Rights and wrongs

April 24, 2003|By Linda DeMers Hummel

SO TIM Robbins is uninvited to a Baseball Hall of Fame ceremony and now he's not sure if the sun will rise tomorrow.

He thinks "a chill wind is blowing through this nation" because his nephew heard a teacher say that Susan Sarandon is endangering the troops. Imagine that. If Mr. Robbins thinks that this chill wind just began, I wonder where he's been living or what history he's read.

In 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War's Tet Offensive, I was a high school senior. Our homeroom teacher was a red-faced veteran of World War II, who smelled of Scotch at 7:30 in the morning and never smiled.

At the first sound of the Pledge of Allegiance, piped in over the P.A. system, he would bark at us to stand at attention. As we dutifully put our hands over our hearts and mouthed the words we'd been saying since first grade, somehow it was never enough for this man. Were you not standing ramrod straight, you got a poke in the back with his index finger as he marched down the row, expressing his own brand of patriotism.

Three years later, at the pinnacle of the peace movement, I was a brash college student doing her part to make everyone listen to me since I was the one with all the answers. After taking part in an anti-war rally at my school, I chose not to march down the hill into town. What I remember for all time is the scowling response I got from one of the student leaders, who turned around and screamed that I was a "Nixon whore."

Of course, I have no national following, and will never be asked to speak before the National Press Club, as was Mr. Robbins on April 15, so no one cares about the unfairness of my memories. In fact, no one really asks what I think about the Iraq war, except perhaps my friends and family. When they do, I'm at a loss to say more than, "It's complicated."

I am aware of the darkness of the political world and not all that forgiving of it, but more and more I find myself filled with awe to be an American.

I have pacifist friends who marched on Washington this year, honoring their beliefs. I have other friends who have proudly hung a star on their door. They are honoring their son, who is a soldier. I can't label either of them "wrong" or "right." You choose what you believe and you act on it. Someone forgot to tell Mr. Robbins that sometimes there are consequences. And sometimes they aren't fair.

I have Mennonite friends whose families went through hell during World War II because, as conscientious objectors, they were regarded as traitors. One of them lost his job because his boss could not tolerate those views.

Wholesome, all-American kids from my neighborhood joined the Marines in 1966 and came back to the disdain of their peers, who saw them as dupes. They had to tolerate not only unkind remarks, but, for some, a total disregard of where they had been and what they had endured. It's war.

We spit on each other. We try to get people to see our side - whatever it is - and when it looks like that won't work, we poke defenseless kids in the back or we level them with hate-filled diatribe. The enemy isn't always someone on the other side of the world.

Mr. Robbins is a smart man, an eloquent speaker and my favorite actor of all time. But he hasn't invented free speech, and let's not pretend he has. He has the luxury of giving the world the finger and still making his mortgage payment on time. I have the luxury of not taking myself so seriously. He might call my thinking gutlessness. I might call it seeing the bigger picture.

Maybe the chill wind that has propelled us through the last 227 years is part of what makes America great. We are a country that is quite flawed and magnificent. We are often right and wrong at the same moment. Surely no one missed the fact that the same system that has Mr. Robbins fearing for his free speech rights also gave him most of the Opinion * Commentary page of my local newspaper on a Sunday morning. Excerpts of his April 15 speech were printed there.

In a perfect America, teachers would always have the right to express an opinion in a classroom. Students would have that right, too, and there would be no hard feelings.

Everyone would get to express his true opinion, and there would be no vile homeroom teacher bullying you, no sanctimonious student radical calling you names.

Of course, that makes perfect sense. Does it always happen that way? Only in the movies.

Linda DeMers Hummel is a free-lance writer who lives in Timonium.

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