Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Can't We all Just Get Along?

I've spent the afternoon trying to make sense of the shooting today at the Holocaust Museum in Washington. Altho there is some outrageous act in the country every day, it seems like things which happen in places that are meaningful to us grab us harder and take more thought. Having worked in that part of D.C. for six years, the sights and sounds grabbed me by the throat today.

I think what is really bothering me is that we still have not found a way to get along [to quote Rodney King]. As a daughter of the south, I understand bias, prejudice, and plain old racism. While Knoxville is in the more progressive part of Tennessee, there was still plenty of all three to go around when I was growing up. [Did you like the way I used "progressive" and "Tennessee" in the same sentence? Bet you liked it!] Those were the days when you could go for weeks and never lay eyes on a person who was different, except of course the African American cleaning ladies who came and went daily on the bus.

There was a Jewish family next door. They were just like us. Well, the older son did take delight in telling the truth about Santa to the younger kids on the block. It took me about 30 years to forgive him, but I have decided that debunking Santa is not really an anti-Christian activity.

Dad taught students at UT from around the world. I remember one from Lebanon, altho I did not know enough then to wonder if he were Muslim. My high school integrated senior year but there were still no black students in my class. I remember the younger students as being earnest and hardworking - and probably more afraid of us than we could possibly have been of them.

William and Mary was no hotbed of liberalism, altho that is where I started to learn mine. I remember my grandparents sitting me down to discuss how I should handle my freshman roommate, whose last name was Morrissey. They explained carefully how I should be open minded about my new Jewish - or perhaps Catholic - roommate and not ask personal questions about her faith. Imagine their relief when she was some brand of vanilla protestant - like I was. [On the other hand, they gave me absolutely no advice as to how to relate to my gay suitemate. It took us nearly two years to figure that one out. It was the 60's!] The subliminal message was, of course, that people "like us" should be nice to people "like them" - it's the polite southern way.

The only obvious affirmative action at W&M was for athletes - and mostly male. The few foreign or non-white students I ever knew were hard working and clearly smarter than I. If the College did anything to make it easier for them, it was certainly not apparent - either in the classroom or the cafeteria. Since they were less than 5% of the student body, they were probably very isolated and lonely and probably do not have the sunny memories of college that I enjoy.

So forty years later I have lived and worked and loved and been friends with all sorts of people. I find that people are good or bad, helpful or difficult, loving or unlovable according to their spirits, not their wrappers.

So why is it that the James W. von Brunn's of the world have not also learned this? His web site is a troubling mess of wild statements and weird writings - mostly anti-Jewish. The talking heads say that his rantings are also against many other types of people. One pointed out that many people like von Brunn are generally haters - they hate nearly everyone. A member of his family says that he has long been estranged from them and "is crazy", but can we write off everyone who holds those types of ideas as just crazy; just a hater?

Obviously we can't. This is the breeding ground of Timothy McVeigh and Eric Rudolph. These are seriously scary people. How do we as a civilized society teach people to stop fearing those who are different, those with different ideas, different religions, different histories? How do we move forward to create a society where difference is accepted as normal? It's a huge challenge and one I hope we can meet in my lifetime. Sadly, I doubt that we will make that deadline.

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