Diversity Isn't Always Beautiful

I listened to this album once, then traded it in.

I remember the moment Steve Martin got bored with being a standup comedian.

It's immortalized on the third of his four comedy albums, the title of which is the punchline to the joke. I don't remember the joke at all, but I do remember the audience expressing outrage at where it went. There was a long, uncomfortable pause, filled with the sounds audiences make as comedians milk their unappreciation for effect, followed at least by the line, delivered with all the self-important irony of his first famous catchphrase ("Excuuuuuuuuuusssee meeeeee," just in case you're under the age of 50): "Comedy is not pretty!"

They were the words of a comedian who'd outgrown his schtick, who was ready to move on to something kinder, gentler, and better-respected. In the case of Steve Martin, it was his burgeoning career as an actor in screwball comedies that toned down the Dadaism of his onstage persona, enhancing his gentler side. The transition seemed effortless, and he never looked back.

That was a hard album to listen to. I'd heard Steve Martin's first, and in the opinion of many, greatest album ("Let's Get Small") many times, and had enjoyed its followup ("A Wild and Crazy Guy") as well. I could rattle off bits and jokes from both those records from memory right now, 35 years since I last listened to them. "Comedy Is Not Pretty," though, is just that punchline, coupled with the cover photo of Steve Martin in drag. I only listened to it one time. I remember all the humor had an angry edge to it, like he was disgusted with his audience for preferring the silly schtick of his earlier material. I've never enjoyed angry comedy--in fact, anger in general makes me feel ill--so that album very quickly went on the pile of albums marked for trade-in at the record store.

And now, looking back on the entire debacle of the 2016 election, I finally get it. It's still not funny. But it is profoundly true: the world can be a very ugly place.

That's not a very PC thing to admit. We of a liberal bent like to view the world optimistically, looking for signs of progress, growth, evolution toward our ideals. We inherit this worldview from the Western philosophical tradition: Aristotelianism, Gnosticism, Puritanism all saw human existence as a quest for perfection. We seek to improve ourselves and the world around us, to leave it better than we found it. Yes, there's plenty of ugliness to be found, but working together, we can beautify the planet until it's the paradisiacal capital of the United Federation of Planets. With the election of Barack Obama, we felt vindicated, allowed ourselves to believe that we were on the cusp of a new era of peace and cooperation, that together we could end poverty, bigotry, human suffering, reverse global warming, and never have to look back.

Eight years later, we've just learned, once again, that comedy is not pretty. Or, to put it another way: diversity can be ugly.

Conservatives view the word "diversity" as a liberal pipe dream, a euphemism for our embrace of depravity, blasphemy, immorality, socialism, whatever else they consider dark and ugly about our world. In their own way, conservatives are just as dualistic about the planet as liberals, but they're much more pessimistic about the possibility of humans making the world a better place. Squeeze what profit you can out of it while it lasts, and leave the mess for God to clean up in the apocalypse.

The beauty of diversity can be found on the playgrounds of schools in multi-racial neighborhoods. I saw it all the time in the Reynolds School District: children forming friendships that completely ignored distinctions of language, color, ethnicity. This was even true in bullying: the two misbehaving boys who worked together to disrupt whatever class they were in were Russian and Mexican; the gang of girls who were cyber-bullying were Asian, Ethiopian, and white. My favorite thing about working in that district was the rainbow quality of every class I saw. My new job on the other side of Portland is vastly better in countless ways, but I do have to admit I miss seeing a United Nations of children come into my teaching space every half hour.

That's the diversity of the Obama Era, an America that looks like a promotional poster for a Scout program, the cast of a Young Doctors in Love prime time drama, a Cabinet appointed by a Democrat. Seeing so many examples of this diversity around us, and seeing it expand to sexual minorities, we've allowed ourselves to be so caught up in celebrating our progress that we've forgotten the flip side of diversity, the yang to our yin: there are bands in the human rainbow we'd rather weren't there.

There are Americans who fondly remember Jim Crow, and they're not all older white people. Some are too young to literally remember what that was like--to be honest, I'm too young to remember it, and at 55, I'm solidly in the age range that voted for Trump. The bulk of the Baby Boom generation came of age during the Civil Rights Era. These people are now in their 60s and early 70s, so it's really only 80-somethings who lived through the time before the canonization of Martin Luther King, Jr. This means we can't just blame nostalgic older people for the Trumpification of America. Yes, his voters skew older; but we're talking about more than half a century of "living into" the normalization of racial diversity, and still there are 62 million voting Americans who were willing to at best overlook, at worst completely embrace, the most racist candidate to run for the Presidency in modern history.

There's just no getting around it: ugly Americans are here to stay. Any progress we make toward restoring the hope of Obama's election, to putting women and minority members in positions of power, to affirming the rights of all people to be treated with dignity and respect, will be despite them, and they will fight us every step of the way.

Or, as painful as this is for me to admit, perhaps we can defuse their virulence by learning to live with them. Remember the Star Trek episode "The Enemy Within"? It's the one in which a transporter malfunction splits Kirk into two halves, initially seeming to be "good" and "bad," but ultimately revealed to be more like "id" and "ego." The civilized half of Kirk looks with horror on his crude, violent half, would rather it was simply eliminated. But without his dark side, he is weak, indecisive, and begins to fade physically: yang needs yin to be whole. In the end, his two halves are reunited.

Our nation has been going through a slow-motion version of that story. We of the left have separated ourselves from the right, and they've enthusiastically embraced the process, doing all they could to distance themselves from us. Under Trump, they're going to find that having all their dreams come true is not nearly as satisfying as they thought it would be: much of their base depends on Medicare and the Affordable Care Act for health insurance, and will not take kindly to losing any of those entitlements; the American economy depends greatly on the labor, both professional and skilled, of immigrants; and free trade is essential to American prosperity. Republicans will suffer the consequences of being able to push through the Trump agenda, just as Democrats paid the price for the supermajority of 2009 with losses in subsequent elections. Progress is slower when Congress acts in a bipartisan way, but it's also more likely to take.

Yes, I'd much rather just stick to the beautiful side of diversity. But I can't: there are Trump voters living in my neighborhood. More than that, the ideas that give Trump his power have now been proven not to be obsolete. Honoring diversity doesn't mean I have to like those ugly ideas, or refrain from trying to change the minds of those who hold them; but it does mean accepting the rights of even people with ugly ideas to have those ideas, and to have a voice in this democracy. Our future as a nation, a people, depend on it.

Comments