There has been, of late, a focus on borders and walls. And, consequently, there has been a scared rise in xenophobia. Or – is it because of rampant xenophobia that there is a focus on borders and walls? This is perhaps the greater question. Populism has always existed, but the sentiments that elected the current administration seem to be the result of a “chicken or egg” conundrum:
Are people scared because the world is a scary place, or is the world a scary place because people are scared?
Even the rhetoric has shifted in the United States: The rejection of the USA as a “country of immigrants” and the dangers of allowing has been the guiding force behind recent policy in the White House. The conversation is not about coming together as much as it is keeping out the “unfamiliar.” The notion of community becoming something more rigidly defined: who belongs, and who doesn’t, and – most importantly – who gets to decide.
But then – it’s naïve to think this hasn’t always been the case , as has been suggested by the Washington Post’s America has always been hostile to immigrants, among others. The United States of America has always had a nativist streak – a culturally white populism as inward-looking as today’s anything in the “America-First” and “Make-America-Great-Again” mantras from the ruling class which has created much hate and violence.
People can’t really be to blame for feeling scared, they tell us. As humans we pride ourselves on our autonomy; our ability to be in control, to conquer, to rise above. We are in control. We need to be in control. And when we can’t give the enemy a face, a face must be given: Muslims. Immigrants. “Welfare Queens.” Others. Them. The people you don’t know.
It doesn’t matter, of course, that there is no data or evidence or anything besides the simplistic, fear-mongering words of the president and his regime to support these sentiments and their negativity.
The barrier of computer screens between us and the rest of the world has perpetuated this problem as well. We have that filter to keep us from connecting. We’ve learned both how big, and how small, the world is, so why would we waste time with the parts that don’t directly affect us?
But then they do (affect us). And then it spreads.
We start to feel as though everything we read is going on next door; right in front of us. And as the world grows smaller, we ourselves grow larger within it. Bangladesh is but a stone’s throw away. I could bike to Istanbul, to Saudi Arabia. Those people killed by Isis in…? I knew them. Or someone just like them. I can feel the pain of their family and their community, because it could have been my family and community.
We change our profile pictures on Facebook with borders and “Never Forget” insignia. We offer “…thoughts and prayers…” to those suffering, remembering that, yes, we are all in this together, emoji fists in the air, tears down cheeks of profile pictures, social media solidarity.
But what could bring us together (and often does), however, also helps to divide us. It makes us distrustful. Just as we feel connected to the victims, we realize how close the attackers are as well. And who they might be. Those are people. We’re peopl too. They did it to them, and they could do it to us. The world isn’t such a big place anymore to hide in, to keep at an arm’s length, to only understand through books and films.
And then what?
We try and make a place for ourselves. Sitting behind the computer screen we start telling the world why such safety is necessary; why steps need to be taken to protect ourselves and our friends, family, community. Not only our solidarity but also our outrage is reflected in our social media personalities.
We’re forced to confront the good, the bad, and the ugly all at once.
Is it easier to buy into the Donald Trump, the Geert Wilders, the Nigel Farage, and Marine le Pen, etc. etc. rhetoric? Why would we not put up physical borders, even as the theoretical borders continue to erode? Why would we not establish ourselves as one thing, retreat into the familiar, and condemn anything that’s other? They are not us, people say. We are not them. No. We are proud in our heritage. We would never seek to change… What exactly? The heritage? The traditions? The beliefs? Physiological aspects like skin color?
In a country like the United States, based on a lack of any sole one of these one things (or not a lack, but rather the amalgam of them; the many different cultures, countries, religions, ideals that have come together as many parts in one), what exactly is at risk?
It is certainly not some other group of people, outside of those in power. In the US, it has been – for the few hundred years of history – led by white, cisgendered former-Europeans in power. Subsequently this is the group most worried about usurpers, aggressors, and change. Of course it is: People in power never give it up willingly, and certainly don’t want to think that it was ever wrong for them, ever not moral and righteous, ever not “Manifest Destiny,” for them to have been in power (often perceived as simply being what is, and what they are) in the first place.
The Perspective of the Great and Scared American
The old man sits in a foldout chair, watching the events of the annual Christmas dinner unfold around him.
A younger man (his niece’s college boyfriend) leans against the wall with his shirt halfway unbuttoned and his hair pushed back as if naturally windblown (too much hair product), and a not-yet-tarnished sense of self-worth and ego (no idea too big, nothing is impossible).
College had ruined him, this boy. Taught him that “ideas” and “discussion” hold more power than the clubs of cave men (still at the core of modern man) and the AK-47s and suicide bombings of terrorists so far away, and those so very close.
Optimism is a dirty word –ugh- because it’s walls that keep you safe. It’s practicality that makes you prosper. What was it that the tortoise said? Slow and steady wins the race. Right.
This generation of hares is getting ahead of themselves. Jumping around the room, excited by these notions and theses and the possibilities of change (growth) and fucking (oh, but how he misses fucking. It is only sex that he has now, and not very often) and enjoying it, smooth and supple and fueled by the light; the brightness of that same ego…
But no. These things are not real, tangible. They are superficial. Hedonistic.
The windows, wrapped in plastic so as to keep out the winter cold and keep the heating bill low? They are real. And the Chevrolet out back, gears and levers, and new tread on new tires and a gas tank that never drops below a quarter full. That is real. Run your fingers along the hood, you’ll see. Feel it for yourself. It’s smooth. Real as any woman. The future might be bright, young boy, but not as bright as polished headlights cutting through the dark winter woods at 9pm…
And this. This conversation. This discussion in abstracts. In “If’s” and “If not’s” with no talk of “When,” or “Will,” and certainly not “How.”
What are we talking about if not the world right now, today?
The old man thinks: We need to be safe. Me, and mine. What are you saying that could possibly be more important than that? My children and grandchildren. Safe. Like I was. Those were the days. Golden fields in autumn. Holidays that actually meant something. Dining together as a family, the whole family, together. Remember? Remember?
It gets harder every day. People telling you to forget these moments, leave them in the past where they belong. Because it wasn’t as good as you say it is, they say. You’re wrong, they say. You’re wrong for believing the things you believe, and for doing the things you have always done and the people before you did as well.
Well. They’re the ones who are wrong.
Things were simple, then. And it can and will be that way again. Even if we are surrounded by people who believe that “ideas” and diversity might save the world.
I can’t make you happy – the old man whispers to himself – but I can keep you safe.