Monday, August 14, 2006

Back From the Beach

Last night Sami, Adam and I pulled into our driveway for the first time in 10 days. What a relief to finally be home. Of course we loved our time away, living it up in what could best be described as paradise. We had a beach-front cottage, and even our own tennis court. Peace and quiet were easy to come by, and the day to day anxieties were as far away as they ever get. But there's just something about home.

Home, for one thing, is safe. It is a familiar environment, and while it may have its fair share of problems, they are familiar problems, easy to manage problems. Problems you've dealt with before. There may be fewer problems on vacation (and then again, there may not be - I've been on some hellish trips), but when they arise they feel less like an expected part of your day and more like a conspiracy to suck all of the joy out of what should have been a perfect moment.

The American South, by and large, scares me. Being from Kentucky should have prepared me for the fear, bigotry and xenophobia that passes for local color or even common sense in some parts our nation; Kentucky is, after all, about as backwards a place as you can find. We now have a law, for instance, which (modeled after a similar law in Florida) makes it legal to use lethal force on anyone who enters your property without permission. I read a story in the New York Times about a man who, under this law, shot a neighbor during a heated discussion about, of all things, the number of trash cans you can put on your curb at any given moment. The gun wielding maniac in this story shot his victim in the stomach, then, while the victim lay bleeding on the ground, shot him again in the chest. The shooter cannot be prosecuted or even sued because his victim was an unwelcome guest on his property at the time of the shooting.

While this didn't happen in Kentucky, it easily could have. And, under our law, the shooter could not even be charged with a crime. So, having lived in Kentucky all my life, I should be used to a paranoid way of looking at the world which divided it into "us" and "them," the "good guys" and the "bad guys," "law-abiding citizens" and "criminals" who deserve whatever happens to them if they dare to cross those good gun-wielding citizens who so desperately deserve to protect their property from any perceived threat. But driving through the Carolinas, such a beautiful landscape, still scared me a little bit, particularly as I paid more attention to the various forms of cultural communication.

The best examples of these communications were found in Paradise itself, Holden Beach. As I've said before, my great-grandmother owned a home on Holden Beach until it was destroyed by a hurricane in 1954, the year my mother was born. My grandmother spent her childhood summers on the island, in that house. While she hasn't been back to Holden Beach since the hurricane which wiped out everything she knew and loved on the island, that beach still has a nearly mythic place in our family. It is a part of our collective identity. While no member of my family has owned land there in 52 years, that beach still in some small way feels like ours, a second home, even if we only visit it once a year. But despite that sense of belonging to the beach, and it belonging to us, while I was at Holden Beach this most recent trip I couldn't help but notice a shift, a cultural division.

Just off the island there are a couple of beach marts, one locally owned (actually, it is owned by one of the famous Holdens, after whom the island is named) and one a chain. The chain store is, at least according to its reputation in town (I can't confirm this) owned by an Arab. If ever there were an outsider in the American South at this point in our history, it is a person of Arab lineage. As such, the locally owned shop put up a big sign shortly after the new chain store opened, which reads:

Beach Mart
The Store With More American
"We Speak English and Pay Taxes"

Never mind that every business in America (except, perhaps, those corporate giants fortunate enough to be favored by the Bush administration, but that is another story) pays taxes. And never mind as well the fact that anyone who wishes to do business in Holden Beach had better speak some pretty good English. The sign in front of the local beach mart was specifically designed to capitalize on a racism which, as the so-called "war on terror" drags on, grows less and less subtle, less and less latent. Unable to compete with the chain store, the locally-owned one played the cards of race and fear.

Perhaps to counter this, or perhaps to tap into the cultural psyche of the area, the chain store has started flying a Confederate flag. They even has a t-shirt for sale, which, after showing a picture of a Confederate flag waving proudly in the wind, read:

If You're Offended By This
You Need a History Lesson

Personally I think that anyone who simultaneously wraps themselves in the cloth of patriotism and flies the flag of open rebellion against the United States needs much more than just the history lesson they promise to those who call them on the bigotry and treason represented by that flag. As it stands, I couldn't spend my little money in either store. Both appealed to our worst instincts; both preyed on and profited from our culture of fear.

But the two stores, across the street from each other, stand next to the greatest place on earth, a locally owned miniature golf course which also makes its own ice cream and waffle cones. I can still feel that sweet taste oh heaven on my lips, in my mouth. I am a sucker for ice cream, even ripping off the Bay City Rollers with my own

I-C-E-C-R-E-A-M! (to the tune of S-A-T-U-R-D-A-Y!)

pestering my wife with a constant barrage of musical odes to ice cream.

But not all of the culinary treats of the beach worked out quite so well. It turns out, after years of a vegetarian diet, I can't even eat seafood once a year anymore. I tried it twice, and twice I got violently ill. We were so close to the semi-legendary town of Calabash, by the North Carolina/South Carolina border, that I could almost taste their famous fried seafood, in a much lighter batter than most other places. Picture, if you will, hush puppies that are closer to Krispy Kreme doughnuts than anything else. So light, so buttery, so sweet that they simply can't be good for you. Now picture that same batter on every kind of seafood imaginable. If you ask for your fish broiled they look at you the same disgusted and condescending way that the waiter in London looked at me when, an ignorant and arrogant American teenager, I asked for iced tea.

So close to Calabash, but my days of eating seafood seem finally over. Looks like I won't cheat on my vegetarianism (if there is such a word) once a year any more.

Coming home from dinner one night I saw a bumper sticker which reminded me of the way in which fear, hatred, and the worst sort of xenophobia pretending to be patriotism so dominate political discourse, particularly in the no-longer-familiar-to-me American South. It featured a menacing picture of Uncle Sam, pointing his finger straight, it seemed, at me, saying:

Love it, or Leave It!

Surrounded as it was by anti-leftist propaganda stickers, its message was clear: People who disagree with the politics of the owner of that vehicle are guilty of nothing less than hating America, if not outright treason. Of course my politics, which often question American policies and motives, as well as the morality of our prosecution of wars, comes out of a deep seated love for my country; a love so deep that it is willing to stand up and say that we are on the wrong path, and need to change direction before we harm ourselves and others any further.

Coming of age, and coming to faith, in a conservative evangelical setting, I was often told that true love is the ability to point out to someone how wrong they are, in the hopes that they will change their ways. This doesn't often work out so well in interpersonal relationships. As a teenager I could never convince the people that I loved that they should change their ways to avoid the fires of hell. But there are times when I feel the impulse to engage my country with that sort of evangelical love. If I didn't love my country so much I might leave it. But I wouldn't leave it just because some bumper sticker told me to.

After a week on the beach we drove home through some small South Carolina roads. We drove through many depressed small southern towns, full of the insecurity which gives rise to the politics of fear. Many of the subtle cultural messages I got from signs, stores and bumper stickers in Holden Beach were more apparent in these economically desperate areas. They reminded me of the small town in Kentucky with the church I used to pastor. The town had few jobs, and limited prospects for keeping the kids who grew up there. Most skipped town after high school, either going to school or heading to Lexington or Louisville or some other more populated area to try to find a job. But that church, in that town, had little appreciation for the socioloical and socio-economic factors which caused them to constantly lose their young people. Seeing themselves as the last remnant of a dying way of life, they placed themselves in the midst of a cosmic war between good and evil, us and them.

That same way of thinking permeates many depressed and isolated areas throughout the south. It becomes part of the culture fabric and religious mythos. And as the divide between the haves and the have-nots deepens, as these "good" people become more and more isolated from the rest of society, more and more economically depressed and emotionally despondent, the spiritual war that they wage against an immaterial evil represented in part by hyper-educated city liberals like myself my grow more and more physical.

I'm not trying to sound paranoid, nor am I trying to detract from the great joy that was my vacation. But as I drove through the rural south on my way home, my mind filled with the xenophobic images I had already encountered, I couldn't help but fear that the Christian fundamentalism emerging from these areas could, in a perfect storm of sociological, psychological, theological and economic factors, become much more like the Islamic fundamentalism that so threatens global safety.

It is good to be back in the religiously and culturally pluriform city. It is good to be back in the safety of home. But if I allow myself to retreat to far into this emotionally safe place, I may miss the potential escalation of the culture wars.

No comments: