… with help from my mom and dad
So I’m sitting on my balcony with a friend of my friend. The friend of my friend is black, from Jamaica, and looks like he might have some Indian blood mixed in there, too.
It’s an uncomfortable muggy July evening and we’re eating a chickpea stew over couscous from white Dollarama bowls. Our thoughts turn, don’t ask me how or why, to immigration, and this guy, Alex, says to me:
“The refugees get all these beautiful town houses, for free. They get more than you get on benefits.”
And after I mentally rehearse the vomiting up of a full bowl of couscous and chickpeas in spicy tomato sauce then the post-puke dabbing of my lips accompanied by a final, raucous belch, my heart seizes up and falls out of my shirt like a lump of concrete.
I’m thinking, “I’m a sixty-three- no I don’t, do I? year-old white guy and I have to explain to a black guy that refugees do not get all these beautiful town houses for free. I have to explain to a black guy that he’s repeating these fake news stories and urban myths and being racist.”
So that’s why I jumped off the eighth-floor balcony and landed on my feet, crunching my legs right up into my pelvis, which has meant having all my trousers re-hemmed and also turning in all my opera tickets for the COC and exchanging them for supernumerary work any time they stage “Rigoletto.”
I grew up, like any mid-range Boomer, inside a normal, white racist household, with a normal, white racist mom and dad. My mother, who did the talking for both of them, cleaned up nice and, when meeting a new department store charge card, would skip the introductions and press it tearfully to her bosom like Dorothy hugging Toto after his escape from Elvira Gulch’s basket.
I’m not going to even try to list the racist epithets and bons mots, but I do recall, “Barbra Streisand just opens her big J—–h mouth and yells”, an example of WASP musical criticism. Jews, and Italians, who were also Catholics, got kind of lumped together, and these people were not strictly “white” because, you know. Ethnic.
Ethnic meant colorful, so Gary and Adelina, the only Italians in Whitby, served as, you might say, the town throw cushions who lived three blocks down the street, throw cushions in black velvet and gold braiding and “Souvenir of Niagara Falls” stitched on the front. Ethnics were not expected to have or represent good taste, which for WASPS means how many shades of beige and cream can you deploy in one room. You’ll never go wrong with beige, my dear!
So we toddled along, making do with Italians and Jews, maybe the odd Polish Catholic if you were really desperate, in order to discharge our Anglo-Saxon bile and make them be the cause of things, rather than the cause being our obnoxious self-regard and personal manifest destiny.
And then of course came the sixties! Lyndon Johnson and civil rights, and race riots, and MLK Jr, and suddenly my mother and other family members were able to process the dusky Europeans into “white,” and focus on figuring out what to do about these new shiny black people.
We’d literally, in Whitby, Ontario, never seen a black person live. They existed only on American TV and in the pages of my children’s encyclopedia, god help me, where they were called “Negroes,” (the new N-word) and where it was suggested that they were “good at sports and as entertainers, even scientists!”
Well, pick that cotton to a chorus of “Mammy” and stick a jockey on the lawn, who knew?
My parents didn’t really say much that was bad about black people. The whole concept was so fantastically alien it eclipsed any concept of ethnic, leaving most people at a loss for words.
And so we went back to watching Judy Garland singing “Swanee,” her face loaded with more boot-polish than the entire U.S. infantry, in our leafy all-white enclaves, breathing a sigh of relief that we wouldn’t have to deal with integration. We considered black neighbors to be a rare, slightly suspect and peculiarly American custom.
I mean, if they’d just pull themselves up by the bootstraps, maybe they coulda been white? You know?
Thinking more about my mom, which reassures me that she’s still dead, I am reminded yet again about Trump’s comments that “the Squad” should “go back to their own countries.”
My mom did the same thing with sofas. This is a direct analogy. She would invite a sofa into our home — say, in coral silk or blue brocade, cover it in heavy plastic and, for a while, the two would co-exist happily.
This was “the honeymoon.”
Then, of course, as in any relationship, the sofa would begin to get ideas. We’d get up in the morning and the sofa would somehow have thrown off its plastic cover in the night, or it would deliberately heat up when you sat on it, so you’d be sitting in an embarrassing puddle of sweat. The valance on the bottom of the sofa would begin to fray. High and mighty, I call that.
My mother would not stand for any show of sofa independence. Sofas had to know their place: to please her, to be a source of comfort, and above all to exact the high interest rates that would keep her relationship with the Robert Simpson Company well-oiled and meaningful and my father permanently on the road earning too little money.
The day came that she would no longer be speaking to the sofa. This was the contempt period, following, like a case of crab lice follows hooker sex, the last gasp of the honeymoon and the nano-second period of contentment; for my mother was a consuming soul as restless as the westward wind, that wayward wind that’s sure to wander.
I don’t know if my mother ever told a sofa, “Go back where you came from.” But soon after the contempt came the delivery men, rolling their eyes, for this ritual was repeated once, twice, three times per year. My mother would get a full refund and a new sofa, this one more compliant, less uppity, than the one before.
You just have to be absolutely clear who’s boss.
Conservatives, most current among them Donald Trump, the Great Mouth Breather, have finally done it. They’ve finished the work that Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher and the two Bushes started, not to mention de facto conservatives like Bill Clinton.
They’ve ruined the world, broken the social contract, turned everyone against the people who should be their allies, namely all the other people, and made division an agenda.
Democracy is gone, busted, kaput. There is no longer any representative democracy, because the representatives just want to represent their ideology and redraw the boundaries to ensure their ideology gets woven so tightly into the law that plucking our own eyes out would be easier than unweaving it.
For a liberal, pluralist democracy to exist, we all have to agree on some basic principles: we have to realize that democracy is first and always about human rights, equality, justice and dignity, and we have to agree what this means.
Liberalism is incremental, contextual, progressing slowly as we learn. It’s not black and white, revolutionary or impatient. That’s why “the wheels of justice grind slowly,” and why Trump complains about that very slowness of the legal system. But justice demands time: for gathering evidence, for preparing a defense, for weighing of rights and responsibilities, for understanding mitigating factors. For presumption of innocence.
We have to agree that there is a role for government; that government is the best deliverer of universal services, and that these are not frills, and that to deliver services does not entail “stealing taxes,” but rather creating insurance programs not motivated by profit.
This is because we agree that government is not a business, but a trust representing our ideals in action. That leaders of our countries are not accountants, but visionaries who make us better together than we would be individually.
We have to agree, for example, that health care, and affordable housing, and hospitals and the utilities that consume our country’s resources which we collectively own, and day care for our youngest citizens, and prisons that rehabilitate rather than serve as a vehicle for society’s revenge, that these things exist not for profit for a few, that their role is not to be efficient, but to be redundant; that if they exist it is for the public good.
We have to agree to be there for each other; and that there is a level below which we will not let people sink. This is not pure altruism, pure sacrifice, but an investment in a robust, stable society over the long term.
Extremes of wealth inequality stop democracy from functioning:
- If your life consists of a struggle to house, clothe and feed yourself and your family, there is no time or energy or will to do anything else. In this sense, democracy is a luxury item.
- If you can’t afford access to the truth and get your “news” from Facebook, you are a sitting duck for disinformation and will soon end up in a bubble of lies, half-lies, fake “experts” and conspiracy theories; soon no information source is trusted and what you believe is what your fellow bubble-dwellers believe.
But for democracy to function we all need the tools to participate; we have to agree on the truth and know where we have a reasonable chance of finding it.
We have to agree that good government codifies our common belief that everyone deserves a fair start, everyone deserves respect, everyone can fall down but can stand up again, that university or the polytechnic or trades should be an option for everyone who wants this, and that this is not merely an expense but is offset by the productivity of well-paid workers and thinkers and experimenters and artists and plumbers and widget entrepreneurs who emerge from these institutions.
We have to agree, for example, that the effort to treat others with respect and hear their stories of oppression will bring us closer together, and is not “political correctness,” or an act of “white genocide.” We have to agree to have the courage to shut up, listen, think, respond, make reparations as necessary and change.
We have to agree that market competition might work well for selling shoes but has no place in education; that two-tiered systems create first- and second-class citizens.
We have to agree that there is never, ever, anywhere, a “them” and an “us.” We are the saints and the monsters, the successes and failures, the common and the exceptional, we are all of these.
Do we have this agreement? We used to. Somehow the project of turning informed, educated, rational adults into disinformed, confused, panic-stricken children has created a giant playground full of whimpering liberals whose balloons have been popped by the snarky bully conservatives as they scream “Snowflakes!” “Libtards!” “SJW’s!”
And the liberals, believe it or not, actually mind these epithets. Which more or less tells me that conservatives have a point, at least about the snowflake thing, which I would have twisted myself into a pretzel to avoid admitting.
No sooner had we started cooking pad Thai and buying hand-woven rugs at Pier One to show how cosmopolitan we were about the brown people when Reagan and Thatcher and Bush started to cast their evil spell. They convinced us that prosperity was scarce and only available to those rat-like and ruthless enough to win the race.
They proved their point by de-funding the New Deal and the War on Poverty until they didn’t work; preying on Protestant guilt and chastising us for being poor and lazy while they sat around country clubs in Prada sneakers drinking rum that someone once traded for slaves.
They made the effort to lift everyone up, the effort to reconnect the human family, into an evil. By hammering us with the words communism and socialism they planted in our poor heuristically-vulnerable brains the false idea that to offer universal government-delivered health care was akin to denouncing your family to Stalin and sending them to the gulag.
But not for one second did they stop plundering, stealing, making pacts with devils and gradually enriching themselves. The white, male lords of the planet sold us out, distracted us, plagued us with fakery, and created an artificial, ideological concept of scarcity that we still believe.
There is no scarcity. The world is awash with money. Awash with money.
In the world, now, in America and in Canada as well, there are huge numbers of people who will never believe the simple truth of how we’ve been manipulated to arrive at where we are, and who are teaching their children never to believe it. They’ll believe it’s all due to a few thousand refugees seeking asylum.
We, for believe what I will, the confusion will win, we will begin to realize what’s happened only on the day when the drones fly overhead, the levees collapse, the waters rush in, the deserts crack open like desiccated skin and we’re all refugees without a safe haven.
Hear that blast? Look up.
That’s fifty old white guys in a space ship built by Elon Musk, smoking Havana cigars, watching the blue planet glimmer and recede as they voyage to another world conceived and built to their specifications
And my mother, like most people, softened once we’d moved to the city and met black people, homosexuals, including me, and other exotic types. Because you learn tolerance, then acceptance, by being forced by life to rub elbows with humanity.
This is what makes cities the roiling, bustling, all-in-this-together hope for human progress, and rural enclaves the hard, intractable kernels of smug self-satisfaction and hatred.