Thursday, May 27, 2010

How did you celebrate Cinco de Mayo?

Here in California, many public schools devote themselves to honoring Mexico on May 5, known to Mexicans living here as Cinco de Mayo. This year students at several local high schools wore American flag T-shirts to school that day. Mexicans were outraged, and one principal sent the offending students home for being troublemakers. The Mexican students responded to this outrage by hundreds cutting school to march on the streets of their towns, waving flags. Mexican flags, of course. One non-Mexican student responded with an op-ed piece denouncing those terrible American flag-displaying kids. Here's my response:

Student columnist Nick Luther reasons that swanning about wearing an American flag T-shirt on Cinco de Mayo is "offensive and disrespectful."

Does he know that this actually isn't Mexico's independence day? That's September 16. Cinco de Mayo isn't even particularly celebrated in Mexico other than in the state of Puebla, since it commemorates a battle with the French that took place there.

So by his reasoning St. Patrick's day is also off-limits for American flags. And August 15, which is India's Swatantrata Divas. And Bastille Day, since that would be offensive to those of French heritage, And September 15, which is both Guatemala's and El Salvador's independence day. Oh, and July 4 is off limits for American flags as well--that's the day the Philippines gained its independence from the USA.

So by Mr. Luther's logic, before a student dreams of being so rude as to display the flag of our nation on a particular day, he or she must check to make sure that that day isn't the "special day" of the ancestry of anyone he or she might run into on that day.

And by that same logic, the fact that this happens to be America means exactly nothing. All nations have the same rights. So if I move to Guadalajara in Mexico and join the thousands of expat Americans living there, on the 4th of July I have a right to demand that the Mexicans around me not display La Bandera Mexicana on their persons.

Or perhaps Mr. Luther thinks it's OK to offend--by his lights--the one Afghan student at his high school, but not the third-plus who are Mexican? In which case it's actually not principle we're discussing, but mob rule, isn't it? But if it's mob rule, then the Mexican kids will have to wait a few years until they're the majority.

So which is it--principle or mob rule?

I assume Mr. Luther would assert that it's principle. I look forward to him working out a chart of national days for every student, faculty member and staff at his high school, showing when Americans can wear our country's flag without offending someone by showing it.

But now let's revisit that Guadlalara scenario. There's Mr. Luther, in summer school there, demanding that a Mexican student remove the Mexican flag T-shirt he's wearing in his country--México.

Let's run that scenario in our heads and imagine what that Mexican student would say to Mr. Luther.

I hope that if Mr. Luther reads this he'll realize how useful it is to put yourself in the other person's situation and think it through, so you won't wind up expressing yourself in a way that will embarrass you later.

If someone wore a shirt with a Mexican flag in a circle with a diagonal slash through it, that would certainly be dissing Mexicans--on Cinco de Mayo, to be sure, but on any other day as well. Likewise Border Patrol shirts. I'm not saying it's wrong to do so by any means. What I am saying is that an American flag shirt on Cinco de Mayo--in America--is not innately disrespectful, any more than a Mexican wearing a Mexican flag shirt on El Quatro de Julio in Mexico in disrespectful.

You cannot demand that someone not express patriotism for his or her own country, in their own country, on any day of the year. This is a principle, and it has exactly nothing to do with any particular country, relative to any particular other country. Nor is such an expression inherently insulting under these circumstances.

Now it's certainly true that the Mexicans at these local high schools felt insulted under these circumstances. ( I call them Mexicans because they call themselves Mexicans, by and large, according to national Pew polls--and because when they went on their marches they proudly waved Mexican flags--not an American flag in the bunch; whereas, for example, on St. Patrick's day you see lots of American flags.)

So they felt insulted. But was that justified? White racists feel insulted every time they see our president's face. If someone feeling insulted is dispositive, will Mr. Luther then demand that President Obama resign so racist whites won't feel insulted?

Then there's the issue of intent. Suppose every single student who wore American flag shirts on Cinco de Mayo at Mr. Luther's school did it to show disrespect for the Mexican students there, and said so when asked. And yet their choice of iconography showed nothing explicitly disrespectful of anyone--it was simply an assertion of patriotism.

And in that case, unless the act itself is disrespectful—such as wearing an image mocking Mexicans in some explicit way—no one has any right to tell that person not to wear what they’re wearing, even if the intent was disrespectful.

On a larger scale, it appears that Mr. Luther takes for granted the fact that perhaps 40% of his student body is Mexicans. What he appears not to realize is that 50 years ago that would have been less than 1%.

That’s a huge demographic shift. It replaces one culture with another. Yet no one ever put this to a vote of the people being displaced. Never was there a referendum asking American voters if they wanted to surrender their culture for that of another country.

There’s nothing inherently racist about preferring the culture of your own country—of your parents and theirs—to some other country’s culture.

Travel the world, as I have. Amazingly, Indonesians prefer Indonesian culture to American culture. Philippinos prefer theirs. Brits prefer theirs. Dutch prefer theirs. All like their culture, their language, their shared rules, their music, their flag.

Now there’s a trick here. America is the most multicultural culture on Earth; the most accepting of foreigners on Earth. A few years ago I attended the naturalization ceremony of a Russian friend. At her ceremony, people from 68 countries became Americans.

We do it by assimilation. Everyone is expected to learn our culture and our language. They don’t have to give theirs up; and American culture now incorporates many, many elements of many cultures, just as the roots of English words come from languages all over the world. Nevertheless the framework remains American, and the language remains English.

The philosophy of multiculturalism seeks to replace this multicultural soup with a tossed salad and no framework at all. Every culture, every language is just as good as the next, and no one is expected to learn or adopt anything about America.

This is a U-turn from America’s assimilationist heritage, and this is what Mr. Luther appears unaware that he’s doing. And in doing so, he gives great offense even as he obviously believes he’s defending innocent people from being disrespected.

Because he’s treating the country he lives in as having no special claim to this land. Instead he’s demanding preferential treatment to people who have come here in such vast numbers that they’ve gone from one in 200 seventy years ago to one in 14 nationally and one in three locally. And when people move into an area en masse there’s no reason for them to assimilate.

I know Latinos who’ve lived here many years, who I can only communicate with because I speak Spanish. I’ve gone to Indonesia on vacation half a dozen times—never lived there—yet I speak more Indonesian than many Latinos here speak English.

And that’s why—though I doubt he’s aware of it—he has shown precisely the disrespect for a culture that Mr. Luther accuses those American flag-wearing teenagers of showing. Only in this case it’s the culture of the country that has nourished and supported and protected Mr. Luther all his life.

And that’s something worse than mere disrespect.

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