Sarah Smith Nessel — A thread of discontent binds Miss America, arboretum debates

10/01/2013 4:09 PM

10/01/2013 4:09 PM

Q: What does Miss America 2014 have in common with a bare-breasted sculpture in southern Overland Park?

A: They both bring out the wackos.

You’ve no doubt heard about the spewing of racist (and in some cases hilariously uninformed) comments online regarding Nina Davuluri. She’s the one who had the nerve not only to enter the Miss America pageant while being of Indian descent, but to win it.

In a normal year, I wouldn’t even be aware that the Miss America pageant had occurred. But as soon as the knuckle-draggers started tweeting (how do they even type?), the story took off, and clips of the moment Davuluri was crowned were everywhere.

That’s when I realized there really are two Americas. Or maybe 200. At any rate, I obviously was not seeing what many others were.

My immediate thoughts upon viewing the clip:

1. Wow, check out that gown!

2. Wish my arms were that toned.

3. She probably has a personal trainer.

4. I want a personal trainer.

5. Waaaaaah.

6. Is winning a pageant really THAT exciting? She needs to get a grip.

7. That gown is gorgeous! Canary yellow is perfect with her skin tone.

8. I’ll bet the runner-up secretly wants to deck her.

9. I really should get to the gym more often.

10. Wow. That gown.

Clearly, I was blinded by the gown. How else could I have failed to see, as so many others saw, that she was an Islamic Arab terrorist and “7/11 Queen”? And those are the tame comments.

The backlash to the haters, thankfully, was overwhelming. The divide in worldviews reminded me again that standard political-debate rhetoric referring to “the American people” — as if we’re all unified in any way — is even more meaningless than it sounds.

I was still thinking about this a few days later when the sculpture story rose from the dead. Who in Johnson County can forget last year’s uproar over the so-called “sexting” sculpture at the Overland Park Arboretum and Botanical Gardens? Like a chronic headache, the issue is back, with yet another petition drive under way aimed at getting a grand jury to pronounce the sculpture obscene.

The Miss America story and the sculpture story aren’t as different as they seem. The opposition to an Indian-American beauty queen obviously comes from a more hateful and dangerous line of thinking — if you can call it that — than the opposition to the arboretum sculpture, but the antagonists in these embarrassing tales are driven by the same fear.

That fear, in brief: “America is changing in a way I don’t like, and it needs to stop.”

Yes, America is changing. We’re no longer as Caucasian or as Christian or as anti-gay or as male-dominated as we once were. We’re not as prudish, and we’re not as bound to tradition.

Many of us are fine with that. Many others — perhaps those who feel they are losing their grip on privilege? — are not. And when a dark-skinned woman wins a silly contest or a bronze sculpture upsets a passerby, the offended start in again with their going-to-hell-in-a-handbasket nonsense, sucking everyone else’s attention away from things that really matter. They tweet and they petition and they post and they write letters to the editor. They waste a lot of words, considering that they’re really saying only one thing:

Waaaaaah.

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