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Fear of Change, Fear of the Different, Fear of the Future

The last few years have witnessed a blizzard of “anti-” bills and laws emerging from states dominated by conservatives. Anti-voting rights, anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-lesbian, anti-transgender, anti-reproductive rights, anti-immigrant and anti-women bills have been introduced and, in many states, passed and signed into law.

Along with these have come the real head-scratchers like Indiana’s and Mississippi’s efforts to legalize discrimination against anyone whose actions or appearances or beliefs violate one’s supposed religious convictions.[1] Defenders of these bills like to point to the meme of the florists whose religious beliefs supposedly bar them from providing arrangements for a gay wedding.[2]

What we were seeing here is disturbing but shouldn’t really be surprising. It’s a classic conservative reaction to change and America is undergoing dramatic shifts in demography, ethnicity, age and expressions of sexuality and identity.

Non-Hispanic whites[3] now number around 195 million or a tad above 60% of the population. That’s down from 90% in 1940 and demographic projections have 2040 or thereabouts as the point where this once-dominant group becomes a minority. Part of this drop is due to low birth rates and the surprisingly high rates of mortality among middle-class whites. Since 2013 deaths among white Americans have outpaced births. The shift is inexorable.

The make-up of Congress has undergone dramatic change. In 2001 there were 63 non-whites in Congress. In 2016 there are 91. That still under represents their number in the population at large but it is a 44% jump and, interestingly, two of these representatives are Muslims.

Gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people used to have the good grace to stay in the closet — though perhaps that was more out of fear than graciousness. Now they’re everywhere (of course, they always were). Openly gay CEOs and corporate presidents head up Apple, Gawker, NBC Entertainment, BP, John Hardy Jewelry and Nike Information.

Caitlyn Jenner, once the world’s greatest male athlete is transgender, as are Chaz Bono, RuPaul, Carmen Carrera and Emmy nominee Laverne Cox. Eddie Izzard, long a cross-dressing comedian, actor and social commentator recently came out as transgendered.

Homosexuals Rachel Maddow, Don Lemon, Steve Kornacki and Anderson Cooper bring us news and commentary, Ellen Degeneres is the eponymous host of a popular daytime show, David Hyde Pierce, Alan Cummin, Derek Jacobi, Ian McKellen, Jim Parsons, Nathan Lane star on TV and Broadway. K. D. Laing, Elton John and Ricky Martin sing to us all. Wikipedia lists roughly 1,100 actors and entertainers who openly identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered.

DADT was repealed, DOMA reversed and the SCOTUS ruled that gay marriage is a Constitutional right.

Colorado, Washington and DC (with restrictions) legalized recreational marijuana and twenty-three states permit medical use with a doctor’s prescription.

The climate is changing and, slowly, even the most ferocious deniers are acknowledging that something seems to be amiss with the weather.

Fossil fuels use is dropping. Coal is becoming the unwanted fuel. Electric cars are increasingly popular, solar panels are gracing rooftops and green energy systems using wind, the tides, water and the sun are emerging. Robots are doing human jobs, winning chess and Go matches and even beating top poker pros at the most complex game humans routinely play.

All this is welcomed with applause and calls for more freedom of expression, more openness, diversity, innovation, more new foods and dress and music — by some.

But others, especially that fading cohort that identifies as white, thinks of itself as middle- or working-class and Christian, is middle-aged and relatively uneducated, sees it as nothing short of terrifying. Women in head scarves conjure visions of suicide bombers. Gays holding hands, kissing at their nuptials evoke Pavlovian spasms of revulsion. They look about them seeing atheists in the woodwork, climate change scientists on talk shows, “elitist” intellectuals talking “at” them not “to” them and always, always there’s that Black face sitting in the oval office.

For the most part they aren’t bad people; they’re scared, confused, unsure. The cultural rug is being pulled out from under them. They don’t understand what’s happening or why and they’re just doing what seems right, lashing out, looking for help, lining up behind anyone who says that the future can be like the past.[4]

When angry white voters say they want to take their country back they are telling you they want to take it away from these strange, different people with darker skins, odd ways of dressing (and cross-dressing), unwelcome music and art, peculiar foods with odd spices, unacceptable ways of making love and worshiping who have inserted themselves into an America they once called their own.

When Trump and his supporters say they want to make American great again, “great” is a dog whistle. They hear it loudly and clearly. They know what it means.

But they are a minority, increasingly so. They cannot reverse time. They cannot control the demographics or force society to accomodate to their fears.

It’s too bad. They’re going to miss out on a lot of really cool shit. 

[1] As Katherine Stewart noted in a piece in The Nation, the Mississippi bill was drafted by the American Family Association which has a good bit of skin in the game. The AFA, which has been classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, has been hearing whispers that their tax exempt status might be revoked. Bills like the one in Mississippi would give them cover to continue to foster discrimination and hatred.

[2] Frankly, I’m looking forward to a Fundamentalist Muslim refusing service to a woman who entered his store with her head uncovered and unaccompanied by a man.

[3] Note that the census counts include those with European, Middle Eastern and (some) North African ancestries. In today’s world, especially in the eyes of many white conservatives, not all these demographically white individuals are treated as equals. Middle Easterners and North Africans, particularly those who embrace Islam are routinely discriminated against.

[4] There’s been a good deal of work in social psychology on these issues, much of it done under the rubric of Terror Management Theory. TMT provides intriguing insights into not just the current socio-political scene; it also aims to make sense of the key question, why do we have so much trouble getting along with people who are different. I’ll post on it later.

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