How Comment Sections for Online Newspapers Have Turned into Hate Crime Scenes
The unexpected new locations for hate crime scenes in the 21st century appear to be the comments sections of the nation's leading newspapers, where calls to violence have become routine and through which progressives have decided correcting the record is a waste of their time.
Hate crime scenes are dehumanizing places of revulsion. They shock the conscience and psyche of entire communities and leave searing memories. One normally associates hate crimes with cross burnings and lynchings or something equally heinous, however, the shocking and unexpected new locations for hate crime scenes in the 21st century appear to be the editorial pages of the nation's leading newspapers, (1) where calls to violence have also become routine. (2)
In Arizona, exposure to constant hate is a daily occurrence in the letters to the editor or comments section of media. Within these contexts, communities are subjected to vicious anti-Mexican and anti-immigrant hate disguised as discourse against "illegals," or "illegal aliens." This hate can be found in not just the daily newspapers, but also in most of the mainstream media and their websites and, of course, right-wing talk radio. Not a few intimate the use of extreme violence. Often, the letter-writers take their cues from editorial or column writers who themselves tend to be hostile toward anything Mexican, again, under the guise of combating illegal immigration. As a result, Arizona letter-writers respond with a vitriol that was not permitted in newspapers until very recently. The following are two letters that illustrate this point from the June 25, 2012, The Arizona Republic in response to an article regarding the US Supreme Court striking down three of the four anti-immigrant SB 1070 provisions. (3)
From caretaker: "FOKES THIS IS GOING TO LEAD TO US'' THE PEOPLE PROTECTING OUR COUNTRY OUR SELVES... THERE'S NO CHOICE, THIS IS WHAT OUR FORE FATHERS MEANT IN OUR CONSTITUTION ..."
From Fastfreddy: "Would you rather see the citizens of Arizona use the 2nd amendment as a solution to the illegal problem or rather see the courts try to solve the problem."
This kind of discourse with allusions to violence has become so normalized that no one appears to give it a second thought. If this constant badgering and threats of violence involved the daily haranguing of other peoples, for example, Jews, African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, Anglo-Americans or any other identifiable group, it is assumed, per the newspaper's comment guidelines, that they would never make it into these pages.(4) But they inexplicably do and thus, the media, particularly letters to the editor sections, have become what I refer to as hate crime scenes.
Policies and politics permit this hate to proliferate in this nation, and in particular, in Arizona's mainstream media. Letters from 2010-2012, published in Arizona's two leading newspapers; the Phoenix-based, The Arizona Republic and the Tucson-based, Arizona Daily Star are examined for evidence of the phenomenon. This time period covers the passage and controversies surrounding the 2010 anti-immigrant legislation, SB 1070 and the 2010 anti-Ethnic Studies measure, HB 2281.
The initial examination of documents entailed reading some 7,000 letters written during this time of high conflict. (5) Deconstructing the common words, metaphors, and themes identified, citing representative sample letters delineates the "crime scene." Without question, many of the letters are not simply readers opposing "illegal immigration," but exhibiting a deeply ingrained disdain for Mexico, its culture, its history and especially its peoples, including Mexican Americans.
Author Positionality: Regarding the issues discussed here, I am far from a passive observer. Neither am I a participant observer, as I am not involved in these issues for purposes of study. I am a media scholar in the Mexican American Studies (MAS) department at the University of Arizona. I have also been a writer since 1972. (6) I have been involved with Raza Studies since the early 1970s - and since arriving in Tucson in 2007, I have been integrally involved with the human rights struggles of this state, both because they personally affect me, but also because one of the major attacks, the anti-Ethnic Studies HB 2281, is directed against my colleagues, my students and my profession.(7) Since 2007, much of my writing has zeroed in on Arizona, long considered by human rights activists a laboratory for repressive anti-Mexican and anti-immigrant legislation nationwide. In consequence, I have attracted the ire of right-wing zealots to the point where I have received death threats and have also been the recipient of plenty of hate mail for columns I write. While the focus of this article is not on the mail I receive personally, I reproduce part of one below to illustrate the environment I live under, in response to an Aug 3, 2012, story in the Star, regarding the death threats:
From Dave W.: "Maybe the U of A needs to examine why they have a bald-faced liar as an assistant professor. Rodriquez should be fired for his refusal to see the correctness of the law and inciting others to educate youth with a racist attitude."
My articles or columns always emphasize human rights. If I were not a columnist, I would engage more frequently in letters to the editor, primarily because I am convinced that that is a forum where public opinion is influenced and shaped. In this case, it appears that the public at large is certainly being influenced by misinformation and falsehoods that seemingly manifest in a daily barrage of hate and calls to violence.
The Justice Department defines hate crimes in the following manner:
"Hate crime is the violence of intolerance and bigotry, intended to hurt and intimidate someone because of their race, ethnicity, national origin, religious, sexual orientation, or disability. The purveyors of hate use explosives, arson, weapons, vandalism, physical violence, and verbal threats of violence to instill fear in their victims, leaving them vulnerable to more attacks and feeling alienated, helpless, suspicious and fearful." (8)
We are conditioned to think of hate crime scenes as depicted in videotaped police beatings of Rodney King and Alicia Soltero, both in Southern California, in 1991 and 1996, respectively. Other memorable hate crimes incorporating extreme violence include the "lynching by dragging" of James Byrd in Jasper, Texas, in 1998 by three purported white supremacists and the torture and murder of Matthew Shepard near Laramie, Wyoming, by two homophobes, also in 1998.
Given the Justice Department definition of a hate crime, one can argue that, in a strict sense, letters do not rise to the level of hate crimes because they don't specify a time or place. But the letters sections of Arizona's mainstream newspapers often contain threats of violence against Mexicans/immigrants, undeniably contributing to a climate that normalizes hate and fear.
The letters or comments sections appear to have become sanctuaries to virulent hate and, especially since the advent of the internet, a comfortable home to discourses of extremist hate and calls to violence, primarily of the extreme right-wing variety.(9) Here, hate germinates, and has become normalized as a result of a daily drumbeat of dehumanization. Another example of this in response to the same June 25, 2012, Republic article:
From wkieupwarriors: "The party is over illegals. No more protection and no more government handouts you love so much. Get all of your (inappropriate term) babies and head south!"
This dehumanizing letter is fairly representative of letter-writers that respond to issues of immigration. Because such offensiveness has become normalized, it is not even recognized (or flagged) as hate by editors. To be sure, while many mainstream outlets may attempt to monitor readers who issue specific death threats or that advocate outright hate and violence and to remove the most extreme letters, such letters are nonetheless readily found on most of these sites. This one, again from the June 25, 2012 Republic, is anything but subtle:
From Hwagrider: "Time to lock and load! The president needs to be tried for treason. Failure to protect the citizens of the United States. IF and that's a big IF Obama wins in Nov. I see impeachment proceedings will be started against him. If the government does not do something soon on these ILLEGALS there will be a bloodbath on ILLEGALS that will make the cartels seem like childs play."
Truthfully, even editors appear to have a problem distinguishing legitimate discourse from illegitimate discourse. How could the above letter have been published, given that the cartels have caused some 55,000 deaths, and the writer threatens something worse?
Invariably, most of this hate involves denial, is vicious, brazen and sometimes coded and is enacted primarily by readers who detest anything related to what I refer to as "the enemy other." (10) This letter illustrates my point:
From Azonakid: "Of course you know this means war!"
War is only declared against enemies, but Jennifer Dokes of the Republic's editorial pages said that the metaphors and the language of war, to her chagrin, have become part of US culture and not a real indicator that a reader is advocating war or violence. (11) Her comments could also be construed as providing evidence of the normalization of the language of war.
In the United States, especially in Arizona and especially during the past several years, "enemy others" translates generally into people whose religion is something other than Christian, whose language is other than English, whose heritage does not trace back to Greco-Roman culture, whose philosophy does not concur with American exceptionalism and whose worldviews are not directly derived from the Bible. A further translation of the "enemy other" includes people whose skin color is something other than white and especially those not born in this country. People who are subjected to the extreme hate in these pages generally are people who are not White Anglo Saxon and Protestant. This often includes Catholics and Mormons. It further applies to members of the LGBT community, workers - especially if they're unionized - and women, and in particular, those who believe in equality of the sexes (feminists) or justice for the unemployed and the disabled.
This April 27, 2011, letter in the Star, in response to Tucson students taking over the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) school board, illustrates how Mexicans are viewed as dehumanized enemy others: (12)
From Magdy A.: ". . . If this was a true ethnic studies the children would know the Spaniards conquered or diminished the Indian culture in Mexico (which were by the way cannibals)."
In this letter, Mexicans are Spaniards conquering Indians, and the Indians were savage beasts, i.e., cannibals.
The idea of "the enemy other" as used by letter-writers is often inclusive of at least three-fourths of the US population. More broadly, this demographic is what the Occupy movement generally refers to as the 99%. However, just as people are convinced to vote against their own interests, those targeted by this hate are anything but united, as some readers are very adept at exploiting divisions. Here is a letter in response to the same April 27 Star article, suggesting that 'Hispanics' are racists against everyone:
From Margaretta R.: "in the eyes of TUSD, [Lupe] Castillo, TPD and the ADS[Arizona Daily Star], Blacks, Whites, Asians and all except hispanics need to get to the back of the bus and shut up."
This letter writer appears to be ahistorical in the sense that if one was not aware of history, one would be led to believe that Mexican peoples were the exploiters of all peoples in this country, benefitting at everyone else's expense.
Letter writers appear to have read the 2005 Luntz, Malansky Strategic Research memo titled: "Respect for the law & Economic Fairness: Illegal immigration prevention." It is an example of how to debate immigration issues through coded language and obfuscation. The memo, in effect, advises conservatives how to be tough, while being deceptively compassionate; that is, always stress support for legal immigration while showing utter disdain for illegal immigration. Luntz relies on four principles; 1) prevention; 2) protection; 3) accountability; and 4) compassion. This is an example argument under the principle of compassion:
"A child brought here by an illegal immigrant is a victim, but so are the children of legal immigrants and citizens who pay for it in taxes and fewer services themselves. . . . "
Luntz, the conservative media strategist, advises this strategy, keenly aware that the Republican Party cannot afford to lose "the Latino vote." Politics aside, this disembodied argument assumes that people can distinguish between who is "legal" and who is not. The notion of referring to someone as an "illegal," or to refer to peoples as "illegals," is in itself dehumanizing, not to mention wholly inaccurate. From a legal standpoint, there is no basis in US law or international law to make such characterizations. (13) Yet readers freely use this terminology, and most newspapers permit it. Furthermore, the Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines "illegal" (the noun) as "an illegal immigrant." The following is an example of its usage in a letter in response to a column "We see all immigrants as legal or illegal. Big mistake" by Roberto Suro, July 13, 2012 Washington Post:
"This invasion of over twelve million illegals in the U.S.A. is WRONG! . . . "
One of the primary arguments utilized in defending the use of such terminology, is that it does not refer to people, but lawbreakers. This is the precise definition of dehumanization. At minimum, the terminology is coded; "illegals" usually refers to Mexicans. Often, readers will remark that they will walk into a supermarket and listen to all the "illegals" speaking Spanish.
Opinion makers, politicians and these letter writers appear to debate these issues using scripted messages, also known as talking points. Many of them contain coded language, preposterous stereotypes and outright falsehoods. While these messages are highly disrespectful, one will notice that they are also on par in terms of how President Obama is often treated in these very same pages. An example from a letter writer responding to an article in the Republic on Sheriff Arpaio's racial profiling trial, July 19, 2012. (14)
From legalinaz: "'Politicians almost never admit they were wrong' You are so correct about them, specifically beginning with that filthy (inappropriate term).b.a.g. illegal alien that presently occupies the White House!
What these letters appear to share is the technique of changing, twisting or violating the meaning of words, or "wordnapping." (15) These techniques reek of highly sophisticated psychological warfare (16) in which the meanings of words are changed and function as the primary weapons in what appears to be asymmetrical warfare. Those who employ these techniques require an audience that is susceptible to techniques that appeal primarily to fear, hate and "patriotism." Audiences become susceptible in times of high stress, such as severe economic downturns, national crises, and especially in times of war. These are the times when people scapegoat the most politically powerless sectors and close ranks to fight a "common enemy."
Long-time progressive activists have always labeled Arizona a laboratory of hate and hateful legislation. What happens in Arizona in the realm of regressive legislation doesn't stay in Arizona; it is usually exported nationwide. This makes Arizona an ideal place to study letters to the editor. The two most widely known pieces of legislation are the racial profiling SB 1070 and the anti-ethnic studies HB 2281. (17)
Aside from being inaccurate, the terms "illegals" and "illegal aliens" have the effect of disembodying human beings, giving the reader cover, pretending that they are not really referring to anybody specific other than lawbreakers. However if you were to read the articles, guest columns and letters to the editor on this topic in Arizona, it is clear who is targeted. This generally holds true anywhere in the country. Here is an example from July 7, 2012, in the Star, in reaction to a story regarding the dismantled Mexican American Studies (MAS) department in which I replace the term "illegals" with "Jews" to exemplify the offensiveness of the sentiments motivating the remarks:
From Joe S.: "and having schools over-run by Jews doesn't help the situation. maybe if teachers didnt waste so much time on just teaching them english, and yes you do need to comprehend english to function here, they could focus on the real basics."
It is obviously hateful to speak about Jews or any other group in this manner.(18) This also is an example of the racialization of the (Spanish) language.
The place to start analyzing letters and comments, begins with the words and concepts that are commonly used, and their regular meanings distorted, in anti-immigrant discourse. Those analyzed here are the ones that are employed regularly in letters to the editor, regardless of the issue. In a general sense, the meta-narrative that readers use is that America is the greatest nation in the history of civilization and "illegals," who don't belong here, are ruining it, and they should get the hell out.
Hate: "Intense hostility and aversion usually deriving from fear, anger or sense of injury." (19) Readers who exhibit an extreme hostility toward Mexicans come in several varieties. Most will deny they have any kind of hatred whatsoever; their beef, they repeatedly say, is with "illegal aliens" or lawbreakers, not with any specific people(s). Many will say that hate does not enter into this discourse, except by those who supposedly hate America. This Jan. 11, 2012 letter from the Star, in response to the shutting down of Tucson's MAS program, not only shows ignorance and hate, but then claims that it is the MAS supporters who are the actual haters.
From Laura B.: "… LaRaza and Los Unidos are teaching these children lies and hate against whites…"
Dehumanization: "To deprive of human qualities, personality, or spirit." Another definition is when people are not referred to as identifiable human beings, but depicted as animals or insects or inanimate objects, or as possessing undesirable qualities often subject to outrageous stereotypes and outright falsehoods. UCLA scholar Otto Santa Ana, in Brown Tide Rising, does a media analysis of how migrants were referred to during the development of California's 1994 anti-immigrant Proposition 187. It was during this time that the image of a migrant family running began to appear on yellow highway signs normally reserved for depicting animals or inanimate objects.
Racism: "Racial prejudice or discrimination." Despite the power of the word "racism," many conservative readers believe that the term has been overused, and dismiss or deflect charges of racism easily, immunizing themselves in their own minds. They are able to do this by claiming that racial prejudice and discrimination are things of the past, not the present. The same holds true for institutional racism. The use of such terms, they claim, are "race cards," meant to obfuscate the issue. The true racists, they claim, are people of color who "hate America" and blame whites for every ill in society.
Lupita Cavazos Garcia, a high-ranking TUSD administrator and a Latina herself (blonde and very light-skinned), told students who walked out of their schools in January 2012 in protest of the dismantling of the MAS department, that she was proof that racism no longer existed: that people are no longer judged by the color of their skin, but by their education. (20)
Racial epithet: In US mainstream journalism, the use of racial epithets is generally prohibited, unless properly contextualized, although there are actually no uniform standards. Most of the terms in this category are fairly well known, especially in regards to African Americans. When it comes to other peoples of color, the use of racial epithets is often overlooked because it is believed that they are not that harmful or derogatory. Consequently, letter writers still defend the use of the terms "wetback" and "illegals" to describe people whose immigration status is not in order. They do so by claiming that being prohibited from using those terms amounts to "political correctness" run amok. (21) Those opposed to the usage of such terms in US media have repeatedly pointed out that people cannot be illegal, only acts can. Otherwise, people who jaywalk or speed would also be considered "illegals." The May 13, 2010, letter below is in response to the arrest of 15 students and community organizers who protested the presence of Tom Horne in Tucson. The MAS controversy, incidentally, has nothing to do with legal or illegal immigration.
From Bill B: "what does Rosa Parks have to do with racist illegals stealing and murdering Americans?? Was Rosa Parks waiving a African flag and here illegally. You losers go back to mexico which you love so much."
While invoking Rosa Parks, the reader is seemingly incapable of seeing the irony of his own ignorance and bigotry.
Bigot: "A person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially: one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance." It is often said that only people with power can be racists or bigots. That statement is an arguable point, however, the larger truth being communicated in the statement is that only societal institutions and people empowered by them can affect hundreds of thousands and even millions of people. In debates in Arizona, right-wing extremists appear to confuse fighting racial supremacy with being a racist or a bigot. They often take things out of context, to make the claim that a person of color who is fighting racism is a racist or a bigot. There is no doubt that individuals hold prejudices, but individuals usually do not have that power to affect the lives of millions of people. The following letter writer fits the classic definition of a bigot, although in other posts, she denies her own bigotry. This from the May 27, 2011, Star, in response to the story of Tucson students taking over the school board room:
From Jacque O.: "…These kids need to learn the basics and decide if they want to be American or drug runners, which is all that is open in Mexico or Latin America these days. Most of them are probably illegally here. Why wasn't the Border Patrol there last night? Send the little dogs home."
Derogatory: The mainstream media has policies that exclude letters that are both derogatory and inflammatory, and this includes the use of racial epithets that are slanderous and libelous. While the use of the term "wetback" is generally no longer permitted in US media, the use of "illegals" continues unabated. The term, through frequent usage, has been normalized in columns, editorials and letters to the editor. Editors do not consider it offensive or derogatory, or a racial epithet. By standards of human decency, the above letter most likely would minimally qualify as derogatory and inflammatory.
Victim: "One that is subjected to oppression, hardship or mistreatment." How conservatives use this word is curious. They lash out at people of color, admonishing them not to act like victims and to "quit playing the victim card." This is predicated on the idea that in the United States, whatever happened in the past is long-ago history and that today, there are actually no victims of racism, discrimination or exploitation. Subjection to racial profiling, discrimination and exploitation, in all aspects of life, is not a game. Here is a May 4, 2011, letter from the Star in reaction to the May 3 school board meeting that brought out the police in a massive show of force. It was one week after the student takeover of the board room. The reader resorts to the idea that people choose to be victims.
From Beth B: "my family didn't want our school-age children immersed in this culture of victimhood and racism. the kids are now in parochial schools, where they are taught something sadly lacking in tusd, mutual respect."
The reader undoubtedly is unfamiliar with the underlying philosophy of the MAS program, which is the maiz-based concept of In Lak Ech - Tu eres mi otro yo - You are my other me. (22) This philosophy teaches students to see themselves in each other. However, they are also taught Panche Be - to seek the root of the truth. This is what leads them to fight for social justice.
Alien: "Relating, belonging or owing allegiance to another country or government." Many Mexicans and Central Americans object to its use because it conjures up the idea of space aliens, the consummate "outsiders." Because most Mexicans and Central Americans are [de-Indigenized] Indigenous or Indigenous-based mestizos, they will not identify as alien, precisely because their primary origins are on this continent. (23) This April 27, 2011, letter in the Star is applicable to both entries, above and below. The students, in taking over the school board, carried out this action in the spirit of civil resistance. It was not an immigration issue.
From Kathleen A.: "The anarchists (aka students) only further confirm reasons why we must never allow LaRaza and other radical, anti-American Latino groups to turn our country into a clone of the corrupt and lawless third-world countries the illegal aliens left behind.
Illegal alien: Webster's does not recognize this concept, though journalists use it routinely. It generally refers to someone whose immigration status is unauthorized or in question. Anti-immigrants have concluded, absent a court proceeding, that those people in question are in the country illegally, and are, therefore, "illegals" or "illegal aliens." The Immigration and Nationality Act does not support that view, nor is that language in the Act.
La Raza: There is no such entry in Merriam-Webster. Regarding its meaning, most readers in Arizona appear to take their cues from Mr. Horne, the state's Attorney General. In a June 10 opinion piece in The Republic, he utilized a literal and incorrect translation to argue that Raza or La Raza means "The Race." However, the term is actually short for a larger concept known as "La Raza Cosmica" or "The Cosmic Race," traced to Mexican educator, Jose Vasconcelos. In 1925, he wrote a book with the same title. His concept speaks of Mexicans not as a pure race, but as a mixture of all the races of the world. The original idea was not necessarily positive as it actually was predicated on Indigenous erasure. However, as it evolved in popular usage, it came to embrace Indigeneity.
This same lack of knowledge of the language and culture leads readers to invent and ascribe ideas of racial supremacy to those who fight for the human and civil rights of Mexican/Chicano peoples. Such ignorance leads to letters like the one below sent to the Star on April 27, 2011:
From Walter C.: "La Raza is Spanglish for Ku Klux Klan."
Here's a more recent letter written in response to a story regarding the release of Russell Pearce's email records on July 20, 2012:
From cologal: Ike being an intelligent LEADER FOLLOWED THRU ON HIS THREAT. THE ROADS WERE FILLED WITH CARS AND PICKUPS GOING SOUTH TO MEXICO. Now the politicans are too afraid of leftist UN-AMERICAN gangs like la raza, aclu, lulac etc to enforce our laws with money and manpower and jails for those who don't leave. (24)
Aztlan: Merriam-Webster does not recognize this entry. However, both the dictionary and the thesaurus recommend the word Satan as its first alternative. (25) As with the term La Raza, conservative readers create their own meanings for the concept of Aztlan. The topic is multi-layered, but in popular usage, is generally acknowledged to be the original or mythic homeland of the Aztecs. During the 1960s and 1970s, Chicano Movement activists referred to the US Southwest as Aztlan. To this day, the right wing believes that there is an organized movement to reclaim this land that once also belonged to Mexico. No such movement exists. Despite this, they assert that the student group, Movimiento Estudiantl Chicano de Aztlan (MEChA), heads it. Here is a letter from July 7, 2012, in response to an announcement in the Star regarding Tucson's Freedom Summer. (26) Following it is another letter from the Republic in response to a story regarding the release of Russell Pearce's email records. It appears to be disconnected from reality:
From Colt C.: We already know about MAS. Its when Hispanic students are indoctrinated by La Raza extremist indoctrinators (aka: Aztlan pipe-dreamers), and are basically taught to despise the country which continues to feed, clothe, educate them - and provide "freedom" for them to do so - unlike what Mexico would ever do.
From: Enchanted 2: What about the racist hate-speech (borderline terroristic threats) written by the Aztlan/Raza proponents?
They don't see the irony of invoking "freedoms" that this nation offers, while supporting censorship and the dismantling of an academic department.
Criminal: "Guilty of crime; also; of or befitting a criminal." Conservatives presume that people in this country without proper documentation are automatically guilty of a crime or are criminals. Historically, not having proper documentation has been grounds for deportation, but has not been, in and of itself, a crime. In Tucson, people who support Raza Studies are also routinely slandered and considered criminals. In this May 4, 2011 letter in the Star, the discussion is about seven women who were arrested at the May 3 school board meeting.
From B.V.: ". . . What is with all the pro-MAS 'women'? They wouldn't be all the anchor-baby mommies would they? . . . With regard to your criminal trespassing by speaking out of turn, apparently the police presence was needed. . . ."
America: There are three meanings. The first and second recognize all the nations of North and South America, including the Caribbean. The third meaning: United States of America. Many conservative readers appear to have appropriated the name to mean only the United States, thus the expression: America: Love it or leave it. Not everyone who believes this is bigoted, however the normalization of this belief produces that false equation. Not only does the reader below misuse the term in a chauvinistic manner, but also exhibits the meaning of several of the terms in this essay. From the May 4 Star:
From Cliff D: "How about getting rid of these class' and teaching AMERICAN HISTORY and the culture with which it was founded under which is WHITE CULTURE and let these BRAINWASHED, POLITICALLY CORRECT students take these RACIST class' in college if they decide to go and be BRAINWASHED futhur with POLITICAL CORRECTNESS.
American: Xenophobes and nativists will not be pleased with the three meanings provided by Webster's: 1) "An American Indian of North America or South America."; 2) "A native or inhabitant of North or South America"; and finally: 3) "A citizen of the United States." They generally prefer the third meaning.
Anti-American: This term is usually hurled at those who do not hold extremist views on immigration. It is also assumed that, regardless of their legal status, migrants do not hold "genuine" American views or attributes, such as "The American Dream." In this letter, Congressman Raul Grijalva and his family are impugned with that "anti-American" epithet. This April 27, 2011 letter in the Star is in response to the school board takeover:
From Dale B.: "When you have public ‘leaders' like Isbelle Garcia (27) beating pinatas of her enemies or the entire Grijalva anti-American clan, these are the results."
American exceptionalism. Webster's does not provide a definition, though basically, it is a religio-political idea; that the United States is unique because it came into existence as the first modern nation, espousing the virtues of freedom, liberty, democracy, equality and the rule of law. (28) It is also related to Providence and Manifest Destiny, the ideas that God created the United States as the perfect nation on earth, etc. (29) While some trace this idea to the founding of the nation, many adherents believe the idea continues to be the guiding ethos of the United States. In these debates, it often manifests itself in ideas of cultural superiority and extreme xenophobia. This April 27, 2011, letter, published in the Star, for example, decries multiculturalism, the antithesis of American exceptionalism.
Bill W.: "This is what - multi-culturalism - has brought us!!!! No thanks, I don't want any part of it !!!! Time to get rid of the hyphenated titles. You're either an AMERICAN OR NOT !!!! And if NOT, then get the blank out of here and go somewhere where you're wanted if they'll take you !!!!"
Civilizational war: In Arizona, Tom Horne, has invoked the specter of civilizational war in his battle to eliminate TUSD's MAS department. (30) His objection to the department is that it uses a maiz-based curriculum that is Indigenous to this continent. He has vilified it on the basis that it does not trace its roots to Greco-Roman culture. While he is correct, MAS supporters have always believed that this is not a sufficient reason to keep it out of Arizona classrooms. However, readers follow his lead and regularly demonize the department, the curriculum and its teachers.
Part of this civilizational war promotes the idea that the nation is founded upon individualism, which is in danger from peoples whose philosophy is based on collectivism. These two values are falsely pitted against each other: all individuals belong to collectives (cultures). Regardless, collectivism is routinely associated with communism/socialism and is nowadays attributed to peoples of color. It is seen as a threat to the nation. In the following letter published in the Star on May, 2011, a White professor is attacked for supporting the MAS department:
Wally G: Perfect photo illustration for this article. Katerina Sinclair looks like your typical pseudo-intellectual communist that hates her own culture, and the USA in general.
Third World: Generally, nonwhite peoples and people from the "undeveloped" nations of the world, including those that live within the United States, are considered to be part of the Third World. Those nations and peoples are considered inferior to the United States. This is part of the idea associated with American exceptionalism. In this inflammatory July 8, 2012, letter in the Star, a reader unloads these views, triggered by an article announcing Tucson's Freedom Summer.
From Ray M: ". . . WRONG this is America and we speak English! Learn it or leave! Sick of catering to these third world peasants from Africa that want the world handed to them on a silver platter! . . . Why is it that REAL immigrants from civilized nations have NO problem adapting and learning English? Why are we always forced to cater to these peasants from Africa who refuse to adapt to OUR culture? Again, learn English or leave!
The letter is actually about peoples from Mexico. The names were changed here to illustrate how the harshness of the vitriol against Mexicans would not be tolerated were it directed at other groups. Against any other group, this screed would be deemed out of bounds, but instead, anti-Mexican rhetoric has been normalized in Arizona newspapers.
Special rights: This is the idea that - as opposed to fighting for equality - people of color in general, and especially migrants, want extra rights not normally afforded everyone else. This is related to the idea that migrants do not pay taxes and that they get everything for free. Separate from the fact that all people pay taxes, migrants, regardless of legal status, also contribute to the vast wealth of this nation, independent of paying into programs that they will never benefit from, such as Social Security, unemployment insurance, worker's compensation, disability, welfare, etc. In this April 24, 2010, letter published in the Republic in response to the passage of SB 1070, the writer reveals not only her misinformation, but also her displaced anger.
IFrom Lorenucia: ". . . My taxes are going to pay for criminal illegals, to educate illegal children to speak English and very expensive medical care. I can't get health insurance because of a pre-existing condition and certainly couldn't afford to go to an emergency room. Illegals go to the emergency room at the drop of a hat, because they never intend to pay the bill . . . "
Censorship: Anti-immigrants often complain about being censored, claiming that they are continually subjected to political correctness, prevented from expressing their heartfelt and patriotic concerns. In Tucson, for example, while they were attempting to shut down the MAS department, opponents complained of being censored, and the irony is lost on them, as they are seemingly unaware that the very actions they support are the definition of censorship.
Liberal/mainstream media: Conservatives assert that the mainstream media is actually "the liberal media." Former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin even coined the term "the lamestream media." Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), would beg to differ. Since 1986, the media watchdog group has monitored and documented the political censorship, the corporate takeover of mainstream media and the homogenization of political expression. This convergence has had the effect of keeping progressive views out of the media, while favoring elite and conservative voices. (31)
Civil discourse: When Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others were shot in Tucson, Arizona in January of 2010, calls for civility and civil discourse dominated the political sphere and the news. In Arizona, this translated to calls by many conservatives for quieting or muting dissent, particularly around the issues of immigration and Ethnic Studies.
It appears that conservative readers have decided to engage in an attempt to influence and shape public opinion via the nation's editorial pages, specifically, the letters to the editor section. The letter writing on display in Arizona newspapers is a testament to sophisticated letter writing campaigns in which words are distorted out of their common sense meaning, and in which they also neuter and defang charges of racism and bigotry. The result is that those who fight racial supremacy are placed on the defensive and themselves are charged with racial hatred and hatred for America. Yet inexplicably, false charges by conservative letter writers generally go unchallenged.
Editorials are scrutinized as are columns, but letters to the editor go virtually unchecked, not simply with respect to hatred mongering, but also with respect to fact checking. The constant barrage of hate and untruths is spewed on nearly a daily basis, with readers rarely citing sources, or citing sources that are but recycled talking points gleaned from conservative talk radio or from conservative websites, etc.
An analysis of several thousand letters from 2010-2012 reveals that the right wing utilizes or engages the letters to the editor sections - at least in the mainstream Arizona newspapers - much more frequently, with much more volume and much more effectively than their liberal or progressive counterparts. (32) It does this through the use of powerful metaphors and imagery, albeit false ones, which are effective because they are generally wrapped in the flag and/or the Bible. Demonization, fear and hate work. Repeated often enough, outright lies and distortions appear to be effective, especially when meanings of words are changed or misrepresented, and especially when they are not refuted. Soon, lies, distortions and misrepresentations become conventional wisdom. Conservative talk show hosts become credible sources, whereas facts are readily dismissed as liberal hearsay and heresy.
Many believe that truth is always the best way to counter falsehoods, etc. However, in these Arizona wars, the truth seems hardly to matter. The objective of right-wing extremists appears to be to win public opinion wars, as opposed to be factual or truthful. The apparent irrelevance of the facts poses a problem for those wanting to counter anti-immigrants and the like. In Brown Tide Rising, Santa Ana proposes not counter metaphors, but rather the truth and insurgent metaphors (pps 314-319).
While writing this essay, I have inquired from colleagues as to why human rights activists stay away from the letters to the editor section of newspapers in general, but those in Arizona in particular. I will provide several of the responses here, but suffice to say that most people do not want anything to do with that section of the media. This appears to be part of a pre-internet mindset. In that era, editors virtually censored progressive points of view, in both the editorial section and the letters to the editor section of mainstream newspapers. Actually, this is still true today in a general sense, however with the advent of the internet and media websites, mainstream newspapers have widened the accessibility of the letters to the editor section. Human rights activists could easily make use of this forum; however, it appears that they have surrendered these sites to conservatives and extremists, primarily because most see it as a waste of time. Here is an excerpted letter that explains this position. (33)
". . . I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that a large share of those on the right are terribly misinformed, or have been deliberately misled, on the fundamental aspects of salient issues . . . I eventually came to realize that we are not using the same set of facts . . . Website message boards are a great place for someone to lash out at the government, people of color, gays, liberals, the federal reserve, etc. without having to actually interact with anyone . . . " Jared Powell. July 11.
Two people who responded proffered that the long history of editorial pages shutting out progressive voices, particularly Mexican-American/Latino/a voices, is what has soured them from engaging in letters to the editor debates. Despite this, the reader below provides a solution or alternative.
". . . I think it might be worth it to engage them without actually entering into the game that they play. By that I mean write one post and leave it at that unless you have boundless energy to deal with wack-os…" betts* putnam-hidalgo, July 12.
It appears that conservative letter writers in Arizona's newspapers have learned the high art of sophisticated psychological warfare. They use terms and metaphors that are highly offensive, but they are seemingly effective, and they stick. On paper, they seem to have learned the art of deflection, particularly from charges of being racist or bigoted.
One thing to remember is that the original European presence in the Americas was characterized by viewing native peoples as godless, pagan and demonic. A variation of that is that the peoples were evil, savage, backwards, uncivilized and ignorant. Many of those original ideas conjured up fear, which included the fear of going to hell. It appears that the words that are employed today, the metaphors, are simply extensions of those original ideas. Progressives on the other hand, do not play on the same field: The toughest accusation to call a conservative is a "neoliberal." It carries no historic baggage; it conjures up no fear, etc. There are exceptions, but for the most part, human rights activists find it a waste of their time to participate in such forums. This is why they are seemingly the sole domains of conservative extremists.
The solution is not simply to engage in this dialogue, but rather to create a new language that competes with the highly effective diatribes of the right wing.
Aside from developing effective words and metaphors, the right wing has disarmed progressives. If progressives are to engage, they can't simply use ineffective counter-charges and metaphors. Progressives would need to use a new language that does not characterize, but describes. My analysis of letters would suggest that letters that are descriptive, but that also rely on powerful imagery, would be most effective.
For example, on issues of race, I don't remember accusing anyone of being a "racist" in perhaps the last 25 years because it has lost its meaning from overuse. What I tend to do is describe a related topic: apartheid. But I don't simply use it, rather I describe it; apartheid is the minority imposing its will and views on the overwhelming majority, especially when it comes to school boards.
This works in Arizona, and it is difficult to refute, especially in Tucson, primarily because of the school demographics. In Arizona, students of color, nonwhite students at the K-12 level, comprise the majority of enrolled students. In TUSD, 2012 statistics reveal that Latino/Latina students were more than 61 percent of its students. (34)
Invariably in human rights struggles, truth is always on the side of those fighting for them, on the side of those attempting to expand them. But if that were the sole criterion for winning debates, there wouldn't be any debates. In that sense, the language has to be highly sophisticated and/or humorous.
In the debates in Arizona, comedians have actually simplified issues and caused the tide to turn in favor of those fighting for human rights. There are several examples, but the most salient was when in the spring of 2012, "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" featured a segment on Arizona's and Tucson's effort to eliminate ethnic studies. (35) It included an interview with one of the school board members, Michael Hicks. It was a gift, compliments of the uninformed Mr. Hicks. He admitted that he relied on hearsay to make his decision to eliminate the Mexican American studies department. Hicks alleged that the MAS teachers fed burritos to their students, to curry favor with them. He estimated that blacks were one-quarter human beings during the era of slavery, and lastly, he invoked "Rosa Clark," that is, Rosa Parks, as an example of how she carried on a nonviolent protest, without a gun, by not giving up her seat on the bus, whereas MAS students, according to his inference, used violence. Nothing that he or his supporters say or do subsequently can undo the damage caused by his remarks. Letters to the editor in the April 4 Star attempted to claim that the entire segment was set up, that everything had been distorted and that in effect, Mr. Hicks was badly misrepresented by the Comedy Central show. Here are two:
From Cindy L: "I have some personal sympathy for Mr. Hicks, but "Rosa Clark"? Oh my. There is more there than poor editing . . . I'm just surprised that Comedy Central hasn't relocated here yet . . . "
From Bill B.: "Distort, discredit, divide, destroy - sounds like the democratic manner of operation to me, same story line - make a villian of the opposition, destroy and distort the line of thought - destroy the person saying this . . . collapse the system around them - a perfect political strike . . ."
Once people laugh, it is difficult to unlaugh, proving that humor is a powerful weapon, especially against virulent attacks by extremist elements. Once people laughed at the absurdity of those attempting to eliminate ethnic studies, the national debate was over. Here are two more.
From Ron W.: "Yes I believe Mr. Hicks would be doing himself and the rest of us a favor if he just keeps his mouth shut from now on. Really makes Tucson and Arizona look racist and ignorant. Of course maybe that's not all that hard to do."
From Reggie N.: . . . Bottom line, many people are judged by single mistakes. See Dan Quayle's Potatoe, Bush's "read my lips" and Gerry Ford falling down Air Force One's steps. He shoehorned a lot of mistakes into a single interview, and represented the school district horribly . . . "
Reggie proves a truism; with this Comedy Central segment, it was checkmate. No amount of letters, regardless of content, could turn back the clock. While the MAS program at the moment is eliminated, the wave of public opinion nationwide favors not just its return in TUSD schools, but its expansion nationwide.
In this, there may be a message for those that engage in public debate: it is not simply the truth that matters, but how it is delivered.
Whether the metaphor of editorial pages being hate crime scenes works or not, the more important question appears to be whether those who oppose anti-Mexican and anti-immigrant hate can afford to remain disengaged from those pages. And perhaps even more importantly, this constant barrage of hate points to future research: Is all this hate having a long-term harmful effect on this community, particularly on its children?
1. In Arizona, Mexican American human rights activists have long distrusted the editorial pages of the state's leading newspapers. Thus, this is not a new issue. However, what I have analyzed here are letters to the editor; because of the advent of the internet, they are often now simply referred to as comments.
2. In April of 2011, after students took over the school board, they received a death threat via a YouTube "shoot them in the head" video. It is no longer up. The investigation by the Tucson Police Department concluded on June 6, 2011, that it was but a "joke."
A few weeks later, in May 2011, I received three death threats. They were investigated and the perpetrator was brought to trial.
3. The first several letters, unless indicated otherwise, are from the June 25, 2012 issue of The Arizona Republic, "Arizona Immigration Law: Supreme Court Upholds key portion of SB 1070," by Alia Beard Rau, written in response to the US Supreme Court's SB 1070 decision.
4. In a July 18, 2012 interview with Jennifer Dokes, the Viewpoints editor of The Arizona Republic's editorial pages, she said that people would be shocked at what doesn't make it into the editorial pages. She said that The Republic attempts to stay within the bounds of good taste, while letting readers freely express themselves. Responders sometimes take their freedom of speech to the extremes; those are the letters that readers don't get to read, including death threats, she said. Both The Republic and the Star prohibit indecent language that insults people based on race, gender, ethnicity, nationality, etc.
5. The letters read and analyzed are from stories from the The Arizona Republic and the Arizona Daily Star, in reaction to the passage of SB 1070 and HB 2281, and major developments that occurred after these two state measures were challenged.
6. Since the mid-1980s, my primary work has been that of columnist, writing opinion pieces for La Opinion in Los Angeles. In 1994, I became a nationally syndicated columnist with Chronicle Features and Universal Press Syndicate. After obtaining my PhD, I have continued to write at a national level and also for the Guardian UK, though nowadays, strictly for Truthout.
7. As a result of the struggle to defend Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) K-12 Mexican American Studies (MAS) department, in May of 2012, I was arrested at the state building in Tucson for trespassing, along with 14 students and community organizers, a day after HB 2281 was signed by Gov. Jan Brewer.
8. The quote comes from an undated Justice Department document: "Hate Crime: The Violence of Intolerance," by Rose Ochi, Director, Community Relations Service. Accessed July 18, 2012.
9. In an interview with Salomon Baldenegro, a long-time organizer and former Tucson Citizen columnist, he said that the left wing is not married to their computers, thus, progressives do not engage right-wingers in the editorial pages of newspapers (Jan. 18, 2012).
10. Prior to Sept. 11, 2001, the French were "the other," but they were not viewed as being deficient. This is the reason I utilize "enemy others" because this is how Mexicans in the United States are often depicted and perceived.
11. Phone interview, July 18, 2012.
12. The letter is in response to The Arizona Daily Star story by Alexis Huicochea, April 27, 2011: "Ethnic studies supporters overtake TUSD meeting."
13. For a fuller discussion on this topic, read "The Supreme Court and Dangerous Immigration Metaphors" in the April 27 issue of Colorlines.
14. Hensley, JJ. (2012, July 19). "Racial profiling trial: Ruling to be based on current conditions," The Arizona Republic.
15. Gonzales, P. and Rodriguez. V. (2000). "Column of the Americas: Wordnapping Wreaks Havoc upon Political Scene," AztlÃ¡n: A Journal of Chicano Studies (25) 2,137-141.
16. Merriam-Webster does not provide a definition for psychological warfare. It is generally understood as propaganda normally associated with the military and intelligence services, though not limited to those sectors.
17. A third issue important to Arizona conservatives, which has not garnered traction in the legislature, is the attempt to eliminate birthright citizenship, that is, the overturning of the 14th Amendment.
18. At the university level, one does hear complaints about Asians being overrepresented in California's top universities, namely Berkeley and UCLA.
19. Unless otherwise indicated, the dictionary for all the terms analyzed here can be found here. Each entry often has more than one meaning. I have utilized the most conventional one.
20. A video of Lupita Garcia addressing the students who walked out can be found at: The Three Sonorans, January 14, 2012. She also told the students that day that if they wanted to learn the history of Mexico, they could do so in Mexico.
21. For a fuller discussion on the movement to get media to drop the term "Illegal aliens," go to Colorline's website.
22. This and related Maya or maiz-based concepts can be found in Un Continente y Una Cultura (Martinez Paredez, 1960) and Amoxtli X (Rodriguez, 2010).
23. Guillermo Bonfil Batalla discusses this dynamic in his ground-breaking book Mexico Profundo.
24. Russell Pearce's e-mail records, which were released July 20, 2012, are a treasure trove of hate and will require its own study. Yet, a cursory examination of his emails makes it appear that he is the source for all the right-wing letter writers that appear in the Republic and Star here in this essay. The emails were released as part of a ACLU motion to Judge Susan Bolton, that Section 2(b) of SB1070 be enjoined because it can be proven that the measure was motivated by racial hatred, etc., and thus in violation of the 4th and 14th amendments of the US Constitution. The petition to the judge includes 3,000 pages of emails that confirm what the world has long known: Pearce, former friend of white supremacist JT Ready, holds racial supremacist views and used them, including false statistics, to ensure the passage of SB 1070. Here is a sample rant from 1/29/2007, titled "Invasion USA," part of exhibit e-8: ". . . Can we maintain our social fabric as a nation with Spanish fighting English for dominance? It's like injecting yourself with cancer cells to see what will happen. It's like importing leper colonies and hope we don't catch leprosy. It's like importing thousands of lslamic jihadists and hope they adapt to the American Dream . . . "For a more detailed analysis of Pearce's emails, read: 'Russell Pearce's Racism Discovered by Arizona's Media,' by Stephen Lemons, July 20, 2012.
25. Aztlan, purportedly the original homeland of the Aztecs, has been in sufficient use in the United States since the 1960s that one would assume that it would be in the Merriam-Webster dictionary.
26. In the summer of 2012, a series of events were organized in defense of Tucson's Mexican American Studies department. The events were designed to attract people from across the country.
27. In Tucson, even piÃ±atas have been criminalized. On July 10, 2008, people protesting an appearance by Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Tucson, beat on an Arpaio piÃ±ata. At that time, the right wing went ballistic, including the sheriff himself, who demanded a criminal investigation of Isabel Garcia, who was both the Pima County defender and a human rights activist with the group Derechos Humanos. An investigation found her innocent of any charges. Arpaio's appearance at Tucson bookstore draws protesters, The Arizona Republic.
28. In these debates, anti-immigrants don't like to be reminded that when the nation was founded, these ideas of equality generally did not apply to people of color and women for at least 100 years.
29. At the beginning of July 2012, CNN ran a special on the topic of American Exceptionalism, a topic that is normally contained within academe. ().
30. Horne has been state attorney general since January 2011, though that has not prevented him from continuing his civilizational war rhetoric against TUSD's now-dismantled MAS department.
31.FAIR has several components, "What's wrong with the news," which concentrates on issues such as biased reporting and censorship.
32. Anti-Mexican and anti-immigrant letters generally outnumber letters that defend Mexicans/migrants by large ratios, often ranging from 50 to 1 to even 100 to 1 in some stories. The objective of this analysis wasn't focused on quantity, as opposed to the methods and the kinds of language used by these letter writers.
33. In preparation for writing this piece, I sent out a letter on July 11, 2012, via the internet to a dozen participants of Tucson's Freedom Summer as to why they don't engage in writing letters to the editor. I received 5 responses, plus one phone call (Salomon Baldenegro).
34. Hart, B & Eisenbarth Hager, C. J. April 2012. "Dropped? Latino Education and Arizona's Economic Future." Morrison Institute for Public Policy, ASU. This study projects that by the 2012 school year, Latinos will comprise a greater number of students than white students in state schools.
35. Comedy Central's April 2, 2012 The Daily Show segment on the elimination of Mexican American Studies in Tucson, conducted by Al Madrigal.
Bonfil Batalla, G. (1995). Mexico profundo: Reclaiming a civilization. Austin. Texas: University of Texas Press.
Martinez Paredez, D.M. (1960). Un Continente y Una Cultura: Unidad Filologica de la America pre-hispanica. Mexico City: Editorial Poesia de America.
Rodriguez, R. (2010). Amoxtli X - The X Codex. Austin, TX: Eagle Feather Research Institute.
Santa Ana, O. (2003). Brown Tide Rising, Metaphors of Latinos in Contemporary American Public Discourse. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.