Category Archives: Quandaries and Rants

The Twenty-Acre Wood

The Twenty-Acre Wood    —by Jinny Batterson

Town with an aging population—not unusual
For one of the “boomburgs” that began ringing
Older cities in the latter twentieth century.
Its housing stock shows signs of wear, too.
The supply of previous farmland and woodland
Available for new development dwindles. What to do?

Infill is the latest mantra. Clean up that brownfield
And put a mid-rise apartment building on it.
The natural buffers around some streams and lakes
Can surely support a hotel complex to boost revenue.

Our condo development is one of those showing
Its age. We’ve known for a while that the
Twenty-acre wood just across the adjacent commuter
Artery would some day disappear. The latest plan:
A senior living community–how apt.

I’ve recently taken to walking around and through the wood,
While it’s still there. Before the latest zoning change, an owner’s
Representative took a group of us to see a “champion tree”
Near the woods’ heart: a white oak.

The 36-inch diameter champ, broad at its base, later split
Into a trio of still-stately trunks branching skyward.
Curious, I checked online for the maximum lifespan
Of a white oak–over five hundred years.

The owner rep had relocated to North Carolina for a new assignment
With the development company that had long employed him.
A diversified outfit, it purchased the acreage years ago, back when
Land was more readily available. He hadn’t walked the property before.

“The surveyors tied a yellow ribbon around the champion
Tree,” he said. “Otherwise I never would have found it.”
Although town zoning makes special note of champion trees,
It’s possible to get permission to replace one with younger plantings.

Turns out, the land has likely not been a wood
All that long. Aside from the champion oak, which
May at some time have shaded an early farmhouse,
Most of the trees are younger–pines, gums, a few
Hickories, sassafras and maples.
.

Area residents have used the undulating terrain
As a convenient dumping ground for unwanted
Yard debris. One dying oak, smaller than the champ,
Has planks nailed to its trunk, a basic treehouse
Nestled into a crook about a dozen feet up.

Earlier, the town installed a culvert at a low point in the
Woodland, to divert run-off into a nearby containment pond.
Its rock-lined approach has sprouted a pine, now thirty feet high.
The spindly tree strains for light, drinks in the available moisture.

Upland, there’s a surprising amount of briar-free space between trees.
Here and there a cache of beer bottles, a discarded car seat,
A rusted old lawn chair, bald tires, an excavation that perhaps
Once was a more extensive dumping ground.

Lest my aging flower child self get overly sentimental,
Moodily humming “Big Yellow Taxi” as I wander, I remember the
Resilience of woodlands. Untended, farmsteads or meadows
Take only a human generation or so to return to young forest.

Once the seniors housed in the new complex have died,
And the development has fallen into disarray along with them,
The woods will take back over, planned or unplanned.

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Pizzlies and Grolars–Climate-Mediated Combinations?

Pizzlies and Grolars—Climate-Mediated Combinations?   –by Jinny Batterson

During the summer of 2017, I vacationed for two weeks in parts of Alaska. One of the naturalists who guided a bus tour I took in Denali National Park in central Alaska mentioned some new “hybrid” bears that are starting to show up in the far north of Alaska and Canada. As Arctic polar sea ice shrinks, the traditional ice floe habitat of polar bears is shrinking along with it. As temperatures in interior Alaska warm, some grizzlies are moving further north. One result is that the two sub-species of bears, who rarely encountered each other in the past, now have more overlap in their ranges. Sometimes they fight; at other times they interact in different ways. Offspring of polar-grizzly matings are called pizzly or grolar bears. Pizzlies and grolars typically have the coloring of polar bears, with the large head that is more characteristic of a grizzly. A picture of a pizzly that had been killed by a hunter was posted on a National Geographic site (https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/12/photogalleries/101215-pizzly-grolar-bear-polar-grizzly-hybrids-nature-arctic-global-warming-pictures/) in 2010.  Only a few of the hybrid bears have been encountered so far, but biologists expect that more matings will likely occur as climate change accelerates. Perhaps, as our planet continues to warm, there may someday be pizzlies and grolars as far south as Denali park. 

My direct knowledge of Alaska’s longer-term weather is nil. However, a friend in Fairbanks who has spent most of his adult life in the now-less-frozen north, told me that the previous year’s winter was exceptionally mild—with overall temperatures about 6 degrees Fahrenheit about average. His back yard developed a lawn-chair sized sinkhole when part of its permafrost melted. Statistics from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a U.S. governmental weather agency, bear out that the entire year 2016 was of record-breaking warmth in all reporting stations of our northernmost state (https://www.climate.gov/news-features/features/2016-shatters-record-alaskas-warmest-year). Climate change in Alaska has been more rapid than in the lower forty-eight states. 

About three years ago, I participated in the People’s Climate March in New York City. For me, part of the event’s inspiration came from seeing so many people of so many different backgrounds engaged in demonstrating for the good of our planet. Even more inspiring to me was the interfaith service held the evening after the march at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. Many of the speakers at the service came from areas already experiencing disruptions due to climate change— more intense downpours, longer droughts, stronger typhoons and hurricanes, sea level rise.

The indigenous elders who participated in the service were alarmed and dismayed at the damage we are doing to our planet (the environment that sustains the lives of all species, including humans), but they were not without hope. At the conclusion of an interfaith conference that ran concurrently with the march and its preparations, they issued a call to action:     

“Know that you yourself are essential to this World. Each of us is put here in this time and this place to personally decide the future of humankind. We must sacrifice and move beyond our own comforts and pleasures. We must stop the damaging activities and begin working on restoring the natural environment for the future of All Life.”

The year 2017 has had its share of weather extremes in U.S. states and territories: inhabitants of Houston, Florida, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and northern California have now experienced firsthand some of the effects of human-induced climate change. We will all need to adapt. The interbreeding option available to polar bears and grizzlies is not in our future—we have become too differentiated from other animals for that. What can be in our future, if we choose, is increasing cooperation across cultures and religions to reduce our damage to our Earth, and to start to help heal her and ourselves.

The Other One Percent: Puerto Rico

The Other One Percent: Puerto Rico     —by Jinny Batterson

Like many mainland Americans, I’ve been watching a fair amount of television reporting these days about the unfolding humanitarian tragedy in Puerto Rico in the wake of hurricanes Irma and Maria. Nearly all the island’s electric, transportation, and communications infrastructure was decimated by the back-to-back hurricanes. Maria was the strongest hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in nearly a century, and pummeled the island only thirteen days after a lesser blow from Irma had disrupted power for up to a million residents. 

The news coverage sent me to the Internet to try to get some additional background on factors that contributed to this disaster impacting the estimated 3.4 million Puerto Ricans—about 1% of the total U.S. population.

Of course, the immediate causes are the hurricanes themselves—two of the most powerful storms ever seen over land. But there is also a backstory of decades of neglect, indifference, and discrimination that contributed. It seems somewhat cruel in the current circumstances to note that 2017 marks the centennial of Puerto Ricans’ American citizenship—on March 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Jones-Shafroth Act, establishing limited U.S. citizenship for all islanders born during or after 1898, when the island was acquired by the United States at the conclusion of the Spanish-American War.

At the time of the U.S. takeover, Puerto Rico was primarily an agricultural economy. Its principal exports were coffee and sugar. That began to change after World War II. In 1950, the U.S. initiated an “operation bootstrap” program to encourage industrialization and economic growth, and for a while the economy boomed.  Puerto Rico’s economy began a long-term decline in the late 1990’s after a change in the U.S. tax code phased out a provision that had allowed mainland-based companies to avoid corporate taxes on profits made in U.S. territories, including Puerto Rico. During the decade of 1996-2006, as the phase-out program took effect, manufacturing jobs declined from about 160,000 to about 110,000. More and more Puerto Ricans left for the mainland, where job prospects might be better. By 2016, over 4.6 million Puerto Ricans resided on the mainland, with the greatest concentrations in metropolitan New York City and in Florida.     

Politically, Puerto Rico chafed under near-colonial rule that seesawed between periods of development support by mainland politicians and periods of repression. Successive votes by islanders to change their status generally supported some variation of the status quo until 2012, when a majority of islanders voted to become a state. The referendum was controversial—opponents had tried to get people to abstain from voting altogether and later argued that the vote was invalid.

Once immediate crises ease and redevelopment plans begin to be developed, it might be wise to consult extensively with this “other 1%” to learn what Puerto Ricans, those with the most at stake, want their still-proud island to become.    

Cycling Toward Resilience

Cycling Toward Resilience    —by Jinny Batterson

bicycling for fun–Jinny fords a small stream in New Zealand

September 22, 2017, according to my wall calendar, marks this year’s equinox, ushering in autumn in the northern hemisphere and spring in the southern. It’s the day when the sun’s arc passes directly over the earth’s equator, when day and night are of nearly equal length. It would seem to indicate a sort of balance. For many of us, balance right now is in somewhat short supply.

Broadcast news these days carries stories and images of catastrophic damage to the U.S. Southeast and American territories in the Caribbean from three different hurricanes so far this season. Parts of Texas and Florida, all of Puerto Rico and most of the U.S. Virgin Islands may never again be the same after Harvey, Irma, and Maria. And hurricane season isn’t even over yet. Meanwhile, swaths of eastern North Carolina have yet to recover from last year’s Hurricane Matthew damage. Parts of New Orleans have atrophied since Katrina’s 2005 onslaught. Five years after superstorm Sandy, houses in New York and New Jersey are still boarded up.

Locally, our town is balancing on the cusp of another municipal election, with multiple candidates in each race this time around. Last night I attended a candidate’s forum co-sponsored by  several non-partisan volunteer groups. The crowd was standing room only, the tone civil, the questions and answers thoughtful and generally restrained—no promises to hold the line on taxes, no shirking from admissions that both infrastructure and population in our community are aging, that revenues since the 2008 recession have not kept up with population growth, that we face challenges.  A couple of incumbents emphasized the need to move away from our current high dependence on private vehicles toward a greater use of walking, cycling, and public transit. 

So I got to thinking about bicycles. A pre-hurricane posting to a San Juan, Puerto Rico website extolled the pleasures of bicycling on recently completed trails around that city. One post-hurricane-Maria clip of the initial stirrings of movement in Puerto Rico showed a few bicycles pedaling the still-watery streets among the cars, trucks, and earthmoving machines. 

Bicycles are an efficient means of transportation, especially in relatively flat terrain. Per an Exploratorium website: “In fact cycling is more efficient than any other method of travel–including walking! The one billion bicycles in the world are a testament to its effectiveness.” (see https://www.exploratorium.edu/cycling/humanpower1.html)   

Unfortunately, persuading the world’s more affluent citizens to give up our cars and use bicycles exclusively is probably not practical. Yet in the Texas city of Houston, Hurricane Harvey damaged or destroyed over a million cars. Houston has been one of the nation’s most car-dependent cities, with nearly 95% of households possessing at least one car. We may not be able to coax ourselves out of our car habits entirely and use bikes as our primary means of transportation, but we can at least make cycling more attractive with bike-share programs, good trails and signage, incentives to bike rather than take the car on shorter trips.

As severe weather events impact more and more of our land area, as densely populated urban centers house higher and higher proportions of humanity, many cities are establishing resilience strategies, often with coordinators that reach across traditional departmental boundaries to integrate efforts. Cycling can be a worthwhile part of such strategies. Before the next big storm hits, let’s start cycling toward resilience.

The Labor of Voting

The Labor of Voting —by Jinny Batterson 

During the past several months, my small townhouse complex mobilized like never before. In our previously sleepy suburban neighborhood, people circulated petitions, attended multiple zoning hearings, even overcame fears of public speaking to testify on our own behalf. We want to preserve as much as possible of the leafy canopy that has surrounded us since our 100 or so garden-style condominiums were built over the course of a five year period in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.

We had an impact. Though the recommendation of the town’s zoning board is not final, we persuaded a slim majority that a new development adjacent to our condo community, as currently proposed, does not adequately preserve the balance of natural and built environments that is part of our town’s appeal. Further revisions are needed.

Next month, our town and nearby jurisdictions will hold municipal elections. Turnout for municipal and local elections nationwide is usually very low—only 10 to 20 percent of registered voters make the effort to show up—a much lower proportion that the over 75% of homeowners who signed our rezoning petition (though a little greater than the 7% of owners who actually spoke at the zoning hearing…)

National politics has gotten so polarized and nasty lately that many of us have been tempted to give up on voting. Why even bother to register and vote, especially in local elections? What difference will it make? Actually, local elections may be the most important of all, for lots of reasons:

1) Town councils/county governments have the final say on zoning, property taxes, local budgets

2) Politicians DO pay attention to where their election margins come from

3) Local elections are typically among the only remaining non-partisan elections (no party labels on the ballot)

4) A vote has even more impact when “less diluted” by other voters (but don’t let that deter you from encouraging others to vote)

5) If the person you support wins a council seat and later runs for higher office, you may have additional clout as one of his/her early supporters

Because of expected low turnout, some localities provide less publicity and fewer convenient options for voting in local elections—not as many hours or sites for voting early, stricter rules and not as much notice about voting absentee.

My read of our national history is that we have had a see-saw record when it pertains to the voting franchise. As an American woman, I gained the right to vote through efforts of generations of suffragists who came before me. I’m dismayed at what I perceive as current efforts to disenfranchise the most vulnerable members of our society—minorities, the young, the frail elderly, the disabled, the poor, the homeless. 

At least in my state, voting in political elections is not as convenient as registering a “like” to an online post, or signing an online petition. It takes some planning, time, and effort to request and return an absentee ballot, or to find your polling place, show up at an appropriate time, and cast your ballot. Compared to the instantaneous nature of some other parts of our lives, voting can be labor intensive. 

Still, voting is among the most precious labor rights we have, whether in a labor organizing effort, a presidential election, or a local one. So, this Labor Day, once you’ve cleaned the grease off the grill and put the remaining sweet tea in the refrigerator, please consider the importance of the labor of voting in this year’s elections. If you haven’t already, please go register to vote. Once the election process starts, please vote!   

Sensitive Segments

Sensitive Segments    —by Jinny Batterson

A long time ago, before I became totally technically obsolete, I worked for a number of years in what was then called data processing—now more often labeled “information technology.”  The media and the structure of the data I worked with changed over time. First there were punched card files, later storage on computer tapes, then multi-plattered disk drives, and, still later, all sorts of increasingly dense mass storage devices.  At first, each separate computer application had its own files, so there was a tremendous amount of duplication among the various files, with a high probability for errors and mismatches. Later, someone figured out that it would be possible to create a data hierarchy, with a top level “executive” or “parent” piece that controlled access to all the others. This reduced duplication and mismatch difficulties, but meant that to access any piece of data required understanding a rigid data structure, with its different levels and dependencies. 

During the final decade of my data processing work, I was introduced to what were then called “relational databases.” As the expense of computer hardware continued to decline and the speed of data retrieval continued to increase, any data hierarchy that might be lurking in the background was masked. Given a properly constituted database, it became possible for programmers to compose relatively simple inquiries into multiple data fields, no matter how they were positioned in the overall data structure. To me, this way of viewing data was much more intuitive than trying to remember whether “segment A” was a parent segment to “segment B,” or whether both were same-level children of “segment C” in some artificially constructed hierarchy. The catch, in the somewhat hierarchical organizations where I worked, was that some data was deemed off-limits or unnecessary for some members of the agency or firm. For example, the Personnel Department might need to access personal information that was considered either too sensitive or irrelevant for the Accounting Department or the Education Department, and vice versa. 

So some smart computer software guru introduced the concept of “sensitive segments” for data base access.  All the data was stored somewhere, but if you were in the Personnel Department, you could only retrieve data from those segments to which you were given access. If you were in Accounting or Education, you would be blind to those segments whose data was reserved exclusively for Personnel. They did not relate to your job description. From your perspective, they did not exist. 

In the glut of our current information environment, it may seem as though the concept of “sensitive segments” is obsolete. In theory, any of us can access most of the data stored online anywhere in the world via the “world wide web.” However, precisely because there is so much information available in electronic form, it becomes totally impossible for any single person or group to retrieve it all, let alone make any sort of sense of it. Therefore, the Googles and other search engines of our age have devised ingenious algorithms to bring us just those “sensitive segments” they believe will most interest and/or please us. Our search-engine-mediated levels of sensitivity have only increased.

Amid the cries of horror at the polarization and dysfunction of our political and social systems, relatively few point to this sensitization as a partial cause. Few stop to remember that any topical query will bring back the “most popular” web pages on that topic first. For example, if I do a Google search on the word “bias,” it brings back about 207 million results, one screenful at a time, with several dictionary definitions as the leading entries. Such a ranking system helps to make sense of lots of relatively simple topics, yet it also opens a way for more and more extreme distortions of the more complex aspects of reality. Unless I type in a specific web address, I are going to be shown just the information deemed by the search engine software as a “sensitive segment” first.

Each of us reaches adulthood having certain segment sensitivities, based on our genetic make-up, our upbringing, and our exposure to various life events.  Some of us, for example, are drawn to emphasize the role of individual initiative in fostering success; others are primed to stress the role of luck. Some feel entitled to a large share of the world’s material goods; others remark on patterns of systemic discrimination and oppression that deprive many of even a small share of such goods.

It is very difficult, a whole life’s work and then some, to unlearn layers of bias and discrimination we learned early in life. It’s crucial that we minimize the distortions fomented by our increasing dependence on Internet-mediated “sensitive segments.” We need the balance of maintaining and strengthening interactions with real people with real lives whose opinions and experiences may be quite different from our own.     

White Privilege, the Capacity to Leave, and the World’s Changing Games

White Privilege, the Capacity to Leave, and the World’s Changing Games   

                                                       —by Jinny Batterson

As our nation veers closer and closer to fascism, I’m dismayed and unbalanced. How did we come to this point, I ask myself? How was I complicit? How can we as a society rebalance? 

As a “leading edge boomer white female,” I’ve followed a similar trajectory to that of many liberal-leaning members of my cohort: protesting the Vietnam war; attending Earth Days; joining various consciousness-raising groups; experimenting briefly with consciousness-altering substances; absorbing uplifting books, films and workshops about human possibilities; doing a Peace Corps stint in sub-Saharan Africa; later, in semi-retirement, doing shorter volunteer or low-paid assignments teaching English in rural China.

Where I may have diverged from classmates who moved to the suburbs, raised families, and enrolled their children in “superior” school systems, is that for over twenty years, I lived in America’s core cities. The neighborhoods where I settled were “marginal,” working class, multi-racial. At first, this was an economic necessity—my twenty-somethings were littered with lots of employment mis-steps and accidents. Rents and mortgage payments were lower in areas that had been written off by most of the real estate establishment. But I stayed. Partly this was a semi-conscious effort to atone for some slaveholding ancestors who conferred on me an undeserved inherited advantage. Later, it was partly to help prepare our children for a global society with no single dominant group. As I got to know my neighbors better, my staying got to be more and more about their kind and forgiving natures, and their partial immunity to the materialism I saw so much of elsewhere. I chose to be a visible “minority” presence. And there’s the rub.

The neighbors who surrounded me in inner city Baltimore or inner city Richmond had fewer options for leaving than I did. Legal discrimination, or, increasingly, lack of income or of inherited wealth, made it difficult or impossible for them to afford housing in “better” areas. When I lived in Burundi and visited with peasant families in Burundi and Rwanda, most had little chance for schooling beyond the most elementary levels, in crowded, under-equipped classrooms. Few could travel, either in their own countries or abroad. Their prospects for improving their lot in life were terribly limited. In high schools or agricultural colleges where I taught English in China, students were not likely to be able to use their skills—after graduation, most would work long hours at soul-destroying jobs in big cities. They might at best be able to show off for their parents or grandparents on holiday visits back home.

By contrast, I could take time away from Baltimore or Richmond to recharge at a summer cabin by a pristine lake in Vermont. When sub-Saharan Africa got too depressing, I could join my family on extended holiday in Europe. In China, I spent a winter break at a posh beach resort, a summer interval being escorted by a high-ranking official around the historic sights of Beijing.

The world I grew up in is changing at ever-increasing speed. Within the U.S., we are becoming more immigrant, more “non-white,” more interethnic than ever. Globally, we’ve expanded travel and communications by orders of magnitude. However, we’re also changing our earth’s atmosphere and oceans in ways that will make life less predictable and probably more difficult for all living creatures. Movie fantasies aside, precious few of us have the wealth and/or training to be able to leave the planet and survive. This changes the game, even for those of us with privilege.

The new game requires me and others with privileges conferred by birth, inheritance, skill and/or luck to practice “not leaving.” Of course, I will still need to protest injustices, to improve my environmental stewardship, to raise my awareness, to celebrate human possibilities. But I will need to do more. Even in situations that make me uncomfortable or defensive, I will need to remain fully present, and then to listen, deeply. I will need to practice staying, and staying, and staying. I can no longer afford not to.

Twitter Fodder

Twitter Fodder    —by Jinny Batterson

I don’t have a Twitter account, nor am I ever likely to. I’m too wordy to accept that much that’s worth saying can fit into just 140 characters.  So I was somewhat surprised the other morning when I awoke after a good night’s sleep to find a Twitter-length snippet pushing its way into my journal: 

If you play only zero-sum games, you’re likely to wind up a big fat zero.

Fewer than 100 characters, even including a couple of adjectives that could, if need be, be left out. Few big words, except maybe “zero-sum,” a shorthand way of explaining the attitude that for me to win, you have to lose an equal amount from a fixed total, with no room for sharing or “win-win” solutions. “Big fat zero” may be slightly old-fashioned, but familiar as a taunt to anyone who’s ever spent time on an elementary school playground.

 What did it mean for me to have such a short saying barging into my thoughts, and maybe even my writing?  After a bit, a memory surfaced. I was back at our public high school, in my favorite teacher’s French class. Mrs. Nash didn’t so much teach French as she taught life. One of her favorite tools was a series of aphorisms, or short sayings, attributed to historical French writers. The discussion I remember best centered around a pithy quote by philosopher Charles-Louis de Montesquieu, who lived in France starting in the late 17th century. He wrote a lot about the conditions and rights of man. He is credited with having said:

Every man has his price.

As Mrs. Nash guided the conversation, we fairly quickly broadened our definition of “price” to include things other than a monetary sum or material item. Suppose the price involved our being embarrassed or made very uncomfortable? What about sacrificing our health? Suppose the price meant having a loved one put in danger? What if it demanded that we give up cherished ideas or principles? Suppose the price pitted short-term gain against long-term survival?

We never resolved the issue. Later discussions, in Mrs. Nash’s class and elsewhere, were based on a cross-section of similar sayings, not all of them by French authors:

What wisdom can you find that is greater than kindness?
People who know little are usually great talkers, while men who know much say little.
(Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1712-1778) 

No society can be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable.
Science is the great antidote to the poison of enthusiasm and superstition.
(Adam Smith, 1723-1790) 

No man chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness, the good he seeks.
(Mary Wollstonecraft, 1759-1797)         

He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that.
(John Stuart Mill, 1806-1873) 

It gradually dawned on me that these “aphorisms” were the “tweets” of their times, considerably wiser than the 72 characters that had descended on me, or, I’m guessing, much else that gets posted on Twitter these days. 

As many of our online civic discussions continue to deteriorate into name-calling and evermore selective choice of facts, I’m sometimes tempted to despair. But I know that despair never changes anything for the better.  So I take frequent breaks to slow down and collect my thoughts, grateful to have this luxury at the current stage of my life. Not all do. However, all of us have time to take a deep breath. We can all briefly turn off or tune out the many distractions of our increasingly distracted society.  We all can imagine a place and time when we felt safe and cared for.  From deep within this setting of safety and love comes an important insight, one so short that it could fit ten times in a standard tweet:  

Pay attention.

What’s New in Fake News: Choosing our Facts (2)

What’s New in Fake News: Choosing Our Facts (2)     —by Jinny Batterson

In an earlier blog post, written not long after last fall’s elections, I retold a surprise encounter with a Trump supporter while visiting family in California, the “left coast.” This veteran of stints in the Marines and the U.S. Coast Guard played down Trump’s divisive rhetoric. (“He’s just a brash New Yorker,” the man told me.) He was upset about Hillary Clinton’s misuse of a private email server and, above all, concerned about illegal immigration. He quoted facts and figures, both historical and current, to bolster his anti-immigrant arguments. He claimed that 750,000 “illegals” made up 10% of the population of New York City, taking jobs and housing from more deserving legal residents. When I mentioned the proportion of our national food supply harvested by immigrant labor, he shunted my concerns aside—that was old news, he said. During World War II, there was a shortage of native-born farm workers, so immigrants were brought in to pick crops, but nearly all of them had been sent home during the Eisenhower administration. I did not have ready answers, but thought some of his statements were likely exaggerations.

Shortly after our conversation, I used a borrowed computer to look up figures via Google for “illegal immigration to New York City.” The closest match I could find was a Newsmax article from September, 2015 that appeared near the top of the retrieved list. It mentioned the 750,000 figure, but for New York State as a whole, in 2012, with an undocumented proportion of less than 4%.  Since the new year, I’ve repeated my “illegal immigration to New York City” query, and also done further Internet research on farm labor trends. As of January 19, 2017, the lead site from a Google search on New York City illegal immigration was a sponsored advertisement for an immigration lawyer. The second highest site came from Wikipedia, with a host of disclaimers at the beginning of the article, much of which was written in 2014. This article cites a 2005 estimate of 535,000 “illegal immigrants” in New York City, sourcing the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a lobbying group formed during the 1980’s to advocate for reductions in both legal and illegal immigration to the United States. 

Further research about immigrant farm labor trends produced the information that a “bracero” program (from the Spanish term for manual laborer) for Mexican temporary farm workers was in place from 1942 to 1964. The number of braceros peaked at 445,197 in 1956, during the Eisenhower administration. The program was replaced in 1965, as part of an overall reform of the immigration system, by a program of temporary “H-2A” visas for immigrant farm workers.  Recent estimates from multiple sources put the proportion of undocumented workers in the seasonal farm labor force at over a million—somewhere between 50 and 70% of 2.4 million temporary farm workers.  According to a Wikipedia article most recently updated on January 17, 2017, there were approximately 140,000 seasonal farm workers certified under the “H-2A” program in 2015. 

Most “news” articles these days have an explicit or implicit editorial slant. Each of us is enabled to “choose our facts,” about immigration or any other issue, from among a huge number of available sites, given the continuing explosion of information in Internet, television, radio, and print sources. It becomes more important than ever to attempt to develop a balanced perspective. As I continued struggling to expand my views after my encounter with the Coast Guard veteran, I found a brief online talk by Swedish journalist Andreas Ekstrom about bias in Google search results.  Two of the most important factors in Google rankings of the relevance of a query result, he explained, are: 1) similarity of search terms,  and 2) the number of accesses to a particular site. Relevance is monitored and recalculated frequently, so the same query done several weeks apart can produce widely differing results. For example, the 2015 Newsmax immigration article for New York that showed near the top of my results list in November, 2016, no longer made the first screen of results in January, 2017.

If we are to maintain a representative democracy, Americans of all political persuasions will need to become more diligent about how we access news. It may take some time in our hurried lives to distill actual information from the plethora of opinions  and “fake news” that so often masquerade as the real thing. It will be increasingly important to distinguish the trustworthiness of news sources; often, we’ll need to pay more attention to when an article was published and how recently it has been updated. Above all, we will need to continue to choose our “facts” carefully.