I was recently a guest on a highly rated TV show to promote a new production of a play I'm performing in at the Hartford Stage in Hartford, Connecticut. The play, To Kill a Mockingbird, is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Harper Lee. It was made into an Academy Award-winning film in 1962 and is, in many people's opinion, a book that helped the American public raise its collective moral conscience and take real and necessary steps toward racial justice and equality.
For those of you who don't know the story, it's about a young girl, Scout, and her family. At the heart of the tale there is a criminal trial at which Scout's father, Atticus Finch, defends an African-American who has been accused of raping an impoverished and uneducated white woman. The African-American, Tom Robinson, is found guilty by the all-white jury. On his way to a jail outside town, for "safe-keeping." Tom is shot and killed. The deputy says he "aimed to wound Tom, but missed his aim." This was the kind of justice a black person could expect for more than half of the past American century.
Between 1889 and 1930, over 3,700 black men and women were reported lynched in the United States. Mob violence led by groups such as the Ku Klux Klan encouraged families to bring their children to attend these hangings. There would be picnics, and vendors would sell the body parts of the victims as souvenirs. White supremacists did not want them or those people to be allowed "inside the fence." It was not unusual to hear them say, "We don't want them in our country." Never mind that the first three words of the U.S. Constitution say, "We the People..." "We" is a lovely word because it is inclusive. There are some people who have a deep understanding of how delicate and intricate all life forms and nature are to each other: a delicate dance of symbiotic relationships. Some people understand that there is only one world and we are all in this together. Life is like a spider's web: what you do to a strand has an effect upon the entire web.
I wanted to promote To Kill a Mockingbird on TV because I felt that if there was anyone at all watching who could learn important lessons from our theatrical production - lessons of racial prejudice, cronyism, exaggerated and uncorroborated facts, rumors, fear-mongering, creating hysteria, and injustice - then I might just get through to them. I won't go into the details about how my segment on the show was edited and restructured to make me appear to be questioning the goals and intentions of our new president. That shouldn't have surprised me. I campaigned for, and I continue to be a supporter of, President. Obama But that's another story.
Let me simply describe how I was introduced on the show: "We'd like to welcome our pal Matthew Modine..." That sounds nice. Welcoming. "Our friend." "Our" implies that I am "inside the fence" or in agreement with the person that says it. If you listen to the TV or radio news, the pundits or certain members of the Republican Party, you will begin to notice that more and more often they use "Our" to preface their thoughts about the United States. Their use of the word "our" aims to create a schism. And it's working.
The use of "our" is becoming a crucial turning point in history -- crucial because a third of the U.S. population is confused and feels alienated. For eight years American citizens were force-fed a daily meal of fear and supposed threat from outside forces. Today, most Americans are embarrassed by the truth of the Iraq war. Those people and groups that were in favor of the first U.S. preemptive war have been humiliated. Today they must consider the consequences -- the loss of life and financial cost to the countries involved. Follow the money trail of those that profited from the war and you find the possible cause and truth. The Republicans and the citizens who supported them can accept neither the defeat they were dealt nor the embarrassment served up by their comical nominations for president and vice-president. Today they question their party's leadership and they are angry. As a result, every step President Obama takes for the next four years will be scrutinized for error. Any slip he makes will be magnified and criticized as a step toward the destruction of the United States or, as they will say, "our country."
Being introduced as "our friend" was a not-so-subtle way of putting me in line with a way of thinking or a movement -- their way of thinking and a part of their movement. In their minds, "our" is not an inclusive word but a group, clique or party of like-minded people. Ours against theirs. During the show I was asked if President Obama was, by bailing out the banks and auto industry, gambling with our country's future. Yes, he is. He is taking a risk by bailing out the companies that failed because of mismanagement and speculation. I replied that the president is being advised by people who understand the situation much better than I do. I also said that the automobile industry in America was failing because it was guilty of not competing with a global market of hybrids and fuel-efficient auto manufacturers. And that the rules of evolution teach us that you need to adapt and change or become extinct. I said that rather than building Hummers, General Motors should transform itself by going in the business of building light-rail trains. Imagine how many jobs that would create in the U.S. I finished by saying that nobody in America wants to see the president fail, except Rush Limbaugh. This was dismissed by the host of the TV show. Oh, really...
On 16 January 2009, Rush Limbaugh went on national radio and said it. Here is an excerpt straight from the mouth of Mr Limbaugh, "I hope he [Obama] fails. [interruption] What are you laughing at? See, here's the point. Everybody thinks it's outrageous to say. Look, even my staff, 'Oh, you can't do that.' Why not? Why is it any different, what's new, what is unfair about my saying I hope liberalism fails? Liberalism is our problem. Liberalism is what's gotten us dangerously close to the precipice here."
And here is how Mr Limbaugh, both on his radio show and cited on his own website, uses the phrase "our country": "I'll tell you how we're going to get our country back, and I'll tell you what we're going to do when we get our country back."
There is something deeply unappealing about Mr. Limbaugh, who appears to enjoy casting himself in the role of avenger of the Conservative Right. Mr. Limbaugh is even making a list of who has been naughty or nice: "We are taking names. We are taking names now. We are monitoring who on the left is going to deserve payback, and it's going to be hell. This much I promise you."
Given his penchant for lists, it appears that Mr. Limbaugh could teach Senator Joseph McCarthy a thing or two about the divisive power of the bureaucracy of hate.
The chilling fact is that there is no "we" in this new supremacist movement in America. These new-age zealots do not embrace the concept of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness unless it fulfills their view, their definitions of what life, liberty and happiness are. In their world of "our," there are no "We the People." In their world of "our," all men are not created equal.
These new-age bigots are the reflection of the things they claim to fear most. Listen carefully to those who scream loudest -- usually about "them" or "those people" destroying our country -- and you quickly realize that while they accuse liberals of destroying our country, it is actually they who are damaging the promise and ideals of the Great Experiment that is America. It is the bigot who causes the most trouble and strife to a free and democratic society. Bigots live in the land of our. Without considering the obvious facts derived from logical thought, bigots exhibit obstinate, blind devotion to their unscientific beliefs and opinions. Witness the attacks, contempt and intolerance for those who do not agree with them.
I choose to live in the world of you, me and we. My door will always be open to a friendly conversation with them, or those people. I hope the same might become possible for the people who live in the land of our.