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...at the friar’s prompting, the Council attempted to reform morals with laws; it forbade horse races, gross carnival songs, profanity, and gambling….To aid in the enforcement of these reforms, Savaranola organized the boys of his congregation into a moral police.  They pledged themselves to attend church regularly, to avoid races, pageants, acrobatic displays, loose company, obscene literature, dancing, and music schools, and to wear their hair short.

   
--Savaronola’s attempts to reform the morals of Florence in 1495, from "The Renaissance," volume 5 of Will Durant’s "The Story of Civilization" (p.150)
 
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Hot Buttons 
posted, I think, some time in 2003
 
Recently one of Maryland's more colorful figures, the undiplomatic former governor Donald Schaeffer, touched off a bit of controversy by airing an opinion of his at a local meeting. He had just had a hard time ordering food at a McDonalds because, he said, the person serving him didn't speak English very well. He said that people who come to this country really ought to learn English. He said this despite the obvious fact that in today's political climate it is really not possible to say anything regarding assimilation one way or the other without arousing all sorts of passions and getting people mad at you. If I was smart I wouldn't be writing about it.

Having only spent about eight years in Maryland I was not here when Schaeffer was governor so I think I arrived late for the argument; it had already been in session for some time before this latest round broke out. This may be important because, if you or I were an extraterrestrial arriving from outer space at this precise moment and had first encountered this statement in print just now, it might not seem all that inflammatory, or unreasonable. But to many this was an attack on immigrants, and just another example of Schaeffer's bigotry and narrow-mindedness.

It didn't help much when the current Governor joined the fray. He is not much given to tempering his comments either, which can be sort of refreshing if you are not used to that sort of candor from a politician, but he is also a Republican Governor in a state that has been run mainly by Democrats since World War II and he is currently in a popularity contest with another young man with a bright political future who runs the city of Baltimore and is on quite the opposite side of the aisle. He would need a very silver tongue to unite his constituents, and he is not the fellow who goes in for that sort of thing. If you are not in the mood for low-level vulgarity you should skip the next sentence. He said that he thought multi-culturalism was "crap".

I heard his remarks in their entirety. He spent the first several minutes giving the requisite thumbs up on diversity; glowing with pride at all the wonders that many different cultures have brought to America, telling about his own background as the son of immigrants. He was trying to frame the argument so that it wouldn't appear that what he was about to say was isolationist or just plain intolerant. But you wouldn't have known it.

The next day the Baltimore Sun was filled with letters about how the Governor was a bigot who didn't understand the contributions that immigrants had brought to America, that he was in insensitive clod who shouldn't be running a state filled with people who are different than he is; people he'd probably try to pass laws against in order to stifle diversity. A few people tried to debate the issue itself, but most were hot under the collar and dismissive, as though the Governor had said something beneath contempt and hardly wasting thought over, as though he were merely a first grader who couldn't get along with the other kids.

This seemed like overkill, but in the midst of such storms one goes looking for whatever logical explanations are to be had, and there are some. One is that the media, in its reporting of the Governor's remarks, often skipped right over the setup and went straight for the tagline. Any subtlety in his argument  went completely out the window under those conditions and the "good part" which would have been noticeable even surrounded by the rest of the remarks stood naked and alone, and swearing. Under those circumstances, folks probably felt justified in their verbal carpet-bombing since they believed they'd been fired upon first.

The people that did hear the setup might have felt like they'd heard that one before, like the way a dedicated K. K. K. member might have told people that some of his best friends were black. Giving us a good dose of "diversity is great and all but let's not let it affect policy" sounds to some of us like many of the people who are quick to point to the problems with quotas and minority preferences as being an attempt to fix one injustice with another, or who howl about reverse discrimination and reverse racism. They might have a point on the face of things, but there is always that sense lurking around that they might be using these convenient "truths" not in the name of real unity and compassion and fairness for all but as a cover for their own racism. The trouble is that once you get used to such hidden motivations and all the spin that goes into presenting an argument you stop bothering to consider the issue itself. A couple of months ago ABC news decided to honor the dead in Iraq by showing photographs and reading their names and some people reacted as though ABC was out to destroy America. Under normal circumstances this tribute might have been considered very appropriate but since ABC is thought to be very liberal by many conservatives and since people who support the war are afraid that too much awareness of  the death toll  (or any at all) might erode public support for the war, it was assumed that ABC had an anti-war motive for doing what they did. It didn't help their credibility any to be doing it during sweeps week, or to have Ted Koppel compare it to a now-famous Life Magazine photo spread that was considered instrumental in changing public perception about the war in Vietnam. So people drew their battle lines and decided that there was no such thing as a nice gesture if the wrong people were doing it. The country has been divided into good guys and bad guys and their is no way to do anything good if you are a bad guy and no way to do anything bad if you are a good guy. Sort of like a caste system.

As I said, the "assimilation" or "diversity" issue (depending on who you talk to) arouses great gobs of passion, even from folks who don't seem the least bit affected by it in real life. It brings with it a lot of frustration in the abstract, a selfish fear of not being treated "fairly" whether we can notice any discernible difference in our daily lives or not, and there is nothing like frustration to get people riled up.

I had a couple of interesting assimilation experiences myself shortly after the Governors' remarks. One occurred out in St. Louis, where there was a very interesting exhibit about the Osage Indians at the Museum of Art. The Osage Indians, who occupied the land around contemporary St. Louis, have quite an interesting history. You may have never heard this because it contradicts the larger picture of the relations between the two races. When the U.S. Government was busy driving Native Americans off their land and putting them on reservations, the Osage tribe showed their cunning and survival skills. They had for some time been selling furs to the white man and had accumulated some wealth. They were able to buy their own land and live on it by legal right.  If they had behaved according to the mythology  I was taught in school, they would have insisted that the earth was not something to be owned and would have refused to play the white man's game. As noble as that philosophy is, those who hung on to it lost everything to those who believed that everything was for sale. Instead, the Osage were cunning and able to change their strategy to something that allowed them to keep their land. They assimilated--or adopted a different standard or way of thinking--when it was necessary to do so. Then when oil was discovered on their land, they were able to negotiate the rights to drill on what was their own property (most tribes got moved off their land as soon as it became a source of wealth to the white man. Only the Osage could have fought this displacement in court--and won). The Osage soon became the richest nation (or group), per capita, on earth! Later, in facing religious challenges, the Osage embraced Christianity, but used the old traditional forms in worshipping this "new" God.  Many of the same prayers and ceremonies were used, only the name of the God was changed.  In this way, much of what was vital and important about their traditions was not lost. I thought about this in light of the Governor's paean to multi-culturalism. Many of his supporters feel quite simply that you are not doing an immigrant any favors by suggesting that it is not necessary to learn English, or that hanging on to your own cultural traditions means you can ignore the society around you.  This may not be an easy proposition. Most of us are not bilingual (in fact, we have enough trouble in our native language), and we embrace new cultures warily. But the history of the world suggests that such adaptations are not optional to people who want to survive in an alien land. While the Euro-American majority were building an empire in the predictable way, the Osage had a simple choice: to go down fighting, or to assimilate to the degree at which they would be successful. It's a cruel choice, but so is depriving people of survival skills by pretending the world is a nice place all the time.

That seems to be what the Governor was saying, even though he chose a more military phraseology. Some of his defenders tried to draw a clear distinction between celebrating (or even tolerating) diversity and the thing called multi-culturalism, which seems to mean having no dominant culture to which foreigners (all of us) must assimilate and no set of common denominators. How can people communicate with each other without a common reference? Communication was clearly an embattled thing to begin with. Nobody seems to agree on what multi-cuturalism means in the first place. The people who excoriated the Governor in the Sun clearly thought multi-culturalism meant tolerance. A radio talk show host pointed out that the word culture means the totality of a society's way of doing things. How, he asked, can you have more than one totality? At what point does tolerance become chaos? When do we have a right to expect others to be tolerant of us? To meet us halfway?

Some weeks back I gave a concert in Washington D.C. with a violinist from Spain. English was his third language, a fact which humbles me. However, the difficulties that I had communicating with my recital partner, his host family, and others was at times frustrating. Sometimes it caused simple misunderstandings, but I might have spent less time on the road and less gasoline as well. I met a family of wonderful people as a result, and although I haven't used Spanish since high-school I could usually get the sense of what they were saying when they talked to each other, which was a neat challenge. Their English was of course better than my Spanish--by a mile. It was in the end a great experience, but there were times when the uncertainty of whether you had been understood correctly or not being able to figure out what you were being asked to do put a cloud on the proceedings.

Such experiences require an open mind and a constant ability to adapt to unforeseen situations. Still, by the time the concert arrived I thought I was in Europe. While trying to locate my international wall-socket adaptor to plug into my shaver I realized with a start that I was in my own backyard! Sounding off every time you get frustrated does no good--putting your feelings aside and channeling that energy into trying to better communicate and understand usually does. But you can see why people get irritated sometimes, can't you, Governor?

 I was destined to have a fast-food encounter as well. The lady behind the counter apparently owned the establishment. Her thick accent and small vocabulary made me wonder whether my order really had been processed the way I wanted it. You know, the universe really wouldn't have come to a crashing halt if I hadn't gotten my order of fries. But there are times when one wishes that such a simple matter as ordering lunch wouldn't get so complicated.

Life can be very complicated if you don't know the language. Some, doubtless, see this as a challenge and work their tails off to learn the language of their adopted country and be productive members of the new society they've chosen. Others turn inward and decide to demand accommodation from everyone else. Which is ironic, because if you are a member of the dominant society and other groups make all the adjustments, you lose your adaptive ability, and your understanding. Having a few selfish people around makes the rest of us better! But it does no good at all for the people who didn't try to reach out in the first place.

Communication is a very difficult business. The more I write this out the more there is to write, to explain. I could stop, draw borders, and stamp on my favorite point. I could just play kill the messenger. But the messenger isn't the message. The idea is still there, though you can ignore it if you like.

This is a popular route. When Bill Cosby got in trouble recently for his remarks about some members of the black community, he was lambasted for his lack of understanding. My pastor called him a "cranky rich guy." I happen to like Mr. Cosby's work, but--well--he was being cranky...and rich.   He still had something to say, however. In tones of desperation, he was telling people that they needed to take responsibility for their own lives, and not blame other people for all their problems. Easy for him to say, right? He's made it. He's on easy street now. But that doesn't necessarily invalidate what he said. He didn't say that white people were blameless. He didn't say that injustices weren't still being done. He simply said that blaming everything on 'ol whitey  was a poor substitute for doing the job of raising your own kids (not that you can't do both, I suppose; the question has more to do with how your attitude affects your own life as much as how it affects other's).  He was tampering with the orthodoxy of the people who believe that every poor person is a victim of some rich guy holding them back, that every member of every minority would flourish if just given a chance. Of course, he made it sound like he thought everybody who was poor wasn't holding up their end, a different sort of dogma popular among the rich. Between these opposing dogmas lies a sad reality, and the people affected need a solution (or several), not a creed.

 
His comments have revealed a fissure in the black community. Some are nodding there heads and hollering "Amen!" Some are rolling their eyes and cussing under their breath. Sadly, the people who really needed to hear the message are the ones most likely to ignore it. There are plenty of poor black people out there working their tails off to feed their families and instill high standards and good values in their kids. I hope they know that Bill Cosby wasn't talking about them (you weren't, were you, Bill?). He probably ought to have made that clear, but we are a species that is used to speaking in generalities and we listen harder to blunt statements.  And I would like to believe that our former Governor wasn't trying to kick in the tail all those immigrants who are working hard to become vital members of their adopted country. What they choose to preserve from their heritage is up to their individual conscience.  It is their own business.  But isolating themselves from their responsibilities to the rest of us while they receive the benefits of our society is not.

This whole controversy, I suppose, rests, in the absence of facts, on our own prejudices, or rather assumptions.  My fiancée Kristen illustrated it the other day by complaining that the person who served Governor Schaeffer at the McDonalds was probably some poor new immigrant trying to get a foothold in this country by working menial jobs and trying to learn English. The thing is, we don't know that. Nobody to my knowledge bothered to find out. Governor Schaeffer could have asked--it wasn't his job, but it would have been nice--instead he decided to take a position based on a general philosophy rather than the specifics of a particular situation. Or, if you like, he decided to blow off steam rather than making an informed judgment.

People do this all the time and it is up to us to take what is worthwhile about these statements and toss the rest. If we knew the situation that McDonald's worker was in, we might choose to let things go out of sympathy and not say anything hurtful. Or we might decide to show leadership by setting the bar higher and expecting people to rise to the occasion. Maybe that worker needed a kick in the pants--who knows. I would submit that a valid response would be one of compassion. But what does that mean exactly? Is it always about being "nice" and not saying anything that will cause someone else discomfort? That could be a very destructive path in the long run. People often look for consistency over issues like this as if there were some universal formula. But as any parent knows when you care about your children it is sometimes necessary to overlook one lesson in order to teach another, despite outcries over mixed messages.   We raise our children sometimes by showing "mercy" and sometimes by demanding results. When we do this as individuals we call it judgment. When we do it as a society it creates a national argument. 

Life isn't a series of position statements. It is lived between the lines. In the end, after we've blown off steam about whatever upsets us we have to go back to dealing with it, sometimes one way and sometimes another. If we really knew each other we might begin to understand what is needed to make us all be at our best and when and how to deliver that motivation. If we cared to find out.

 
The trouble is, I can't know the motivations of the people who made these statements and what is really in their hearts. Most, if not all of them, blew it when it came to effectively communicating their positions, preferring shortcuts and sound bites. Everybody involved in these recent controversies is probably a lot better informed about a complex issue then they seemed when they made those statements. We'd better hope so. Lots of folks react to these issues as if they were sure that if the rest of the world would just see it the way they see it that everything would be made perfect and nothing would ever go wrong. That way we wouldn't need to keep our lines of communications open and our understanding keen. We wouldn't need to adapt. Yep, if everybody just overcame whatever mysterious obstacles they have in their lives (and if we don't see them they must not be there) and do everything the same way we would all be happy. Politicians are always posturing along those kinds of simplistic lines. We complain about it, but I think they learned it from us. It sounds good on paper. Sometimes it has a nice oratorical ring to it. It makes people feel good to think for a moment that our responsibility to each other stops short of messy compromise. But I hope in the privacy of their own souls they aren't buying it.

michael@pianonoise.com