In college, I spent a semester doing an internship in a middle school. At the time, I wasn’t all that many years older than the children around me, but it was already quite clear that there was a world of difference between young adolescents and adults. Whereas adults tended to respond to things as individuals, the middle school kids operated in packs—groups of friends, large or small, whose attitudes and emotions could turn on a dime. Like little schools of fish, they instantly shifted direction every time the currents changed.
Hate, adoration, shame, guilt, sorrow, curiosity: once touched by a feeling, kids of that age suddenly embrace it with an all-consuming intensity. Their emotions are raw and instinctual. Adults working in middle schools are constantly confronted with a fool’s dilemma: whether to try to reason with the little critters when they get caught up in their emotional storms or just wait for those storms to pass. In general, it’s best to pick one’s battles.
Some psychologists believe that all the people we’ve been in our lifetimes still reside within our brains—that under the right circumstances, we can revert to any stage of development, feeling and reacting as though we were that age again. I believe it. Ever since my brief sojourn as an adult in a middle school, I often see people in society revert to the same kind of emotional populism—and with the young adolescent’s disregard for reason, truth, or justice.
Since the ill-advised anti-immigration law was signed in Arizona, my electronic mailbox has been filling up with forwarded hate mail—some aimed at immigrants, some at people in government, some at anyone who might disagree with the “in-crowd.” The tone of these messages ranges from spiteful to vicious, with the “us-against-them” stance so typical of the middle-school mentality. (Mind you, I have asked each of these individuals, some of whom I’m related to, not to forward political or anti-government emails my way. The people who are still doing it, however, have a very different understanding than I do about what these messages stand for.)
There’s the one about a Mexican, an Arab, and a woman in a bar. In the punch line, the good ol’ American gal shoots the two men, saying, “In America, we’ve got so many immigrants that we don’t have to drink with the same ones twice.”
Charming, right? Humor can sugar coat the most bitter sentiment and get people to swallow it before they even realize it’s poison.
I received that hate message twice, by the way: once from a retired third-grade teacher and once from an engineer.
Another—from a sweet little man who looks like he wouldn’t swat a fly—purports to be from someone offering tickets to an event at a county fair. The message says that Robbie Knievel, son of Evel Knievel, “is going to try to jump over 1,000 Obama supporters with a Caterpillar D-9 bulldozer.”
Then there’s the one forwarded by a nice, middle-aged lady who often sends me gorgeous photographs of flowers and sunsets and cute little puppies. The visual part of the message consists of six photos of trash strewn in a narrow gully—the same kind of ugly mess any of us can see within a mile or two of where we live. (What can I say—some people are pigs.) Titled “Arizona Super Highway,” the message expresses outrage at the “illegals” who allegedly dumped “water containers, food wrappers, clothing, and soiled baby diapers” along a 1/2-mile section of a trail. (No barrel cactuses are visible in the photos, which could have been taken anywhere, and one has to wonder how impoverished “illegals” would be able to afford bottled water and disposable diapers.)
I’ve seen some ugly things just stepping out of my car along the highways of America—including bloody syringes and used condoms—so I was not particularly impressed. But the image of the trash functions like any subliminal message, including the images of rats so skillfully embedded by Nazis in films about Jews: it creates a feeling of disgust that is linked in the mind of observers with a target population. Never mind truth and logic—it’s the feeling that matters.
There’s ugliness afoot in America, all right. But it’s not coming here from across the border.