Subcontinental Divide - 2018


M.A.G.A., T.A.B.A., Paychecks, Checks & Balances

By Ahsen Jillani

Approaching the midterm elections, the editor and I exchanged a couple of emails. I thought about how we had been discussing politics over nearly four decades. He has been more of a journalist through this, remaining objective and fact based. I thought about my history of landing here in 1979 totally ignorant of where I stood in America's weird and complex love affair with “greatness."

In 1979, I knew that Jimmy Carter was president. That ended my knowledge of American politics. While adjusting to life my first semester in the fall of '79, I started to get a different sort of education on cold, sunny weekend mornings. A democrat host family took me around to put up signs for a county commission candidate. In those days, you nailed signs to a stake and hammered the stake into the ground. It was a much slower process. Computers were the size of buses, so there were notepads with names and phone numbers so you could tell who wanted a sign. Of course, there were no cell phones and no Google maps. You read a paper map.

Just weeks apart, the other host family had me go door to door to hand out flyers supporting some guy named Ronald Reagan. Host families were folks who committed to “adopting" foreign students who came to the US alone and scared. These families introduced people from all over the world to American culture, often taking time to pick students up from their apartments on birthdays, Thanksgiving, and even Christmas. The host mothers looked at your sparse apartment and gave you plates, towels, soaps, canned food. They were faith driven, rather than politics driven—and they always thanked us for educating them and their children about the diversity of the world outside of America. For lots of us, the heart of America was this selfless and warm group, and we saw them as being perfect, enviable, and free of politics.

But 19-year-olds who start hanging out with rich Middle Eastern guys driving TransAms and Porsches hardly have much concern about politics. It took a couple of years for me to put the Reagan Era in perspective. What it meant to have outrageous gas prices, or the consumer price index in 1980, or even 18 percent mortgage rates, were all Greek to me. I had nothing to compare those numbers to. All I knew was that foreign students with foreign money operated in a bubble which could not be penetrated by a lousy economy. All I knew was that Reagan stopped those annoying Ted Koppel “America Held Hostage, Day xyz" Nightline broadcasts, and we were going to bomb Russia shortly.

There was not much of a political dog whistle in the Reagan template. Reaganomics and trickledown economics simply pointed to two Americas—you didn't mess with the rich, and you got their crumbs in the form of a paycheck, economic stability, global machismo, and the fiscal responsibility the Republicans said they stood for back in those ancient days. I became an activist then because of nuclear war rhetoric that was about as frequent as Trump's vile attacks on everyone not blonde. But by mid-decade, it was clear to me that there were indeed two Americas—the world of cocaine and yachts, and the world of beer and nightshifts.

It was my ignorance in 1979 that I didn't realize that I was landing in an America just five years removed from Nixon's impeachment and resignation; that I was laughing at racist jokes from Americans just 15 years out from the 1964 civil rights legislation. With the TV shows “Good Times" and “Different Strokes" and Michael Jackson and Mean Joe Green—well, this was America, and it was the beacon of equality, just like all the propaganda reels said all over the world.

Of course, complex things happened as I worked tirelessly through Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Cheney and Obama. The N-word became inert and then went mainstream again. Post Iran-hostage-crisis, middle easterners became known as “rich-Aaaraabs" and post-9/11 became brutal terrorists. What the Dick Cheney administration started by taking a license to discriminate through sheer fear, started driving that wedge of “Us vs. Them" narrative that Donald Trump (with Russian help or not, we will see) turned into the birther-driven and overtly racist art form that became the America of 2016.

So, this brings us to the midterm elections last month. Lying is so brutally open in politics now thanks to where this president has set the bar, that every intelligent voter, the media, the political opponents, just have this dropped-jaw reaction to what comes out the mouths of right-wing politicians still trying to massage the Trump base in their districts or left-wing politicians setting their hair on fire for the silliest tweet or perceived micro aggression.

I am scared that TABA (Take America Back Again) will only land us back in the Johnson Administration, or in the Nixon Oval Office, or Ronald Reagan spouting anti-Russia spiel standing in the Rose Garden.

I realize that I want to return to the rose-colored glasses America I landed in as a teenager, where my host families were bringing Thanksgiving turkey to the dining table on some cold, cloudy fall day. There were smiles everywhere, and from the bedroom to the boardroom, America was a mighty good place to be in, where you were Better Dead than Red, where beer, pizza and a Harley and a Mustang in the garage made you the luckiest person in the world. America was a shining beacon of the pursuit of happiness and that was my America, and that is still the America I want to wake up in every morning.

So let's assume all the checks and balances work and the 35 percent of the racists go back in their holes until the next tyrant who confers on them the power to act out hatred openly. Let's assume a shift in the anti-abortionists who claim precious human life happens the minute the sperm meets the egg during beautiful romance but who cheer at the prospect of colored babies being yanked from mothers, or even being shot at by the Army at the border.

I would say that Trump and his lies and his base have all been negative for me, but I would be lying myself. It's always good to learn the truth—and then if lucky, we will land in Reagan's two Americas all over again. TABA.

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Ahsen Jillani a former editor and publisher, is originally from Islamabad, Pakistan, and now lives in Mint Hill. He owns Must Media, a PR company focusing on both political and corporate clients.