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The Tuesday Column
Passionate About Racism, Americans Adroit at its Export

"All peoples who have reached the point of becoming nations tend to despise foreigners, but there is not much doubt that the English-speaking races are the worst offenders. One can see this from the fact that as soon as they become fully aware of any foreign race, they invent an insulting nickname for it. Wop, Dago, Froggy, Squarehead, Kike, Sheeny, Nigger, Wog, Chink, Greaser, Yellowbelly - these are merely a selection." - George Orwell (1938)

"This Court . . . should not impose foreign moods, fads or fashions on Americans."- Justice Clarence Thomas (2002)

Xenophobia may be universally ugly, but its faces would make a diversity seminar proud. Xenophobes come in all colors, races, classes, religions, robes, ideologies. Some of the worst offenders are liberals. Listen to them speak of "red states" and you'll immediately hear violent disdain, like Chechens speaking of Russians or Arabs speaking of Jews. Red-staters bashing blue-staters have an excuse. They're like the character who can't help but suffer from compulsive conservatism in Woody Allen's "Everybody Says I Love You" because he lacks oxygen. But liberals by definition are supposed to be the open-minded ones, spreading tolerance and embracing diversity. These days they might as well be left-snarling Archie Bunkers.

To be sure, xenophobia these days is more subtle than the kind that inspired Mark Twain to spit on Indians, blacks and Arabs to the delight of his "Innocents Abroad" readers 136 years ago. When it comes to prejudice, the age of sensitivity training has turned all of us into expert dissimulators. Diversity seminars are not about conquering prejudice, but about managing it to keep it from interfering with productivity. The misogynist learns to joke inoffensively with a woman colleague, the racist learns to leave his wog and chink and greaser references at the door from 9 to 5, the anti-Semite learns to boast that some of his best friends are Jews. But at the end of the day this is still a nation of communities and minds equally gated against differences of class, race, religion, ideology, intellect, against the inappropriately foreign, the alien, the different.

Let the pretense of diversity seminars fall away and what do you get? New Orleans. This was no Britain-under-the-Blitz kind of scene, where class-consciousness in the most class-conscious nation in the West gave way to collective aid and comfort, however temporarily. It was the immediate disenfranchisement of a city's poor and black from citizenship in the basic promise of safety and equal treatment. "People were quick to call them refugees," the scholar Cornel West wrote of the disaster, "because they looked as if they were from another country. They are. Exiles in America." The rejection wasn't happening only in New Orleans. Much of the country readily accepted bug-eyed reports of rapists and marauders terrorizing the city, because it fit the old stereotype of blacks as predators and savages. The reports were almost all bogus. The latest unmasking of a nation's latent bigotries wasn't.

With such passionate xenophobia at home, it is no wonder that it can so easily be exported and used to offensive advantage. Discard the pretense of a "city on a hill" - the United States as refuge and example to the world -and what do you get? Vietnam and Iraq, that xenophobia in reverse that President Bush articulates every time he gets the chance: "We fight them over there so we don't have to fight them over here." The phrase should be an insult to every American who doesn't think foreigners guinea pigs to America's safety. Instead, it has been the rallying cry of a four-year campaign to make the world safe for America, at the expense of anybody else. That would not be possible if disdain for the foreign hadn't become second nature here, culturally and politically. The world, according to the American xenophobe, is a boutique, a safari, a bombing range, a playground, a buffer, a temp agency, a welcome mat. It is no equal, and above all, it is no place to learn from. If it's foreign, it's diseased.

Xenophobia is now creeping toward law-of-the-land status. During John Roberts' Senate confirmation hearings, Tom Coburn, the Oklahoma Republican, asked Roberts: "Can the American people count on you to not use foreign precedents in your decision making on the Supreme Court?" There's no need to quote Roberts' answer, as vacuum-packed in this case as in every other. The punch was in the question - in the fact that such a question could even be asked in reference to a Constitution that's nothing if not a brilliant synthesis of "foreign" enlightenment with American pragmatism. It could and was asked, and will be asked again, because that brilliant synthesis that made America is being replaced by what used to be Old-World prejudices: The smug, the insular, the small minded, the disdainful. In short, the xenophobic.


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