Thursday, April 12, 2007

Racist Words: Another Perspective

Alright. Racism bad. Insult bad. Bad Imus. True. But there's a piece in all this fuss that leaves me very uncomfortable with the way it's playing out. It's associated with what I think of--and have written about--as our American literalism. It's an almost childish inability to see things in context, an inability to perceive or understand irony, a way of taking everything as a personal insult, as though the world revolved exclusively around ME. It's perhaps a paucity of that imaginative faculty that allows me to see the world from multiple points of view, which results in a self-protectiveness that says. Oh, yes, of course, say anything you want--so long as you don't step on MY toes.

In this literalist context, by all means, Imus's words were unforgivable. But what else do we expect, for God's sake, when we Americans--black and white--delight in precisely the kind of language for which we now condemn Don Imus? And even demand it from our radio shows, our comedians, our musicians... We actually PAY them to do it for our amusement. I keep hearing that there's a line that mustn't under any circumstances be crossed, a sacred line that protects every God-fearing American from offense--and should by rights protect us, also, from the vicissitudes of life. But if that's true, it's a line that each of us draws according to our own sense of entitlement and our own fragile ego.

So I say, Bring it on. Do your worst. Offend me. Challenge my most basic assumptions and my most cherished beliefs about myself, about the world, about God... About the society and culture that we have created for ourselves and in which we live. I may smart when I hear it. But that way I hope to learn, to grow, to see myself in perspective, and get to be a better human being as a result.

So this dread insult may turn out to be a better thing that we imagined. Okay, bad me. But are we really ready to talk honestly about racism in this country, and about the real damage it wreaks on human souls? With poor people everywhere suffering from its ravages, with our schools increasingly de facto segregated, with our inner cities impoverished and neglected? With gangs marauding, with rage and ignorance abounding? Do we dare to talk honestly about racism?

The topic has been manifesting in our collective lives in a variety of ways in recent days, from the Imus gaffe to the dropping of charges in that infamous case against the Duke University lacrosse players and--for those who happened to watch it--the powerful American Experience piece on Jonestown on PBS last night. What a bitter irony that Jim Jones started out with a radical vision of social and racial equality, and ended up a demented tyrant bringing about the needless death of those whom he had enslaved to his overweening ego. In the Duke case, surely, the shoe was on the other foot. How many black leaders were ready to jump in and say, Wait, hold on a moment, before we condemn these white boys, let's first see where the evidence points? How many white civic leaders, for that matter, had the courage to resist the emotional prejudgment and the risk of being labeled with the "r" word? (I actually loathe that habit of substituting the initial for the word we pretend to be too sensitive to utter in polite society--for fear, presumably, of being tainted by it.)

Listen, I'm all up for some real talk about race. It's well past time we had that conversation in this country. But pointing the finger does not a conversation make. As I pointed out recently, the conversation has to start with an owning of responsbility. I'll practice what I preach in tomorrow's entry. Meantime, I will take hope when I hear the Reverend Al Sharpton copping to his own racism as loudly as he talks about the racism of others. Until then, brothers and sisters, it's frankly all hot air.


carly said...

My mother used to say, "They can't sue you for slander." Which meant it's alright to say if they can't bring charges. Except now you can be found guilty by those that rule everything, the new aristocrats, the new puritans. They are protecting their interests. Jewish organizations, Christian organizations, Corporations, media controllers, they squelch anything said about themselves.

Once again, I could point to the broad base of rednecks, the largest target audience. Imus might have said it for rednecks. And organizations have to squelch it because of rednecks.

carly said...

Of course, I do not always live up to this criteria, but here is a shortlist of one liners by Lao Tzu. In answer to Mark and you, Master:

When one acts from the depths of his being, he makes no mistakes.

Man inherently has a nature that is good. (In opposition to man is inherently evil).

Nature that is not directed by the spirit is degenerate nature.

He who cultivates the inferior parts of his nature is an inferior man.

One must be as one should be, innately good. He abides in what is good.

He has strength within, clarity without.

He has tranquillity and sublimity within, penetration without.

Ceaselessness is his penetrating quality.

Keeping still signifies the beginning and end of all movement.

Bringing the spinal nerves to standstill, makes disappear the ego and restlessness. (foundation of Chinese yoga)

His attempt is to reach no-mind and non-action.

He is not at the mercy of moods and gives duration to his life.

He understands that which gives things their duration.

The superior man no longer sees the tumult and struggle in the world and thereby has true peace of mind needed to understand the universal laws.

Withdrawal from the world is justified only when we strive to realize in ourselves the higher aims of mankind.

The master is able to pass from disturbance to stillness.

The sage does not meddle in affairs.

He has learned what fear and trembling mean. He remains composed and reverent and all terrors glance off.

Pressure actually preserves him.

If he must stand alone and renounce the world, he is undaunted.

He has a wide view of the interrelationships of life.

He knows that rigidity leads to separation.

He searches his heart, thus reverence is the foundation of true culture.

He cultivates his personality so that it works through the force of truth.

General discourse has no effect. Therefore, his words and conduct are in accord.

He is not clever with words, but has strength of sincerity.

He has substance in his words, and duration in his way of life.

If his words are well-spoken, he is heard for a thousand miles. (Confucious quote)

He does not try to be all-knowing and lets many things pass.

He makes distinctions between things and thereby creates order by organically arranging that which belongs together.

He makes distinctions between the clans.

The clarity of the dedicated man clings to what is right and thereby can shape the world.

He abides in dignity and virtue to improve the mores.

In dispensing punishment, he is just and knows how to pardon.

Through attraction between affinities, the sage influences men's hearts.

He does not proceed brusquely.

Action on unprepared ground only frightens and repels.

He compliments energy with wisdom.

He knows the right moment to withdraw.

He awaits the right moment. He guards against precipitous action.

He is not drawn into false intimacy.

He does not wear himself out with mistaken resistance.

If going leads to obstruction, he comes back.

He does not consume his powers on empty enthusiasm.

He is cautious and hesitant like a fox crossing the ice, lest he get his tail wet.

He is moveable like the ice likely to melt at any time, yet he is immovable like the mountain, firm as a rock.

He is simple, as if he was hacked out.

He is dignified like a guest. Especially if he is a wanderer.

The wanderer does not open himself to ridicule.

The master keeps inferior men at a distance.

He does not mingle with the inferior.

He gives actuality to the way (Tao).

The great man continues the work of nature in the human world.

He remains free of blame.

He gives preponderance to thrift.

If he rides in a carriage, he is attacked by robbers. He prefers to walk.

He uses time to make actual what is potential.

He weighs things and makes them equal. He produces like effects.

He uses time so that each step is preparation for the next.

Times change and with them, their demands. Thus, he makes propitiousness of the time.

He completes works in a manner which bears fruit for the future.

He can go from doing to non-doing.

He is satisfied with the attainable.

He is without thought of personal advantage.

He foregoes what is near for what is afar. (Dispersion leads to accumulation. The inferior man does not think of this).

He encourages others to approach him by his readiness to receive them.

He is receptive to good advice.

He sees the errors within himself.

He refines the outward aspects of his nature.

In fellowship, he retains his individuality.

He maintains his inner light, while outwardly he is yielding and retractable.

If he cannot be influenced himself, he cannot influence the outside world.

To rule is to serve.

If he leads, he goes astray. If he follows, he finds guidance. He lets himself be guided like water running down a hill. He bends around obstacles.

He moves along the lines of least resistance.

He seeks happiness for himself and others in what is right. He gladdens the people.

He strengthens and tranquilizes the character of the people.

He awakens their higher nature.

He arms himself against misfortune in advance. He renews his weapons to meet the unforeseen.

With eyes of the tiger, he spies about in search of able helpers.

He installs helpers and sets armies marching.

True greatness depends on being in harmony with what is right.

carly said...

There is much here also contained in Buddhism.

Lao Tzu had in mind a guide to the great ruler, an instruction manual for rulers. from which I culled these out to show his direction of where self peace is based and how it influences others.

And of course, Bush and Cheney meet none of these criteria. Of them, he says their reign will be short and meet with disgrace and humiliation. Imagine, knowing that hundreds of years before the Bible.

Cardozo said...

I like the point you made about the "line" out there that can never be crossed. Naturally, everyone's line is different. In this case, the line that really mattered for Don Imus was determined by the corporate owners of his broadcast.

It's obvious that the corporate criteria for when a "line is crossed" is determined not by the actual offense but by the reaction to it. As soon as the public relations nightmare got big enough for MSNBC, Imus's head was on the block.

Which brings me to your point about the "national conversation" about racism. This is a conversation that can certainly be had in living rooms or over coffee all across the country. But a truly "national" debate has to be sponsored by our elected officials, and by our national media in order to enter the popular culture. Unfortunately, neither of those institutions are mature enough to treat the complex issue of racism with anything near the honesty, nuance, and thought it deserves.

Any national conversation on racism would be therefore doomed from the start. Where does that leave us? Trying our very best as individuals to be the kindest, most tolerant people we can be, and hoping this "movement of individuals" will trickle up.

PeterAtLarge said...

Carly, when I was halfway through your list, I started substituting "Bush" for "he", and I got some pretty interesting insights. In nearly every case, he proves the most inferior of men! Thanks for the shared wisdom. Cheers, PaL

Tom said...

This Imus spike is great for the conversation. Indeed, spiked events are how so-called water-cooler conversations begin.

The conversations you talk about DO happen, but they mostly don't make the news, of course.

"Private culture" is very much led by the media reporting on elite or politically prominent culture. What is occuring with the Imus event and in the wake of the event is precisely what you are asking happen. People are mulling the situation from 10,000 perspectives.

"Private culture" should be less open to outside scrutiny than public culture. Indeed, we can and do say hair-raising things in our private lives that might shrivel in the light of day.

Privately, people expose their demons and test what they think and little or no damage comes of it -- we can hope. Growth can come from growing weary of the judgmental, hateful buffoon you find yourself to be and a desire to emulate something more compassionate.

I think there is A LOT more responsibility out there that you seem to think. The tide turned on the Duke lacrosse incident for those who gained access to the evidence, it was only Wilfong's delays and stubornness that delayed a quicker path to ending the three-players' nightmare.

America still has a distance to tred on Civil Rights and it should be understandable why many blacks are defensive and, at times, quick to make bad judgments from preliminary evidence. This has been true for Jackson and Sharpton. But Jackson and Sharpton have demonstrated courage and have been correct in other matters, IDing racism, and in decrying the abuses of hiphop culture.

carly said...

This short-list is so small. The content of LT's thinking is so simple and profound it could make 10,000 great blogs!!

And to think he did a lot of these ideas in exquisite poetry. A truly profound artist.

PK said...

The sage does not meddle in affairs.

carly said...

Bush does meet one ctiteria in the list:

If he must stand alone and renounce the world, he is undaunted

Per said...

Great post! You are putting words on exactly what is coming up for me around it.