Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Reflecting on What We Have Lost

Reflecting on What We have lost

Middle age refers more
To landscape than to time:
It’s as if you’d reached
The top of a hill
And could see all the way
To the end of your life,
So you know without a doubt
That it has an end-not that it will have,
But that it does have,
….. Forseeing by Sharon Bryan

Mortality focuses the mind and heart. Even on a university campus where we are forever young, mortality grabs us. That is what happened to me when I finally paid attention to what was happening. Thanks to Mitch McConnell’s strategy of intransigence, the hounds of hell have been released calling for action of any sort: “taking our country back” and “building a wall” seem to be the catch phrases of choice. Most know that they do not understand what it means to take something back from the American people; they just do not like who the American people now are. And the wall is nonsense. But it feels good to vent.

I understand the anger. Lots of things I thought settled by the Civil Rights Movement seem to be disappearing. What the voting rights act made possible has been gutted by flagrant political gerrymandering. Just as Mitch owned up to undermining any legacy Barack Obama might build, so too Republican state legislatures have worked to make voting more difficult for those on the margins, minorities, the elderly, the young. All in the name of preventing voter fraud.  And voter fraud translates into people not voting like the legislators would like them to vote.

I graduated from seminary in a time of high idealism.  The Movement was underway and America was changing. The media began to look like America. The most obvious shift was in television. Amos and Andy gave way to Sanford and Son and then the Huxtables moved in next door.

Our family gathered to watch them each Thursday night. We were living in urban America and we felt the problems we were dealing with were not unlike what they dealt with.  We laughed together at shared human foibles.  We had a road map for how to make it in the new America.

When our second daughter graduated from college, Bill Cosby gave the speech at graduation. His advice was sound:  He told the graduates, “Don’t plan to move home.” It was advice that many could not follow, but the economy does not always listen to good advice.

 Last I noticed Pepperdine has not taken back their honorary doctorate. Being a college with a religious heritage, they seem to understand something others have forgotten. If honorary degrees were given only to perfect specimens of the human race, they would all remain in the hands of their makers. Americans love blindly and dismantle what they find flawed with equal passion. MIT does not give honorary degrees and the policy has allowed us to avoid many awkward conversations over the course of our history.

The legal system will grind out a form of justice for Cosby. His behavior appears to have been abusive and criminal, but he is standing in for a generation that told its young men that women were objects to be possessed and conquest was the measure of manhood. Drugs to bulk the body helped with performance in sports; drugs played a role in sexual fantasies. They still do. There is an arc of accepted sexually exploitive behavior that runs from Rhett Butler, carrying a resistant Scarlett O’Hara to her bedroom, down through the golden age of Playboy. The only bad sex was no sex. There is no color line to cross when it comes to boorish behavior and Bill Cosby is a reminder of a collective societal dysfunction.  It is hard to bring a class action suit against middle-America.

Here at MIT pornography was a major fundraiser for student activities during that period. There were few who had the temerity to say that they thought Debbie Does Dallas was inappropriate fare as  introduction to the Institute. A Dean of Student Life, Shirley McBay, who knew exploitation when she saw it, and an Associate Provost, Samuel Jay Keyser, who understood that free speech was never without cost, finally pulled the plug. Their courage is not forgotten.

Now, on the national stage, the Republicans start talking about the implications of having small hands. Like school boys who want to see how far they can spit or pee, the Republican candidates remind us that we have not traveled as far as we thought. They remind us that Bill Cosby is both a product and a victim of a cultural fallacy. Sexual powers are never a reasonable measure of masculinity or leadership.

 Robert M. Randolph
Chaplain to the Institute