A land of extremes

A land of extremes

I had not seen a truck with the full Confederate flag treatment in this town before, I thought as I jogged past the jacked-up white Dodge wearing the gayest rainbow-pride Apple Watch and nothing but virtue-signalling Lululemon high-performance running attire. I was naive enough to hope that the displeasure of seeing such a thing would be indefinitely postponed. 

As a Québécoise who has built a career in English Canada and is perfectly at home both in Yankee Doodleland and in Southron country, I am used to solitudes cohabitating-ish. Yet the dichotomy of my queer wokeness and the ugly confederate pickup was shocking. 

As my attentive reader knows, in part because I haven’t shut up about it on social media, I am spending a week in Huntsville, Alabama, to take part in a storytelling show with a fantastic group of artists. (Come if you’re near!) 

I stopped counting a while back because my religion forbids advanced math but I’ve been here maybe 15 times in the last two years. I had never seen such a display of overt racist bigotry, if you’ll pardon the pleonasm. Elsewhere in the state, sure. But not in this town, renowned for its advanced scientific research, its vibrant arts scene and its legendary open-mindedness not to mention gay-friendliness. 

It was out of place, like a fart in an elevator. Unavoidable and unpleasant. But is it more than that? Especially in an era of heightened hatred and extreme political polarization? 

I don’t just mean the differences between policies or the old right-wing-vs-left-wing stuff. I’m talking about those who try to behave honourably and with decency versus the institutional vandalism that now dominates right-wing parties in the United States — and, yes, Canada.

As I wrote earlier this year, there used to be a time when the right was dominated by powerful intellects. People like William F. Buckley Jr., Florence King, Russell Kirk — even friggin Ronald Reagan — were models of rational thought if you compare them with today’s trumpian crowd. And Reagan’s was among the most populist voices of his time, not nearly as sophisticated as Buckley. 

His speech for the Barry Goldwater presidential campaign in 1964, “A Time for Choosing,” was his national coming out as a Republican after a lifetime on the Democratic side, a few years before he would be elected governor of California for the first of his two terms. He would then go on to be president, between 1980 and 1988. He was so popular that in 1984 he won every single state except for the home state of his opponent Walter Mondale and the District of Columbia which would rather sink into the Potomac than vote R, the lovely hearts. 

Reagan was a horrible president on so many fronts so maybe it’s best when right-wingers aren’t so good at smooth talking. Be that as it may, I don’t for one minute think it’s funny that Donald Trump now promises to “root out” the “vermin” on the left. 

And then what? Line them up against a wall? Where does this violence in the speech stop? Once January 6ers have been elected to Congress

It used to be that political differences were about money, culture and values. If, for the sake of argument, one can set aside the blights of racism and sexism, there was an undercurrent of decency holding society together. People were American first, Democrat (or Republican) second. 

Now it’s not so much that they’re Democrat or Republican but about which group they want to get rid of. Root out. Vote off the island. And we still have plenty of racism, sexism and other hatreds to go around. 

The whole political thing feels like a nasty, malicious reality-TV game where you don’t just have to win but crush everyone else, too. The legendary melting pot, it seems, has melted, and the soup is running in every direction. 

The United States has always had more of all kinds of diversity than Canada. That’s my observation, from spending an awful lot of time travelling throughout North America since before I was old enough for kindergarten. There is a larger tolerance for political and cultural diversity in the United States than there is in Canada, not because Americans are better than Canadians but simply because they’ve been exposed to loud and in-your-face differences more often than Canadians have. 

Sure, it’s becoming more diverse in Canada now. But the people who are older than, say, 40 years old have grown up in a reasonably homogenous society. A society where most people took certain things for granted, among which we even found some great ideas. For instance that public services like health care and education should not be left to the market to regulate (whoa, wrong word there Brigitte) but to the government because government is the one institution with enough legitimacy to represent all of us and work towards the public good, not more profit. In theory, anyway. 

The thing that’s becoming obvious to me, keen follower of such things, is that trust in common institutions is eroding. And that’s terrifying. A society that loses faith in institutions of governance, in the independence of the judiciary and in the rule of law, is one where everything gets commodified and where only the fittest and most able survive. As someone who likes to think they’re fit enough and strong enough to survive this bullshit, I say no thank you. I want my society to be looking after everyone, especially those who aren’t the strongest or the fittest. 

I don’t know how to get there from here, but I won’t stop trying.