When I was a young teenager I was 25-30 pounds overweight. It wasn’t a happy time in my life though I’m not sure if that’s why I was overeating. Maybe it was just adolescence. Or maybe I liked food. Or maybe, just maybe, it was all of the above.
I mention this because this week I watched a young man on NBC’s The Voice who was quite overweight who reminded me of an even heavier version of my heavy self when I was his age. Except he had one thing that I NEVER had – he could sing.
Wow – could he sing. If you imagine a cross between Adam Lambert, Mariah Carey with maybe even a little Mary J. Blige thrown in by way of Stevie Wonder, you get the picture. In fact, he himself joked that he often gets mistaken for a woman on the phone and at drive-thrus. He also admitted that his appearance and manner was clearly not what others are normally used to and that it took him a while to realize these were his special qualities, that he was born this way and that God didn’t mistakes.
In any event, this young man – whose name is Jordan Smith – was vociferously praised for his mind-bending talent by four experts. And he received a standing ovation from the audience. Not to mention, he was told repeatedly by the judges that he was not only inspiring but an important contestant for the world to see AND for the world to understand that talent and original voices – be it singing or original points of view – are what come from inside. How one looks on the outside has less than nothing to do with what is being expressed. (Note: This is, of course, a talent show and granted, has little to do with the music INDUSTRY, which is a whole other kettle of worms. Yes, worms).
Anyway, I found myself wishing two things after spending some time thinking about Jordan. One is that I grew up in a time when people would have said those things to his 1970s doppelganger (Note: Okay, Me when I was praised for my specific talents). And second, though infinitely more important, is that in 2015 I lived in a country where the political rhetoric being bandied about by THE most popular news network in the country (that would be Fox) and by many of the candidates in one of our two major political parties, reflected that kind of inclusion and understanding. Sadly, it does not. It’s exclusion of the worst kind – to gay people, to climate change believers and to Muslims – just to name a few of who at the moment seem to be the top 3. And those are just the groups that instantly come to mind.
This is not a diatribe against Evangelicals, Republican conservatives or even The Republican Apprentice, who I believe is neither of the above but simply an egomaniacal boor. Rather it is a recognition and reaffirmation of what exactly is going on in acceptable, seemingly intelligent public discourse these days.
Inclusion is seen as political correctness, political correctness is seen as coddling, and coddling is in turn seen as destroying the fabric of American society by overprotecting children (or even adults) at too young an age from the bullying they will unavoidably receive in the real world. As if we need to provide more of that in our language and conservations because the world isn’t already cruel enough.
Speaking of which… Pope Francis was in the United States for the first time this week – have you heard? Yes, I thought so. Well, these days you have to admire a religious leader – any religious leader – who spends much of his public speaking time emphasizing the brotherhood of man (which presumably includes women), reaching out to each other with love, and taking care of the poor and any of those less fortunate. Not to mention any person of the cloth at all who is humble enough to ask us to pray for him and inclusive enough to include this request to non-believers – who he merely asks to send good wishes and thoughts. The implication that he is not all-knowing and merely just another regular guy who needs all the help he can get in doing his job sounds unlike any religious leader I’ve ever encountered in my lifetime, either in synagogue, in books or even on the pages of the NY Times – which is where I get most of my religious leader info anyway.
On the other hand, if you are different the way I am, it’s sometimes a bit challenging to watch the absolute furor in which this particular Pope is greeted (24/7 news coverage, crowds in the tens of thousands, gesticulating, fainting and near hysteria) and not consider several thoughts. Among them is that he has publicly advocated against gay marriage, gay adoption and transgender rights. It is also difficult to ignore that he is the leader of an international religious institution – which make no mistake about it is a very wealthy, disciplined and doctrinaire organization – that believes any number of behaviors that fall within any of many mainstream activities among significant minorities (or even majorities) in everyday life are sins deserving of varying degrees of punishment – or illegalization. If I were female I might bring up a woman’s right to choose, women being priests, divorce and any host of other subjects. And what about atheists? Do they have no moral standing on any grounds whatsoever? The list could go on and on.
Love is, well, lovely – and so are good thoughts. But when you are in a sub-group all the love in the world will not alone get you on an even playing field with others who have the majority amount of money, power or, let’s just say it, moral high ground. Religious leaders, especially the most popular ones, by definition own the moral high ground and are fronts for extremely large institutions that more often than not are responsible for maintaining the status quo, including the discriminatory parts of it. To do it in a nicer way is, well, nice – but none of us should be fooled – underneath the welcoming rhetoric it is merely a nicer variation of what we already have.
Or is it? Pope Francis seemed to acknowledge climate change in several of his speeches and appeared to be speaking almost directly to the flock led by The Republican Apprentice when he praised and reminded the U.S. that one of our greatest strengths is that we are and always have been a nation of immigrants. Perhaps gay marriage is next? On second thought (or even your 17th one) do not count on it.
This is not to say that there is always agreement within the subset of your special interest group. Speaker of the House John Boehner, a conservative from Ohio, resigned from his position Friday after 35 years in Congress, in large part because he was tired of fighting the shut down the government at all costs demands of the Tea Party ultra-right wingers of his group. And there is a pop culture fight going on within the gay community at the moment about the movie Stonewall, Roland Emmerich’s (Independence Day) new film about the 1969 uprising that is often cited as the birth of the fight for LGBT rights.
Because Mr. Emmerich chose to invent a young, white handsome male protagonist as the main character audience surrogate for his film, a very local group of critics are convinced that he sold out history by marginalizing the significant contributions of gay people of color, not to mention that of drag queens and transgender individuals. Never mind that all of these different types of people play significant roles in the film – none of them are THE star. On the other hand, each protestor at the time WAS the star of their own story of those riots and no one knows for sure who threw the first brick. Just as today we are all the STARS of our own lives, whether we know it or not, or choose to exercise it or not. It’s always a question of one’s POV and how one decides to frame their narrative. This is not only the mission of a very mainstream filmmaker like Mr. Emmerich, but the same challenge faced by the Speaker of the House – or by a Pope.
Which brings us back to young Jordan Smith. He will certainly have his haters, as well as lovers, as he goes through life. On the latter score lots of significant progress has been made since that time in the late seventies when I was his age. But let us be very clear, this progress was made not due to the benevolent language of any religious leaders or by any acts of Congress. Those are merely by-products of a hard fought fight led by a group of surly INSURGENTS. Decades of ACTIVISTS who died and/or risked their lives for a simple idea – equality. Among these activists were also lots of regular people who simply chose to live their everyday lives unapologetically and out in the open.
We all advocate for our causes and it’s nice to be loved. But it’s better to be accepted and included on an equal pay scale and rights scale. Not doing that for any one of our sub-groups – that’s the only real sin, in my mind. The original and ongoing one.