Sunday, February 7, 2021

The Last Days of the Old White Guy

I seldom dream about politicians but I dreamed of Donald Trump on half a dozen occasions. Each time, the former president occupied an uneasy place in my subconscious reserved for the school bully or the corrosive boss. My life has been mercifully free of these dreams since January 20. It’s good to feel America slipping back to dull normal, even if those who run the media companies may be tugging out the last of their hair every morning. Although this seems like the America of old, it’s really not. Everything is the same but nothing is the same.

Last month’s inauguration was a familiar kind of ceremony on the face of it; one old white guy took over from another.

Old white guys have been running the United States since 1789, with the notable exception of Barack Obama. One of them, William Henry Harrison, was so decrepit, he died from a cold he caught during his long-winded inauguration speech.

Notwithstanding appearances, I have no illusions about the inauguration of Joe Biden. Although Biden, at the age of 78, is the oldest white guy to run the country, there are plenty of reasons to believe the age of the old white guy is coming to an end. I should mourn this as a (soon to be) old white guy, but I’m not going to stock up on guns any time soon.

The last four years have left the nation suffering from collective PTSD. The historians will surely see the era of Trump as the time the white guy transformed into something more sinister, or at least shed his fancy clothes to reveal a hideous body scared with the tattoos of hate. While Trump was shaped by his many demons and a loveless childhood he was also an embodiment of a terrible past that few of us wanted to talk about - at least until 2020.

We know 2020 will be remembered for many things, very few of them good. For me, 2020 was the year I felt ashamed to be white. Although 2020 will always be the year of COVID, the ugly face of 2020 was that of a white police officer kneeling on a black man’s neck and squeezing the life out of him.

Those who questioned the toppling of Confederate monuments in the wake of the death of George Floyd were once again concealing the big picture. Yet it was present at the inauguration in the words of its star, the poet Amanda Gorman.

In the poem,The Hill We Climb Gorman referred to her history.

“We the successors of a country and a time

Where a skinny Black girl

Descended from slaves and raised by a single mother

Can dream of becoming president 

Only to find herself reciting for one.”

Gorman finished writing her poem as the dust was settling from the invasion of the Capitol on Jan 6. A mob of mostly aging and angry white men had stormed the inner sanctum of government. Some paraded the Confederate flag. One of them wore a Camp Auschwitz T-shirt.

If 2020 failed to make us ashamed to be white, it should have.

As someone who grew up in Britain, I am still taken aback by the bitterness of the racial divide in America. Although racism is sadly alive and kicking in Britain just as it is in France and Germany, the British find it difficult to comprehend the horrors of lynching, the Clan, and all the paraphernalia of hatred and segregation that continued in the American south for so many years after the Civil War. We grew up watching the ugly apartheid-filled headlines from South Africa every night, oblivious to the fact our colonial past had helped create them. The journalist Gary Younge summed it up in a recent interview when he suggested the British were shielded from American style racial conflict because the worst excesses took place thousands of miles away in the colonies.

Whatever the explanation, it is surely time to break from the past and embrace the era of reality. I grew up in a world fashioned by old white guys and caucasian privilege. In those days, the heroes in the movies were always white. Cowboys like John Wayne were the good guys and the Indians were savages. Huggy Bear was a bit-part player to Starsky and Hutch. Black and Asian people were casually demeaned in TV comedies and minstrel shows were passed off as acceptable viewing. 

We shouldn’t be surprised that the entitlement of white people has got us to where we are today. There is nothing new about Donald Trump. He is J.R Ewing, the ruthless oil baron in the soap opera Dallas, minus street smarts.

I know many white people who argue the past is the past. Black people should stop harking on about it. Everything is OK now. They had a Black President and now they have a Black Vice President. Why are Black people so angry?

I tell people the past isn’t an obscure treaty. It’s not a one-off event when rebels threw tea into the water. The past is the wholesale ownership of one race by another due to the color of their skin. I can’t ever put myself in the position of the formerly owned but I’d be angry too.

Still, the white apologists persist. How ridiculous that they, want to pull down the statues of Christopher Columbus. Where will it all stop?

The Columbus question gave me a chilling reality check. As a kid I was taught about the Age of Exploration, of the daring voyages west, and how Columbus proved the flat earth people wrong. I was wooed by the idea of happy adventures against the odds. Instinctively we took his side against the uninitiated.

Finding out about the real Columbus left me uneasy at the lies they fed me. It’s like realizing your favorite uncle was actually a guard at the Auschwitz gas chambers. Columbus, states Vox, was a “homicidal tyrant who initiated the two greatest crimes in the history of the Western Hemisphere, the Atlantic slave trade, and the American Indian genocide.”

Columbus forced the Indians of the Caribbean to collect gold or die. The Indians destroyed their stash of bread, ate poisoned roots, and jumped off the cliffs to escape Spanish rule. The island of Hispaniola had 300,000 inhabitants in 1492. By 1548 disease brought by the Europeans and the genocide had reduced that number to about 500.

America still celebrates Columbus Day.  We don’t celebrate Hitler Day or Pol Pot Day.

Still, these double standards are difficult to put in perspective because where do you stop? Columbus, a no brainer, but Jefferson and Washington? Both were slave owners but they also set us on the road to freedom.

We ignore the big picture because, quite frankly, it’s too big, frightening, and hideous.

Today, I teach the kids who are America’s future. The school division had a prepared response to the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol in case students asked. Nobody did. During a previous lesson, they surprised me by having little knowledge of the events of 9/11. 

The new America is being forged virtually on tiny devices by animated figures who duck imaginary bombs and missiles. The new generation is learning to keep its head down in dimly lit bedrooms. I put the big picture to one side and teach the rules of comma use.


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