A Hit Before Your Mother Was Born

This is Miss Lotte Lenya singing Mack the Knife on BBC1 in 1962, before I was born. I have her autobiography, it’s an interesting read. She’s a complicated character and you’d like her. She married her first husband twice – the Nazis came between them, doncha know – and her other husbands once. Once of my great-grandmothers was married five times. Marilyn Monroe died six months before I was born. Neither of those things is very important but both are true, and that means they matter in some context, we just don’t always know which.

Miss Lotte Lenya, as you can see, had powerful feelings about historical events that shaped her life. She was forced out of Europe by Hitler, as you may have guessed; thus her emotions make logical sense to us. We encounter this in life. Sometimes we can see why people act the way they do and sometimes we cannot. We see the emotion. We do not see the why.

Observe this Yahoo! article – and you can say that again, brother:

Deep-seated racial misgivings could cost Barack Obama the White House if the election is close, according to an AP-Yahoo News poll that found one-third of white Democrats harbor negative views toward blacks — many calling them “lazy,” “violent,” responsible for their own troubles.

The poll, conducted with Stanford University, suggests that the percentage of voters who may turn away from Obama because of his race could easily be larger than the final difference between the candidates in 2004 — about two and one-half percentage points.

Certainly, Republican John McCain has his own obstacles: He’s an ally of an unpopular president and would be the nation’s oldest first-term president. But Obama faces this: 40 percent of all white Americans hold at least a partly negative view toward blacks, and that includes many Democrats and independents.

I studied this graph at some length yesterday, and I invite you to do the same. The single most important thing I can say about the image is that respondants were asked if they considered black people friendly, lazy, hardworking or irresponsible. The phrasing of these questions – I can’t – I don’t know how to say this, but what does one say when pollsters ask if you think all black people are stupid? “No, but I feel my IQ dropping as we speak” springs to mind. In what way is it possible to answer about any group of people anything other than, “That group of people has excellent taste in shoes,” or “None of those people is holding an umbrella”? What the poll purports to measure is prejudicial feeling but where is the opportunity to express the simple truth that each individual person is different from every other person? Isn’t it logical to say, “I know that within every group is a lovely spectrum of human personality traits, and I dislike shoes”?

When you answer the phone, you are, of course, free to turn the poll back on the pollster by saying, “When you are ready to ask me an unloaded question, call me again.” Thus, you have context.

I am sensitive to the pressures of language. When you ask me a question, I answer the question you asked. Then the one you didn’t. Then the one you meant. What did you really want to know?

Most people will say some other person should be treated harshly so long as there is no possibility they will be treated the same way. If you ask, “Should Ethnic Person B have recourse to lawyers?” the answer will probably be, “No.” If you ask, “Should every defendant be given a fair trial?” bet your boots the answer is, “Yes.”

A woman I know married a man from Africa and has several children with him. To people who answered the survey above her children are not white, and to some people, this whiteness business matters. It’s a sickness, really, an affliction America chooses not to treat. White Americans, for instance, may not vote for a black candidate because he’s black. Sometimes we can see why people act the way they do and sometimes we cannot. We see the emotion. We do not see the why.

And, sometimes, there is no why.

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