Give us your colorful French-speakers. / Stuart Seeger
Joshua Leibner,  November 1

Letter from Louisiana

Hopes, fears, and the great American divide

Give us your colorful French-speakers. / Stuart Seeger
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Work and circumstance have brought me to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, after several years in blue, blue, blue California. And this is one mixed-up gumbo pot of a place. You’ve got the old school Cajun/Arcadians and the Vietnamese immigrants along the coast, and even some skittles of Latino workers who came in to help rebuild after Katrina. The state is 33 percent black, similar to other southern states.

Yet, even as Donald Trump’s campaign has zero chance of winning California or his own state of New York—and as the campaign has struggled in Virginia, North Carolina, and even Texas—Louisiana remains reliably red. Trump won’t win New Orleans and Baton Rouge, but despite being spectacularly, unprecedentedly unfit for the office of the presidency, Trump will easily win the eight electoral votes of Louisiana. In the 2012 election, Obama lost by a whopping 17 points—but more tellingly, nine out of every ten white people voted for Mitt Romney.

Conservative white voters hold the upper hand. And one result is that Louisiana is making a bid to become one of the most immigrant-unfriendly states in the union. Among a spate of recent dubious legislation is a new law designed to prevent “marriage fraud.” Louisiana has decreed that non-citizens will not be allowed to marry unless they can produce a birth certificate. Because if they were to marry without proof of birth . . . well, we just can’t have it.

Much of the white citizenry desperately reached out for (and demanded) federal assistance after a devastating tropical depression inundated Baton Rouge in August and left thousands homeless. But most whites still will vote for a government-cutting Republican over any progressive they see as taking their America away and giving their “benefits” and “entitlements” to minorities and immigrants.

Meanwhile, there are many progressives marooned in red states who feel like foreigners amid the Trump lawn signs. They seek out online communities for reassurance, for reasons to hope.

Oh . . . and thank God for Netflix.

A month ago, In Jackson Heights, the latest film from America’s most celebrated documentarian, 86-year-old Frederick Wiseman, arrived in my Louisiana mail box, a cultural life preserver in a flat red-and-white envelope.

The documentary examines the famous Queens, N.Y., community of garden apartments and ever-changing storefronts as the new Crossroads of America. Clocking in at over three hours, In Jackson Heights is constructed using the same narrator-less style that has served Wiseman well throughout a career spent plumbing the inner workings of institutions ranging from mental hospitals to high schools to welfare departments to universities to strip clubs to boxing gyms.

Wiseman’s film depicts Jackson Heights, Queens, as a Crossroads of America, containing immigrant multitudes.

In this one, we see a cross-section of America packed into the 300-acre neighborhood that more than 110,000 call home. We learn that 167 languages are spoken and just about every religion is practiced in a district that appears as a Noah’s Ark of all humanity. The film’s narrative arc, such as it is, goes from person to person, showing us the tribulations and daily struggles to make it in Jackson Heights. Wiseman zooms in on the modest micro-moments of individuals here: some are funny, like the doings in a nail-clipper parlor for dogs or in a rowdy bar full of fans watching a Brazilian soccer match. Other sequences are harrowing: at a support group for immigrants, a mother recalls her frantic search for her daughter deserted by her “coyotes” when crossing over from Mexico and lost for fifteen days in the Arizona desert (but ultimately rescued). The speaker running the group asks others, “Who crossed the border? Because we came here flying or walking, dry or wet, but all equal. We got wet in the Rio Grande. Those who came earlier got wet in the Atlantic.”

Wiseman also zooms out, to the epic macro-scope of rapacious big-business economics. A corporate “Business Improvement District” is pushing out small businesses, raising rents, and bringing in GAP stores and more affluent whites. Yet most of the people in Jackson Heights now are national newcomers—Latinos, Asians, Africans. And we see glimpses of an older group of immigrants (Italians, Irish, and Eastern European) who’ve stayed in Jackson Heights. The Jackson Heights Synagogue is used by other ethnic groups as a meeting hall throughout the film and finally, at the film’s conclusion, we see the paltry remnants of the Jewish congregation that, on long ago Saturdays, must have been a powerful spectacle. We watch the ebb and flow between the older white groups who claim political ownership in the city, while new groups assert themselves, including a very open gay and transgender population.

There was a moment—it seems so distant now—when this vision of America was understood to be part of the hope that Barack Obama invoked in his first campaign for the presidency.

In 2008, if you were urbane, educated, and “cultured,” partaking in what you assumed was ordinary, modern daily life, you may have seen a future America—whose young leader was depicted in graphic artist Shepard Fairey’s ubiquitous “HOPE” poster—emblematic of a world you wanted to live in, and felt ready for.

It’s clearer now that Fairey’s poster—and Obama himself—raised entirely different feelings for almost half the country. If they saw change, it was the perilous kind. It elicited the opposite response: “Hope for whom?” Many concluded, “Not hope for me.” And the country has been living with this divide (now overtly and consciously) since Obama’s first inauguration.

In another part of Queens, a few miles down the road from Jackson Heights, there is a community called Jamaica Estates. For years it was a white enclave of multi-million-dollar mansions. It’s where real estate developer Frederick Trump raised his family in a white-columned house they sometimes called “Tara.” Donald Trump may as well have been raised in a different country than the one represented by Jackson Heights. His social circles and education were in the bubbles of rich WASP America. But Jamaica Estates is also light-years away from real life in Louisiana, or any other place now packed with his most ardent supporters. What could possibly have connected Trump to “Trump Nation”?

White solidarity? From Jamaica Estates to Louisiana, or Alabama, or Oklahoma . . . the commonality is obvious: discomfort with too many hues, too many “foreigners.” Many in Trump’s world would surely view Wiseman’s documentary with horror, seeing a looming dystopia, as if watching the grim future depicted in Blade Runner’s multi-ethnic, chaotic, urban hellscape.

Many progressives go back and forth between feeling sympathy for, and alienation from, a white population whose downward mobility is the result of many factors. When the disenchanted agree that “the system is rigged,” in the sense that Bernie Sanders meant it, they are populists. When they strike out in racist and xenophobic ways, they are deplorables. Here in Louisiana, the white folks have a viral suspicion—now a Trump-branded belief—that they got played for suckers in a rigged game. The populism of many of Louisiana’s most colorful politicians, most notably Governor Huey P. Long, always shook a fist at the wealth and power of the know-it-alls in the “cultured” American centers of Washington or New York. When the Republicans play the populist card, their wrath is turned toward the universities and hipsters and feminists and elite Americans who “look down” on the hard-working common folk who built this country.

For Trump’s white supporters—but also for today’s immigrants—there is an alternating experience of hope and fear—and it’s tied up with a sense of “us” and “them.”

This year’s Pulitzer Prize for fiction went to The Sympathizer, the first novel of Viet Thanh Nguyen, an English Professor at the University of Southern California who came to America as a child from Vietnam. His dark comedic novel is about a spy from North Vietnam who settles into a South Vietnamese enclave in Los Angeles after the war. He makes one of the most astute observations about America I have ever come across:

I kept my tone upbeat about life in Los Angeles. Perhaps unknown censors were reading refugee mail, looking for dejected, angry refugees who could not or would not dream the American Dream. I was careful, then, to present myself as just another immigrant, glad to be in the land where the pursuit of happiness was guaranteed in writing, which, when one comes to think about it, is not such a great deal. Now a guarantee of happiness—that’s a great deal. But a guarantee to be allowed to pursue the jackpot of happiness? Merely an opportunity to buy a lottery ticket. Someone would surely win millions, but millions would surely pay for it.

This is the tough reality that the immigrants of In Jackson Heights face and will come to realize in their own ways. The tug, however, of our storybook American Dream is difficult to resist and we witness it inspire a sense of heartfelt patriotism that Wiseman showcases.

When watching In Jackson Heights, we see the inevitable future of the country that Donald Trump can’t build a wall high enough to prevent. His supporters are surrounded from within. In short order even the red states such as Louisiana will become more fully part of an American gumbo derived from all quadrants of the earth, as is found today in Queens.

The opening sequence of In Jackson Heights features the dua or “invocation” during Ramadan where the cleric welcomes us into the film, “In the name of Allah the merciful. Allah is to be praised; we get his help and beg for his forgiveness.” This is a far cry from the Kiwanis Club opening prayer or Pledge of Allegiance, the lingua franca that white America has taken to be synonymous with America.

Another vignette shows a 98-year-old woman pondering her mortality, the loss of her family, her friends, her body’s motor abilities, and finally asking, “What else have I got that’s gone?” There are plenty of Trump supporters, angry and plaintive, asking that same question. It should be noted that neither Hillary Clinton nor Bernie Sanders spoke to white people specifically and directly to respond to their concerns the way President Obama sometimes spoke specifically to African Americans. It would have helped to demonstrate what that “honest conversation” would look like, and Democrats, you would think, were in a better position to have that frank talk.

On the flip side, Wiseman shows us an immigrant support group where one of America’s most recent citizens implores the others, “It is the faith in our will for a better life; we give our lives and our sweat so this nation moves forward.”

The dispute over the meaning of “forward” is our real and only national argument. We each see the word through the prism of who, and what, is left behind.

Joshua Leibner is a Hollywood screenwriter and a National Board Certified Teacher who has taught in public high schools in New York City and Los Angeles. 

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