Back to School

It appears that our culture, or at least the part of it we have surrendered to a bizarre matrix of electronic communication driven by marketing and politics, has returned to the playground of grammar school days.

That playground could be a cruel place, where facts were irrelevant and bullies sought to gain advantage through taunts and insults. The same is true on our playground today, though the action takes place primarily in the pixel world.

Nevertheless, in our efforts to hurl the most damaging pejoratives, signal the most virtue and collect the most votes, we’ve lost track of the meaning of some important words. Let’s leave the playground for a moment and go back to school where we can review some important definitions.

Racism: Showing or feeling discrimination or prejudice against people of other races, or believing that a particular race is superior to another. Xenophobia: Having or showing a dislike of or prejudice against people from other countries. Jingoism: Extreme patriotism, especially in the form of aggressive or warlike foreign policy. Dumb: Tweeting live ammunition to political rivals and uniting their squabbling factions in outrage. Ignorant: Believing that the word “racist” is a universal adhesive that will stick on anyone to whom it is applied. 

When you or I, or a president, tells someone to “go back where they came from,” at face value this is an example, not of racism, but of xenophobia. However, history always bats last in that determination. For example, no one would accuse the American colonists of being racist because they wanted the British to go back where they came from, but if the British had won, the Rebels would have been labeled xenophobic and the Tories would be the “patriots.” This is an example of politics altering language.

There is another definition that is pertinent to our discussion this week: natural. In this case we refer to one of Merriam Webster’s alternate definitions of the word, “occurring in conformity with the ordinary course of nature not marvelous or supernatural.” In a healthy society, social trends and cultural changes begin with individuals and propagate outwards through families and groups to become regional and national. Business and government accommodate the needs and wants of society and support change when it is warranted. This happens “naturally” over the course of time.

In our own time the process has been largely reversed. Thanks to technology, trends and cultural changes are dictated from the top down, disseminated by marketing and mutated by politics; given to a people who too often set aside the ability to steer their own course in exchange for anything that gratifies the senses. They are the pushers, and we are the junkies. Witness the eager, hungry efforts of media to fan the flames of outrage and then monetize it.

I don’t know whether the president is a “racist” or not, and neither do you. For either of us to make that determination about anyone, we would have to be able to discern the contents of their heart and mind. By the time we leave the playground, we should know the difference between judging a person’s behavior and judging the person. We can challenge a person’s behavior and still have a chance for a dialogue, but when we label that person, communication ceases as all parties become positional. This truth seems lost in the collective amnesia of our time.

As for the president’s behavior, the view from the cheap seats leads me to believe that the media and the democrats are still playing Trump’s game, which remains blunt but effective. All he has to do to be re elected is to goad the mainstream democrats into appearing left of center. They may be temporarily united in outrage, but nothing turns out the republican vote like tossing around the kind of pejoratives that are being directed at the president’s supporters with the implication that republicans and conservatives are (insert your insult of choice) because of how they choose to vote. “Basket of deplorables,” anyone? Have the democrats learned anything from the 2016 election?

We need to have a conversation in this country about immigration and about race, but “racist” is not a useful description for anyone we don’t like. The misuse of the word clouds the issue, and it makes people who might one day achieve understanding, defensive and positional when they feel they are being attacked.

I’ll leave you with a couple of “thought experiments” which might be useful for expanding our perspective on the issues. First, let’s consider the Native Americans in the early stages of the exploration of North America by Europeans:

The Native Americans were possessed of unique, sophisticated cultures and languages with many generations of shared history and cultural heritage. As the Europeans came in greater numbers over time, and since most of those settlers were “white,” the Indians wanted very badly for those white folks to go back where they came from, and some were willing to go to war to accomplish that. Were they “racist?” Should they have accepted the disintegration of their heritage and way of life for “diversity” and “inclusiveness?” Some did. They tried to welcome the settlers and later to assimilate to their culture. In the end they fared no better than the ones who resisted.

Second, consider the Obama Administration. Obama’s election was an accomplishment that many of us celebrate as evidence of how far we have progressed as a nation in overcoming racism and prejudice. The Obama Administration deported far more people over the same period of time than the Trump Administration has been able to deport, in spite of Trump’s aggressive rhetoric on the subject. Is this evidence that Obama was actually a racist or a xenophobe?

Finally, does the United States, like the Native Americans, have a unique, sophisticated culture and language? Do we have shared values and generations of shared history and cultural heritage? Or are we just an “idea” and our citizens merely place holders?

We are undoubtedly a nation of immigrants, and that is part of our strength, but we also have a culture that is uniquely our own, and we have a right to maintain it and pass it on to our descendants. We need to find a healthy balance going forward, and that will require a national conversation, understanding, and patience. Conversation is difficult on a playground overrun by bullies.

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