Divisions Mount as We Hide Them

June 11, 1991|By RICHARD REEVES

NEW YORK. — There was an advertisement on Page 2 of the New York Times a week ago for a designer ''classic American hobo suit!'' It can be yours for just $2,500 from Martha International on Park Avenue.

For $2,500 a woman can look like a bum in a heavy red wool suit decorated or held together with felt patches of many colors. She can wear it downtown and blend in with the crowd at Tompkins Park, where the police are rousting out the homeless these days.

History may not be kind to such excess, the sort that supposedly ended with the 1980s. I had another occasion to think about how others see or will see ''American values'' when I stopped at a health-food shop for a cup of coffee and a 92-grain muffin of some sort. A small poster on the wall caught my attention: ''It will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the Air Force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber.''

I laughed at both things, but they stuck with me like a little toothache. What are American values today?

Certainly the new or real American values are not all we say. The ones we talk about most, ''family values,'' are like the weather. Everyone talks about them because we are lost in a nation of shifting relationships, quality time, illegitimate children and parents who compete with their own children for the joys and toys of youth. Countries with real family values, Italy or India, do not have to talk about them.

Our real values are closer to individualism, do your own thing and you're on your own, buddy. If that seems a harsh judgment, tune in Oprah and Phil, Geraldo and Sally Jessy today to find out what your neighbors are doing in their free time -- they're not driving their kids to piano lessons.

Classic taste aside, the real value underlying the $2,500 hobo suit is a combination of privacy and privatization: It's a free country and what you do with your money is nobody else's business.

Another real American value, I'm afraid, is this: We believe that violence is a legitimate and logical solution to almost any problem. That is, more or less, the principal value projected on prime-time television and most feature films. The people who make those things say they are only giving people what they want. I believe that, which is the reason I worry about it.

One of the interesting recent examples of their art is ''Thelma and Louise,'' a provocative film that asks the same question Professor Henry Higgins did: ''Why can't a woman be more like a man?'' Thelma and Louise, like Rambo and Dirty Harry, are make-believe, at least to most adults. But the U.S. invasion of Panama and the Gulf war are real examples of the same inclination.

That done with, we can now show how comfortable we are with preaching peace and practicing war. Our leader, President Bush, is simultaneously calling for disarmament in the Middle East and dispatching his most senior assistants to the same region to sell missiles, tanks and attack helicopters to anyone who can afford them. Perhaps that is a consistent extension of the client always being right.

Finally and most troubling, I don't think most Americans believe for a minute that all men are created equal. Perhaps we never did, even when we fought wars and wrote laws under that banner. The real value, at least the one being projected today in American race relations, is essentially ''equal but separate.''

Give them a chance to make some money, but better they should stick with their own kind. That's the real attitude in the context of personal relations -- love and marriage. ''Jungle Fever,'' the new Spike Lee movie, and the recent beating near to death of a black Long Island high school student named Alfred Jermaine Ewell after he was seen talking with a white girl indicate that some things never change much.

''Why are you talking to that nigger?'' someone said to the girl, and within an hour Mr. Ewell was in a coma, beaten with baseball bats by a gang of whites.

More than 150 years ago, in ''Democracy in America,'' Alexis de Tocqueville said the same things Spike Lee is trying to articulate:

''When one wishes to estimate the equality between different classes, one must always come to the question of how marriages are made. . . . An equality resulting from necessity, courtesy or politics may exist on the surface and deceive the eye. But when one wishes to practice this equality in the intermarriage of families, then one puts one's finger on the sore.''

That's still the sore -- and an indication of real, if largely unspoken, American values. Half of all Asians in America intermarry with another race, usually whites, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. But blacks and whites together -- almost never.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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