I gave a ride to a young black man the other day. Seemed like a nice fellow. When I stopped to let him off it appeared he was going to shake my hand. But when I reached for it he made a fist, so I went to bump fists. Not that either. I laughed at my ineptitude and he smiled as he got out of the car. As an old white guy I’m not up on the customs of the young. But I don’t need to be for us to respect each other.
When Bill Clinton ran for president, James Carville famously put a sign in their office that said, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Well, I’m not into calling anyone stupid, so my version would be, “It’s the culture, friend.” We are a large, plural nation with many cultures and subcultures and no one person can know and understand them all. But if we can acknowledge and respect and enjoy the richness of all the different ways of being, we will go a long way toward realizing the dream of democracy of our forefathers and mothers.
Culture isn’t just a people’s art, music, religion and costume. It’s the stories we tell about ourselves, how we relate to each other, how we walk and stand and, yes, what we do with our hands when we say hello and good-bye. When I was in anthropology it didn’t take long to see that all cultures have good and bad qualities, but that no culture is superior to another. The same could be said for subcultures, cultures within cultures.
We’ve been moving slowly toward being more accepting of each other, but the wealthy, and thus politically powerful, have squeezed people economically, which creates greater anxiety and anger. Unfortunately, because the 1 percent are mostly unreachable, we lash out at each other instead. And desperate people are susceptible to demagogues who make wild promises and scapegoat those subcultures, pitting us against each other when we should be unifying. Democracy knows no skin color or ethnicity. Besides, we can’t turn back the clock.
Whether you view society as a blended cream soup or a tossed salad, we need to relax and not feel superior to, and sneer at, those who are different, and work with them rather than shout at each other from across the barricades of our own egos, or worse. One of my favorite quotes is from the playwright Arthur Miller, who said, “The final defense against tyranny is culture.” So, can we make an effort to see ourselves in others, and others in ourselves, and try to understand, or do we demonize, alienate, accuse? This is the question that is before us now.
A ship at sea takes a long time to turn. It is going to take our very large ship of state a long time to change course from a culture of resentment, bullying, and everyone for themselves, to one of cooperation and acceptance, even joy, of our many ways of being.
— David Leo Kennedy lives in Ashland.