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Big Lessons from a Little Country: The Entrance Exam

November 18, 2009

This post also appears at  I recently joined as a regular contributor, which has obviously affected the frequency of my posts here on my own blog.  I hope you enjoy the regular cross-links to, and I hope to resume more regular posts here as well when I get back in an appropriate writing groove.

The invitation to contribute to this blog on a regular basis and the information emerging in the aftermath of the shooting at Fort Hood got me thinking about what it takes to fit in. How do we discern our role in a community and how does that process affect our relationships with others, particularly when we find those others or ourselves in new circumstances?

As I pondered this question, I recalled what happened when I moved to Alabama from the DC metropolitan area in the early 1990s. Within 15 minutes of meeting almost anyone for the first-time I was asked the same three questions, in essentially the same order:

  1. “You’re not from around here are you, boy?”
  2. “What church do y’all go to?” and
  3. “Who y’all gonna root for boy, Auburn or Alabama?”

At first, these questions caught me by surprise, and left me feeling uncomfortable. In time, I came to refer to this inquisition as the Alabama entrance exam.

As a Yankee, I stood out like a sore thumb, so the first question was more or less redundant. The second question struck me as very personal, but after awhile I realized it wasn’t aimed so much at discerning my faith (or potential lack thereof) as seeking to understand where I fit socially, since a good part of Southern life is organized around faith-based communities. The real religion question, as it turned out, was the last one. As the only college graduate in my family who did not attend The Ohio State University, I thought I knew a little bit about football addiction. I was wrong. Utterly and completely wrong.

Alabama was not a closed society, but people were a bit skeptical when it came to outsiders. If you withstood the inquisition without getting upset or defensive about the entrance exam questions, you were off to a good start. In exceptional cases, you might even get to the bonus round where you faced questions like, “Y’all like grits?” and “You got a pocket knife on you boy?” If you got these answers right, you might never be a Southerner, but you would get on just fine with folks.

After about six years in Alabama, I accepted a new job in New Zealand. By then, people had got used to me and I to them, and they responded with surprise when they learned I was leaving Alabama and wondered why I was heading overseas without joining the military and receiving orders to go abroad. New Zealand struck them as obscure and even a bit mysterious, especially when they learned I could not take guns with me (not that I owned any). “Haven’t they heard of the Second Amendment?!” people asked. I responded patiently, “Why, yes, they have. That’s why I can’t take guns with me.”

When people asked about my reasons for leaving for New Zealand, I responded with the same good nature with which I had greeted the entrance exam, “Well, I found I liked it in the south so much that I decided to just keep heading farther south. You know, you can’t get much farther south than New Zealand unless you’re on an icebreaker.” Folks did not appreciate the irony or enjoy the humor in this observation, so they decided that it was probably a good thing after all that I was leaving.

When I got to New Zealand, I discovered that they too had an entrance exam.Now, as you know, it is not unusual for border officials to ask people a few questions when someone seeks entry to a country. These questions seek to establish the purpose of travel, the means of support, and one’s intentions with respect to eventual departure.

That other citizens, in general, might have questions about us (as opposed tofor us), may strike us as a bit odd. Since Alabama had been my first experience of this, I took it as a bit strange when New Zealanders too led with questions after an initial introduction.

What really struck me as odd though was that their questions seemed to have more to do with them than with me. Alabamians wanted to know where I fit.New Zealanders wanted to know where they fit. “Why did you decide to move here? How do you like it here?” and “Do you think you might decide to stay?” were usually among the most prominent questions I heard.

Americans have no firm historical ties with New Zealand, at least not in the same way the British, Dutch, Australians, and many Pacific Islanders do. In discussions with my New Zealand acquaintances, it became clear that many considered it odd to many that someone from a distant and prosperous free state would seek to live in such a geographically isolated nation.

Of all the places I have lived, Alabama and New Zealand are the only two where I can recall having been subject to the entrance exam ritual. Over the years, this has caused me to wonder what gave rise to this custom in these places, and why it took such a different form in each instance.

In Washington, DC and Portland, Oregon, where I live now, a sizable proportion of the population comes from someplace else, although these “imports” find themselves attracted to each place for entirely different reasons. Communities with a large number of highly mobile, well-educated residents seem to have a more atomistic culture. Individuals in such places belong simultaneously to many smaller communities, many of which do not identify themselves or their members based on place of residence. As such, many residents of these places often identify with the larger community in name only or possess only a vague or temporary sense of affiliation with the civic life of the wider community.

The complexity and interdependence of the social and economic orders in such places often imbues them with a self-confident character that often seems dismissive of the views of newcomers even when their inhabitants do not disdain such feedback entirely. People in such places have no questions for newcomers because they are either pretty sure they already have all the answers or see no need to pause and ask the questions that might yield them. If and when it turns out they do not know all the answers, these communities often delay their recovery by seeking to establish responsibility even before they have repaired the damage. Smaller, poorer, or more isolated communities do not often have this luxury.

In Alabama and New Zealand, people knew who they were, but wondered anxiously whether they could sustain their identities in the face of globalization. Buffeted by the winds of social and technological change, their questions revealed a latent and barely acknowledged sense of wonder as to whether their cultural and political ties were strong enough to hold their economies and societies together. Despite their past tragedies and their triumphs over them, people in these places confronted their uncertainty about their ability to shape the future and their roles in it in the ways they greeted newcomers.

The uncertainties underlying these questions have profound implications for any culture or society. The fact that such questions have not come to the fore in our homeland security discussions may suggest misplaced confidence in our ability to stand up against the threats we face, which is reflected in our haste to lay blame rather than repair the damage.

In the face of the tragic killings of 13 people at Fort Hood on November 5, I have wondered anew whether we are, in fact, asking the right questions of one another and ourselves. As communities, the military and the medical profession have cultures that are as strong and distinctive as any we could observe, imagine, or define. Both communities embrace and indeed embody the cultural, ethnic, and religious diversity that makes the United States unique among nations. Yet, despite ample evidence that someone in their midst was not fitting in, the members of these communities did not seem to ask themselves the most important questions of all: “Why doesn’t Major Hasan seem to be fitting into our community, and what can we do to help him feel more at home (or at ease) among us.”

These questions and Major Hasan’s answers to them would have given us a clear opportunity to mitigate the threat he allegedly posed without ever requiring us to stretch our imaginations to consider his potential ties to terrorist organizations or to wonder openly about his soundness of mind.Taking care of our community would not have required anything like the investments in surveillance technology and effort underlying his alleged communications with suspected terrorists.

Instead of asking these questions, efforts to address the seemingly abundant evidence of his problems fitting in with military and medical colleagues seem to have taken two decidedly unproductive turns: 1) On one hand, it seems as if his supervisors and peers sought to address issues with his performance as if they were purely technical rather than adaptive problems, and 2) They seem to have decided that his eventual transfer to Fort Hood and deployment to a war zone might make him someone else’s problem, focus him on the mission, or give him a chance to start over. These approaches seem almost as cynical as they are shortsighted and misguided.

Evidence of Major Hasan’s apparent detachment and unsociability should trouble us not because we know the toll his alleged actions took on his comrades at Fort Hood, but because an all-volunteer force relies upon a strong sense of community that reflects a shared sense of sacrifice and commitment to certain values. If anyone is responsible for the failure to prevent Major Hasan’s alleged attack, we all are. As a community, we have an obligation not only to ourselves, but also to one another to help each other figure out how to fit in.

Asking questions of newcomers may make some sense. But we better be sure too that we understand what our questions say about us. The questions being asked about this incident suggest we have a lot to learn about what it takes to make our communities and our society safer and more inclusive places to live.How we answer them will tell us a lot about how well we are adapting to the realities we first acknowledged following the attacks on 9/11.

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