Some of my best friends are bigots.
November 21, 2016 § Leave a comment
Perhaps it is because my prejudices have not eroded as much as I would like to think but occasionally I have to acknowledge that deep inside me lurks a soft spot for bigots. That bit of me tends to surface when someone stands on the moral high ground and de-contextualises the views of others by dismissing them as bigotry. So it was with Hillary Clinton when she put half of Trump’s supporters into a “basket of deplorables.” During the course of a vicious election my admiration of Clinton grew by the week. In the face of monstrous attacks from Trump she stayed calm, displayed enormous character and demonstrated that she was indeed one of the best qualified candidates to have ever stood for the presidency of the United States, yet her deplorable quote made me cringe. So it was a few years ago when the British Prime Minister Gordon Brown (again someone I selectively admired) was caught on open mike dismissing a middle aged woman who asked about immigration as a bigoted woman. When I heard that I couldn’t help thinking: “Steady on Gordon, that’s my mum you’re talking about!”
So perhaps my prejudices haven’t eroded as much as I’d like but then given my childhood, they did start out rather Himalayan. I guess many of us baby-boomers had similar upbringings. I always give a wry smile when I hear about the liberated 60s. All that wearing flowers in your hair nonsense, not a hope, there was far too big a chance of getting bashed for being gay. Of course homophobia didn’t really exist in the 50s and 60s, neither did misogyny or racism. No, instead there was just a generalised suspicion of difference, a suspicion that all too easily escalated into fear and then hatred. It was a time when a Tory candidate won an election in Wolverhampton with the slogan: “If you want a Nigger for a neighbour vote Labour.” That wasn’t seen as offensive, it was the norm, as were the many pub doors adorned with the sign “No blacks, Irish or diddicoys.” In the pantheon of prejudices my family was probably pretty much middle of the road for the times. I remember on one occasion my father forbade the family (he was rather a traditional husband and father!) from ever talking to the next door neighbours. This was after he had seen the man next door hanging out the washing and he didn’t want us talking to “that sort of man” or his family. Mum had her own specialisms when it came to prejudice. It would never have occurred to her to warn my sisters about bringing a black man home (that was truly unthinkable) but she did give them stern lectures about men with ginger hair, or regional accents. Not that there were many black faces around at the time and the closest we got to illegal immigrants was a couple of times a year when a battered motor boat, that looked like a Dunkirk relic, would tie up at a barely used jetty on the river. That was the French onion sellers arriving, not exactly undercover given they wore Breton shirts and berets. Two or three of them would get off in the early morning, their battered sit up and beg bicycles festooned with onions. They would spend the days going around the local estates before disappearing at dusk back to the boat. That was as close as we got to multiculturalism and the occasional sighting of a black or brown face was met with whispering and barely suppressed shock.
While I look back in horror and embarrassment at the bigotry I was raised amongst, somehow it’s the bigotry rather than the bigots that appals me. If you live a precarious existence it is far too easy to fear difference and blame the “other” for fragility of your life. It is not people like those who I grew up with that make me despair, instead it is those who cynically feed off and inculcate their insecurities that we really need to fear. It is not my Mum and Dad, or the kids I grew up with, neither is it Gordon Brown’s bigoted woman or indeed Hillary Clinton’s basket of deplorables that threaten us. Yes, we should challenge and refute them but the real threat is from those who manipulate their fears, it is through the Le Pens, the Wilders, the Farages and the Trumps that the world descends into self-loathing internecine warfare feeding off its own myths. One such myth is that it is only the ill-educated who support demagogues like Trump. The most narrow-minded, bigoted group of people I worked with were senior managers, many with PhDs, while the most liberal were a group of blokes I shared a smoko hut with on a mining site. Just visit a British public (private) school and you discover that it is not education or class that promotes bigotry, it is insularity. Trump’s supporters on average earned above the median wage and he received as many votes from college graduates as Clinton did.
The bigotry, and narrow-minded judgmentalism of the people Trump is appointing to his cabinet is staggering and not one of his appointees could ever be accused of being either ill-educated or disadvantaged. It ranges from a Vice-President elect who tried to pass a law forcing women who had abortions, for whatever reason, to have a formal burial service of the fetus, right along to an Attorney General who refers to black men as “boy”. I guess that has been one of the difficult parts of the US election. Generally faced with the onslaught of bigotry that we have seen in the past few months, you create a gradient of nastiness but the interminable display of primitive prejudice has made it impossible to construct a hierarchy of hatefulness. You look at what Trump says and does and think “Surely he will draw a line at that” but then he doesn’t and instead finds a way to dig even deeper into his apparently bottomless pit of atavistic antagonisms. It almost makes the mindless bigotry of my childhood seem inane, at least we drew the line at certain things (and why is Trump such a whiner? A man who has lived a life of enormous privilege, a multi-millionaire, soon to become the most powerful man in the world and he cannot stop whinging on about how unfair everyone is to him. The last time I heard anybody whine as much was when I was eight and the loud-mouthed school bully had his marbles confiscated because he kept throwing them at the other kids.)
Okay, I realise it’s easy for me to have a soft spot for bigots, I am after all an old white bloke so very little of the bigotry is directed at me but most of the bigots I grew up with had sometimes subtle lines that they didn’t cross. I am pretty sure that my family and neighbours would have responded to the election of Trump with a mixture of hilarity and horror. The hilarity stemmed from his name. Although cursing and swearing was frowned upon, language was fairly down to earth particularly relating to bodily functions. In the world of my childhood, people didn’t pass wind, drop one, or fart, instead the most common euphemism for flatulence was “trumping”. I remember like yesterday an aging aunt at a family function (the port and lemons had been flowing liberally) brushing past my mother in the scullery and saying “just going into the garden for a trump!” as she headed for the back door. Invariably some of my saucier relatives would add an onomatopoeia emphasis to the word “Trump”. So it would have undoubtedly caused considerable amusement that the President of the United States was both named after and personified the passing of foul wind. The horror would have come from another source, for while my family would have agreed with many of Trump’s utterances I suspect there would have been one thing they couldn’t have got past.
Misogyny (even amongst women), racism, xenophobia, and homophobia may have been rife yet there were still nods at a common humanity that transcended prejudice. It may have been a time when children with disabilities were routinely institutionalised and I won’t pretend that the obstacles placed in the way of disabled people weren’t even greater than those faced by the disabled now, but there was definitely a line that we kids were not supposed to cross. Kids can be cruel and it wasn’t unusual for a kid to use the term “spasso” or “mongol” to either describe a kid with disability or to insult another; even so when such a term was used it was inevitably followed by an embarrassed laugh and a guilty look. The one thing all kids seemed to be taught was that, on pain of a good smacking, you never mocked someone with a disability of whatever kind. In the face of all the bigotry generated by fear of women, black people, gays or anything seen as different, there was a strange sort of communal empathy for people with a disability. That didn’t mean that there wasn’t a certain fear and discomfort around disabled people and an unfairness in their treatment, yet for all that there was a recognition of a shared humanity that placed a firm taboo on mocking them. There was a lad about my age with hydrocephalus that my mates and I would sometimes see outside the sweet shop opposite our primary school. He would sit there in an old cane bath chair, his massive head lolling to one side, unable to speak as he waited for his mother to come out of the shop. Sure, in our childhood insecurities the lad made us uncomfortable, but not so much that we didn’t stop, say hello and try to chat a while. Yes, it’s true to say that we were all nasty little bigots but it wasn’t just the fear of a good spanking from our mums that stopped us mocking him. No, it was something more imbedded, more intrinsic that instinctively told us that if there is any measure of humanity, it is our capacity to value rather than mock the vulnerable.
So to all those in the States who voted for Donald Trump, I can just about understand how you could vote for a man who displays and acts on the most malignant of prejudices, a man whose manifest destiny seems to be to drag a great nation into the gutter with him yet I suspect my mum wouldn’t be able to understand it. For all her bigotry there is one thing Trump has done that even she would find unforgiveable and while her threats of giving us a good smacking never materialised, I’m pretty sure that she and all her neighbours would be queuing up to give Mr Trump a good slap on his legs…whilst sniggering at his name.
Mum may have sniggered at an unfortunate name but she never sniggered at an unfortunate person. Unlike Mr Trump. So again, American voters, how is it possible that nearly half of you consider that this man Donald Trump, who so crudely mocked the disabled NYT reporter Serge Kovaleski, is fit to be your President?