Depending on how you look at it, I’ve been away from home for either forty-five years or seventy-five days. The home I’ve been away from for so long is Nashville, Tennessee. The short-term absence is from the United States of America.
|The Colossus of Rhodes, as imagined in a |
16th-century engraving by Martin Heemskerck
In Nashville I was raised in privilege. I was a doctor’s son, a country-club brat and an all-boys prep schooler oblivious to the pervasive wickedness of Jim Crow. The black people I knew were caddies and cooks. They were all nice to me. I thought it was because they liked me.
By the time I finished law school and moved to Los Angeles my eyes had opened to racial discrimination, so that when I left, I was fleeing not only it but my own shame that my life had condoned it.
I returned to Nashville many times over the years, once even to live for a few years, but I was always a visitor. It wasn’t my home, and I didn’t want it to be.
I live in Palo Alto now, and have been in California most of my adult life. California has always seemed like a dream to me, an island of lost children. There are dark fissures, but sunshine and surf and vineyards are diverting. Of course I’ve learned gradually, almost reluctantly, that we in California have our own Jim Crow tendencies, with Hispanics playing the role of blacks, picking strawberries instead of cotton.
Like the African American caddies and cooks of my boyhood, my gardener and my children’s nanny seemed to like me. I know Sonia loves my sons.
I was shocked when California passed Proposition 187 to deny welfare benefits to illegal immigrants. It was overturned in court, but our ugly side had shown itself. Then we passed Proposition 8, banning gay marriage; and again the courts gave us a second chance. It has taken me a while to accept that California has bigots, just like the South.
California’s response to its own ugly instincts has been more hopeful than that of Southerners in the fifties and sixties to the elevation of blacks to full citizenship, at least in the eyes of the law. Not as much anger and hatred. Gradually we have accepted and embraced our large Hispanic population, even those who arrived illegally. We give undocumented residents driver licenses and welcome their children into our universities as residents.
California is investing in its immigrants. Not only because it is the moral thing to do, but because they are our future. Hispanics now outnumber whites in the state.
And these investments are paying off. Our economy is strong, we are innovating, and we have budget surpluses. Whereas the economies in states like Kansas, which have refused medicaid expansion, cut taxes on the rich and slashed social service spending, are struggling.
California is not perfect, but to me it is a model for how diverse people can come together in tolerance and mutually supportive enterprise for the benefit of all.
Which brings me to that other, shorter time away from home. I’ve been traveling in Europe for two months. You can’t go to Europe with your eyes open and not be struck by mankind’s ancient need to build walls and moats to protect itself from the onslaught of the other.
Once again Europe is dealing with a surge of refugees, most of whom just want to be safe, but a few of whom are dangerous. When I visit Europe, I feel like a history student on a field trip. The beauty, banality and bestiality of mankind over the centuries is laid out in palaces, cafes and fortresses.
America is a young country, and I was young when the walls of segregation were being torn down by the Supreme Court in the fifties and Congress in the sixties. The fact that the popular legislative will followed, almost obediently it seemed, the moral dictates of the courts made it seem to me that freedom and fairness and equal opportunity were bright suns burning away old mists.
Now, at least at the Republican convention, those suns have set again, and the dark mist is creeping back in. I want to scream the way I did as a boy when a hapless fool in a Wolfman movie walked walked into a London fog: “No, don’t go there!”
Donald Trump has put on the tyrant’s epaulets. Only he, he says, can save us from the horror of dark-skinned people who want to kill us and rape our women. His harangues would be laughable, like a Saturday-Night-Live parody of a banana-republic thug with ridiculous hair, except that people are listening. Not just a few people. Enough that he is tied in some polls in the race for the presidency.
I did not think this was possible. I thought we had put our white robes and hoods and burning crosses in museums and taken our own pledge of “Never Again.”
But I was wrong. And now I feel vaguely sick to be going back to America. Sick with apprehension and dread. Sick that my country could ignite in its own Holocaust.
My physical home is California, but my existential home is America. From a political and social standpoint California is a fair proxy for the way I might hope the country will go as it moves forward on its journey toward greater inclusiveness and equality of opportunity.
Donald Trump stands across that path like the giant Colossus he would have us believe he is, created in the image of Helios, god of the Sun. The ancient Colossus of Rhodes was erected to celebrate a great victory against invaders. That is Trump’s call to us. Repel those who would destroy you.
He is right in his prescription, but he has singled out the wrong threat. It is he who must be repelled. It is he who would destroy the very idea of America. It is he who would leave us no better off than all those European hill towns with crumbling walls that could not hold back the inexorable progress of man out of the darkness of bigotry and hatred.