Okay, I think that we’ve officially entered the Silly Season. First we have the sad story of Mitt Romney’s pooch, who was crated, strapped on top of the car, and taken on vacation. There are a lot of ways to spin this. the ASPCA roundly condemns the practice of strapping one’s dog–however crated–to the car roof and zooming off for a fun-filled vacation. Not surprisingly, many agree. Also not surprisingly, the Romneys are holding fast to their “he liked it, and it was better than a kennel” position. I am unconvinced that the car roof was the only alternative to a kennel for the vacationing Romneys–possibly Seamus could have stayed in one of their numerous homes–but to be perfectly honest, in the absence of a weigh-in by Seamus himself I am prepared to give the Romneys a pass on the whole dog on the car roof thing.
I’m willing to concede that Seamus may indeed have “loved it”–Irish Setters are famously beautiful but dumb. Maybe Seamus did love the prospect of an eighteen-wheeler roaring toward him. Maybe he did love the endless, incessant, inescapable buffeting of the wind driving him ever back, back, back against the back wall of the crate. Maybe he did love the way the crate rocked and shook as the car raced toward Ontario. Maybe he did love bugs in his teeth. Maybe the Romneys strapped the crate on sideways. Maybe it was indeed an ill-advised turkey, rather than terror, that caused Seamus’ sudden attack of diarrhea. Who knows? So–in the absence of any sort of word from Seamus, I’m willing to file this under “things that make me go ‘huh?'” and move on.
What is bothering me more these days is the GOP’s answer to the Seamus-on-the-roof story, and that’s their “revelation” from Dreams of My Father, President Obama’s memoir about, in part, his childhood in Indonesia, that in his childhood Barry Obama ate dog meat. The implication is that but for the eagle eye of Fox News and Rush Limbaugh the First Family would be barbecuing Bo in the Rose Garden. Apparently the plan is to use the story about child Obama eating dog meat in Indonesia as some kind of answer to Seamus-on-the-roof.
It would be funny, if it didn’t reveal how very insular, smug, and dim-witted the spinmeisters at the GOP believe us to be. In the first place, equating an action taken by a grown man, married, with children, and presumably in his right mind, with the action of a child, arguably still at the “eat-what’s-set-before-you” stage of life, is ridiculous. The two things simply aren’t equivalent. No matter what one thinks of Seamus’ car trip, there’s simply no way to equate the fact that the adult Mitt chose to strap his dog to the roof of the car with the fact that a young child ate a piece of meat he was given by a caretaker. None.
What’s more troubling, though, is what the “You ate dog” response says about the insularity and bigotry that we are being asked to embrace. Let me say right here that I do not eat dog. I have no plans to try. But I recognize that this is because of a powerful cultural bias, not because dog meat is inherently inedible. Biases are powerful things, and food biases are some of the most powerful of all.
Andrew Zimmern’s show, Bizarre Foods, regularly invites viewers to confront their biases by exploring how people around the world meet the nutritional demands of their bodies. I watch. And sometimes I wince. But the show carries a profound message–one important enough that I used it as the basis for a writing class I teach. The message is this: Humans all have certain nutritional needs, and how we meet those needs is driven by where we live, what foods are available, and yes, our cultural and religious taboos. Understanding and respecting that fact is the first step toward understanding that humanity is truly all one family–we eat what is around us, and for millions in third-world countries–like Indonesia–that has prompted the acceptance of a much wider variety of protein sources than we, who live in a far wealthier world, are accustomed to. Like privileged children who turn up their noses at bread crusts, in the context of the world population we are picky eaters. We can afford to be. We’re rich.
To build a political “smear” on a simple fact of life–Barry Obama was living in a part of the world where the consumption of dog meat was acceptable, and one of his caregivers gave him some–says more about those who have crafted the smear than it says about President Obama, who no longer lives in Indonesia, who can make his own protein choices now, and who, judging by Bo’s continued happy existence, does not appear to number dog meat among those choices. It says that the crafters of that particular bit of propaganda live smug, safe, sheltered lives, lives in which they can afford to pick and choose what they will eat, rather than eating what they must, the way that much of the world does. It says that they can see no difference between the biases that govern all of our food choices and morality–possibly even religion. It says that they are willing to convict someone for being different, for having a broader, more inclusive cultural experience. At worst, it says that they are willing to condemn those who live in other parts of the world, who use other proteins, fruits, vegetables, and starches to fill out their food pyramid to either ostracism or malnutrition. Mostly, it says that they simply have no concept of or respect for the exigencies under which most of the world lives. It makes me wonder how much they understand about how the less privileged in America live, and the dietary choices being made in smaller, humbler homes just down the street.
That smear reeks of snobbism, self-congratulation, narrow-mindedness, and insularity. It is beneath us. And if you doubt me, reflect for a moment on the fact that the overwhelming majority of Americans partake of beef in myriad forms, while half a world away there is a nation that holds cattle sacred–and that is probably as appalled by our addiction to McDonald’s as we are by the idea of eating dog meat.
At its root, this smear comes back to the same tired meme that stained so much of the last election. It is an appeal to the lowest human instincts, to racism and xenophobia. The smear is designed to remind us all that President Obama is different, other, and quite possibly dangerous. It is a return to the canard that “he is not like us.”
So here’s the question: Who is “us?” If the measure of “us-ness” is buying into this bit of ugliness, I hope to all gods that he is not “like us.” And I hope I’m not like “us,” either.