My dad was a scientist and university professor. When I was 7 he took our family to Europe on his sabbatical year: 1958. As we walked along a street in London one day we saw two men get into a fight. They pushed one another and hollered. A third man stepped in and broke it up. “You stay here,” he said. “I’m going for a Bobby.”
The Bobbies are London policemen, who back then carried no guns and wore big funny blue hats.
Those two men stood right there, without fighting anymore, and waited for the Bobby to come.
Can you imagine such a thing happening today in Los Angeles? New York? Chicago? In Dimebox, Texas?
Talking about national culture or national character is a dangerous thing today. Not because there is no truth to it, but because the subject is full of falsehood, and so often used — most often is used — to stir up hatred and violence.
We see this every day in the United States, and more and more in Europe.
But that little incident, lost on a London street, made me love England — that it could raise citizens like that.
With the possible exception of smallpox and the plague, nationalism and religious prejudice have killed more people than anything else in the history of the world. So “national culture” is dangerous to talk about.
But I don’t see why people who know something about it shouldn’t chew it over.
For instance: If you are a traveler who knows the language, and you make a new friend, he is far more likely to invite you to his home in Mexico than he would in France.
That’s not a value judgment. I’m not saying that Mexicans are better or worse than Frenchmen, or friendlier than Frenchmen. That’s just how it is.
I love Beethoven. I’ve read all of his letters. But you should see the things he said about Italians. “He is a charlatan, of course, like all Italians,” sticks in my mind.
Was Beethoven a bigot? Hell, no. He was the most advanced mind of his time, possibly of any time. He had lots of Italian friends. But that’s the way he saw Italians — because their culture was different than his. There was no hatred in Beethoven’s comment. He just said what he knew from his life.
And that, my fellow Americans, is the difference between loving and learning about the thousands of cultures of our world — with no obligation to love any of them — as opposed to being afraid of them, and wanting to kill them.
The difference is: You have to know something about them first.
All around the world today people are asking other people — forcing other people — to kill people they know nothing about.
Russia, ISIS and the United States are not alone in this, but we all have done it.
When President George W. Bush decided to spend a trillion of our dollars — $3,000 from each one of us — to kill Saddam Hussein, and thrust our faces into this bloodbath, Bush did not know the difference between a Sunni Muslim and a Shi’a. He did not know there was such a difference.
As Casey Stengel said: You could look it up.
Now we’re paying the price of Bush’s ignorance, and our own, in money, hysteria and blood.
Of course fundamentalist Muslims are obnoxious and dangerous. So are fundamentalist Christians, fundamentalist Hindus and fundamentalist Jews.
So should we kill all of them? Stir up hatred against them?
I don’t think so. Every culture on planet Earth — national, tribal, religious — has something to offer. And every one of them could be dangerous, to someone, somewhere, sometime.
All I’m saying is that we should learn about them — not from them — and not try to convert them. Not because they’re wrong and we’re right. Or vice-versa.
We should do it because it’s the right thing to do. And because millions of children who know nothing of religion or national borders are hungry and dying all over the world, and rather than spend another trillion dollars to kill them now, or kill them when they grow up, and kill their parents, we should try to learn something about them.
Then after we’ve learned about these children — if they grow up, and keep fighting — we should beat them over the head with books. Until they die or wise up.
And if none of that works, we should call the Bobbies.