Carmen FiranCarmen Firan

THAT WHICH SETS US APART – An Immigrant’s Point of View

I’ve been living in America for more than 18 years and I continue to discover it, or better yet I am reading and re-reading it like an old familiar book. My adjustment to New York came naturally without identity crises or cultural anxieties yet America is much more – it’s something else altogether, a huge and complex space, challenged on all levels by the dynamics of our times.

This country, desired by some and envied and feared by others, is perceived differently, one way from the inside and another from the out.

From the outside, is seen especially in clichés – admiringly, or on the contrary. The less they know it, or at all, the more they have well-formed opinions. From the pinky point of view, the American dream is still works, the sky is the limit, here you can always hit the jackpot and become rich overnight; the strongest country in the world and forever immortal.

There is the negative view in which the empire is going down the drain, has lost its supremacy while continuing to police the world; Obama is too weak, Putin has tested his weakness; China waits around the corner to assume economic domination. For years conspiracy theories predict all kind of disasters, from the dollar’s swan song surrendering to a new international currency, to an underground world order that weaves somber domination and the manipulation of mankind to its destruction.

In the superior-arrogant view, America is infantile, naive and gullible, obsessed by money and manipulated by mass-media which masks the truth … I know some Europeans say they will never cross the ocean, America is nowhere for them; New York is only a steel and glass conglomerate, a world of snobs who buy expensive tickets to the Metropolitan Opera only to flaunt their wealth… I came across ebullient tourists raving about New York’s magic, others alienated by its lack of soul. I met families that made life sacrifices to establish themselves in America, but also those who can’t wait to return a “normal world”, to raise their children or retire.

I talked with youngsters from Eastern Europe who came here intending to immigrate, but after a while discovered that they can’t cope with the competition or with the grueling work load and escaped back to their native country, while others in short order reached their career peak and claim that only in America they could have achieved so much, so fast. Places have their own chemistry at which one can resonate well or not at all. Nevertheless, in America it isn’t as good as in the good old days, and in Eastern Europe it isn’t as bad as the bad old days. The world has softened its corners while sharpening its edges.

From the inside, things are more nuanced, although even here perceptions vary greatly.   Everyone reads a different code in the same reality. Or maybe reality is that which each of us projects outside… people are set apart not only by the economic or cultural standards, but also by political passions. We can’t talk about an American mentality in general, but about mentalities inside an immigration culture.

I spent a couple of days in Florida with a neighbor, a Cuban refugee who explained why he is dead set against the historic opening created by the Obama Administration’s detente towards Cuba, after the severance of diplomatic relations and decades of sanctions. “The same communists remain in power; you can’t strike a deal with them. Until the Dictator’s family and its acolytes are gone, all political relations must be frozen.” I understand his argument. On the other hand, he lives a comfortable life in America, while his countrymen, caught in history’s warp, poor and hopeless, also have but one life. How long should they wait? It’s same dilemma that Romanians faced during Ceausescu’s dictatorship – blame the West for their country’s isolation rather than blaming their own corrupt regime. Democracy can leave room for compromise; dictatorships are compromised from the start.

The average Eastern European immigrant who came to America before the fall of communism thought of themselves as conservatives from the moment they landed at JFK Airport. The main argument was a general consensus that “Democrats are Communists”. Many remained true to this simplistic belief to this day and diligently adopt the Republican party line, whether it truly suits them or not. It’s useless to tell them they live in the world’s oldest democracy that had never experienced a communist regime. Logic loses its power when it’s about beliefs.

There are also immigrants who, after they settle themselves in America, with their families secure, with jobs and green cards, integrated into the system, rather than being more sympathetic to immigrants become more intolerant. Once inside, others shouldn’t be let in. They develop an artificial patriotism, become “Holier than the Pope”, imagining that in this way they give something back to the country that has generously adopted them.

It’s true that Republican party line accommodates prejudice and resentment imported from across the sea against all non-whites, anyone different from them. “The blacks are like our gypsies, terrible!” said an East- European immigrant at a gathering. Someone else toned down the embarrassment: “America without blacks would be like an ocean without waves.”

Young immigrants who came here after the fall of communism, for economic or career reasons, are generally of liberal mind thanks to the opportunity to form and emancipate themselves without the pressure of some political dogma. Paradoxically or not they were with the center-right wing in their native East European countries and they would rather adhere to America’s left of center ideas. Memories from the time when Ceausescu banned abortions, for instance, are a good reason to be skeptical when it comes to the abortion issue of the right wing dogma. Ultimately, what matters is the independence of the mind, free thinking based on reality, and the weighing of political offers, leaders, and ideas.

America does well in alternating ruling parties, Republican and Democrat Presidents, even if each are harshly criticized by the opposition, some forced to resign, others assassinated. After September 11, the country suffered economic depressions, war and social movements, the housing and financial crises, but found the strength to regenerate and to keep its status internationally. Today things are once again unsettled by the escalation of the Syrian war, the massive wave of refugees, the ascension of the Islamic kalifate and terrorist attacks. The political debates in this election year create sensation and concern.

You cannot isolate yourself in an ivory tower detached from the world about you. You do not need to indulge in the political fray to observe and understand the turmoil around you. You do not have to profess Christianity to recognize the contribution of saints. In the world intellectuals lack temporal authority but excel as opinion leaders. Things are different in America. Intellectuals do not have the same visibility or power or influence. You will never hear someone quote Philip Roth in a political context, while in Eastern Europe a renowned author’s words make waves.

New democracies are still learning the art of political debate. Sometimes passion can go overboard with coarse language, harsh words and unfair attacks…here political attacks are corrosive with unbridled passion: far right talk radio that politically radicalize a large number of listeners of racist and xenophobic groups, aggravated by the refugee crisis. The conservative television news channel FOX dishes out the conservative line all day long satisfying a large audience that wants its thoughts vented on prime time after it has been affirmed by thanks God other talk show rants where the ultimate flat-out loser is a black President serving unfortunately his second term in the White House.

In New York and several big cities, many gave up watching CNN, saturated by clichés and news filtering through the screen of political correctness, or FOX News, because of warlike political partisanship, so they prefer news from Aljazeera America. In many other states of mid- America, FOX News still reigns along with religious and gun trading channels, shooting and hunting shows. Here, the Church, the flag and guns make a good home, supporting the nationalism of those who consider themselves America’s grass roots and the direct descendants of the Founding Fathers.

Liberals have their own excesses from the negation of exceptionalism and special aptitudes just to avoid annoying those with low IQ, to the exacerbation of political correctness which leads to the auto censorship and abridgment of the freedom of speech. A definition – anecdotal – of political correctness would be “how to grab a dirty thing by its clean part.” It’s taught in school, maybe less by the Catholic colleges. Conservatives are pro-life and pro-guns, namely against abortion and for arming of the population up to their teeth. (Every year over thirty thousand Americans die from gunshots, almost half of America’s death toll in the Vietnam War!) They do not believe in global warming caused by corporate greed that shows little respect for nature or in Darwin’s theory of evolution. They all agree that the French are arrogant and invented perfume because they don’t like to take baths…party dogma, a series of coda by which you can recognize them as you recognized a fully indoctrinated communists in the ʼ50s.

When you are at a party and want to see who’s a fiery Republican and who is ultra-liberal, float an apparently inoffensive idea, like the warming of the planet, the beauty of Paris, Obamacare and you will see immediately who you’re dealing with. Extremists, regardless of the camp they’re in, will be as congested and nervous. The only difference would be that an ultra-liberal would be willing to listen to you, if you come with logical arguments, while the extremist Republican will get mad, period, full stop.. So it’s better to be quiet and listen because they will cause a ruckus anyway. Society’s polarization is ever-growing. Parents avoid political discussions with their children, concerned grandparents switch sides, and former immigrants turn against immigrants.

I once watched a movie with a group of people, and when on the screen large trees from the Amazon jungle were shown being cut down by zealous entrepreneurs in order to expand their businesses, a guy stood up nervously and hissed over his shoulder: “A communist movie!”

An acquaintance from Eastern Europe, schooled in Moscow and an admirer of Putin, now a liberal in America, confessed one evening: “I have a problem. I can’t stand the blacks.” No comments. Republicans may harbor resentments towards American Jews, identified especially in the university world, Hollywood, mass-media and law firms, and would still be ready and willing to fight in defense of Israel being admirers of the right-wing leader Netanyahu. The Mexicans are useful for the grunt work which Americans refuse to do, but the same people who hire them for pennies would deport them at the party’s order without second thoughts.

Corporations and millionaires profit from reduced social spending during Republican administrations, the poor and minorities look to the Democratic Party with hope. The social-democrats seek a redistribution of wealth although almost all their campaign promises remain on paper only. It is said that during their mandate Republicans gather money that are spent afterwards by the Democrats. Maybe so, that is until George W. spent all the money that Clinton had amassed on the Iraq War, a war now seen as an error. If invading Iraq was a mistake, another was Obama’s troop withdrawal, creating a vacuum allowing the formation of extremist groups which led to the Islamic kalifate. The opposition is fiercely criticizing the President. From the first term slogan “Obama did nothing!” it has now progressed to the “traitor”. Fortunately, very little is known on the outside about the American right-wing attacks. Abroad, the American political discourse is given as an example of decency and sobriety.

Yet the divisive political discourse abates when Democrats and Republicans convene and share a glass of wine. Then there is consensus – how lucky we are to live in America! May God bless us!

The diversity of the American continent saves the shrillness. Things are complex and mixed. I have traveled much of this fascinating country where uniformity beat contradiction. I have met all kinds of people. I drank moonshine with moderate Republicans in Arkansas, listened to the stories of Vietnam in Kentucky and I was ready to throw a sign around my neck and go out in the streets to plead for their rights. I disagreed with fiery liberals in Ohio who espoused that Cuba’s healthcare system is superior to ours. I listened to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sing in Salt Lake City and afterwards talked with young Libertarians who would dissolve the government tomorrow and would live by their own law…

One early morning I was traveling from Las Vegas to Los Angeles through the Nevada desert and stopped at a gas station. In a chapel a black evangelical preacher was giving an early sermon on the demise of Christmas by commerce and fetish. In Texas I attended a giant stadium where a Baptist preacher interpreted biblical passages to tens of thousands of well-dressed white people who teared up, went into a trance or smiled complacently… I have sung in Harlem churches hand in hand with black matrons sporting outrageous hats while swinging to Gospel rhythms. All these make America. And I always found sympathy, the right language, a form of solidarity with different people, sometimes with different options and opinions than mine. In the end all that sets us apart is just intolerance and extremism. There is no language for them, no sympathy. The lesson of history seems not yet learned.

Troubled times are rising on the horizon, including America’s which remains in the world’s eyes. Can America offer the safety of conflict solving in a disoriented world, challenged by wars and terrorism? When even the Pope, despite his genuine smile, does not encourage us much: “We are in World War Three!” Everything seems upside down, including the weather. On Christmas day, instead of snow, my neighbor’s cherry tree blossomed.

Despite positive unemployment data of less than 5%, a growth of the housing market with gas cheap, the economy reinvigorated, the middle class doesn’t feel too much comfort. A young family where both parents work can barely pay their monthly bills. We are not in a depression but society is far from flourishing. The politicians be they liberal or conservative fight in selling illusions to the middle class without offering solutions. It is only now that Bernie Sanders, an independent until last year when he registered Democrat to run for President does there seem to be a solution for getting out of the quagmire, even if a high price be paid by the wealthy. Powerful and unconventional personality, Bernie looks like a grumpy old man, but after you understand what he’s saying and what he wants, he becomes seductive and you would go with him, reforming and humanizing America. It seems that the former First Lady Hilary, somewhat weary after doing a less than brilliant job as Secretary of State, is again out of luck. Obama in 2008, now Sanders rains on her parade.

Bernie Sanders, loved by the young and intellectuals, would spark a revolution, would wake up consciousness and would restore faith in the hearts of the American people. Only I’m afraid that today Wall Street, banks and corporations that rule the world can blow up, or push into extinction any revolution…

Even if he doesn’t win, his presence in the presidential race will restore dignity to American electoral speech in the eyes of the world. Son of Polish Jewish immigrants, the senator of Vermont is well versed in American history and politics, a pragmatic idealist and a responsible patriot. It’s interesting that many youngsters from East Europe adhere to Sander’s ideas and follow the US presidential debates conscious of the impact White House’s decisions have at the international scale, affecting, indirectly, their future as well.

On the other hand, the Republicans filled the scene with an excess of candidates, each of them more un-presidential than the others, attacking each other in front of a nation dismayed by such a display of mediocrity. The party seems frozen in time, incapable of reform by the dynamics of today. Moderate leaders don not have the trust and backing of old conservatives trapped in dated nationalism and an aggressive political strategy on the international scene – cowboys threatening to throw bombs to the tune country and western music.

For now, Donald Trump has stolen the show. It isn’t his first run. He appeared in several past elections and he either got bored or retired pretty fast, aware he had no chance. This year he jumped in with a different strategy, the “poking the finger in everyone eyes” strategy. In the beginning, he was funny, even brave. He grabbed the dirty things by their clean end, spoke roughly of things everyone else swept under the rug so they wouldn’t have to juggle hot potatoes. He spoke differently and managed to get attention and make himself heard. Finally, political correctness was swept aside, he forced his rivals to address inconvenient truths and a fresh breeze started to blow.

But soon his discourse started to degrade. From a non-politician, politically incorrect, he slowly slipped into a one man show. “A clown” some said, “a ridiculous man” said others. He would switch between red ties and green worker’s caps, his tone was ever rising. He offended women and the handicapped. He threatened reporters, mocking everyone with his smile. “I think he must be studying Mussolini’s speeches” someone told me.

On his Facebook page, Trump has over four five million followers. Among them are very few of my Facebook friends, respectable East European, all of them immigrants before de fall of communism. I respect any opinion. I’m curious to find out how people think, from where they take their passions and enmities, what arguments they have for their beliefs.

The Trump electoral slogan is “Make America Great Again”. I tend to think that not through education, tolerance, or some diplomacy art, but through intimidation and the declamation of exceptionalism and supremacy, through maintaining and opening other war theatres, to show the world how great we are militarily. Real estate mogul, billionaire businessman, Trump compensates his lack of political experience with promises which, on how glorious they seem for some, are also scary: the expulsion of millions of illegal immigrants, walls and fences at Mexico’s borders, the prohibition of entering the country for Muslims for an undetermined period, killing the families of those suspected of terrorism… Even Cheney, the spearhead of torture in Al-Qaida prisons, was horrified.

After the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, Trump’s discourse radicalized with Nazi tones. “What do you think of Trump?” I asked a Republican. “A lunatic!” he answered laughing “But I will vote for him against any Democrat anytime.” The duo of Trump for President – Cruz for Vice-President gives some the chills; for others it represents America’s salvation. Putin cheerfully rubs his hands. He praises Trump and can’t wait to match his powers with someone his size, tired of economic sanctions and empty diplomacy.

Meanwhile, Europe doesn’t feel good either, the right wing gains ground in the context of over a million refugees that just got on the land of western civilization, dragging all their customs and mentalities with them. Ms. Merkel would swallow her words, but it’s too late. In several cities on New Year’s Eve, hundreds of German women were sexually assaulted by illegal immigrants or asylum seekers. Hundreds of theft and aggression complaints keep being filed at local police stations.

Muslim immigrant demonstrations against western civilization take place in London and other cities. “Mein Kampf” is republished in Germany. Ultra-nationalistic and Nazi movements are brewing. Europe will never be the same, many say with nostalgia and fear.

President Obama has finally taken the bull by the horns and signed an Executive Order on gun control, a hot topic for the Republicans frozen in Wild West times. The President weeps on national news invoking the children shot in schools, the tens of thousands of victims of aggression and accidental gunshots. Trump mocks Obama’s tears and the majority’s wish to deprive access to guns by the mentally unbalanced.

China is in an economic stagger, the stock in America crashes, Putin launches on the market a perfume promoted by transvestites dressed as Lenin and Stalin, Eau de Putin. Trump is surer of himself and more aberrant, now mocking the Pope. We exchanged our New Year’s cards asking for happiness and peace. 2016 starts troubled by North Korea’s threats, or by suspicions that Iran continues its nuclear plan… Borders toughen, things radicalize, even the most tolerant, promoters of multiculturalism, grow more fearful and wary in their statements.

It is the time of the extremists. But even so, I have faith in the common sense of the American people. I hope the extreme will be sidelined, the nation will rediscover its moderate voice and find the right path. And wouldn’t it be nice if while many states head to the right wing, America makes a turn to the moderate left? Maybe it’s just the equilibrium we need now so we do not alienate our present and jeopardize our future…

(Article published in Lettre Internationale, winter issue, 2016)

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