Is American Society Better Off Today Than in Bygone Days?

Is American Society Better Off Today Than in Bygone Days?

© David Burton 2019

PC Fanatics?

     Before we get started, let me warn members of the PC (Politically Correct) police and their adherents that what I have to say herein will offend them no end. I therefore advise them to avoid reading the remainder of this article.

     As an “old-timer” who was born in 1936, I have witnessed our society becoming more openly hostile with ever-increasing regularity in the most recent years. It seems that wherever we turn these days, expressions of enmity are increasing daily. This trend is now infecting our national character and has become a national epidemic of major proportions.

     I grew up during the 1940’s and 1950’s, in Chelsea Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston with a population of around 40,000. During that span of time, nearly half the population was 1st or 2nd generation Jewish. I am Jewish – all four of my grandparents were orthodox Jewish immigrants from northern or eastern Europe. My father immigrated along with his parents from Czarist Russia shortly before 1900, when he was a very young boy. My mother was a 1st generation American-Jew, born in Boston.

     In addition to Chelsea’s large Jewish population while I was growing up, the rest of the city was home to mostly blue collar Protestants and Catholics. There was also a community of Eastern Orthodox Christians - mostly from Russia, with some from Greece, Albania, and other Eastern European countries.

     The various ethnic and religious segments of Chelsea, in many respects, kept to themselves, yet interacted on a daily basis with no serious problems – we all got along!

     Chelsea, in the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s had no large black community. I knew of only three black families – the Mack’s, the Moore’s, and the Clark’s (not their real family names). I went to school with members of the Mack and Moore families and played baseball with a member of the Clark family.

     The Mack family had two children, a boy, “Buddy”, and girl, Marie, about a year apart in age, Buddy, being the older. They were both in my class throughout my 12 years of public school. The reason for Buddy being in the same class as his year-younger sister was that illness had forced him to miss a year of school. Gladys Moore was also in my class throughout my time in the Chelsea public school system. Gladys was one of several sisters and had a truly outstanding singing voice. The Moore family had come to Chelsea from Portuguese South America, via New Bedford, in southeastern Massachusetts, a sea-side fishing city with a large Portuguese community. Warren Clark, although not in any of my school classes, was an outstanding athlete and I frequently played baseball with him at a local ballfield during the summer.

     Chelsea had two Chinese families when I grew up in the city - the Wong family and the Chang family (again, not their real family names). The Chang family ran the Chinese laundry in the city while the Wong family ran the Chinese restaurant in Chelsea. I didn’t know the Chang family very well but I was very friendly with the Wong family. George Wong was my age and we were in the same class throughout our pubic school years. I also got to know George’s brothers, sister and parents. In high school, George and I took the technical curriculum of courses and both he and I were accepted to MIT, but George was also accepted to Harvard where he chose to enroll, eventually going on to becoming a psychiatrist in New York City. We have remained in touch throughout the years. I also got to know his older brother, Larry, who took over the operation of the family’s Chinese restaurant when the father retired from the business.

     The neighborhoods where I grew up were of mixed ethnic and religious types. Besides the 1st and 2nd generation Jewish families, there were Russian, Polish, Italian, Irish, Greek and old-time Yankee families. We all got along! - but not in today’s Politically Correct sense! One day, one of my Polish friends told me that we Jews had killed Christ. I had no idea what he was talking about. I initially grew up knowing nothing of the Christian religion. I eventually became familiar with Christian theology, but the occasional hostility to Jews by some of the parents of my Christian friends did not cause a riot or even a major disruption in the everyday interaction between Jews and Christians. I remained friends with the children of those Christian parents who harbored resentment of Jews who they viewed as Christ-Killers These childhood friends of mine hopefully became aware that we Jews did not have horns on our head and that we were, in fact, more like them than different from them. True, there were some differences between us, but that, in fact, was the glory of the melting pot that we call America. These differences were to be enjoyed, not disparaged or ignored. They constituted part of the spice and zest of American life. Instead of being served pablum at every meal, we enjoyed the spices of many cultures – the smorgasbords, the salsas, the teriyakis, the grits, the borsht’s, the sauerkrauts, the pizzas, etc.

     Unfortunately, today, this is not the case. Today, if someone even hints at the phrase Christ-Killers, there would be a hue and cry for a conference of Jews and Christians to do away with religious intolerance. There might be a public rally calling for the public schools to introduce classes to deal with racial prejudice, and still more. My, how times have changed and, I would say, not for the better! In today's increasing atmosphere of anti-Semitism in America, are Jews better off today than when I was growing up?

     My religious education was strictly Jewish. It was home taught to some degree, it was what I picked up from my annual 3-day synagogue attendance during the Jewish High Holy Days, and it was what I absorbed during my 5 days-a-week hour-long Hebrew class taught by Mrs. Norman (again, not the real family name) to me and four other boys my age. My Hebrew orthodox education lasted from age 6 until age 13 when I was Bar Mitzvah’d.

     Religious differences in Chelsea were of minor concerns to me as I grew up. Schools in Chelsea were closed during the major Jewish holidays – a large percentage of students were Jewish and too many of the Jewish teachers would be absent to make holding classes feasible. Major Christian holidays were appropriately noted. At Christmas time, the holiday was marked with school assemblies and programs. We all sang the traditional Christmas carols – Christians, Jews and whatever else. It became popular to also pay lip service to the Jewish holiday of Chanukah, which occurs around the time of Christmas. There was no popular uprising in the city of non-Christians being asked to join in the celebration of a Christian holiday. Atheists did not declare their objection to a religiously related event taking place in a public school. My rabbi might have scolded me for singing Silent Night at the Christmas assembly in school but that would have been the extent of anyone objecting – my parents certainly didn’t and I never heard of any of the parents of my Jewish friends complaining.

     What today is considered to be abhorrent and hateful speech, was common, but carefully employed when I grew up. It did not lead to race riots, flag burning, court cases, or mass public demonstrations. The offensive words that I learned and some of which I myself used under appropriate circumstances included: Negro, Nigger (Black), Kike, Hebe, Hymie (Jew), Wop (Italian), Polack (Polish), Chink (Chinese), Jap, Nip (Japanese), Fag, Faggot (Homosexual), Mick (Irish) and a few others that I can’t recall. In those days, we all used these words – but, judiciously. Today, just a hint of such speech would make the top-of-the-hour spot on the evening news telecast – and not in a favorable way!

     Today in America, it's something else: an act of terror, a political upheaval, a filmed incident of violence gone viral. Even Facebook, a platform designed for amicable sharing, has become a hotbed for conflict and negativity. Safe spaces seem to be vanishing from beneath our feet. With all the clamor for political correctness, the avoidance of any word even thought to be offensive to someone, the expunging of all references to any historical figure around whom there is the slightest hint of bad behavior, e.g., the rush to eliminate Columbus Day and replace it with Native American Day, do we find ourselves more united, more civil to each other, and less contentious than we were some seven or eight decades ago? Do we, as Americans, get along better today than in the past? I don’t think so.

     Today, American society has become too sensitive to the use of any word, phrase, sentence or perceived thought that even hints of something offensive. Instead of a simple that’s not nice or appropriate, we rush to make it a major event in our daily lives. In so doing, we overemphasize the negative effect of the offense and actually make the situation worse. Today we are a society that overreacts, that takes offense to any supposed impropriety, and we grow the divide between our various social, ethnic and religious communities. In days gone by, we got along. Today, we don’t get along! Instead, we are incensed at supposed insults; we are outraged at any perceived slight; we become livid at anything declared improper by the self-appointed PC police. Instead of focusing on what unites us, we fixate on what potentially divides us.

     Growing up in Chelsea, whether Italian or non-Italian, we all celebrated Columbus Day. Today, the mere mention of the name Columbus brings severe approbation and we no longer have a Columbus Day – instead, we have a “Native Americans” Day. Instead of playing cowboys and Indians as I did, are today’s children supposed to play cowboys and Native Americans? Is it no longer appropriate for school children to recite: In fourteen hundred and ninety-two; Columbus sailed the ocean blue; . . .? Do we expunge the name Columbus from all our history books and should we rewrite history as some would have us do?

     My father died when I was a junior in college. The house where my mother and I lived at the time was a 2-family home. The second floor was occupied successively by two Jewish families before and after my father’s death. A few years later, the apartment became vacant and a newspaper advertisement resulted in the appearance of a Negro who wanted to rent the apartment. My mother didn’t know what to do – what would the neighbors think? Since the house at that time was in my name and I handled all the finances for my mother, I told her that if she refused to rent the apartment to a Negro, I would sign the house back to her and let her handle all the finances. She relented and Jim moved in. As my mother later admitted, that was one of the best decisions of her life. Once he moved in, Jim took over all the yard care work. Later, he married Dottie Moore, the sister of Gladys Moore, my classmate at Chelsea High School. Having Dottie live in the same house as my mother was another blessing. After I married and moved out, I could count on Dottie, a former nurse, to look after my mother when my mother’s heart condition became an issue. Jim and Dottie were a true God-send. It didn’t take a major protest, a court battle, or the intervention of the PC police. All it took was common decency and a desire to get along.

     Today’s generation has become overly sensitive to any and all alleged wrongs. The concept of letting a perceived insult roll off one’s back no longer exists. Instead, all supposed wrongs - no matter how slight or innocuous, - are a call to arms. There no longer is any middle ground. Now, it’s You’re either with me or against me! With all the Political Correctness that’s been imposed upon us over the last several decades, we’ve managed to corrupt the English language here in America in a fruitless effort to do away will all language that is potentially offensive to any and all. Has there been a reduction in hate? Is there less dissent? Do we get along better? Are we better off with such an attitude? I sincerely doubt there can be affirmative answers to any of these questions. Check the news in your daily newspapers, review the nightly news on your radios, watch the eleven o’clock news on TV and then tell me that there is greater peace and harmony in America today then when I was growing up some six and seven decades ago. Sure, there was more vulgar and inappropriate language in common use, but somehow, we all managed to get along!, at least when and where I grew up. Instead of constantly searching for the negatives in today’s society, we all need to focus like a laser on those positives that have created the greatest nation in the history of mankind. Continuous self-flagellation is not, and should not be, part of the American way of life. Let’s stop focusing on Political Correctness and let’s simply concentrate on getting along with each other.

     When I was growing up, politics was not the dirty word it is today, Democrats and Republicans dominated the political scene as today – BUT - there was a certain amount of respect and civility that allowed disagreement but still left room for compromise, accommodation and an ability to keep the wheels of government grinding away. Today, no such environment exists and American society is worse off as a result. We have lost the ability to solve the problems which need to be addressed by our government. Our leaders in Washington now find it much more difficult to collaborate and this threatens to undermine some longstanding assumptions about how to shape effective solutions to the challenges that face us now, and in the decades to come.

     When I was growing up, we weren’t focused on whether or not someone used a “derogatory” word or phrase to refer to me, my family, my religion or my ethnicity. Instead, most of us focused on improving our lives and the lives of our children. We ignored the trivia, e.g., was Buddy a Negro, a Nigger, a Black, an Afro-American or something else? What was most important instead: Was Buddy a nice person? How well could Buddy play second base? Could I depend upon Buddy? Etc. Today, the world around has has changed – we look for that which divides us rather than on what unites us. We fixate on the trivia and ignore that which is important. Rearranging the words of a 1940’s hit song, today, we accentuate the negative and eliminate the positive and we don’t latch on to mister in between. Are we better off as a result? Simply put, the result is we have become too thin-skinned!

  19 May 2019 {Article 359; Suggestions?_22}    
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