Meeting a Diversified America

January 1, 2001
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Dear President Bush,

It seems to me, sir, that you have hard work ahead. You’ve talked a lot about bringing the country together, about reaching out to “all Americans.” I’m a Canadian by birth, only recently a United States citizen. I have been delighted to live in a country with a Constitution, since my native land has none. But while you have been calling for “unity” in the past few harrowing weeks, I’ve been getting very nervous. The term, frankly, scares me. It sounds like a way to stifle dissent, to eradicate or ignore real differences in culture, ethnicity, and gender.

What would America under your reign be like if difference were honored rather than scorned; if artists, writers, thinkers, social scientists, and researchers had generous funding to support their work in exploring these differences? Not all of the outlying citizens you say you want to reach out to will want to take your hand and be dragged toward the center; many might prefer their positions on the margins where they can observe and comment upon what you are doing. You seem not to hang out with academics, performers, scientists, or filmmakers, so I want to remind you that there’s more to America’s strength than what you see in either the board room or locker room.

Try to imagine the lives of some of these “others.” Think mosaic, rather than melting pot. Multiculturalism isn’t just a hip buzzword or a code for allowing “minorities” some limited access to the perks of the white folks. It’s a concept that refers to recognizing the richness of diverse experiences and beliefs in a nation I have come to respect. Whatever you thought of your predecessor in the Oval Office, he was clearly comfortable with a vast range of his fellow citizens, whatever their race, faith, or status.

You’ve often used the image of the extended hand. I suggest that you reach out your hand not just across political gulfs but also across economic ones. There are poor people begging on the streets of these cities, and sleeping on them too this cold winter. You invoked God a lot in your campaign. Now it’s time to invoke the human part of the compact to improve the world, paying hard cash and not just lip service to improving lives. But to make lives better, you have to be able to see, actually see, people different from yourself.

Here’s a constituent you probably haven’t met. One bitterly cold afternoon this winter I encountered an elderly woman on a Boston sidewalk. She had on a thin coat, cotton stockings and worn gloves, and like you her hand was reaching out. My daughter Yael and I walked over to give her some money. (The Talmud instructs us not to question the validity of the need of a beggar; the act of asking is enough indication of want.) This woman looked at us, at our bare heads. She thanked us and then, pointing to Yael, said, “You should put on a hat. Both of you should. It’s too cold to be out like that.” While I’d thought that we would comfort her with our random charity, she made our day warmer with her concern. Here was a complete stranger, in need herself, ready to focus on what she perceived as the needs of others, even if it was just our need for her kind advice. She actually looked at us and saw us.

This “other” was poor. You are not. Female and old. You are neither. She is part of the growing coterie of poor elderly women worrying not about prescription drugs but about shelter and simple sustenance. Your campaign rhetoric was clotted with references to “families.” Think now about how offensive that assumption was to the growing numbers of Americans living alone.

That Boston street denizen may not be someone whose vote you’re courting for your party in 2002. However, other women’s votes will surely turn against you unless you tamp down the ferocious rhetoric and the frightening disregard for the nation’s laws that have poured forth from the anti-choice movement. I was appalled to come across an Internet site recently purporting to deliver good advice to pregnant teens. The site offers a very narrow range of options, makes misleading statements linking abortion to breast cancer, and lies that because there are so many “nice couples” out there “you can be sure your child will be wanted and loved by an adoptive family.” To govern well you’ll need to understand that women in this country face harder, sometimes crueler choices than men do – and more complex than the anti-choice vitriol admits. Women represent one more “other,” a biologically vulnerable other, whose plight you might try to imagine as you watch over the public weal and ensure that a woman’s right to choose is never compromised.

While you pause to measure the distance that now separates “self” and “other” in your life, I send you not advice, but a plea: that empathy precede policy in your Administration.

Susan Weidman Schneider
Editor-in-Chief, Lilith Magazine
New York

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