Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

A Lesson in Leadership

Posted: September 11, 2013 in Culture, Philosophy

Way back in 2001, I had the honor of seeing detainees from Afghanistan come off the plane at Guantanamo Bay with my bare eyeballs.  I was visiting  from my home base of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, where I ran the base cable news station with several other 18-22 year olds.  My mission was to shoot a news segment about the Marines’ involvement in setting up and running Camp X-ray, where the detainees were being stockpiled.

The funny thing is that it wasn’t the detainees, or the war, or anything to do with 9/11 that sticks in my mind from that day.  No, the reason my memory of that that day keeps poking itself out from my grey matter is because of the words a female Sergeant of Marines said to me.

I was standing on a hill above the airfield with three other Marines who, like me, were professional rubberneckers of one sort or another.  Two of them were male, and like me, barely out of high school.  The other was the female sergeant, a little older.  I don’t remember her name, only that she was latina and she looked like she meant business.  We’ll call her Sergeant Vasquez.  I soon learned that Sgt. Vasquez was a member of Camp Lejeune Combat Camera, where another female Marine of my acquaintance, whom we’ll call Private Zendra, held a post.

Zendra and I had been contemporaries earlier that year at the hive of debauchery that was Marine Barracks Fort Meade, Maryland.  Situated in the shadow of the National Security Agency, these barracks played home to us while we attended the Defense Information School (DINFOS), where we trained to become proficient in the art of gathering visual, aural, and human intelligence.  The rest of the time, we were all kinds of naughty.  Zendra in particular.  One day, without joy and without any cause I could discern, she began throwing herself in my direction.  I figured she was unhinged in some way and set about trying to figure out why.  After unsuccessfully trying to bluff my way into drinks at a Baltimore bar, I sat her down and asked her to explain her childhood to me.  She did not find this subject interesting.  Later that night, when the time came for us to part ways in the barracks stairwell, Zendra, without ever having given me so much as a smile, planted her lips on mine.  I didn’t kiss back.  My dating experiences were not extensive at that point in my life, but I knew that wasn’t how it was supposed to go.

The next day, Zendra was attached to another strapping young denizen of the barracks.

I’m not sure we ever spoke again, but she stayed on my mind.  She was a puzzle to me, albeit a pitiable one.  And that’s why I decided to pose this question to Sergeant Vasquez:

“What do you think of her?”

“Nothing in particular,” she replied, thrusting out her lower lip.  “Why do you ask?”

“Oh, no reason,” I came back weakly.  “Just curious…”

I realized this wasn’t the place to bring up the subject and was ready to give it up.  But the others were listening in and had shrewdly picked up the subtext.

“Oh, was she one of the DINFOS whores?” asked one of them.

“Yeah… I guess you could say that,” I answered nervously.  Everyone was apparently satisfied by this, and we all turned our attention and binoculars back to the blindfolded Islamic men making their debut on US soil.  It wasn’t until I excused myself and turned to go that I learned the subject wasn’t finished.

“PFC Catha-Garrett, can I talk to you for a moment?” Sergeant Vasquez said.  I could tell by her tone that she had been waiting for this.

We moved away from the others some distance.  She didn’t have me come to attention or parade rest, which was customary during an upbraiding by a senior Marine.  She didn’t yell.  She didn’t berate.  She didn’t have to.

“I want to talk to you about how you brought up Private Zendra earlier.  Honestly, as a female Marine, I’m not proud of her.  She’s made some mistakes, and she has some shortcomings.  But there’s no reason to be bringing her up at a time like this.  I mean, what does she have to do with any of this?”  She motioned toward the airfield.  “Do you understand what I mean?”

“Yes, Sergeant,” I said.

“Just stay focused on your job.  You don’t need to be worrying about shit like that.”

“Aye Sergeant.”

I walked away stunned, impressed, and knowing she was completely right.  What I didn’t know then that I know now is that what she said was brave.  She was probably asking herself the entire time we were standing there whether she should say something, and God bless her, she decided yes.  She took a stand against the locker room vibe that prevailed throughout the Marine Corps.  Another female Marine might have joined in dragging Private Zendra through the mud, but not Sergeant Vasquez.  She was a true leader, and a true woman.  I wish I knew her real name.

I know everyone and their uncle is sounding off about this right now, but I felt it particularly appropo because one of the commentors on my DADT post challenged my claim that race relations in the USA are getting worse.  This news couldn’t have been timelier. For those who haven’t heard, NewSouth Books is about to publish an edition of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by the legendary Mark Twain aka Samuel Clemens, with all instances of the word “nigger” (over 200) changed to the word “slave”.  Here it is, straight from the horse’s mouth:

An excerpt from the editor’s introduction to Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn: The NewSouth Edition

In his introduction, the editor, Dr. Alan Gribben, states:

in this edition I have translated each usage of the n-word to read “slave” instead, since the term “slave” is closest in meaning and implication.

Really? That was not my understanding.  Are the black people I know constantly calling each other “slave”?  Perhaps some research is in order.  To the Online Etymology Dictionary!  The OED says:

niggerLook up nigger at Dictionary.com
1786, earlier neger (1568, Scottish and northern England dialect), from Fr. nègre, from Sp. negro (see Negro).

So “nigger” is from “negro”, which of course means “black”.  So wouldn’t the word “closest in meaning and implication” be either “negro” or “black”?  Someone please correct me if I’m wrong here. But more to the point, it seems to me that the word “slave” is magnitudes more offensive than “nigger”.  Seriously, what could be more offensive than calling someone “slave”?  Think of the scene in Gladiator where Emperor Commodus says to Maximus, “How dare you turn your back on me, SLAVE?!”  It’s like the ultimate burn.  More importantly, this word replacement implies that all “niggers”, everywhere, ever, are “slaves”.  Which is absurd, and couldn’t be further from the truth.  Even during the time period depicted in the novel, not all blacks in America were slaves.  This was a seriously bad move editorially. Mr. Gibbons goes on to say that

As a notoriously commercial writer who watched for every opportunity to enlarge the mass market for his works, [Twain] presumably would have been quick to adapt his language if he could have foreseen how today’s audiences recoil at racial slurs in a culturally altered country.

If Mr. Twain possessed such clairvoyance, I suspect he would have found his time better spent writing allegories against the evils of Political Correctness, and its corollary, Thoughtcrime.  If graverolling were possible, Twain would definitely be doing it right now.  Handwringing over the hurtfulness of a word hundreds of years old, a century and a half after the end of slavery, and half a century after the Civil Rights Movement succeeded in its goals?  What the hell?  You call this progress?

I’d like to ask my audience what a post-racist society would look like.  Is it one where we ban all racial slurs, thereby removing the possibility of race-based hurt to minorities?  Or is it one where we simply don’t give a shit about race, much less mere words? And if the term “nigger” is inherently hurtful, how is it that nearly every time I’ve ever heard black people talking to each other, they refer to each other as “nigger” as often as possible?  Oh wait, I’ve heard an answer to this before, and it goes like this:  the term “nigger” is only offensive when it is spoken by whites. That, my friend, is racism in the raw.  It’s not the word, it’s the race of the speaker that counts.  And *that* is precisely why censoring the word “nigger” out of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, now, in 2011, is rock-solid evidence that our society is becoming more racist, not less.  Samuel Clemens was white.  That’s the only fact that matters here.  He was white, so his use of the word nigger was racist.  I don’t hear anyone assailing the authors of gangster rap for being racist due to their incessant use of the word “nigger”.  Of course not, they’re black.  The word is race-coded.  The more taboo it becomes to whites, the more racist our society is.  It’s a great litmus test.

At this point, if I were making this argument in person, to a live audience, it would be pointed out that I’m a white male and that my opinion is therefore invalid.  If you don’t believe me, I am quite willing to meet you in person, provided you live in the Seattle area, and repeat this experiment.  It’s happened to me countless times. I’m not known to be one to back down from difficult subjects, race included.  Most white people, in my estimation, are so stone-cold-scared of being labeled racist that they would never challenge the prevailing belief that white people are born with the Original Sin of black oppression, and can simply never do enough to live it down.  Well, I’m here to rock that boat.  And to do so, I’d like to enlist the help of one of my favorite blacks, Frederick Douglass.  The following is from his speech “What the Black Man Wants”, delivered in 1865 at the Annual Meeting of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society in Boston.

Everybody has asked the question, and they learned to ask it early of the abolitionists, “What shall we do with the Negro?” I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us. Do nothing with us! If the apples will not remain on the tree of their own strength, if they are wormeaten at the core, if they are early ripe and disposed to fall, let them fall! I am not for tying or fastening them on the tree in any way, except by nature’s plan, and if they will not stay there, let them fall. And if the Negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also. All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone! If you see him on his way to school, let him alone, don’t disturb him! If you see him going to the dinner table at a hotel, let him go! If you see him going to the ballot- box, let him alone, don’t disturb him! If you see him going into a work-shop, just let him alone,–your interference is doing him a positive injury. Gen. Banks’ “preparation” is of a piece with this attempt to prop up the Negro. Let him fall if he cannot stand alone!

Have we followed Mr. Douglass’ advice?