It is 11 am. I am at work, up to my eyes in marking and up against the looming apocalyptic shadow of dozen deadlines closing in like ringwraiths.
My phone — which I probably shouldn’t have had so close to me or on which I should have had set self-obsessed book notifications turned off — lights up.
S_____ has tagged you in a post!
‘Dude, do people get really excited over there about a royal having a baby?’
What’s my reaction to a royal having a baby?
I’ve been abroad through a royal wedding, a jubilee celebration (Yaa-aaa-aaay. She’s still alive. And we’re still supporting her. Whooooo) and two royal births and haven’t been bothered enough to send two congratulatory shits as a wedding/Christening gift.
And if that sounds excessive, it is borne of the incredulity of a family, generation upon generation born and born again to abundance and plenty and disconnected from reality, continually supported by tax money and (and) by the tears, sighs and mental and emotional investment of thousands of supposedly thinking and rational individuals worldwide.
It puts me in mind of Woody Harrelson’s journalist character in the decent if a little worthy 1997 cinematic tendenzroman, Welcome to Sarajevo, who jadedly asks his British counterpart, played by Clive Owen, if the top British news stories of the day were indeed about ‘the duke and duchess of Pork, or something?… by the way, your queen… she’s the richest woman in the world, but what does she do?’
The comparison is apt. Sarajevo was getting the bejeezus bombed out of it. Hundreds of innocent Bosnians were dying and the British journalist’s network’s (I’m looking at you BEEB, hmmm?) main story was a royal divorce.
Not even the royal divorce.
Let’s compare for a second.
Right now — at. this. second — a self-obsessed egomaniacal billionaire with the temperament of a trapped wasp, the likeability of a route canal and the vindictiveness of the kid who realises they all only liked him for his expensive toys (because really who has that many GI Joes?) has the power to blow up the planet.
And probably several others.
And a moon.
And just last week, he got bomb happy. Our military dropped $50 million worth of missiles and explosives near to Damascus, killing dozens, but appearing to have resulted in a very expensive, but not bigly effective operation if the goal were to damage Syria’s ability to produce chemical weapons.
I’m not even saying that there is a better solution to Assad or the moral problem about doing nothing while bad things happen to innocent people.
But isn’t a better solution what we should be talking about?
The Republicans have throttled the life out of the country while we’ve been distracted by our own garishly iridescent neon display of pomp and circumstance in an oversized suit. Isn’t it worse to add in someone else’s powerless head of state whose family has also been conferred wealth and power through no legitimate means?
Not so according to statistics and surveys stating that 23 million Americans tuned in to William and Kate Middleton’s wedding in 2011 (okay okay I saw some of it. WTF was that weird gesture she had to make every time he waved to the crowd. Weird). 33 million watched Princess Diana’s funeral in 1997. And 3 million US viewers currently salivate over the Netflix period drama, The Crown. One in four Americans has a favorable impression of Prince Charles and that number doubles when asked about Kate and Wills.
We were supposed to reject the monarchy back in 1776, but here we are, two and half centuries later obsessed and distracted by inherited privilege and aristocratic pageantry, both at home and abroad.
But to answer your question, dear compatriots, eh, a little, but only in an uncritical resigned acceptance that someone else has a lot of money and a lot of land at the expense of the rest of society. Then again many of my British friends are republicans (they vote for Trump? Those heartless bastards… hey waaait, obviously republicans here means supporters of a representative republic and an end to the inherited privilege of the monarchy).
And it’s not as though the royals are evil or unlikeable. Is that what we’re jealous of? We don’t mind inherited privilege as long as those with privilege are likeable and marry American movie stars? Prince Charles is a well informed environmentalist and Harry does immense charity work and referees basketball games. In New Jersey. (#Jerseystrong #Jerseyreprezent)
And I know everyone loves a real live fairy tale!
But must we lose our dignity to slavish, peasanty period drama envy? Can’t we acknowledge the validity of an archaic and outdated historical institution without getting our Downton Abbeys in a twist over it? Unless they’re giving us a day off to get squiffy drinking Pimms in the street with our neighbours toasting the royal baby or Harry and Meghan — which they’re not — can we just move on?
Well done to this BBC reporter for doing so, or at least being unfazed.
Just You Wait: Reflections on Hamilton, Founders Chic and the Need for an Example in the post-truth era
There were two types of people in high school in the late 90s: those that screamed and swooned and became haunted with a lost look in their eyes at the mention of Tori bloody Amos (I mean Christ I had friends who wrote flipping research papers about her) with a log-lady like protectiveness, and those that wondered what the fuck they were on about.
I must confess, dear reader, I fell into the latter.
I fell outside the clove-cigarette smoking circle.
I couldn’t tell you y Tori kant read.
And I was never a Cornflake Girl.
Which is not to say I don’t appreciate the beauty of her music; perhaps it’s just envy or frustration that I missed the rapturous mass convrersion to the Church of Tori.
So it goes with most obsessive fads: Harry Potter, Bubble Tea, Christianity.
Blink and you miss the wave and the further it drifts away from you the less fun it seems like to catch.
Which is funny really, because I write to you from inside the Hamilton bubble, that wonderful phenomenon of storytelling that has swept from Broadway to most major American cities and now on to the London stage and that everyone who is anyone seems to be talking about and seems to know everything about.
Except me. I knew almost nothing. I heard vague references to a hip hop musical and Alexander Hamilton, who had always been a footnote in American history books mentioned somewhere in connection with federalist papers (yes, it’s true when they say ‘every other founding father’s story gets told’). And I hadn’t expected much because I’m one of those people who’s just ‘not that into musicals’ (I hated Billy Elliot the musical. Did I mention? Awww look at all the cute Northern miners striking for their very fucking survival! Good job, Elton John for condescending to them and treating them like pixies!)
And this wasn’t some desperate grab for tickets. This wasn’t me entering the Hamilton lottery every day or calling ticketmaster or camping out like I did for Ani DiFranco tickets back in Penn State. This was pure luck. My editor at The American happened to be unable to go and so he offered it up to me. On the night my mother-in-law was landing from Dublin for Christmas.
I ask you not to judge me for choosing Hamilton.
I wish I could buck the trend and say it didn’t live up to the hype.
‘Well,’ my brother intoned to me skeptically over facenet with digitally raised eyebrows, a couple days after I had seen the show, ‘I hope it’s more than just… gushing praise.’
I mean it was articulate gushing praise.
My younger sibling was worried that I had not caught on to the trend of Founders chic, the celebration and the cool rebranding of our anglophile, landowning, manipulative power hungry founding fathers and the backlash against said trend. He was right. I hadn’t been all that aware that John Adams had been made cool again or that all the kids were pejoratively referring to their worst enemies in the playground as lobsterbacks.
And I get the point. I really do. We spent the first couple hundred years setting up these white men indignant at having less privilege than their British counterparts as Gods. And I know it’s not as simple as that, but it’s also not that much more complicated. George never came clean about the cherry tree. He never chopped down the cherry tree. It was a myth invented by Washington’s first biographer. Draw what conclusions you will but that tells you a lot more about our national character and our unquestioning belief in the deified founding fathers than any account of our first commander-in-chief’s life and times.
But is re-interpreting Hamilton’s life as an inspirational tale of an American grafter overcoming adversity by pulling himself up by his bootstraps really dangerous? As a former History major and a former teacher of History, I can sympathise (see above for my irreverence and unquestioning acknowledgement of our ‘founding fathers” non-greatness and flawed humanity) with the frustrated historians who see it that way. After all, I refused to shell out to see The Iron Lady in 2011 because I’m not going to financially support anything that humanises a woman who would gladly see her fellow MPs die on Hunger Strike and question their virility before she would negotiate for their rights as prisoners of war. To be sure, Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Churchill looks compelling but I’m deeply skeptical of the perpetual lionisation of prime minister who changed parties twice and didn’t really know what to do without a war to get him up and going in the morning (or midday… or whenever he slept off the previous night’s whiskey as it were).
But here’s the thing. Because Hamilton includes references to history does not mean it is to be taken as a History Lesson. It is fiction. A compelling story. But no more an attempt at a factual historical account than Richard III, one of Shakespeare’s most compelling portraits of witty, villainous, despotism in which the bard, according to many frustrated British historians, greatly maligned the last Plantagenet.
And I’m not going to repeat the obvious arguments in greater detail than has already been outlined with greater eloquence than I could accomplish here (that hip hop subverts the white elitism that was the currency of Hamilton and Washington’s era and forces us to reflect on it with fresh eyes, that Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians playing historical figures who would have been exclusively white also challenges us to a process of cognitive reevaluation of the way we perceive our history).
What I will say is that we need Hamilton as a story and as a national mirror of who we are, and we need its critics every bit as much. We need Hamilton for reasons that neither Lin Manuel-Miranda nor anyone else could have anticipated back when the show opened in 2015, that its jibes at major political leaders would seem so much more poignant now than they did then. That we would suffer such a paucity of leadership that James Comey would join the ranks of bestseller authors by building a case several hundred pages long about the poverty of leadership from which we as a nation currently suffer. And we also need Hamilton because one of its very true facts: that unlike some of our current and recent political leaders, Hamilton came clean about his sexual misdeeds. He faced up and ‘overwhelmed them with honesty.’ He showed us how to handle a scandal. It may have circumscribed his political ambitions, but at least he was honest.
So read Hamilton‘s critics. Get to know them. Understand them. If this magically inspiring historical musical that is as American the spirit of protest that allows us to use our greatest words to protest through historical analysis, and to be inspired by an engaging narrative about energy, ambition and drive, then more power to it.
7/7. The Opening Ceremony of The Olympics. Marching in The Women’s March on Saturday. Recalled moments in which I have felt a welling sense of pride in my adopted city.
They say that the arts thrive in times of intense uncertainty and pressure. I believe it true of progressivism as well. That we will become stronger through having our beliefs tested to the utter limits over the next four years I do not doubt. Though unwelcome, I wonder if the left perhaps needs this in order to sort ourselves out and pick more exciting candidates that act as beacons of moral leadership.
Whatever the sinister circumstances that brought us together over the weekend, let us not let it break us apart in the trying times ahead. Let us counter every one of Trump’s utterances of moral depravity with fierce, fierce love and unity. Let us counter his cynical, insidious narrative, every time.
Highlights of the day: a dog walking around with a sign on its back that said: ‘Even I wouldn’t grab a pussy,’ having to explain the course connotations of the word ‘pussy’ to my ten year old (Thanks, Mr President!) because it just became inevitable, and the eloquence of those present on the day, including Labour MP, Yvette Cooper, whose speech was moving and who spoke with conviction about the murdered Pro EU MP Jo Cox:
“We are marching because a talented woman MP was murdered by a far-right extremist and we need to call it out as the terrorism it is. And we are not just marching – we’re … standing up to the misogynists, the bullies and the haters who try to intimidate and silence people online, just as for years they tried to intimidate or silence women on the street.
“We are here because we want to take a stand against Donald Trump. Millions of American women and men voted for him. Marching isn’t enough – we need to persuade, to win arguments, to challenge the causes of division and to build a future in common. For the sake of our children and grandchildren … we are here because we will not let the clock be turned back.” (Reprinted from guardian.co.uk)
Thank you, London, as so many of the placards on Saturday said, we shall overcomb.
‘History is a Nightmare from which I am trying to awake.’
So says Stephan Daedalus in James Joyce’s Ulysses, in a moment in which he refuses to be politicized by the history of 800 years of British oppression of Ireland.
It puts things in perspective.
Election night. My fellow registered Democrats and I stand in a bar in Central London watching the results roll in. We have been working for weeks, and in fact most of my fellow Democrats for several months leading up to the election. We have regularly sat around a table littered at various points with laptops, bowls of potato chips, takeout coffees and sugary snacks, high up in a building let to the Democrats Abroad near Covent Garden, phonebanking our fellow Americans in order to get out the vote. Some of us — not me personally — have made thousands of calls. This is a massive global juggernaut of a campaign in which we have taken part. It has reached out to millions of compatriots worldwide.
Perched atop our liberal London eyrie, we steadfastly believe that our candidate is about to spread her flawed but moderately progressive wings and fly into history, heroically heralding in great swooping strides four to eight more years of Democratic residency in the White House.
Even as results roll in and we stand holding our collective breath, fingers crossed double behind backs, sugar plu, Joe Bidens dancing in our heads, even when we see the blue states crash blood red, even then we believe all is not lost, though our hearts are not as buoyant as they were when the evening started. Even as I leave my second party of the evening, the one I have got to after 2 am, the one where all the guests have already left in despair and the host ruefully sips wine and says ‘hath no man here a dagger for me?’ with his eyes, even then I think that the unions of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in my home state of Pennsylvania, which has not gone red for a generation, I feel even now most in our hour of need, the treacherous rednecks of Bucks, Monroe, Lackawanna and Susquehanna counties won’t betray us. Surely not now.
Only bleary eyed, in the cold, harsh political hangover of the next day after several precious but fitful hours of sleep the Ipad unusually laying beside me open to the BBC’s all night coverage, only then do I find that history is indeed a nightmare from which I am trying to awake all day long, and the corrosive politics of my country will once again away at itself and the world at large for a sustained and unpredictable amount of time.
Our eagle has flapped and fallen and we’ve all come tumbling down. Like the destruction of some intergalactic world, defenseless and full of reasonably progressive politics, it is as though a thousand leftist voices cry out in pain and then stop, disturbing the galactic balance of the force.
Well… the voices don’t stop for a good few weeks. They still haven’t.
Much to the displeasure of Trump voters and gloaters including my own Republican parents.
And well those voices shouldn’t stop.
The easiest path in the universe would be to throw in the towel, lie down and characterize your fellow citizens inbred piles of chewed up tobacco for brains as I did just six paragraphs ago, like the smug liberal piss ant than I am.
But we know what we have to do.
No. It’s not to rally together and bond, ‘healing wounds’ in some saccharine crusted patchwork quilt. Cauterize maybe. but not heal. Some wounds are worth keeping. Some pain is worth remembering.
We need to do what we did not do during the entire campaign. We must tell a compelling story about the terrible risk and the horrible threat that our own commander-in-chief poses to us as Americans. We need to keep raising our voices as loudly and clamorously as possible.
We need to keep on waking each other up from this nightmare of history, keep waking each other up every day and stay as woke as we can.
“But Dad, I read an article from Alternet that meticulously compiled Trump’s interviews and public statements. You want to know how often he lies? Statistically, he lies every five minutes.”
“Yeah?! Well She lies every two minutes.”
“Um… uh… um… well. That’s pretty bad.”
My father. Just a few weeks ago. Making a sound case that a vote for Hillary is just as bad as a vote for Trump.
I mean, come on, America! What do you do? And I’m not talking to just my small, closed-with-an-insularity-and-fascism-that-stinks-of-npr-the-guardian-the-new-york-times-and-radio-4, left wing, like-minded card carrying
traitors commies liberals. I mean the almost sensible compassionless, selfishly driven amiable and good tempered conservatives and libertarians that I haven’t unfriended and or stopped talking to.
How do you find traction in a post-fact, post-truth world of unreality and ignorance. Like the young Republican — with whom I had a bizarre exchange back in my college days in front of the Willard building in Penn State — who told me in front of my Green Party Stall that he’s an environmentalist and has a great bumper sticker that says ‘pave the rainforests’ right before hearty guffaws of laughter, sudden change to seriousness and then, “but seriously, what about the family planning clinics that are responsible for the fall of Western Civilisation?” with no irony whatsoever, the right wing modus operandi is science fiction.And aside from my old pal ¯\_(ツ)_/¯, how is a thinking person to respond?
It’s the bistro ship in The Hitchhiker’s Guide. It defies all laws of history, memory, logic and thought to drag its notions of fancy and imagination from the ununiverse of black space dust and anti-matter into existence and real form, looking odd, misshapen, lumpy and… well… not of this world.
How else do you explain Trump? He’s finally used enough of his underpaid workers from his various restaurants and hotels (whose nationalities he loves) to bring himself from the void of nothingness in between dimensions into reality like some hideously deformed, monstrous product of hate fostered over say… oh… I don’t know… the last eight years or so (that’s right, Republicans, it’s true. This is of your own making. What Republicans read my blog?).
I thought that if I was honest with my father for the first time about my political views (I’m in my… ahem…
late thirties), that we’d have a productive exchange of views, that we’d air our differences, that we’d get to know each other better. I mean, did my Dad really not know all these years that I was as far to the left as the hard shoulder of an American passing lane. Well as far to the left as a European Conservative. Well, as far to the left as an American socialist?
But my father, like so many Republicans so happy to trample all over Godwin, likes to pull arguments out of all sorts of places and as long as he emphasises them with enough conviction, brandish them as truth or fact or legitimate even. It’s difficult when truth gets in the way, so it’s easy to brush aside. Like when my mother also said over the summer:
“I’m hopeful. George W. Bush didn’t seem too smart at first but he did pretty good,” to which of course my reaction was absolute horror, or in the parlance of the post-truth millennial world, shocked face, shocked face, shocked face, pile of poop. How could my mother not know to say pretty well instead of pretty good? So embarrassing.
And how could bad, Northeastern Pennsylvanian grammar erase the truth from one’s mind of one of the most divisive presidents in history?
In the same way that the constant drip of Hannity, Dennis Miller and the strange, circuitous, other-worldly logic of Trump can make you think that he’s “not that bad”, that he’s going to “make America great” again and that he’s going to somehow “sort out the jobs for everyone” by closing us off to the world and tacitly encouraging a violent dystopian society in which dissenting voices are dragged out and silenced.
And I suppose this is why the best argument we have lies with the post-millenials, like my nine year old son, who, on our first morning of our annual trip to America, said to my father, “Grandpa, do you actually like Trump?”
My father cautiously replied with, “Well, I like some of his ideas,” to which my son, with great conviction responded with, “I don’t! I think he’s a big fat idiot and farthead!” and continued making fart and poop jokes about Trump for another ten minutes.
Out of the mouths of babes comes the most effective rebuttals to the childish arguments of the right.
Laughter, the most potent weapon.
That’s it. That is it.
Forty seven to forty what?
That is it. This needs a blog post.Where’s the computer?
All right, America fans. Here’s how it is.
I know you’re going to say, that I’m sitting on my great British Spotted Pony of a high horse.
Believe me. I know. I’ve been called Madonna for extolling the virtues of walking up the escalator on the left and condemning my compatriots for standing in the middle.
I’ve been called an ex-patriot for dripping contempt on the invasion of Afghanistan (by my family).
But as the saying goes, sticks and stones may break my bones, but this is freakin’ important, America.
It started as a farce and now it’s turned to the blackest, most tasteless joke in American history. Donald J Trump, controversy-ridden, provincial, racist, bigoted dealer in debt and misery, is a percentage point away from the highest office in the land.
And you put him there.
Okay. Okay. We put him there.
Now it’s time to undo the damage, folks.
Why, you ask? Why?! Because this is the greatest threat to America since The X Factor and if we don’t act now, it could prove almost as clear and present a danger to our way of life. Almost.
But here’s why else:
- As this study (that I will come back to in my Saturday blog) from Alternet categorically concludes, Trump is not the straight talker that his supporters think he is. He lies, on average, every five minutes, even in his sleep (okay, I made those last clause up, but it was to prove a point and you wouldn’t put it past him, would you?
- Do we really want one of the most blatantly racist men in the history of business and politics sitting in the oval office? No. no, we don’t. Not just when the world has spent eight years understanding that we’ve finally started to grow up about the question of race.
- He is also one of the most proudly stupid businessmen or politicians in history.
I know you think it isn’t a big deal and that Trump is a man of the people. I once got on a Guardian forum to defend our voting for George Dubya, telling British readers that it wasn’t that we were stupid, but that, unlike the British, we liked our politicians to be, not elevated above us, but just like us, if not below us. And if there was one thing we couldn’t say for Dubya, it was that he was above anyone intellectually.
But proudly stupid? Dubya was brainless, but unaware of his own brainlessness. Trump knows how stupid what he’s saying sounds and the louder he says it, the more it increases his credibility with his core, all of him understand that to say stupid things in public is to admit to your own humanity and therefore to be one of us (not one of me thanks).
As the saying toes, we get the leaders we deserve, compatriots. In our proud history of Charlie Parker and Bessie Smith, Edith Wharton and TS Eliot (that’s right I bet you all forgot he was one of us, didn’t you?), Thomas Edison and The Wright Brothers, in all that cultural and intellectual richness, don’t we deserve better than proud stupidity?
Look folks, I get it. You want someone exciting. You want someone ‘non-establishment’ and Hillary is neither of those things, but she is whipsmart, has the experience and the drive to make America greater than any Trumpian nightmare dystopian vision, while keeping us in some kind of relative harmony with the rest of the world.
For that, I’m with her. I know how I’m voting. Just think of me and the rest of the expats. We don’t want to return to the Bush years. Don’t make us sow Canadian flags on our backpacks again.
You don’t have to look far to find this strange and delusional man’s vision for the countryI have an abiding memory of Donald Trump that seems illustrative.
I am 12 years old. It is 1990. I am laying lazily on my grandmother’s sofa sheltering from the summer heat. The TV is on. I haven’t put it on, haven’t tuned in, haven’t consciously looked for a particular show. It’s just on. And I am vaguely aware, from my almost supine position on my grandmother’s sofa after spending all day at the beach near Point Pleasant, New Jersey and then collapsed from sheer, childish exhaustion, that there are sports commentators narrating the events of whatever I’m watching. I’m furthermore vaguely aware that there are athletes in spandex shorts and oblong helmets and brightly colored shirts and muscles rippling beneath spandex, that are pelting down asphalt, sweating their hearts out, determination and hope in their eyes.
I look up to my uncle, who has just walked in from the kitchen, probably with a sandwich in his hands. He takes one look at the TV and says to me what is perhaps one of the most politically perceptive insights I have ever had imparted to me.
‘Ah. The Tour de Trump. I think he must have been very insecure as a child. He seems to have a compulsive need to name everything after himself.’
My uncle then plops himself down on the couch and proceeds to finish his sandwich while watching the race. Nothing more that I know of was said about it, certainly not in the vast stores of my memory banks. But the more I reflect on it as I see that the Republican Party has given in to is baser urges and finally taken complete leave of its senses, shifting the responsibility of steering the thing to those who have a compulsive need to take a hard right towards the next rocky outcropping, the wiser my Uncle’s insight seems.
Because Trump did name everything after himself back then including his galactic failure of a cycling event. Trump Tower, Trump Marina, Taj Ma Trump… no wait a minute… the Trump mahal… hang on a sec. The point is, for a time in the 80s, before Trump decided to upend the monopoly board with everyone else’s pieces on it, declare bankruptcy, and start buying the world and charging us double the rent for living in it all over again, Atlantic City became Trump World, an idealistic utopian space into which we walked when we wanted to each perfect venture capitalist paradise.So, if actions are indeed stronger than words and if we take Trump’s purchase and branding of a whole city as his model for his vision of America, what do we learn, boys and girls? Well, do we want an America in which retirees gamble away their pension plans, trust funds and retirement savings on slim chances in which there are no real winners? Do we want an America that looks shiny from a certain angle, say, coming at us from the Eastern side of The Atlantic only to find that the sheen we project is only as substantial as the glass front of a seaside hotel and beyond that, we are nothing but hypnotised obese, complacent automatons, waddling or scooting to the next billboard without questioning whether our lives belong to a higher purpose? A homeland where beyond that sheen, our poor, our starving, and our huddled masses continue to huddle and continue to reach out their hands in supplication lumped together with the degenerates, the undesirables, and anyone else whose lifestyles or beliefs are alien to the interests of the United States, leaving The Great Gamesmaster in his great tower, the great big insecure child presiding over, and branding us all, from his little fiefdom on the Jersey shore to his great inward looking fiefdom smack dab in the middle of the Atlantic?
Oh, Republicans, my fellow Americans, my moderate peeps, where are you? I used to number among you. With his latest call to boycott Apple for their cowardly call to stand up for civil liberties, Trump turns my stomach. If I was still a young conservative, he would certainly have turned me liberal.
“Do ya ever see any of those Muslims in London?”
We are sitting on my parents’ back deck. We have settled in for a warm and pleasant evening of beer, nibbles, and mildly racist banter by the pungent flicker of the citronella candle.
I know my father too well to think he is joking, but I am still blindsided by the brick bluntness of his solid granite wall of insularity that you would be hard pushed to surmount. He says “Muslims” like Jaques Cousteau would if he were talking about some rare multicellular organism found only in the deepest and most uninhabitable depths. I imagine the nature programs in my Dad’s head run as follows: “And here we have the rare and vicious Muslimus Britannicus Arabius Londinius, commonly referred to as the English Brown Muslim; not to be confused with its American cousin even though both depend on a parasitic relationship with other mammals in their environment.”
“Um…” I begin. How does one answer a question such as this? Have I ever seen any Muslims in the great and sprawling metropolitan capital of England and seat of governance of Great Britain? Do you ever see any Christians, Hindus, Jews, Sikhs, Scientologists, Hardcore Zionists, Liberation Theologists, Dawkinsists, Seventh Day Adventists, Seventh Seal the movie fan clubbists, card-carrying Communists, frustrated Agnostics, Gnostic Christians, Coptic Christians, Eastern Orthodox mystics, Papal Cannibals, austere Protestant, tee totalling Northern Calvinists? Why not? Why not, damn it? Why can’t they all walk around with neon signs atop their heads and big brands burned into their foreheads from when they were all branded like sheep into their respective pens?
“Well…” I begin. “I’ve worked with Muslims. I’ve worked for Muslims and I’ve taught Muslims. In fact, one of my best students is called Hamza.” Thought my parents would like that last one in particular given all the trouble-making, freedom-hating, headline-hogging Hamzas that always seem to make it into the news here in the UK.
Plus, it’s just like saying, “I don’t roll like that, man. I’ve got plenty of Muslim friends.”
My Mom sees my liberal positioning and raises me a casual-racism, “well, I guess if he’s studying he can’t be making bombs at night.”
My face must look a bit like I’ve been handbagged by the old one-two from Ma and Pa American Londoner because my mother – not widely known for her awareness of the jarring abnormality of her worldview shrugs as if to say, “What’s your problem, mister? I’m just proclaiming the gospel of Regressive Thinkers of America and saying out loud what every other American is afraid to say.”
And it is possible (just possible) that my father’s question and my mother’s ponderous observation are entirely innocent. It is possible that I’ve been spoiled by the tolerant melting pot that is London. It is entirely possible that you can live atop a mountain with nothing but Fox to watch, pretzels and chips to eat, and racist neighbo(u)rs with which to “exchange views” to quite innocently hate Muslims. In the same way you might hate really evil aliens. Or zombies (though what with zombie chic I don’t see how you could) that are hungry for brains.
I should disclaim at this point that my father is a generous man, my mother a kind and nurturing woman. These thoughts seem to happily settle themselves and thrive like fungus in amongst the sweetest and sunniest of dispositions. My Dad is as innocent and sometimes as unintentionally funny as Archie Bunker (British Translation = Alf Garnet).
And let’s face it. Before 9/11, my parents probably didn’t know what a Muslim was beyond some vague notions of a hate figure in Iran. In fact, they probably couldn’t rightly tell you what a Muslim is now (I have called my father out for insisting he’d seen “them” running around town “in their turbans”). No more than I could have told you what a Communist was when I was seven and taught to hate them. No more than children can stand up and swear allegiance to a
piece of cloth (oh alright) symbol before they know what “allegiance” means.
It’s a simple thing to hate something you know little about and that doesn’t enter your sphere of existence from day to day. Pennsylvania has often been ranked number one for hate groups even with a low population of racial minorities. Draw what you may from that.
I’m not sure I can call my parents, as one kind reader wrote to me this week, “friendly racists… who mean no harm,” as they do seem to mean harm to all those who “hate freedom”, whatever that means. I’ve not met such an individual after nearly a decade in London. But what does scare me is that they are not harmless. They’ve got great big weapons: one vote a piece and plenty who think like them.
Beware America. Beware.
We are in Friendly’s, an American institution that provides serviceably mediocre food and miraculously pleasure-inducing concoctions called Fribbles. I am immensely content. I am on my annual summer pilgrimage back to the homeland and my younger brother, Paul has come out to dinner. The atmosphere is jovial, even though my parents are also out.
I usually know what subjects to avoid with Mom and Dad, such as politics, on which my father and I stand on violently different ends of the opinion spectrum on most issues, but I am relaxed, my guard is down, and it is July. The Trayvon Martin case is still fresh in the national consciousness, open and raw as a wound. I forget myself and marvel aloud, “Whew. That Trayvon Martin case. Pretty horrible stuff, huh?”
My Dad’s eyes widen in what I mistake for agreement, ‘Absolutely. Such a terrible case. I feel sorry for his family.’ I am touched by his uncharacteristic compassion until he continues, “I mean, if I was in his situation, I would’ve killed a black guy too.” I hear a record suddenly screech and come to a halt in my head. My brother’s fork drops from his hand to his plate with a loud clang.
My father looks around at all of us to make sure his assertion has had its intended effect, hooking his audience. There are several black families in close proximity to our table, some in clear throttling distance of my father. He continues chewing his rubbery steak vigorously and continues asserting with equal vigour. “Yeah. I’d have killed a black guy too in that situation. I definitely would have killed the black guy if I were Robert Zimmerman,” and then as an afterthought, perhaps registering slightly the collective horror on our faces, adds, “Or a white guy,” making no attempt to lower his voice.
Most people would look around and lower their volume. Most would know better than to say something like that out loud anyway. My father is not most people. He could not care less whether he is in the comfort of his own home where none of the public at large can spew racist bile even in context never mind utterances taken out of context. I am inclined to think that even people who agree with Dad know better than to say so out loud, in public. For I feel most would have the wherewithal to fear for their safety after exhibiting such behaviour. Frankly, I think even David Duke would know better than to say such things out loud.
But not my father. Oh no.
He is at the point in his life, his mid 70s, where he is both aware of his own impunity due to age (“Mommy, who is that racist firebrand in the corner?” “Oh, leave him alone dear. He’s from a different generation. Don’t stare now.”) and feels duty bound, utterly convinced of his own rightness, to “spread the word”. Ed Lawler, truth-teller, Christian soldier, saviour of the universe.
Likely as not, none of the other customers really care about what my father says as he launches into a tirade — before Paul or I can get over our collective shock and construct any kind of coherent response — about how much Trayvon Martin had it coming to him, how he was a gang member who bragged on video about how many people he had killed, about how he sold drugs and about how he was “high on drugs” that infamous night in Florida. In a furious internal race for a response, I discard the idea of reminding my father about that part in 12 Angry Men where Jack Lemmon proves to the rest of the jury that just because you talk about killing people doesn’t mean you are going to or have done the deed. Instead, I opt for a gentler, socratic method.
“But Dad, he would have had to have been high on PCP to act as ragingly violent as you say he did, wouldn’t he?”
Without missing even a half-beat, “That’s the least he was high on according to reports!” He’s worked up a righteous sanctimony at this point. What drugs, I wonder, that my Dad actually knows about, are worse than PCP for turning human beings into raging lunatics? Amanita Muscaria? Sure, my Dad has worked as a social worker with disadvantaged youth, but a narcotics squad consultant he is not.
As my blood pressure rises, I try a different tack. “But the emergency services told him not to approach the kid, didn’t they?” I think I manage a pretty reasonable tone.
“No! No they told him not to let the kid get away because the police were looking for him! He might have gone on to kill someone that night. He was into all sorts of gangs.” Should I mention that loyalty in sticking to one primary gang is generally valued as important in gang culture? Nah. Besides, facts are no longer germane to Dad’s argument.
Even as he makes this last comment, my mother, the June to my father’s Ward Cleaver (my parents’ relationship started in the early 60s and has worked its way backwards ever since), the woman who has most adeptly mastered the Nancy Reagan gaze of unquestioning adoration, even my mother is shaking her head in disagreement, “No Eddie. I think Pete’s right. The police…”
“No, let me finish,” Dad barks as we waves away my mother’s words with his fork, wielding it like an imperial sceptre.
He is in his irrational stride and has struck upon another favorite of the right wing debate playbook: emotional blackmail.
“Think about Paul! The guys who attacked him were black. They targeted Paul. If anyone’s guilty of racial profiling, it’s them. Paul could’ve sued them for discrimination.” Ah yes, from the sublime to the ridiculous in one short leap. The dogmatic AK 47 rifle of the conservative arsenal — reverse racism. My brother looks less than impressed that his experience of a few years before of being beaten to the point of hospitalisation being moved out as a pawn in our father’s great oratorical onslaught. Then comes the proverbial smoking sidearm.
“If Paul had a gun, he wouldn’t have ended up in the hospital. They would.”
“Actually,” Paul pipes up, “I’m glad I didn’t have a gun because frankly, I think I’d be dead by now if I had since they probably would have used it. On me.”
This neutralises Dad’s attack, momentarily, but long enough for me to seize the momentum and redirect the course of the conversation, “Well done!” I exclaim in my son’s direction. “You’ve eaten all your vegetables!” The boy beams with pride and my mother, rallying without hesitation, says, “I think someone deserves an ice cream.”
And with that, hostilities temporarily subside, but this conversation is not over. And I know it.
That evening, I find myself driven by rage to the internet, desperate to find cold, hard fact, verifiable, documented, evidential weaponry with which to penetrate my father’s impregnable fortress of fiction founded on hoodie wearing youths, brains addled with a toxic combination of THC and PCP, knives and guns drawn, rampaging through the streets looking to slaughter innocent white and Hispanic neighborhood watchers concealing weapons.
I search out my father’s insular illusions first, entering the search terms, “Trayvon Martin was high on PCP,” only to find that he has gorged himself on the gluttony of a steady diet of Fox, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Greg Gutfeld, and others derivatively drawing on this guest list for the party to take America back for the stuffy, rich and white. Sifting past, I finally find what I’m looking for, print out my research, study it, and tuck myself into bad with a sense of excitement and smugness.
I don’t have to wait long the next morning before My father somehow manages, in the uncannily circuitous way he has, to bring the topic of the conversation back to his own myopic vision. Like me, he has trouble letting go. Over breakfast:
“That’s why I say, this guy was on drugs. He represented a clear danger to society.”
I waste no time.
“Actually Dad, according to the toxicology report from the trial records, there were only trace amounts of THC in his system that could have been at best, three days old and therefore would not affected his behaviour at all. Plus, since it was THC, not PCP, it would have made him anything but aggressive.”
This gives him pause. But not long pause. Here peers down at me as he helps himself to more coffee, with obvious patience and a bit of condescension. Suddenly I am 11years old again. He is teaching me chess and I have just fallen into the trap of the devil’s crossroads, again. Oh Pete, his eyes seem to say, will you ever learn?
“Well, a toxicologist is not a psychologist. I worked with a psychologist for years who said that anyone on drugs would kill their own mother for their next hit. Believe me. Being on drugs affected Trayvon Martin and he had no morals.” Believe me. Hmmm. With this pronouncement, he shrugs and walks back into the kitchen to fetch the maple syrup,
“But did you know that Zimmerman rang the police 40 some odd times in the last couple years to alert them to his suspicions of random black people around him?” I call futilely after him, to which his response is another shrug, as though calling the cops every day to express suspicions about racial minorities is a daily occurrence in his life. Surely, we should all have a quota of calls to make to the police expressing some anxiety about random strangers of a different skin color?
His defences are back up. My attack of reason has failed. My father retired from New Jersey to the backwoods of Pennsylavania to isolate himself from the challenge of the outside world and his mind has remained comfortably, sitting, defensibly, atop the peaks of his mountain.
But then, I consider, perhaps if a position is unassailable by logic and refuses to give account for itself through vigorous interrogations, then perhaps it is not a position any rational, reasonable person would take anyway.
Cold comfort, as I sip my coffee and look over at my son, carelessly popping Cheerios into his mouth and I wonder about his cultural inheritance, and the world into which he is growing.