Cleaning It All Up
By Jean Hastings Ardell
It’s downright amazing what you find when you clean up your office. I began in earnest after Christmas to sort through the pile of manuscripts submitted to NINE: A Journal of Baseball History & Culture, which I am guest editing; an enchanting memoir awaiting editing by a man of color in search of his place in this world through the game of baseball; correspondence with Easy Writers, the memoir workshop I teach; a stack of my own work to be sent out for publication; and notes for Bleed the Same, the local organization formed last summer to address racial injustice.
It was words, and my love for them, that got me into this chaos. Finding the right words to tell a story demanding to be told. Helping others to do the same. Words and language can be a messy business, though it doesn’t start out that way. My seven-month-old granddaughter is clear in her choice of words: “Mama!” “Dada!” Soon she’ll discover the magic of poetry in the nursery rhymes she’ll hear. After that it gets complex.
Nowhere is this truer than in our politics today. I’m reminded of this because one of the pleasures of a thorough office cleaning is coming across old treasures. Opening up my dog-eared copy of Norton’s Anthology of English Literature from my days at UC Irvine, I found this old favorite, written by the English writer George Orwell in 1946, “Politics and the English Language,” a call for the moral imperative to use plain and clear language. Here’s one of his examples of what not to do:
“All the ‘best people’ from the gentlemen’s clubs, and all the frantic fascist captains, united in common hatred of Socialism, and bestial horror of the rising tide of the mass revolutionary movement, have turned to acts of provocation, to foul incendiarism, to medieval legends of poisoned wells, to legalize their own destruction of proletarian organizations, and rouse the agitated petty-bourgeoisie to chauvinistic fervor on behalf of the fight against the revolutionary way out of the crisis.” – Communist pamphlet
Orwell was critical of both the Left and the Right—he disliked ideology in general. But what chilled me about this particular example is how much it reflects the rhetoric of some of the right-wing extremists of today. In the Far Right’s rush to condemn what it terms the radical left as communists and socialists, it ignores its own fascist penchant to suppress those who simply want a fair shake from our institutions. Consider the demonstration organized in July 2017 by the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan to protest the “the ongoing cultural genocide … of white Americans,” according to Klansman James Moore. “They’re trying to erase us out of the history books,” he told The Washington Post. The offense? The Charlottesville City Council’s plan to take down a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in a public park.
As a Christian, I’m ashamed of the white church’s history of abetting of racial injustice. Author James Waterman Wise prophesied, “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.” So I resist headlines like the one in the July 17, 2020 issue of this newspaper, “Defending the Soul of America,” in a column by Jennifer Welsh-Zeiter, who concludes, “We’re at a critical juncture, our country’s soul is at stake. Support improving the lives of Black people, yes. But we must stand and fight now against the cancellation of our culture, heritage and traditions, or we’ll witness America’s destruction without a shot being fired.”
But shots, tragically, have been fired in the ongoing battle over … what, exactly? Blacks’ desire to have their history more accurately taught in our schools? Their desire to be treated by the police in the same manner as whites? The removal of statues of men who supported slavery? “Cancellation of our culture” is a term Orwell would have faulted. For one it’s inaccurate. Our history and our culture are not being cancelled—they are being reevaluated and redefined to more accurately include the stories of people of color. Is our culture so fragile that it cannot withstand such introspection? Is America’s “soul” so tainted with denial that it cannot withstand a serious reappraisal of its past sins? Is the white Christian church so certain of its righteousness that it fears to examine its own part in racial injustice?
Laguna Beach, happily, is one corner of America that appears willing to look inward. We’ve hired a new police chief, Robert Thompson, whom I’ve spoken with on Zoom. I welcome his fresh approach. Our school district last fall adopted a resolution presented in large part by the young people of this town to correct the traditional “cancellation of [Black] culture” in its curriculum. It’s up to the rest of us to keep the conversation going. There’s still plenty of cleaning up to do.
Jean is a Laguna Beach resident and member of the Third Street Writers.