Home of the Paranoid, and Land of the Constrained



We have a Thanksgiving tradition of inviting friends who can’t make it home for Turkey Day to share a meal with us at our house. When he was in graduate school studying linguistics, our younger son Ned invited colleagues whose families live abroad, and, of course, their presence made the holiday more interesting for us, and it provided them with an anthropological peek into some of our American cultural peculiarities, for example, grown men whooping and hollering and dancing around a table to celebrate a game winning interception. Nonjudgmentally, our foreign guests tolerated these absurdities with good humor.

Two years ago Ned brought with him a young woman from Syria. In pursuit of a PhD in linguistics, our guest Manar found herself cut off from her homeland, unable to return to see her parents and siblings, professional people trapped in a maelstrom not of their own making. I could only imagine the anxiety she must have suffered knowing her loved ones were trapped in a civil war in a world where bombs rain down on civilians as well as military targets. How hard it must be to concentrate on your studies when you’re bracing yourself for bad news at any moment.

Yet, except for one point when she wept in front of my wife Judy Birdsong and another female guest, Manar was vivacious, outspoken, generous, and open-minded. Indeed, she’s much more open-minded than many of the xenophobic Facebook feeds I’ve seen in the days following the Paris massacre.

Of course, we can attribute much of these paradoxically un-American outbursts to fear and ignorance. Certainly, these xenophobes don’t realize that the Syrians slated to emigrate to the United States consist of families who have been thoroughly vetted, who have undergone extensive background tests conducted by various agencies and who undergo one-on-one interviews, the entire process taking 24 months according to the State Department.

Certainly, my neighbors writing to Nikki Haley demanding that no Syrians enter Dylan Roof’s home state don’t realize that only 2% of the Syrian refugees are military-aged single males. Forty percent are children, and twenty-five percent senior citizens. Less understandable is that many governors have declared they’ll be no Syrians moving into their states, even though governors lack the power to enforce such an edict. If they possessed that power, I suspect we’d have fewer Ohioans settling in the Palmetto State.

C’mon, Nikki, this isn’t the old Soviet Union where a traveller needed a visa to visit individual republics. Thank goodness, our vehicles aren’t stopped and searched at the North Carolina border when we head to Asheville. I thought we were the home of the brave and the land of the free, not the home of the paranoid and land of the constrained.

What really depresses me, though, are presidential candidates suggesting we close our national borders to Syrians, or more, liberally, to limit admission to only Christians. (Agnostics and Buddhists need not apply). Just today, Jeb Bush blamed President Obama for “creating a quagmire in Iraq” a remarkable act of chutzpah considering it was his brother (and enablers like Hillary Clinton) who created the mess in the first place by scapegoating Saddam Hussein for 9/11 and destabilizing the region by misjudging the Iraqis’ desire for freedom and democracy’s potency in a region unfamiliar with the concept. People on Facebook are actually blaming Obama for the Paris carnage. One of my Facebook friends cited Reagan as a model for the type of leader we need to fight terrorism — never mind that after 241 military personnel were killed in Beirut in 1983 when terrorists blew up their barracks, Reagan removed our soldiers from Lebanon and never launched a retaliatory attack.

Meanwhile, for the sake of making political hay, Cruz, an immigrant, has introduced a bill banning Syrians. Rubio, another immigrant, is also against thoroughly vetted families seeking to escape a repressive regime to start a new life.

Of course, all of this Islam-bashing delights ISIS. Certainly, our stigmatizing all Muslims as terrorists paints us in a bad light with the vast majority of law-abiding moderate Arabs. What would make ISIS even happier is if the West sent ground troops into the region, which is a prerequisite to their theory of the Apocalypse. However, you never hear hawks like Lindsey Graham talk about how we could finance such a massively expensive endeavor. Maybe the Koch brothers might be willing to underwrite it?

Coincidentally, I’m teaching To Kill a Mockingbird now, and today, we dropped in on the lily-white Christian ladies of Maycomb at Aunt Alexandra’s tea party, a get-together orchestrated to help the horrid living conditions of an African tribe. The irony is a bit heavy handed – innocent Tom Robinson has recently been convicted of rape and sentenced to death by an all-white jury – but I beginning to doubt our ability to appreciate irony, much less subtlety.