In sleepy Austin, Texas, I came to consciousness during the “wonder years” world of the 50s and 60s, and like everyone around me, I was proud of my nationality, believing in the superiority of all things American. My 21-year old self was taken aback, therefore, when it was pointed out that the rest of the world didn’t quite see things my way. Living in Lima, Peru, I learned that many upper class Peruvians ( (insulated in a caste system based on blood lines) were unimpressed with Americans, referring to them among themselves as “burros with money.” It surprised me because I had been taught that the United States was a good neighbor and friend in our hemispheric neighborhood. They should like us!
Gradually, I realized that these Peruvians had been seeded with large doses of European culture and its snobbish aversion to uncultured Americans. In fact, Lima seemed more European than Latin American, eating Continental style with not a chicken fried steak on any menu. Back then, you could find menu selections of Canard a l’Orange (Duck with Orange Sauce) or Lobster Thermidor that would make a Frenchman feel at home (or Julia Child trill in delight)! Subject to widespread immigration, the country had been populated with many Europeans who transplanted their cultural norms, languages, and foods in a welcoming soil. A Swiss man sold cheeses and chocolates and other delicacies from Switzerland from his La Tiendicita Blanca (the Little White Store). Italians opened restaurants serving food from their homeland, where invariably your dining partner would disparage the “Americanization” of true Italian cuisine in the U.S. I enjoyed knowing Pierre, a delightful engineer from Belgium who spoke five languages, and another charming man, Eduardo, who came from Germany and spoke at least three. He might have been a former Nazi, now that I think about it. Italian brothers Valerio and Gianni had a textile company, speaking an Italian-laced Spanish that was so expressive! Valerio taught me a betting system he used when gambling in Monte Carlo.
But meeting fascinating people and experiencing some cultural condescension did not cause any rips in the fabric of my American pride. That didn’t happen until recently, beginning when I saw citizens at town hall meetings on health care reform, act like street fighters, screaming, threatening, and having hysterics at the idea of providing health care for all Americans. These meetings were called to engage in civil and civic discourse about life, death, putting an end to unnecessary suffering, and curing disease among our citizenry. What is it about that subject that warrants uncivilized belligerence – violent displays of ignorance and selfishness?
And what about the disrespect that so many Americans shower on our president, from Speaker John Boehner to the entire stable of commentators on the most shameful network ever permitted to pollute American air waves? After all, what is the birther issue if not undisguised racism, a move to discredit President Obama because he is black? It doesn’t matter that a majority of Americans voted to elect him president, preferring him to his Caucasian opposition. And while you may not support the policies of the man, what happened to showing respect for the office, the face of our nation in the rest of the world?
But even with all that, we didn’t reach the ultimate unraveling of my American pride until these last Republican presidential debates. During the first one, the crowd actually cheered when the moderator noted that 234 people who have been executed during Perry’s tenure as governor. And then, Governor Perry was asked whether he had any trouble sleeping at night in regard to this number, to which he responded in the negative because he trusted in the system and knew they all deserved it. Or words to that effect.
Am I among a minority of Americans who believe that every time that a person is killed at the hands of the State, we should solemnly reflect and pray that this person was truly guilty, assuming we believe in the death penalty in the first place? Hasn’t the Innocence Project reminded us (in case we forgot) that civilized beings should have at least a little concern that perhaps out of those 234 people—just perhaps—one may have been innocent.
At least Patti Davis, Ronald Reagan’s daughter, seems to agree. As she told Lawrence O’Donnell a few days later about the debate, “The moment that would have broken my father’s heart was the moment when applause broke out at the mention of more than 200 executions ordered by Rick Perry in Texas. It was stunning and brought tears to my eyes. This is what we’ve come to? That we applaud at executions?”
Describing the first time her father had to order an execution as governor of California, Patti said, “He and a minister went into a room, got down on their knees and prayed.” That, my fellow Americans, is what decency at the head of an execution machine looks like. And even more revealing is the inscription on Reagan’s tombstone: “There is purpose and worth to each and every life,” Now we can argue about when life begins and I admit that I rarely agreed with this man as president. But I cannot fault his compassion and respect for human life. Civilized men and women are not supposed to rejoice in another human’s death.
But rejoice they do! At the next debate, the faithful cheered at the notion of letting a 30-year old die because he had no health insurance. Dr. Ron Paul didn’t blink an eye over that prospect. Has there been an invasion of body or brain snatchers who, as we speak, are replacing the minds of Americans with a version completely lacking in compassion?
These brain snatchers must be targeting conservatives. New York Times’ Paul Krugman recently wrote, that conservative intellectuals used to support “‘a comprehensive system of social insurance’ to protect citizens against ‘the common hazards of life,’” singling out health, in particular. . . Now, the conservatives no longer accept government intervention in the name of compassion. “Compassion is out of fashion— indeed, lack of compassion has become a matter of principle, at least among the G.O.P.’s base.”
I hate to use the word “un-American” because conservatives flail it around almost as much as they do “socialism,” usually directed at our president, but who are these people with whom I share citizenship?
Whatever the answer, I sadly realize that the rest of the world are seeing these same people via satellites and computers. These are the people who are representing us – all Americans – to the Europeans, Latin Americans, Asians, and everywhere else. I can’t help but think the word “barbarian” must come to the mind of many . . . along with “burros with money.”