Janis Joplin died before I ever knew she had lived. It’s a testament to human technology that I am able to remember her and listen to her music when it pleases me. It’s further testament that I’m able to remember people who lived further back than I can trace my own ancestral tree and listen to or read the works they contributed to civilization when it pleases me. The depth of knowledge we have accumulated is breathtaking. The depths we’ve yet to plumb are daunting on several more levels of magnitude. Yet there remain essential truths in the knowledge we do have that we willfully ignore because doing so pleases us.
Joplin is famous for belting out the lyric “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” In the context of young lovers with no prospects that can be true. On the whole, however, the truth is the opposite.
Take Mark Twain for example. He’s dead too. You wouldn’t think he has anything to lose, but for the last several years public schools have been redacting or removing his famous novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from their curriculum and libraries entirely. The reason for their actions is that he wrote the word nigger no less than two hundred and nineteen times in the text.
Racial hatred and exploitation were still an accepted part of the American fabric in his time, twenty years after the Emancipation Proclamation and the Union victory in the Civil War. The law of the land recognized the right of blacks to freedom and equality. Many white people did not, and did everything in their power to circumvent those laws. Twain understood that the best way to fight bigotry was to expose it in all its ugliness. In the open it withered and died. It was in the darkness that it thrived.
Educators today have forgotten that. For them nigger is an offensive word to which young minds should not be exposed. Racism is learned rather than instinctive, they preach. If it is not taught, then it will cease to exist. That’s a great sentiment but it relies wholly on cooperation from the rest of society. We are never too far from a news story that shows how misplaced such trust is. By weakening or removing the legacy of one of America’s most important writers, educators are pushing racism into the darkness and leaving the rest of us to pay the price.
The latest payment in that butcher’s bill has been the petty squabble between proponents of the two hashtags, Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter. Of course all lives matter. We should all know that and I suspect the last people we need to tell are those who have seen enough unnecessary killing to hold up signs proclaiming the value of black lives. Celebrities like Piers Morgan and Steven A Smith should not be facing off against black activists, criticizing them for drawing a line in the sand between themselves and their oppressors. Morgan and Smith should be crossing that line and turning to face the oppressors their rhetoric is protecting. Signs proclaiming that black lives matter and all lives matter should be standing together, fighting racism rather than one other.
As well they should be joined by every other oppressed group. That includes Latinos, Asians, and other racial minorities.. It also includes women, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgenders, and victims of abuse. Sorry white folks and law enforcement, but the list doesn’t include you. You may think your rights are being trampled, but rights and privileges gained through exploitation are two different things. Pushback is not oppression.
Two other groups who have a role to play are environmental and animal activists. Because read the sign. All lives matter. Like it or not we are part of the ecosystem we are destroying.
I’ve talked about racism with friends who are politically active and I’m inevitably told that I grew up in a privileged white family in Canada, where “racism doesn’t exist.” It may not at the same level as in the US but bigotry is a very real problem north of the border.
When I was a kid I used to take abuse because I came from a Jewish background. It went so far that one night two classmates rang our doorbell, leaving a gutted cat on the porch for my mother to find when she answered. I remember feeling both guilty and confused. If you don’t like me that’s something I can understand but why do you have to kill an innocent animal to express that hatred?
Like American educators trying to eradicate nigger from the English language, I long ago allowed myself to forget about that episode. Then, yesterday afternoon, I read about the American dentist who went to Zimbabwe with a bow and arrow to kill a lion.
The lion, as it turned out, was so popular it had a name. Cecil lived on a game preserve where he was protected from hunters, and livestock from him. Over his thirteen years he had even established a level of friendship with humans. He had learned to live and let live and believed the same of us. One night, however, local hunters who had procured a license to kill a lion not in protected territory left a trail of meat that lured Cecil out of the park to where Walter Palmer was waiting.
The fact that Dr Palmer is white has nothing to do with this. Some of the Zimbabwean hunters who make a living helping tourists kill animals for sport are black. The true issue is the sense of entitlement that comes with freedom. These men, and other men and women like them, believe that because they are free they can do as they please. They feel no responsibility to kill or harvest only what they need to live, no responsibility to maintain the balance of nature for future generations. They do know trophy hunting is wrong, else why would they lure an animal out of a protected park under cover of night? Why would Dr Palmer describe his hobby as wildlife photography in the personal bio on his practice’s website?
One of the Zimbabwean hunters, after his arrest, described the killing of dangerous predators by bow and arrow as the “greatest honor” an animal could attain. For me the comparative difficulty of killing with a bow versus a gun is irrelevant. Killing is killing. Martin Luther King Jr is remembered for having a dream, not for being a notch in James Earl Ray’s gun. JFK is remembered for staring down Khrushchev over the Bay of Pigs rather than being in Lee Harvey Oswald’s crosshairs. John Lennon is remembered for giving us some of the most engaging and provocative music in our history, not for autographing Mark David Chapman’s memorabilia. So pardon me for thinking that Cecil will be remembered for the way he engaged wildlife observers rather than for having died nobly at the hands of a deranged dentist.
Like Janis Joplin, Walter Palmer thought that freedom meant he had nothing to lose. He could travel around the world with his bow and arrow and, regardless of the lives lost for a moment’s pleasure, do as he wished. In the wake of international outrage, he has been forced to close his practice and may face extradition, trial, and imprisonment. One can only hope. Too late he is learning that being free means you have everything to lose. What of the rest of us?
[Next post Friday]