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The Uncivil War: Cousin Against Cousin
By Eileen Jones
How does your extended family shake out politically? Me, I come from a rabid tribe of right-wingers containing a renegade band of fulminating lefties, plus a couple of pleasant and reasonable moderates nobody listens to.
Fortunately we’re all scattered across the country, trying to make sure each relative has his or her own state in which to be an opinionated pain in the ass. This prevents family quarrels. Or at least, it did for many years. But now, with the internet and all, family harmony is steadily breaking down. Communication, that’s the problem. If you give people the means to do it, they’ll tell you what they think, and that’s when you get those mass-killings we read so much about these days.
Anyway, I recently received a dreary anti-immigrant screed from a cousin of mine who lives in Missouri. We’ll call her Sandy, because that isn’t her name. I haven’t seen or talked to Sandy in fifteen years, but through the miracle of e-mail, bammo, just like that she can resume communications with a jolt of Red State wit and wisdom.
Maybe you’ve never gotten a dreary anti-immigrant screed, but they’re just about what you’d expect. This one was an allegory suggesting we imagine that America is a house and illegal immigrants have broken into it. We the American homeowner are being asked to allow the criminal immigrants to live in our house, because at least they do all the crap housework we don’t want to do.
Here’s the finale, purporting to be the smug immigrant speaking:
‘It's only fair, after all, because you have a nicer house than I do, and I'm just trying to better myself. I'm a hard-working and honest, person, except for well, you know, I did break into your house. And what a deal it is for me!!!
I live in your house, contributing only a fraction of the cost of my keep, and there is nothing you can do about it without being accused of cold, uncaring, selfish, prejudiced, and bigoted behavior.
Oh yeah, and I DEMAND that you learn MY LANGUAGE!!! so that you can communicate with me.’
Why can't people see how ridiculous this is?! America is populated and governed by idiots.
If you agree, pass it on (in English).
If not blow it off...........along with your future Social Security funds and a lot of the former benefits of being an American Citizen.
Illustrating these points were dismally unimaginative cartoons, one featuring a righteous white American kicking a Mexican back over the border. The cartoon Mexican had an amnesty bill sticking out of his back pocket, so it would get kicked along with his ass.
Sandy’s only comment was the subject line, “ha ha.”
It’s really the “ha ha” that did it. Getting “ha ha”-ed at by somebody is always potentially insulting—just ask Nelson Muntz of The Simpsons, who uses it as an all-purpose diss—but it’s even worse when it implies chummy agreement with something stupid and badly punctuated.
I fired off a sneering Blue State reply to the effect that this is the sort of hick ignorance that gives Americans a bad name all over the world.
Sandy’s brother Dan fired back in Sandy’s defense. This was upsetting, because I always liked my cousin Dan. In fact, he was my favorite cousin, though I hadn’t seen or heard from him in fifteen years either. Fifteen wonderful years!
Dan said this:
Wow Eileen I didn't know you were on the side of the eternal lawbreakers....[T]he cartoons may be over the top but the sentiment is right on time and in SUPPORT of the constitution which is what we will be celebrating this coming [4th of July] weekend....I'll be attending a Tea Party....ignorant???? that is how I feel about my fellow americans that have no knowledge of the constituion [sic] or think it is somehow outdated or meanspirited for expecting people within our borders to abide by it.....If I break the law I go to jail....if those on the left's grace list break the law it's ok because they did it for a higher cause than the document that has bound us together for 200 years...picking fruit, roofing and housework is way more than the laws of this country...remember [our] family has been fighting this fight since 1753.Finally...when I was 18 years old I swore an oath to protect the constitution from ALL ENIMIES foriegn [sic] and domestic...I still live by that oath.
You see, this is what comes of keeping in touch with family—you find out your own cousin is a Tea-bagger.
And that he actually believes our family has been fighting a consistently noble battle for 200 years in any cause whatsoever. We come from a bunch of crazy hill-country dirt-farmers of mixed-up Celtic descent, very much inclined toward hazel eyes, black humor, and alcoholism. My favorite figures in our family tree include such luminaries as “Two-bit Kate” and an appalling backwoods clan known as “the Swamp Angels.” My grandfather was the town drunk in any town he happened to live in, and my grandmother eventually ran him off the farm swinging an axe. A judge told her it would’ve been justifiable homicide.
You see, I’m proud of my heritage. We come from a gene pool of real, undiluted American Crazy.
My cousin Dan was a wonderful boy, an anomaly in our clan. He was white-blonde, for one thing, and we didn’t countenance blondes as a rule. You could be dark-haired or auburn-haired, those were your choices. But his blondeness was like his sunny temperament sprouting outwards, another anomaly in a tribe full of choleric depressives. He was so generous he didn’t even mind sharing his childhood birthday parties with me, since we were close in age.
As a teenager Dan was heartbreakingly beautiful, in that unassuming way working-class young people sometimes are for a short time before heavy drinking and bad diet lays waste to them. He had a perfect swimmer’s body—I can remember him mowing the lawn in his swim trunks, a Hicksville Adonis—and later joined the Navy, and later still moved down South and became a commercial diver.
By then, of course, I’d moved to a coastal state, and only saw an occasional photo charting the wreckage of his hard partying, and heard the anecdotes about his wild life. He and Sandy and their immediate family were so red-blonde and raucous, such uncontrollable rowdies, they were like Viking stock. I and my siblings always seemed like a group of dark, bookish monks and nuns by comparison. It’s hard to reconcile my memories of them to their claims of reverence for the law.
But sure enough, Sandy soon e-mailed me back, also testifying to her determination to live and die defending our beloved CONSTITOOOOTION against marauding aliens.
I assume this isn’t just happening in my family, these embarrassing Culture War outbreaks. If the news is any indication, we’ve got this going on all over the country, a lame Uncivil War, featuring Tourette’s Syndrome-like bursts of inflammatory rhetoric larded over with pompous high-minded justifications. None of us are bigots or snobs; we’re all constitutional scholars now, and crusaders against ignorance.
I e-mailed Dan that I was finding our exchange pretty depressing. And he wrote back with a burst of generosity that was like the boy-Dan I remembered:
Don't be depressed Eileen, I know it seems like I'm being mean but I'm not....there is no malice in my responses to you only the sarcasms of [our family]...I enjoy these types of exchanges--the true irony is that I'm usually having these types of back-n-forth with my sister [Sandy], who started all this, we disagree on most everything.
So we patched it up and commenced another fifteen years of beautiful familial silence.
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