It’s a scary little world right now. Such wars of careless words. Such panic on every breeze. If Eskimos have a hundred words for snow, we have let bloom a thousand words for fear. What bitter tests between power and the ideal, what varied options for doom. Loss of freedom versus loss of security. Osama bin Laden versus the CIA. Global warming versus economic collapse. Smallpox versus man-made strains of polio, mad cow disease versus West Nile virus. With such endless possibilities, we fear everything that moves.
The flags are out in force in my neighborhood, and I have been thinking hard about what unites us as Americans. One must think hard, just to block out the noise of George W. Bush proclaiming Congressional dissenters unpatriotic and Rush Limbaugh calling Al Gore a doofus and Dick Armey declaring liberals “just not bright people” and the Democrats just standing around too tongue-tied to call anybody anything. These days it seems to be fear and fear alone that ties us all together.
Lots of people are thinking like this, we’re told–the inevitable trail of paranoia that fills the wake of great disaster. New York Times columnist Clyde Haberman recently wrote about a couple who took a dinner cruise around Manhattan. They became unnerved by a woman seated at the next table because she was by herself and “extremely overdressed,” and “seemed to be a foreigner,” and kept checking her watch and carried a black canvas bag. The couple called the boat’s manager to report her as suspicious and to have that bag investigated. Nothing was out of order and the couple’s concerns were dismissed as overwrought, but Haberman ended his column with all the dark drama of an Edgar Allan Poe mystery: This time it was a “collection of random facts that add up to nothing. Still….”
It is the ominous “still…” that hangs over the nation like sickness, belying the bright optimism of all those fluttering flags. Haberman’s case, at least, did not end like the debacle in Florida, where a Shoney’s patron overheard three “Middle Eastern-looking” men discussing their plans to “bring it down,” so she assumed they meant civilization or at least a few buildings. The police closed off a major highway for seventeen hours and blew up their knapsacks before it was learned that the men were only talking about bringing their car down to Florida. Such great edginess eats away at our capacity to reason. A friend who’s an educator says that one of the questions they ask children on IQ tests is what they would do with a wallet if they found it on the street. The high-scoring answer is that you would find a police officer and hand it over.
But black children, especially boys, almost never say that. They’d take it to their mothers or other female relative to have them turn it over. They tend to avoid police officers, and try not to have their names or that of any man they know in any public agency’s files, especially police. But taking the wallet to your mother in the race-blind context of standardized tests is a sign of immaturity. Little boys run to their mothers. Big smart fearless boys take things directly to the men in charge. Thus “common” sense exists in complicated relation to value systems of coded fear, encrypted credibility.