At one surreal moment, both the Nazis and the liberals, were shouting USA, USA
I am a new immigrant to the land of Op, so fresh off the boat that I could still catch scurvy. I moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, from Bombay, India, last November, and discovered that contrary to my fears, provoked mostly by hoots of laughter from my American friends when they heard that I was moving to the Bible Belt, the people of Knoxville were warm, intelligent and distressingly polite, nodding away even when they couldn’t follow my strange Indian sarcasm.
One month ago, I got my first taste of a street demonstration in the USA when I attended a rally to protest another rally. The neo-Nazis had planned theirs first to signal their support of Arizona’s immigrant profiling law. The neo-Nazis are a fellowship of like-minded people who band under names such as the White Supremacists and the Ku Klux Klan, and it was the latter that made me sit up.
I found it hard to believe that something as medieval as the Klan was still around in the middle of Knoxville’s hydrangeas and dog parks. I had assumed that like slavery and thumb-screws it had been abolished and was festering underground along with P. W. Botha. I was told, however, that although no one took them seriously any more, a threadbare remnant of the bed-sheet militia still existed. So when a friend asked if I wanted to join a group of progressives gathering to protest the KKK’s latest airing of its white laundry, I jumped at the chance.
My friend told me that the white supremacists had held a similar rally earlier in the year, and that the strategy of the liberals, which they were going to repeat this time, had been to poke fun at them. Mark Twain was dead right when he said that nothing in the world can stand up to the assault of laughter. My friend said that she and others had dressed in white to parody the Klan’s livery; they had pirouetted and thrown out clouds of flour and shouted “White Flour” to mock the slogan of “White Power”. Some had dressed in jumpsuits and put lipstick on their noses to gambol like the Kool Klutz Klowns. It all sounded like a lark and I couldn’t wait for Sunday to roll up.
It turned out to be a swelteringly hot, lipstick-melting August afternoon. The KKK was to convene in front of the Old Knox County Court House, around a pair of solid old canons in the front yard. We were gathered on the sidewalk across from the guns, ready for the verbal fusillade. In the middle of the burning street, like chunks of steak too well done, were two rows of armed policemen, facing either way, in full riot gear. The street had been cordoned off. A bit pointless, I thought, given that both parties were here to spread a message, but then, censorship, like the Internet, cannot be policed.
I have to admit that I was there partially out of voyeurism, in the hope that the Klansmen would show up in their whites. Of course, I was disappointed. As it turned out, the liberals had grossly overestimated the right-wing threat, showing up with elephant guns to shoot at birds. There were around 500 of us in all manner of fancy-dress, while across the street, there were barely 60 of them.
The skinheads were half-an-hour late – Hitler would have gassed them. At about 3:30 pm, a group of nine appeared. They were not in any kind of military regalia, nor were they doing the goose step. Instead, they waddled. They were a group of men and women tending to obesity, three children in tow. One man was in a wheelchair. One woman had a baby strapped to her kangaroo style. Another woman began, unthinkingly but rather charmingly, to sway with her child to the infectious Mexican music pouring out of our speakers. These were Nazis? Guns would have looked absurd in their hands. I imagined them instead with shopping trolleys rustling with plastic bags. It was all troublingly domestic, perhaps deliberately so. They had not even set up their equipment. One man dragged a set of speakers behind him like a lawn mower. The cheeky DJ from our side of the street yelled, “Do you need some help? Our sound system is big and it's black!” And we roared with laughter.
It took another 30 minutes for all the neo-Nazis to arrive. These were more stereotypical. The men were in black or khaki fatigues with bright red swastika armbands. Several had their heads shaved but that could have been baldness not bigotry. One chap was holding his flag upside down, we shouted out that the Klan didn’t know how to read, the fellow flushed to the roots of his bald head and righted his flag, and I heard Twain's ghost cackle.
The Goebbels among them, a little man naturally, took the mike and began to rant against immigrants, Jews and communists, all of whom were denounced as filthy traitors. His tirade made me admire afresh the right to speech that the American constitution guarantees, and which really is the bedrock on which this superpower is built. While Mr. G ranted, his men stood in a straight and silent line holding their flags and “No Amnesty. Call Congress” banners. Their body language telegraphed discomfort rather than machismo. From across, we whooped, danced, laughed and clapped like we were at a mardi gras.
The Nazis were clearly outclassed. They didn't have the imagination or chutzpah that the liberals had in such abundance, nor witty slogans like "Eracism" and "El Odio Encoge Tu Pene" which means that hate will shrink your penis. The liberal rank and file was made up of professors, lawyers, doctors and students, the well-read, the well-travelled and the well-heeled. The other side, not so much. Looking at them I was reminded of a line from Thomas Friedman’s book, The World is Flat, about what happens to people who fail to hop onto the gravy train of globalization, and the resentments that build up therein.
But I came away rather disappointed that day because I didn’t get a chance to hear anything the opposition said. For two hours, each side made furious love to its microphone, reducing the protest to a crude clash of decibels. Who could outshout whom? Boom boom! Freedom of speech is meaningless without the freedom to listen, and listen, as a friend wisely pointed out, is an anagram of silent. I strained to hear what they were saying, but my ears were being blasted by bullhorns and Latino beats. Preaching to the converted hit a shrill new high. Then we were singing We Shall Overcome. We certainly overcame their sound-system. We told them to go back to Germany. We told them that we believed in deporting hatred. We told them that their grandmothers were immigrants. They told us stuff too but I don't know what exactly beyond Jews, communists and immigrants being filthy traitors.
At one point, our system began to play Martin Luther King Jr.’s moving I have a dream speech. Over the hubbub, I heard Dr King say, “All men are cremated equal”, and realized a minute later that he had said “created” and not “cremated”, though by some absurd coincidence, and given the burning heat that day, the latter was perhaps more profoundly true. I began to laugh.
And then I heard a full sentence that carried miraculously across the street without being drowned out. “You’ll are anti-American, eighty per cent of the country doesn’t want what you want.” I dismissed the anti-American accusation, after all, it was what they were being accused of too. But the second half made me think. I looked at them and I looked at the liberals, and began to wonder if any group really represented what the country wanted, if at all there was one thing that the country wanted.
Suddenly, neither side seemed real. To us, the clunky Nazis, with their embarrassing Sieg Heil salutes and tribal anger against pigmented and circumcised people, were little more than bumbling Inspector Clouseaus. But the liberals, in their clown outfits and butterfly wings and flummery, and full-blown sense of entitlement, must have come across as equally foolish caricatures of peace. Only the policemen melting in the middle looked like ordinary folk, doing their job, to hell with either side.
And yet, both sides were here to speak up for, and defend their idea of, a country they loved. Our DJ shouted out, mockingly, that both sides had two things in common – a Jewish Jesus and a Black President – but he left out love of country.
The shouting match went on and on, until at one surreal moment, the Nazis began to shout USA, USA. For the first time that afternoon, they had managed to get under the liberals' skin. There was a howl of rage from our side, and the clowns and dancers began to holler back, USA, USA. And suddenly from sidewalk to shining sidewalk, both groups were belting out the same three beloved letters, cheering on the same team in perfect unison, and while this happened, body-language on both sides changed. The Nazis became more passionate, the liberals forgot to laugh. USA, USA. The pigs and men in George Orwell's Animal Farm, voices shouting in anger, all sounding alike. And the policemen looked from Nazis to liberals and liberals to Nazis and from Nazis to liberals again, and it was impossible to tell which was which.
Arundhati Roy, Tyeb Mehta, Michael Jackson, Kipling, Rushdie, Jinnah, Leonard Cohen, Anita Desai, Kiran Desai, East India Company, Namdeo Dhasal, etc