The Slide

The town I live in – really a small city, I guess – often gets a bad rap. It makes frequent appearances on lists compiling the least desirable places to live and auto theft capitals and worst air in America. Traffic is terrible for a city its size. It’s hot in the summer, damp in the winter and it’s allergy central pretty much year-round. But it’s home, and has been for a long while now.

The Modesto Arch at I and 9th Street, with the city’s motto “Water Wealth Contentment Health.”

It’s been in the news before. The man behind “American Graffiti” and the “Star Wars” franchise grew up here, and a man currently on death row for killing his pregnant wife the day before Christmas lived with her in a house around the corner from mine. There’s good and bad here, just like any place in America.

My city’s in the news again – and once again, the news isn’t good: A group has pulled permits with the city to hold the region’s first straight pride parade.

I’m (generally) all for free speech and the right to peaceably assemble. If a bunch of (I presume) straight dudes want to celebrate their straightness – and the fact they’ve never once been looked down on, called out, fired, denied service or a place to live or the love of family, or been beaten, punched, kicked or killed because they’re straight – let them knock themselves out. They’ll look silly but that’s their problem, not mine.

If that’s what they want to celebrate.

The “National Straight Pride Coalition” notes on its website that a number of “fundamentals are under unprecedented, sustained, and coordinated attack within our society, culture, and nation.” The first several are predictable – heterosexuality, the “God-ordained natural nuclear family,” masculinity, femininity, and “babies born and unborn.”

Then things take a turn toward the alt-right. According to their website – which I quote rather than paraphrase so their words speak for them – also under attack are:

Western Civilization: the Christian form for social, cultural, and national governance as a cornerstone upon which progress for the mass majority of humanity has occurred. i.e. how the modern world has been built;

“Caucasians: the biological majority of the historical developers and founders of Western Civilization (This is a statement of fact with the consideration of Gal. 3:28 and Col. 3:11. Christ loves and values everyone) [parentheses on website];

“Christianity: the religious form of the formation, development, and advancement of Western Civilization; i.e.; the engine of bringing prosperity and equality to all of humanity.

“Nationalism: the patriotic love of their nation and its interests, principles, and future that motivated the Founder’s development of Western Civilization.”

In other words, all hail the straight white Christian American person (preferably male) of western origin, whence cometh all that’s good in the world.

Whether it happens or not (the group’s permit had not yet been approved by press time), the “straight pride parade” announced for my city has stirred up a lot of feelings locally. While some people applaud the event as a way to celebrate “what makes America great” – and just as many people say it’s a manifestation of everything that’s wrong in this country – most take the easy but to me inexplicable road: “I don’t like what they stand for but I support their right to say it.”

While it is our most cherished right (it was the First Amendment, after all), freedom of speech is not an absolute one. It’s not a backstop for yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater. I can’t hide behind the First Amendment if I write a news profile about a living person and fill it with lies about them. I may be physically able to shoot my mouth off, but I should expect – and accept – consequences.

And the right to free speech cannot be allowed to justify an event celebrating white, Christian, straight male supremacy. An event that could well turn violent, perhaps Charlottesville violent, because one of the co-organizers in his infinite wisdom decided to invite the Proud Boys – designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group well known for their penchant for bringing violence to events like this.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about this country and the racism that festers here still, six decades after the civil rights movement and nearly 150 years after the 15th Amendment – which gave black men the right to vote – was ratified. I wonder why it seems worse now than ever in my life. Maybe it’s always been there, and the irresponsible words and deeds and tweets of a certain resident of the White House has emboldened the racists to come out into the light.

I’ve also been thinking of my mother, a good Christian who believed every person is a gift from God no matter their skin color or where they come from. She was also a good Republican and I wonder how she would feel belonging to a party that has remained largely silent and complicit in the dismantling of all that – if it had ever been truly embraced – would have made us that shining city on a hill I’ve heard about nearly all my life.

And I’ve been thinking of the nations and societies that for a thousand reasons got on the slide I believe we’re on, the slide to nationalism and white supremacy and hate. To scapegoating people of color or of a different faith for problems perceived and real. To believing we should purge from our nation anyone not straight, white, Christian and American.

The slide only goes one direction and has one destination. And I believe a day is coming when it will be too late, we will have slid too far to get off of it and even if we find redemption the wages of our sins will be passed on for generations.

But maybe I’m too pessimistic. Archaeologist Sarah Parcak, author of the new book “Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes Our Past,” told NPR last week that studying thousands of years of human history has given her some hope for humanity.

“Humans are very resilient,” she said. “And in spite of all the terrible things that we have done to each other, I think we’re 51% good.”

Not great odds. But given the long arc of history she’s studied, I’ll take them.

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