Sunday, May 7, 2017

Notes from the Frontier of an Empire in Decline

[Guest Blog]

1. DEEP IN FAR WEST TEXAS: WHERE THE WALL WILL NOT BE BUILT.

Build a Wall! Build a Wall! Build a Wall!

Empires may decay at their centres but they fray at their frontiers. If the American Empire has a frontier, it is its 1500 mile southern border with Mexico, especially the stretch of the frontier which runs along the Rio Grande river between Texas and Mexico. And just as the Romans looked uneasily over their frontier walls at the approaching barbarians, and the Chinese did likewise over their Great Wall, so today many Americans would like to see a wall built against encroaching Hispanicisation. Such was offered to them by Donald Trump during his recent and victorious electoral campaign, and this promise resonated with the crowds baying in unison their approval. And not just those crowds.

“This is why we need a wall to secure our borders,” wrote Sid Miller, the Texas Agriculture Minister in an internet post shortly before Trump’s inauguration on January 20th,explaining, ”There are violent criminals and members of drug cartels coming in and we must put a stop to it.” This statement by such a high ranking Texas government official was after the report that two men had been shot on a remote ranch in Presidio County, in Far West Texas, by Mexican interlopers who had tried to steal the victims’ RV vehicle, a report Miller then retailed. The Presidio County Sheriff Office put out a statement that this was false news, and that the two men had been hurt in a “friendly fire” hunting accident with no other involvement. Despite this Miller has refused to withdraw his post-truth alternative-facts interpretation of the shooting and doubtless most Texans now believe the false version of the event, and take it as confirmation of their paranoid fears. (Not all these fears are groundless, however. The same week $2 million dollars worth of crystal meth was seized in a car at the legal crossing port of Presidio, concealed in the tyres and bumpers of a vehicle driver in from Mexico by a drug gang.)

Far West Texas was the Last American Frontier on the march to American Manifest Destiny.”Ain’t No Law West of the Pecos” (the eastern river boundary of Far West Texas) used to be said long after the rest of the West was won. Victorio and his Apache bands raided here till the 1880s despite the $200 offered for every Indian scalp, man, woman, or child, and even until 1921 the area of Big Bend at the Mexican border was occupied by US troops, fighting both Mexican revolutionaries like Pancho Villa who invaded the USA, or engaging in hot pursuit into Mexico itself after Mexican bandits who themselves raided over US the border. The bandits were seldom offered the chance of a trail when caught. It is an area which was Confederate in the Civil War, having enslaved Mexicans and native Americans rather than negroes, and has been-like the rest of Texas, overwhelmingly Republican since one of Texas’ less honoured sons, Lyndon B Johnson, devoted himself to advancing Civil Rights in the 1960s. It is no accident that in was in Texas, that the Bushes, George and Dubya, founded their ranch and found their spiritual home. You are much more likely to see a Texas flag than a stars and stripes on people’s homes hereabouts, and even the occasional Confederate one flutters as well. Freedom or Death, Don’t Mess with Texas, has been the traditional mindset. Road signs are peppered with bullet holes, and shops of all description carry signs welcoming customers who are carrying arms in defence of their civil liberties.

But Far West Texas is changing. This area was stolen from Mexico in a series of aggressive wars from the 1820s to the 1840s - cue Davy Crockett, Alamo and All That, but it is being slowly wrested back by Hispanic immigration. El Paso contains the bulk of the population of the area, about 700,000 of Far West Texas’ - the area between the Rio Grande and the River Pecos - total of approximately 800,000. Thirty years ago El Paso was 50% Hispanic 50% white; now it is 80% Hispanic. And as traditional industries of ranching and mining contract, the white population of the rest of sparsely inhabited Far West Texas is also changing, and consists increasingly of liberal minded incomers seeking an area where the excellent climate gives opportunities for outdoor enthusiasts, and the landscape gives inspiration for artistic workers of all sorts. Former mining towns like Terlingua which once produced mercury are now flourishing artistic and musical centres, gaining an almost entirely new population in the last 30 years or so. The most redneck area of Texas, where films like Giant were set, is becoming one of the more liberal and tolerant in some locations.
I recently spent a week in Terlingua soaking up the musical scene, centred largely on the Starlight Theatre, which used to be the cinema of the mining town in days gone by and is now a great restaurant with music almost every night. Some of the musicians are people who have settled here, some are transients who flock here in winter for the climate and a chance to sing for their suppers. It was good to hear a wizened old timer singing in the Starlight, performing a take-off of Merle Haggard’s redneck anthem Oakie from Miskogie, re-rendering the original illiberal words as
We all smoke dope down in terlingua/Some of use even tried LSD
We dont hate gays down in Terlingua, and we don’t hang negroes from the trees.
I talked with him afterwards on the porch outside the theatre where people engage in jamming sessions under the stars, and hope to get their foot in the door and he told me, “Ain’t 10 people in this whole town voted for that *********Trump.”
(Illustration contributed by the author of this article.)
Even in this relative backwoods, which remains the most sparsely populated and probably most remote part of the mainland USA ( it is 600 miles to Dallas!) marches in defence of the threats to women’s rights and immigrant rights have been called in towns such as Marfa and Alpine by those who feel threatened by the implications of a Trump Presidency, adverts have appeared in local newspapers such as the Big Bend Sentinel, paid for by local activist groups , stating “We the People are Greater than Fear, We are Greater than Hate” and in certain areas the local authorities have refused to implement anti-immigrant measures and created immigrant-friendly zones. The central legislature in Texas, strongly Republican, is threatening to move against these “sanctuary zones” threatening legal and financial penalties. The Proposed Senate Texas Bill No.4 put forward in the current Texas Legislative Session by Senator Charles Perry specifically targets these “sanctuary areas”. Other proposed legislation would restrict access by dependents of unregistered immigrants to education. The Republican lawmakers know their targets.

El Paso County has officially resolved to decline to enforce federal immigration laws, and has been supported by a coalition - Reform Immigration for Texas Alliance (RITA) - which wants to legalise all undocumented immigrants and this in turn had found support from El Paso Democrat Senator Jose Rodriguez, who has called for  “the rejection of the politics of racism, division and hatred, in favour of the principles of human dignity and rights.” The struggle between the forces which brought Trump to power and those appalled by that victory, are engaged, not just in Washington but also here in the area that is probably the Back of Even Beyond in mainland USA.

The outcome of this struggle over the next four years is uncertain. But one thing is certain, There Will Be No Wall. You just have to come out to Far West Texas and look at the pathetic trickle that is the Rio Grande once it has been raped upstream for agricultural irrigation in semidesert areas, for golf course and lawn watering, for industrial and power-generation use, and realise that at most parts of its 1,000 mile-plus meander through the Texas-Mexico borderland, you could walk across the river at many places with feet dry. And the immigrants do, then taking to the huge uninhabited areas as passage to what they hope is a better life. Despite the mega millions spent on Border patrols these are tokenist at best; car checks on roads that no sane cayote (illegal drug or people smuggler) would use. To police even the Texas portion of the border efficiently would require probably the entire resources of the US Army, and the costs of constructing any even partially effective wall would be beyond the spending capacity of a country already more indebted than any previously in history to the tune of trillions of dollars.

Technically and economically the idea of a wall is revealed as an absurdity as you stand on the banks of the Rio Grande. And even if the USA could build such a construction, the Great Wall did not save China, nor did walls like Hadrian’s save Rome. A nation that was the world’s banker until the end of the 1980s is now dependent for its economic survival of loans from China. The American century is over, the American Empire is in decline and the great metaphor for this decline is the situation on its Rio Grande frontier with the Hispanic world.

I.M.

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