Toward the end of a hauntingly beautiful concert on the last day of the Big Ears Festival, Norwegian bass player Mats Eilertsen thanked the audience for coming. We applauded, but Eilertsen stayed at the mic as if he had not quite made himself clear. Thank you, he added, for coming out to hear music you’ve maybe never heard before. And with that, in charmingly broken English, Eilertsen articulated one of the intangible pleasures I get out of Big Ears: placing myself in strange territory.
I’m a musical neophyte, and so I plunge into Big Ears without knowing what the heck I’m going to hear or if I’m going to like it, but it doesn’t matter. The exposure to new sounds opens me up. Like exercising a muscle, the mental and emotional conditioning forces me to consider art that’s sometimes difficult, sometimes shocking, sometimes joyful, sometimes ecstatic, but always worth every minute.
I remember feeling a similar expansiveness in Sacramento recently, walking into 99 Ranch, an Asian grocery store as big as a Super Kroger. In the produce section were fruits and vegetables I’d never heard of. Lots of them. Fruits and vegetables as common as carrots to the people around me. The whole grocery store was like that, aisle after aisle of surprises, including the dried shrimps and anchovies we sought to make a Malaysian dish. The shoppers came from all over the world, speaking languages I did not understand, placing me definitively in the minority. I was in strange territory. It was exhilarating and enlightening.
And then I found myself feeling sorry for Donald Trump. I imagined he would not feel exhilarated or enlightened, walking around 99 Ranch. He might, instead, feel threatened. And that’s a shame.
Regrettably, he’s not alone. There are so many Americas who feel likewise. Some see our country as a refuge for people seeking justice and a government of laws. Others see it as the guardian of culture for people descended from Western European Christians. The latter view won the day here when Tennessee became the first state to use the 10th amendment to sue the federal government to keep refugees out of here—and again when Knox County Sheriff Jimmy “JJ” Jones applied to a controversial ICE program that seeks to identify undocumented immigrants. I can’t help wondering if, consciously or unconsciously, we’re preparing for the coming tsunami of people fleeing climate change catastrophe by practicing the cruel art of pulling up the drawbridge.
This is personal. Through Bridge Refugee Services, a friend and I began helping an Iraqi family resettle here in Knoxville eight years ago. The family’s story was sadly familiar. For working with the U.S. Army, their lives had been threatened by a bomb planted in their yard. They fled first to Syria, then to the U.A.E, until finally immigrating to the United States where, five years later, they became proud citizens. The transition was not easy. During one difficult day, I was commiserating with my new Iraqi friend when she looked at me, astonished. Difficult? In Iraq, she said, opening her front door meant she never knew if she would be shot and killed. That was difficult.
I tend to see my country through a complicated lens: historically, both champion of human rights and perpetrator of genocide and slavery. My Iraqi friends see a safe harbor, and I’ve never met people who love the U.S. more than they do. Why doesn’t Tennessee want more of that?
Show me one foreign terrorist and I will find 10,000 stories of grateful refugees. Show me one undocumented thief and I’ll find 10,000 stories of irreplaceable immigrants. Show me one Dylan Roof and I’ll find 10,000 stories of compassionate young white men. Fear is what drives us to lump people into categories and treat them accordingly. Fear allows us to believe Muslim bans and insane walls will make us safe, while cutting biomedical research at the National Institute of Health is no big deal. Which should we fear more: a Syrian refugee, a Guatemalan maid, or an Ebola-like virus?
Fear keeps us from entering strange territories, and I’m not talking about Big Ears or grocery stores in Sacramento. When we fill our eyes and ears and minds with messages of fear, it is difficult not to feel afraid. But we can choose to turn down the volume of hysteria used by cynical media organizations and engage in the harder pursuit of evaluating what’s true and what’s truly a threat. Then we should recognize and resist careless language.
My mother remembers the words with which her grandmother referred to Italians, Japanese, Mexicans, Germans, Blacks, and Jews. It’s not from political correctness that those words are no longer respectable. It’s called not being rude. Or cruel. So how is it acceptable to call human beings “illegal aliens?” Even recent history tells us that “illegal alien” can morph into “scum” and then into “vermin,” and vermin can be exterminated. We do not have to tolerate language used as propaganda to demonize groups of human beings.
Nor should we tolerate legislators who support bills targeting our LGBTQ communities that, besides being morally reprehensible, invite boycotts against Tennessee’s many cultural and economic treasures. Like Big Ears.
We should grab opportunities that challenge us. For me, that might mean engaging with a Trump supporter. For someone else, it might mean listening to unfamiliar music or someone from a different faith or a transgender woman. New experiences that open hearts and challenge assumptions are worth it, especially if they’re difficult. There are a lot of Americas, but only as mental constructs. In reality, this stretch of land between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans contains all kinds of people. It’s a strange territory but it doesn’t have to be scary. I choose to work toward a country that says, “Thank you for coming.”
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