Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Ostrich People

I saw a television special the other evening about George Carlin. He was being postumously awarded an honor by the Kennedy Center. I enjoy watching these shows when it's comedians who are being honored. I've seen Lucille Ball and Bill Cosby honored, too.

George Carlin could be immensely funny. He could also be simply strange. I once saw him on the Jerry Lewis Telethon. He came out looking very angry. He positioned himself in front of everyone and stood and stared for roughly four to eight minutes (whatever his allotted time was). When his time was up he smiled and bid the crowd thank you. Those were the only words he spoke. Whether he was pissed off at Jerry or someone at the place, or whether he was testing a new routine I do not know. Neither did the crowd which was there.

But George Carlin understood humor. He also understood something else: people. The two kind of go toether, I think.

One of the clips from the special in his honor was a bit in which George mentions something about Americans and language. Americans constantly change which words are appropriate to use. The reason? Americans have trouble facing the truth. The bit talked specifically about "shell shock" versus "combat fatigue" versus "post traumatic disorder". As the terminology changed, so did Americans' attitude about those suffering from the problem, until those suffering no longer got the treatment they needed, deserved, and had earned.

I've known this about Americans for a long time. As a people, we are liars. Mainly, we lie to ourselves. We tell ourselves we're smarter than people from other nations. That was ingrained in me when I was growing up. Everything I was taught in school supported this belief. And yet America does not rate in the top ten in academics around the world. Some college students from England came to the United States to do a study. They were curious about how much Americans knew about their own country. The English students visited several large cities and randomly stopped people and questioned them. Nearly three quarters of the people they spoke with couldn't identify which state Cleveland is in. (Ohio, if you're wondering.) Some even thought it might be a state. Virtually none could repeat even the first three words of the Constitution. (We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America..)

This ignorance is often premeditated. I have seen this with many simple, but well-meaning people, who simply (pun intended) choose to pretend that certain things/people/ideas do not exist. I know a woman who, every time the news began to speak of rape, murder, child abuse, or anything like that, she would change the channel so her children wouldn't hear about it. If the topic of gays and lesbians came up she would usher her child away from the room. Such things are not for children's ears.

Why not?

I had more than a few arguments with this woman, and never could she give me a definitive reason for her actions. Other than fear. What if her child became like that?

I don't know the answer to that. But what if her child grew up to be like her? Turning off the news because it talked about something she didn't like, or understand, or agree with? What if her child grew up to be the kind of person that believed people who think and act differently from a select group's established norm should be suppressed and oppressed? Possibly even put to death?

America has become a battle ground, I think. It's an all out war. Not being fought with tanks and rifles and aircraft. It's being fought with ideas. The most important idea is whether any person has the right to think and be what they want. On the one side is a growing number of people who believe in freedom for all. On the other is a growing number of people who bear a striking resemblance to the people who surrounded Adolph Hitler.

Many people refuse to believe that what happened in Germany in the 1930s and 40s could ever happen in America. Like this woman I know they bury their heads in the sand, or run away, whenver the topic is even hinted at. We can't stop it if we don't stand against it. And we won't stand against it if we refuse to admit it even exists. Or is our problem.