Thursday, April 30, 2015


We had dinner the other night with some old friends at a German restaurant on Chicago's north side. The bier, wiener schnitzel and gemütlichkeit of the surroundings, inspired one friend to tell a story about the daughter of a neighbor who last summer worked as an au pair in Stuttgart. At the end of her summer job, she spent the rest of her time abroad in Naples. With a wink of the eye, our friend told us that everywhere she went in Naples, men "complemented her on her appearance." Then expressing mock surprise, he added that did not happen once while she was in Germany. My other friend, who is married to a German woman, in an equally mocking tone chimed in: "it's what they call being polite."

Such is the power of cultural stereotypes that everyone at the table, with the possible exception of my eight year old daughter, was in on the joke. We all know the stereotype: Italians, especially men, are hot blooded and openly lustful, while Germans by comparison are reserved and uptight. As much as we'd like to think ethnic stereotypes are figments of the imagination, let's face it, different cultures have different customs, values and traditions, and along with that, behavior. Of course not all Italian men whistle at ladies on the street and not all German men are perfect gentlemen; but as the teenager found out, the odds of getting "compliments" from strangers of the male persuasion on the street are much greater in Italy than in Germany.

From my experience I'd say the majority of Germans I've known, to some degree fit the stereotype. But you can throw all that out the window when you combine a few factors, namely large groups of them, especially male teenagers, alcohol, and a reason to get a little crazy. I witnessed that during my first trip to Prague which had just opened up after years behind the Iron Curtain. There, thousands of young German tourists on spring break in the Czech capital, roamed the city en masse. Away from the rigid structure of their homeland and ingesting copious amounts of good České pivo, the German kids I saw in Prague were just about the most unpleasant, obnoxious bunch of louts I've ever encountered.

Germany gave us Schiller, Beethoven and Goethe. It also gave us the Nazis. It shouldn't come as a surprise that Hitler chose the beer halls of Munich to cultivate his nascent movement. A little beer, some irreverent camaraderie, a lot of bitterness over losing the war, thrown in with members of the criminal element and a little more beer, is a volatile combination. Hitler understood that people who may be quite sane as individuals, can turn into raving lunatics when they get swept up in a mob set upon mischief. It takes courage to stand up to a mob, and most of us don't have that kind of courage, as most of us are not heroes. We follow because that is what we do. This is not a particular German characteristic, it is human nature.

A lot of rhetoric has been spewed this week as the city of Baltimore has erupted after the funeral of Freddie Gray who died from injuries suffered while in police custody. Reminiscent of the unrest that took place in Ferguson, Missouri after the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager who was killed by a police officer after a confrontation, protests over Gray's death turned violent and the streets of Baltimore became a war zone. Protesters threw rocks at police, looters broke into businesses and stole whatever they could get their hands on, while arsonists followed and burned those businesses down.

Just as the aftermath of Ferguson, those on the right blamed the riots on the African American community and the look the other way attitude of its self-proclaimed leaders. Those on the left blame the police and an unjust society. Leaving his comfort zone, President Obama, no particular friend of the right, made a distinction between legitimate protesters and the rock throwers, looters and arsonists, calling them, "a handful of people taking advantage of a situation for their own purposes, (who) need to be treated as criminals," For that he was excoriated by the left who apparently see nothing wrong with gangs of thugs burning and looting their own community. It's unclear how the critics would feel if the rioters came to loot and burn their communities but that's a story for another day.

The causes of the problems involving race, poverty, crime and violence in our cities are as numerous as the grains of sand on a beach. Rage over police killing unarmed black men has gone beyond reaching the boiling point, yet as much as some of us would like to lump all instances of police brutality toward black men together, every situation is different, even if the tragic results are the same.

A couple years ago I was in Washington DC during the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington. The day after the celebration, in front of the US Capitol Building I met a father and son who were from Baltimore. When I mentioned to them how much I liked their city, they told me in no uncertain terms how little there was to like about it. The son, about my age, was old enough to remember Baltimore at the time of the march. Obviously the father went much farther back. These two African American men told me that as bad as things were in Baltimore during the Jim Crow era which still held the city in its grips in 1963, things are much worse now. Crime, unemployment, and especially the lack of hope for the future, have turned much of their city to despair. They were quick to point out that Baltimore is a city run and policed primarily by African Americans. Both men in fact themselves were policemen, the father long since retired, and the son still on the force.

No one on either side of the ideological morass can for a second even consider the possibility that folks on other side have a point. It's the age old battle between personal and public responsibility. This week, idiotic sentiments from finger pointing, know-it-all loudmouths on both sides filled the airwaves and social media.

Which brings me back to the role of cultural stereotypes. Many white folks on the right side of the fence see black people as lazy, ne'er-do-wells who would just assume live on the dole, accepting handouts and blaming society for all their problems, rather than working hard and taking responsibility for their own lives.

Many on the left see African Americans as victims whom society has put continuously behind the eight ball. They are unwilling to accept the notion that black people are responsible for their own destiny, just like everybody else. I've said it before and I'll say it again, well-intentioned as that point of view is, it is also demeaning and patronizing.

Just as it's wrong to attribute the violence that took place in Baltimore this week to deficiencies in the character of African American people, it's wrong to claim solidarity with the looters and arsonists.

The orgy of violence and destruction that we saw in Baltimore this week, was not altogether different from other riots in other times and places, from raucous "celebrations" of sports championships to Kristallnacht. In Baltimore, groups of people, mostly young men, stirred into a frenzy by a force, in this case not alcohol, but righteous anger and rage, helped along by some people with really bad intentions, were swept into participating in a wave of mayhem that shut the city down for several days.

There's nothing heroic about rock throwing, looting and arson, but as I stated above, most of us are not heroes. We would all do well to honestly ask how we would act if we were to find ourselves in the middle of a mob. Most of the rioters most likely did not begin the day thinking they'd be committing criminal acts, they were just swept into the moment. This is not a particular characteristic of African American people. Riots and their causes come in every shape, size, and color.

It a just another unfortunate reminder that human nature is not always a pretty thing.

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