Thursday, September 9, 2010

Don't Be a Hater

Here’s an idea from a teenager’s T-shirt---“Don’t Be a Hater.”

Oh those crazy kids. What’ll they think of next? Give peace a chance? Make love not war?

I traveled with teenagers to the feared Soviet Union in 1990. One big surprise for naive me was that the hated people of the USSR, now Russia, were peace-loving. This was in direct opposition to all I had learned of them. What I knew was that we had better be prepared to defend ourselves against the Soviet threat.

That evil empire plotted through each night to decimate us. Each rising sun renewed their resolve to obliterate our soldiers and our school children. I was sure of this because I saw the stunning images of atomic bombs blasting the skin off mannequins and flattening buildings in the desert. I had to practice hiding under my desk or curled head-to-butt with my 10-year-old classmates in an interior hallway of Louisa Mae Alcott Elementary School. Our neighbors built bomb shelters in their back yards and let us come in to hide from the Soviet menace.

But almost immediately upon crossing into St Petersburg, I learned the Russian word “mir” because it was posted so frequently. Peace. The people valued peace. This knowledge flowed over me like warm oil. Of course. It’s not the people of the Soviet Union we’ve built such an enormous arsenal to annihilate. It’s the Soviet Government that’s hell-bent to kill us. They built a war machine, so we built a war machine. But the people want peace. Just like we do.

Wait. So, it was our fear, fueled by our press. Those among us who were truly fearful and lived their lives based on fear and the hatred and anger that arise from fear created a false image of the Soviet people. That’s all I listened to and all I knew. Fear-based ranting and hatred created the great demon Russia. We hated the Ruskies blindly and en masse.

Then I had the chance to travel there chaperoning students as a part of People to People / American – Soviet Youth Exchange. We spent three weeks around the Union, staying in the homes of the Soviet people getting to know them. President Eisenhower knew what he was doing when he established that organization.

He knew that most of us are just like Will Rogers. We rarely dislike a person once we’ve gotten to know him. We have to acknowledge that person’s humanity. We cannot ignore our bonds in human experience. Peace seems possible when you know the guy.

Right now we’re in the midst of another frenzy of fear-based hate building complete with book burning. Good citizens locked up in a frantic round of pin the tail on the enemy lash out with blindfolds in place. As though trapped in a corner, they swing wildly at anyone who could be threatening, especially if he’s non-Christian and brown skinned.

But what about our brown-skinned non-Christian citizens? The ones next door, on our kids’ soccer team, at the farmers’ market? Shall we burn their Qurans? Will we circle up and play the hurtful game of exclusivity? Tick tock, the game’s locked and only white “Christians” can play.

I’m unsure how each of us can get to know the Muslims around us, but it seems like one-to-one would be a good start. Or are we too wound up with fear and anger? Fear has tunnel vision and anger quashes opportunities.

Some who are angry and fearful will say, “Oh what? Just make nice?”

Well, no. I get that things are more complicated than that. We cannot pretend that our world is without danger, ignorance, and violence. We must be diligent and watchful. Prepared, of course. Proactive, certainly. These are the things our government must do for us.

For our part, for us, the people, acting on stereotypes is demeaning --- to the receiver and the giver. By design they minimize critical thinking and insight. Based on ignorance and its natural companion, fear, stereotypes weaken our culture. We, the people, are less when we employ them.

I think it would be good to take a breath, to listen, to think. To recognize a human being when we see one.

Act like Will Rogers: Get to know a person.

Don’t be a hater.