It amazes me that, when standing face-to-face with stone cold conservative discourse, I am still moved to shock and arousal — properly contained, naturally, in festive and cheerful smiles over cocktails — but detectable nonetheless by my rising heart rate and semi-subtle knee nudging from my husband, feigning a lean-in cuddle, while I mentally prepare for my rebuttal. Let me explain.
My extremely friendly and impeccably benign neighbours invite me, my husband, and two children over for an impromptu drink during this holiday season, to meet and greet their four sons and their respective wives/girlfriends.
It has become quite routine upon meeting people that my husband be asked about the origins of his Zimbabwean accent. As usual, the script starts as a statement by a new acquaintance: "I detect an accent." This is customarily followed by a global guessing game that I've learned most prefer to play rather than receive immediate disclosure. "Is it English? Australian? New Zealand? ..." Bored, I fill my wine glass, my focus diverted to the origins of my cab sauv. "Zimbabwe? ... Really? ... How interesting ... Rhodesia, yes, of course ..." lowered toned for, "Mugabe, yes, terrible government..." — on and on they go. Mmm, this is a nice cab.
Normally, the conversation turns to the nature and experience of my husband's family's emigration to Canada, Act II of his getting-to-know-you script. Instead, I hear inquisitive wife C, a legal consultant, assert, "They are their own worst enemies."
"Who's that?" I ask, assuming they have moved on to discussions of celebrity substance abusers who love their cars.
"The Africans. There's no point in even trying anymore. They can't appreciate the value of a civilized economy, nor do they want it."
Whoa! "You don't really believe that, do you?" I stupidly ask — since, obviously those are strong words that one doesn't just accidentally confuse with, I think education is a superior solution to economic aid.
"Look, you can't even mine anymore. All those diamonds..! The Australians can't even get in there without being killed."
"They should get their own natural resources, then," I suggest, feeling my cheeks warm, and not from the wine.
"...people getting killed... blah, blah, blah..." I know! I'll enlighten her with an inspiring anecdote, I think, feeling an urgency to my words and my need to help her. I blurt, "Do you know who I met? Taddy Blecher, well, saw him speak actually. He started the first free university in South Africa. It's called CIDA. Students can 'earn" their tuition by operating the university themselves. Inspiring. Really! It began in 1999 and is growing strong, so far over three thousand students have graduated..."
"I don't care." Second whoa! Rudeness aside, she wore her candid apathy, for this liberal, with disturbing pride.
I am your perky, friendly, small "l" liberal neighbour. Mostly we'll talk about the success of your basement renovation, the challenges of sod, and the backbreaking labour of manual snow removal (remember, I'm Canadian). Rarely do discussions take us to settings beyond our backyards, or perhaps town (after all, everyone wants to know where to get good Chinese food). But when they do go beyond, I'm happy to tout the open-minded, sympathetic, globally-concerned view that will digest well with wine and brie.
So on I go with my rant about the benefits of removing economic barriers to post-secondary education for blacks in South Africa, and how the Blecher model is one that could work in every developing country, and how the cycle of poverty is not a choice, and how even Oprah funded the project, plus Sir Richard Branson and Suze Orman and JP Morgan, and how Nelson Mandela was a supporter, and how it has created thousands of graduates who bring money back to their families, etc. etc. etc. - and then I suddenly stop, and turn to my host, a smile returning to my previously contorted face, and say, "Delicious wine."
Because by then I know there's no point. Her eyes have glazed over, and she clearly isn't interested in a challenge to her views, however wrongheaded they may be. My sweet husband, whose ambiguous accent got us into this, uses that same suave voice to get us out, and poignantly so: "I remember when the black government first came into power, and schools opened up to the black people. They killed us — academically speaking — they were just that hungry for education." He then smoothly changes the subject to manufacturing in China and toxic children's toys. "I boycotted China a long time ago," C declares piously. Hmmm, her daughter's iPod Nano looks conspicuously foreign-made, so I inquire about exceptions to her rule. "Manufactured in Germany," she says. "Oh, really?" I try not to laugh. "Well, then, never mind." I feel my husband's knee press into my leg. It's the holidays; I'll let her have that one.