Xenophobia’s Children

There are consequences, it seems, for not paying attention in school.  I have no way of knowing, of course, but I suspect most of us are taught that basic fairness is the social ideal.  Xenophobia is deeply embedded in the primate psyche, but to those who claim we haven’t evolved, there seems to be no way to convince them that “racial” differences are merely a matter of differing collectives separated by natural borders.  Over time traits favorable to the region predominate, and humans therefore have what seems to be a very wide array of potential appearances.  There should be nothing in all of this that suggests one group is superior to another.  Primate evolution, however, helps to explain but not to excuse.  Xenophobia is something from which we can evolve.

Fear is at the heart of any phobia.  In a society that measures the worth of individuals by their wealth, fear that another will take it is constant.  Perhaps, in a part of our souls we’d rather not acknowledge, we know it’s wrong to have too much while others don’t have enough.  It’s very cold this Martin Luther King Jr. Day.  In Manhattan on Saturday I saw many people on the street, those who’d met the wrong end of capitalism.  I’ve seen human beings shivering in Dickensian conditions in the twenty-first century.  I’ve known capable adults who couldn’t find work, even when they’ve tried.  We fear the street person.  We know that, but for slight shifts in capitalism, that could be us.

Xenophobia has come under threat with globalization.  We’ve made travel to remote locations affordable in order to spread capitalism to regions ready to be exploited.  And we see nothing wrong with taking from those who can’t prevent us from doing so.  Then we wonder why people just like us turn out to march in the cold.  Civil rights marches took place half a century ago.  Crowds thronged the nation’s capital seeking basic human treatment.  Fifty years later over a million women and supporters had to show up to make the same point again.  Fair treatment should not be a commodity.  Those who have fear the stranger.  Those who have don’t wish to share.  They claim the name of “Christian” and mock the very tenets upon which that belief system was founded.  It’s cold outside today.  As we huddle inside, we should have time to think.  It is a waste of a national holiday if we don’t at least ponder for a few moments what it is we celebrate.  And the real costs of xenophobia.

Pleasant Dreams

The last time I watched Pleasantville I didn’t have this blog running to discuss it.  It was also during the Obama administration where it felt more like nostalgia rather than a documentary.  In case you’re not familiar, Pleasantville is a movie about how a nerdy teen, David, and his cool sister Jennifer get sucked into a 1950’s sitcom, “Pleasantville.”  They find themselves in black-and-white and in a world as regimented as Stepford, but somewhat more humorously so.  As Jennifer is eager to get back home, she introduces this colorless world to sex, and as the two-dimensional characters begin to experience strong emotions colors start to appear.  The “picture perfect” Pleasantville begins to let the plastic facade of the 1950s slip to reveal a complex and messy world of true humanity beneath.

Watching the film in the age of Trump, as with most things, interjected a current of fear.  The townspeople feel threatened by those who are different, colorful.  They want everything just as it was—women serving their husbands, everyone the same hue, and pretending that sexuality doesn’t exist.  It may have been originally intended as an homage to the the 1960s, but what became clear in an age of MAGA is that crowds easily respond to suggestions of hatred.  Many of those in the group, individually, are “coloreds” themselves, but fear to let it show.  Conformity is much safer even if it means hating those who are different.  I wasn’t alive in the 1950s, but the superiority of the white man apparently was.  One of the characters is, tellingly, named Whitey.

Initially drawn to the film seeking biblical references (occupational hazard) I knew there was an Eden scene before I first watched it.  Margaret, on whom David has a crush, has discovered actual fruit at Lover’s Lane.  She brings him an apple which, the TV Repairman (if you’re lost, please watch the movie—it’s quite enjoyable) points out, is a form of sin in this world of simple answers and unspoken repression.  A mash-up of Jasper Fforde and American Graffiti, the film exposes the lie behind the idea that all were put on earth to serve the white man.  Jennifer discovers books and stays behind in colorized Pleasantville to go to college, something of a rarity in those days.  Although the movie bombed at the box office, it has a serious message to convey.  There was no perfect 1950s iconic America.  The process of becoming great is one of evolution, rather than that of a fabled Eden, available only in black-and-white.

A Writer’s Life

WeHaveAlwaysLivedSometimes, an experienced editor once told me, the author’s life is just as important as the book she’s written. I can’t pretend to know much about Shirley Jackson, beyond that she wrote compelling fiction and that her name is barely recognized today. Best known for her short story “The Lottery” and her novel The Haunting of Hill House, she didn’t match the output of more prolific writers and therefore, in a world driven by capitalism, didn’t receive much notice. Her work is difficult to classify. Not exactly horror, it is nevertheless unsettling by implication. There’s something wrong beneath the surface. Jackson apparently suffered neuroses for much of her adult life, and her ability to translate angst into literature has gathered her a following among fans of ghost stories. I just finished reading her last novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, a funny, quirky, and serious story about two young women who live alone and who, one suspects, are thought to be witches by the local population.

This little novel is difficult to lay aside for long. The characters of Constance and Merricat are too compelling to leave alone for any length of time. The fact that they are pariahs makes the reader want to ensure that they are safe as they remain carefully inside the home they’ve always known. Even though you know one of them murdered her family, you want them to be happy and secure, perhaps because the whole town is against them. I wouldn’t presume to say what Jackson meant by this story, but to me it seems a clear description of xenophobia by a woman who felt she was never accepted. Women being persecuted in New England always brings witch trials to mind. Although we don’t know why one of the girls killed her family, it is easy for the mind to fill in the blanks.

Although Jackson died prematurely, her work has influenced novelists such as Stephen King and Neil Gaiman. Uncompromising in her outlook, she allows her characters access to those strange places of the human mind where many of us wander from time to time. Merricat, for example, practices that sympathetic magic that we all, if we’re honest, admit that we attempt every now and again. Hoping in magic doesn’t make one a witch any more than prayer makes one a priest. We Have Always Lived in the Castle, although as old as I am, reflects a world in which reality can’t be pinned down. Assumptions are made and challenged. Protectors turn out to be exploiters, and the only ghosts are very human characters hated by the community in which they live. Still this is an uncanny tale, haunted by a reality that women still face in even the most progressive countries. Listening to their voices, even if from beyond the grave, may demonstrate just how much a writer’s life might mean.

Shepherds and Sheep

Photo credit: Spencer Means, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Spencer Means, Wikimedia Commons

The murders in Charleston this week are part of an epidemic. The members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church join, unfortunately, a growing list of victims of hate. Not only hate, but that subspecies of hatred that calls the unstable to attack in a church, or synagogue, or mosque, as if to defy the very gods with their misanthropy. Growing up we used to be taught that any place of worship is sacred. Then we believed it was because God had made it so, but now it is clear that sacred space is made so by the intent of those who worship. We find places where we believe we’re safe from the trials of the everyday world. A place where God will look over us. A place, dare we call it, of sanctuary. Sanctuary is a concept that has gone extinct. As children we all knew of the concept of “home” in chasing games—the place where you were free and need not worry about someone coming after you. Amnesty was granted at the cry of “olly olly oxen free.”

In the biblical world, we’re told, those in danger could flee to the temple and grasp the horns of the altar and be safe. It wasn’t that someone couldn’t be pulled off, but it was that an inherent respect attended sacred places. No place is sacred any more. Hatred has a way of overriding what we all recognize as civilization. Well-armed youth and a culture of hatred have never led to peace. Xenophobia may be natural, but it can be disarmed through education. Unfortunately, in this country at least, education is not valued. In fact, in the culture wars, those who have the most sympathy for those who commit hate crimes will be among the first to cut education spending. It’s a luxury we can’t live without. We need to teach the meaning of sanctuary again. We need to teach the meaning of love.

Human beings shouldn’t have to rely on sanctuary to be safe. No matter what our racial heritage or gender or orientation, we are all simply people trying to make our way in the world. As a child I knew “olly olly oxen free” meant that nobody would try to tag me if I came out from hiding. I was also taught that the word “hate” was as bad as any swear and that it should not be said. While my mother was teaching me the virtue of love, we were sending young men to kill foreigners in Vietnam. I grew up with no doubts as to which was the superior way. One way leads to life and peace, the other to constant fear and death. The people of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church have told Dylann Roof that they have forgiven him. They are offering sanctuary to one who has done nothing to earn or claim it. They, like children, lead us.

42 Shots

Many of us were raised with the figure of a divine father who is ready to whip off the belt for any infraction we may make, intended or not. On a more human scale, our criminal justice system locks people in prison often on the basis of race rather than purely objective considerations. The infographic below demonstrates this clearly. African-Americans are disproportionately represented in the prison population in a society that is still reluctant to offer true justice to all citizens. When these numbers are wrenched from statistics and brought down to personal levels, the results are distressing indeed. I recently read of the case of a promising youth who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. His lawyer, a prominent African-American, pled with the judge for leniency for this young man who had great potential. Time in jail, even in one for youth, would probably scuttle this boy’s hopes for a productive future. Being an American, though, I had no hope that this might end well for the boy. Still I read on as the judge sentenced him to jail.

None of us likes to be reduced to statistics. At the same time, some social-justice disparities are easily overlooked until they are placed in such stark terms. Xenophobia is a normal human reaction. In fact, it is displayed in apes and other social animals as well as in people. Its biological function seems to be group cohesion and safety. We’ve evolved beyond that, however. The great promise of the New World was freedom. Unless you were imported as a slave. The Bible, being a document of its time, lent its voice to the approval of keeping slaves and those who wanted to justify their horrid treatment of fellow humans in the name of God relied heavily on the Good Book. We still put considerable roadblocks in the way of African-Americans and others of minority status, believing that we are somehow justified in the myth of Caucasian superiority. Humans are humans. Society benefits from the gifts that different traditions bring to the cultural table. And yet, we continue to lock up those who look different.

Justice shouldn’t be a distant dream. We know that for those who do commit crimes reformation is a possibility. Critics cite the expense, but I have to wonder whose bank account is being audited. As a society as a whole we could all benefit from some reform. The profession from which I have been repeatedly blocked is one of the few that has taken demographic configuration seriously. Some must pay the cost for others to be given an opportunity. Of course, opportunity itself is a rare commodity these days of hoarding and one-percenters. Perhaps those who build towers and remove themselves from the rest of society have put themselves in a kind of luxurious arrest. Until they are forced to share, however, those of us on the street level have to do our best to help each other out. Take a look at this infographic from arrestrecords.com and see if I’m right.

Monkey See, Monkey Do

ConquestPlanetApesThe year was 1972. In the continuing saga of the Planet of the Apes, the fourth installment, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, addressed the civil rights movement directly. Caesar, the son of Cornelius and Zira, is the last speaking ape left in the past to which his parents had escaped. Inexplicably, the other great apes have all suddenly evolved by 1991—the year in which the story is set—into large sized, almost upright creatures whose population matches than of humans (almost). Initially purchased as pets since the cats and dogs had died off in the late 80’s, apes have been imported as slaves. They are given menial tasks and beaten mercilessly if they make errors. A deep fear pervades the establishment that these apes will try to take over. Breck, the governor of California, decides to find and kill Caesar, at any cost, while his deputy MacDonald tries to save him. When Caesar reveals himself to MacDonald, an African-American, he states that he especially should know what it means for a people not to be free.

Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated only four years earlier and although civil rights had made progress, there was still a long way to go. Still is a long way to go. As an affluent culture, we remain reluctant to share. We still see disproportionate numbers of African-Americans and Hispanic Americans forced to live in areas that the amorphous “white” population has fled. Xenophobia is one of the less noble traits with which evolution has endowed us. Even so, the classes we devise aren’t always helpful in determining who people really are. “White” can mean anyone from the southern tip of Chile to the tundra of eastern Siberia. On job applications now “Hispanic” is classified as “white.” I get the feeling that there’s a few unresolved issues here. The sense of entitlement did not begin with this generation. Those who have naturally suppose that they deserve. Caesar observes the unfair treatment and, down to the detail of the weapons the apes stockpile, leads a plantation-style revolt that overcomes a heavily armed command post. Gorilla warfare indeed.

In classic 1960s-70s style, Caesar grandstands after his victory. He was about to order Breck’s execution, but stays his hand in the recognition that even humans deserve to live. We do have to wonder where he might have learned about God, being raised by a circus trainer and in what is an otherwise completely secular society in the film. In any case, his final words in the movie place the apes on a higher moral plane than humans. “But now… now we will put away our hatred. Now we will put down our weapons. We have passed through the Night of the Fires. And who were our masters are now our servants. And we, who are not human, can afford to be humane. Destiny is the will of God! And, if it is man’s destiny to be dominated, it is God’s will that he be dominated with compassion and understanding. So, cast out your vengeance. Tonight we have seen the birth of the Planet of the Apes!” Maybe it’s all the dead bodies around, but I’m still having a little trouble with the “Destiny is the will of God” part.

High Aspirations

I’m not a fan of the Olympic Games. It’s not that I have a problem with the passion and dedication of these (mostly) young people who’ve trained themselves to perfection in various physical skills, but the Games have tended toward jingoism a little too often. They may be intended to bring the world together, but often they become the focus of international tension. And, of course, television shows us only where our own nation makes a good showing. In my more somber moments I wonder if there isn’t someone even better at this or that sport/event whose circumstances make it impossible for her or him to make an international showing. Olympic Games are for those who can afford personal trainers and who can manage to make it to tryouts on schedule. Again, I don’t demean the ability of the competitors; when I find myself in front of a television I often stare in awe at what they accomplish.

A certain disconnect always attends the opening ceremonies. I have to confess to having glanced at the screen in our hotel room once or twice during the London extravaganza, but what became clear is that culture is what’s celebrated here. Athletics are the same internationally, if we take the Olympics at their word, but culture in region specific. Figures from Harry Potter and Mary Poppins, and other British contributions to the world of art and literature, filled the arena with a sense of national pride. Even the queen deigned to parachute down to the level of the commoner, in the company of James Bond of course (Sean Connery, why did you have to age?). This is what the commentators called the “rebranding of the royals.” What is it that we really value about ourselves? Can we not truly overcome xenophobia?

Xenophobia has a reach far beyond nationalities. It is rampant between social classes, political parties, and language groups. We distrust the other, for those like us are the best. The best swimmers, the best gymnasts, and the best shooters.

To look down on the world.

Just days ago I stood atop one of the peaks of Mount Mansfield, the highest mountain in Vermont, with my daughter. As we looked out over the panorama that included New Hampshire and New York, and maybe even Quebec, it seemed as if the world could be one. Maybe the things we value could lead us to share instead of selfishly claim everything for ourselves. I think of Mount Nebo and I shudder. And I think if I knew how to ski and if it was winter, maybe I could be the best.