how people, including myself, get tripped up in faulty perceptions. And how belief in those perceptions leads us to do things which increase our suffering in sometimes dramatic ways.

White people living in border states like Arizona, who believe their state and country are under attack, live with a hell of a lot of stress, don't you think? And how much of that stress is linked to realities, and how much to perceived threats?

Americans of any racial background who feel our nation is gravely threatened by "invading Latin American drug cartels," and who support the funneling of billions of our tax dollars to border security related measures, are often also the same people who are struggling to make ends meet financially and are seeing the few government safety nets, however flawed they are, being destroyed because the money is going to security and war efforts. The "freedom isn't free" crowd is slitting their own throats in my opinion, and taking the rest of us with them for the ride.

I won't apologize for the blunt, direct, and yes, opinionated language of this post. As a Buddhist, and as an person active in my community, I feel that the ramped up perception of threat narratives we are manifesting daily are probably some of the most damaging around. they eat away at community connections, drive nationalistic xenophobia, feed war machines, and compel our leaders to drain collective financial resources and misuse defense forces so terribly that we can't access them in times of need.

Think of how many natural disasters have happened in the U.S. over the past decade, and how often there was a lack of National Guard troops or others available to intervene quickly and minimize the damage that occurred. Or look at the Gulf Coast oil spill. Even though President Obama authorized 17,500 National Guard troops to be
used to help with the disaster, only about 1,400 are currently in action. Now, there are probably various reasons for this, including interference from BP officials, but it's hard to imagine that the high numbers of National Guard members out patrolling mostly quiet border lands, or who are deployed in Afghanistan or Iraq, are not impacting the numbers being used in the Gulf.

So, this is one example of a collective threat narrative which is causing suffering for everyone involved. However, even if you don't believe the myths about the border, if you are like me, you still have threat narratives that rule parts of your life. I've had plenty of threat narratives tied to my current job over the past few years. A few of them turned out to be true, and the rest were either somewhat misguided or totally false. I've had similar experiences when it comes to romantic relationships, friendships, and even about family members. The fear, grief, and lack of trust behind these narratives can't emerge from the depths if we don't first pay attention to the stories, and see them for what they are.

What about you? What "threat narratives" have gripped you and how have you worked with them?

In the end, we can agree or disagree about immigration policy and whatnot, but it's what we do with the various threat narratives in our lives that is most important. In fact, I'd argue that the well being of our practice, relationships, and communities depend upon us facing these narratives head on, and not giving into their drama and seductiveness.


Anonymous said...

I'm thinking your blog might use some tags; might help your readers.

Maybe some tags like
-1/2 hearted Buddhists
-orthodox, conservative, reformed practices
-Buddhist denominations
-trends spectator
-personal insights
-my local sanga
-lake MN woe be gone
-not too much Buddhism

I guess "trreat narratives" might go in trends spectator and personal insights. After a while we could rank categories according to the number of posts.

just grinning here, nothing too serious you understand... just commenting. Do you see what I see, or do you see... different dharma gates?

Nathan said...

I suppose. Glad you're having some fun. Maybe I'll tag things sometime - right now I'd rather just write and let people categorize however they are going to.

Unknown said...

I appreciate the informed engagement with important socio-political issues that directly affect lots and lots of people's lives. Too often, it seems to me, the discourse in America's spiritually-oriented communities seems to take place in a bubble where it's all about me and/or my group, and everything outside feels very very distant.
Re threat narratives, clearly this has been driving us heavily since 9/11. Now with the recession, there's the intensified desire to find scapegoats and simplistic explanations for the fear, pain, and distress that so many people are experiencing. The threat of non-white people invading has unfortunately always been a powerful trope in American history.

Anonymous said...

So lets see Carol your ready to hand choice sets are:
-informed engagement - hm...engaged with info on the computer screen?
-post 911 reactionaries [to threats]
-isolated & self interested spiritual huddles
-tisk-tisking scapegoat makers
-unfortunate & historical American tropes.

No green grass anywhere, no smiles, no visible personal commitments for this or the next generation, nothing proactive everything reactive; Sounds like permanent observer status or worse [informed cynicism]

See any thing worth grabbing onto somewhere to participate in the civilizing process? What?

I see you, you see me, sitting on the fence post tee hee hee?

Anonymous said...

Different thoughts on this subject here:

Nathan said...

Too bad no one took me up on the offer to share how they deal with threat narratives in their lives.

Anonymous said...

How to stop being a "threat narrative" reactionary

Some ideas:

-stop watching cable "news" forever
-take a walk in your own neighborhood
-make your bed & wash the dishes
-teach literacy or read to an Alzheimers patient
-un-elect Michelle Bachman
-go to the farmers market

Nathan said...

Thank you anonymous. I like those suggestions. Makes me think there is more than one person behind the anonymous' on this post :)

Adam said...

Threat narratives play into one of our most basic and powerful emotions: fear. they are hard to recognize and easily take over your otherwise rational self.

How do I deal with them? Generally poorly! I'm human! I get caught up in them like most people. And it usually takes some time for me to come to my senses. I do this through investigation and purposefully exposing myself to contrasting opinions and researching them. But I'm no where near perfect in this regard.

Captcha word: supessil - sounds like the next Rx heart medication to me.