I’ve just come to the office through the Puerto Rican Day parade here in New York, and I ponder a question: Are there any girls more alluring than Puerto Ricans, clad in their summertime Puerto Rican-flag-motif scanties? No, that’s not the question: It is, What about these ethnic-pride-day parades? Good, poisonous, benign?
Obviously, displays like this should give pause to those of us who think of Americanism as a pressing need — who shudder at identity politics, multiculturalism, separatism, Balkanization, and on down through that list of horribles. I have written about this repeatedly. And yet, these ethnic parades surely have a place in the general American pageant, and they’re fun, too (when they don’t degenerate into crude racialism and violence).
My walk today forced me to think a little, and to answer the question on a fortune-cookie slip. So here goes: Such a parade is fine if it’s a fond look back, an acknowledgement of roots, a celebration of an American nuance or spice, all within the context of a greater and grateful Americanism. If it is not — it’s not.
Not exactly fortune-cookie material, I grant you, but food for thought (and food slightly more nutritious than your average fortune cookie, good as they can be).
‐So, have you had enough of soccer? Or are you aware that there’s a World Cup on? It’s a quadrennial affair, like the Olympics, and bigger than the Olympics in some parts of the world.
Having just returned from Britain, I’m especially mindful of the World Cup: England is doing exceptionally well, having upset the world’s number-one team, Argentina — all during the Queen’s jubilee, which is making the isle a happy one indeed.
You’ve noticed that I used, above, the terms “Britain” and “England.” Extremely important, especially now that we’re talking about the World Cup. Britain, of course, is the term referring to the entity composed of England, Scotland, and Wales. Add Northern Ireland, and you have “the United Kingdom” (or, more formally, “the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”). This is the entity — the country — that we see in the Olympics, under the Union Jack. But we don’t see Britain, or that flag, in the World Cup. There, it’s every man for himself. England competes separately, and it does so under the English flag, which is the flag of St. George’s cross. These flags are everywhere in Britain — in England, sorry — and English nationalism is rife.
My more Britain-minded friends are upset about this: “This,” they say, “is what that stupid Welsh nationalism and Scottish nationalism — Sean Connery and devolution and all that — has done: created English nationalism, for the first time in ages. And English nationalism is sometimes not pretty.” St. George’s flags were much in evidence at the festivities marking the Queen’s jubilee, although the official flag of those festivities, of course, was the Union Jack. Whether the nationalist flags would have been equally noticeable without the World Cup is an open question.
As I am for an all-embracing Americanism, these friends of mine are for an all-embracing Britishism — though the cases of the two countries are very different, to be sure.
But I wanted to say a word about soccer. You might accuse me of having to politicize everything, but, in my hometown, soccer was very definitely a project of the Left. Our teachers and betters thought it was good for us, like vegetables, and that it made us better world citizens. They were appalled that Americans didn’t play it — that we were out of step (literally, I guess) with the rest of the world. They repeatedly emphasized the political virtues of soccer: that you needed very little equipment to play it; that those of any size could play it; that the poor could play it; that you didn’t get hurt in it (at least as much as in that terrible beef-eating football — our football, that is); that the beloved masses of Latin America played it; that it promoted one world. It was sort of the athletic equivalent of vegetarianism. Pele was god (and thank God he was black, which made it really great). The best soccer player in our school was a recent Puerto Rican immigrant, named Pepe. Actually, he was the only soccer player — probably the only one who’d grown up in it. When it came time to do soccer in gym, he was star, and vaulted up on the social ladder.
I mentioned vegetarianism. More to the point, soccer was the athletic equivalent of the metric system. The metric system was another foreign thing that was forced on us against our will, by our teachers and betters. And the arguments for it were similar, not to say identical, to those in favor of soccer: The rest of the world was doing it, why not America? Stubborn, arrogant, chest-thumping, nose-thumbing America, going it alone again, not getting in step. I didn’t want to thump my chest or thumb my nose, actually; I just wanted to keep miles, pounds, gallons, and so on.
And I — this was as a junior-high-schooler — was puzzled by one thing: Our teachers and betters were always celebrating difference, and urging it on us. But when it came to America, and American exceptionalism, difference was damned. I, however, really did believe in Vive la différence — and in the American differences that were part of it.
It seems to me that we have surrendered to soccer — the Left loves it, and the young ones are being indoctrinated in it. I remember my daily walks through my neighborhood in Washington, where I saw the baseball diamonds grassed over with those infernal soccer fields. I felt that we’d lost something — and I think I know why, political neurotic that I am.
But the push for the metric system — so strong in the later 1970s — seems to be on the wane, if not dead, doesn’t it?
Vive la différence.
‐Like many others, I read with sinking heart about Johnell Bryant, the Department of Agriculture official to whom the 9/11 terrorist Mohamed Atta applied for a loan — he wanted to buy a crop-duster, for purposes that need not now be guessed. According to the New York Times, “[Ms. Bryant] told Atta that he could not have a loan of $650,000 to buy a twin-engine, six-passenger plane, which he wanted to equip with a very large tank. He then became agitated . . . and asked [Bryant] what was to keep him from slitting her throat and stealing money from the safe behind the desk in her Florida office.”
But Johnell Bryant didn’t kick Atta out of her office or call the police. She jollied him. And “later in their meeting, . . . [Atta] told her he wanted to buy an aerial picture of Washington that hung in her office. He pulled out a wad of cash and threw money on her desk, even after she said she would not sell it. He asked about the White House and Pentagon, and she pointed them out.”
He praised al Qaeda to her, and also its leader, Osama bin Laden. According to Bryant, Atta “mentioned that this man would someday be known as the world’s greatest leader.” The terrorist went on to ask about various American cities, and specifically mentioned that the football stadium used by the Dallas Cowboys had “a hole in the roof.” He also wondered whether “he would be able to visit various landmarks in Washington, since he was not a citizen. ‘I told him that there wouldn’t be a problem with that, that there is security inside of most of the buildings,’ . . . but it would be like that in airports.”
Today, Bryant says, “Should I have picked up the telephone and called someone? . . . I don’t know how I could possibly expect myself to have recognized what the man was. And yet sometimes I haven’t forgiven myself.”
Now, I’m not a psychiatrist, and journalism — even of the casual sort — isn’t psychiatry. But, like you, I’ve lived in America for a while, and have observed a thing or two. One of them is: Political correctness rides high. In many areas, and in many categories of life, it is our master and bane. And we have been taught — conditioned — not to “discriminate.” (Indeed, Bryant says that, after she denied Atta the loan, “he started accusing me of discriminating against him.” Of course. Must have made her feel bad — threat to slit her throat and all.) So conditioned, paralyzed, and terrorized are we by PC that we may hesitate to suspect a violent, unsubtle Arab man of terrorist connections, even when he is all but screaming at us, “I’m a terrorist, looking for ways to damage the U.S., you stupid fool!”
What would have happened if Bryant had reported this? What would her superiors have said? Would she have been thanked and commended? Would she have been shipped off to sensitivity training? What would the New York Times and 60 Minutes have said? That Bryant was a conscientious citizen and public official, doing her duty to her fellow Americans? Or that this country had hatred, and “fear of the other,” in its blood? That we were racist, ethnocentric, xenophobic, hegemonist, patriarchalist (would that have applied?), and all those other words that we have learned in recent years?
This sort of hesitancy — this sort of self-muzzling and self-doubting and false shame — has long been an albatross around our necks. It has impeded progress in our race relations, most spectacularly. Sensible discussion of crime is almost impossible. I know for a fact that, at at least one big-city newspaper, reporters and editors are discouraged from reporting straight on crime and law enforcement, lest “the black community” (strange, and telling, phrase) be upset. Needless to say, these reporters and editors can’t speak out, or they’d risk everything.
I am no shrink, but I hazard this guess about Johnell Bryant: that some part of her was inhibited by our acculturation in PC. Will this acculturation — this system of fear and accusation — be lessened in the wake of 9/11? Will honesty and openness be encouraged? In some, surely. Generally? One wonders.
‐And yet we’ve had a positive sign: the administration’s policy on “high risk” visitors to these shores, announced by John Ashcroft. The attorney general is apparently not one to be intimidated by the dictates, and dictators, of PC; neither is the president. Under new regulations, tens of thousands of Middle Eastern visa-holders will be required to register with the government and be fingerprinted. As Ashcroft explained, “A band of men entered our country under false pretenses in order to plan and execute murderous acts of war. Some entered the country several years in advance. Others entered several months in advance. Once inside the United States, they were easily able to avoid contact with authorities [normally a hopeful thing] and to violate the terms of their visas with impunity.” And so on.
“We are an open country,” said Ashcroft, and will “continue to greet our . . . neighbors with good will” — but we are not suicidal fools, and we don’t have our heads in the sand.
This is a move that took guts, a willingness to brave PC opinion, rage, and ridicule that some doubted the administration had.
According to reports, Arabs and Muslims “reacted angrily,” saying that they were being “unfairly targeted.” Well, life isn’t fair, as an idolized Democratic president once stated — and if there is anger to be directed, it should be directed at those terrorists and their supporters who have brought about the sour and fearful circumstances in which we live today.
‐End with a little language? Righto. In the London Daily Mail, a rip-roaring tabloid, with all the delights and degradations of that animal, I was reading an excerpt from a new book about Hollywood in the ’50s (I believe). (I’d love to credit the book, but unfortunately I forgot to clip the article.) It mentioned the going euphemisms for “homosexual”: There was that code word “lavender,” of course, and the phrase “not the marrying kind.”
But I especially loved — and had never heard — this question: “Is he musical?” Brilliant. Hilarious in 19 different ways.
And I was reminded that, in the Washington, D.C., area at least, there used to be a euphemism for Jew, or Jewish: “Is he Canadian?” One would say, “Boy, there are lots of Canadians in this restaurant,” or, “Bernie’s dating a nice girl, but she’s not a Canadian,” or, “They don’t let Canadians into that club, do they?” or, “I think she’s half-Canadian.” And so on.
‐And last, speaking of euphemisms: One of the refreshing aspects of Britain is the country’s lack of them, at least in public signage. In a train station, I saw a sign reading, “Loo for the disabled.” I almost fell over dead. In our society, a man making or approving that sign could be shot for hate speech.