So Long, White America

Is This What We’ve Come To?

In an essay on James Fenimore Cooper appearing in his 1923 Studies in Classical American Literature, British novelist D. H. Lawrence wrote:

But you have there the myth of the essential white American. All the other stuff, the love, the democracy, the floundering into lust, is a sort of by-play. The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.

I can’t believe that Lawrence got it so right on the money a hundred years ago.

Last year, I gave up on the Democratic Party. This year, I’m giving up on the white race. When I get the 2020 Census form, I will identify myself as being of Other race. The peoples belonging the the Finno-Ugric Language Family—comprising Finns, Hungarians, Estonians, Karelians, Komi, Udmurts, Mari, Mordvins, Khanties, and Mansis—derive ultimately from the Ural Mountains, which straddle the border between Europe and Asia. Rather than count myself in the same race as the a**holes in the above photo, I am now of Finno-Ugric race. I can also called myself Asian. I’ll see how I feel about it later.

But white? Uh-uh!



Serendipity: Ishmael and Queequeg

The “Cannibal” Queequeg

The “Cannibal” Queequeg

Today, I found myself waiting in the library of Loyola Marymount University for several hours while Martine did her errands. So I went over to the bookstore and bought the Norton Critical Edition of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and began my third reading of the classic. To my surprise, it didn’t take long into the book before I found the perfect paradigm of the United States in dealing with the rest of the world.

At the Spouter Inn in New Bedford, Massachusetts, Ishmael can have a place to sleep only if he shares a bed with the harpooner who rents the room. According to the landlord, he is out trying to “sell his head.” Ishmael tries sleeping on a downstairs bench that is too narrow and too short, but finally decides to take a chance. His awakening when the harpooner stumbles in in the middle of the night is a classic:

Lord save me, thinks I, that must be the harpooneer, the infernal head-peddler. But I lay perfectly still, and resolved not to say a word till spoken to. Holding a light in one hand, and that identical New Zealand head in the other, the stranger entered the room, and without looking towards the bed, placed his candle a good way off from me on the floor in one corner, and then began working away at the knotted cords of the large bag I before spoke of as being in the room. I was all eagerness to see his face, but he kept it averted for some time while employed in unlacing the bag’s mouth. This accomplished, however, he turned round—when, good heavens! what a sight! Such a face! It was of a dark, purplish, yellow colour, here and there stuck over with large blackish looking squares. Yes, it’s just as I thought, he’s a terrible bedfellow; he’s been in a fight, got dreadfully cut, and here he is, just from the surgeon. But at that moment he chanced to turn his face so towards the light, that I plainly saw they could not be sticking-plasters at all, those black squares on his cheeks. They were stains of some sort or other. At first I knew not what to make of this; but soon an inkling of the truth occurred to me. I remembered a story of a white man—a whaleman too—who, falling among the cannibals, had been tattooed by them. I concluded that this harpooneer, in the course of his distant voyages, must have met with a similar adventure. And what is it, thought I, after all! It’s only his outside; a man can be honest in any sort of skin. [Italics mine] But then, what to make of his unearthly complexion, that part of it, I mean, lying round about, and completely independent of the squares of tattooing. To be sure, it might be nothing but a good coat of tropical tanning; but I never heard of a hot sun’s tanning a white man into a purplish yellow one. However, I had never been in the South Seas; and perhaps the sun there produced these extraordinary effects upon the skin. Now, while all these ideas were passing through me like lightning, this harpooneer never noticed me at all. But, after some difficulty having opened his bag, he commenced fumbling in it, and presently pulled out a sort of tomahawk, and a seal-skin wallet with the hair on. Placing these on the old chest in the middle of the room, he then took the New Zealand [shrunken] head—a ghastly thing enough—and crammed it down into the bag. He now took off his hat—a new beaver hat—when I came nigh singing out with fresh surprise. There was no hair on his head—none to speak of at least—nothing but a small scalp-knot twisted up on his forehead. His bald purplish head now looked for all the world like a mildewed skull. Had not the stranger stood between me and the door, I would have bolted out of it quicker than ever I bolted a dinner.

Little by little, Ishmael and Queequeg (for such is his name) warm up to each other. Returning from the famous sermon in the Whaleman’s Chapel, Ishmael encounters Queequeg again at the Spouter Inn:

With much interest I sat watching him. Savage though he was, and hideously marred about the face—at least to my taste—his countenance yet had a something in it which was by no means disagreeable. You cannot hide the soul. [Italics mine] Through all his unearthly tattooings, I thought I saw the traces of a simple honest heart; and in his large, deep eyes, fiery black and bold, there seemed tokens of a spirit that would dare a thousand devils. And besides all this, there was a certain lofty bearing about the Pagan, which even his uncouthness could not altogether maim. He looked like a man who had never cringed and never had had a creditor. Whether it was, too, that his head being shaved, his forehead was drawn out in freer and brighter relief, and looked more expansive than it otherwise would, this I will not venture to decide; but certain it was his head was phrenologically an excellent one. It may seem ridiculous, but it reminded me of General Washington’s head, as seen in the popular busts of him. It had the same long regularly graded retreating slope from above the brows, which were likewise very projecting, like two long promontories thickly wooded on top. Queequeg was George Washington cannibalistically developed.

As I read this, I thought that Melville was a man who was comfortable in his own skin and who understood the world—understood it far better than those police in Missouri and New York who killed out of fear, understood it far better than George Zimmerman who “stood his ground” because of his fear.

Fear is not only a mind killer, it is also a killer of otherwise innocent black people who are confronted with very limited white people who don’t know how to take them.



White People Twisting in the Wind

To the Right and to the Left

To the Right and to the Left

Go outside and look around you at the people passing by. Are they all white? If so, you must be in a gated community somewhere. We all know for a fact that the demographic of the American conservative tends heavily toward the white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, and elderly. But, according to a recent article in The Nation entitled “The Unbearable Whiteness of the American Left,” American Progressives are just as far removed demographically from the people whose interests they profess to serve. The tents at either end of the American political spectrum are nowhere near as big as they should be. Wherever the voters are congregating, it is nowhere near either of the two poles.

If voters of different races and ethnicities are disgusted by being ignored, that could result in an election where the zealots are in charge, and the middle stays home. What would be an even more desirable outcome is for the two major political parties to either morph into something other than what they are, or to form new parties. Initially, these new parties would suffer losses at the polls, but eventually, the theory is that they would draw members from the two now ideologically bankrupt major parties.

The article in The Nation makes an interesting point about all-white panels making decisions affecting non-whites: “In the United States, campaigns for social justice are always ‘a racial thing.’ That doesn’t mean they might not be about other ‘things,’ too. Indeed, they invariably are. Race does not exist in a vacuum. But in a country that has never considered equality beyond its most abstract iterations and that has practiced slavery far longer than freedom, race is never entirely absent.”

If African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and others are excluded from the political process, the political process will become increasingly remote from the concerns of most Americans. When that happens, change can become painful and violent, as it did during the urban riots of the 1960s. I’m afraid we still haven’t learned the lesson, and that we will suffer for it.





False Certitudes

Norman Rockwell’s Homecoming of a U.S. Marine

Norman Rockwell’s Homecoming of a U.S. Marine

Let me begin by saying right off the bat that there is nothing wrong with the illustrations of Norman Rockwell. It’s just that he spoke for a different America, an America that was predominately small-town or even rural. His work belongs with the Judge Billy Priest stories of Irvin S. Cobb, silent films like King Vidor’s Tol’able David (1921), and the paintings of Thomas Hart Benton. Just about everybody you would be likely to meet on Main Street was White, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant.

Then the Second World War happened, and people started to move around—a whole lot. African-Americans moved up to the industrial cities of the Northern U.S. Mexican farmers started streaming across the border to help bring in the crops.

And people like me started to pop up. When my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Idell, first saw me in 1950 at Harvey Rice School in Cleveland, it was probably like a portent of the Apocalypse. My friend András and I didn’t speak a work of English. And although she taught at a public school in the heart of the largest Hungarian community outside the Peoples’ Republic of Hungary, she didn’t know a word of Magyar, nor did she feel she had to. When András and I started kicking her in the ankles, I am sure she felt like Joan of Arc among the Barbarian Hordes.

It was just the beginning. In addition to all the black and brown people who were showing up, including a large Puerto Rican neighborhood by Lorain, there were other strange people who came because we chose to fight wars all over the map in places where we had no more inkling of their culture than Mrs. Idell had of mine. I work in Tehrangeles, in a city that has a Thai Town, a Little Seoul, a Little Tokyo, and, of course, “East Los,” a.k.a. East Los Angeles. There are thousands of Armenians, Ethiopians, Hmong, Vietnamese, Arabs, and Chinese—to name just a few. Then, too, there was a whole new type of minority: gays, lesbians, trans-gender individuals.

For many Americans, the odd admixture of cultures leads to a terrible uncertainty. Many people who have been left behind in the “Heartland” feel that America doesn’t belong to them any more. Well it does, and it also belongs to the newcomers. They are or soon will be just as American as any of us. They may be slow to speak our lingo, but their kids’ll pick up on it quickly.

Of one thing I am sure: There is no point in trying to return to the America of Norman Rockwell.

There’s nothing wrong with uncertainty. There is, however, quite a bit wrong with false certitudes. Whatever happens, Norman Rockwell describes an America that is, for the most part, gone. Any attempt to force the Americans of today into a White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant mold will fail, after causing a lot of hard feelings. Even I get pretty sick and tired of Evangelical posturing and the whole Anglo thing which is 0% of my own heritage. If I keep my mouth shut, I might be mistaken for a WASP; but I have no desire to parade around as one. I have no particular respect for WASPs. Their moment has come and gone. There are a whole lot of different people now.

I can live with that. In fact, I rather like it.

God Hates Westboro Baptist Church

Gonzo Picketer for So-Called “Westboro Baptist Church”

Gonzo Picketer for So-Called “Westboro Baptist Church”

The “Westboro Baptist Church” is no more a church than I am the Pope of Islam. They are a right-wing group that delights in fomenting outrage by picketing events where the vast majority of people attending are against their believes. That doesn’t bother the folks at WBC, who say on their website: “0 – nanoseconds of sleep that WBC members lose over your opinions and feeeeellllliiiiiings.” Also on the same page is a counter of the number of souls God has cast into hell since the web page was loaded. (Yeah, like they know!)

At a time when so much that is called political discourse is actually nothing but grandstanding in front of the media, WBC holds down a particularly odious niche. After all, their website is called GodHatesFags.Com. Whenever some disaster occurs, you can count on these hucksters to tell us all that we had it coming because of our tolerance of gays or something else these misguided white people hate or feel threatened by.

I do not think that WBC will be around for much longer: How much further can they go without bringing peoples’ wrath down on their heads or violating the law in some gross way?

So enjoy them while you can.

Suburban Inferno

Evil Lurks in the Suburbs of America

Evil Lurks in the Suburbs of America

The motto comes from Walt Kelly’s late cartoon strip: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Here I am, a white male, a member of a demographic segment that is causing incredible violence across the United States. We would much rather persecute gays, Muslims, African-Americans, Hispanics—but what about us? Adam Lanza, the Newport shooter, was one of us. Is it time to start profiling white males?

After the Second World War, while the people of Europe and Asia were picking up the pieces of their lives, we went through an unprecedented period of prosperity. We moved from the cities to the suburbs, thinking we could leave all our problems behind us. But that is not what happened: We took the problems with us, in the form of our children.

There we lived in our self-contained ranch houses on cul-de-sacs across the country, hiding the fact that inside our cute little homes were millions of dysfunctional families. When mental health care began to blink into non-existence in the 1980s, we hid our shame as much as we could. That, however, did not work. You can’t suppress the horror. It will out. It did out last Friday in a Connecticut suburb.

That Says It All

That Says It All

What to do about it? We can begin the long, slow road toward gun control. That wouldn’t have helped at Sandy Hook Elementary School because the weapons were legally obtained, and then stolen from the shooter’s mother, herself a victim. We could talk about better mental health care, but mental health in this country is at a strange crossroads, where we are repudiating many old methods and increasingly relying on anti-depressant medications to do all the heavy lifting.

Perhaps we just have to admit our vulnerability. The craziest people in America today are white males. And you are reading this blog post by a white male. Don’t worry about me, however, I not only don’t have any guns; but I never want to own any firearms. I’m all right, but watch out for all the other white males. Some crazy shit out there!