I keep reminding myself to look beneath and beyond labels and remain focused on the individual. Because ultimately it is the individual who matters most and who is most deserving of praise or condemnation, affection or disdain. It is a surprisingly hard lesson to learn and to remember given the current political and cultural tensions in our society, where labels define us…
The flashy MG convertible swerved around the curve at breakneck speed. The driver saw me standing along the roadside and came to a screeching halt. I had been trying to get a ride for several hours and was grateful someone had finally stopped. But as I ran to the car, I immediately regretted that she had bothered to stop. Despite the car being a convertible, her blonde hair was impeccably coiffured, not a strand out of place. She was wearing a very fashionable skirt and blouse, with high heels of at least three inches. She was pretty, but the amount of makeup she wore made one wonder if it was all an elaborate façade. Then she spoke and I knew I really would prefer to just stand alone at the edge of that English country road another ten hours. She had one of those high-class, snooty British accents that just put my teeth on edge. Nonetheless, I deigned to hop in the car beside her, my rucksack scraping against her leather seats. My hair was a tangle of knots and frizz, having not been shampooed for several days, and my ripped jeans and soiled shirt were quite a contrast to the young woman beside me. I had foolishly been hitch-hiking shoeless, and tar and black goo from the hot roadway stuck heavily to my bare feet.
We had a pleasant enough conversation, but that voice just really grated on me, and the way she dressed so fashionably convinced me immediately that she was just another upper-class snob who happened to want company as she drove around showing off her ritzy car that her capitalist father probably had purchased for her as an eighteenth-birthday gift. I was eager to just get out of the car after half-an-hour of such unbearable company, when she suddenly turned into a gas station. But instead of filling up her tank, she hopped out of the car and started talking to one of the mechanics. He was nodding his head and when she pointed toward me, he started to laugh. I wasn’t surprised: The rich always like to mock the less fortunate and lord it over those who are just scraping by. After a few minutes she came back to the car, opened the door on my side, and asked me if I would turn and place my feet on the outside of the vehicle. I was confused by this bizarre request, but did as I was asked.
She then knelt on the rough pavement, positioning herself in front of me and took one of my filthy, tarred feet gently in her well-manicured hands. She commenced to rub a bright green gel the mechanic had given her all over my foot and amazingly the tar and goo magically rubbed off. I noticed she had taken off her high heels, but I could also see that her stockings were now ruined and that her costly skirt had been scruffed up tending to my feet. The only thought that entered my mind at that point was Jesus washing the dung-coated feet of his disciples. She smiled up at me as I sat stupefied in the car seat; she said something like she hoped my feet felt better now. My feet felt great—and I felt like a complete jerk. Which was appropriate because, after all, I was jerk. I had made one of those unfair judgments based on appearances that I had always condemned in others. I had always hated people who judged others badly just because they were poor or uneducated or had dirty fingernails and wore rags. But I had not, until that moment, realized that the opposite could also be just as true: That a young woman could be rich and well-dressed and still be warmhearted and humble. Even after all these years, I am ashamed of how I judged her.
Cursed are the Nasty, No Matter How Uneducated
The opposite lesson took me many more years to learn: that being poor or uneducated doesn’t necessarily mean you are a good person. I was on my first assignment as a young diplomat in Cairo and had a former Seabee as a boss. I immediately liked and trusted him. What wasn’t to like? He spoke in a blunt manner, punctuating most sentences with a jumble of curse words, and his English grammar was simply appalling. Clearly anyone who could not master keeping nouns and verbs in agreement must be the salt of the earth, working hard each day and doing his best to be in agreement with everyone. It took me over a year to concede that he was vindictive, petty, a liar, and always suspicious of everyone. I fought against accepting this truth much harder than accepting that a rich young woman who dressed well could be decent. To have to accept that being poor or uneducated wasn’t an automatic ticket to sainthood simply turned my world upside down.
Weak and Meek are Not Synonyms
All of us who have observed toddlers playing joyfully together have fallen victim to the illusion of mistaking weakness for sweetness. It is a wonderful flaw that we do not too carefully assess and evaluate children at play. The selfishness that pervades such play is disturbing, but they are so cherubic-looking and so small and frail that we happily indulge their transgressions. While there are some children who seem to be naturally inclined to share and show affection, for most children these are hard-learned skills. No one who ever really observes children can ever again doubt the Doctrine of Original Sin, no matter how angelic the smiles and lyrical the voices.
But what is beneficial in the context of raising children—else we might be too harsh and demand too much too soon of them—is certainly detrimental in other matters. For many years, for example, I opposed our intervention in Vietnam. Not on the sensible ground that the Vietnamese were not a threat to us, but on that most silly of reasons—that they were weaker than us and, therefore, inherently nicer than us, better than us, more moral than us. In a sense this was an American tradition: Always root for the underdog and always suspect the powerful and strong. For this same reason, throughout my high school years, I sympathized with the anti-war protesters, but when I got to college my sentiments radically changed as I came to better understand the brutality of the North Vietnamese regime and the self-centeredness of the antiwar movement. In 1973, watching “peaceful protesters” trash the ROTC building on the Rutgers campus, setting fire to clothing and papers and urinating with abandon on floors and walls, grudgingly compelled me to see a darker side to the self-proclaimed pacifists who were shockingly destructive despite their relative weakness.
This mistaking of weakness for goodness dangerously pervades our society. We never seem to discern the difference between those who refuse to do evil and those who simply lack the capacity to commit evil. This explains much of the absurd commentary on the Left which caricatures all immigrants as decent, hard-working, heroic figures. While this is an understandable reaction to the equally absurd notion that all immigrants are rapists, thieves, and murderers, we have a hard time realizing that being poor and vulnerable is not a moral litmus test for decency and integrity. We fall into this trap over and over again, all over the world. In my own experience, the so-called democratic opposition in Cambodia, as well as many would-be reformers in many other countries, are not much better than those in power—except that they lack the power to demonstrate just how bad they would be as rulers. My favorite example of this is the fall from Liberal grace of the Burmese Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. For years I endured listening to my diplomatic colleagues speak of her in soft, reverential tones as if she were another Immaculate Conception. The horror they now feel at the realization that their saintly icon can act in a pragmatically ruthless manner now that she has power should be a cautionary tale not to mistake weakness for goodness.
A Monumental Tragedy: We All Really are Equal
Perhaps the hardest lesson I had to learn—actually I had to learn it over and over again because I just didn’t want to accept it—is that we are all truly equal. That is, being of a particular gender or a particular race does not make one person better than another. While I always accepted in principle that all men (and women) are created equal, I also always harbored a secret conviction that women and minorities were generally and intrinsically better people. In 1962, as a young boy of 10 years, while my father was stationed at Ft. Belvoir, my mother insisted we all attend Catholic school; thus, long before judicially-enforced busing, she had us bused into Washington, D.C. to attend a Catholic elementary school that was at least 95% African-American. I loved that year. I found the entire experience exceptionally enjoyable; my fellow students were all warm and welcoming and the nuns, while always too strict for my temperament, were caring and supportive.
It was a shock, therefore, upon entering Rutgers University (Livingston College) in 1970 to discover a sharp degree of self-imposed racial segregation. I thought it was particularly ironic that one of the all-black dorms was named after Malcolm X. I wondered if any of the residents of that dorm had really understood Malcolm’s writings and realized that the Nation of Islam had killed him because he opposed their separatist and racist beliefs. Nonetheless, I made excuses for them and just chalked it up to too many years of discrimination, and thought that what was needed was more patience. Even when dozens of minority students daily refused to bus their own food trays, I did not object, although it seemed especially surly since the poorer minority students who worked in the cafeteria ended up having to bus those trays.
The very next year I became a dorm manager and noticed that virtually all the furniture had been liberated/stolen from the common room. I went to the Dean of Students and asked him to have an inspection of the individual dorm rooms to retrieve the furniture. He looked at me like I was insane and went into a long explanation about what a sensitive matter this was and that he didn’t want to risk a confrontation. I was appalled, but said nothing. Later that evening, I posted warning notices on each floor of the dorm, explaining that the college was going to conduct a surprise inspection of the dorm rooms. A useful lie. The next morning it was impossible to move through the common room as it was piled high to the ceiling with furniture, including an expensive marble coffee table stolen from the feckless Dean of Students’ office.
But I continued to rationalize all this by explaining to myself that more time was needed and the liberal professionals who ran the college must know better than me how to handle these problems. My epiphany did not come until 1976, while attending Trenton State College (now The College of New Jersey). I was standing in a long line waiting to enter the cafeteria when three black students cut to the front of the line. The black student who was checking the meal cards refused to let them do so. They started yelling at him, but he was adamant that they could not cut in line. They immediately went off to get the white, middle-aged manager of the cafeteria. The manager listened patronizingly to the three outraged students, so I approached and told the manager that the African-American card-checker was telling the truth and that the three other black students did indeed cut in line. The manager glared at me angrily and scolded the poor student card-checker, then turned to the three liars and apologized to them profusely. The black student who had been checking the cards looked down frustrated and embarrassed. That was a tough lesson to learn: that even being a minority won’t save you from being chastised if you go against the racist liberal Code of Condescension.
Giving up my gender bias is even harder. Since I was a very little boy, I always cherished the illusion that women are better than men—they listen better, they empathize better, they cooperate better, they seem less determined to follow immoral orders, and they certainly seem less inclined to choose their own advancement over the greater good. But 35 years in the State Department taught me—repeatedly—that women were just as likely to take credit for their subordinate’s work, to push themselves ahead regardless of the cost, and to be besotted with rank and position. Yet even now, I am not fully committed to their equality. I still harbor secret feelings that women remain better, and I rationalize my own experiences in the State Department as aberrational—that is, that many of the high-ranking women I met there had willed themselves to forsake their better selves in order to become more male. But I am probably being self-deceptive.
A Few Lessons Still to Learn?
I am now working on getting over my disdain for liberals. After all, I was one for much of my life and many of my family and some of my best friends—to use a well-worn phrase—are liberals. Good hearts and good intentions are hard to condemn. I find it harder still to embrace the neocons. To respect them is akin to respecting the KKK or Nazis. Neocons are certainly more cerebral than either of those loathsome groups, yet none of them has shown any remorse for dragging us into Iraq and all of them seem indifferent to the horrific death toll caused by their infatuation with recreating the world in their own image. Their persistent betrayal of American interests in support of narrowly-defined Israeli interests and their messianic sense of America’s mission to the rest of the world still have great potential for much greater damage in the years to come. Nonetheless, I keep reminding myself to look beneath and beyond labels and remain focused on the individual. Because ultimately it is the individual who matters most and who is most deserving of praise or condemnation, affection or disdain. It is a surprisingly hard lesson to learn and to remember given the current political and cultural tensions in our society, where labels define us. Repeatedly, against our better judgement, we choose to see all others through the distorted optics of race, status, gender or political belief. This is the truest betrayal of that greatest of American ideals that each person should be judged as an individual on his or her own merits, and not as a member of any particular group.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Das Schulmeisterlein auf dem Steg Gefaehrliche Passage,” by Carl Spitzweg (1808 – 1885).