Fearmongers Ate My Mom
Let me tell you a little about my mother. She’s a fantastic woman. Born just before the 30s, she won a scholarship to Julliard at the age of 17. Although she studied classical music, she loved jazz and all the life that surrounded it in 1950’s New York. My mother was fearless. She spent time in a jail cell in Georgia for driving down to Florida with two fellow musicians who were male and African American, to play a summer gig. She saw the ugliness of prejudice very young, and she spent the rest of her life intolerant of anyone who showed even the slightest sign of it. She chose, as my godmother, a lesbian Irish Catholic journalist. For my godfathers, she chose a multi-racial gay couple.
We were constantly on the move when I was young. I lived in many different cultures and she taught me that family is not about blood. It’s about love, and love is never a matter of skin colour, or race, or religion or nationality or sexual orientation or gender. When I was little, in Madrid, and my housekeeper almost died of a backstreet abortion, it was my mother who phoned around the American community and found a Black American military doctor willing to save her life. When the Spanish doctor who had refused to treat her remarked that it was unsurprising that only a Black man would treat her, because he was immoral, she backhanded him hard enough to make him stagger and screamed him out of her house.
She taught me the only lullaby I’ve ever learned. It was in Arabic.
My parents never bought me a car. Instead, my mother gave me the keys to the world of humanity. There was, she insisted, not a person on the planet with whom I could not find common ground, shared interests and passions. She taught me, from the cradle, to respond to difference with curiosity. Never with fear. It’s a cliche to say that food is a great unifier, but she believed that. She had no tolerance for a refusal to try something new, different, from another culture.
An inverterate insomniac, at night she would listen to shortwave radio, often in languages she didn’t understand. She said there was a music to language. It didn’t matter if you didn’t speak it. If you listened long enough, you could hear the emotions behind the incomprehensible noises, and know what people meant. She despised opacity. She refused it.
Now my mother is in her eighties, and she lives in London. Age has made it harder for her to get around, and she spends a lot of time listening to talk radio in the UK, and watching the news on TV. And something has changed. Every time I go back to visit her, she comes out with some weird piece xenophobia. ‘All those *** women support female circumcision, you know!” or “All those *** abandon their kids!” They are the most ridiculous generalizations with no basis in fact. When I challenge her on them, she defends them with jingoistic, irrational, unfounded bullshit.
And I say: Mom, please… think about what you’ve just said. It’s just NOT true and you know it. Think it through. How can it be true? It’s not.
For a day or so, she’ll admit it’s bullshit. She’ll even get angry at herself for having believed it. But inevitably, she succumbs to the lure of some other racist, xenophobic, class-based ‘factoid’ and repeats it.
If I take her to a market, full of Caribbean and North African veggies, she reverts to her old self. She is curious again, voluble, interested, asking the ladies in the market for long explanations on how to cook something or other. She falls in love with their clothes. She brazenly tells women who can hardly understand her how beautiful they are. She listens, she hears, she engages and cares again.
But it doesn’t last.
Between talk radio and the news, these assholes have turned this once fearless, open-minded, curious woman into a quivering, fearful, xenophobic old lady. They have somehow persuaded her to see herself as an embattled victim of diversity. They have persuaded her that the world is a frightening place full of people who don’t look like her who are hell bent on doing her harm.
All I could think of to do was to buy her a subscription to audiobooks, so she has something less horrible to listen to. But honestly, I’m at my wits end. It’s like trying to hold back a tide of evil, or cancer.
Fearmongers and hatemongers are eating my Mom.