… with help from my mom’s new sofa
So I’m sitting on my balcony with a friend of my friend. The friend of my friend is black, and as we small-talk each other he tells me that he’s Canadian, having been born here of parents who emigrated here from Jamaica. This seems totally right and logical, hardly worth even articulating, despite the new Trumpian standard of “we’ll be the judge of who’s a citizen or not, bright eyes, so better not get too uppity.”
Nope, born here is all you need. In fact, I’ll make a stab at it and say his parents are Canadian, too. Mr. All-Embracing PC Snowflake, that’s me!
It’s an uncomfortably muggy July evening and we’re eating chickpea stew over couscous from white Dollarama bowls. (I made the stew and steamed the couscous myself. I needed you to know that.) Our thoughts turn, don’t ask me how or why, to immigration, and this guy, Joe, which is absolutely not his name, says to me:
“The refugees get all these beautiful town houses, for free. They get more than you get on benefits.”
He says to me:
“I think Air Canada should stop hiring all these foreigners, because of security. They should hire only Canadians.”
He says to me:
“It’s black people who are always rude to me. White people are fine. It’s the black people I always have a problem with.”
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-year-old—no I don’t, do I?— white guy and I have to explain to a gay black guy that refugees do not get all these beautiful town houses for free.
I have to explain to a gay black guy that many people would look at him and automatically assume that he’s “a foreigner,” and “not Canadian” just because of the color of his skin.
I have to explain to a gay black guy that it’s not about individuals of any race, it’s about how racism is systemic, built into the mechanisms of everyday life.
It’s not whether another individual black guy or white guy is rude to you about a parking spot. It’s about what happens when you go for a job, what happens when you apply for an apartment, what happens when you’re minding your business in Starbucks or getting into your car that someone has decided a black person would not own or walking down the street and a cop sees you?
It’s about what happens when you’re arrested and go to court and what kind of sentence, if any, do you get? And what happens to a white person in that same situation?
I have to explain to a gay black guy that he’s repeating fake news stories and urban myths and being racist.
And I can’t cope. I spend most of my online, and increasingly, offline, interactions pushing back at other white people when they make similar comments; when they say white people aren’t the only ones who had slaves, you know even though the discussion is about America, in which context white people are the only people who had slaves; when they say I’m color blind or claim that any grievance voiced by people of color is white racism.
I can barely cope with the onslaught of racism burbling out of white people now that Trump and his autocratic buddies worldwide have made racism a popular choice once again, I can barely deal with that. I am at a loss for dealing with a gay black guy who says this shit.
So that’s why I jumped off my eighth-floor balcony and landed on my feet, scrunching my legs right up into my pelvis, which has meant having all my trousers re-hemmed, an extra expense that I could ill afford.
You have to weigh the pro’s and the con’s. Tying my shoes is easier, but my knuckles drag along the sidewalk. People admire my integrity, but they preface their admiration with, “Hey down there—little guy!” Maybe I could have made the same statement in a more constructive, less dramatic fashion.
Oh, well. Too late now!
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.
Anyone who wasn’t WASP, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant—this is not something you could aspire to, you either are or you aren’t—was obviously just not trying hard enough, even though, as I just said, trying is irrelevant. With me so far?
Skin color barely entered into it. Just strike off one of those attributes, say, “Protestant,” and it’s game over. Disparaging remarks about non-WASPs were acceptable WASP conversation. For some reason, probably because I’m gay, the one I remember most clearly is: “Barbra Streisand just opens her big Jewish mouth and screams”, an example of antisemitic WASP musical criticism that would have made Richard Wagner’s nasty little eyes bug out with pride, or is it envy.
My mother probably made that remark after a rousing game of bridge, while passing around wobbling platefuls of “Charlotte Russe” (which contained lime Jell-O, as did everything my mother cooked, probably even the pot roast contained lime Jell-O), and cups of Red Rose tea, served in hand-painted china cups. This was a genteel remark, if a bit obvious, yet god forbid there should be a lull in the conversation.
I mean, what could you say in response? “Fascinating, and exactly how big is her big Jewish mouth and how loudly does she scream?” Of course Barbra did that! Why not start the conversation with, “I noticed the sun rose in the East this morning,” for heaven’s sake! Lame!
This remark dates from Barbra’s early appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show, a variety show. Variety shows were an extension of vaudeville, stage entertainments for all the family, so on a variety show you’d see singers (or “screamers”, if Barbra) and an act with a dog, and maybe a puppeteer and a comedian and some acrobats. So Barbra wasn’t yet a mega-star, at which point she could graduate from “big-mouthed screamer” and join the ranks of, take your pick, “bitch” (a woman with power), or “anti-Christ,” which is all the Jews who were controlling the media and just in it for the money.
Money! Power! Talent! The holy Trinity, unless you’re not WASP, heterosexual and male, when they become the Golden Calf. Anti-Christ Bitch Barbra, she’s got it all!
Jews, and Italians (who were also Catholics, which was kind of like when you get the letters for “syzygy” in Scrabble, a satisfying double-whammy of prejudice), got lumped together. These people, not being WASPs, were not strictly “white” because, you know.
Ethnic meant colorful, so Gary and Adelina, the only Italians in Whitby, served as, you might say, the honorary 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. Their house had figurines of the Virgin Mary, and what looked like photos of Jesus, and Gary, a tailor by trade, smelled like sweat and warm bread and red wine, wine which he made at home in his basement. They used olive oil instead of butter.
WASPs do not smell. Dirty ethnics! WASPs do not use oil. Greasy ethnics!
But that was OK. Ethnics were not expected to have or to represent good taste, which for WASPs means how many shades of beige and cream can you deploy in one room and under how much plastic. Good taste means everything matching, because that’s what you saw in a magazine. 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, as the targets on which 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! No sooner had my two sisters frosted their lips, raised their hemlines and learned to Twist when it was dead Kennedys, Lyndon Johnson and civil rights; race riots, Detroit and Chicago and Berkeley on fire; MLK Jr, Rosa Parks, and marches on Selma, summers of love, hippies and yippies.
Suddenly my mother and all the other white people were up till all hours processing the dusky Europeans into “white,” and bringing their focus to bear on figuring out what to do about these really non-white, unmistakably non-white, black people who’d suddenly found a voice.
Or was it that we hadn’t listened before?
No one listens to the voices of the oppressed (not hearing is the point of the oppression, after all) until the house is burning down; and what we finally heard was: “So we’ll burn the friggin house down, have it your way!”
This succeeded, finally, in getting someone’s attention.
Black people rioted in American cities, where the racism was more overt, the attitudes harder, the privilege somehow more entrenched. Canada, after all, had begun a gradual process of abolition in 1793, and in 1834 a British Act of Parliament abolished slavery throughout the Empire. Upper Canada became a destination for an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 refugee slaves via the Underground Railroad.
Forty thousand! Where were they? We’d literally, in Whitby, Ontario, never seen a black person live. This cannot be true, I rifle through my brain’s Rolodex for any memories, yet as far as I can tell I grew up in a small town in which I swear no black people lived. I remember no black shopkeepers, or teachers, or playmates.
They existed only on American TV and in American cities; in the pages of my Rand-McNally 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 front lawn, who knew!
In fact, my parents, who were your average, decent, nominally Christian, basically educated but unsophisticated small-town white people, didn’t really say anything I can remember that was bad about black people. I expect the whole concept was so fantastically alien it eclipsed any concept of ethnic, leaving them at a loss for words.
Still, there was that seventy-year head start with abolition; and that more liberal attitude, taking pride in its ornery non-American-ness. (It’s that unmistakable Canadian air of quiet, bemused Loyalist superiority, drawing on the enlightened authority of the Crown, that still drives some Americans bonkers.)
And so we went back to our living rooms to watch Judy Garland singing “Swanee,” her face loaded with more boot-polish than the entire U.S. infantry, breathing a sigh of relief.
We’d deal with black people when we had to. The possibility of black neighbors was not something we worried about, mainly because it seemed so unlikely.
Unless, of course, some black sportsmen, or entertainers, or even scientists, found the charms of Whitby, Ontario—with its leafy park, the annual itinerant carnival, the Carnegie Library, year-round Christmas lights and the orange-cellophaned windows of Whitby Mall—irresistible.
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. One morning we’d discover that the sofa had thrown off its plastic cover in the night, or popped a button, 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. The interloper was restless.
My mother would not stand for any show of sofa independence. Sofas had to know their function: to please her, to be a source of comfort, and above all to fit on her charge card and 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 (but not too little to get hammered).
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 an apology, 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, fueled by racism, an agenda.
Democracy is gone, busted, kaput. In its place partisanship, entrenchment of power, as those we elect refuse all compromise and game the system through gerrymandering and judicial appointments, to ensure their ideology gets woven so tightly into the fabric that plucking our own eyes out would be easier than unweaving it.
For democracy to exist, we all have to agree on some basic principles: we have to realize that democracy is never simply about what the majority wants but how we treat minorities. Democracy is primarily about human rights, increasing our understanding of and extending the reach of 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. It’s not about throwing out everything we have, it’s improving what works and evolving what doesn’t.
This is why the French Revolution ended in a bloodbath; and why Britain, watching the events in France to remind themselves how not to do things, continued with its plodding, slow increments of common law and of equity, a gradual, extremely imperfect, organic growth. Boring old liberalism may drag its feet but it leaves more heads attached to necks.
We need to agree that government is not a business, that leaders of our countries should not be accountants, but visionaries who respond to our beliefs and who work not for themselves but for the public good.
We have to agree that health care and hospitals, housing, a single system of public schools and secondary schools and universities from which emerge educated citizens whose eventual contributions enrich society; water, power, food; day care for our children whom we claim to cherish, that these things must be universally available, not delivered privately for the wealthy and publicly for everyone else. We have to agree that there can be no first-class and second-class citizens.
We have to agree that there is a level below which we will not let people sink. This is not pure altruism 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 professional journalism 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.
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, reactive, entitled liberals whose balloons have been popped by the snarky, emboldened bully conservatives as they scream “Snowflakes!” “Libtards!” “SJW’s!”
And we 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 ethnics 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 didn’t have to remind us that where there are winners there are losers; we figured that out for ourselves. We saw what it meant to be a loser: to live on the street, go hungry in the midst of plenty, to be nothing.
They proved their point by de-funding social programs until they didn’t work, then telling us that incompetent government and “the nanny state” was the enemy; by preying on Protestant guilt and telling us the poor were poor by choice, that they were lazy.
Meanwhile the one percent lounged in their country clubs wearing Prada sneakers and drinking rum that someone once traded for slaves, while their nannies looked after the kids.
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.
By hammering us with the words rapists and terrorists and invasion and illegals they reanimated the slimy residue of racism that we still contained so that our lizard brains quivered with atavistic fears. In that state we had no hope of processing the truth that we were being manipulated, that there were rapists and terrorists and invaders, for sure, but they were the people we elected, and quite a number of corporate CEO’s whom we didn’t.
There is no scarcity of money or of prosperity. There are funds for healthcare. There are funds for housing and feeding and guaranteeing an income to every person in North America. The world is awash with money.
What’s scarce is truth.
There are Facebook groups dedicated to debunking the myth that the world is round. This is how lost we’ve become. This is our level of panic. This is our successful reduction to partisan, truth-free zombies. Our brains are wiped clean of fact, there is no information source we trust, we’re ready, empty and malleable.
If you can believe the world is flat, that the moon landing was faked, and that there are extra-terrestrials wandering among us but the government’s not letting on, it’s a piece of cake to believe your unsafe streets or unemployment are caused by liberals, homos, feminists—or a few thousand refugees seeking asylum.
A day will come when the drones fly overhead, the levees collapse, the oceans engulf the coasts; when deserts crack open like desiccated skin and the fires ignite. We’ll experience these together. This, finally, will be the truth we can all agree upon, as together we all become refugees with no 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 our blue planet glimmer and recede as they voyage to another world conceived and built to their specifications.
And they’re laughing.
My mother, like most people, softened and changed once we’d moved to the city and met black people, homosexuals, including me, Asian people and other exotic types. Because you learn tolerance, then acceptance, then truth, by being forced by life to rub elbows with, work with, live with the full spectrum of humanity.
This is what makes cities the roiling, bustling, all-in-this-together final liberal hope for human survival, and leafy rural enclaves, those hard, intractable, conservative kernels of smug self-satisfaction and hatred, its certain extinction.