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A Yankee Notebook

February 11, 2013



You've got to be taught To hate and fear,
You've got to be taught From year to year,
It's got to be drummed In your dear little ear,
You've got to be carefully taught.

Those lyrics were written back in 1949 for the musical South Pacific. World War II was still fresh in our minds. In the grip of that awful war, as it became clear that the United States couldn’t prevail without the participation of all its citizens (except for the Japanese-Americans in our concentration camps), President Roosevelt had signed an executive order banning discrimination in defense industries. His successor, Harry Truman, had in 1948 signed another order banning discrimination (but not yet segregation) in the military services. It’s hard to remember now, 65 years later, the raw rage those acts evoked in some areas and constituencies of the United States. It seemed to many that the world was being turned upside down – and for the sake of undeserving people, at that. Just as Scripture had earlier been invoked in the attempt to deny American women the franchise, it was now cited to justify the subjugation of African-Americans. Lynching did not abate; on the contrary, it increased. Martin Luther King, Jr., was twenty years old and getting ready to challenge three hundred years of slavery and incomplete reconstruction; the Montgomery bus boycott was still six years away; and To Kill a Mockingbird was yet but a gleam in Harper Lee’s eye. You think these are especially troubled times? You ain’t seen nothin’.

We Americans like to think ourselves exceptionally righteous and upstanding; a longer list of our supposed virtues can be found in the so-called Boy Scout Law. My travels have convinced me that this is a fatuous fiction. We’re depressingly like everybody else: no better or worse; certainly no wiser (than, for example, other nations that have declined to join us in our quixotic military adventures); just as xenophobic (despite the stirring words on the base of our Statue of Liberty) as France, Great Britain, or Japan. My own folks slipped into this country relatively easily; they were conservative Protestants, white, and practiced in a trade or business. Others, notably the Irish and Eastern Europeans, served apprenticeships in the most disagreeable jobs before eventually reaching the middle class. They were often vilified, and suspected of the worst crimes. A contemporary account of the aftermath of the great Johnstown Flood of 1889 mentions that “Hungarian ghouls” have been stripping the corpses of valuables. As Hadassah Lieberman cried out the night her husband, Joe, received the vice-presidential nomination, “Is this a great country, or what?”

You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade,
You've got to be carefully taught.

Those lyrics were judged by many to be too controversial for inclusion in a musical production. They’re sung by a character named Lieutenant Cable in response to a suggestion that racism is an inborn part of our human condition. Not surprisingly, they weren’t welcome in the American South; the torturous attempts to suppress them, when South Pacific went on the road, are ludicrous in retrospect. This occurred during the blossoming of the Cold War, when otherwise rational people expected to hear the jet engines of Russian bombers in the sky at any moment. Then, as now, fear tended to dominate the American psyche. Thus, in an attempt to have “You’ve Got to Be Taught” removed from the score of the traveling company of South Pacific, Southern legislatures introduced incredible bills designed to quell “any entertainment espousing an underlying philosophy inspired by Moscow.” The suggestion that mixed marriage was anything but a Biblically forbidden abomination was “a threat to the American way of life.” It should be no surprise that Rodgers and Hammerstein, no strangers to prejudice themselves, refused to remove it, even if it meant the cancellation of the show’s tour. They didn’t, and it didn’t.

I see that the Boy Scouts of America is still jammed up over the issue of allowing membership to openly gay scouts and leaders. After losing the financial support of several large corporate donors, the governing board hinted that a decision to open its membership by a sort of local-option arrangement was in the works. Almost immediately, its major religious sponsors – Southern Baptist, Roman Catholic, and Mormon – hinted even more strongly that such a decision without “further open discussion” probably would lead to their withdrawal. The Scouts are left in the position of the classic cartoon character bridging a stationary dock and a moving boat.

The AP article announcing the conflict features a photo of several young Scouts picketing with signs outside the Irving, Texas, offices of the BSA. The signs read, “Stand Strong” and “Keep Scouts Morally Straight.” The boys’ names run to Micah, John, Jacob, and James, to me suggesting Christianist (as in Islamist) home schooling. And the question must arise: Where do prepubescent boys pick up prejudices like that about their fellow Americans?

You've got to be taught before it's too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You've got to be carefully taught!

Photo by Willem lange