Thursday, November 26, 2009

A View from the Faultline

I met a Birther! Here, in the San Francisco Bay Area. My small island town is a mix of people and, until 1997, was home port to one of the largest naval fleets in the Pacific. Many of those who worked on the naval base still live here. Nevertheless, I was surprised to find a real, live person who seriously believes that Barack Obama was born in Mombasa ...and that his presidency will last only one year.

I was the only person at the bus stop about 6:30 pm last night heading to San Francisco. A tall, elderly, casually dressed white man, pulling what looked like an up-market milk crate, joined me. (The milk crate has wheels and a long retractable handle like up-market luggage. Later he explained that this manly version of a purse goes everywhere with him.) It was too dark to read the schedule so I said, “If you're heading to San Francisco the bus is scheduled to arrive in nine minutes.” We chit-chatted as he shed a jacket and switched it for a lighter garment in the crate.

I like to talk to strangers. Often those who look threatening to others are friendly and voluble – at least for the duration of a bus stop or casual car pool ride.

This fellow, Gary, quickly told me he'd been a naval commander, that he and his wife lived on a yacht, that they owned another yacht as well as a condo in Sausalito. (Metamessage: we are financially independent, we choose to live this way.)

We agreed riding the bus is superior to driving a car: no tollbooth to squeeze through with a hundred thousand other vehicles, no need to find parking or dig around for coins to feed the parking meter. A bus allows me to see over the bridge safety rail and admire the beautiful bay.

But Gary wasn't interested in my point of view. I was a target at which to aim words. Once he zeroed in on me: “I detect an accent. British?” I told him “It's South African.” Gary knew South Africans, had dated a South African beauty queen in his youth, planned to visit Cape Town next year. Did I know the Sloan-Smiths who lived in Cape Town? Could I guess how old Gary is? He didn't wait for my response. “Can you believe I'm actually seventy? Most people think I'm fifty-five. ...I tried on a topee the other day. I'm not the sort to wear a topee but it looked good!”

En route Gary continued talking. I could barely hear him over the engine sounds but I was fascinated: When would his stream of (un)conscious verbal diarrhea end? (As a writer I thrive on such interactions.) He quickly skipped around the world: Australia – he'd dated an airline stewardess. Also dated a South African once; her name was Annakie. Philippines. Japan. Then Israel. “I was there during the '67 war. Great place. Also visited in the mid 70s. I ventured, “I was there then, just before Begin's era.” He said, “I've got a great book for you: “Netanyahu's A Lasting Peace. Excellent analysis. Give me your phone number and come have dinner with me and my wife.” Then, “I believe Barack Hussein Obama was not born in the United States. He'll soon be found out. His presidency won't last long. I give him a year....I predict the Democratic Congress is trounced at the next election and the country throws out Barack Hussein Obama. McCain should be president.”
“You'd like Sarah Palin as VP?”

“Yes. She's smart as a whip...gets bad press because she's a small town girl. Now, Michele Bachman, there's a real candidate. Beautiful. Smart. Forceful.”
Bachman is the Republican Representative of Minnesota's 6th district who tried to set up a Charter school that taught classes on Creationism. As a school board member she advocated the '12 Christian principles' – a version of the 10 commandments. And she refused to allow the in-school screening of Disney's Aladdin, claiming it endorsed witchcraft and promoted paganism. She and Sarah Palin are peas in a pod; they're also beginning to stump together.

My flagging interest in Gary reawakens. Here is a man, by all outward signs, affluent, white, worldly, healthy, and sociable who lives in a cosmopolitan conurbation and maintains a worldview that is at odds with the reality around him. How does he do it?

I don't hold with the point of view that, “those folks are just nut-jobs” that can or ought to be dismissed. On the contrary, people like me – with progressive ideals and as much love of country and planet as someone like Gary – need to understand Gary's worldview.

As he talked I noticed the feelings our interaction evoked in me: annoyance, fear, a desire to flee, and curiosity mixed with repulsion. Also, determination to stick with it. People holding my worldview need to, must, remain in “conversation” with people holding Gary's worldview. Despite personal discomfort, progressives must make the effort to engage these worldviews and coax them into the light for real examination. It 's a difficult experience to endure yet it is at the heart of changing hearts and minds.

Try it. Let me know how you do with it.

1 comment:

Jae said...

I work for a Republican who owns an Alternative Energy company. He is a mysogenist on top of this.

I forgive his ignorance and he seems to forgive mine.

But then again, he tends to speak ill of people when they are not present, so who knows?

For the most part, I agree with the idea that conservatism is a mental illness:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2003/aug/13/usa.redbox

My apologies for not knowing how to make the above a 'working' link....