Running

“…when will they ever learn?”
from Where Have All The Flowers Gone by Pete Seeger


The one thing that never should be forgotten about men is they used to be boys. With any understanding of the latter creatures, one might begin to fathom how the former come to be. One feature of boyhood is stupidity, which is distinct from ignorance or naiveté. Stupidity requires knowledge; it is an essential component of being stupid – the ability to knowingly do foolish things. The latest police-inspired conflagration is a case study in the condition.

The “latest,” as of this moment, is the death in another American city of yet another young black man at the hands of police. This time it was the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Maryland, who died almost exactly like another young black man in that city ten years ago: arrest, police wagon ride, broken neck, days in the hospital, dead. Gray saw the police, and ran. The problem was the response, giving chase. As attorney Billy Murphy, Jr., – scion of a prominent black family in the state – has repeatedly pointed out to reporters, running is not a crime. I guess that should be obvious, but I never had given it any thought before a decade ago as I sat in a courtroom and heard that very same thing from a judge.

I was observing the trial of a juvenile defendant. The twelve-year-old boy had been one of four boys on a playground a block from his home when one of his companions – stupidly on a dare – snatched the purse of a woman who was on the playground with her daughters. Terrified, the other boys ran from the scene with the culprit. The boys were chased by the police; the snatcher and one other, my grandson, were caught. Both were charged with robbery. The judge in the case, upon learning that the victim was our next door neighbor, was doubtful my grandson would be an accomplice, but acquitted him on the simple fact that running is not a crime.

Some police seem not to care about this, as evidenced by the recent shooting in the back of Walter Scott, the unarmed man running from a police officer in North Charleston, South Carolina. Some officers hate to be run from, and this hatred can blind them to what is right, bringing out the stupid boy in grown men. I know this because of my years as a juvenile probation officer. When my colleagues and I received cases in which one of the crimes with which a youth was charged was Assault on a Police Officer, it usually was a red flag for us. We had come to learn that boys who ran from the police to avoid arrest were often beaten. It seemed officers provided themselves cover for any injuries or complaints by reporting the youths had assaulted them. What I never learned is whether or not the prosecutors who consistently added the bogus charge were in collusion with or duped by the police.

We know there are many problems between some communities and some of their police, problems endured generation after generation. They are only magnified when they reemerge vividly month after month and week after week. An unjustifiable foot chase is one thing. An unjustifiable death caused by police action or inaction is one thing too much, especially when unresolved or resolved unsatisfactorily.

We know, too, that geography has no bearing – neither the Northeast nor the Midwest, the far West nor the deep South is immune. Baltimore is just thirty-five miles from here, but it happens here in Washington and right across the river in Virginia. In August, 2013, John Geer (who was white) was shot and killed by a Fairfax County police officer as he stood with his hands up in the doorway of his house in Springfield. Nearly a year-and-a-half later, the officer’s name had not been released, and he remained on paid desk duty. We now know his name, but that’s about all. Just this past February, 37-year-old Alexandria mother Natasha McKenna was killed at the Fairfax County Jail. The 130-pound woman, already in a cell, was placed in full restraints (handcuffs behind her back, leg shackles and a mask) by six members of the Sheriff’s Emergency Response Team, and then given four 50,000-volt shocks from a stun gun. McKenna’s only crime was being schizophrenic. The investigation into her death continues.

Here in DC, every year for three years running – 1996, ’97 and ’98 – a black police officer was shot mistakenly by a white police officer; witnesses to the death of Officer Thomas F. Hamlette, Jr., the son of a retired officer, said he was killed while lying on the ground. In 2007, fourteen-year-old, unarmed DeOnte Rawlings was killed by police under circumstances still not adequately explained. In March, a homeless man carrying a tree branch was killed in a subway tunnel by a Metro Transit officer. To date, none of these deaths has resulted in any police being charged.

In cities like Baltimore and Washington, with large numbers of black officers and black officials, it is believed by some that death at the hands of the police shows racial prejudice in policing is a myth. It does not, and there is no absolution or solace to be found in the fact that some black police kill black people with impunity. If anything, this fact gives potency to a long forgotten phrase from a frequently forgotten group: the Black Panther Party, which used to say “A pig is a pig is a pig,” making no distinctions regarding color.

Is the path taken by the Panthers one that needs to trod again? The reasons for the Party’s formation were not plucked out of thin air. Consider the words of former Panther Frank Jones when questioned by a member of the House Committee on Internal Security in 1970:

Mr. ROMINES. Does the Black Panther Party encourage members of the black community to possess weapons?
Mr. JONES. Yes.
Mr. ROMINES. Why?
Mr. JONES. For self-defense. The Black Panther Party, when I joined, was titled the “Black Panther Party for Self- Defense.” That title was chosen because of the activities of police officers in the city of Oakland, primarily. They often showed disrespect for the homes and persons of people in the black community. The Black Panther Party was instituted with the intention of instilling in the black people in that area their right to defend their homes and the necessity of doing so.
Mr. ROMINES. Does the Black Panther Party differentiate at all between black and white policemen?
Mr. JONES. Not on that basis, no. I think they differentiate between good and bad policemen.
Mr. ROMINES. The vast majority of the cartoons that I have seen depict white policemen.
Mr. JONES. I don’t think so; I think the vast majority would depict a pig dressed in a policeman’s uniform.
Mr. ROMINES. And no intent on the part of the Panther Party to say this is a white policeman?
Mr. JONES. No.

When Jones testified, it had been only three years since Panther leader Huey Newton had survived being shot by Oakland police, and only a few months since the police murders in Chicago of Party members Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. “Murders” is not hyperbole, given what has been proven since then. FBI Special Agent Gregg York made it clear at the time when he said “ We expected about twenty Panthers to be in the apartment when the police raided the place. Only two of those black niggers were killed, Fred Hampton and Mark Clark.”

There was a time when I thought the word “pig” an appropriate sobriquet for the police. My attitude softened somewhat after watching The Tonight Show one night in the early 1970’s. Johnny Carson’s guests were a group of children talking about their parents’ jobs. I remember a little black girl saying her father, a police officer, was not a pig. I’ve tried to keep what she said in mind, but it’s been on a case-by-case basis. That is difficult to do these days when hearing Baltimore police union leader Gene Ryan call peaceful protesters a lynch mob and insist officers did nothing wrong with Freddie Gray. He also impugns the motives of Baltimore City’s State’s Attorney because she dares to bring charges, even though her great-grandfather, grandfather, father, mother and uncles were all police. It sounds as if he is learning nothing from what has happened, as if he’s a petulant and stupid boy.

When bad police officers are called pigs, it is pigs that are getting a bad rep. Besides, it wasn’t pigs the old folks used to tell kids not to run from, it was dogs. Running, they said, only encouraged them to chase you.

Numbered, Weighed and Divided

(A poem follows this piece)

Ours is a species given to naming and numbering people, places and things. “Things” include epochs, eras and ages, though we don’t all agree on how to count. Presently, for example, we are in year three of the newest 5,125-year cycle according to the Mayans. Muslims count this year as the 1,436th since Muhammad fled from Mecca to Medina, and Christians count it as the 2,015th since the birth of Christ. For the Chinese, we are in year 4,713, and the Jewish calendar counts it as year 5,775, starting with the Creation. It is the 239th year since we Americans declared our independence from England, but here are two additional numbers, fashioned especially for us, for ages in which we concurrently live but may not realize or choose to acknowledge: 70 and 62.

This coming August will mark the 70th year since we became the only people in the world to ever kill fellow human beings by using nuclear weapons. August also will mark the 62nd year since we overthrew the freely, fairly and democratically elected secular government of Iran, creating the circumstances leading to that nation’s descent into the fascism of theocracy and supposed quest for an atomic bomb. Having foisted these two tragedies upon the world, we now find ourselves scrambling to contain the fallout.

There have been innumerable “evils” that have come into the world as the result of the mythical opening of Pandora’s Box, but the most salient point to be taken from that ancient story is that the box did not open itself. We do these things to ourselves and – if left unresolved – to those who come after us. Ask those who lived through World War II if using the uranium bomb called Little Boy and the plutonium one named Fat Man were evil acts, and you will seldom get “Yes” as an answer. That generation of Americans saw ending the war in that way as a moral imperative. They believed it would have been immoral to subject war-weary soldiers to the horrors of trying to capture the Japanese homeland; better Japan suffer a new and different sort of horror instead. That was the simple calculation. Never mind that the Germans, the very people who made us fear a nuclear weapon was being prepared against us, had been defeated. There was no suspicion of the Japanese being able to carry out such an attack, but exhaustion made expediency seem right.

Now, these many years later, a nation comprised of citizens who either were not born or were children in August of 1945 and 1953 is engaged in what many see as a futile attempt to delay Iran’s entry into that rarefied class of nuclear-armed nations. President Obama, born in August of 1961 and now placed in the untenable position of having to slow Iran’s roll, is pilloried for not doing so to the satisfaction of the right-wing factions of Israel and this country. It would be political suicide for him to point out the breathtaking hypocrisy of telling the Iranians they can’t do what we do. Iran may acquiesce (or appear to) initially, but anyone who believes it will do so for long had better search such names as Darius, Cyrus, or Xerxes. With the exception of China, all the other nations telling Iran “No” are upstarts.

We have played Dr. Frankenstein so often that we have created many monsters we now have to placate or destroy. Add to this the fact we knew some of our acts of creation were not well-intended, but performed them anyway. We can’t blame all of it on our forbears, as we appear set on making some of the same mistakes and leaving the consequences for our descendants. It seems we are in need of that one thing that never escaped from Pandora’s Box, the thing left in the bottom – Hope.

The Vintner

There’s a tale of a man from Palestine
who had a certain way of making wine.
It is said he needed nothing other
than the expressed wishes of his mother,
to which he simply added water.

This was at a wedding he attended
at the home of one whom he’d befriended,
giving his host a chance to proudly say
“The best wine was saved ’til the end of day
in honor of the bride, my daughter.”

And all agreed it was indeed the best,
its qualities much finer than the rest,
not knowing how such wine had come to be,
for there had been no one else there to see
but the servants, who saw everything:

The mother and son in playful dispute,
she saying “You can no longer refute
my point that it would please the wedding guests
if you would deign to do as I request.
They have no more wine, now do something!”

He turned to the servants and they to him.
He asked for water in jars to their brims.
They poured as he had instructed them to,
and saw what wishes and water will do,
and believed nothing was beyond reach.

This all may be just a drunkard’s story,
told to bring himself a moment’s glory,
but many other legends have been told
about this Palestinian of old,
every one a wondrous tale each.

c. 2015

Look Up

Walking along Columbia Road in the Columbia Heights section of Washington one summer afternoon long ago, a voice entreated me to “…look up.” In fact, it said “Brother, look up!”

I did, and saw a young woman beaming down at me from the window of a third-floor flat. I never for a moment thought the exhortation was meant as an invitation, and it was just as well I didn’t. “You should always look up when you walk,” she said. “Hold your head high.”

I smiled back, said okay, and continued on my way. I knew what she was trying to do, and was grateful, so I resisted the urge to explain I was not that guy, the guy she thought needed encouragement. Whatever had been on my mind that day at the moment she noticed me, not looking up was a momentary lapse.

I started to make all of that the subject of a blog post months ago, but other matters occupied my attention. When trying to decide what to write this month, I thought again about that day, but wasn’t sure I’d make it the subject. To help clear my mind, I took a constitutional through the ‘hood shortly after sunset. Serendipity provided my answer. As I walked along a block of P. Street, a woman approaching from the opposite direction stopped in the middle of the sidewalk just before we were about to pass each other and – out of the blue – wordlessly looked up into the night sky. That was enough of a sign for me.

At the risk of seeming a Luddite, my sometime desire to tell people to look up is completely divorced from any concern about pride or confidence. It is about the ubiquity of electronic hand-held devices and how they seem to make some people lose all sense of their surroundings. To be truthful, my desire at times is not to tell people to look up, but to scream it – particularly when they are headed straight for me. Yes, some have mastered the skill of human radar or sonar or whatever and can whisk right by without missing a step. Others, the more oblivious, require the more observant to move out of their way. As for me, I’m inching ever closer to facilitating pedestrian collisions.

Anyone with a computer has, by now, become acquainted with some variation of the internet meme of families or groups of friends photographed sitting around a table in some restaurant, each member of each group intently looking at his or her own cell-phone screen instead of at one another. On the subway, with its herky-jerky stops and starts, I have marveled at how people would rather check their phones with both hands instead of using one to hold on and avoid finding themselves on the floor. A friend recounts observing a woman, double-parked illegally, sitting in her car looking at her phone. A city ticket writer pulled up behind her and, apparently feeling magnanimous, beeped his horn as a warning – twice. It was to no avail. The woman did not seem to hear him and never bothered to look in her rear or side-view mirrors. She noticed, finally, when he stood at her car writing a ticket.

Many of us are becoming guilty of screen addiction, whether it is the one on our phones, our computers and tablets, or our televisions.You can decide for yourself how sad and disturbing or how inconsequential you find this, but I assure you there will be consequences. How can there not be? There is not one human-made thing in this world that did not have its genesis in a human mind. From our imaginations come much of our reality. Those imaginations are nurtured by, among other things, noticing the world around us: the cardinal sitting high up in an elm, the gargoyle guarding the entrance of an apartment building, the striking beauty walking right towards you, the sunbeams streaming through a break in the clouds that hover low over the city on an autumn afternoon. Just as important, if not more so, is the time spent with our own thoughts. Our minds and our lives, our art and our science, our culture and our capacity to create are diminished in direct proportion to the loss of that which sustains us spiritually.

We all can afford to slow down and look around. After all, though we don’t feel it and, therefore, don’t notice it, we are never not moving. The Earth is spinning on its axis at more than a thousand miles per hour, while orbiting the Sun at close to 70,000. The whole solar system is moving towards the star Lambda Herculis in the constellation Hercules at about 43,000 mph, while – at the same time – moving upwards at 90 degrees to the Milky Way’s galactic plane at nearly 16,000 mph, and orbiting the center of the galaxy at 446,000 mph plus. As for our galaxy, it’s moving through the universe at 1,339,200 miles per hour.

We are not pilots, only passengers (and, perhaps, crew). The least we can do is spend some time enjoying the ride. Just look up.

And the walls come tumblin’ down

A one-way thing cannot be “both” ways. If something is absolutely wrong, then it’s wrong – isn’t it? Can it be wrong only sometimes or only for some people? Such a proposition is for the realm of relativity, not for the absolute, and we here in the West seem to have determined – absolutely – that the terrorism of present-day jihadism is wrong. Yet, in our bi-polar fashion, we hold conflicting beliefs and send mixed-signals on the subject. We tend to think timing is everything.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is the founding and current caliph of Islamic State, the new caliphate established in parts of Syria and Iraq. He’s finding much of the rest of the world today is not in the mood to recognize the authority of a religious zealot, at least not one who seems as disturbed and disturbing as he. Our response to him has been to try to bomb him to Hell. We tell him, his followers and their sympathizers that the goals and tactics of his group, and of those like al-Qaeda and Boko Haram, are wrong. At the same time, we have spirituals (Joshua Fit De Battle Ob Jericho) glorifying that very behavior. We celebrate in song the birth of a nation that began with the slaughter of men, women, children and livestock in every town encountered by the killers – all on orders from God. Al-Baghdadi, who probably never has heard a Negro spiritual in his life, surely knows as well as you and I that Joshua is exalted in the Koran as well as the Bible.

We have a problem with what young Abu is doing to Shiites, Christians and Yazidis, but no such problem when reading, hearing or singing about what old Josh did to the Canaanites. Why? Some of us believe time changes things, that we can’t judge people of the past with the mores of the present, that it is a mistake for us to look at them through a modern-day lens. I’ve seen that thinking applied in various situations, most often in discussions about slavery and Jim Crow. I’m not one who has ever bought that line of reasoning. To excuse people’s behavior using that “logic” would be to discount or dismiss the lives of everyone who knew slavery and racial discrimination were wrong and worked against it at the time it was happening. Are we to believe there were none among the ancient Israelites who thought it was wrong to acquire coveted land through the extermination of its inhabitants? (In fact, in the book Judges, we find there were some. God, however, promises punishment for not killing everyone as instructed).

So, back to the question of “Why?” If it’s not about timing, why are we cool with what the former Hebrew slaves did in Canaan after their sojourn in Egypt, but not with what the militants today are doing in Syria and Iraq after their sojourns in places like Liverpool, Paris and Pittsburgh? After all, Muslims, just like Jews and Christians, worship and are spoken to by the God of Abraham.

Aside from anti-Muslim bias, perhaps the answer lies in what we think we know about those Canaanites. Here in Western Christendom, steeped in Judeo-Christian culture as we are, we are taught the Canaanites deserved to be annihilated because of their unrelenting wickedness. They were said to be a people who burned their children on the altars of their gods, and practiced sodomy, bestiality, and all sorts of vice. The writer of Leviticus tells us that “the land itself vomiteth out her inhabitants.” William Foxwell Albright, the man considered in his lifetime to be the dean of biblical archeology, wrote “The Canaanites, with their orgiastic nature-worship, their cult of fertility in the form of serpent symbols and sensuous nudity, and their gross mythology, were replaced by Israel, with its nomadic simplicity and purity of life, its lofty monotheism, and its severe code of ethics.” The writer of Deuteronomy disagrees with the good Professor Albright’s estimation. It wasn’t about how good the Israelites were, but how bad the Canaanites were. “Not for thy righteousness, or for the uprightness of thine heart, dost thou go to possess their land: but for the wickedness of these nations the LORD thy God doth drive them out from before thee, …”

Okay. Stop. Just stop. Now, consider this question: How will we appear to posterity, thousands of years from now, if the only surviving history of us was written by the likes of the Taliban? If we think we will come out looking any better than how the citizens of Sodom, Gomorrah or Jericho appear to us, we are seriously fooling ourselves. If we think the Old-Testament writers who told us of the fates of those three cities don’t share a mindset with the man now intent on taking Damascus and Baghdad, we are seriously mistaken.

I suspect part of the grudge the Israelites had against the Canaanites is something we would find familiar today. I’d be really surprised if part of the problem didn’t have something to do with certain features of Canaanite culture that had nothing to do with burning their children. I’m guessing it had more to do with the rights of women – in that they had rights. Women could own land, enter into contracts and initiate divorce. Horror of all horrors, women also could and did serve as Priestesses. The Canaanites also were not averse to science and learning, having been proficient in mathematics and navigation, and having developed the first alphabetic writing system. Their skill in shipbuilding and commerce made them a society able to afford the splendor of wealth. You get the picture.

The same type of folk who didn’t like any of that then do not like it now. Some may find it unconscionable to compare the zealots of today with those of the past. Some may simply find it uncomfortable. It may raise questions one may prefer not to have to answer. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, no doubt, sees himself and his kind much the same way Professor Albright saw the ancient Israelites with their, “simplicity”, “purity” and “severe code of ethics.” I have nothing against any of that – when voluntarily applied to oneself. Forcing it upon others is a different matter. When that happens, it’s time to fight – something the West and its Muslim allies in the Near and Middle East have been doing for some time.

There is more than one reason the fight remains yet to be won. Social, economic and cultural impediments to advancement, coupled with spiritual malaise, continue to be a powerful recruiter of those easily seduced by violence. We also should consider the possibility that our ability to fight and win is compromised by our thinking. Confronting savagery on the one hand while revering it on other hampers us, causing us to fight as if holding one hand behind our backs. Hypocrisy is not an antidote for zealotry.

Bliss

A buddy and I sometimes joke about the reasons the Universe has not seen fit to let either of us win THE BIG ONE. It is never because of the staggering odds against it. It is always because the Universe knows better. With him, It knows how much of his winnings would be spent on the storied bevy of buxom beauties. With me, the Universe knows how much I would spend making trouble.

My failure to win, thus far, has never prevented me from making a wish-list, and checking it twice. One bullet point reasserted its presence just a few days ago. When reviewing it, I realized just wanting to start that particular kind of trouble makes me (among a host of other problematic attributes) presumptuous; judgmental; culturally insensitive; meddlesome; and maybe just downright ignorant.

Ah! Ignorance. That is really where this story begins: high school English class and one of the most important writers of the last century – George Orwell. We were reading his Animal Farm. It quickly became one of my favorites. I thought I knew exactly what he was saying, and to whom he was saying it. It was years later that I learned otherwise. Until that point, I truly believed Orwell had written a biting, satirical allegory on the American Revolution, its betrayal, and its present-day aftermath. How wrong I was, and how glad I am to this day that I remained in the dark as long as I did. The dark allowed me to see our history from a wholly different perspective. It prevented me from falling into a my-country-right-or-wrong mindset. The dark made way for objectivity.

Finding out what Orwell was really up to proved enlightening. Though my high school years were in the midst of the Cold War, the only thing I knew about the Soviet Union was what I learned in school, read in the newspaper or saw and heard on the television. You can imagine how all of this was presented. It was probably only slightly less filtered than what the Soviet Union was presenting to its populace. At any rate, the man Orwell sought to shine his light on, the brutal dictator Josef Stalin, died when I was a one-year-old, and his policies and legacy were repudiated by Nikita Khrushchev (in word, if not deed) when I was four. Stalin was directly responsible for the murder of millions of his compatriots, responsible for the undermining of the Russian Revolution, substituting a fascism that always seemed to smother such revolutions like infants in their cradles. Orwell (like my wife’s father and uncle) had gone to Spain to fight against the right-wing fascists devouring Europe. He did so nearly a decade before the rest of the world realized it had to do the same. Imagine his disappointment in seeing a revolution he admired succumb to the fascists of the left. Imagine my surprise at learning this.

So, one of my what-I-will-do-when-I-win fantasies from my trouble-making list came to mind while watching the news a few days ago. There was a story about an academy for training butlers to serve the rich – in China. Yes, you read that right. It was not about Taiwan, not Hong Kong, but mainland China – The People’s Republic, communist China. The real estate mogul bankrolling the school, when asked about how such a thing jibed with Mao’s revolution, said she believed it was necessary to keep the good things Mao said, but not the bad. It was not clear in which of those two categories she placed repression. It was then I was reminded why I’m never awarded money to blow. My mind immediately took flight in one of my fanciful forays over China in an old propeller plane. (Since it is fantasy, I can do so without getting shot down by the Chinese air force). Anyway, I’m flying back and forth over the countryside, and I’m dumping copy after copy, countless copies of Animal Farm on the farms and villages and cities below. The people read the book, and like I so many years ago, they know exactly what Orwell is saying, and to whom he is saying it. After awhile, thanks to Powerball and the power of literature, the masses rise, the pigs catch hell, the revolution is made right.

It warmed my heart recently to read Fidel Castro, Cuba’s unrepentant communist, is appalled by the Chinese. Despite his flaws, he at least remembers how his game is supposed to be played. Thanks to adolescent ignorance, Orwell helped me bear in mind how ours is supposed to be played as well.

Dismissed

Several years ago, in the now (I think) defunct magazine Human Behavior, there was an article about a man who – while just listening to NFL games – could tell whether a particular player was black or white. He couldn’t watch the games because he was blind, but by listening to sportscasters talk about great plays made on the field, he learned whites made them through skill, but blacks by luck.

He noticed. Most of us don’t, but that does not mean the message has not been received: the notion that the value of black men can be so easily dismissed. That sentiment – so rooted, so pervasive it no longer requires the malice originally attached to it – is perpetuated in ways large and small, passed from one generation to the next. Whether or not we realize we are taking in such subliminal suggestions, we are. It damages all of us, but it can kill black men and boys with impunity. The grand jury decision in the death of eighteen-year-old Michael Brown and the killing of twelve-year-old Tamir Rice are the most recent manifestations of this cultural virus. As if his very killing had not been enough, the devaluation of young Rice’s life was made clearer when a local news organization chose to investigate and report on his parents’ arrest records.

In the midst of these tragedies, I call your attention to an absurdity (in that you might find it absurd I would waste time even thinking about it). As stated above, the dismissing of value happens in small ways as well, but that is no small matter. It is still prejudice clouding our collective subconscious. This time it was presented in the form of an innocuous, network television advertisement for NBC’s singing competition program “The Voice”. As I write, eight contestants remain, including one woman and one black. Some ad guy or gal thought it would be cute to give them monikers for the few-seconds promo. So, there is the Soul Man; the Dreamer; the Hipster; the Heartthrob; the Tattooed Teacher; the Comeback King; the Stay-at-Home Mom; and the TSA Agent. If you were to make the obvious assumption about which one is the black contestant, you would be wrong.

(I have to digress. It’s about that whole “Soul Man” thing. That once meant being a black man, born and reared in Jim Crow America, who found solace in making a joyful noise unto the Lord in his youth, but gravitated toward secular song as an adult. You could hear every bit of that history in his voice – and more – when he sang, and when he sang he moved everyone who heard him. Yes, others who have grown up burdened by life in certain ways have had that experience infuse their art as well. Still others are mere mimics, good ones, but mimics nonetheless, and mimicry does not a “Soul Man” make).

Viewers of “The Voice” might decide for themselves what they think about that show’s singers, but they’ve already been given a nudge by the ad folk who seem to have decided how the audience should think. Despite their phenomenal voices and singing, the woman should stay at home with her kids where she belongs; the black guy should just be happy working for the TSA. No adjectives or superlatives for either of them.

Do I think the folk at NBC or its ad agency intended to denigrate the worth of that young man and convey that message to viewers? No. Am I being ridiculous to see it as an example of the prejudice the subconscious can produce? Perhaps, but I would be less so were it not for the undeniable examples of our history.

The last time I wrote about the differences in what people see when looking at the same thing was August 1, 2013. The subject was the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin. Here we are again, staring into a chasm seemingly too deep and wide to bridge. It makes one wistful for the clarity of blindness.

…and, on the third day…

It is a fact of human history that when we encounter a thing for which we have no word, we appropriate the word from those who do. It can be the word for an object or a practice, a color or a concept. An interesting thing about this phenomenon is that it does not necessarily occur in the manner that a clash of cultures usually does.

Historically, the backdrop for culture clash often has been invaders imposing their lifestyles on the conquered. Language, religion, customs and even dress are likely to change. This is why so much Latin went into the German dialect that became English, and why the Angles and Saxons adopted so many of the ways of the Romans. When, however, the victors are only mightier than the vanquished, but not more advanced otherwise, certain influences will flow in the opposite direction. This is why so much Classical Greek went into Latin, why so much of Greek thinking went to Rome.

The mighty, sometimes, are civilized by the meek, the restless made less so by the settled. The Hamites of the Nile Valley, the Semites of the Mesopotamian Valley, and the eastern branch of the Indo-Europeans (the Indo-Iranians or “Aryans”) of the Indus Valley all benefited from the civilized, indigenous peoples who inhabited those valleys first.

Why, in the world, am I even writing about this? It is because of an ancient word that confronts us every day, even more so during an election season. The word is “pundit”, conveyed to us through the Indo-European language known as Sanskrit, spoken by the Indo-Iranians who settled in what is now India. I say “conveyed through” because the Aryans had no word for who a pundit was or what a pundit did. The word is from Dravidian, the language spoken by the people who inhabited the land in which the Aryans were newcomers.

To be a pundit, originally, was to be a sage, a wise one. Many who have been given that title today don’t bother to even attempt to live up to its original meaning. Lacking all irony, some even manage the opposite. Wise or not, our pundits, for months now, have been telling some of us to expect the worst on election day. That advice, of course, is only for those of us who believe “the worst” entails a Republican takeover of the Senate. I’d like to think they are wrong, but the last time I convinced myself of that, I turned out to be the one who was wrong.

It was election night, 1980. During dinner at a restaurant with a friend, a busboy came out of the kitchen and announced Ronald Reagan had been elected President. I was stunned. It never had occurred to me this country could elect Reagan, even after he had impressed me with his convention speech four years earlier when he had lost the Republican nomination to Gerald Ford. That speech made me wonder how in Hell had that party chosen Ford over him. Still, I never imagined, four years later, that the country would choose him over Carter. Politically, my eyes were opened that night, and I’ve tried to keep them open ever since. I believe that is why I could look at John Kerry in 2004 and know he would never be President, that the country would – as crazy as it seemed – actually choose the man foisted on us by the Supreme Court four years earlier. I believe that is why, while watching the 2004 Democratic Convention, I saw the keynote speaker could be the country’s first black President – if such a thing were to ever happen.

So, here we are, three days until we find out if today’s “pundits” are correct. This time around, we don’t have the seeming wizardry of someone like Nate Silver, whose crunching of numbers in 2012 was so precise it made political prognostication look easy. He was widely dismissed by those who fervently believed Romney would defeat the President’s re-election bid, just as I had not believed in the ascendancy of Reagan.

For me, there will be only one consolation if the pundits are right this time. It comes from a wise man who said something that made me and many others in the room gasp audibly when he said it. The late Maharishi Mahesh Yogi of India, during a videotaped lecture, made the statement (quoting philosopher Joseph-Marie de Maistre, I’ve since learned) that “every nation has the government it deserves.” To hear someone suggest such a thing, particularly at a time when apartheid was the way of life in South Africa, was unnerving. Unnerving, but true nonetheless, as it will continue to be no matter what happens in three days.