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He Had A Very Norman Leer

As a little child I had an unusually bad experience once when some neighborhood children surrounded me, and clubbed me over the head with their toy rifles. Now toy rifles back then were made in many cases pretty much like real rifles, with metal barrels, wooden, or heavy plastic stocks. The incident began when I had walked out to them by a tree in front of my house and asked them, “Where’s so and so?” They replied to me, “We sent him home crying just like we are going to do to you.”
I’m not completely certain that prejudice was at the root of this, but my older sister had been referred to by some members of this same group as a dirty Jew.

Now, as strange as this may sound, many years later I harbor no animosity towards these people, who are now adults. (It would be odd if they were still children). I remember who some of them are, and I actually like a few of them and am happy to see them when I run into them. Kids do stupid things. They do stupidly angry things. I ran home in the snow, probably bleeding.

A recent observation at a gathering of family and friends that the president was beginning to look old, an observation usually reserved for a second term, caused the conversation to go south when the observation was expanded to include an image of Uncle Ben on Uncle Ben’s Converted Rice. The comment, much to my surprise, was regarded as a bit racist, though I’m not sure what a bit racist is. It’s probably just minor racism…. {It had never occurred to me that Uncle Ben could or would in any way diminish one’s view of an entire race any more than Chef Boyardee might have diminished one’s view of an entire nationality, or that Hungry Jack could make anyone think less of Canadian lumberjacks. } Counter – observations were quickly made that another president had been compared with Larry the Cable Guy, that that same other president’s mother had been compared to the Quaker Oats Quaker, (another president was viewed almost synonymously with Mr. Peanut but that was more a matter of trademark infringement) and images of Momma Celeste and Juan Valdez had even been used to identify members of our own cadre of friends, all without invoking any concept of regional or racial prejudice. I found myself wondering, “What has happened to the family, the last bastion against political correctness, the only place where the caricaturing of society and its more visible members can continue?”

It had always seemed to me that there is a sort of initiation process, in order to be truly accepted in society, and without it, all presumed acceptance would be phony. As a little child I watched as Rocky and Bullwinkle portrayed Germans as high-stepping generals with a patch over their eye, Russians as short little devious spies with moustaches, mobsters had bent noses and seemed to lurk, wherever it is that people lurk, and it was pretty clear that they were European Americans of some sort. Perhaps, in order for honesty to be true and soaring it has to be fairly distributed to everyone, sort of like HealthCare.
Maybe we can combine the two. I mean, so everyone is not only cared for, but they also feel ‘cared-for’ we can hand out insults with their new HealthCare cards. (There can be humorous little cartoonesque images of them on the back of their cards.)

As humans, we are constantly labeling people, constantly going through initiations, or putting others through them. Some people don’t survive the initiations. Soon, of course, racial prejudice will be unheard of. The hatred that drives it is driving a new vehicle, “Prejudice against religion and prejudice against political affiliation.” The weakest members of society will always be the targets. So look out.

Under the circumstances, one might lament, “Isn’t there someone out there who can insult people without malice, without an agenda?”

Today, of course, there are still people, like Don Imus, (or Humus as I see him), whom people seemed to have collectively forgiven for his completely out-of-order disparaging racial remarks, and they have forgiven him largely due to his resemblance to the Roswell alien. The collective conscience seems to be, well he has done his best to insult people evenly, and now not so much on grounds that may relate to their ancestry, but rather regarding just about anything else…

I have concluded, however that it is not simply the words that hurt. It is the sense of helplessness. As I watch events exploding in Egypt, I realize, that this is about a people who feel totally un-empowered, and they now want their power. As silly as it may sound, the people who showed up at the tea parties here in the United States also felt overpowered by a government that was determined to do what it wanted, despite the protests of the many or the few. The little child who runs into the house having been beaten over the head seeks the adult to help empower him. That is what an adult is; she or he is someone who gives a voice to people who have been denied a voice, and gives ear to unaddressed grievances.
I saw a smaller, though no less toxic cloud of helplessness hang over Arizona as people were told by the Federal Government that their means of protecting their border would not be permitted, and the Federal Government was going to provide no substitute empowerment over a dismal situation. They felt even more powerless as others began to boycott the state. Not all vitriol is in the form of words. Sometimes it is in the form of quiet vengefulness. Whether it’s in the form of words or actions, it is the most harmful when it is done against the defenseless, against people who are, except for divine providence, helpless.

I suppose I may show up less and less at family gatherings. I think I understand why the Obama supporter was offended by the comparison to Uncle Ben. While I have never as a child, or an adult, lost an ounce of respect or appreciation of any race or nationality as a result of the ubiquitous presence of Juan Valdez, Mrs. Butterworth, Mama Celeste, Chef Boyardee, Aunt Jemima, the Riceland Rice Man, Mr. Clean, the Gerber Baby Food Baby or Captain Crunch, it is the sense of being targeted that is so unsettling, so un-empowering or overpowering. Lest we become a sterile and antiseptic society, we must find a way of caricaturing without destroying, dialoging without humiliating, boycotting without seeking the total financial ruin of the groups whose attention we are trying to get. Is this balance possible?
Is there an adult out there somewhere?

Copyright January 28th by Juan Zapatero

*My hat will always remain off to Norman Milton Lear. Thank God I have hair on my head.

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