Diversity- an American Childhood

I grew up in Rogers Park, Chicago in the 60s and 70s. My childhood was post-civil-rights movement and pre-multiculturalism. My parents’ generation had labels for the neighbourhood. The west side of Rogers Park was still ‘predominately Jewish’ and therefore white. The east side, where we lived was ‘changing.’ In East Rogers Park, there still were many Jewish families, some Russian, others German. Other groupings to describe the east side weren’t based on religion, but on the countries their parents and grandparents came from. We had the Italians, the Irish, the Poles and the Puerto Ricans. Sprinkled among these were some Chinese and African-Americans (we used the word ‘blacks’).

If you had asked me when I was living there, how I would describe my neighbourhood, I wouldn’t have used any of these labels. I would have said that it was a ‘cool’ neighbourhood because it had a lot of movie theatres, public parks and shops and restaurants. I would have also mentioned that it was a mix of three-storey apartment buildings and red-brick houses and that it ran along the lake front. I would have located this neighbourhood in terms of its train stations, the elevated line that runs from Loyola to Howard Street.

This isn’t to say that I was unaware of religious and ethnic divides or the prejudices that come with it. The grandparents of a couple of my school friends still had numbers tattooed on their arms from the Nazi concentrations camps. And there were plenty of jokes – the Italian, the Irishman and the Pole go into a bar… At high school, students segregated themselves in the cafeteria with blacks and Puerto Ricans having their own tables, while the whites were mixed in together. In my memory, at the white tables we didn’t make disparaging or racist remarks about kids at the other tables – that would have been ‘uncool’ and ‘racist’ – words no one wanted to be called. And ‘immigration’ was never a topic. Back in ouchicago-2011-001-2r classes and more importantly on our sports teams and clubs, students from different backgrounds played, worked and joked together.

I don’t wish to turn back the clock to my childhood in the ‘changing’ neighbourhood as it came with its own problems – among them, the tensions between the generations on issues of race and ethnicity. I know America has changed since then. To what extent is hard to say, living in Europe as I do. The current wave of fascism in Trump’s America was introduced through democratically-held elections, while at the same time it’s being fought both in the media and on the streets by what appears to be a majority. Perhaps America is ever-changing and perhaps that comes with democracy. I am worried that it’s becoming, to use a word from my youth, uncool.

Facticide

I would have published this sooner if there hadn’t been for so many journalists beating me to the goalposts. I write this knowing I risk being just another voice waxing on angrily about the prevalence of lies that have produced the vote in Britain to leave the EU and Donald Trump’s presidential victory. Since most intelligent people are familiar with these lies, I won’t even start by listing the more outrageous or popular ones.

I’ll start with language. The word post-truth has gained currency in recent weeks. While it encapsulates the idea that we are beyond truths or are willing to ignore truths, I think it is far too gentle. Post-truth rings too much like postmodernism, poststructuralism or post-realism. I prefer facticide. This word more aptly suggests a killing of truths.

Of course, truth is a slippery concept. When we think of truths, we think of facts, those things that can be evidenced or scientifically tested. We all know how evidence and testing can be interpreted in different ways. And some truths can change over time. For instance, the BBC quiz programme QI, known for its thorough and accurate research, once acknowledged that many of its ‘correct answers’ of the not too distant past were no longer true or correct because new information and scientific research changed the so-called facts.

And then there’s factoids, untrue or unreliable ideas that have been reported trumpbsand repeated so often, they are taken as fact. The word itself, apparently first coined by writer Norman Mailer, takes its ‘oid’ suffix form the Greek word for appearance or form. This definition has been expanded and according to a few online dictionaries, a factoid is also a small or trivial fact. In this newer definition lies another danger – factoids are no longer half-baked truths, they’re just mini-truths.

These are some of the subtle ways that truths can be tampered with. In recent months, the world has witnessed the more blatant attacks on facts, expertise and truths. But what has been more worrying are the falsehoods that are standing in their place. I know this is nothing new. Back in the fifth century BCE, Sophocles said, “What people believe prevails over truth.” It the time between then and our present day, many philosophers, artists and writers have made similar comments. But I’m more aware and fearful of this tendency now. The believed falsehoods of the Brexit and Trump campaigns, and their ilk in other parts of the world, are full of isolationism, nationalism and hate. I cannot see what good could possibly come from this.

American Patriotism and Me

A few days after the terrorists’ attack on the World Trade Center, I received a chain email that read ‘All Americans wear RED, WHITE and BLUE today.’ The email told its readers to pass this message on to ‘ten other Americans.’ In other words, members of the same club. It concluded with ‘Let’s unite against terrorists. GOD BLESS AMERICA.’ I coiled up in my revulsion and wondered if there were any way I could take the ‘dual’ out of my dual citizenship, cut my elongated vowels and just be British. I then braced myself for a round of nauseating American patriotism.

Over the years, I’ve run into non-Americans who assume that if someone is American, they are by definition patriotic. Not true. There’s something about American patriotism that has always gotten under my skin. Having spent most of my adult life outside of the US, I’ve clung to only a portion of my youth – the  unpatriotic portion. I was growing up when the Vietnam war and television characters like Archie Bunker made patriotism look foolhardy and ‘uncool.’ Certainly, other Americans grew up at this time – this awkward border between baby boomers and x-ers – but many of them seemed to have shaken off this brief trend of embarrassment at being American, this blip in American history.

Of course, my contemporaries were helped back into patriotism by the usual culprits, the US media and public relations firms. I recall in 1979 when Americans were being held hostage in Iran, marketers had discovered that patriotism could sell. Then, it was through advertising that ideas and trends gained their currency in America. The Pepsi ads that ran during the Iran-hostage crisis had pop stars singing about Pepsi as being ‘the American way’ while dancing in a sea of red, white and blue. Now, of course, this fervour is drummed up largely on social media.

Most of this patriotism has been harmless, but it does have an ugly side. I first experienced this nearly 30 years ago. I found myself in the States in 1990 just as the first Gulf War was starting. I strongly opposed US involvement and felt that the escapade was a set up to use the stockpile of arms left by President Reagan and to help his successor G.H. Bush overcome his image as a wimp. One morning, I stopped by my local convenience store in Boston to pick up a newspaper. When I was handed my change, the cashier held out a little foot-high American flag and said, ‘Here, Ma’am.’ The last thing I wanted was an American flag. What was I going to do with it? Wave it around like a cheerleader, promoting a country I was embarrassed to be from at a time when it was policing the world to the resentment of millions? Being polite, I simply said, ‘No thank you.’ I saw her mouth hang open and her eyes roll in disgust as I turned away to walk towards the door. I heard the cashier spit out the word, ‘Bitch.’ I knew it was meant for me, but I pretended that it was for someone else or that I hadn’t heard it. This stranger’s hostility shook me to the core.

Since then when the topic of American patriotism came up and someone would comment about my lack of it, I would give them one of two responses. One – I would remind them of Samuel Johnson, who once called patriotism ‘the last refuge of a scoundrel.’ Or two – I would confess to experiencing patriotic moments, such as when the American hockey team beat the Canadians at the winter Olympics or when Obama give his acceptance speech in Chicago on the night of his first presidential election. Honestly, goosebumps.

Flash forward to 2016. Donald Trump is running for president and he is gaining support. And this is not a joke. The people who support him are mostly the flag-waving, intensely patriotic Americans who seem to be the stuff of satire. Supporters of Trump’s opponents will wave flags at rallies, but are otherwise more subdued in their patriotism.

Throughout this presidential campaign, Trump spewed out racist, intolerant and misogynistic attacks – and gained patriotic supporters. Now here’s the strange thing – given my history with American patriotism, you would expect me to roll my eyes, get angry at the television and computer screen and feel even more alienated from American patriotism than ever. But that didn’t happen. Trump has injected poison into America. He’s ruining it.  In doing so, he has reminded me of the many good things America stands for – even if it doesn’t always get it right. Things like liberalism and democracy. Like many Americans, I find myself feeling protective and perhaps even patriotic over the country of my birth. Perhaps I have finally fallen into the grips of patriotism – the kind of patriotism that happens at a time of war when you don’t want to see your country destroyed. But, frightfully, in this war, the enemy is within.