Think Globally? On the Whole, I’d Rather Not: Interviewing on Al Jazeera

By Stephen Steinlight on July 20, 2009

Recently I gave an interview to Al Jazeera English to be aired on a TV show about "Unemployed Day Laborers in New York City." When the host called to invite me, the topic initially struck me as oddly narrow and provincial, arguably even a tad esoteric for an audience Al Jazeera claims spans several continents. (I was told the service is "hip," multicultural, and has a broad range of viewers.) Nor was it immediately clear to me what my role was to be considering my professional focus. But I was starting out with several mistaken assumptions. I was thinking too abstractly and disinterestedly; the image in my head was an audience curious about American national affairs, the impact of the recession, its social fallout (the show would provide the "worm's eye view"), and public policy per se. That snap judgment couldn't have been more erroneous. Whenever the show is aired, thousands of viewers will be watching with intense personal interest about a subject that couldn't be more concrete and immediate for them. It will directly address their own lives, and they'll be watching because their economic interests are at stake.

For the record, Al Jazeera's English-language service claims to be entirely separate from the more familiar Al Jazeera, the Arabic-language station that exerts, for better or worse, considerable political influence on inter-Arab Middle East politics (though at one point that line seemed to disappear, more of which later). The original format had me joining a panel of "unemployed day laborers" for a moderated discussion, but the host nixed that at the last minute. Though I spoke with him for no more than 3-4 minutes on just one occasion a day before the interview, he gathered enough about my interests and affiliation – and knew more than I did about the circumstances and identities of the "unemployed day laborers" – to conclude it wouldn’t be a bright idea. In retrospect, I realize had the show been taped with all of us in the studio it might easily have morphed into a grotesque marriage between "Crossfire" and the "Jerry Springer Show" – minus the beefy security guys.

I arrived early, which gave me time to chat up the young, amiable, hip twenty-something (probably) American host to try to get some sense of where to he fit along the political and ideological spectrum, but I didn't learn anything explicit, though his youth and "multicultural" personal style spoke for themselves. As the tech people set me up, I asked about Al Jazeera's English-language service. When our conversation veered to "unemployed day laborers" I quickly realized the interview was on. I opened up such discussions, as I usually do, by providing a frame of reference, citing the official reckoning from New York State's Department of Labor that the unemployment rate is 8.7%, though the total number of jobless is undoubtedly higher because those no longer collecting Unemployment Benefits become statistically invisible, and some two-thirds of New York's unemployed do not receive them. Citing a study by the Fiscal Policy Institute (FPI), New York City Unemployment in 2009 – The Emerging Crisis, I then highlighted the unnerving statistics about 50% unemployment among blue-collar workers in New York, with some 21% out of work in construction – a principal business hiring day laborers – with similarly high percentages in manufacturing, wholesale trade, and transportation and warehousing. I emphasized the especially high rate of African-American unemployment, reported at 14.7% for the first quarter of this year, again likely a considerable understatement of the full magnitude. I also explained that given the large gender difference for rates of unemployment in the black community, African-American male unemployment is likely far higher than 14.7. In fact, one regularly comes across the figure of 50% of black men unemployed, as in an article published in 2005, well before the current recession, in Gotham Gazette, a devastating figure if true. I also spoke of the underlying causes cited by the FPI study: lack of consumer confidence and the collapse in housing prices that has essentially put a stranglehold on construction, and also cited FPI's finding that hourly wages are falling.

My host listened patiently, made an appropriate show of concern over the unhappy facts by shaking his head and clucking empathetically, but it wasn’t what he was after. It was clear he wanted to move in another, more focused direction. When I finished laying out the broad context, he leaned forward – wearing his most earnest expression – and said in a soft, equally earnest tone that he was now going to ask me the question uppermost in the minds of his global audience. The global audience of Al Jazeera's English-language service, untold numbers living on three continents were waiting on tenterhooks to know my answer to only one question: "What should President Obama do to help the unemployed day laborers?" In a nanosecond, I had my first epiphany: I'd been engaged in a futile effort at self-deception. I suppose I was tired of traversing the same ground over and over and over again and hoped he wasn't really talking about what I’d known in my heart of hearts he'd been talking about since our first conversation. What was I thinking? Why had I been invited and why was I being interviewed separately? My second quasi-epiphany was that "unemployed day laborers" is yet another euphemism for illegal aliens. I thought I knew them all! What presumption! Yet Al Jazeera seemed an odd place for me to be adding another to my lexicon.

I took a breath and paused: the firestorm could wait a few seconds. An analogy from recent reading flitted through my head: I was a British Army captain on the Somme on the morning of July 1, 1916, about the blow the whistle to signal it was time to go over the top. I knew what I'd encounter. Every British officer did, but that didn’t deter them. In this relatively easy, entirely civilized context – no matter of mortality, bodily integrity, or sense of honor on the line – it couldn't deter me. Thousands were awaiting my answer. "The whole world is watching," as we used to say in the 60s, and on this occasion it had a measure of literal truth. They were awaiting an answer I was determined not to give. In fact, I was readying myself to answer in such a way as to drain the last drop of hope or expectation in any viewer's mind – at least from this American.

"What should the President do?" I said. "To answer the question I have to ask you one first." The host knew what was coming. "What is the legal status of the 'unemployed day laborers' you're inquiring about?" He answered, almost nonchalantly, "of course many, maybe most, are undocumented," the nonchalance suggesting their legal status was an archaic requirement belonging to another age and hopelessly non-multicultural sensibility and a matter of concern only to a political or social dinosaur. I didn't show any anger; what would be the sense of particular annoyance at a host on Al Jazeera? It occurred to me that his indifference to the rule of law in our country or defending the nation's sovereignty was not only an honest reflection of the worldview of his deracinated viewers, many of whom live by choice in diaspora communities or illegally in countries not their own and whose primary loyalty is not – and never has been – to a nation state but rather to an income. A far more troubling, instantaneous reflection was this post-nationalist point of view is shared by America's own political and financial elite who would identify with my host and his "global audience," not with me.

The preceding took place within the space of a minute or two. Then came my answer: "The President should do nothing to help unemployed day laborers who have entered our country illegally and unlawfully stolen jobs and benefits from the American people. He should do everything in his power to see they remove themselves or are removed. Should he seek to do anything to help them, we will fight him as hard as we can, and I believe we will win."

You can fill in the rest.

Final point: I mentioned the line between the hip, upbeat, transparent Al Jazeera English and the infinitely creepier Arabic-language service disappeared briefly. That was when I began talking about the national security implications of open-borders, citing former DHS Secretary Chertoff's comments that a 2006 study by DHS estimated some 20,000 people from countries on the Terrorist Watch List crossed into the U.S. from Mexico. When I started discussing the movement of agents of Hezbollah, Hamas, and Al Qaeda across the border the host stopped making eye contact and abruptly changed the subject.