CAREFULLY TAUGHT?


20 December 2020

 

“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.

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

“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.”

 

From “South Pacific,” 1949

Lyricist: Oscar Hammerstein II

*  *  *

  When the Puritans arrived in North America seeking “religious freedom,” they taught their children that anybody who had a different idea of “religion” than theirs was evil, and could not be tolerated in society. Those people could be forced from their homes, and sometimes executed.

 

   When a relatively small group of American colonists decided to separate themselves from England, they taught their children that those with different views  - who were against the “Revolution” - were “traitors,” and could be tarred and feathered, dispossessed of their homes and property, and forced to flee to Canada.

 

  Those same colonists taught their children to hate and to be afraid of the Native Americans – the ones who had helped them survive their first winters in the New World, and who they had mercilessly cheated, enslaved and murdered whenever the Indians got in their way.  To ensure the hate lasted, they included it in their Declaration of Independence, identifying “the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”

 

   The new Americans enslaved Blacks and Native Americans, identified them as “property” rather than people, and decided that they had to be kept enslaved if the new country was to survive. To make sure the Blacks remained enslaved, and the hate and fear of them prevailed, our “founding fathers” warned that Blacks could never be loosed in White society because they would rise up and kill their previous enslavers. As Thomas Jefferson put it, the "ten thousand recollections by the blacks of the injuries they have sustained--new provocations-- the real distinctions that nature has made, and many other circumstances which divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which would never end but with the extermination of one or the other race."

 

   During the 1940s and 1950s, we were taught to hate Japs and Krauts and Chinks and wetbacks and queers and a variety of other people – sometimes for a stated reason, but sometimes just because they were “different.”

 

   After the Twin Towers disaster on September 11, we learned to hate “Arabs,” those “ragheads,” that included anybody who looked, sounded like, or might be an Arab. Our hate was encouraged by the passage of the Patriots Act, and led to a general acceptance of “extreme rendition”, warrantless searches, and more acts against civility and morality.

 

And so, we hated ourselves into the 21st century.

 

*  *  *

   In Greek mythology, Zeus was angry with Prometheus for stealing fire and giving it to humans. To punish him, Zeus created Pandora, the first woman, and presented her to Prometheus. She was reportedly the most beautiful woman in the world (considering she was the only one, no one contested that description), and pretty irresistible. But Prometheus suspected a trick, and did resist. His brother, however, did not. He gladly accepted Pandora, and with her a box that Zeus “warned” (wink wink?) should never be opened. Whether Pandora was in cahoots with Zeus from the start, or whether she was just curious, is a matter of speculation. In any event, she opened the box, and set loose every ill imaginable by humans (and some that weren’t). Pandora then withdrew from the story, but the ills do not.

   We don’t usually base our beliefs on Greek mythology but, however they got here, there certainly are a lot of ills in the world. To our credit - beginning with our avowed (if sometimes unbelievable) belief that everyone is created equal, and endowed by our creator (or by the Big Bang) with certain inalienable rights like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – we have made some headway in the last 250 years of stuffing some of those ills back in Pandora’s box. We haven’t been consistent, we haven’t been very good at the job, and sometimes we forgot it for long periods of time. But we were trying.

 

   Then came Donald Trump. In just four years, he managed to find Pandora’s box; rip the cover off; and release all the evils we had captured. They scattered forth to join every hate, fear, stupidity, and prejudice still existing in our national psyche. That was bad enough, but he followed up with word and deed, giving permission for us to use everything bad and perverse to act out our coarsest and basest instincts.

   Of course, we can’t blame Donald Trump for all that has followed. His narcissism and probable insanity found a ready and widespread audience, including white supremacists, religious zealots, stupid people, and just plain Americans looking for some sort of change. The next generation is already being “carefully taught.”

   We’ll try to gather up the ills, again; we always try. But this time, the box wasn’t just opened; it was ripped apart. I don’t know how much can be put back.

   Zeus may be getting his best revenge, yet.


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© Sanford Wilbur 2020