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Tone down the immigration debate

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Posted: Wednesday, July 28, 2010 11:19 am

In 2006, the last best chance to pass a reasonable immigration reform bill failed in the Senate because of mostly Republican opposition. It was a moderate proposal compared to the draconian bill passed in the House that year.

"The anti-immigration wedge issue," wrote Frank Sharry of the immigration reform group America's Voice "failed spectacularly" to materialize in 2006 with many militant proponents failing to win re-election. In 2008, America's Voice found, candidates who advocated comprehensive immigration reform again won over hardliners in 20 of 22 competitive congressional races.

The political battle was won, but not the legislative one. Reformers didn't reform and the opposition Dracula didn't stay dead. The U.S. Senate's requirement that the bill pass with 60 votes is as much a cause of the problem as are the undocumented.

Tim Parks, reviewing some of the best European fiction writing of 2010 for the New York Review of Books, points out how we are losing it in other ways. An intellectual disengagement with others is reflected by how little comes in from differing points of view. Fewer than 5 percent of books published in the United States are translations.

Fiction writing matters because it opens readers to plausible alternative points of view, without a hammerlock ideology. It captures moods and feelings that might be absent in our own language but readily present in others. Edith Grossman, best known for translating "Don Quixote" and other important Spanish-language works into English, says "quiddities" are the important part of translating. They are words that capture the essence of a person or a situation. Finding the equivalent in English is the art of translation.

It's important to hear and grasp what others are saying, especially those things that aren't easy for us to bring into focus.

Our British friends of the newsmagazine The Economist sent out a warning signal about this in their July 17 issue. The complaint wasn't so much that we aren't listening to them but that we are broadcasting our greatness and exceptionalism too loudly. To them, it's like sitting close to the speakers at a slam concert.

The columnist Lexington (Adrian Wooldridge) says we are among the "extreme" and "most" patriotic in the world. That devotion has been carried the next level up, judging by the rhetoric of some commentators. Pep-rally moralizing fails to give perspective and guidance to our political lives and those of others. It actually does damage.

Lexington says certain right-wingers "need to hear constant reaffirmations...because of the doubts planted in their own hearts by the country's present travails." That's how the Brits put it. We call it "fear" and "anger," which in politics has many meanings, including "striking without thinking."

We need to cut it out -- the exaggerations and hyperbole -- not just tone it down, because it gets in the way of debating the role of government in these hard times. Bumper-sticker ideology, cliches and keyword talking-point pop-ups that are mostly irrelevant to the fine quiddities of our own and other points of view are deserving of attention instead of template obstructionism.

This is a matter that ought to be of great concern to conservatives and Republicans because the viability of their beliefs hangs in the balance. Calling others Nazis or communists or giving a "go back to your country" type answer makes them neither right nor virtuous. Insiders call this "the closing of the conservative mind." Oddly, that is not good news for progressives either who depend on idea encounters to leverage support for their positions.

Get a grip, America, especially now that good conservative, not reactionary, thinking is called for. Keep in mind that debate about important issues is not about using the baton as a bludgeon, but the quality of the bandleader who makes the music.

Jose de la Isla writes a weekly commentary for Hispanic Link News Service. E-mail him at

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