Shall We Laugh or Cry at Morgan Hill?
III. And the aggrieved Mexican-American students? Most in the press got Ms. Nunez’s ad hoc commentary wrong. It does not really matter that Cinco de Mayo is not Mexican Independence Day, or that it is rarely celebrated in Mexico. The key to her heart were the lines, “We don't deserve to get disrespected (sic) like that. We wouldn't do that on Fourth of July." Aside from the grammar, note the sense of hurt and disrespect that comes naturally to Ms. Nunez from the display of an American flag. Note especially the false moral equivalence. Ms. Nunez surely must be an American citizen. And yet she apparently feels the greater pride in the display of the Mexican flag, a symbol of a nation that her own ancestors fled; while suggesting that her own national holiday is in fact a foreign one. Or as another student Jessica Cortez put it more explicitly, "It's disrespectful to do it on Cinco de Mayo. They can be a patriot on some other day. Not that specific day.” (Note the use of “they.”)
But the logic breaks down as it always does when racial and cultural chauvinism collide with questions of assimilation and immigration. Millions flee the corruption, racism, and poverty of Mexico. Millions settle in the United States and wish to become American citizens. Millions then somehow begin to romanticize Mexico and resent America (e.g., “We wouldn’t do that on Fourth of July.”) Two conclusions: one, note the cultural ignorance. Apparently our teachers have forsaken traditional instruction in civics, American history, or the U.S. Constitution, done empirically and comparatively, to inculcate a sense of American exceptionalism among our youth (e.g., Ms. Nunez apparently sees nothing much different between Mexico and the U.S.). Second, Ms. Nunez reacts out of a sense of grievance, victimization, and ultimately conveys a fear of inferiority, in that the solidarity of her tribe is to compensate for the fragility of the individual. And why not? When American education does not instruct students well in English, math, science, philosophy and languages, why should they develop a sense of confidence as educated citizens? Why should they see race and an ethnic profile as incidental rather than essential to their characters—when they know their schools are therapeutic institutions, when the fall back to diversity rather than excellence is the assumed goal?
IV. And finally the dénouement. In all these serial psychodramas, the “conclusion” is usually more pathetic than the original crisis. Think the beer summit, where the President did not elaborate on his “stupidly” comment or his blanket condemnation of the police, and Prof. Gates did not ponder the wisdom of slurring the police as they arrived to investigate a reported break-in. In all these tragic-comedies, no one searches for principles other than Rodney Kingsian “getting along,” which only ensures more such tragic-comedies to come. So it is here in the aftermath when 200 mostly Mexican-American students ditched class, and for the first time in the entire controversy, really did break school statutes, to march for “respect.”
Compare this news report,
“More than 200 Hispanic teens skipped school Thursday and marched through Morgan Hill yelling 'We want respect!' and 'Si se puedes!' At least six Morgan Hill police cars and several sheriff's vehicles caravanned alongside the line of teens wearing red, white and green and carrying Mexican flags.”
And then examine the school response with its accustomed banality:
“Students held an American flag and Mexican flag up - they stood together - said Jessica Serpa, a freshman, and proclaimed 'we should stop this.'
"…Superintendent Wes Smith held a press conference today to address the situation that he called 'unfortunate.' Live Oak Principal Nick Boden was not at the press conference held at the school district office at 11:45 a.m., but did issue an apology addressed to the Live Oak community. In it, Boden apologized for the impact the controversy made.
"'In this situation, I may have moved too quickly in drawing the line of when to take preventative action,' Boden wrote.
"Smith was clear on his position of the national media trying to pigeon hole Live Oak or Morgan Hill as a hotbed for racial tension.
"'This is not Live Oak, they don't know us,' Smith said in an interview this afternoon. 'We know our town, we know our kids and the incident was regrettable, mistakes were made. But it doesn't define us.'
"It was the level of maturity that came from Live Oak students Friday at lunch during their peaceful meeting that now has everyone talking.
"'The adults (on campus) were in awe of how these kids were coming together,' Smith said. 'It's a metaphor for how we move forward, that we're not what those people are saying about us, we want to get along, we want to work this out.'"
a): Note the solution: each “group” stands together with their respective flags. So there is a “teachable moment,” after all—namely that at the glorious end of everything the Mexican flag is accorded no longer superior status, but only the same status as the American flag. But why should that be so among American citizens?
b) Note the school’s language: the use of the subjunctive “may have moved too quickly” (you think?); the use of euphemism “preventive action”; the blaming the messenger trope “Smith was clear on his position of the national media trying to pigeon hole Live Oak or Morgan Hill as a hotbed for racial tension…” And note the feigned outrage against the straw man “they”: “This is not Live Oak, they don't know us.”
Actually, by now unfortunately we do know Live Oak quite well, and the incident does, in fact, define Live Oak in a variety of ways. We can conclude that no official at the school seems to understand that a large group displaying Mexican flags should not inherently be given more constitutional protection of free expression than a small group displaying American flags. And no school official seems worried that a number of American citizens seems to think Cinco de Mayo is “their” day, and the 4th of July is someone else’s. And we see the worry is not the act itself, but getting caught at it: e.g., had there been no national story and subsequent outrage from "they," I am sure the five students would have stayed suspended, inasmuch as the issue at school was never free speech, but simply one of accommodating the loudest immediate outcry.
Finally, I certainly am not in “awe” of anyone at Live Oak. I learned from this episode only that Cinco de Mayo is the moral equivalent for many of our citizens to the Fourth of July; that no one in authority at an American high school understands the U.S. Constitution; that students wearing American flags or regalia were at one point to be suspended, and those ditching class in mass were not; that reconciliation is defined by each group putting their own respective flags next to each other and then blaming the press for this national embarrassment; and that in our parochial and isolated culture of central and coastal California, no one seems even to imagine that elsewhere Americans are not all unhinged, but in fact see us as the deranged. The Live Oak people seem wounded fawns, hurt as if everywhere in the United States all Americans must naturally assume that Cinco de Mayo is simply the alternate Fourth of July.
If there were a “metaphor” in all this, then it is how multicultural instruction results in moral equivalence, cultural relativism, ignorance of American law—and irony in that millions of Mexican nationals are fleeing Mexico to enter America only within a few years to see their children wave the flag of the country they fled, and resent those who wear the flag of the country they desperately sought to join.
So all in all, another depressing California moment.