Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Other

In the past, at times of fear, The Other is the scapegoat.  Always.  Because it can't be Our Fault.  Someone else is mucking up the works, and it clearly isn't us.  We know us, and we're definitely not to blame.

Witness the Birther Movement (such that it is).  A nice, white, Yalie, Texan via New England couldn't have brought down the wrath of God.  It has to be The Foreigner.  How convenient that the Fates brought us Barack Obama.  Right out of central casting, he is -- black (at least half so), born of a Kenyan father (and a Muslim at that), a speaker of foreign tongues, a world traveler at a wee age.  By George, he's perfect!  Sure, he says he was born in Hawaii, but, really, isn't Hawaii just barely American anyway?  Why, many Americans can remember when Hawaii wasn't even a State!

It's amusing -- and maddening -- to see, in the words of Lindsey Graham, "good people" freaking out because of the barbarians at the gate.  Do they not know their history?  Probably not...but they (profess to) know The Bible.  Hmmm, what does The Bible say about welcoming foreigners...?  It warns specifically against NOT welcoming them -- the Old Testament and no less of an authority than the Son of Man/God Himself!

Wha!?

Someone [I'm talking to you, Arizona] needs to take better notes.  We all know e pluribus unum -- "out of many, one".  Unfortunately, we don't understand it.  We "get" the pluribus part, and many of us don't like it one bit (selectively remembering our own part in pluribus).  We like the unum part, but only if we get to define what unum means.  We like to think that unum means what we were taught it means:  a melting pot, where all the various ingredients get mushed together into one, homogeneous whole.  To this, I would like to ask:  when, exactly, have we ever been one, homogeneous whole?  Those who pine for the Eisenhower days would like us to think there was a time when this actually occurred, but they are very, very wrong.  I prefer to think of unum as former NYC mayor David Dinkins described it:  a gorgeous mosaic.  Each piece gets to be distinct while being integral to the larger whole.  Is not a beautiful mosaic an unum?

So, let's review.  God, Himself, tells us to welcome the stranger.  Our collective American history exists because of strangers.  An unum can contain a plurality while still exhibiting cohesiveness.

What, then, is our problem!?

I would like to submit that we have a problem with language.  And it's two-fold.  Firstly, we seem to have a problem with non-English speakers.  Ok.  English is the non-official lingua franca of the land.  And we've all heard about the Italian/German/Polish/etc. ancestors who came here, say, in the 1800s or early 1900s who learned English immediately in order to become good Americans.  All that's fine...to a point.  I, for one, went to Germany in college with someone who had two native-German-speaking parents who thought better of giving their daughter that ability, and she fought as hard as I did (with no such bi-lingual parents) to survive in Germany during that year.  What a waste!  Also, if you go back far enough, you'll find people throughout what became this country speaking Dutch, Swedish, French, Spanish and more.  There was an America then, too; it just wasn't yet the United States.  What I would like to know is why a single language is, ipso facto, a good thing?  How many perfectly good countries out there have more than one official language?  Switzerland has four, and it's been around since the 13th century!  Seriously, what is our problem?

Secondly, we have a self-inflicted issue about the language we use to describe those who are not, or are not yet, citizens.  We call them "illegals", and, in doing so, we do a disservice to them and to us.  To my mind, something "illegal" is criminal.  It's illegal to kill; it's illegal to run a red light; it's illegal to not pay your taxes.  Non-citizens are not inherently illegal; rather they are not-yet legal or, better still, they are extra-legal, or non-legal or how about non-citizens?  Calling them illegals denotes something wrong or, worst, something sinister. How wrong-headed is that?  What, exactly, is wrong or sinister about someone trying to make a better life for themselves and their families the best, or perhaps only, way they know how?  Is that not what our various ancestors did when they washed up on these shores?  Who, honestly, are we to label them "illegal"?

It's not right, and, frankly, the whole dynamic of the conversation needs to change.  The United States of America is one, big glass house...and I don't know a single person who has any right to be lobbing stones at anyone.  We need to stop looking for scapegoats and deal with the issues we have, together.