Strange news

Today’s New York Times contains several seemingly unrelated stories that strike me as odd, yet strangely related. Odd because when I read the headlines I thought, “huh?” Strangely related because the articles, taken together, seem to show that something new is afoot in the world.

The first article, on the front page, discusses the disclosure of the Jewish roots of Senator George Allen, Republican from Virginia. My reaction is: why does it matter? Is this gentleman’s ability or inability to be a political leader somehow changed by his heritage? It’s a human interest story, no doubt, but what is important in evaluating him as a Senator or a political candidate is what he thinks, says, and does on the crucial issues of our times and whether he treats other people with respect or disrespect.

The second article, also on page A1, concerns the loss of the current season’s pear crop in California because of lack of workers to pick the pears. Apparently, the Bush administration’s crackdown on illegal immigration has cut off the supply of pickers. As I understand it, one argument for restricting immigration is to prevent undocumented workers from taking jobs from Americans. Well, there were apparently no Americans willing to pick the pears and some of these pear farmers may well go out of business. I’m sure the pear industry is not the only one affected.

The third article, found on page A3, involves the dwindling birth rate in Genoa, Italy. The article points out that the Italians are no longer having many babies (in part because of a perception that it is too expensive to raise them) and so the government is now offering incentives to encourage its citizens to reproduce. My impression is that world overpopulation is a problem, so why is the Italian government trying to get people to have more babies? Well, reading on, I discovered that the population in Italy is not really declining, it’s just becoming less Italian – it is immigrants who are having the babies. Hmm.

It was the headline of the last article, on page A8, that struck me as strange. It reads, “Despite Plea, Indonesia Executes 3 Christians.” My first thought was: why the heck does it matter that they were Christians? If they were convicted of breaking the law and deserved punishment, their religion should have nothing to do with it. Maybe the issue here was that these individuals were innocent or that the death penalty was an inappropriate punishment, but to headline the article with the reference to religion seems to emphasize the wrong thing.

So, how are these articles related? Perhaps not in any way that can’t be shot down by counter-arguments, but in all cases, these articles report a world where distinctions of ethnicity and national isolationism are still strongly held but, paradoxically, no longer pertinent. George Allen’s mother kept her Jewish identity a secret because of the trauma her family experienced at the hands of one of the world’s worst racists during World War II. Fear of ethnic and religious discrimination is indeed still a problem, but Allen’s heritage has nothing to do with his ability to do his job. The California pears are rotting on the ground because of the Bush administration’s ethnic exclusionism and the racially-tinged economic fears of American workers. But if American workers don’t want to harvest crops, then our fruit will have to be imported or our grocery shelves lie bare and that makes no economic sense. The Italian government is trying to convince Italian nationals to reproduce because it doesn’t want its population to be dominated by people from other nations, but world hunger and disease caused in part by overpopulation is a far more serious issue. Headlining the Christianity of the executed men in Indonesia demonstrates the continuing and largely pointless distinctions made on the basis of religion.

The paradox is that the world no longer operates within such distinct boundaries. Communication, mobility, and a real need to level inequalities is driving us toward being a world community, not a collection of distrustful and isolationist groups. While this trend is bound to change the economic dynamics for a lot of people and may cause a dilution of cultural identities, globalization is happening. Instead of strengthening the battlements, why not figure out how to grasp the opportunities?

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