Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Whose measure of a man? Part I

Mom says, “We were lucky to have found dad.”

She’s right. My biological father, whom I never knew, left home when I was 4 years old. I remained fatherless until mom re-married four years later, hooking up with a New Jersey Italian she met through her sister.

He took us on—mom, my brother and me— as if we were his own. He quickly laid down the law, setting boundaries and establishing family as the end of all things.

As mom says, I was lucky to have been taken under his wing, flawed as he might have been, and through him I learned the measure of a man, enough so that I grew fond of him, loved him, and eventually started calling him “dad.”

For sure, he wasn’t perfect, he couldn’t fix his own car to save his life, yet one of his favorite things to say was that he was like Buddha, perfect in all ways, never to be crossed or taken lightly, and wise beyond reason. My job, he was fond of reminding me, was to “listen.” He even had the belly of a Buddha, which he sported and caressed without embarrassment or apology.

He loved food and he loved women but most of all he loved mom.

Women seemed to love him too, even though he didn’t appear to have Adonis DNA, or the blood of a tiger. To the contrary, he was like, as he sometimes would say, the Pillsbury® Doughboy, soft and cuddly and always available for a squeeze.

It amazed me how the ladies seemed to relax and laugh more when he talked to them. He teased them and they teased back, playful banter and innuendo that made even my young adult cheeks blush. Mom could just as easily roll her eyes as participate in such discussions, which were not her forte.

Nonetheless, dad was fiercely devoted to her; he defended and protected her in ways that are only now becoming clear to me as I watch her adjust to widowed life after nearly 45 years of marriage. She seemed to have fewer cares then, he wouldn’t allow her to become anxious or worked up and made sure her needs were well met.

They were a good team: She took care of him in the old-fashioned way of preparing meals and keeping him well-fed while he protected her the best he could from need or harm.

I seldom heard dad argue with mom; their arguments, he’d say, were no one’s business but their own. That’s why, when they needed to discuss something that might get heated, they took their personal business behind closed doors.

My own spats with him were few but memorable.

During a rough patch, when as a union man he feared there might be a labor strike, and that he would no longer be able to support his adopted family, he enjoyed a cocktail more than usual, but otherwise kept his temper and rarely flared, even when things were really tough.

One night, though, we got into an argument. I was 17 and wanted to go out with friends who were driving down to the beach for a party. My parents said, “No.”

I got angry and started mouthing off to dad. He backed me against the wall and put his hands around my throat. He’d had enough of my teenage rudeness, back talk—which he hated—and foolish attempts to be more independent.

“Take your hands off me,” I said, “or I’ll fight back.”

That didn’t seem to scare him and he kept me pinned against the wall. I could smell his breath and see the frustration in his face.

“You’ve been drinking, haven’t you?” I said.

Immediately, he let go. It was the first time he’d ever done anything like that. I think it shocked us both. I stormed out of the house that night and walked the streets until my anger subsided, but it took years, I think, for us to fully recover, and for me to grow out of my boyish ways.

Less than one year after my first and only physical confrontation with my father, however, my parents told me, “We’ve decided that you’re old enough now to pay the consequences for your own decisions. We’re not going to tell you what do to any more.”

Finally, I thought, “I’m a man.” §

Friday, March 25, 2011

Angry white people

I always find it amusing, if not sad and a little trite, when someone claims, “I’m not a racist.”

It’s usually followed by the qualifier “but…” and then a list of complaints about a particular ethnic group.

I recently received an email that’s making the rounds, subject line “Buchanan to Obama,” in which the conservative political commentator Pat Buchanan presumably wants to have a “two-way” dialog about race.

Fair enough, you might say, until you get into the heart of his message; which has the same “I’m not a racist but…” ring to it that seems to be making polite rounds in conversational and email circles these days.

Before we get to the “Buchanan to Obama” message, however, there’s a note at the beginning, from someone, probably an angry white person—it’s never clear where or how this “not a racist” message originated—which says: “Finally............It is Said Publicly.    I have never seen the white side explained better! Pat Buchanan had the guts to say it. It is about time.

Never mind that the introductory note is riddled with errors in composition more common to grade school spellers than to those who think critically and ask questions about where they’re getting their information.

Never mind that it’s clear from the beginning that this is the “white side” of the story that is seldom told out of fear of being politically incorrect.

Never mind the little squiggly American flag, waving at the top of the message indicating that patriots will not want to miss this important word from an angry white person.

The note alone is usually the first thing that causes me to press the delete button on these electronic circulars, which do more to diminish rather than promote democratic thinking, dialog and debate.

If you haven’t noticed, lately, the quality of public discourse in the U.S. seems to have gone into a steep decline. I don’t expect it to get better any time soon, not when we can hurl more than a hundred million-dollar Tomahawk missiles exploding into the North African desert while handing out pink slips to thousands of teachers across the nation. (The late comedian George Carlin pointed out not so long ago, the United States doesn’t bomb white people, only brown people.)

Perhaps I romanticize the notion too much, that we could give more of our public time and attention to ideas and conversations that actually improve our lives rather than degrade them. I find few things more degrading than racism (or even the hint of it, as in “I’m not a racist but…”), and lack of education.

I get these well-meaning e-circulars from friends and family, attached with the email addresses of previous senders, who then forward them to others and on it goes, until they get to me. I usually trash them but sometimes, out of curiosity, I have to check them out.

When I find one that is utterly or even partially false, I’ll send the correct information to all whose names appear in the previous forwards.

This one, as it turns out, is for real, and is taken from a passage of one of Buchanan’s syndicated columns. In “A Brief for Whitey,” published March 21, 2008, Buchanan argues that whites cannot be blamed for high rates of crime and illegitimacy in the black community, that whites should not be held responsible for problems they did not create.

“Is white America really responsible for the fact that the crime and incarceration rates for African-Americans are seven times those of white America?” he asks. “Is it really white America’s fault that illegitimacy in the African-American community has hit 70 percent and the black dropout rate from high schools in some cities has reached 50 percent?”

In fact, the overriding message is that blacks in America should be more grateful for all that whites have done for them. And this is the central message of the e-circular.

“First, America has been the best country on earth for black folks,” says Buchanan. “It was here that 600,000 black people, brought from Africa in slave ships, grew into a community of 40 million, were introduced to Christian salvation, and reached the greatest levels of freedom and prosperity blacks have ever known.”

Here’s where I have the most trouble with Buchanan’s and other angry white people’s thinking. What does Buchanan really know about “levels of freedom and prosperity” experienced by blacks?

Yes, Christian salvation brought to life some of our nation’s best activist churches, mostly black, during the Civil Rights movement, but Christians, especially U.S. Christians, have also been known for less charitable acts of righteousness, like slavery.

The worst part, I guess, is the subtle justification of bringing 600,000 slaves to the colonies so that we could cultivate and groom them, through several hundred years of brutality and servitude, into free and prosperous citizens of a freedom-loving state.

“We hear the grievances,” he says, but “where’s the gratitude?”

Yeah, where’s the gratitude? Thanks for Jim Crow, and segregation, and thanks for economic inequities that never make it into the mainstream conversation about race in America, but thanks most of all for a country that knows very little about racism.

Let’s not get into the racial issues of why statistics for crime and incarceration are “higher” among blacks than whites. Let’s not weigh the odds of how 300 years of brutality against people of color have become embedded into our national psyche and value system.

Let’s stay focused on the importance of being earnest and saying, “Thank you, America. Thank you for uprooting my ancestors so that I could be born in a free country to enjoy this nation’s endless opportunities and great prosperity, to have avoided the perils of the backwards jungles of Africa.”

That’s the message of Pat Buchanan try as he might to couch it in the vernacular of “angry white guy is tired reverse discrimination,” where blacks are given “unfair” advantage over whites through affirmative action or other entitlements.

What’s not said, however, is that without these programs, which may indeed have spent their usefulness, blacks would still be fighting (as some still are) for the right to vote, let alone attend the university of their choice.

“OK,” concludes the nameless angry white person who originally sent out this important message, “will you pass it on? YES. I did but will you? Because I’m for a better America. Sorry. I am Not racist, Not violent, Just not silent anymore.”

NO. I don’t think so. I won’t pass it on, because I’m also for a better America, and I too refuse to be silent. §