|Cell, by Judith Glickman Lauder, Metropolitan Museum of Art|
I only remember the set-up, not the punchline. I was a child in the western suburbs of Cleveland, and the first version of the old joke I heard was directed toward the residents of Parma, whom we in tonier Berea considered ourselves better than because their dads wore white socks and blue work shirts with their names—invariably ending in "-ski"—embroidered over the chest and worked at the Ford plant or as janitors, while ours wore white shirts and black ties and worked in offices.
Except of course for my best friend Ricky, whose dad was a fireman, and Danny, whose father was a janitor at the hospital, yet wasn't in the same category as those Parma janitors.
The joke wasn't phrased exactly like that. I believe we said, "How many Polacks does it take to screw in a lightbulb" at a time when such bigotry went unchallenged. We had no trouble saying it because we believed, based on no personal experience, that Poles were dumb, would trouble with that lightbulb, along with other woes. Every joke with a dumb guy in it was about a Pole.
And here's the kicker: we were Polish.
Partially Polish, anyway. My grandfather was born on a farm in Bialystok in 1907, my grandmothers in that great muddied zone of Austro-Hungary. My father's father claimed to be born in the Bronx, but who could tell? In essence the same place.
Of course many if not most Poles wouldn't consider us Polish at all, our being Jews. But that's a separate column. The point is, we were sneering at people very close to ourselves, for qualities of unsophistication that we ourselves possessed. My grandfather wore white socks. He slicked what hair he had and worked in a factory, Accurate Parts Manufacturing, in Cleveland. I'd never dare call him a Polack.
Why were we this way? Immaturity? We were children, remember. It isn't something my parents would join in. Insecurity? The joy of being mean to people. To look down the ladder of society and feel the comforting hope that there was someone lower than ourselves.
So it isn't that Donald Trump invented baseless bigotry, invented tribalism. We all suffer from it. But we also grow out of it. Most of us do. The only time I would use the world "Polack" now is with pride, describing myself, and even then I feel like I'm putting on airs.
We don't expect this kind of bigotry in our leaders. No publicly anyway. Not unashamed. Thus the shriek of outrage that greeted Thursday's "shithole countries" comment was more one of the horror of The Thing Out of Place. The orange in your hand opening a single cyclopian eye and staring at you. The walls bleeding. The president of the United States, too ignorant and arrogant to be ashamed, letting his schoolyard bigotry out to dry in the Oval Office, the yellowed undies of his hateful psyche flapping in the wind for all to see.
His die hard supporters let out a cheer—goll-damn, maybe they can let their cramped little hatreds out of the box to stretch their legs too! They hate living in an American ruined by black people, Hispanic people, Muslim people, fill in the blank.
It isn't that this hatred is so foreign. Just the opposite: it's so familiar, like a trail of toilet paper stuck to the shoe of some glamorous actress on the red carpet. We know what that is. We just don't expect to see it there.
Familiar, yet still a shock, the way knowing Donny is a bully is one thing, and seeing him pound the shit out of some smaller kid on the playground quite something else. Because real people are being hurt. Donald Trump and his supporters are setting immigration policy for years to come. His judges will decide important cases. People are going to die in war zones around the world who might have found refuge in the United States. People like my grandfather and maybe yours, certainly millions more.
The thing with Trump is, we can get worked up as we like. We can vent on Facebook, shake our fists at heaven, demand impeachment now. Next morning, the man's still president. The smoke clears and the Terminator is unharmed. All we can do then is work on ourselves, and admit, the prejudice that so disgusts us is not as alien as we like to pretend. It certainly isn't unique to the president who, always remember, is not a cause but a symptom.