Thursday, April 29, 2010

Off the Wall Aristocrats?

I just reread "Something There Is That Doesn't Love a Wall," and I realize, in retrospect, that my central idea about unrestricted "free" movement of human beings IS a bit naive.

Were we, suddenly, to throw open the borders to anyone who wanted to enter the U.S., we could, indeed, be overwhelmed by people seeking--not so much to become Americans--as simply to benefit from life in this country.  People who want education for their kids; people who want emergency health care; people who want social services (no questions asked); people who want opportunities to live like "ordinary" people in the "rich" world.

Such an influx might, as many have argued, take an economic toll on us "rich" people (even those of us who are not accustomed to thinking of ourselves as wealthy).  In particular, the necessity to provide a safety net for such immigrants could, in fact, lower the standard of living of middle-class Americans--at least temporarily.  (I doubt that it would have any negative impact on the super-rich, though.)

Yes, "free" immigration would, thus, serve to redistribute wealth--at least the wealth of those who pay taxes--  though, again, I doubt that the top 1% (who own 34% of overall wealth) would be adversely affected.  Indeed, they would probably profit from exploiting low-wage workers.

Still, those of us in the middle and lower ranks would have to share our wealth with newcomers--without any assurance that our generosity would be rewarded later. A painful prospect. It's very Christian, of course--very noble, very whatever.  But no one wants to do it.  (As that great philosopher, Petula Clark, sang, "Tout le monde veut aller au ciel, mais personne ne veut mourir.")

Interesting, isn't it, that those of us who are accustomed to thinking of our income as "modest," are--in a global perspective--wealthy, spoiled aristocrats.  And, like the noblility of France's ancien régime, we owe our comfortable lifestyle to "privileges" that WE have inherited (by virtue of our birth as Americans) and that have been DENIED to those of humbler origins.

(OK, so it's a simplistic view.  I know that a lot of France's "aristocrats" were poorer than the local butcher.)

Nevertheless and notwithstanding nothing and nada, most people will fight to hang onto the privileged status they now enjoy.  So perhaps it is true that we cannot afford--quite literally--to open our borders to any and all.  "Free" immigration might create a lot of wealth--but not inevitably and not immediately--especially for the "in-betweeners," i.e., those stuck between the immigrants (getting richer) and the big capitalists (getting richer).

Is there a middle way?  Can't we figure out some way to welcome immigrants (perhaps not ALL seeking entry) without losing either our standard of living OR our self-respect as a humane and decent people?  Dang.  No wonder the politicians want to avoid this issue.  It's just too painful to admit that our self-concept as an open, optimistic and generous society may, in fact, be "off the wall."

It would seem that our politicians prefer, instead, to dither and obfuscate, following the example of the ancien régime aristocrats--who chose to do nothing in the face of increasing unrest.  Until it was too late and they were finally obliged, on August 4, 1789, to renounce (voluntarily, but mostly to save their necks) ALL of their feudal privileges.   Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Something There Is That Doesn't Love a Wall

I'm puzzled that so many of the people who are vehemently in favor of "free" trade are equally impassioned in their opposition to "free" immigration.  They approve of unimpeded, unrestricted movement of goods (presumably because such absence of regulations leads to what Adam Smith called the "wealth of nations"); yet these same people cannot see that unimpeded, unrestricted movement of manpower (people) would probably have a similar positive effect on the general weal.

Indeed, the argument could be made that one of the reasons that Texas and Arizona have growing economies is precisely that a steady flow of immigrants (albeit "illegal") has allowed business and industry in these border states to benefit from the pool of laborers willing to work for low wages.

So, in some sense, Texas and Arizona have already experimented, willy-nilly, with the unwalled liberalism I mentioned in paragraph one:  both "free" trade AND "free" immigration.  And it's been working!

Why, then, do so many people in these border states genuinely HATE the illegal immigrants in their midst--the very people who are keeping their factories and small businesses competitive in the "free" market?

Why, for instance, has the Arizona legislature passed a draconian anti-immigration law which, if ever fully enforced, would send back to Mexico perhaps as much as 10% of its workforce?  Does this make economic sense?

Why does Arizona seem to want a Wall to "keep the aliens out"?

Oh, I've heard all the "rational" arguments.  Illegals (read:  Mexicans) impose an intolerable burden on the state budget:  they often pay no taxes, and yet, their children must be educated and their emergency health care must be provided.  So, the reasoning goes, in order to save the state from bankruptcy and economic ruin, we have no choice but to round up the illegals and ship them back to Mexico.  And keep them there with a border wall.

But what about the enormous sums that will thus be LOST by Arizonans who depend upon illegals for everything from gardening, to nannying, to farming, to manufacturing?  Will the savings to the state outweigh the losses to private parties?  I doubt it.

It depresses me that I keep returning to the theme of ethnic, cultural and racial intolerance.  Because, in truth, I don't believe that Arizona's opposition to illegal immigrants is based upon sincere, deep thinking about economics.  Rather, as most of us know in our gut, the foundation of the new law is just plain old anti-Mexican prejudice.  Or, to put it another way:  FEAR.

People who benefit, either directly or indirectly, from the oppression of another group almost always DESPISE that other group--and blame that other group for the very problems that the oppression has created.  The Jim Crow South blamed blacks for the violence that resulted from confrontations between oppressor and oppressed.  Arizona blames the immigrants for the cost of services required to keep the immigrants working for nearly nothing in the Grand Canyon State.

And, of course, human beings everywhere seem to hate those who are different--especially those who, for whatever reason, are very obviously different (by virtue of skin color or language).  Mexicans often fit this definition of "in your face" difference:  they may be dark and they may be speaking Spanish.  Hence, the lighter-skinned, English-speaking citizenry begins to fear that they are being "invaded"--and that their way of life is threatened by the necessary (as workers) but dangerous (as cultural infiltrators) immigrants.  You know: Rome threatened by the barbarian hordes.

Parenthetically, I confess that I, myself, have sometimes experienced such emotional reactions.  I remember a "world languages" workshop that I attended some years ago.  The main presenter of this gathering was (like most of the participants) a foreign language teacher.  But she was also a native speaker of Spanish who felt strongly that Spanish-speakers should be accommodated everywhere in the U.S.  Her central idea was that language was a personal choice and that Americans should be able to use whatever language they chose, in both private and public settings.

This notion appalled me.  I love languages and I firmly believe that everybody should be at least bilingual--perhaps trilingual.  The more languages one knows, the more access one has to the world.  But I most emphatically do NOT believe that a culture can function, thrive or even survive if linguistic anarchy is allowed.  America, like every other coherent culture, requires a unifying language to ensure that ALL Americans can work together in their common endeavors.  For whatever reasons--historic, cultural, I don't know--English has become the glue that holds America together.  It's fine with me (indeed I applaud) if parents teach their children Spanish and speak Spanish in the home or at private gatherings.  But in order to be a fully functioning  member of this culture, EVERYONE must learn English and be prepared to speak it for public and official purposes.  I do not want to see my country divided up into linguistic ghettos (like Belgium, for example).

So, upon occasion, I have gotten quite upset at a Spanish-speaker who, in a public forum, seemed to feel "entitled" to be served in Spanish (mind you, I'm not talking about buying burritos at Taco Bell).  I'm pretty sure, to cite a parallel situation, that should I decide to live in France, I would be obliged to pass my driver's test in FRENCH.   It's not unreasonable to expect Spanish-speaking people who have chosen to live in the U.S. to conduct their official business in ENGLISH.

I guess the key expression here is "chosen to live."  Because isn't that what  an immigrant IS?  Someone who has come into this country with the express purpose of living here and becoming a contributing citizen of THIS country.   Being an immigrant means leaving behind the "old country."

Therefore, when I advocate "free" immigration, I'm also insisting that our society respect and treat the immigrants as people who want to be Americans.  That means NOT expecting them to live in isolation--as a subordinate underclass.  That means NOT allowing them to go through school in "bilingual" classrooms that, in fact, are simply Spanish-speaking babysitting services.  That means NOT breaking laws in order to exploit their ignorance of U.S. customs.  Above all, that means respectfully expecting immigrants to assimilate and NOT making it easy to live here without assimilating.  We simply must insist that immigrants (who have chosen America)  behave as Americans.

Once we are comfortable with such responsible freedom, once movement in either direction across the border becomes "legal" (and yes, quickly and efficiently "documented"), I think it likely that those who cannot or will not try to assimilate will choose to return to Mexico.  Those who truly wish to become Americans will do so.  And NO ONE will be illegal--except, perhaps, recidivist employers who continue to break U.S. laws by paying immigrants too little and "under the table" (to avoid taxes).  In such a scenario, however, the burden of guilt will be on the exploiters rather than on the exploited--and the culpable businesses will at last have to pony up.

Perhaps this is all naive.  Perhaps the Mexicans are trying to take over all of North America and re-establish some kind of Aztec Empire, with Spanish as their official language.  Perhaps this "invasion" from the South is comparable to the barbarian invasions of Rome.  Perhaps a new Dark Age will soon arrive.  Perhaps the only solution, after all, is the build that Border Wall.

I am reminded, however, that most such walls--Berlin's, Hadrian's, China's--rarely succeeded in keeping the "aliens" out.  So why not let them in? Why not let them join us?  Isn't it worth a try?

Sunday, April 25, 2010

One Nation Under Joe

I used to think that the American flag was pretty cool--not at all boring like most of the drearily interchangeable tricolors that represent the majority of the world's peoples.  But then I began to notice that the Stars and Stripes had been co-opted by the gun nuts and bomb-Iran people.  A flag decal on your car meant, basically, that you wanted to "get your country back" by any means possible--even violence--from those "un"Americans who don't have a flag decal.

So now my American flag sits neatly folded in a drawer.  I cannot fly it or comfortably pledge allegiance to it as long as it has come to mean something so vile.  I suppose I can always whip it out and wrap myself in it, coward that I am, if the vigilantes appear at my door.

There was also a time when I liked a good cuppa Darjeeling or Earl Grey, perhaps accompanied by a decadent sweet which itself was topped with Devonshire cream.  But I can no longer drink tea, either--now that "tea" has come to represent the despicable know-nothingism of Sarah Palin et. al.  Back in my innocent days as a purveyor of British culture, I used to serve tea, scones and cucumber sandwiches to my A.P. literature classes.  This little "tea party" always made us feel cozier about Virginia Woolf.  But nowadays, what self-respecting sane person would throw a tea party?

Co-opting is not limited to the right wing, of course.  Last time I shopped for a new car, I considered buying a Prius--not because it was somehow "pure" and "holy" to do so--but because it seemed practical:  i.e., cheaper.  In the end, though, I was turned off by the sanctimoniousness of the university "green" crowd--most of whom seemed to believe that only Prius owners had any hope of eternal life in Great Mother Gaea's carbon-free heaven.  I always have a strong "gag" reaction to such pompous flapdoodle (like the current movement to ban smoking OUTSIDE of bars!).  So I bought another Camry.  Which has been recalled for accelerator problems.  Am I being punished?

Thank God no lunatic fringe has yet attempted to co-opt coffee.  Yeah, yeah, I know that there's a lot of joking about latte liberals.  But that's just a special KIND of coffee--not good old JOE itself.  So I still feel perfectly free to consume gallons of the stuff--from Folgers to filtre--from Kona to Kwik Trip--absolutely guilt free.  Coffee is Good--and we must rally round, people.  We must NOT let ANY special interest group co-opt the last honest symbol of America as a united people.  Since the flag has become a partisan symbol, let's stop pledging allegiance to it for a while.  Instead, we could pledge allegiance to "all kinds of coffee and to the Republic that coffee makes stand; one nation, under Joe, indivisible, with liberty and jitters for all."

Mormons could be exempted:  we won't ask them, and they won't have to tell.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Parking Lot Gestation

In Olden Tymes, when I was a fairly frequent workshop presenter, I used to designate a sheet of butcher paper, affixed to a side wall, as the "parking lot"--a space on which could be recorded questions or subjects of interest not immediately pertinent but that could (and should) be addressed at a later time.

I need just such a Parking Lot for this blog.  Though old age has mostly idled my body (which was never much given to action anyway), it has not yet immobilized my brain, which continues quite promiscuously to generate momentarily intriguing "thoughts" that pop up at odd times and then, unless I jot them down, vanish without any further development.  I experience that disappearance of an embryonic idea as a kind of loss:  a potential "baby" that I could have nurtured and brought to full term but that, alas, is now aborted--gone to the great Limbo of Unborn Ideas.

So herewith is my parking lot of embryonic ideas--questions or observations that might be worth further gestation:

1.  Fox News.  Clearly, this channel is NOT "fair and balanced."  Yet it IS efficient in providing "breaking news" (a bombing in Iraq, a car chase in L.A.).  But so much of their "news" is, in fact, commentary, spin and innuendo.  I'm not talking about Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity:  clearly these guys are biased.  No, I mean all those blonde  "journalists" who are supposedly doing nothing but "objective reporting."  Objective?  Fox can make even a car bombing in Iraq sound like a socialist plot to take over the U.S. government and impose health care on unwilling Americans.  Is MSNBC guilty of similarly (but leftist) slanted news reporting?  (Again, I'm not talking about Rachel Maddow and Ed Schultz--both of whom have an obvious point of view.)

2.  Why do poor Republicans, especially those with poor educations, wind up thinking like rich Republicans with good educations?  I can understand why a rich Republican might oppose taxes and government spending on programs intended to afford more opportunity and greater wealth to the "underclass."  Such "fiscal conservatives" want to spend their money themselves.  They don't want to give the government any of their wealth, except--perhaps--a little bit to provide those services that will preserve the current system and guarantee their continued wealth.  But why do those poor Tea Party boobs, who don't have a pot to pee in, run about screaming their opposition to taxation (they don't have enough money to pay much in taxes, except for Republican-inspired regressive sales taxes that disproportionately hurt the poor).  Waving their guns and hostile signs, they, too, denounce government spending--even though such spending would probably afford them (the little guys) a fairer slice of the American pie.  They oppose the very programs that are in their own self-interest.  It doesn't make economic sense.  

Perhaps it is selfishness, more than "self-interest",  that unites these two groups.  The rich Republicans want to keep their money, even if they have obscene amounts of it (selfishness);  the poor Republicans don't want any OTHER poor people to have a chance to get rich (selfishness).  Thus, both the rich and the poor Republicans resemble the slothful servant (in Matthew?) who prefers to bury his talent (hang on to what he has, i.e, selfishness) rather than to take a chance on investing in other people and other ways of doing things.  Like that servant, the Republicans, both rich and poor, are FEARFUL--afraid of "losing" (even if what one has to lose is derisory) rather than HOPEFUL--confident that it is in everyone’s self-interest to spread the wealth, like fertilizer (so that the rich get richer and so do the poor).

3.  After rereading my blog "Beauty and the Beasts," I realize that the CENTRAL question about beauty is actually "how do human beings prioritize / rank beautiful things"?  We might find, for instance, that a certain bulldog is a nearly perfect--and hence, beautiful--specimen of its breed (possessing integritas and consonantia).    At the same dog show, we might find that a German Shepherd is similarly "perfect" and hence beautiful.  But how do we determine which of these two beauties is the MORE beautiful?  What criteria do we use to judge degrees of beauty?

4.  The blessings and benefits of coffee.  How would we live without it?  Why don't Mormons drink coffee?  Has coffee-deprivation caused Mormons to become homophobic?  Could MORE coffee drinking diminish homophobia in the general population?  An exercise in a whole bunch of logical fallacies.  Could be fun.

5.  Barter as Health Care.  Nevada Republican candidate for Senate, Sue Lowden proposes that we barter for health care with our doctor.  Offer to bring him/her a chicken in return for services.  She will probably defeat Harry Reid!  

6.  Why do I keep trying to "love" America?  I really can't love such an abstract concept.  I love certain people; I love certain places; I love certain activities, I love certain traditions.  Insofar as the majority of these people, places and things (nouns!) are American, and ONLY in that sense, do I love this nation-state.  Someday, nations will disappear--to be replaced by??? Who knows?  I'm pretty sure, though, that I have no sympathy for those insane anarchist groups who want to destroy America from within.  

7.  Why doesn't God speak to ME?

8.  The space-time continuum.  Why are we trapped in this silly Einsteinian box?  Surely someone can figure out how to travel faster than light!  And I'm really pissed off about Time.  It's entirely too one-directional for my tastes.  THIS is what we should be having "tea parties" about.  The tea-baggers are protesting TAXES.  They SHOULD be protesting DEATH.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Beauty and the Beasts

I remember trying to teach Book Five of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.  For those of you who can't recall or never read this section of the novel (lucky you), Book Five is largely devoted to Stephen Dedalus' attempt to define "beauty."  Stephen, good product of Jesuit schooling, assumes--like his Catholic mentors--that all of reality, even that majority of "it" that cannot be perceived by any human agency / faculty, can nonetheless be analyzed, elucidated, mapped out and neatly categorized within an infallible "system" of understanding.  To a good Catholic (or a bad one, as Stephen has become), the finite mind has no trouble whatsoever thinking about and grasping the infinite.  How does the teeny human brain accomplish this feat?  Well, essentially, it makes stuff up.  This is what the Church calls "faith."  And young Stephen, despite his disaffection with the Church, still has a lot of faith--not in Jesus, but in Beauty.

Stephen's primary guide in his quest to define beauty is one of the great masters of making stuff up:  St. Thomas Aquinas.  In Portrait, for example, we learn all kinds of marvelous Thomist notions about how humans decide whether or not something is beautiful.  We learn about integritas, consonantia and claritas and we are led, via much tautological rambling about lyric, epic, dramatic, emotional, spiritual and excremental, to see that it is our apprehension of the "whatness" of a thing which results, eventually, in an "enchantment of the heart."

Whew!  In other words:  we like things that are "just themselves" with neither defect nor deviation nor affectation. 

OK.  I take back what I said about Aquinas:  this definition is probably not exactly "made up" (i.e., there is undoubtedly real-world evidence to support it.)  But it IS so self-evident that it does not require a mini-Ph.D. thesis to formulate.  I must conclude that Aquinas and Stephen Dedalus, like too many theologians, philosophers, radio commentators (and bloggers?), are just incorrigible gasbags!

Because couldn't we, in describing beauty, do just as well by paraphrasing what Justice Potter Stewart said about pornography:  "it's hard to define, but I know it when I see it"?

Or, alternatively, as Alfred Glauser, my dear departed professor of Renaissance poetry, used to say about almost any Ronsard sonnet--without any further attempt to analyze:  "Que c'est beau!"

For me, understanding WHY we think something is beautiful is much less interesting than understanding why we react as we do to anything we perceive as beautiful.  Because the beautiful, whatever it is, seems to exercise enormous power over human behavior.  And it does so, quite frequently at least, in the face of reason and logic.  

I cannot, for example, resist taking pictures of the deer who live behind my house.  They are beautiful--just what they are, nothing else, nothing inauthentic, and--in spite of my reason (which tells me that, in their "integritas" and "consonantia", they are wreaking havoc in my yard, devouring my petunias, crapping under my Japanese crab tree)--I experience an enchantment of heart ("claritas") and snap photo after photo.  Que c'est beau!

And what about birds?  I spent most of yesterday attempting to affix a bird feeder to the railing on my upper deck.  (I am, of course, mechanically-challenged, but the main problem was the bird feeder itself, which refused to tolerate either nail or screw and, consequently, had to be epoxy-glued to the supporting post.  Just as I was congratulating myself upon successfully completing this operation, I discovered, to my chagrin, that my right thumb was similarly affixed to said post.  Nail-polish remover dissolved the glue and saved the digit, but I am still in considerable pain:  more suffering caused by Beauty.)

Because the only purpose of the bird feeder is to attract beautiful birds--cardinals and jays and finches that I can admire and that Kitty can "click" at from well inside the sliding doors.  Of course, these things of beauty, far from being a joy forever, will proceed to defecate on the deck, spit out sunflower husks on the yard and attempt to build nests in the rain gutters.

Maybe beautiful animals and birds have some genuine purpose in creation.  We are told that birds, at least, serve to control insects that otherwise might take over the world.  (What do deer do?)  But usefulness is entirely beside the point.  

We just DON'T CARE.  Because whatever is beautiful, rules.  Logic and common sense, reason and discernment are all trumped by beauty.  The Greeks and Trojans fought a war over Helen of Troy (too beautiful to "trade"); Ancient Athens repeatedly fell under the spell of the unscrupulous but beautiful Alcibiades; General Choltitz refused to burn Paris (too lovely to send the way of Dresden); Poe's necrophilic speaker sleeps away his life next to the corpse of  his "beautiful Annabel Lee."  Obviously, then, beauty matters for its own sake.  That enchantment of the heart we derive from our experience of beauty so intoxicates us that, under its influence, we are frequently willing to abandon logic itself.

Thus, even though, strictly speaking, the formula does not make much sense, Keats may have been  articulating a genuine psychological insight:  "Beauty is truth, truth Beauty,--that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."  

As for me, I'm waiting around today for that first cardinal to discover my bird feeder.  And shit on the deck.  Que c'est beau!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Loose Penises

I was amused by the recent brouhaha in Malta about whether or not to remove the "Mediterranean Column" from its site near the route which the pope will take on his upcoming tour of the island city state.  The column in question is undoubtedly phallic in shape, though weirdly blue-green in color, and good Maltese Catholics are apparently concerned that the pontiff will be offended--either by the nasty thing itself or by what it might seem to symbolize:  the Church's perennial inability to control rogue priests with loose penises.

I assume, of course, that the pope has some genuine familiarity with penises--his own, at least.  And I also assume that, despite any sincere vows he may have taken to avoid committing "adultery with himself," he also knows what this organ looks like when erect.   Hence, I cannot believe that the euphemistically-named Mediterranean Column will afford Benedict XVI with any nauseating or earthshaking revelation about human anatomy.  But, as I said before, he might not enjoy being reminded of all the trouble this annoying organ has given to the, ahem, Body of Christ, of which he is the 265th head (mas o menos).

Because, let's face it, the Catholic Church is run exclusively by individuals equipped with penises.  And these penises are, to state it simply, "loose."  It is fashionable, nowadays, to speak of "loose" nukes--nuclear weapons that are unattached, not tied down, just hanging around waiting for someone to create mischief with them.

And so it is with priestly penises.  Yes, I know that vows of celibacy and promises to remain Pure do, indeed, keep most priests from going rogue (another popular term).  But occasionally, and all too often, a priest  suffers a brain aberration comparable to the madness that has afflicted Iran or North Korea:  he becomes obsessed with using his loose weapon on whatever target is available.

Sometimes that's a little kid.  Sometimes it's a teenager.  Sometimes it's a married parishioner who has sought out his spiritual counsel.   Rogue priests with loose penises are an ever-present threat in Catholic communities.  (I know what I'm talking about:  for six years I taught at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, CA.  I suspect that a fair number of the ordained clergy who worked at this school were at least tempted by roguery.  For example, I remember one young priest who chose, for his Halloween costume, to disguise himself as a flasher with a flapping phallus. And Father Michael Harris, the movie-star handsome principal--and a genuinely kind man in most matters--was ultimately defrocked for sexual improprieties with male students.)

My conclusion?  Well, male sexuality is pretty imperious.  I doubt that ANYTHING could ever COMPLETELY control priestly penises.  But surely one very logical step presents itself:  ATTACH those damned loose penises to SPOUSES.  That's what regular society has been doing for millennia.  Let priests (most of whom have legitimate vocations) marry and have kids--just like other men.  I suspect that such a reform could go a long way toward correcting the problem.

Second:  for goodness' sake, allow WOMEN to become priests.  The current hierarchy is frankly phallocratic--and it suffers from what my friend Stephanie used to call "testosterone blindness."  A few vaginas under cassocks would provide some healthy balance--and a few "mothers" might offer some very cathartic nagging and scolding of the "not always good" fathers. (Also, perhaps, some sound fashion advice:  I think the red shoes are cool, but I'm not too sure about the beanie.)

And please:  ditch all the lame, bad-faith arguments about how "Jesus was an unmarried man" and therefore priests must also be unmarried men.  The first pope, St. Peter, was married and had children, a status which presumably kept his penis from becoming a loose cannon.  C'mon Benny, give your fellow priests the same "peter protection" that Peter himself enjoyed.  Tu es Petrus, after all.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Gone With the Wind

The South has always made me uncomfortable.  I love its wonderful creativity in food and literature.  I'm touched, even slightly overwhelmed, by offers of Southern hospitality and friendship. But I'm also troubled, sometimes hurt or frightened, by the powerful gusts of intolerance, sanctimoniousness, violence and hate that swirl about in Dixie's heavy air.

Of course, no particular region has a monopoly on intolerance and hate.  Lift the lid off of placid little Winona, Minnesota, and one quickly sees that this town, too, is a stew of bigots and crazies:  a quick glance at the local newspaper's Letters to the Editor is clear proof.

What, then, is the difference?  If Northerners are just as irrational and hateful as Southerners, shouldn't I feel equally uncomfortable in both places?  I suppose.  But there is a difference--and it has to do with "boundaries."  We often think of Southerners as "polite."  But that is not really true, at least in my experience--and my recent trip to New Orleans reinforced my view.  Southerners are indeed nice to other people who, they assume, share their values and life-style.  But they do not usually extend their politeness to those whom they exclude from their tribe.  Indeed, they are often quite careless in denouncing, demeaning and even threatening their many enemies (for the Southern "tribe" is getting smaller and smaller).

So, I guess what I really mean is this:  a depressingly large number of Southerners have not yet accepted as conclusive or binding the post-Civil War definition of the American social contract:  that we are, like it or lump it, a “mongrel” nation—composed of peoples of differing ethnicities, religions, eating habits, sexual orientations, sports preferences.  And that we are mobile and competitive and legitimately unwilling to accept an assigned spot in a social hierarchy.  This is very messy, very chaotic—very unlike Tara’s apparently pretty (but actually ugly) plantation order :  master, house niggers, field niggers, white trash outliers and drunken underlings of various dubious origins.

But Southerners often refuse to include—within the “boundaries” of acceptable American values—this diversity and mobility.  Instead, they yearn for an America which excludes openness and which restricts “Americanness” to those who want to return to Tara.  As evidence that many in the South still cling to this inhumane and inherently unjust “ideal,” we have only to note that the current governor of Virginia has just declared April to be “Confederate History Month.”  A month in which, presumably, Virginians are exhorted to romanticize and honor the evil civilization that was the Old  South.

While in New Orleans last week, Carole and I had breakfast in an ancient building that was once a slave market—where human beings were bought and sold as casually as flat-screen TVs are now marketed at Best Buy.  That, not barbecues at Twelve Oaks, is Confederate History!

Anyway, let me return to my discussion of “boundaries.”  I do not for a minute believe that Northerners are free from prejudices and intolerance; nor would I assert that “most” Northerners actually like diversity.  But I DO believe that most Northerners have accepted the necessity of putting up with “different” people.  Most Northerners  (with the frightening exception of Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin and their ilk) extend—however grudgingly—the boundaries of Americanness to INCLUDE even those people who, despite their unpleasant habits and distasteful beliefs, live under the protection of the Constitution.

And so, intolerant Northerners tend to grumble about the blacks or the Asians or the gays or the Jews (you can substitute juicier epithets if you like), but they sense, in their gut, that their opposition to these groups is, legally at least, unsustainable—that their dislike, however powerful, is UNCONSTITUTIONAL.  The Civil War and the Reconstruction Amendments—especially the Fourteenth—settled the matter with a Lincolnian Solution that must be lived with!

But many delusional Southerners, I think, would assert that their similar prejudices ARE constitutional, at least in terms of the REAL Constitution—the Constitution of the REAL America—the Constitution that was in force BEFORE the Civil War--the Constitution that considered most blacks to be 3/5 of a person.  (Remember:  “Confederate History Month!”)  And they do not want to “live with” a living Constitution.

Because the Constitution isn’t just a dusty document—rather, it’s that social contract I mentioned earlier--a body of conventions (both written and unwritten) that govern how people within a given society interact.  What is acceptable for both individuals and society?  What is “good” for the commonweal as well as for each individual citizen?  Justice Holmes once wrote that “a constitution is made for people of fundamentally differing views.”  He meant, I think, that the Constitution is a set of  "etiquette" rules--boundaries that allow two people who don't agree to co-exist and even prosper without shooting each other--indeed, without even toting a gun to the supermarket.

I'm always appalled at the hypocrisy of so-called conservatives who assert that their "strict-constructionism" is about guaranteeing "freedom."  Nonsense.  Constitutional literalism, like Biblical literalism, is authoritarian and anti-libertarian. "Think like me and act like me or you're un-American."  For the strict –constructionists, like for the Return to Tara governor of Virginia (and a lot of other politicians still fighting for the Rebel Cause) the Constitution should be interpreted not as a contract that advances freedom by extending boundaries, but rather as a freedom-limiting moral code, imposing uniformity--of both belief and conduct--on everybody.  

Have I been unfair to the South?  I'm not sure.  Surely the South is not monolithic (New Orleans is egregiously un-Southern in many ways--it's friendly and hospitable without much discernible intolerance).  And these attitudes and behaviors, which I have labeled “Back to Tara,” crop up everywhere, of course--Orange County, CA, comes to mind.  Still, I can't help it:  after a trip to the South, I always breathe easier and feel more comfortable in my own (unconventional) skin once I leave the Old Confederacy behind.  I wish it were all "gone with the wind."  Perhaps one day it will be.