In mid-January I went back to Mexico for meetings with clients and academics, as well as colleagues from IBM. As you might imagine, the immigration debates going on in the US are being closely followed in Mexico. The people I spoke to were generally very critical of the Mexican government because it has not done nearly enough to improve economic conditions in the country so that the poor don’t feel the need to go North in search of a livelihood for them and their families.
But, they also had many questions about our actions in the US. I was asked, for example, why, almost twenty years after the dismantling of the Berlin Wall - with all the ugliness it symbolized - here is the winning superpower of the Cold War planning to build a new, even bigger Berlin-style wall. Such questions caused me to reflect back on immigration, and the debates it has ignited in the US.
Immigration is a very complex subject. There is no doubt that the US needs a comprehensive immigration solution that properly takes into account various factors, including the security of our borders, the enforcement of workplace rules and labor demand and supply. We also need to find a practical and decent way to deal with the existing population of illegal immigrants in our country. President Bush made immigration reform a key priority in the 2007 State of the Union. I sincerely hope that this coming year, the Administration, the House and the Senate will engage in a civilized dialogue and come up with a good, bipartisan immigration reform bill.
But I continue to be quite dismayed at the negative, mean-spirited tone that powerful figures in politics and the media sometimes display when discussing immigration issues. No doubt my feelings have much to do with my personal background. I am a first-generation immigrant, as well as the son of immigrants. I came to the US from Cuba in 1960 with a tourist visa and was granted refugee status. So did my sister and parents and thousands of fellow Cubans.
My father and mother had come to Cuba from Eastern Europe in the 1920s and 1930s respectively. I am sure they had no visa, but were nevertheless allowed to stay. So were millions of immigrants who came from Europe to the Americas - to Cuba, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Canada and most of all, to the US.
While I was not, I hope, quite an illegal immigrant, I was indeed an immigrant leaving a harsh environment and coming to the US in search of a better future. So it is hard for me to listen to diatribes against illegal immigrants without thinking that these could have been directed at me, my family and countless others in similar circumstances.
Then there is my Jewish heritage, which makes me very sensitive when I see minorities being demonized by media figures and politicians, and blamed - sometimes directly, sometimes in a more subtle way - for a number of problems afflicting society. I see such demonizing of a powerless minority taking place today against poor illegal immigrants, and in particular, poor, illegal, Mexican immigrants.
There is a long, sad history of placing blame on specific groups for whatever anxieties afflict a society. When economic conditions are tough - whether in the post-Reconstruction Jim Crow era in the US; in Germany in the 1930s, in the events that led to the Holocaust; or more recently in certain countries in Africa and the Middle East, - demagogues arise to point to one group and blame them for whatever is making the majority anxious and angry. As we well know, the results are often disastrous.
While nothing like that is happening here, I must admit that when I hear the rants against illegal Mexican immigrants, which are often intermixed with discussions on the plight of the Middle Class, I hear echoes in my brain of the hate speeches I have heard against Jews, blacks and others, some from historical documentaries, some - unfortunately - from more recent history.
I have tried to understand what it is that gets me so personally upset about these diatribes against illegal Mexican immigrants. After all, I can just ignore them and tune them out. I don't have to listen to Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly and Lou Dobbs, any more than I have to listen to the rants of Hugo Chavez, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or (the once healthy) Fidel Castro. As I was reminded in comments to a recent blog entry where I touched on this subject, we should celebrate the freedom and diversity of opinions that we enjoy, including those with which we may strongly disagree.
I have concluded that I am not so much upset at any one individual or program, but at the media companies that give them such prominence. In particular, I am upset at CNN - although perhaps disappointed may be the more accurate description of my feelings. CNN is a brand I have held in high esteem for a very long time. I still do. CNN is my preferred source of news on TV, and I also listen to it on my satellite car radio. Watching Soledad O'Brien and Miles O'Brien is an integral part of my routine when exercising in the morning. I like the unique styles of Anderson Cooper and Larry King. Jeff Greenfield is one of my favorite political analysts, and Christiane Amanpour is as good a foreign correspondent as there is in the business. What’s more, imprinted in my mind is the memory of Bernard Shaw and Peter Arnett reporting from their hotel room in Baghdad during the Gulf War.
What I cannot understand is why the management of CNN and TimeWarner - its parent company - not only tolerate Lou Dobbs Tonight, but give the program perhaps their most prominent news programming slot, putting it on the air seven days a week from 6 pm - 7 pm - on weekends under the name Lou Dobb This Week. Based on what I read and see, I suspect that most people in CNN and TimeWarner do not necessarily agree with the views expressed on Lou Dobbs Tonight. What I, along with many others, think this is all about is ratings. By focusing sharply on polarizing issues and adopting a "red meat" style, Lou Dobbs Tonight is attracting larger audiences, perhaps even the much sought-after audience of middle-age males, who might feel the most anxiety about the economy, globalization and jobs, and for whom the program's angry, divisive, strident tone resonates with their own feelings.
How far should a business and brand go in pursuing ratings and profits? Are there any limits, or is all fair when actions can be justified as increasing "shareholder value"? These are very important questions for a business to reflect on.
The answer has to be that there are limits beyond which a business should not go - clearly legal limits, but also ethical and moral ones. Every company has to embody its legal, ethical and moral guidelines in its culture and its values, and express them in its brand. It is part of the relationship that companies and brands have, not only with their employees, but with their clients and audience. While it takes a long time to establish such a relationship, it can sometimes end much faster, which is why companies need to be careful not to deviate too far from their brand values for near-term gains.
We are living in times of rapid change, with lots of important problems to work out - from immigration reform, to our growing wage disparities, to the rising costs of health care, to issues of combating terrorism and dealing with conflicts around the world. We need to encourage and listen to a diversity of opinions on these very complex problems. But if we are to make progress, we need to conduct our debates in as civil a way as possible, in the hope that we can bring clarity to the issues and help achieve as just and reasonable a consensus as possible.
All of us - whether individual citizens or corporate entities - need to do our part in helping make that happen.