January 19, 1996

Professional Ethnics

Prejudice, my son, is a two sided game. In order to discover this human frailty in others, we must first discover it within ourselves. The initial step toward contending with prejudice is to recognize the extent and degree of our own.

Robert H. deCoy,1967

My military distinction is that I was one of the few people who was ever busted from private first class, and who didn't receive a good conduct medal. The army and I didn't get along very well. It was only when I ended up in the infantry, that I was allowed to feel like a human being instead of some lower form of animal life. The price for having that dignity, that I think that all human beings are entitled to, was that my life was in constant danger. When I see a movie with some sadistic drill sergeant screaming insults in someone's face, I can't understand why any self-respecting person would put up with it. I understand even less why someone would volunteer for that kind of crap.

When the war was over, I went to the University of California at Berkeley and also worked as a night laboratory technician at Children's Hospital in Oakland. One of the resident physicians was a man who had been a bird colonel in the regular army. He resigned his commission, went to medical school and was completing his residency in pediatrics. One evening, he was telling me what tests he needed on a new patient and he lapsed into his officer mode, giving his orders to me. This pressed my buttons and I snapped, "Yes, Sir, Colonel, Sir!" He looked sideways at me and said, "Get up off your knees, private!" I learned something very important on that day: nobody can make you feel small without your consent. It was not that he was looking down at me; he wasn't. It was I who was looking up at him. The only reason that he seemed like a master to me was because I felt like a slave. I learned that my dignity was more a function of how I felt about myself, rather than how someone else felt about me.

That story is a prelude to a discussion about those people who I call "professional ethnics." These are people who always feel that they are being persecuted, whether they are or not. Some even earn a good living at it. They are always re-living some past indignity.

I suppose as long as professional bigots exist there will be people who are professional ethnics. They are the obverse of the bigot, and while I don't find them quite as repugnant as the bigot, they are still a pain in the butt. They are continually working to preserve a culture, whether that culture is worth preserving or not.

Some people believe that everything should be preserved. There are even people who want to preserve "art deco." What is now called "art deco" used to be called "cheap commercial crap;" stuff churned out by hack painters who would have done a service to the world had they painted houses instead.

I know of no culture that is really worth preserving intact. There are aspects of many cultures that should be preserved and incorporated in other cultures, but there is no culture that is so perfect that it deserved to be preserved in its entirety, The chauvenism in many cultures would be better lost forever. What's more, no culture consists solely of good or smart or hard working people. Judaism has its Shimon Perez's and its Meir Kahanas; Germany had Goethe and Hitler; Catholicism had its Father Damiens and the Torquemada's. I could go on and on, pointing out the people that each culture can well be proud of and those that they should be ashamed of.

Is there such a thing as an all-good culture? I doubt it.

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