There is a classic Seinfeld episode (is that redundant?) in which Kramer marches in an aids walk for charity. Idiosyncratic individual that he is, Kramer declines to wear the aids ribbon which gets him in hot water with his fellow marchers. “Who! Who will not wear the ribbon!” A group of toughs – ribbon bullies in Kramer’s parlance – end up beating him to a pulp for daring to be different, in spite of his marching for the cause.
An example of life imitating art in 2020 might be the case of Drew Brees. When he said – in response to a question that had been put to him – that he wouldn’t kneel for the playing of the national anthem, the ribbon bullies came out in force. His teammates and players across the NFL denounced him publicly, as did athletes from other sports. Eminem wrote a song with the lyrics “F*** Drew Brees.” His family received death threats.
This is the same Drew Brees who in March of this year pledged $5 million to provide 10,000 meals per day to kids, families, and senior citizens during the coronavirus. The same guy who was named Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year in 2010 for supporting New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina. The same guy who was awarded the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award in 2006 for his charity work which included raising $6 million for cancer research. This is not exactly David Duke we’re talking about. Arguably, Drew Brees may have done more for minorities in Louisiana than all those who criticized him combined.
A July survey by the Cato Institute found that 62% of Americans were afraid to express their political beliefs, with 32% -- nearly 1 in 3 – believing that expressing their views could harm their career or get them fired. Is it any wonder? The harassment and pressure certainly got to Brees, as he came out not just once but with three separate apologies, and his wife apologized as well.
I am reminded of a comment by the late J. Rufus Fears, Professor of Classics at the University of Oklahoma. Fears was an outstanding lecturer, and his series “The Wisdom of History” and “Books That Have Made History” offered by The Great Courses are terrific. In commenting on contemporary American political life Fears noted that one can do almost anything with impunity, but one must be very careful about what one says. He was making the less than flattering observation that words are considered more important than deeds today.
I’m also reminded of Joseph McCarthy. In the early 1950s Senator McCarthy convened the House Un-American Activities Committee and began a witch-hunt for communists or “subversives.” Being on McCarthy’s black list was no laughing matter, and people quickly got in line to show their patriotism. McCarthy’s reign of terror ended in 1954 when the Senate censured him, and he died shortly thereafter in 1957. His name became a noun, and, per Wikipedia, “McCarthyism” connotes “demagogic, reckless, and unsubstantiated accusations, as well as public attacks on the character or patriotism of political opponents.”
Today, the word to fear being tarred with is not “communist” but “racist.” Just as in McCarthy’s era, members of Congress, among others, will say and display whatever they can to avoid being stuck with that label. (Neckties with the American flag or silhouettes of George Washington in the 1950s have become kente cloth ties today.) Re-read the definition of McCarthyism above. That pretty much sums up the current political climate on almost any issue, and I’m not sure history will treat this era any more kindly than it has the early 1950s.
I’m also not sure all the sound and fury about racism is really about race. One just has to look at the variety of comments online about the recent deaths of Herman Cain and John Lewis. Both were African American men, yet the online commentary reveals this must be about more than just race (and it reveals a great deal about the commenter.)
I’m going to coin a new term – thinkist. A thinkist has as much to do with a thinker as a racist does with a racer, that is to say, nothing. If a racist is one who despises and considers inferior others because of their race, a thinkist is one who despises and considers inferior others because of what they believe or think. Thinkism runs rampant today, and unfortunately we may have more thinkists than thinkers.
In my day job I’m an investment manager, which means I make lots of mistakes. Even the great ones like Warren Buffet get things wrong much of the time, but a good investor is able to recognize a mistake, act on it, and learn from it. “Don’t fall in love with an idea” is a phrase often heard in the investment world. By the same token, true scientists have to test and adapt their hypotheses continually in response to how experiments pan out. Thomas Edison also got things wrong much of the time, but because he was so willing to learn and adapt, the world is a better place. A phrase sometimes heard in the scientific world is “Are you going to believe your theory or the results in front of you?”
I was fortunate to attend graduate school with David Covey, one of Stephen Covey’s sons, which led me to Stephen’s book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Habit #5 has stuck with me to this day: Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood. That is not easy. It requires listening with the intent of learning rather than rebutting. Note that Covey does not end the habit after Seek First to Understand. We get to be understood, too, and that is important for a reciprocal relationship. But we should start by trying to understand where the other fellow is coming from. If we can do that, we’ll be thinkers rather than thinkists, and, like Edison, can make the world a better place.
Kelley Williams, Jr. is a Northsider.