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Disparagement: Our new national language

Essay by Martha Quillen

Politics – July 2006 – Colorado Central Magazine

I MISSED RICHARD LAMM’S recent presentation in Buena Vista (which was generously provided for free by the Collegiate Peaks Forum Lecture Series, which introduces many significant speakers to our region). But I didn’t miss Lamm’s book, Two Wands, One Nation, an Essay on Race and Community in America.

The last time I heard former Colorado Gov. Dick Lamm, he was a funny, engaging speaker who genuinely seemed to enjoy bantering with his audience. But his book sure didn’t leave the same impression,

Two Wands, One Nation is simultaneously grouchy and galling. Lamm’s musings in Two Wands are as shallow, overzealous and bitterly biased as anything by Rush Limbaugh or Anne Coulter. But Lamm’s mean-spirited stereotypes are considerably scarier than theirs, because he actually seems to believe he’s being balanced and equitable. It’s enough to make you yearn for Limbaugh’s persistent name-calling or Coulter’s right-wing rants; at least no one could mistake their incendiary prose for scholarly debate.

Lamm’s essay, on the other hand, is presented as “thoughtful” commentary, and Lamm doubtlessly views his work as an accurate evaluation of America’s minority problems. But his arguments are flimsy, uncorroborated, and insulting.

Colorado’s former governor makes a number of sweeping and controversial accusations, among them that some cultures are fundamentally inferior to others, and that Americans who speak foreign languages threaten our future.

Lamm claims that “Those groups whose culture and values stress delayed gratification — education, hard work, success, and ambition — are those groups that succeed in America, regardless of discrimination,” and he maintains that American blacks and Hispanics lack those virtues.

Lamm also contends that the U.S. is in trouble because its citizens are hedonistic, self-indulgent, materialistic, and uninformed. According to Two Wands, Americans lack values; want what they can’t afford; care more about rights than responsibilities; want “the fullest kinds of freedom,” and are too ignorant to sustain a democratic system.

Likewise, Lamm regards immigration, bilingual families, Latin culture, and the values of black Americans as a menace, and consequently insists that America is at a crossroads and must either move toward “greater integration” or suffer fragmentation — or worse.

But Lamm apparently sees no need to substantiate such controversial assertions. Instead he makes a pretense toward scholarship by quoting Plato, Jefferson, Alexis de Tocqueville, Saul Bellow, Will Durant, Ali A. Mazrui, Glen Lowery, Lionel Sosa, and scads of others who would no doubt be appalled to find themselves involuntarily supporting Lamm’s thesis.

For the most part, Lamm’s assertions rely on common and inflammatory assumptions rather than on facts, evidence, or research. For example, he writes, “I know of no bilingual/bicultural country in the world that lives at peace with itself.” And that, of course, may be true — he may not know of any.

BUT THERE ARE NUMEROUS multilingual/multicultural nations which appear to be thriving, including Switzerland, which has three official languages, German, French and Italian, and one semi-official language, Romanch.

Furthermore, Lamm actually applauds Singapore as an example of the importance of “human resources,” which (as he would have it) come from: “culture, attitudes, beliefs, and the values of the people.” Yet Singapore embraces four official languages: Chinese, Malay, Tamil, and English.

But bilingual/bicultural Americans aren’t Lamm’s only gripe. He also lambastes Mexican immigrants for being poor and uneducated.

“Why not take into account in our immigration policy the skills of potential immigrants, like all other immigrant-receiving countries do?” Lamm asks. “Isn’t it irreverent that the average Asian immigrant arrives with 14.5 years of education, while the average Mexican immigrant arrives with 7.6 years?”

That complaint, however, is doubly deceptive.

Although Lamm apparently has no qualms against bringing skilled competitors into our workforce, other countries draft their immigration policy to protect native professionals. Likewise, American engineers and computer experts are not thrilled about the influx of Indian and Middle Eastern engineers; and the U.S. medical establishment makes entering its ranks so difficult that foreign doctors are sometimes reduced to cleaning hospital floors. So what would Lamm have us do? Import more doctors and college professors to scrub our floors? Unfortunately — for both Americans and immigrants — there are more openings in the construction, manufacturing, and service sectors than in management and creative design.

Lamm’s thesis leaves a lot of questions. For instance: Why does he characterize people who work in fields and kitchens as adverse to hard work? Why does he blame immigrants for their poverty, rather than the people who hire and pay them? Does Lamm think we can fashion a society made up entirely of white collar professionals? And if not, shouldn’t we commend the people who pick our fruit and clean up our messes?

One could also question Lamm’s assumptions about the traits that create a superior culture. Is ambition always positive, or does it lead to raiding corporate coffers and stealing pensions? Do white Americans truly prize education? Or do they honor credentials to the point where they’ll cheat and lie for them? Where does Lamm rank greed? Envy? Gluttony? And excess? Aren’t those part of our culture, too?

But finally, and far more importantly, isn’t it more appropriate — and just — to evaluate people on their individual skills and actions rather than on their race, creed, culture, or country of origin? And shouldn’t some things — such as family traditions, beliefs, and religion — be private and thereby exempt from the scrutiny of public and community forums?

LAMM INSISTS THAT he’s not racist; because he’s “an old civil rights lawyer,” and he used to be a progressive governor with “a passionate interest in the education of minority kids,” and a running mate who was “one of the first black lieutenant governors in the nation.”

He also insists that his message is important, and that “white America is often intimidated from voicing an opinion on the subject of minority underperformance.”

“White America is partially paralyzed in discussing some of the most important issues to America’s future,” Lamm says, by which he apparently means teenage pregnancy, high crime rates, large high school drop-out rates, poor values, unwed births, and single-parent households.

But let’s be serious. Is there anyone out there who hasn’t heard all about these things — repeatedly? Is there anyone who hasn’t heard about the dangers of gangsters? Or rap? Or baggy jeans? Or Crips? And Bloods?

Is there anyone who hasn’t noticed that even though career opportunities may still lag behind for young black and Hispanic males, Law and Order certainly employs more than its share of minority actors to play suspects and inmates?

Is there anyone out there who’s never heard cruelly racist speech? Or sentiments?

I DOUBT IT. In fact, it seems more likely that Lamm is kidding himself. At least, it strikes me as pretty delusional for someone to maintain that denigrating someone else’s ancestry, attitudes, and culture will prove beneficial. Surely, it’s more likely that such criticism will breed resentment and anger.

Yet castigating one another is standard political fare these days. In race relations, the U.S. seems to be harkening back to the Klan-dominated 1920s. But in effusively haranguing everyone and everything, our politicians have crossed over that metaphorical bridge into the 21st century. It’s a novel direction, they deliver scathing and apocalyptic yet secular sermons calling for government jurisdiction over our beliefs, culture, morality, attitudes and values. They cast us as Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Electorate. Or as outlaws in a lawless society.

Modern commentary is more like a duel than a discussion. Lamm tosses out his vituperative opinions like the slap of a glove.

I riposte.

But Lamm has already accused all of his critics of labeling him a racist and trying to censor him.

My intent, however, is not to censor Lamm. Nor would I want to impose some sort of bogus standard of political correctness that would bridle him, and equally constrain Rush Limbaugh, Jon Stewart, Ed Quillen — and me.

Nor was it my purpose in my last letter to censure Hal Walter. In fact, I wanted to make the need for immigration reform the focus of my letter. But I failed, totally, miserably, and churlishly. From reader response, I realized that I ended up ragging Hal, instead. Sorry, Hal.

But what the hell; the fact that I can’t address an issue without skewering someone, shows that I’m really catching on to the latest political lingo. Wow, next thing you know, I might get a job as a speech writer.

As for immigration reform, I still think we have to do something. But exactly what we should do eludes me. The current situation is certainly not ideal — with migrants dying in the desert and on container trucks; and border states growing more and more reactionary because they don’t have the means to pay for additional schools, clinics, and social services.

The way it is now, the arbitrary and capricious enforcement of applicable laws makes undocumented immigrants scared to go to hospitals, or call the police, or seek other services they are legally entitled to.

And whether it’s justified or not, some U.S. citizens fear that desperate immigrants will steal their jobs and reduce wages. As for me, I tend to think that such fears are at least partially justified, because that’s the historical pattern. Mills, factories, mines and railroads hired a succession of immigrants to undercut wages and reduce costs.

In Colorado the situation frequently got ugly, not just at places like Ludlow, or because of labor/management strife, but because safety conditions in the mines and elsewhere were abysmal, and struggling immigrants often didn’t have the option of quitting, despite deadly dangers.

Today, mines are considerably safer. But it’s still considered smart to reduce labor costs to increase profits. And sometimes workplace standards aren’t a corporation’s top priority.

That doesn’t mean everyone should jump on the Tancredo band wagon. But it does suggest that it’s a good idea to have documented rather than undocumented workers so that all employees have recourse to complain about dangerous conditions and unfairly withheld wages.

WHEN I WROTE my last letter, I figured President Bush had suggested the most moderate immigration plan. Amnesty for undocumented workers, guest visas, and more opportunities for citizenship (for those who want it). That sounded reasonable to me. The Bush plan would make illegal immigrants legal, and therefore offer some wage and workplace protection. It’s not perfect, but at least everyone would be working under the same minimum wage and workplace laws, and would get counted when states and feds divvy funds.

But conservatives keep pushing to include more border security, more policing, more arrests, more punishments, and a giant wall. And some have even proposed legislation to keep undocumented immigrants out of libraries, civic centers, parks, museums, buses, train stations, or any other non-emergency, tax-supported facility.

Maybe, if the U.S. didn’t have the most expensive medical system in the world, and American wage earners could afford medical care and adequate housing, there wouldn’t be such a clamor about immigrants using our facilities. But as things are, a lot of Americans can’t afford to use the facilities they pay taxes for. Thus it’s not too surprising they don’t want visitors using them. But keeping others out, won’t give anyone the resources to get in themselves, so there’s got to be a better solution.

The better solutions, however, aren’t the ones spinning out of Colorado right now. Currently, Lamm and Tancredo seem to be vying for a national notoriety championship rather than a better immigration policy.

Thus I was waiting for some more promising ideas when George Sibley sent me a column he came across. It argued that there should be no immigration policy, no borders, and no policing whatsoever.

In the long run, I suspect that such a policy would be wholly vilified due to America’s current worries about terrorism. But I sure wish that people who support the idea would clamor to be heard, because it just might work to move the current discourse to the left.

— And in the old days, that’s how politics were played. The right proposed something, the left countered with an alternate plan; the two sides argued. And eventually we had budgets, reforms, taxes, and environmental laws that few people liked, but everyone somehow managed to live with.

But today it seems like the game has changed. It’s all insults, accusations, and anger. There’s little discussion, negligible compromise, and almost no attempt to lure opponents to your side.

Now an astonishing number of issues inspire contempt and ridicule. Politicians routinely claim that Americans are fat; Americans lack values; Americans spend too much; children are lazy; teachers are incompetent. Lamm’s on an anti-immigrant crusade; Hillary’s bashing young people.

FORGET ENGLISH AND SPANISH. Disparagement seems to have evolved into our universal language. Gratuitous insults color our speech, fuel our politics, resound in the Senate Chamber.

Now Lamm promotes himself as a former civil rights lawyer who’s found enlightenment and finally realized that America’s future relies on blaming the minorities. It’s almost too absurd to believe. Surely he isn’t serious. It’s got to be an invention to wrangle an interview on the Colbert Report.

But people do advocate the darndest things these days, and apparently they’re serious. We’ve got lobbyists determined to eliminate premarital sex, stamp out homosexuality, outlaw poverty, eliminate sin, and legislate eternal life regardless of coma, brain death, and the permanent inability to breath, eat, or think. Their rallying cry appears to be: If God won’t do it, a rigorous platform might.

This clamorous dialect of demands and defamation has triumphed world-wide. Almost everyone uses it when they want political action — terrorists, Presidents, rich men, peasants….

Hyperbole, intimidation, accusations, threats. You can’t make a salient stand without savaging something and wounding someone. It’s showdown time at the cosmic corral, and there’s no escape.

The gloves are off; the pistols drawn. It’s a dual to the death, and what seems to have died first is any awareness that we’re all in this together. Today, the rallying cry is that many of us must go — back to Mexico, to jail, to the gas chamber, or the front. Or to hell, for that matter, because surely we deserve it.

Yet, as Lamm himself once observed, “To say my fate is not tied to your fate is like saying, ‘Your end of the boat is sinking.'”