I was in a small Seacoast shop last month when I came across President Obama’s book, “Dreams From My Father.” I asked the owner — how much?
“Obama!” he replied, scornfully. “I didn’t even know I had that book. No price. Just get it out of here so I don’t have to look at him.”
I left with my treasure, knowing that that would be the last time I crossed his threshold.
It’s hard to write today. It is hard to speak what no one is saying but I keep hearing this truth: Our president, and his hopes and challenges, with ours, is being compromised by racism and bigotry. The awful irony of writing this column is that by confronting racism one opens oneself to charges of being racist. I would welcome being wrong.
I was reminded of my bookstore encounter when the image of Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, up close and personal pointing her finger in the face of our president, filled American airwaves.
In the long hours of my memory, in the worst days of the Cold War, in the troubled days of American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, with the questions of their legitimacy and legality, I cannot remember anyone who moved into the personal spaces of our presidents and treated them with the disrespect that Jan Brewer and her fellow travelers have directed toward our president.
In Atlanta, Andrew Adler, editor and publisher of the Jewish Times, suggested the assassination of President Obama was one of three options Israel had in order to deter a nuclear Iran. He wrote, —¦give the go-ahead for U.S.-based Mossad agents to take out a president deemed unfriendly to Israel in order for the current vice president to take his place…;” While Adler has apologized, imagine what it takes to think it is permissible to say that about your president.
The biggest offender is Newt Gingrich, a man who can’t speak the words “President” and “Obama” together. Gingrich is using all the code words and stereotypes he can use to disenfranchise Obama and his supporters, using language calculated to stir up the deepest prejudices in the nation’s darkest corners.
He knows more people probably know President Obama’s middle name than they do that of any other president. Perhaps it’s appropriate that Gingrich’s words would resonate in South Carolina, home of Fort Sumter and Strom Thurmond, where skin color, unfortunately, still defines racial faults within communities.
When black journalist Juan Williams asked the former speaker if his comments about blacks and food stamps were —¦at a minimum insulting,” Gingrich, referring to him as “Juan,” was scornful. Gingrich got a rousing response and one South Carolinian woman congratulated Gingrich “for putting Mr. Juan Williams in his place.”
Everyone knows Gingrich’s calls for school children to be used as school janitors so they will learn a work ethic is not directed at the student body in New Trier, Ill., Darien Conn., or Exeter, N.H. His audience knows exactly whom he is talking about. His references to President Obama as a welfare president is deliberate. Obama is one of them, not one of us.
On “Meet the Press,” Gingrich claimed Obama is a Saul Alinsky radical who —¦wasn’t organizing boys and girls clubs. He was teaching political radicalism.”
Saul Alinsky. Strange name. Foreign. Obama equals Alinsky. Foreign. One of them.
Mike Huckabee kept alive the long discredited meme of Obama being both foreign and unqualified to be our president by advising Mitt Romney: “Let (Romney) make this challenge: ‘I’ll release my tax returns when Barack Obama releases his college transcripts and the copy of his admission records to show whether he got any loans as a foreign student…;'”
Illegitimate. One of them.
Today we don’t hear the n****r word and the b*y word. In the brave new world of race-conscious politics there are so many other ways to project bigotry.
“I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library,” wrote Jorge Luis Borges. I agree, whether it is in books that line my shelves, or words yet unwritten that tumble through my consciousness faster than I can type, or whether it is in the encounters that suspend me between memory and desire, that nourish me and drive me to desire more.
Can we sustain such desires and passion for justice? Can a community embrace a passion for beauty? Saul Bellow wrote, “I’m a sucker for beauty, and it’s so destructive.” It doesn’t have to be.
Courage. The dispossessed need us to embrace them. Resist the language of separation. Erase lines of class, color, religion and ethnicity that become a dark, barbed-wire tangle through which we stumble, trying to find the path to the light.
Beauty is fragile. Fight for it.
It’s a losing battle, I often fear, this new battle of mine to give image in words and photos to our presence, to God’s presence, on Earth. Expressions of love and harmony alone don’t repel hatred and ignorance. Work does. We dance together, all of us, in this strange, estranged, dystopian world that we inhabit, trying to crawl through the wire. Doing it alone is fruitless. If you cut the wrong wire at the wrong time it could cause unintended harm.
To sustain our humanity, we must do it together, as when a British and a German soldier courageously share wire cutters to free “War Horse” from the tangled horror of the Second Battle of the Somme. That’s the only path forward.
It’s a gift, our being here. Nourish it, and keep the wire-cutters handy.