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Op-Ed

A cure for our national sickness

June 17, 2022

Our country is sick and unhappy, and despite all our politicians’ talk of “getting tough” on this, that, and the other thing, most of this sickness and unhappiness comes from fear.

Robert Kahn

By Robert Kahn

Deputy editor emeritus, Courthouse News

Residents of Middle America, it seems to me, often are afraid of folks with whom they are unacquainted: Black folks, brown folks, Spanish-speakers; men who marry men and women who marry women; women who wear headscarves, for Pete’s sake. 

Before we return to the men and women of what Robinson Jeffers called our perishing republic, let’s talk about dogs.

It’s well known that dogs are better than people. They also learn basic, important things faster than we do, and shed their fears faster. I’ve seen this at the dog park.

A high point of my every day comes as the sun rises, on a leisurely, 3-mile stroll around an off-leash dog park outside of Denver. All the dogs get along, and most of the people. In fact, in an estimated 600 strolls around the park — 1,800 miles — I’ve seen just two dog fights, and I blame those on bad people.

Last week I met a woman with a nervous cocker spaniel. He barked at me, he barked at Cleo and Titus, he barked at everything.

“First time in the park?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said. Her old black Lab died, and she adopted the little dude from the Dumb Friends League.

I saw them again this week. That little pup was having the time of his life. He played with Titus, he chased Cleo, and she let him do it, he ran around in circles just for the hell of it. The lady looked happier too. Laxified. Why? Because the dog had learned there was nothing to be afraid of — even of big dogs — because he had walked among them.

We return to people. I’ve lived in Mexico, and traveled in 32 of its 34 states, and cannot recall a single instance when people treated me with hostility because I was a white guy. This, though Mexico has a great many more reasons, historically, to be suspicious of gringos than gringos have to be suspicious of Mexicans.

I’ve traveled in nine European countries, and worked there, and never met open hostility because I’m American — not even in France. I learned that if you try to speak just a few words of their language, in a wretched accent, people will smile, and try to help you out, and, like as not, answer you in English.

Why is it, then, that in the United States, white people will call the police on people for speaking Spanish in a grocery store? Spit on an 82-year-old Chinese woman? Kill a woman on the street because her parents were born in Asia?

It’s fear. Well, ignorance and bigotry too, but the fear that comes from bigotry and ignorance.

The biggest scaredy cat in our politics today is the guy who’s pretending to be the toughest: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. He’s scared to death of homosexuals, thinks they’re a greater threat to children than semiautomatic weapons. Well, if he really thinks that, he’s stupid. And if he doesn’t really think that, but is saying it to fish for votes, he’s despicable.

Years ago, when I lived in Vermont, I saw two Guatemaltecos shopping for groceries. Sin papeles, obviously; a bit nervous: farmworkers, obviously, who lived outside of town. Their shopping cart was piled high with fresh fruit and vegetables. Not a can in sight. I heard them wondering what else to buy; saw them wheel back to the vegetables.

Poor guys: Cooking for yourself now, woman left behind …

I wheeled my cart up to lettuce and said a few words in Spanish. They turned their heads, shocked, then relieved. We exchanged a few words in Spanish and it gladdened my heart to see them smile, to see a bit of tension go out of their bodies. That made my day: that I had the opportunity to say a kind word to a stranger — and said it.

In those days our country was going through another “get tough on immigrants” phase, led, of course, by Republicans.

When Vermont’s Republican Governor Jim Douglas was asked then whether he’d join in boot-kickin’ immigrunts under the G.W. Bush administration, he said, to his credit, “Hell, no. Who’s going to milk our cows? Who’s going to tend to our farms?”

That was in the days before you had to become vicious and remain ignorant to be a Republican.

To quote a great American Southerner, Lyndon Baines Johnson: “Mah fella Amurricans: Y’all ought to get out more.”

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