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So scared of strangers

Matt Zalaznick

Americans have winced at the rise of nationalist politicians in Europe. The success and visibility of far-right movements in the Old World have even given we brutish Big Mac-devouring Americans a reason to believe a culture that gave the world Martin Luther King, Harper Lee and Bob Dylan is as vibrant as one that created Adolf Hitler, Marie Antoinette and Torquemada. And we have read about elections in France, Austria and other countries, and been happy – even proud – that xenophobic rabble-rousers like Jean-Marie Le Pen, Joerg Haider and Pim Fortuyn have been left to slither on the fringes of our most hospitable land. Until now. Tom Tancredo has surfaced south of Denver to lead America’s own Be-Afraid-of-Strangers Movement. Tancredo made his name insisting the federal government crackdown on illegal immigration and wall-up our borders. But there’s more to Tom Intolerant than that. He often complains “radical multi-culturalism” is one of the mortal threats to the United States. “If Western civilization succumbs to the siren song of multiculturalism, I believe we’re finished,” he said in an interview with John Hawkins on the Web site http://www.rightwingnews.com. In the same article: “There are places right now in East L.A. and southern Texas that you would not honestly – there is absolutely nothing that you would say makes them part of the United States of America. They are a separate country – it is (like a) separate country – right now, at this moment.”In article posted to the Californians for Population Stabilization Web site, he was quoted by Jim Buckley of the Montecito Journal saying: “The cult of multiculturalism is all part of that effort, keeping people from becoming ‘American.’ Teaching them in their language, making sure their culture remains intact. We encourage this divisiveness.”Tancredo doesn’t have the guts to say who exactly is in this cult of multiculturalism: Is it one of the country’s few inspiring politicians – the half-Kenyan Sen. Barack Obama? Is it Jewish-American nobel prize winners like Saul Bellow? Is it his president’s good pal, Alberto Gonzalez? One has to guess these dangerous purveyors of diversity are people who don’t look, speak, act, worship – or vote – just like Tom, who touts himself and his supporters as paragons of American-ness. But why does he want American culture to be so bland? So rigid? So unable to absorb ideas from other cultures and expand? In an outstanding article called “The Case for Contamination,” in the Jan. 1 edition of The New York Times magazine, Kwame Anthony Appiah, a Princeton philosophy professor, writes that stagnant cultures overconcerned with clinging to aging traditions will be left behind in globalizing world. “Cultures are made of continuities and changes, and the identity of a society can survive through these changes. Societies without change aren’t authentic, they’re just dead.”Appiah also writes that in some cases, tradition is a sham: “Tyring to find some primordially authentic culture can be like peeling an onion.” He says, for example, traditional western African cloths arrived in the 19th century when Dutch traders brought batiks from Java. The colorful clothes worn by Namibian woman were derived from the dour dress of 19th century German missionaries. Makes one think of America’s inherited cuisine – of pizza and burritos and fried rice – and the Athenian-style democracy the founding fathers borrowed. We didn’t even invent reality TV. The Brits did.The danger of the rise of someone like Tancredo is that if the fear of apocalypse stirred up by Dick Cheney is combined with Tancredo’s creeping xenophobia, it might not take much more than the next terrorist attack to plunge America into an intolerant, isolationist fervor. And another terrorist attack by Muslim fundamentalists might doom Arabs in the U.S. And then, when Osama goes on TV to say America’s support of Israel was the reason he detonated a dirty bomb in Manhattan, the Jews might be in trouble, too. Not sure how Hispanics and blacks could come under fire – they’re Christians after all – but a terrified majority can easily be convinced to lose its mind in times of turmoil, regardless if the turmoil was manufactured by ideologues. Many countries have lashed out against outsiders when times are tough. America, of course, prides itself on being different – on being that melting pot where hard work, obeying the law and playing on the company softball team is more important than ethnicity. As American as Tom Tancredo claims to be, his attacks on multi-culturalism are undermining this founding principle of a country many of the rest of us love for its diversity and elastic culture. Assistant Editor for Local News Matt Zalaznick can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 14620, or mzalaznick@vaildaily.com. Check out his blog at http://www.vaildaily.com/section/BLOG.Vail, Colorado


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