Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Wolf at the Door

Demonizing has become a popular habit in American political chatter. Just try to count the Nazi references to candidates of every stripe over the past eight years.

Remember “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” the Aesop’s fable that our parents read to us, as children?

With the 24/7 news cycle this year, it seems we have entered the landscape of that story and forgotten its moral. Otherwise, why do we run like sheep before the Wolf’s specter every time the Boy yells?

The Wolf wears many disguises. He’s the terrorist in a bomb vest or the unhinged loner with a grudge, firing guns randomly, mowing down pedestrians in a truck. He’s a black president to people who harbor racist fears, or a woman president to men who find that alarming. He’s a gay married couple, or a transgender uncle become aunt. He’s the idea that our guns, the last bit of power we can hold in our hands, will be taken away.

He’s the people who call America weak and powerless or who call on us to welcome refugees from the wars we’ve been fighting since 2001.

All of a sudden everything around us is complicated. Everything around us needs work to understand. Nothing feels familiar.

Would we like some simplicity? Would we like someone to show us a clear path toward the decisions we have to make?

Oh, my, yes.

And the Boy will be happy to comply. Or you could think of him as the Master of Wolves. The wolfmeister.

He takes good care of his wolves. Feeds them just enough fresh meat, but not too much. He wants ’em hungry when he points them at us. He doesn’t even have to think about it. In some ways the wolves tell him where they’d like to go.

And it seems to work because we are so afraid of people who look different. Whose culture feels different, particularly as ours seems to spin out of control.

Fear of differences is hard-wired in us. The German word is √úberfremdung. The more familiar word to me is xenophobia, fear of the foreigner.

We think of Muslims, in particular, as different, and threatening. We have one image, encountered in the news, in our films and television shows, and that image for Muslims is “terrorist.”

It can’t possibly be accurate. Islam has more sects than Protestant Christianity. It marries those sects, over centuries, with tribal and even familial differences. Layered on top of that is the legacy of European colonialism.

But now we have an alternate image to consider.

The appearance of Khizir Khan at the Democratic Convention and on a host of follow-up news programs showed why.

Here is a bereaved American father, a Muslim whose son, an Army officer, died a decorated (Bronze Star, Purple Heart) hero in Iraq. Here is a dignified gentleman whose stirring words of love for our country provide American Muslims, at last, with a recognizable face and voice. He pulled our Constitution out of his jacket pocket. He seems to know its contents by heart. Do we? I haven’t even read it since college.  

His wife and he sit across from a network anchor and remind us that there are many good, innocent Muslims who long to come here because of what we stand for—freedom and opportunity. They say this although it was people of their own faith who blew up their son. Their handsome son who joined the Army to pay for law school.

It is easy to disparage, dismiss and fear abstractions. Harder when they are people who look you in the eye and show you their hearts. Even with a camera in between.

That, like so many of the differences between us—race, class, religion, city-born or country-raised—melt away on the personal level. Do you know any Muslims? I’ve known a couple, slightly. Do you have African-American or Latino friends—who are not your employees?

My grandparents were late 19th century immigrants, from Germany and France, respectively. The moment America went to war with Kaiser Wilhelm in WW I, my grandfather Diehl became The Other, although he was a citizen and a veteran. He was called names. His business shriveled and closed. Occasional bricks were thrown by stupid people. My grandmother gave French lessons to support the family.

Xenophobia is not new. Neither is scapegoating a group when one’s own world begins to look shaky. Ask a Jew. Ask any of the Japanese-Americans you happen to know. At least my grandfather wasn’t incarcerated or deported.

The Boy in this story, the wolfmeister, is a good salesman. Like other good salesmen he knows how to push our buttons.

The advertising business prefers the buttons of sex appeal and dreams for a better life.
The wolfmeister prefers fear.

This post appeared as my August column in the Fayette County Record.

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