July 19, 2019 10:13:09 AM
Not all life lessons come easy.
One of the most painful lessons gleaned from my life experiences is that in both barrooms and prisons, it's the quiet guy you have to worry about: You never know what he is thinking. In a moment, he might be on you and without warning, so you never see it coming.
I've been thinking about that lesson as I consider the events of the past few days which began when President Trump tweeted that four minority U.S. Representatives should go back to countries they came from and continued when Mississippi's three white U.S. Representatives voted against a House resolution condemning Trump for that "racist" comment. I put the word in quotations for a reason I'll share a bit later.
Only four Republicans in the House voted for the resolution, so it's not much of a leap to assume that telling black people to go back to Africa or Hispanics to go back to Mexico is not something that warrants condemnation in the mainstream of the conservative movement, which today exists almost exclusively within the Republican Party.
That's more depressing than a Mississippi teacher's paycheck, but there may be a least one good thing to note. At the least, it takes away all uncertainty and any benefit of a doubt. They are no longer the quiet guy nervously nursing his beer at the end of the bar or the mute convict who peers with soul-less eyes at you from across the exercise yard.
By their words or by their silence that lends tacit approval to Trump's comment, they have earned our suspicion.
I was born in 1959 - before Selma, before the Freedom Riders, before Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner -- and from my earliest years I've heard many, many times about how discontented blacks should "just go back to Africa" or "the cotton fields" or "the watermelon patch," different verses of the sadistic song of the unrepentant racist.
It seemed to have fallen out of fashion over the last few decades. Then suddenly, Trump comes along and adds a new verse. Everything old is new again.
I realize now that the sad part of the story isn't that Rip Van Winkle slept: It's that he ever woke up.
You want to know where we are, right now, in 2019? There is a serious debate about whether it's appropriate to call some act or some person racist.
Move over, N-word. There's a new unmentionable in town: The R-word.
Granted, you just can't go around calling things and people racists. It's a serious charge and one hard to defend against. That much, I'll grant. But let's not throw a blanket of restraint over the whole pile. There are some who have earned that label. I say we give it to 'em.
Telling a black person to go back to Africa? Well, there are very fine people on both sides of that idea, if the Congressional Republican reaction is any indicator.
But let's talk about that word: racist.
Here, and not for the first time in these past few years, am I detecting a strong aroma of hypocrisy among the conservatives I encounter. They seem to support and condone today what they fought and condemned before, and one of those things was the whole business of "political correctness."
For years, I've heard my conservative friends and associates complain bitterly about political correctness when any effort was made to curb pejorative terms like "illegal aliens" or "retarded."
Now, those very same people insist I call a spade a...what? I don't know...an elongated garden implement, maybe?
Is there some alternate term for "racist," that I should be using? I cannot imagine what it would be.
Confucius wrote long ago that when words lose their meaning, people lose their freedom.
George Orwell wrote 70 years ago that many words are meaningless because they are no longer used as honest descriptions but as weapons of verbal warfare. If people don't agree on what a word actually means, that word loses its legitimacy.
The abuse of the word notwithstanding, are we really ready to add "racist" to that list? Is this something -- after hundreds of years of murder and bondage and oppression that breathed this word into foul being -- we can no longer know when we see, even in its most blatant form?
If we are truly divided about whether saying blacks should go back to Africa or Hispanics should go back to Mexico are, or are not, racist comments, we are far closer to Orwell than Confucius.
And that's a damn dangerous place to be.
But I guess it helps to know that, too.
Call it a life lesson.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]
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