For a number of years now I’ve tread lightly around some third-rail topics. This is mostly due to a sense of self-preservation. Third-rail topics tend to generate that scent of sizzling flesh, coupled with a crackle of electricity. The result: communication ceases.
Over drinks the other night, a good friend commented that I had succeeded in adroitly managing issues without actually grabbing onto that third rail. At the time, I took it as a compliment. Survival is usually a good thing. And yet, it’s been bugging me ever since. So– let’s jump in and thrash around. If you smell burning flesh, it’ll be mine.
You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear
You’ve got to be taught from year to year
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught….
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late
Before you’re six or seven or eight
To hate all the people your relatives hate
You have to be carefully taught.
A bit of trivia: Though South Pacific was a blockbuster of a musical and a blockbuster of a movie, it almost didn’t get up to bat because of the lyrics above. Too controversial, but Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein countered, saying it was the heart of the movie…overcoming all kinds of prejudice. Today we are much more open-minded………….
Despite our little blue orb shrinking from all our technological breakthroughs, you can Skype someone in Australia in real time, right on your computer, we have still managed though to retain about 95% of our old ideas and prejudices. Some ideas are good and many should survive But every one of them should be fair game for being questioned…examined…held up to our own common sense and sense of decency. If we can’t honestly question something, we’re seriously gnawing at what it means to be an American.
Third Rail #1: Religion: I was raised Episcopal. Pam was raised Catholic, though neither one of us had it tattooed upon our brains with no opportunity to question why and how, who and what. As a choir boy I memorized half the hymnal. I was an acolyte, Mom was the organist and we listened to the sermons from Father Sickles in Hackettstown, New Jersey. Father Sickles was a good man, smart and had a great sense of humor. Pam and I chose him to marry her to me decades later. He always encouraged me to think for myself and question everything. I took that to heart on all fronts. Not all churches are that self-confident and self-assured.
I think not allowing a child to question is a bad thing. Just drumming statements into a young mind, too young to defend itself isn’t fair and it isn’t right. With our son, we made a promise: He could choose any religion he wanted…no holds barred. We offered to take him around to every and any house of worship he was interested in. But we wanted him to question and then choose for himself. It’s important and the most personal decision one can make. Cameron majored in Philosophy and minored in religious studies.
Choosing your Mate: In elementary school, high school and college, I dated whomever I wanted. It was based whether they were funny, or interesting or just plain pretty with zero consideration of anything else. Italian girls, Irish, Jewish gals, redheads, blondes…mmmm brunettes. I still fondly remember a Lebanese gal who stomped all over my heart. I deserved it. Hispanic gals, tall ones, short ones…I tended to fall for smart and funny. Big brown eyes didn’t hurt any.
Sophomore year at F&M I asked a girl out who was four foot-nine inches tall. She was blonde, cute, smart, and I thought it was going to be a fun evening. For the entire night, however, she had nothing but snippy comments about everything and everyone I tried to joke through it, but she would not budge. Finally, at her dorm, she let me have it. “I KNOW! You’re not going to ask me out again, are you?” I hesitated and then said, “….Well… you’re right.” She said, “It’s because I’m short, isn’t it?” I said, “No, it’s because you have great-big-invisible chip on your shoulder. You’re pretty but you’re way too nasty.”
Similar scenarios have played-out over the years. My Southern roommate, Sam Moon, at OTS, (officer training) could not refer to me as anything other than a goddamn Yankee. We finally worked it out, but it took a fist fight and some bloody noses to do it. You see, Sam had never actually known a Yankee before…though his mind had been made up for him by his parents. For me, growing up in New Jersey, the concept of being a Yankee just never came up on my radar.
I’ve lived in Texas, and despite the fact that in much of Europe, being Texan equates to being a whacko, I assure you there are PLENTY of good folks living there. Lived in Japan…same thing, Arizona…same thing. There are also plenty of good folks who are republican or democrat or liberal or conservative, or any one of a number of religions.
There is, however, something going on now which is dangerous. We now watch one channel on TV…or the other. And guess what. When you watch NPR, you get a different spin on things than watching FOX. They’re polar opposites…and I have my prejudices there, mostly based on doing lots of fact-checking. Politics is utterly polarized now and it’s scary. The fact, however, is we are being raised on a diet of US….or THEM and the THEM should just go out and blow their brains out. It didn’t used to be like that… At the end of the day, when the work was done, reps and dems could go out, have a beer and swap jokes.
The Third Rail: Politics plus Religion: Lately, it seems like the two have become intertwined…again. If you’re a history buff, or paid even a modicum of attention in history class, you know that America became AMERICA, mostly because the King of England was mixing religion with politics and we whipper snapper colonists really didn’t want anyone telling us what to do or whom we could worship. Quite wisely…quite, quite, quite, wisely, our founding fathers were the first in world history to create a democracy where there would always be a separation of church and state.
At the time it was hammered out, Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, were mostly concerned that the state might try to control the church. Today, that’s flipped the other way. There is a strong and forthright push to erase that separation. “You believe in Our religion or else we’d like you to leave. Not too keen on all you immigrants either.” Fact check: unless you’re pure 100% American Indian, you’re some kind of immigrant.
If you’re ever in Manhattan, take a ferry ride out and see what words greet the rest of the world from our Statue of Liberty. “Give me Your Tired, Your Poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free (Emma Lazarus) . That’s what it was…and should be all about. Scary rumblings are going on now. You say you’re a proud American? So am I. Take a moment to review and remember how this country came to be. I am a “mutt”: I’m English, Scottish, and German. Most of my friends are “mutts” too. We’re Irish, or Italian, or French or…whatever and we come in a variety of shades, colors and attitudes. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that this is the very thing upon which America was founded.
Religion: Here’s the one that scares me the most….and once again, it wasn’t supposed to be that way. I really and truly believe that. I think most of the actual teaching of the serious religions teach forgiveness, moderation, loving our neighbors, even if they’re in a red or a blue state, and living by the Golden Rule. There are several hundred religions in the world right now. The one thing they all have in common is this: Our religion is the only true religion. Everyone else…join us…or go to hell. Well, they can’t all be right. And just by the numbers, whoever wins…billions upon billions of people will go to hell because they weren’t born into the right location…the one where your religion is taught. I don’t think that’s how it’s supposed to be…
I have gotten into serious trouble on occasion…third-rail trouble, when I’ve attempted to ask questions or bring up topics that might be ironed-out. Going back to that song at the beginning of this essay, when any one of us is taught anything over and over and over, from an early age, it ceases to be something that can be discussed or questioned. I think that’s dangerous. Anything, any concept of potentially great value should be able to survive questioning. If you aren’t allowed to do that, something is dreadfully wrong.
Our next president: I really don’t care at all what gender or color or religion our next president will be. I don’t care if they’re republican or democrat. I truly don’t. What I do want is a man or woman who is smart and capable of steering the country through these rocky times. I want a president who can reach across the aisle, who can listen, and who can hammer out the difficult decisions that are approaching.
Resorting to absolutism: “I don’t like this country or this government so let’s shut it down,” sounds like something our enemies would be terrifically happy about. It’s time to end our hatred to our fellow Americans. We are better than that. Up until now, we’ve provided a beacon for others in the world to watch and learn from. This isn’t over. The world hasn’t seen the last of America…….acting like America.
Let’s question everything. Let’s argue. Let’s discuss. Let’s LISTEN to each other, and then let’s hammer something out. And if it isn’t quite right, let’s improve it. It’s how you make a better airplane or car. It’s how you make a better country.
P.S. On a somewhat lighter note, I’ve always been old-fashioned. I’ve always liked hearing Merry Christmas in December rather than, happy holidays which seems like kissing your sister. But now, one of our political wannabees has vowed that when he’s elected you will HAVE to say Merry Christmas. No. That’s not what America is about either.
I’ll make you a deal: You say what you want. I’ll say what I want. Don’t tell me what to say, what to think, what to believe in. I will happily accord you the same courtesy. The Golden Rule still rocks!!!