Democracy Lab

The Drive for Dignity

It's hard power that often makes the headlines. But never underestimate the strength of the simple desire for respect.

The legend now has it that the Arab Spring was kicked off in early 2011 when a Tunisian vegetable seller, Mohamed Bouazizi, had his fruit cart confiscated by the police. Slapped and insulted by a policewoman, he went to complain but was repeatedly ignored. His despairing response -- to set himself on fire -- struck an enormous chord across the Arab world.

What was it about this act that provoked such a response? The basic issue was one of dignity, or the lack thereof, the feeling of worth or self-esteem that all of us seek. But dignity is not felt unless it is recognized by other people; it is an inherently social and, indeed, political phenomenon. The Tunisian police were treating Bouazizi as a nonperson, someone not worthy of the basic courtesy of a reply or explanation when the government took away his modest means of livelihood. It was what Ralph Ellison described as the situation of a black man in early 20th-century America, an Invisible Man not seen as a full human being by white people.

Authoritarian regimes have many failings. Like those in the Arab world now under siege, they can be corrupt, manipulative, and economically stagnant. All of these are causes for popular complaint. But their greatest weakness is moral: They do not recognize the basic dignity of their citizens and therefore can and do treat ordinary people with at best indifference and at worst with contempt. The Chinese government has been successful in giving its people jobs and security, but officials there no less than in the Arab world fail to respect people's basic dignity. Every passing week sees land confiscated from villages by a corrupt developer in cahoots with a local party official, and no one can do anything but lash out through violent protest.

In the Anglo-Saxon world, there is a tendency to see politics as a contest of economic interests and to define rights in utilitarian terms. But dignity is the basis for politics everywhere: Equal pay for equal work, one of the great banners of feminism, is less about incomes and more about income as a marker for the respect that society pays for one's labor. There are no interests that gays could not protect through civil unions, but same-sex marriage has become an issue in American politics because it signifies recognition of the equal dignity of gay and heterosexual unions.

One can understand the rights enumerated in the U.S. Constitution, as well as those in the basic laws of other liberal democracies, as mechanisms for formally recognizing the rights, and therefore the dignity, of the citizens to whom they are granted. Whatever one might ultimately think of the sexual-assault charges brought against Dominique Strauss-Kahn by Nafissatou Diallo, the New York City police were not free to ignore them just because he was a high-status IMF director and French presidential candidate, and she a humble hotel maid from Guinea. Many of the big political fights in American history have centered on dignity issues, i.e., who lives outside that charmed circle of human beings deserving to have their rights recognized, whether propertyless males, women, or racial minorities.

German philosopher Georg W.F. Hegel argued that the whole of human history can be seen as a prolonged "struggle for recognition" and that the modern liberal democratic order represents the triumph of the principle of equal recognition over the relationship of lordship and bondage. The problem of contemporary politics is that people often do not seek recognition simply for their dignity as abstract and equal human beings; they also seek recognition for the groups of which they are members, as Ukrainians or Kurds or gays or Native Americans. Identity politics is the politics of recognition, whether rooted in religion, gender, race, or ethnicity.

So too with the Arab Spring. It was not just abstract human dignity that authoritarian Arab regimes insulted; they also denigrated the rights of Muslims to have their religious identity recognized by the political system. Many Egyptian Islamists bear great resentments against liberal elites in their own societies who look down on them as uneducated and superstitious. The desire for recognition does not simply work to overthrow tyranny in the name of universal liberal rights; it can power assertions of a dominant identity, something I once labeled megalothymia.

The desire for recognition is thus a two-edged sword. It underlies the anger that powers social mobilization and revolt against abusive government, but it often becomes attached to ascriptive identities that undermine the universality of rights. Now that three dictatorships have fallen in the Arab world, with a fourth and fifth possibly on their way, this is the struggle that will play itself out.


¿El Presidente?

Mitt Romney could be the first Latino president. So why is he blowing it?

He might look and sound like an Anglo-American, but Mitt Romney could make a real run at being the first Latino president. And it wouldn't be just in the sense that Toni Morrison called Bill Clinton the "first black president" or Latinos and even Muslims hoped Texas Gov. George W. Bush, apparently sympathetic to their issues, might be their honorary "first" when he got to the White House. As recapped this week on NBC's Rock Center, Romney's great-grandfather settled in a Mormon colony in Mexico in 1885. About three dozen Romneys still live in the northern state of Chihuahua, holding U.S. and Mexican citizenship, speaking Spanish and English, and described vividly by Nick Miroff in the Washington Post. They form one of a few enclaves started in the 19th century by Mormons who left the United States amid growing anti-Mormon sentiment, largely over polygamy (which the Romneys no longer practice in Mexico, either).

Moreover, Romney's father, the late Michigan Gov. George Romney, was born in Mexico. He lived there as a small child until his immediate family fled the violence of the Mexican Revolution, which began in 1910. Noting the connection, a columnist in Mexico's Reforma daily speculated on Tuesday, Jan. 10, that the Republican front-runner could theoretically claim dual citizenship. It was tongue-in-cheek, but Romney's Mexican heritage is a reminder of the inevitably interwoven ties between the two countries, and his embrace of it might actually inject more realism into the immigration debate.

Of course, that hardly seems likely. Not only does Romney speak little about his Mexican roots, but he has defined himself in the primaries by criticizing pragmatic positions from other candidates as being soft on immigration. He attacked Texas Gov. Rick Perry's practice of offering in-state university tuition to some longtime, college-bound undocumented immigrants as creating a "magnet" for attracting more. He jumped on Newt Gingrich's suggestion that there should be some practical path for legalizing the status of undocumented immigrants who have family ties and many years already in the United States by calling it a "new doorway to amnesty." Romney favors building a fence all along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border, where there are only about 650 miles of barriers now. It would cost billions of dollars to construct and billions more to maintain, and it would probably still be breached by those wanting to cross. And Romney's promised to veto the "DREAM Act" legislation to provide legal status for children of illegal immigrants making their way through college or the military.

Romney as the upwardly mobile Latino could capitalize politically on vulnerabilities that President Barack Obama -- the first "Pacific president" -- faces due to his own tough policies on immigration and failure to push harder for the DREAM Act. His administration has set the record for most deportations, approaching 400,000 a year, an annual average 30 percent higher than under the Bush administration, according to a recent report by the Pew Research Center. Obama's still popular with Latinos, but the Pew survey, taken from Nov. 9 through Dec. 7, showed that 59 percent of Latinos disapprove of Obama's deportation policy. Of registered Latino voters, 54 percent still approve of the way Obama's doing his job -- but that's down from 63 percent in 2010.

True, Obama's still trouncing Republicans among this slice of the electorate, winning Latino voters surveyed by 68 percent to 23 percent in head-to-head polling versus Romney. But Romney doesn't need to overtake him; all he needs to do is surpass the estimated 31 percent that McCain won in 2008, especially in swing states such as Colorado and Florida. Sensing the pressure, Obama has recently rushed to soften his image, giving Border Patrol agents greater flexibility to expel immigrants with serious criminal records over others and to avoid breaking up families in which some members are documented and others not. On Tuesday, he appointed Cecilia Muñoz, an advocate for immigration reform, to run his Domestic Policy Council.

Obscured by all the border politics is a fact of generational importance. If one takes into account exits and deportations, there's very little or no net immigration to the United States from Mexico anymore, according to various reports. The U.S. Border Patrol is catching fewer and fewer people trying to cross illegally. The main reason appears to be the lack of jobs in the U.S. economy, which Mexicans track assiduously by word of mouth from relatives already north of the border. Obama's tough policies have worked as a deterrent -- and deportations have reduced overall numbers in the United States -- but even accounting for the widespread drug violence, many note that Mexico's economy is more stable than it used to be, making it more tempting for Mexicans to stay home.

The reality plays out in places like the northern Mexico border town of Nuevo Laredo, connected by three bridges over the Rio Grande to Laredo, Texas. Father Gianantonio Baggio runs a shelter in Nuevo Laredo where immigrants can get medical care, food, and a night's rest on their long treks north or south. He says that deportees, scammed by con men, have been dropped off there with little way to get back to their homes in southern Mexico or Central America. Mexican newspapers carry reports of those heading north who have been met by violent smugglers who control the illegal border crossings and sometimes kidnap them for forced labor. Baggio says immigrants will brave several brushes with the U.S. Border Patrol but will usually give up trying to go north after their first gang kidnapping.

Baggio sees huge changes in immigration patterns. He says his shelter hosted around 10,000 people in 2009 -- 7,000 heading north and around 3,000 having been deported. In 2011 through November, he says, he had hosted only about 6,000 -- with 2,000 heading north and 4,000 going south.

The economic reality in the United States isn't enough of a draw anymore to make many Mexicans face the train-hopping, desert walks, criminal gangs, and possible deportation. Those going nowadays aren't Mexicans but Central Americans, especially Hondurans, whose countries have become increasingly lawless and unstable, so much so that some have trouble just getting food at home. At that point, it's not just about economics. "They are going to die anyway, so it's worth the risks," says Baggio.

With actual immigration slowing, this could be a time for candidates to look for a bipartisan long-term border strategy -- rather than building expensive fences or racking up eye-popping deportation numbers. Mexico, with about 113 million people, is a crucial neighbor, lately America's third-largest trading partner and source of imported oil. Democrats and Republicans seem to agree that a healthy Mexico is good for the United States.

Mexico has elections this year, too. The front-runner, Enrique Peña Nieto, has said he would try to put Mexico on America's priority list, where he thinks it's not now -- a complaint that soured relations not long after Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox were elected in 2000, pledging closer ties. There are still a number of issues to work on. U.S. companies need Mexican labor, and Mexico needs emigrants, as remittances are its second-largest source of foreign income. Mexico also needs U.S. aid in quelling the drug violence that has killed about 47,000 people over the last five years and still chases many Mexicans north. U.S. politicians seem to agree on that, but the $1.4 billion pledged in the anti-drug "Merida Initiative" has come slowly. In preparation for more drug war refugees, Paul Rexton Kan, associate professor at the U.S. Army War College, suggested in October that the asylum system be tweaked so it can more frequently offer shelter to people facing narco-threats, not just political repression. Turning people away to face certain death, he wrote, "strikes at the heart of American values."

To his credit, Romney did mention in New Hampshire the other day that his father was Mexican-born, a sign he might be intending to reposition himself for the general election. But does that even mean more denial of Romney's roots? Neglecting the long and interdependent relationship between these two countries in favor of playing to fears of Mexican immigrants stealing the jobs of U.S. citizens is denying history. A long time ago, a few Americans named Romney headed to Mexico for safety and freedom. Now others come from Mexico to find security in the United States, something the would-be Latino president should surely understand.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images