On Labels: Radio Essay for April 23, 2011

“Something’s burning somewhere. Does anybody care?” These are lyrics from the story-song folk writer, Harry Chapin. Our world is still spinning but it feels as if it is spinning upside down.

A funny thing happened to me on the way to a Tea Party event here in Worcester this week: I was called a racist. If one lives long enough, you are likely to be called a lot of things. Frankly, I am offended. A racist makes value judgments based solely upon irrelevant objective assessment such as the color of someone’s skin or their national origin. Objective logic does not play into the equation, only subjective emotion.

I was called a racist by a bunch of socialists. Now, I am not labeling them; they labeled themselves. There I was, bearing witness to our Constitutionally guaranteed right of free speech and assembly, when a group, some say a mob, of masked protestors invaded our peaceful assembly. I was being verbally assaulted by a group of knuckleheads wearing bandannas over their faces like masked banditos in a John Ford western. They called me a racist. They labeled me because I support Tea Party values.

Is this the face of protest; the face of point/counterpoint? I was not comfortable with the standoff. Visualize this: two opposing viewpoints separated not only by ideology but by four lanes of traffic. A colleague of mine wanted to go over and talk some sense into them; to try and convince them that we were righteous. I admit I was leery. I did not think we could make any headway with avowed socialists, so why bother. My friend was more persistent than I and so we crossed the street.

What I met on the other side was a group of students ranging in age from maybe16 to 25. I introduced myself to Joe and said, “I won’t raise my voice to you and I expect you will do the same.” And so, we talked. It was not much different than talking to my own adult children, really. And when I stripped away the rhetoric, I found a child who was as frightened about their future as was I.

It is an old adage that one need not hunt squirrels with a shotgun. That was what it was like to discuss tax burdens with someone who has never held a real job or owned property or had to worry about the future of their children. But Joe was not without his dreams; he was simply without options and without optimism that someone such as himself could live a life with opportunity. Joe said he had often heard Tea Party people talk about loosing freedoms and asked me to describe one freedom that we had lost. I told him that we- he- was in danger of losing one of the greatest freedoms of all: his freedom of choice; his freedom to have options. He heard me and seemed to seriously consider what I had said.

Harry Chapins’ lyrics went on to say:

“I shook his hand in the scene that made America famous; and he smiled from the heart that made America great. I spent the rest of that night in the home of a man that we’d never known before. It’s funny, when you get that close, it’s kind of hard to hate.”

Labels are a coward’s way out. Each of us is unique in our own personal circumstance and in our outlook. I chose to believe that. I also choose to believe that the majority of Americans, a vast majority, want similar things, for our children and for our country. We need fewer labels and less demagoguery. When we strip away the rhetoric, we will be left with the facts. We can and must do the right thing. I believe that we can.

Press on.

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