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Friday, September 21, 2018

An Astronaut in Aztlan

When Procter and Gamble, the soap manufacturer attempts to reverse engineer a natural soap, the results are like Frankenstein's monster,  neither pretty nor natural. In a strange way the results may be just as "wrong" when a person possibly past their prime goes fiddling with their identity. It may be too late! It is justified to ask, is there any point in it at this stage in life? But isn't the point of identity to move forward with a stronger sense of self? There is no expiration date on that. Reflecting back for the sake of inquiry alone is valid reason enough. Add to that, I'm alive and looking forward to being so for years to come. 

So assuming most of us have read Catcher in the Rye and if not, get to it! Here come some  ideas from a latter-day Holden Caulfield who moved far, far south and became me.

In the case of our original, 20th century Holden Caulfield, consider how he came to be, born in the world of publishing and becoming the unwitting poster boy for the predominant point of view that spread from books across America for decades: New York-centric and WASP. 

Thus, the weight of geography played a disproportionate role in defining the American experience. No one planned it that way. It was not a conspiracy, but the effects were such that one region's stories and storytellers came to be valued over others for no other reason than proximity to publishing houses. The same resulted from magazines, radio, TV and films, which formed the foundation, along with books, of our national cultural identity. That's the legacy of the era of mass media, now less mass and more social.

As much of a misfit as Holden considered himself, he was less so than, say, anyone not WASP or in the geography of New York at the center or New England at the farther reaches.

Maybe it's not all "a lot of crap" as he might say. Here is a blog post from Holden in the far future, of another gender and heritage, who may still have more in common with him than not, whose writing owes much to American publishing and mass media in the 20th century. I am the new Holden, afloat in the ether of my own publishing house, an astronaut in Aztlan, asking the same questions about identity asked by the old Holden. 

Lately I've been thinking about identity and labels and their purpose, not when it comes to birds or butterflies but people. Our human tendency to "us and them" both ourselves and others is a trait of most, if not all humans, but it bears examining.

What is the role of a label when it is applied to a group of people in a minority by a group of people in power in the majority? In a state like Texas, this question may take new meaning in a few years when people of Mexican heritage outnumber other groupings. 

But let's stick with the moment. It's important, first of all, to recognize the difference in meaning between "illegal" and "undocumented". No person on the Earth is illegal. 

Moving forward from that, there are modifiers and adjectives that apply to some people's identities but not others. Journalistically, non-identitification of rape victims has long been the practice in order protect the victim. In other countries, the name of a "shooter" in a mass shooting is not used to quell any moves for the killer's martydom. In a news story that is about a search for a suspect, I can see how ethnicity would help to identify someone. But in the case about an arrest, newsroom policy makers should ask, what is the purpose of labeling some people by their heritage or ethnicity? Does it satisfy curiosity or does it belie a reporter's confirmation bias or unexaminded prejudice?

Labels like Hispanic were said to be necessary in distinguishing among political groups as in the previous paragraph about Texas demographics. When President Richard NIxon's administration initiated the term Hispanic, it was used as a tool to simplify the labels for demographic groupings for the allocation of national funding. This tool may have outlived its purpose. Language is too important to leave to bureaucrats. 

Undocumented v. illegal. The use of "undocumented" is a normalizing and institutionalizing of respect we have for people's commonalities with us instead of their differences. 

Let's take a look at how prevalent labeling as other is in the entertainment industry. 
When on NBC's "Making It" reality series, a couple being married on the show was identified as Mexican, I listened carefully to their speech and when I heard them speak flawless English, I suspected they were as American as the hosts. Yet they were labelled, possibly even self-labeled, as Mexican for any number of reasons, possibly including respect. If so, shouldn't they have been labelled instead as American of Mexican heritage or cultural descent instead? Or why even label at all on an entertainment program working hard to be inclusive and kinder and gentler in their approach as the producers of "Making It"?

The 21st century Holden asks, "What's up with this?"  Did we begin to use the labeling tool on people, at first for one purpose and continue using it even after new and better tools evolved for appropriating funds (using economic information or income levels for example)?  

Shouldn't we ask if the tool of labeling people other than by citizenship serves an unintended and dangerous purpose of dividing and furthering the cause of "us and them"? 

And Holden's question, "What's up with this?" is just the kind of no-nonsense, awoke sentiment needed now, when we desperately need "all of us" to move forward.

"What's up with this?" is a good question. "What do we do about it?" comes next and is certainly more important.