22 May 2006

Mystical connections

I’ve been reading this intriguing book lately – it’s about, how should I put this, the mystical elements inherent in quantum theory and the nature of the subatomic particle physics. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? Anyway, most of you are probably familiar with Einstein’s famous equation, E=mc2, meaning that the inherent energy in something is equal to its mass times the speed of light squared. Now the speed of light is a huge number already – about at 186,000 miles per second, or 670 million miles per hour. So squared, that’s really big. What that means is that even the smallest atom has a huge amount of potential energy in it, if you can figure out how to convert the matter into pure energy. That’s the basic physics behind nuclear power, and nuclear bombs. The other thing that this means is that there are two kinds of stuff in the universe, matter, and energy, and that the one can be converted into the other and vice versa.

Well, what this book argues is that matter, the stuff we see and can touch and bump into, the stuff that actually comprises our bodies, is kind of illusory. Because you see, the distinction between what’s matter and what’s not isn’t like we usually think about it. We tend to think, I’m here, and I’m made of matter, and this desk, for example, is made of other stuff, and between me and the desk is more stuff that we call air, but I can move through the air because it’s not as dense, but I can’t move through the desk. But what are we made of? Mostly water – about 35 liters in the average human body. Our bodies can be broken down into the chemical elements also – we’re about 65% oxygen, 18% carbon, and another 10% hydrogen. But then what are oxygen and carbon and hydrogen molecules made of? They’re all made of atoms, which in turn are made of subatomic particles like electrons and protons and neutrons (for that matter, protons and neutrons are composite particles made of quarks). OK, you get the picture. I’m made of these subatomic particles, but so is this desk, and so is the air. Everything that is, is made up of the same subatomic particles. The only difference is how these particles are organized, put together, and which molecules they wind up forming.

Feeling dizzy yet? So here’s the really wacky part of the argument. At their most basic, all of these particles are really just energy. So then, this stuff that we call matter, the stuff that comprises me and you and this desk and the air, is really just energy organized in different ways. But it’s all tied together in this one big underlying field. It’s like I’m a cluster of energy, and you’re another cluster of this same energy, and so is this desk, and so is the air, and so is everything that we see and perceive as matter. This all sounds like something out of Star Wars, or perhaps something Buddhist, and I’m not sure I entirely buy into the whole argument. But, I do like the truth it’s getting at, namely that we’re all interconnected, whether we see it or not. Maybe we can’t always perceive it, but we are. We’re connected to people we know and like, and to folks we know and don’t much care for. Democrats are connected to Republicans. Christians are connected to Muslims. You, wherever you are, most likely in some relatively comfortable setting at the moment, are connected to the millions of people suffering and dying in Darfur.

Isn’t that what we really all long for, to be connected? E.M. Forster said it well in his novel Howard’s End; you might know it from the film version starring Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins. Forster, who happened to be gay, which in his Victorian and Edwardian England no doubt added to his feelings of disconnect, wrote about:

…the building of the rainbow bridge that should connect the prose in us with the passion. Without it we are meaningless fragments, half monks, half beasts, unconnected arches that have never joined into a man. With it love is born, and alights on the highest curve, glowing against the gray, sober against the fire…Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.

02 May 2006

Soy un inmigrante

So I got to thinking, after all these boycotts and protests yesterday and all the discussions and diatribes about reforming immigration policy over the past few months, what does all this really show about our society?

Before I get very far into this at all, let me point out that there is no easy answer to the problem of undocumented immigrants or illegal aliens, depending on which side of the issue you choose. We can’t simply open our national borders and let everyone in who wants to come in, but we also can’t simply deport 12 million people. The correct legislative solution, obviously, lies somewhere in the middle, but to find it we’d have to have a vibrant middle in our political spectrum, and that’s pretty well lacking these days.

But I’m more interested in what this debate reveals about us. According to statistics from a Pew Research project, about 74% of the immigrants who are here illegally are of Mexican or other Latin American origin. That means that 26% of the immigrants, or over 3 million people, are non-Hispanic. Funny though, when the pundits bloviate about “illegal immigrants”, you never hear them talking about Romanians or Somalis or Cambodians. Nope, it’s always “those folks coming across the border”, and they don’t mean renegade Canadians, eh?

So is there a racial component to this issue? Naturally. Of course, it’s also true that if roughly 3 million of these immigrants are non-Hispanic, the other 9 million are Hispanic, and so the large majority of the people in question are in fact of Hispanic origin. So there’s some justification for focusing the debate on Hispanic immigrants – but nearly all prejudices have some tenuous connection to reality (or at least reality as it’s perceived by those harboring the prejudices).

But what we have here is another set of categorizations. We have constructed a “them”, in opposition to the “we” that is us, us being those folks who were made in America, and them being everyone else. And when we set up “us” and “them” categories, you know what the next step is: We good, they bad. Yes, it’s the old nasty collective shadow projection rearing its ugly unintegrated head once again. (Click on this link for a prior posting about the shadow concept as it relates to homosexuals and Brokeback Mountain.)

So as long as there’s a “them” over there that we can differentiate from the “us” here, we can project all kinds of badness onto “them”. It’s much more convenient to group folks into categories when we can find some obvious distinguishing characteristics to use in our taxonomy. Thus the emphasis on Hispanic immigrants – they all speak a certain, other language, one that is not ours. There are other inaccurate distinguishing characteristics that are often employed – cuisine, job types, etc. – but we’ll leave those aside for the moment.

But is the “us” really that different from the “them”? I know the argument – “My ancestors were immigrants, but they came here legally, and worked hard and played by the rules and made a better life for generations to come.” The flaws with that argument are obvious – immigration policy wasn’t the same back when your forebears made their way to our shores, and for that matter I’ll bet that one or two of the folks in your family tree probably did slip through Ellis Island without the proper documents. Oh, and if you trace your lineage back to the Mayflower? Well then, you were part of an invading force – or did the Indians stamp the Pilgrims’ passports and grant them extended work visas?

Here’s what really hacks me off about this issue – most, though not all, of the bloviators who are fiercely opposed to illegal immigration are also professing Christians. The last time I checked my Bible, there was a whole lot in there about welcoming the stranger, extending hospitality to the traveler among you, and allowing the refugee to settle in your land. Regardless of your position on immigration policy reform, it’s abundantly clear that if you call yourself a Christian, your moral duty is to welcome strangers in your midst and to offer hospitality to those you encounter.

Some legislators want to make it a crime to extend practical hospitality to immigrants who are in this country illegally. Does that mean my government wants to punish me for exercising my religion, since it’s my Christian duty to be hospitable? I don’t know what the correct legislative response to this issue is, but I can say what it’s not: It’s not one that locks up a priest for offering shelter and bread to a family, nor is it one that snatches a cup of cold water out of the hand of one who offers it to another.