If you don't believe in God, then "Sit Down and SHUT UP!!!"

Peggy’s cousin, Lynn, is a practicing Catholics and the mother of a serviceman who recently returned from Afghanistan. She often forwards ultra-conservative e-mails to me. I don’t like getting these emails because they argue from authority or pander to emotion, yet I don’t want to offend Lynn by asking her to not send them. Instead, I try to dialogue with her. Perhaps, my belief that I am her intellectual superior shows and discourages her from responding, or maybe she is like most people and simply wants to have her beliefs affirmed rather than challenged. In any event, my attempts at communication don’t appear useful.

I will only share the conclusion of Lynn’s last email. Preceding the conclusion was a list of public buildings on which the Ten Commandments are inscribed, quotations by three of the Founding Fathers in support of religion, a mention of religious references on money and in the Pledge of Allegiance, and a reference to the fact that Congress pays someone to open each session with prayer. Following Lynn’s conclusion is my response. Before I wrote it, I asked her if she would be willing to dialogue, and she implied that she would. A month has passed, and I haven’t heard from her.

…“It is said that 86% of Americans believe in God. Therefore, it is very hard to understand why there is such a mess about having the Ten Commandments on display or ‘In God We Trust’ on our money and having God in the Pledge of Allegiance. Why don't we just tell the other 14% to Sit Down and SHUT UP!!!”

Dear Lynn,

The conclusion of the argument you offer is that, on this issue at least, people who hold a minority opinion should “Sit Down and SHUT UP!!!” in deference to the majority. To begin with, did all those Americans who died for freedom of speech only die so that the majority could speak freely? Would not such a belief abolish any concept of equality before the law? And how about those Christians who were in the minority in their own eras and areas, do you believe they too should have kept silent in deference to the majority? If they had, how would you have Christianity?

Indeed, how could society advance if no one dared oppose the majority? The majority of Americans once supported slavery and the theft of Indian lands. More recently, the majority of Americans opposed equality for women and black people. By the free exchange of ideas, people can grow; without such freedom, society stagnates. Such was the situation in the Dark Ages, and such is it today in many Moslem lands.

You can pull out many quotes to support religion, but quotes can be pulled out to support pretty much any view. For instance, Jefferson also wrote, “In every country and every age, the priest had been hostile to Liberty.” What matters is not what any given individual said, but what the founding documents say. Even so, I would be astounded if you can point to any quotes by any of these men to support your belief that the minority should “Sit Down and SHUT UP!!!” Most of our forbearers opposed the American Revolution, and this can only mean that the war that won our independence was conducted by the minority.

Last, but certainly not least, what do you propose to do with those in the minority who insist on speaking after they’ve been told to “Sit Down and SHUT UP!!!”? It is only by the visible presence of dissent that we know our democracy is working.

Assassinations and memories of the homeland

John Kennedy was killed 45 years ago today. I was 14 and skipping school in Brookhaven, Mississippi, when it happened. My mother was watching “As the World Turns” in the den, and I was in the bathroom on the pot because, after all, everybody has got to be someplace. The cabinet next to me was full of Dad’s colognes that he never wore but that I gave him every Christmas anyway. I was removing these colognes one at a time and smelling them when I heard, “We interrupt this program to bring you a special news bulletin. The president of the United States has been shot…”

I didn’t think Kennedy would die because he was rich, and I believed money could fix anything. I also knew that Dallas was near the desert, and I thought the desert had magical powers that could save his life if they would only take him there. I had never been in a desert, but I had seen a lot of them on cowboy movies and TV shows. People would die on these shows only to appear later on other shows. Maybe that’s why I thought the desert had special powers. I’m just guessing.

At school the next day, people were happy about the killing. A girl at a school in nearby McComb asked to be excused to mourn, but the principal wouldn’t excuse her so she stayed home anyway and got zeros in all her classes. Her family was eventually run out of town for their liberal ideas. They moved to Jackson, but were run out of there too. Their last name was Heffner, and someone wrote a book about them.

I was asleep when Robert Kennedy was killed. I don’t remember what I was doing the next day when I heard about it.

I was practicing for a college play when Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed. Whitworth was a small Methodist school (also in Mississippi), and a lot of the students were preparing for the ministry or missionary work. When someone came into the auditorium and told us that King had been shot, most people cheered. The teacher, who was from Ohio, just smiled. Then we went on with our rehearsal. I was shocked by the cheering (mostly because it was done by ministerial students), but I didn’t think much about it after it happened.

To give more context…during the 1960s, white people in Mississippi believed themselves and their way of life to be under siege by “outside agitators” (which was true) and despised and reviled by the rest of the world (which was mostly true), a world that couldn’t begin to understand the necessity of enforcing racial separatism in order to avoid a mongrelized race that would incur the wrath of God and bring an end to civilization. This point of view made a lot of Southerners rigid if not dangerous. I’m glad I grew up in that place and time and saw all the things I did. Of course, if I had been as rich as the Kennedys and educated at Harvard, that would have been okay too.

Negroes, as they were called, had separate schools, motels, and restaurants. They also had separate restrooms and water fountains in some places, but in most places, they had to do without. Some white cafes served black patrons through a side window, but most didn’t serve them at all. Blacks and whites didn’t socialize in one another’s houses, and a black person was expected to knock at the back door if he needed to talk to a white person at home. Young and middle aged black people were called by their first names; elderly blacks were called Uncle or Aunt. Blacks were expected to take their hats off when talking to whites, and to move aside when passing a white on the sidewalk. The “separate but equal” schools of which white Southerners boasted didn’t exist, and public libraries and swimming pools were for whites only. The black part of Brookhaven, which was called Little Egypt, had narrow streets and no sidewalks. Some of the streets weren’t paved. Blacks couldn’t even be buried alongside whites.

Separatist customs were taken so seriously that no deviation was tolerated. Imagine the outrage of bystanders today if two people took off their clothes and started having sex on the sidewalk in broad daylight, and you will understand how white Southerners would have felt had they seen a black person knocking on a white person’s front door or drinking from a whites only water fountain. A teenage boy was beaten, shot, and thrown in a river with a mill wheel tied to his neck for whistling at a white woman, and my father watched two black men being fatally drug behind cars for being drunk and disorderly in the white part of town.

Even though I lived in Mississippi for all of my first 36 years, I was often asked where I was from. My Southern accent was obvious to people from other places, but there was something about my manner of speaking that set me apart in my native state. This and my ambivalence about Southern values made me feel like an outsider from my early teens. When I finally left the South, I imagined that living among “Northern” liberals in Oregon would feel like coming home, but I discovered that a great many people here stereotyped me as being straight out of “Deliverance.” I found it quite impossible to convince people that I wasn’t stupid and bigoted, especially when they were acting that way themselves based upon nothing more substantial than my accent.

When I was a boy, I lived among people who were proud of their prejudice (Hell, yeah, I hate niggers!”), but when I came to Oregon, I found myself among people who falsely boasted that they had no prejudices. The few black people I have met in Oregon echo my observation, but instead of being scorned by white liberals, they are solicited to be their token black friends. I don’t doubt but what such weirdness is partly why there is an exodus of black people back to the South. Instead of being the most segregated part of America, the South has become the most integrated, and nowhere is this more obvious than in Mississippi where blacks are in the majority. Most weeks, I don’t even see a black person here in Oregon.

Fun at the Chevy dealership

Peggy and I took the van to the Chevy dealership yesterday for an oil change and a grease job. Afterwards, we went to eat. Before I went into the restaurant, I crawled under the van to be sure everything had been done properly. It had not. I could tell this because the grease fittings were still covered with road scum.

After our meal, we took the van back to the shop. The service rep, the mechanic, the shop foreman, Peggy, the dogs, and I, all gathered beneath it (this would be after it was lifted into the air). There was no denying that the work hadn’t been done. “Why wasn’t it greased?” Peggy asked. I hadn’t planned to inquire because I knew there was no good reason, and I didn’t want to cause more embarrassment than necessary. There followed an awkward moment during which everyone pretended they hadn’t heard anything. Peggy persisted. “Did you guys not hear me? I asked why the van wasn’t greased.”

After another awkward silence, the mechanic said he had been distracted by his difficulty in removing the air filter. Well, this didn’t make much sense because the air filter is under the hood, and the grease fittings are under the van, so if you’re working on one, you’re nowhere near the other, but Peggy isn’t up on her automotive topography, and I wasn’t going to tell her. I had noticed that the shop foreman was having to show the “mechanic” where the grease fittings were located, so I had pretty much settled on the theory that the “mechanic” was a new hire who didn’t know his job any too well. After all, a lot of new cars don’t even have grease fittings.

When the job was done, I waited to see what the service rep was going to offer us to make up for our time and trouble. When all he extended was his “sincerest apology,” I asked for a free lube and oil change next time. The dealership manager was consulted, and he agreed to this, but he took his own sweet time in signing a form authorizing the work. Meanwhile the service rep and I talked. He told me about his history in the automotive business (he started in his father’s radiator shop at age eleven, and became a service rep ten years ago following a back injury that made him unable to be a mechanic); and I told him that I’ve had two cancer scares this year, so I’m determined to teach Peggy as much as I can about things she would need to know if she were alone—things like checking up on other people’s work, especially the kinds of work that those people wouldn’t expect her to check up on. This is no easy task, because Peggy doesn’t want to think about being alone.

Bonnie and Clyde

Recent reading. Lots of books. Always lots of books. One about an elderly couple who were the first to walk across the Gobi Desert. Another by a shrink about his childhood. A third by a woman with breast cancer. A fourth by a druggie about his misadventures. Several about alternative medicine. Most notably, a scholarly work about Bonnie and Clyde. Scholarly…Bonnie and Clyde? Sounds oxymoronic, but the author made them and their era his life’s work.

My father was born in 1909, the year before Clyde Barrow. He said he saw Clyde in a bar once, and maybe he did since they covered the same territory and both did their share of bar hopping. Dad also said that the 1930s was his favorite decade. Only when I became old enough to envision the Great Depression did I catch the irony. But he was a young man then. He worked as a carpenter, painter, and merchant seaman. He rode freights, ran bootleg, lived with a lot of women, and got into a lot of fights. He used to show me where the honky tonks stood, and tell me about the people he fought in them. He seemed nostalgic. “Dad, did you like fighting?” “Yeah, I always enjoyed it.” He got into his last fight when he was 75 (he attacked two highway patrolmen with his walking stick), although he did get mad at me one day when he was 84, and go skulking about the house for a while with a butcher knife.

I used to watch The Untouchables on TV. It was mostly set in the ‘20s but some of it in the ‘30s, and it didn’t take much to envision my father back then. I had pictures of him in cocky poses wearing the same kind of clothes and standing by the same kind of cars. When the movie about Bonnie and Clyde came out in 1967, I took Dad to see it. It was one of only two movies that we watched together. Dad thought Bonnie and Clyde got a raw deal. A lot of people did, which was probably why 20,000 people attended Bonnie’s funeral. Everyone hated banks during the Depression, so there was a lot of sympathy for people who robbed them. When Dillinger was killed on a Chicago street, bystanders thronged to dip their handkerchiefs in his blood.

The real life Bonnie and Clyde were even more violent than the movie versions and died even younger. Bonnie was 23; Clyde was 24. Last night, I read about their Joplin, Missouri, shootout. Two cops were killed and three outlaws wounded. The account got to me, especially the part about the dog Snowball that ran away while the machine guns rattled. It wouldn’t have hit me so hard if what had happened in the weeks before the shootout hadn’t been so ordinary and even light-hearted. The movie was that way too. It wasn’t just the graphic violence that gave the censors fits, it was the interweaving of violence with humor and tenderness. But that’s how Bonnie and Clyde lived; to some extent, it’s how we all live, only instead of being dropped by gunfire, we die from cancer and car crashes.

Peggy objects to any attempt to humanize criminals. She doesn’t want to know that Clyde liked hot chocolate with marshmallows, or that Blanche enjoyed putting together puzzles, or that Bonnie wrote poetry, or that Buck taught Snowball to stand up in the back seat of the car and put her paws on his shoulders, or that W.D. joined the gang because he was a kid in need of a family. I’m mostly that way too, but it’s easier, somehow, to humanize the outlaws of old than the ones who just knocked over the local Dairy Mart.

Is it better to be like Peggy and not even try to see the good in bad people? I guess that depends upon what you want to do with them. If you want to hang them from the nearest tree, it’s probably better to dismiss them as monsters. But if you want to think of them as people who might, in different circumstances, have done a lot of good with their lives, it probably isn’t. I don’t know which way is right. Are we too soft on criminals or too severe? I mostly think we are too soft, but I also think that the biggest difference between good people and bad people is how they were brought up. Without Peggy’s softening influence, I would have been capable of some bad things, but that wouldn’t mean there was no good in me. Even Hitler was kind to his dogs. What I see in such behavior is something akin to a seed that might have blossomed into a beautiful flower under different circumstances. We are all born with the capacity for good.

I awakened despondent at 3:00 a.m. last night, so overcome was I by the tragedy of Bonnie and Clyde, and their victims. It’s as if all that suffering and waste had formed into a dense black ball and lay heavy on my chest. I mostly thought about their many months on the run, and I reflected upon what it must be like to never eat in peace or lie down without wondering if you will be awakened by someone shooting at you. The following is from the report of the posse that killed them. It’s one of the reasons why my father hated cops so terrifically that he said any day a cop was killed was a happy day for him.

“Each of us six officers had a shotgun and an automatic rifle and pistols. We opened fire with the automatic rifles. They were emptied before the car got even with us. Then we used shotguns ... There was smoke coming from the car, and it looked like it was on fire. After shooting the shotguns, we emptied the pistols at the car, which had passed us and ran into a ditch about 50 yards on down the road. It almost turned over. We kept shooting at the car even after it stopped. We weren’t taking any chances.”

Computer woes, First Christian

My computer has been in the shop for a week. Twice, I complained about the slow service and was told by different techs that I could go to the front of the line for $100. When I finally picked my computer up yesterday, I raised hell about this to the manager, telling her that she has taken the sort of unscrupulous act that rogue employees have always been guilty of and elevated it to company policy. She admitted that it’s a shameful practice, but then contradicted herself by saying it’s only for businesses that can’t do without a computer. I told her that of the two employees who enthusiastically offered to bump me to the front of the line, neither asked if I owned a business. Eager to get me off her back, and not knowing that I had just gotten my computer, she offered to service it immediately at no extra charge. A hundred dollars is a hundred dollars, I suppose, and hers is the only Mac store in town. She’s well known for her role in the Catholic Church, but I refrained from asking if her lack of integrity conflicts with her religiosity.

I attended First Christian this week and enjoyed it very much. The building is old, large, and corridorous, so I didn’t find the Sunday School class I was looking for, but wandered instead into a group of twenty that offered hot coffee and a discussion about the four versions of God found in the Pentateuch. No conservative church would sponsor such a class.

I debated leaving before the service, but was glad I stayed. The sermon was about inclusiveness, and just as the minister was saying that the church is obligated to welcome everyone, no matter how they are dressed, two women walked in, one in an open vest with no blouse and the other in chaps with no pants. They sat down quietly, but the remainder of the homily was pretty much lost on the congregation. The preacher later said that, despite rumors to the contrary, he doesn’t pay people to illustrate his sermons.

I took communion, stayed for coffee and dessert, and was even invited out to eat by a group that dines together every Sunday. If I had not been feeling overly socialized and overly full of cake, I would have gone. For all of my life prior to Zoloft, even the social expenditure that I had already made would have been a strain, yet I haven’t taken Zoloft in years. Perhaps, I stayed on it long enough that the me on Zoloft simply became the me off Zoloft.