You remember how funny it used to be when our grandparents and great-grandparents were politically incorrect or even downright racist? They would say things that were so inappropriate, but we would explain it away as remnants of a bygone age, old habits that die oh-so-hard. One would hope that those old habits become less and less prevalent as each new generation matriculates. But maybe that isn’t the case.
The other day I had a bizarre interaction with a complete stranger, one that left me puzzled and shocked. For some reason this person had been having a bad day and felt it was necessary to share the reason for her displeasure with me. Maybe I looked sympathetic, but for whatever reason she felt it was acceptable to unburden herself to me. Without going into too much detail, the nurse’s diatribe was narrowed down to one shocking statement. She said that she wished that they had never allowed “Mexicans” into the country.
Can you believe that? This wasn’t one of those situations where you can chalk it up to the rantings of one from my grandparents’ generation. This was one of my contemporaries!
I was always taught two things when it came to having any conversations in public: first, if you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything; and second, be careful what you say, because you never know who may be listening. Good advice for the nurse, don’t you think? She knew nothing about me, she knew nothing about my heritage, and she knew nothing about my politics or my belief system.
But don’t forget the third rule about conversing in public: if you want to say something negative about anybody, do it in prose. It is likely not a surprise to you, but contemporary fiction and literature are rife with examples of an author’s prejudice being exemplified through the creation of characters and circumstances that highlight such bigotry. Many months ago we talked about Dickens’ “Oliver Twist” and the clear expression of his sentiment towards Jews in the caricature of Fagin. We also discussed other examples in literature of such racism.
(If you want to read that post from September, 2010, here is the link to it: http://robcohen13.com/2010/09/06/consider-yourself-one-of-us-consider-yourself-one-of-our-family/
More interesting however, is that the interaction with the nurse came on the heels of two other, completely separate encounters with this type of bigotry, one fairly veiled and one more direct.
Did you know that some scholars theorize that the character of Dracula was intended to symbolize the Jewish people? The novel “Dracula” was written in the late 1890’s, during a time in which hundreds of thousands of Jewish people were immigrating to England as a way to escape persecution from various eastern European countries. If you are familiar with the story of “Dracula,” the Count is moving from Transylvania to London and has enlisted Jonathan Harker to assist. The panic of the novel is caused by the move and the fear that Dracula, upon his taking up residence in London, will infect the people with his bloodthirsty ways, wreaking havoc and terror on the city. An interesting theory, do you agree?
At the same time that the nurse was freely expressing her intolerance and I was discovering the “Dracula Theory,” I was reading a book that was a clear knock-off of the Sherlock Holmes cannon, involving a private detective and his sidekick investigating crime in Victorian-era London. This particular story involved the murder of a rabbinical student and an anti-Semitic movement in 1897 London. A strange convergence of unrelated events that were linked in unexpected commonality…
It is interesting to me that when it is expressed in literature it is somehow acceptable, yet if we come right out and say what we are thinking, we are viewed with disdain; it is not only frowned upon but is castigated. Do you mean to tell me that Tom Clancy actually liked the Russians during the Cold War, or is it possible he was using his writing as an outlet for his own xenophobia? You would have to believe that it is easier for a writer to make his villains truly despicable if he laces his characterizations of them with his or her own personal animosities.
Which brings me back to the nurse and her clearly intolerant statements. After the initial shock of the statement wore off and I had a second or two to ponder how to respond, I said the following:
“Perhaps you should write a book.”