They're waving American flags in Murrieta, California. They're taking a bold stand, blocking busses bringing women and children who have crossed into the country illegally but now just need shelter while we decide whether to send them back to the terrible conditions they fled. The Murrieta flag-waver's angry faces are mirrors across half a century of the faces twisted by hatred in the crowd in Little Rock, Arkansas taunting black high-school students trying to be the first to attend a white school there. I was not proud to be a Southerner that day, and I am not proud to be a Californian today.
There is something about national flags that scares me. Meg and I were just in Paris for a month. She has a book coming out about the liberation of Paris in WWII, and we went to museums and looked at a lot of old photos of the Nazi flag draped over the buildings of Paris. Even now, so many years later, those images terrify me. They capture what we are capable of in the name of nationalism. They symbolize intolerance and oppression. They symbolize the notion that one people are superior to another.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." That is the lofty ideal upon which our nation was founded. We have stumbled in fulfilling that promise. We fought a terrible Civil War over it. It took us another century to give blacks anything like equal rights under the law. And now we are struggling with what to do with what amounts to our second big influx of cheap labor. African slaves in the first wave, Hispanic crop workers in the second. We like the work people of color do for us, but it seems that many don't like the people themselves so well.
I understand xenophobia. I understand its roots in our cave-dwelling past. But understanding is not the same as liking. Or respecting. I grew up in the South in the middle of the civil rights movement. Naively, I thought that great struggle, which culminated in the Voting Rights Act, was behind us. That we were moving toward more tolerance, more inclusiveness. When I moved to California, instead of blacks, the minority that did all the hard work was Hispanic. My gardener was Hispanic. My children's nanny was Hispanic. She and her family are dear friends now. California is the Golden State. It's not the bigoted south. Except in Murrieta.
I know better than to believe that everyone will like everyone, or even tolerate everyone. I think we're making progress in learning to get along together, to accept one another, to understand that we all share a common humanity that has at its core a desire for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I don't want to try to tell people how open-minded they must be. They have to find their own way to that. A mind cannot be forced open.
But I do want us to stop waving the flag. I don't want to see it in front of immigration busses. I don't want to see it at libertarian rallies. I don't want to see it at gun shows. I don't even want to see it in politicians' lapels. I don't want to see the easy demagoguery of draping it over bigotry and intolerance. That's not what we fought for when we first raised it. That's not what makes us proud of it today as we celebrate the birth, if not the complete maturation, of our way of living together here in America.