It was over ten years ago in London, Ontario – on assignment running the systems shop at the big locomotive factory there, for two years. London, halfway between Detroit and Toronto, was, and no doubt still is, a wonderful place – with honest, open and tolerant people, invariably polite and thoughtful in a natural and relaxed way, as if quiet decency were just a given and no big deal. And they laughed a lot, but with you, not at you.
But there was the constant cultural dislocation that comes with flying back here to Hollywood every other weekend, to water the plants and pay the bills and check in with family and friends, and then catch the Sunday night redeye from LA to Pittsburgh and then the short hop on the tiny commuter plane up to London. Hollywood isn’t much like London. Here quiet decency is not exactly a given and no big deal – it’s rather unknown. Or quiet decency is something you market – Jimmy Stewart cornered that market once, and made MGM a whole lot of money. But those days are long gone. This is now the land of attitude. So every two weeks it was cultural whiplash.
And there was the time warp factor. Somehow it was always 1952 in London, Ontario – clean streets and kindly people and a sort of Ozzie and Harriet mellowness in the air. Or maybe it was Leave it to Beaver – or maybe London was a northern Mayberry with Aunt Bee baking a pie for the church social, or for the nice young men on the curling team. And of course things got there late. It was in the autumn of 1999 that one of the pop stations in London had Sheryl Crow in rotation, singing about how all she wanted to do was have some fun and watch the sun come up over Santa Monica Boulevard – her big hit from 1993. Things got there late.
But there was more to it. Listening to that song day after day was odd, and it could make you homesick. Santa Monica Boulevard is at the bottom of the hill here. It was easy enough to visualize, even in Canada. And if you don’t remember the song, here’s a clip of Sheryl Crow singing it live in Tokyo in 2002 – further cultural and temporal dislocation.
But of course Santa Monica Boulevard here is full of attitude – this street meets Santa Monica Boulevard down in West Hollywood, the largest gay community south of San Francisco, and yes, you get attitude. It’s not very Canadian. At the light at the bottom of the hill turn left and there’s Voyeur, the club where the Republican Party spent a lot of money so young potential donors could enjoy watching simulated lesbian sex, of the artful sort of course, and turn right and there’s Barney’s Beanery, where Janis Joplin had two screwdrivers the night she died. Where else can you find an autographed Janis Joplin table, or a plaque that says “Jim Morrison used to sit here” – and sit there? It’s all about attitude.
And across the street from Voyeur is the gas station where you can buy a lottery ticket and chat with the extended family that runs the place, but who tend to slip in and out of some Pakistani dialect or other. That’s kind of fun, if you like languages, but now and then some redneck, from Fontana or some such place, with his monster pickup truck idling outside, will be screaming at them, telling them to speak English, damn it – this is America. Well, it isn’t Canada.
Yes, Canada welcomes immigrants of all sorts – they have a lot of open space up there and they need folks – and no one is asking anyone to give up their culture and language or any of that. Hell, a big chunk of the country speaks French, or what passes for French. And the new folks are seen as interesting. They are more likely to be asked to share who they are and what their customs are than be told to shut up and fade into the woodwork, and be normal, whatever that is. It’s tell me more, not be just like the rest of us. The Canadian idea seems to be out of many, one – E Pluribus Unum.
But wait, that’s our national motto – or was until 1956, when Congress decided In God We Trust was more appropriate. That might have been a mistake. That’s an invitation for everyone to cop an attitude, and sneer that God likes me and just doesn’t like you, and He wants me to do something about it. That leads to some pretty dark places.
And we seem to have arrived at one of those places:
The Arizona Legislature’s passage of a new hard-line anti-immigration law may force both Democrats and Republicans into a place they don’t want to be: dealing with the contentious, no-win issue of immigration reform in the midst of an election year.
The Arizona bill – passed on a party-line vote by the state’s Republican legislators and signed into law by the Republican governor – has come under intense fire from President Barack Obama and other Democrats in Washington.
But the polarizing issue is fraught with peril for both parties – so much so that, when asked about the politics of it all, former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie paraphrases the words of Democratic New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson: “When immigration is an issue, nobody wins.”
What are we going to do with people who aren’t like us? We’re not Canadian after all, and for the likes of John McCain and Lindsey Graham that’s a problem:
Even McCain has come out in support of the new law in his home state – despite the fact that he, like Graham and Gillespie now, previously warned against being seen as punitive toward Hispanics as he was leading the effort on reform.
McCain describes something close to a crisis in his home state in explaining his decision to move away from reform and to back the Arizona law, but he’s also acting in response to a primary challenge on the right from former Rep. J.D. Hayworth.
And that underscores the Republicans’ problem: How do you keep the right happy without turning off other voters?
With Hispanics now making up the largest minority group in the country and their percentage of the population growing rapidly, the demographic challenge for Republicans is obvious.
Basically the problem is you really don’t want to come off as a racist – you lose the Hispanic vote and lose the election – and at the same time you do want to be at least a bit racist, because your base is angry and not that particular. It’s not that tell me more about yourself thing – it’s be just like the rest of us, or really, just get out. And that presents the Republicans with a problem.
And on Sunday, May 2, it led to a fascinating exchange on ABC Sunday. The comedian Bill Maher was on the panel – an odd thing in itself – and he made the argument that while not all Republicans are racists, racists are more than likely to be Republicans. His point – “Government power bothers conservatives unless it’s directed at people that are not white. It seems like there is something like that going on.”
And the prissy conservative columnist George Will took umbrage with that – “Mr. Maher, just said – if I heard him right – that conservatives basically are racists and like government intrusion only against people that aren’t white.”
Those are fighting words, of course. George Will took this personally, but Maher basically told him something no one ever tells George Will, that Will was just not getting the point – “Let me defend myself. I would never say and I have never said, because it’s not true that Republicans, all Republicans are racists. That would be silly and wrong. But now days, if you are racist, you’re probably a Republican. And that is quite different.”
At that point the host, ABC’s Jake Tapper, said this – “That’s a whole other round table conversation.” No one needs a fistfight.
But Maher’s subtle point is important. Conservatives and Republicans are not racists, but those who are say they are conservatives and are pretty much all Republicans. And that’s a problem that Frank Rich examines in his Sunday New York Times column, where he says don’t blame it all on Arizona. Arizona just happened to be in the right place at the right time “to tilt over to the dark side.” And in fact, what we are seeing is just one more “symptom of a political virus that can’t be quarantined and whose cure is as yet unknown.”
Okay, it’s just a metaphor. But it makes sense:
If many of Arizona’s defenders and critics hold one belief in common, it’s that the new “show me your papers” law is sui generis: it’s seen as one angry border state’s response to its outsized share of America’s illegal immigration crisis. But to label this development “Arizona’s folly” trivializes its import and reach. The more you examine the law’s provisions and proponents, the more you realize that it’s the latest and (so far) most vicious battle in a far broader movement that is not just about illegal immigrants – and that is steadily increasing its annexation of one of America’s two major political parties.
That’s what Maher was trying to explain to George Will. This is not about conservatives and Republicans, per se. It’s about being overwhelmed by something else:
Arizonans, like all Americans, have every right to be furious about Washington’s protracted and bipartisan failure to address the immigration stalemate. To be angry about illegal immigration is hardly tantamount to being a bigot. But the Arizona law expressing that anger is bigoted, and in a very particular way. The law dovetails seamlessly with the national “Take Back America” crusade that has attended the rise of Barack Obama and the accelerating demographic shift our first African-American president represents.
The crowd that wants Latinos to show their papers if there’s a “reasonable suspicion” of illegality is often the same crowd still demanding that the president produce a document proving his own citizenship. Lest there be any doubt of that confluence, Rush Limbaugh hammered the point home after Obama criticized Arizona’s action. “I can understand Obama being touchy on the subject of producing your papers,” he said. “Maybe he’s afraid somebody’s going to ask him for his.” Or, as Glenn Beck chimed in about the president last week: “What has he said that sounds like American?”
This is about THE OTHER. We are not Canadians, and Rich documents that to the “Take Back America” right, the issue starts with Obama – he is illegitimate and the real illegal alien:
It’s no surprise that of the 35 members of the Arizona House who voted for the immigration law (the entire Republican caucus), 31 voted soon after for another new law that would require all presidential candidates to produce birth certificates to qualify for inclusion on the state’s 2012 ballot. With the whole country now watching Arizona that “Birther” bill was abruptly yanked Thursday.
Yes, the legislators who voted for both that and the immigration law were exclusively Republicans – proving Maher right of course, but this is not just happening in Arizona. Officials in at least 10 other states are now working on similar immigration legislation – in Ohio, Missouri, Maryland and Nebraska, and Rich notes that none of them are on the Department of Homeland Security’s 2009 list of the ten states that contain three-quarters of America’s illegal immigrant population. So this is about something else. And Rich says it might have been expected:
Outbreaks of nativist apoplexy are nothing new in American history. The last derailed George W. Bush’s apparently earnest effort to get a bipartisan immigration compromise through the Senate in 2007. At the time, the more egregious expressions of anti-immigrant rage – including Arizona’s self-appointed border-patrol militia, the Minutemen – were stigmatized as a fringe by the White House and much of the GOP establishment. John McCain, though facing a tough fight for the Republican presidential nomination, signed on to the Bush reform effort despite being slimed by those in his party’s base who accused him of supporting “amnesty.”
But that was then and this is now, and now we have the Tea Party movement:
This time McCain endorsed his state’s new immigration law as “a good tool” and “a very important step forward,” and propagandized in favor of it with his widely ridiculed televised canard that illegal immigrants were “intentionally causing accidents on the freeway.” McCain, like other mainstream conservative Republicans facing primaries this year, is now fighting for his political life against a Tea Party-supported radical. His opponent, the former congressman and radio shock jock J. D. Hayworth, is an unabashed Birther who frames the immigration debate as an opportunity to “stand up for our culture,” presumably against all immigrants, legal and illegal alike. In this political climate, he could well win.
And it’s easy to remember the guy with the big pickup truck screaming at the Pakistani clerk at the gas station. He was standing up for our culture. That sort of thing can make you miss Canada.
But Rich does cut McCain some slack here:
He is far from alone in cowering before his party’s extremists. Neither Mitch McConnell, John Boehner nor Eric Cantor dared say a word against Arizona’s law. Mitt Romney, who was mocked during the 2008 campaign for having employed undocumented Guatemalan immigrants as landscapers on his Massachusetts estate, tried to deflect the issue by vacillating (as usual). So did Mike Huckabee, who told The Dallas Morning News last week that “it’s not my place to agree or disagree” with what happened in Arizona. If it’s not the place of a talk-show host and prospective presidential candidate to take a stand on an issue of this moment, whose place is it? There are few profiles in courage among the leaders in this GOP – only a lot of guys hiding under their desks.
Only the Bush circle has the balls, or the political good sense, to speak up:
Jeb Bush, the former speechwriter Michael Gerson, the Homeland Security secretary Tom Ridge, the adviser Mark McKinnon and, with somewhat more equivocal language, Karl Rove. McKinnon and Rove know well that Latino-bashing will ultimately prove political suicide in a century when Hispanic Americans are well on their way to becoming the largest minority in the country and are already the swing voters in many critical states.
But, oddly, that doesn’t matter now:
The former president is nearly as reviled in some Tea Party circles as Obama is. Even conservatives as seemingly above reproach as Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina now invite the nastiest of blow-back if they fail Tea Party purity tests. When Graham had the gall to work with Chuck Schumer of New York on an immigration reform bill, the hard-line Americans for Legal Immigration punished him by spreading rumors about his private life as loudly as possible. Graham has been backing away from supporting the immigration bill ever since.
Yep, they said Lindsey Graham was obviously gay. Why else would he work with Chuck Schumer on an immigration reform bill? That must be it.
It’s all a matter of defending the culture – the race, or each race in its proper place, and the sanctity of marriage, and the roles of man and woman as set forth by God. You can see the damage done in 1956, when we changed our national motto.
And, like the angry guy at the gas station – who he would say has nothing against Pakistanis but was just defending our culture – they say this is not what it seems, really:
The angry right and its apologists also keep insisting that race has nothing to do with their political passions. Thus Sarah Palin explained that it’s Obama and the “lamestream media” that are responsible for “perpetuating this myth that racial profiling is a part” of Arizona’s law. So how does that profiling work without race or ethnicity, exactly? Brian Bilbray, a Republican Congressman from California and another supporter of the law, rode to the rescue by suggesting “they will look at the kind of dress you wear.” Wise Latinas better start shopping at Talbots!
Of course that is quite nuts:
In this Alice in Wonderland inversion of reality, it’s politically incorrect to entertain a reasonable suspicion that race may be at least a factor in what drives an action like the Arizona immigration law. Any racism in America, it turns out, is directed at whites. Beck called Obama a “racist.” Newt Gingrich called Sonia Sotomayor a “Latina woman racist.” When Obama put up a routine YouTube video calling for the Democratic base to mobilize last week – which he defined as “young people, African-Americans, Latinos and women” – the Republican National Committee attacked him for playing the race card. Presumably the best defense is a good offense when you’re a party boasting an all-white membership in both the House and the Senate and represented by governors who omit slavery from their proclamations of Confederate History Month.
In a development that can only be described as startling, the GOP’s one visible black leader, the party chairman Michael Steele, went off message when appearing at DePaul University on April 20. He conceded that African-Americans “really don’t have a reason” to vote Republican, citing his party’s pursuit of a race-baiting “Southern strategy” since the Nixon-Agnew era. For this he was attacked by conservatives who denied there had ever been such a strategy.
Damn – it’s enough to make you want to sing a few choruses of Oh, Canada. But what the hell are they doing, being the Americans we were supposed to be, being all Jimmy Stewart to our Paris Hilton and Michele Bachmann and Glenn Beck?
Ah, but we have attitude. God help us.