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Before the Mountains: Sotomayor and Sitting Bull in America

sweetland.thumbnail.jpgFor your iniquity teaches your
   and you choose the tongue of
       the crafty,
Your own mouth condemns you,
       and not I;
   Your own lips testify against
Are you the firstborn of the
       human race?
   Were you brought forth before
       the hills?

-Eliphaz, in Job 90:5-7

Inge, a young German stranger in a strange land, is a mail-order bride who has come to southern Minnosota in 1920 to marry Olaf. Inge and Olaf don’t tarry, but head straight from the rural train depot to the church, where Olaf’s Norwegian-American community has already gathered.

But Inge speaks no English. Minister Sorrensen is suspicious. She’s German, and America just concluded a war with Germany.

This is the opening of Ali Selim’s moving 2005 film, Sweet Land. One wonders if Judge Sonia Sotomayor has seen the movie and noticed the parallels to her more recent arrival in a land of locusts: "She is not one of us," says Minister Sorrensen as a dismayed Inge and Olaf stand before him in his church. "We speak a common language, have a common background, common culture. She is not one of us. Do you have papers? Immigration?

"No, no, no. There can be no wedding ceremony today."

No, no, no, Gingrich said of Sotomayor’s nomination by President Obama to the U.S. Supreme Court. There can be no Senate confirmation today. Sotomayor must withdraw.

"She is not one of us." Maybe that tragic theme in American history recurs precisely because, in a dappled land of immigrants, the sub-category "us" must always be invented. Or maybe it’s just because ravenous bastards like Newt Gingrich can’t help but ravage all that is good and kind and just in America.

It’s very clear that Republicans are using the Sotemayor nomination to solidify and broaden their support among terrified and insecure white men, especially Southern men already apoplectic at the fact of a black president. It’s only the first stage of the GOP’s strategy for 2010 and 2012. They will begin to superficially moderate their racism once the Troglo-demographic is safely in the bag.

The ravings of Rush Limbaugh, Tom Tancredo and Gingrich, as well as the coded talk of segregation by Texas Gov. Rick Perry, don’t seem to be doing much for the GOP at the moment. But Republican strategists didn’t think they would. Right now they’re just talking to those with old, grey Confederate uniforms in their closets.

The sad thing is, those hidden uniforms are still there, hanging in the dark. They are symbols of a deeper disturbance in the American national psyche. Somehow, the "Sweet Land" of liberty is plagued by murderous fears that one’s freedom depends upon the death, exile or enslavement of some other. In Ali Selim’s movie, it’s largely first or second generation Norwegian-Americans who ostracize Inge, who is really no more nor less a "foreigner" than they are.

In the Book of Job, Job’s old friend, Eliphaz, makes the right argument for the wrong reasons (religious conformity). Eliphaz ridicules those who claim status as the First Man, who are arrogant enough to believe themselves "brought forth before the hills." That is the terrible claim that’s incited all the racist, intra-immigrant wars of America:  We got here first. Of course, the late arrivals to North America murdered millions of the only humans who could truthfully make that claim.

In Sweet Land, Inge and Olaf’s clear-eyed courage and unwavering compassion for those who had ostracized them ultimately prevail. Even Minister Sorrensen is redeemed. Bigotry proves no match for a big sky and a broad land that so clearly tie survival to the spirit of community.

Too often, American life denies such neat endings, though never their possibility.  Still, Inge and Olaf, in their quiet, determined ways, show us what human love can do. In the end, it’s empathy and compassion – mocked as weak and sentimental by the Limbaughs and Gingriches of America – that defeats them. As Eliphaz says, their own mouths condemn them.

There’s a beautiful double meaning to the phrase "before the hills." It may mean prior to, it may mean in front of.  Could the acceptance of our temporary and humble place before the mountains erase the arrogant human wish for priority in time? It’s the very Thoreau-like theme of Sweet Land.

There’s a song that captures this theme in the context of one of the nation’s most legendary racial confrontations. The song, which could have been used in Sweet Land, is called "Before the Mountains," written by Rob Hyman for the album Largo.

Before the mountains before the rivers
A wind is blowing a wind is blowing
It’s come to carry me It’s come to carry you
Bring us together bring us together
And I will see you, oh can I see you there
Before the mountains?

I’ll be your blind man telling my story
‘Bout how I’m always bumping into something
You’ll be my deaf girl talking with your fingers
If I can’t see you and you can’t hear me
We’ll come together we’ll find each other
Before the mountains

If I were Sitting Bull and you were Yellow Hair
What would we talk about when we would walk about
Maybe how strange it is being bound together
How just a moment’s time became forever
We’ll never say goodbye we’ll just lay down and die
Before the mountains
And I will see you yes I will see you there
Before the mountains.

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Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith