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A Yankee Notebook

September 3, 2012


EAST MONTPELIER, VT – Old, straight, white American guys (and their wives) are a rapidly diminishing human subspecies. Not in numbers, perhaps; but our percentage of the national demographic is shrinking. Some of us seem not at all upset by that trend – welcome it, even – but others are fighting tooth-and-nail to preserve the remnants of their ebbing power.

The incident at the Republican National Convention, in which two probably inebriated delegates threw peanuts at an African-American CNN camerawoman while jeering, “This is how we feed animals,” has been reported in enough credible media to assure us that it really happened. And I just noticed that I neglected to write “white delegates.” Probably because in the God-fearing political party of traditional values, that goes without saying.

What in the world are so many of us afraid of? Is it just the unfamiliar situation, or the growing need to share our power, or the fear that once we’re in the minority, the new majority will do to us what we’ve been doing to them for centuries?

The minority group most brutally oppressed – sometimes called “America’s original sin” – is African-Americans. An incisive article in the September issue of The Atlantic titled “Fear of a Black President,” by Senior Editor Ta-Nehisi Coates, quotes a letter sent in 1944 to Senator Theodore Bilbo (D, Mississippi):

“I am a typical American, a southerner, and 27 years of age … I am loyal to my country and know but reverence to her flag, BUT I shall never submit to fight beneath that banner with a negro by my side. Rather I should die a thousand times, and see Old Glory trampled in the dirt never to rise again, than to see this beloved land of ours become degraded by race mongrels, a throw back to the blackest specimen from the wilds.”

If that seems just a bit over the top, consider that it was written by a young man who’d been raised in a foster home and poverty in the West Virginia coal fields. Later, he stopped paying his Klan dues and, as he entered politics, moderated at least his public views on race. But he kept that evangelical, hyperbolic style, and became the unofficial authority on the Constitution in the United States Senate – good old boy, banjo picker, and longest-serving senator ever, Robert C. Byrd.

Anybody who thinks we’ve come a long way in race relations is right; we have. But anyone who thinks we’re in a post-racial society needs to think again. Jim Crow is alive and well, for example, in the current spate of voter-suppression efforts masked as legislation to eliminate alleged voter fraud. Mr. Crow may have grown more subtle over the years, but he’s still there – and will be, until we old white guys are gone. Hang on! It’ll be rough, but it won’t be long.

Women are also beginning to make their mark. It’s hard to believe they weren’t given the vote until 1920. Equally hard to believe is that my wife, in the early 60s, couldn’t open a bank, charge, or checking account without my signature. That I signed without registering any protest is an embarrassing memory. Now, however, more women than men are entering higher education, and as old white guys get out of the way, are being elected to legislative bodies. Madeleine Kunin, in a commentary at a VPR gathering last year, asked us to “Picture if 50 percent of the members of Congress were women instead of a mere 16 percent. The huddle of men circling the podium to announce cuts for Planned Parenthood, the Environmental Protection Agency, Head Start and Medicare, might not take place.” It’s coming; the Old Guard will soon become the rear guard.

Gay people now marry in several progressive states, and the Defense of Marriage Act will eventually be thrown into the dustbin of history – though in the short term a lot depends upon who gets to make the next couple of appointments to the Supreme Court. Gays, who’ve fought in wars since at least the days of ancient Sparta, may now do so openly. If there’s been a diminution in our military capacity because of that, I haven’t heard of it. Likewise straight marriage. If there’s been an impact on “traditional marriage,” it’s imperceptible. Those who wish to defend tradition might better direct their efforts to combatting divorce, now around 70 percent.

Speaking of which: Though statistics show a strong decline in child abduction, the public perception is that it’s a growing and ever-present danger. This may be because 70% of abductions are carried out by divorcing family members involved in custody disputes. There are reasons to be vigilant about it, and techniques to cope with it; but living in constant dread isn’t really living.

Violent crime is way down in recent decades; yet big, husky grown men go about in public with miniature cannons concealed beneath their jackets. “For protection,” they claim darkly. “I want to be ready when the next shooter comes out on stage and starts firing.” We can only hope they shoot straighter than the New York City cops who killed the murderer near the Empire State Building. And they should take a look (on the RNC video) at Dirty Harry’s last act.

We old white guys have become, in the words of the Bard, “a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more.” We still can throw all kinds of obstacles in the way of progress, and even refuse to believe the sea is rising. We can frighten and corral the credulous by speaking to their deepest fears. Franklin Roosevelt famously disagreed. Personally, I consider it unpatriotic, in this beautiful nation, to be anything but optimistic and hopeful.

Photo by Willem lange