Intolerance Is the Order of the Day
When the late W.J. Cash, author of the masterpiece "The Mind of the South," was inducted into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame on Sunday, Oct. 17, professor Paul Escott of Wake Forest University accepted on Cash's behalf and offered a short address detailing the university's influence on the author.
To conclude his remarks, Escott posed a relevant question in which he quoted from Cash's writing.
"To what extent," he asked, "is political life today characterized by 'intolerance, aversion and suspicion toward new ideas, an incapacity for analysis, an inclination to act from feeling rather than from thought, [and] an exaggerated individualism and a too-narrow concept of social responsibility'?"
Cash was writing in the late '30s and was alluding, of course, to the pre-World War II South. But you don't have to be particularly insightful to appreciate that Cash's words might well describe many contemporary Americans.
Start with "intolerance," the operative word in today's political environment.
There was a brief period in the late '60s and early '70s when it was possible to believe that we were overcoming our prejudices, that the racial, ethnic and religious rifts that had divided us were on the mend. No one believes that anymore. Despite the election of Barack Obama, we still focus our wrath on minorities, with Hispanics and Muslims our latest targets.
Evidence can be found in our casual interaction with others (listen to the jokes people tell), on the cable news networks that pound out propaganda or, even closer to home, in the occasional online discussion that accompanies a Pilot editorial or column.
"Aversion and suspicion of new ideas" would seem to be a steadfast American trait. Concepts embraced by more progressive societies are usually met with ridicule and/or outright rage in this country.
Our inability to embrace a workable health care system is evidence enough, but when it comes to new economic and political concepts, we almost always react with anger. We've not yet come to realize that stupidity, even in the service of ethnocentrism, is still stupidity.
Our "incapacity for analysis" and our "inclination to act from feeling rather than from thought" are perhaps our most dangerous shortcomings. Too often we're caught up in emotions and repeat what others have told us rather than thinking for ourselves.
The ramblings of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Keith Olbermann, etc., are echoed almost verbatim in political discussions. Limbaugh used to close his Friday TV program by advising his viewers not to do any thinking over the weekend. "I'll tell you what to think on Monday," he'd snarl.
It's easy to appropriate the opinions of others, especially when we've been manipulated by emotion. Perhaps the greatest failing of our educational system has been the inability to teach critical thinking.
Do we demonstrate, as Cash wrote of Southerners, "an exaggerated individualism and a too-narrow concept of social responsibility"? Remember Terry Jones, the Florida preacher who decided he was going to burn the Quran just because he wanted to - even if it placed our troops in danger?
And Jones isn't an isolated example of exaggerated individualism. Now the country is in an uproar about Juan Williams, who was fired from NPR for saying that he gets nervous when boarding a plane and he sees "people who are in Muslim garb."
Don't get me wrong. Williams' firing is just another sad example of our eagerness to destroy someone's career simply because he or she misspoke. On the other hand, Williams is a trained journalist and as such should recognize the dangers of exaggerated individualism. At the very least, he should have demonstrated a keener sense of social responsibility.
W.J. Cash was blessed (or maybe he was cursed) with a terrifying insight - and Dr. Escott's question is worth pondering, especially during these times of deep political division.
Stephen Smith's most recent book, "A Short Report on the Fire at Woolworths," is available at the Country Bookshop. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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