The other day I was outside watering flowers when a door-to-door salesman approached wanting to talk to me about solar energy products. Ordinarily I would say, with a smile, “I wouldn’t want to waste your time,” but since he opened by asking if I wanted to help the environment I decided to play along and see where the conservation took us. To the best of my recollection, the conversation went something like this:
Him: “Hello! Can I ask if you’ve ever thought about saving money and helping the environment with a solar energy system? You know you could be saving money, right?”
Me: “I’m not sure. How much does it cost to install a solar energy system?”
Him: “It doesn’t cost you anything. It’s free!”
Me: “Free? How is that possible?” As if I didn’t know….
Him, with a big smile: “The government will pay you to put in a solar energy system.”
Me: “Why would the government do that?”
Him: “To encourage people to switch to solar energy.”
Me: “Why do people need the government to encourage them to switch? Why don’t they want to do that on their own?”
Him (still smiling, but the eyes show that he’s wondering what he’s wondered into): “Don’t you think that solar energy is a good thing?”
Me: “Maybe, but if it’s a good thing why does the government have to pay me to do it?”
Him: “Technological improvement is a good thing.” He pulls out his smart phone as an example. “Don’t you agree?”
Me: “Did anyone have to pay you to get a smart phone?”
Him (the smile now seems forced): “Well, no. Don’t you agree that solar energy is better for the environment?”
Me: “Not necessarily.”
Him (disbelieving): “What?”
Me: “What does it cost in terms of energy to produce, install and maintain solar panels? What is the relative energy efficiency of solar compared to other energy sources? I don’t think it’s all that simple.”
Him: “You sound like you’ve thought about these things. Are you an educator?”
Me: “No.” Ha! As if!
Him: “You Americans have different ideas about energy and the environment and things. I’m from Europe and it’s different.”
Me: “I don’t want my tax dollars subsidizing my neighbor’s solar energy, that’s all. If they want solar, let them pay for it themselves.”
Him: “But it’s your own taxes that pay for your solar.”
Me: “Not if I don’t get solar. If my neighbor does and I don’t, I’m subsidizing him – according to you.”
Him: “Well, the government is merciful. At the end of the year, they send me a check.”
Me (disbelieving): “That’s not merciful government. If you get a refund that’s your own money, not the government’s.” Because we’ve never gotten a “refund” for money we didn’t pay in it didn’t occur to me in that moment to think that he may have gotten a wealth transfer payment. Lucky for him.
Him (clearly seeing he wasn’t going to make a sale but disapproving of my unenlightened American values), as he looks up and down the street: “So am I safe here?”
Me: “What do you mean?” I live in what I would call a relatively upscale neighborhood.
Him: “You Americans like your guns. People in Europe rarely own guns. My wife would divorce me if I came home with a gun.” Meaning: as a black man, he might not be safe in this predominantly white neighborhood full of redneck racists.
Me: I looked at him for a moment, contemplating the irony of his feigned fear. I live on the outskirts of Houston, and compared to every other place I’ve lived the crime here is high, but the incidents I read about typically don’t involve the white population. I thought of answering his obvious dig by saying, “Just stay away from the gang areas and you’ll be alright.” But it was clear to me that this man was so brainwashed by the liberal, European stereotype ideas about Americans that he would take any honest answer to his question as proof of the racism he expected. “To each his own,” I responded.
Him: “God protects people,” he lectured me. “They don’t need guns.”
Me (keeping in mind that I read about victims of violence every day): “Sometimes he does and sometimes he doesn’t. Some people don’t want to take that chance. That’s their choice.”
Him, astonished: “What??”
I regret not thinking to ask him, “If you’re confident God will protect you, why are you asking me if you’re safe here?” Alas, I didn’t think of it at the time.
The exchange petered out from there. We shook hands and wished each other a nice day. I would have loved to have invited him to come and sit down and talk about the narrow-minded stereotypes that seem to characterize a population which ironically prides itself on being open-minded, but I can’t undo 35 years of European socialist brain-washing in a 10-minute exchange standing on the front lawn, and he wanted to get on with the business of selling his solar energy products to my less hostile neighbors.
Still, if the opening of a mind starts by challenging a person’s precious prejudices, maybe the door was opened just a bit. Sometimes that’s the best we can do.