What’s … that smell?
It would be nice if Sacramento had attracted the nation’s attention over something benign, like the Governator’s camp-outs in a big tent on the capitol lawn, early in his regime, so he could enjoy his cigars without breaking California anti-smoking laws. Or because there’d been a large tomato-truck spill on the freeway. The Sacramento Valley provides a good portion of the country with fresh tomatoes, tomato sauce and tomato paste, you see. This time of year, the semis piled high with red tomatoes are everywhere.
But no. It was nothing so mundane as salsa-makings smushed all over the freeway. My home town hit the national news today because, along with several other images nearly as bad, the Sacramento GOP put the disgusting, fear-and-hate-mongering image above on its website.
When I learned about it this morning, I was appalled, even ashamed. But not surprised.
I tried to leave Sacramento, and California, for good back in 1978. There were lots of reasons: The Sacramento Valley is sweltering hot in the March-through-October summer, and I hate the heat. That was reason Number One. Two: Back then there wasn’t much in the way of culture in Sacramento (and there’s not much more now). I’d decided I wanted some. Third, the suburbs were becoming increasingly unattractive, with strip-mall after strip-mall stretching as far as the eye could see. It was boring. Unattractive. Soul-deadening. Today you have to drive nearly 20 miles in any direction to escape the sprawl. Another reason was that I wanted my independence. I wanted to go far away from my family and see if I could make a life for myself.
And finally, there was this: An underlying sense of small-mindedness permeated Sacramento and the region. Like a whiff of sulfur, it disturbed me. But if they noticed it at all, most locals seemed inexplicably proud of that ugly, floating darkness that loomed just out of sight, but was there all the same.
To get away from it, I joined the military – a move you’d think would shape my young mind in a most conservative way. And the military is conservative. But back then, it wasn’t necessarily a political conservatism. Instead, it was, and is, an excellent, working example of successful integration and diversity. Within its ranks everyone had one common goal: to serve and protect our country. It didn’t matter whether you were a Democrat or a Republican. Or any other.
Joining the Air Force forced me out of Sacramento. And believe me, I immersed myself in that new, breath-of-fresh-air environment with enthusiasm, working and living with people of all colors, religions, cultures and social statuses, all of them from my own country. Sure, it wasn’t perfect. But it was just what I’d hoped for, and needed, even though I chose in the end not to make the military my career.
A few years later I moved to Germany, where I worked for the U.S. Army and the Department of Defense as a civilian. There I met and lived with and learned from an entire world of diverse people. Being exposed to them, to different languages, different cultures and different surroundings, even different histories, shaped my eager mind in ways I’d never have dreamed of before. I loved being a part of that fascinating hodge-podge of cultures and people. It fed something in me that had been hungry for a very long time.
I did a lot more growing up. I became a confident adult, far more sure of myself and my place in the world. And I’d grown politically, too. I voted for the first time while I was living in Germany, using an absentee ballot to cast my vote for Bill Clinton. My exposure to the larger world had turned me from a politically ignorant and apathetic person into a very sure Democrat.
But circumstances kept sending me back home in spite of my wanting to set my roots elsewhere.
I left Germany, with huge reluctance, when the Army post I worked at closed during the military drawdown of the late 80s and early 90s. I divorced, finding myself once again a single working mother. My family, including aunts and uncles on both sides, still lived in Sacramento. My parents were growing older. Living closer to them seemed the right thing to do.
By then, Sacramento’s old, festering stink was a lot stronger. So I just held my nose and, in time, remarried and settled in the mountains east of the city, far enough away not to be part of it, but close enough to visit my aging family members.
I like my little house and my rural, way-out-in-the-country community. The summer heat isn’t quite so bad up here, and the seasons are more distinct. The pollution isn’t as bad, either. When I was employed, my job was within commuting distance, but it was still a good 10 miles outside of the city. I liked my job. It kept me busy and distracted from the things I’d disliked about the Sacramento region all those years ago.
Still, it was hard sometimes to accept that creeping darkness, that narrowness of mind that still formed the undertone to life here. That ugly … smell.
Now, the stench is nearly overpowering. It has even reached up here, into the mountains. This county was, during the last presidential election, 80 percent Republican. It’s almost all white. I think there are, like, two Negroes in the whole county. The population of Latinos is a little larger than that, as there’s a lot of agricultural work around here. It’s a far cry from what I grew accustomed to while I was in or working with the military. But most people here don’t talk much about politics, and a good number don’t bother to vote at all. Most of those who do are Republicans.
My cousin, a suburban/city boy to his bones, told me once that he and his friends considered those of us who live up here in the mountains to be hillbillies of the “Deliverance” variety. Like me, he’s a Democrat. He lives in Sacramento and works for a Democratic legislator. But he won’t come up here to visit. I think he’s afraid the Republicans who live here may know what he is and … what, attack him? I laughed when he told me that.
I’m not laughing anymore. What the Republican Party has turned into is ugly. It’s filled with fear, with hate, and with barely disguised violence. It’s repressive and wants to be oppressive. It’s intolerant. It vilifies the “other.”
Under pressure, the Sacramento GOP has taken the hatemongering images off its website. But the stench remains and will remain until the way people think begins to change. I’m glad the Republicans are about to finally lose power in this nation. For 30 years, they’ve turned Americans against each other when what we needed to do was learn to live and work together for the common good.
Barack Obama couldn’t have come into his own at a better time for America.
Note: This video has been out for a couple of weeks, but I only got around to watching it this morning. The speaker is the AFL-CIO’s Richard Trumka, and he’s talking about racism, fear, and intolerance. It’s nice to know that there are people out there like him, speaking the truth and working to make the world a better place for all of us. Watch the video. It will be worth your time.