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Filmmakers and Advertisers Persist in Cultivating Nativism

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How should Americans look?

Most of us don't have the time or the inclination to think about it, but Madison Avenue, Hollywood and the racists among us think of little else. They have ghosted our heads with images in sharp contrast to our demographic profile.

If they are to be believed, Americans should look like the Marlboro Man and Charlize Theron, but Samuel L. Jackson and Adam Beach not so much. In other words, we can tolerate some ethnics here and there but our dominant type, the American exemplar, is the white Anglo-Saxon. This was barely true when we got fighting mad at the British and it's a lot less true today.

Just as racism was wrapped up with a pretty ribbon and called the Southern Stategy in the 1960s, so it is being disguised as national security now. The only people we're fooling is ourselves.

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We think it's okay, it's safe, it's acceptable to look northern European in this country but a bit iffy, a bit dicey to look Hispanic or Middle Eastern. We think there are American patriots who look less American than some of us.

What we should be concerned about is not so much the nut jobs but what this hypocrisy does to our heads. Ever since films started to be made early in the 20th Century our heads have filled with images not about what people look like but what they should look like. Our heads have been filled with authorized versions.

The filmmakers and the advertising people have practiced a form of eugenics, telling us who looks good smoking a cigarette and who looks thuggish, who looks like a proper next-door neighbor and who looks like a menace. These images have defined our sense of belonging - and not belonging. They have defined our Americanness and they reflect and even magnify the failure of our founders to treat African-Americans and Native Americans justly.

All this constitutes bullying. The bullies' message is, It's not okay for you to be you unless you look like we think you ought to look. Who's we, white man? We is Hollywood, Madison Avenue and the nativist sentiment that emerged in all its ugliness in the epidemic of hate e-mails about Barack Obama and Muslims in 2009 and 2010. What is the use of being politically correct about the lyrics of Porgy and Bess and yet countenancing hypocrisy that is as hard to hide as rotten teeth?

Our nativists long for the days when political correctness was a mere glint in a liberal's eye. They have their own ideas about political correctness, ideas that happen to be in perfect sync with decades of filmmaking and advertising. The idea of a black president makes their heads spin, and they think their heads are more important than all the heads spun by imagery proclaiming that there was only one way a real American should look.

Our culture has played fast and loose with our heads on the basic assumption that Americans have a certain look and it comes from northern Europe and no place else. And this is exactly what is going on in our politics today. That hate mail had little to do with Barack Obama's policies and a lot to do with his skin color. How long will we go on kidding ourselves about this?

And now that a good education is out of reach for 99 percent of us, now that the unions are being crushed and the middle class swindled, it is all the more likely that our ruling elite will not look like the rest of us, and George Bush will look like the norm and Barack Obama the anomaly.

Djelloul Marbrook

Djelloul Marbrook is a retired newspaperman. His second book of poems, Brushstrokes and Glances, will be published by Deerbrook Editions on December 20, 2010. His first book of poems, Far From Algiers, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University in 2007 and was published in 2008. It won the International Book Award in 2010. His novella, Artemisia's Wolf, will be published by Prakash Books of India in December. His novella, Saraceno, was recently published as an e-book. His story, Artists Hill, adapted from the second novel of an unpublished trilogy, won the Literal Latté first prize in fiction in 2008. The pioneering e-book publisher, Online Originals (UK), published his novella, Alice MIller's Room, in 1999.

Del's book, Far From Algiers: http://upress.kent.edu/books/Marbrook_D.htm
New review of Far from Algiers: http://www.rattle.com/blog/2009/05/far-from-algiers-by-djelloul-marbrook/
Artists Hill, Literal Latté's fiction first prize: http://www.literal-latte.com/author/djelloulmarbrook/
His blog: http://www.djelloulmarbrook.com
His mother's art: http://www.juanitaguccione.com
His aunt's art: http://www.irenericepereira.com

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