|Jul/Aug 2011 Salon|
Photo by Claire Ibarra
I forgot. I forgot how most people react to these things—"good" people who don't know much beyond the local world they live in and have no means of seeing beyond it. But there's still enough of that sort of person inside me, maybe inside all of us—the urban provincial, the ghettoized mainlander—that I can remember and even sometimes still feel what they do when confronted with the unfamiliar, never mind the downright exotic.
Where I grew up, Italians—Sicilians, actually—were the Other. Jews (still not a word you felt comfortable saying out loud, especially if you had nothing against them) and Negroes (a very polite word used by bigots and fair-minded people alike, in public discourse at least) were not even in the mix. When my sister dated a local boy of Italian descent, our family regarded this as an interracial relationship.
Last names told you mostly everything you needed to know about someone (even though, like myself, there must have been many products of "mixed marriages"—technically a term that meant spouses of different religions). A strange last name meant a suspect identity.
When I started working for a big-city agency, I had a coworker, a college-educated aspiring writer, who had only recently arrived from the Deep South. One lunch hour over slices of pizza, she told me that when she first arrived in the city, which at that time was still largely Jewish, she would look to see if she could spot the tails she had been raised to believe all Jews had. Of course, she knew better, but she checked just the same.
But, as I say, I had forgotten—or at least forgotten how it feels, the sudden visceral sensation that must date back millions of years in our evolution (a word which itself can start many an antenna quivering) and which no doubt served a useful function, however immoral by our current standards. But I hadn't forgotten entirely. The truth is, I still experience that same sensation, but I've learned to filter, classify, and repress it (another charged word) all in one mental motion, like a good shortstop scooping up a ground ball and flinging it to first base.
For several years I've been getting e-mails from a relative, a decent man with a passion for justice and "the facts," though the latter seem to be supplied in his case almost exclusively by people who are passionate mostly about the current president's place of birth and their right to own a gun, any gun at all. I stopped opening those e-mails (actually they're of the shotgun type addressed to dozens of people at the same time) ever since I received one during the 2008 campaign in which an image of Barack Obama morphed so artfully into that of the devil, I felt shaken for days afterward by the sheer malevolence of it.
These are the same people, if the subject lines of those unread e-mails are indication, who believe Obama is the agent of a foreign power, a Muslim, a communist. They hate Nancy Pelosi and before her hated Hillary Clinton. They believe the idea of global warming is a fraud and a plot. They believe, some of them, that Jesus thinks the way they do and will vindicate that faith when he turns up on the day of judgment, which is likely not that far off.
I also know people who believe George W. Bush was either stupidity or evil incarnate, or who assume that anyone who speaks with a certain kind of foreign accent is a criminal, or at least stinks of food they themselves would starve before putting into their liberal mouths.
I was aware of all this both second- and first-hand—the ignorance, the paranoia, the righteousness—which is why I felt like giving myself a dope slap when it dawned on me that of course these people, even non-political, non-birthers, and non-gun-toters, react the way they do, they and tens of millions who wouldn't dream of sending out e-mails like that devil morph, or of even being the willing recipient of them. If a man named John Fitzgerald Kennedy in the year 1960 could give his fellow countrymen the yips because he was Roman Catholic, what apprehension must the name—just the name alone—Barack Hussein Obama—stir up?
Despite living on nearly an entire continent, we Americans are an insular people, as insular as the traditional British and, until recently, not even as well-traveled. We're also homogeneous to an extent unprecedented in history for a nation, a continental empire really, of our size. Other nation-states much smaller than ours scarcely speak the same language within an hour's drive of each other. We not only speak the same language, we do so without any essential linguistic difference from coast-to-coast and border to border.
Our population has also successfully assimilated into this white bread standard, however unwillingly, tens of millions of foreign-speaking peoples, without losing our 17th- and 18th-century language and culture. Even the most resisted, involuntary immigrants from Africa have, despite continuing discrimination, become as American, if not more so, as anyone of German or Irish descent.
And yet, despite or perhaps because of this homogeneity, our attitudes toward something foreign or foreign-sounding can be as narrow and tribal as anything you can find on the planet. How else to explain the frenzy generated by the mere suspicion that Obama was not born in the United States. Or that he's the product of an alien education in Indonesia? Or that he's an agent of his African father's supposed anti-Americanism?
But, as I say, I forgot. But now I remember what those Americans feel, even if I don't sympathize with what they conclude on the basis of those feelings. I've felt it myself, and recently, too. In fact, I feel it quite frequently. I mean the fear and suspicion, however much I like to think I'm beyond such reactions. I was formed in the same mental environment as they, on the mainland, in the heart of the "real" America. But, let me tell you, those same prejudices are alive and well in the big city, if not always expressed openly, probably for purely pragmatic reasons.
The iconic moment for me for all this was when a woman in, I believe, Minnesota, at a campaign rally in 2008, asked John McCain if it wasn't true that Obama was an "Arab." It was more of an assertion than a question. She was looking for reinforcement, not verification. She was a woman in late middle-age, a grandmother perhaps, soft-spoken, the kind of person you could imagine bringing a tray of fresh-baked cookies to the door of new neighbors.
By "Arab" she likely meant "Muslim," though whatever Barack Obama may look like (and my guess is that 90% of the world would say "American"), if he was Muslim to that woman, he must also be Arab. I'll never forget the expression on her face—troubled, deeply concerned that a true alien, something un-American and seditious, was so close to taking over the nation. It's true, isn't it, Senator? she was asking in the gentlest of voices.
When I was young and still living in what used to be a sleepy small town but even by then was turning into an urban bedroom community, I brought a recording of the Irish short story writer Frank O'Connor reading his work to my friend's house to share with him. We were both attending college in the big city, but his mother, descended from a Signer of the Constitution, rarely left town either actually or mentally. When she poked her head into her son's bedroom and heard O'Connor's voice, she said, "That's a priest, isn't it?" Apart from the movie actor Barry Fitzgerald (who sometimes played priests), her experience of Irish accents came almost exclusively from the pulpit of the local parish church. She smiled as she spoke, perhaps with some small doubt in mind. But even after we assured her that O'Connor was not a priest, she asked the same question again, and then again.
I wonder if McCain was any more successful in convincing that woman that Obama was not an Arab/Muslim. (His response, as I remember, was, "No, ma'am. He's a good man.")
I think this is the way most of the world thinks and feels when they hear certain names or see a certain kind of face. Hutus and Tutsies. Serbs and Bosnians. But also, though hopefully with less horrific consequences, anyone who detects anything in the least bit alien about their next-door neighbor in Duluth or Brazzaville, Kyoto or Kiev. It's amazing that we manage to live as peacefully with one another as we do. But it also makes you wonder how much it takes to gin up the prejudice we all harbor about at least some of our neighbors, whether we acknowledge it or not, into something less tolerant and even overtly hostile. We like to point fingers at those who have attempted a violent solution to the alien menace they see in their midst. Are we immune to that kind of extreme? We nearly exterminated the native population of North America. We enslaved an entire so-called race and still don't accept them as fully American. We burned convents and synagogues and now forbid the construction of mosques in certain neighborhoods. We incarcerate one out of every five male African-Americans. What would it take to move us to be done with the niceties and simply slaughter them all outright?
In any case, the consequence of my remembering how predictable it is for people to see Barack Obama the way they do (I carry no water for him politically, by the way) has reminded me how deep and how important these feelings are. And if acknowledgment of our feelings is the first step toward confronting and dealing with them, I suppose that's at least a step in the right direction.