Seems no one’s talking ‘bout those crazy days gone by.
—Van Halen, Little Dreamer
I love Bill Cosby.
Yesterday I was reading a speech he gave at the 50th Anniversary commemoration of Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, which most of you will recall was the 1954 Supreme Court case that ended the school segregation policies known as “separate but equal.” That speech has come to be known as the "Pound Cake Speech," and in it Cosby had some very pointed remarks about the decline of civility and moral grounding—he preaches it as a lack of parenting—in the black community:
“No longer is a person embarrassed because they’re pregnant without a husband. No longer is a boy considered an embarrassment if he tries to run away from being the father of the unmarried child.
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In the neighborhood that most of us grew up in, parenting is not going on. In the old days, you couldn’t hooky school because behind every drawn shade there was an eye. And before your mother got off the bus and to the house, she knew exactly where you had gone, who had gone into the house. Parents don’t know that today.
I’m talking about these people who cry when their son is standing there in an orange suit. Where were you when he was two? Where were you when he was twelve? Where were you when he was eighteen, and how come you don’t know he had a pistol? And where is his father, and why don’t you know where he is? And why doesn’t the father show up to talk to this boy?
Looking at the incarcerated, these are not political criminals. These are people going around stealing Coca-Cola. People getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake! Then we all run out and are outraged, ‘The cops shouldn’t have shot him!’ What the hell was he doing with the pound cake in his hand? I wanted a piece of pound cake as bad as anybody else, and I looked at it and I had no money. And something called ‘parenting’ said, ‘if you get caught with it you’re going to embarrass your mother.’ Not ‘you’re going to get your butt kicked.’ No. You’re going to embarrass your mother. You’re going to embarrass your family.
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Are you not paying attention? People with their hat on backwards, pants down around the crack—isn’t that a sign of something? Are you waiting for Jesus to pull his pants back up? Isn’t it a sign of something when she’s got her dress all the way up to the crack, and got all kinds of needles and things going through her body? What part of Africa did this come from? We are not Africans. These people are not Africans. They don’t know a damned thing about Africa. With names like Shaniqua, Shalingua, Mohammed, and all that crap and all of them are in jail.
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It’s standing on the corner. It can’t speak English. It doesn’t want to speak English. I can’t even talk the way these people talk. ‘Why you ain’t where you is, go, ra.’ I don’t know who these people are. And I blamed the kid until I heard the mother talk . . . You used to talk a certain way on the corner, and you got into the house and switched to English. Everybody knows it’s important to speak English except these knuckleheads. You can’t land a plane with ‘why you ain’t . . .’ You can’t be a doctor with that kind of crap coming out of your mouth. There is no Bible with that kind of language. Where did these people get the idea that they’re moving ahead on this? Well, they know they’re not, they’re just hanging out in the same places, five or six generations sitting in the projects when you’re just supposed to stay there long enough to get a job and move out.
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What is it with young girls getting after some girl who wants to still remain a virgin? Who are these sick black people and where did they come from and why haven’t they been parented to shut up? To go up to girls and try to get a club where ‘you are nobody…’ This is a sickness, ladies and gentlemen. They don’t know anything. They don’t have anything. They’re homeless people. All they know how to do is beg. And you give it to them, trying to win their friendship. And what are they good for? And then they stand there in an orange suit and you drop to your knees, ‘He didn’t do anything, he didn’t do anything!’ Yes, he did do it. And you need to have an orange suit on, too.”
It’s a long series of excerpts, but I include them all because Cosby says it better than I can, and it means more coming from him as a black man who rose from the projects than it does coming from me.
But my point here today isn’t about race relations, Brown v. Board, or the black community. As I read Cosby’s speech, I was reminded of President Reagan’s 1989 farewell address, in which he talked about the differences between the America of the early 1960s and that heading into the 1990s:
Those of us who are over 35 or so years of age grew up in a different America. We were taught, very directly, what it means to be an American, and we absorbed almost in the air a love of country and an appreciation for its institutions. If you didn’t get these things from your family you got them from the neighborhood, from the father down the street who fought in Korea or the family who lost someone at Anzio. Or you could get a sense of patriotism from school. And if all else failed, you could get a sense of patriotism from the popular culture. The movies celebrated democratic values and implicitly reinforced the idea that America was special. TV was like that, too, through the mid-Sixties.
But we’re about to enter the Nineties, and some things have changed. Younger parents aren’t sure that an unambivalent appreciation of America is the right thing to teach modern children. And as for those who create the popular culture, well-grounded patriotism is no longer the style.
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We’ve got to teach history based on not what’s in fashion, but what’s important: why the Pilgrims came here, who Jimmy Doolittle was, and what those 30 seconds over Tokyo meant . . . If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are. I am warning of an eradication of that—of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit.”
Cosby and Reagan come at it from two different perspectives, and they are to an extent aiming at different targets, but there’s a central core common to both messages. Cosby talked about parenting, Reagan about the discussion at the dinner table. Both were getting at the same idea of a decay in our grounding that began—and can only be corrected—at home. There was a time when some things were just understood about how you live in an orderly free society, and it didn’t mean that you do whatever, with whomever, whenever and wherever you want. Whether you were white or black, if you were a boy you went to school in a shirt with a collar, if not wearing a tie. You groomed your hair. It would never occur to you to have your pants down below your butt crack. If you were a girl, you wore a skirt that displayed a certain sense of modesty, rather than your entire anatomy. Not that things were totally Victorian or perfect, but there were things you didn’t say or do in public, because there was a universally understood code of decency.
Lest you think this is just about fashion sense or prudish morality, let me just say that the dress and conduct says something profound about our larger attitudes as a whole. There used to be a certain civic sensibility. It was not only OK, but expected, to say the Pledge of Allegiance; and that included “one nation under God” and nobody blinked or thought anything of it. You respected the police, and the nation and its institutions—you were an American, and that made you inherently special. Your job as an American was to go to school, work hard, and do the best you could to make the most of yourself that you could. All of these things went hand-in-hand.
It’s about self-respect, and I think we, as Americans, have lost it. In the black neighborhood of Cosby’s youth, there may have been poverty and disadvantage; but there was enough self–respect that children were looked after, people kept up with their grooming, and you worked hard to make the most of what those before you—in his case, the civil right pioneers whose efforts led to Brown v. Board—gave you. On a broader scale, at the beginnings of Reagan’s political life, there was enough respect of country that its institutions, history, and founding principles were taught and lived at home.
Somewhere in the permissiveness of the drugs and free love of the Sixties, in the mistrust of Vietnam and Watergate, in the press of political correctness zealotry, in the slippery slope of entitlement and the absence of consequences, we lost it. We’ve forgotten how to be civilized and conduct ourselves with some decorum and common sense. We’ve forgotten how to teach, respect, and understand where we’ve come from and who we are—I’ll bet you right now 9 out of 10 people on the street would fail a basic 9th grade civics exam from the 1950s. We’ve forgotten how to take a lick and get back up. We’ve forgotten how to work hard and rely on ourselves.
Worst, we’ve forgotten how special it is to be Americans.
As a society, more and more are simply waiting around for government to give them something. And even among those who aren’t, too many wring their hands over what the rest of the world thinks of us, apologizing for who we are and what we have and how we live, instead of making the most of the opportunities the country our forebears left us—or what’s left of it—afford us. We teach our kids that there are no winners and losers, that it’s inappropriate to compete, and that no one ever fails. We celebrate those who burn U.S. flags, and defend those who start fights over displaying that same flag during other countries’ pseudo-holidays. Hard work, profit, and American exceptionalism have become vices to be shed and shunned, rather than virtues to be revered.
If we cannot regain our former self-respect as Americans; if we cannot get back to looking and acting like we care about ourselves and who we are, where we come from, and what we’re about; if we cannot conduct ourselves with a basic sense of decency and respect for this country and its institutions; if we cannot regain the understanding that the freedom with which we were blessed is a freedom of opportunity, not a freedom from consequences or the burdens of work; if we cannot re-learn that America is special and unique in the world, and that that’s OK; if we can’t get those things back, and soon, we’re in deep, deep, deep trouble.