Racism Knows No Logic

§   This post originally appeared on January 18, 2018, as a continuation of previous posts, and was titled, “And Speaking of Prejudice…”  With all that has so painfully happened in our country in recent days, it seemed an appropriate time to revisit it.  §

Marie Gregory
Marie Ruggiere Gregory’s High School  Graduation Photo

My paternal grandmother, Marie, was a full-blooded Italian American and Roman Catholic. Those two traits define her, in my mind, more than anything else.  “Grandma Gregory” was a grand old matriarch who laughed as easily at herself as at others and whose humor was often mildly bawdy, peppered with Italian phrases that I (at least as a child) rarely understood.  She taught me most of what I know about cooking, and was perfectly comfortable when I left the Catholic church because, as she explained, “I don’t care where you go to church as long as you go.”

But the very traits which most define her in my mind meant that Marie Ruggiere Gregory’s early life was not always comfortable or easy. Few people today remember, or even know, that Roman Catholicism was a reviled religion in America as late as the 1960’s.  Bias against the faith did not fade until the 1980s.  I feel sure that (knowing how unpleasant facets of  history are glossed over or rewritten in schoolbooks) young people today have never learned the truth about how great a detriment his religion was during the election of John F. Kennedy.  Being a Roman Catholic in America wasn’t at all an easy thing in the first three-quarters of the 20th century.

Nor was being an Italian American. Ask anyone about the largest mass lynching in the more sordid chapters of America’s history, and they will no doubt surmise someplace in the deep south—something probably involving the KKK.  They would not guess eleven Italian Americans in New Orleans in 1891 to have been the victims of this atrocity—nor that the man who orchestrated the lynching later became governor.

My Grandma Marie was born just 14 years later, in 1905.

Indiana was not, thank heavens, New Orleans, but, as she told me many years later when I was a woman in my 20s, that didn’t mean that the Italian American community in Indy escaped prejudice completely unscathed. She had more than a few sad examples of anti-Italian bias.  It was in that light that Grandma narrated a story that has stayed with me for all the intervening decades as the most telling demonstration of the complete illogic of racial prejudice.

In Grandma’s era, children did not attend preschool or nursery school or usually even kindergarten. At age 6, a child began first grade.  And so, clothed in a frilly little dress, ankle socks and Mary Janes, perhaps bows tied into her hair (or so I have always pictured her since hearing this tale), clutching her little sack lunch, Marie Ruggiere trooped off to her first day at a parochial school in Indianapolis, to be taught by Roman Catholic nuns.

The convents of that time were full and bustling places, and the majority of nuns were trained either to teach or as nursing staff. I’m uncertain of the religious order running the school to which my Grandmother was sent—Benedictine? Franciscan?—but the most of the nuns running her school were of Irish American descent.

And so my then-six-year-old Grandmother entered her first grade classroom and took her assigned seat, eager to begin the new adventure of school.

And was yanked aside by her Irish American nun first-grade teacher to be told hatefully, “We don’t want you Wops in our school!”

Wops. Dagos.  Italian Americans.

This Irish Catholic nun owed her spiritual allegiance to a religion whose titular leader, the Pope, was (and at that time, had been for centuries) an Italian.  Yet she told the little six-year-old Italian American child that she didn’t want Wops in her school.

There was nothing the nun could actually do to expel Marie from the school, but her point had been made: You are the outsider. The other.  Unwanted.  Because of your racial heritage, I (a supposedly spiritual person, as demonstrated by my veil and rosary and the vows I made) hatefully reject you.

I’ve wondered, sometimes, how that selfsame nun would have behaved had the Pope—the Wop Pope, the Dago Pope, the very Italian Pope Pius X–arrived for a visit. But in that era, Popes did not leave the Vatican.  That Irish Catholic nun never had to run smack into the glass that was the illogic of her racism.

As I say, Grandma’s story has stayed with me in all the intervening years as a telling demonstration of the complete insanity of racial prejudice, and of the harm it does. As a 70-something-year-old woman, my Grandma Marie had not forgotten the cruel bias of the Irish Catholic nun.  It still bothered her.

It still bothers me.

And it should.

Postscript:  On April 12, 2019, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell, a woman of color, did the next right thing, making an effort to heal this century-old wound by formally apologizing for the mass lynching of these innocent Italian Americans.  “At this late date, we cannot give justice, but we can be intentional and deliberate about what we do going forward,” she said.  I believe it brought peace to my Grandmother ‘s spirit that this conciliatory gesture was made, coincidentally, on the birthday of my daughter, her great-grandaughter.

The Spiritual Buffet

I was raised in the Roman Catholic faith, and attended parochial school for eight years. We attended Mass most mornings; our first course each school day was casually dubbed “Religion”, during which we were instructed in the theology of our faith. “Why were we created?” I chanted, word perfect, as a six-year-old.  “We were created to know, love and serve God.”

I left the Catholic faith as a teenager, so I have no idea if the tenets of that religion are taught in the same way today as they once were. But in the 1960s, we children were instructed that only baptized Roman Catholics would actually make it into heaven after death.  That was it.  Nobody else got past the Pearly Gates.  Children who died before baptism, infants miscarried or stillborn, our nice little Protestant playmates down the street, the millions of other non-Catholic souls inhabiting the planet–if they weren’t a baptized Catholic, they weren’t getting in.  Instead, we were instructed, they’d be shuffled off to an unlikely realm dubbed “Limbo”.  There the soul would be perfectly happy – but God wouldn’t be there.  (The sheer hubris of claiming the existence of a dimension where an omnipresent divinity did not exist was never quite explained.)

Consequently, since only Roman Catholics were getting in the door for their interview with God, we good little Catholics needed to do our missionary utmost to make sure that everyone on the planet ended up Roman Catholic.  The world would be a Perfect Place if only that were so.

Young as I was (and leaving entirely aside a religious history that included the Inquisition, not to mention the as-then unrevealed existence of pedophile priests and Magdalene laundries), I still tended to doubt this very exclusionary view of goodness.  Sitting there on my hard wooden chair in elementary school, I secluded my uncertainties carefully within my own thoughts.  Why, I wondered, would we each have been given a brain and thereby the ability to question if we were not intended to use those attributes?  And if we all reached different conclusions, then didn’t that very individuality contribute to the magnificence of creation?

It would be decades before my viewpoint was confirmed, by no less a spiritual personage than the Dalai Lama himself. Sitting in an amphitheater, listening to him speak to an enthralled audience, I heard him explain what I had known all along: spiritual diversity existed because we humans were created as individuals.  We would not, he told us, eat at a restaurant that served only one dish; just so, spirituality had to serve all the inhabitants of the earth, in all their magnificent variances.  It had to come in many distinct varieties, flavors, temperatures, and seasonings.  It had to differ because we were each different.

Despite my rejection of Catholicism, I have no quarrel with my schooling in the faith, which gave me many gifts that I would not otherwise have (not the least of which is an exceptionally well-trained memory which can still chant the theological lessons learned 50-plus years ago). Nor indeed have I any dispute with any faith that does not promote cruelty or destruction,  or seek to bind individuals with the chains of  “one true way”.  I have no argument, either, with those who chose not to believe.  Atheism and agnosticism are also personal decisions, and every bit as valid as belief.

My adult self has fully come to accept what my child self, in innocence, already comprehended: that perhaps if we can all ever accept each other’s chosen paths as right and true, as good and whole and perfect for the person who maintains them, then this sad old world of ours might truly become, at last, a Perfect Place.

The Illuminati

How, exactly, and when, did the Illuminati become the bad guys?

I’ve seen them now portrayed in novels, movies, and television shows, and they are inevitably depicted as malevolent, secretive masterminds, hovering in the shadows and moving heads of state about like chessboard pieces. I’ve read about their plans to overthrow all government and establish a new, presumably evil and dictatorial, world order. I even read – tried to read – a website by a purportedly “released” Illuminati member.  He lost me at the description of how Abraham Lincoln was not assassinated, but lived out his life in one of their secret bunkers; I was sure he didn’t intend to be hilarious.  But, in general, the Illuminati are always portrayed as really nasty guys, something along the lines of the fictional Hydra. They lurk, they conspire and collude, they weave plans of Machiavellian complexity and pull the puppet strings of world leaders, dancing them about at whim.

Huh.

That’s really strange, because the Illuminati, at least at their inception in 18th century Bavaria, were sort of the good guys. The original goals of the society were to oppose and defeat religious influence over public life (sounds a bit similar to a certain country’s First Amendment to the Constitution, doesn’t it?), to defeat superstition, and to end the misuse of State power.

In their original general statutes, they wrote: “The order of the day is to put an end to the machinations of the purveyors of injustice.” Translation: Stop the people who do wrong.

Not a whole lot wrong with that. Arguably a very solid, laudable goal. Although it may have been what got them blamed for inciting the French Revolution.  (Personally, though, I’ve always thought that the abuses of the ruling class, coupled with the Marquis de Lafayette’s return from fighting the American Revolution and “Declaration of the Rights of Man” actually had much more to do with turning France on its head – yes, dreadful pun intended.)

It is notable that the Roman Catholic church in Bavaria felt threatened enough by the Illuminati to encourage Charles Theodore, the ruler of Bavaria, to have the group banned by edict. I suspect that whole ‘defeat religious influence over public life” didn’t go down at all well with most churches, and the Catholic church hadn’t been happy about that sort of thing since the time of Martin Luther.

However, if the transition from Good Guys Opposing Suppression to Bad Guys and Their Evil Plan was present from the early days of this secret society, it can probably be seen in their recruitment tactics.  Adam Weishaupt, their founder, encouraged the participation of wealthy young Christian men, but specifically excluded Jews, monks, women, non-Christians, those of limited means, and members of other secret societies, such as the Freemasons.  Although the society later reneged on the “no Freemasons” thing, it still remained in conflict with Freemasonry, alternately trying to recruit from their ranks, malign them, and copy their degrees and orders.

Actually, as secret societies go, the not-so-secret Illuminati basically managed to infuriate and annoy almost everyone, from rulers of various countries to church leaders, the Rosicrucians, the Freemasons, the Jesuits, and their own members. Splits in their ranks and dissension seemed to follow them around like a bad smell, and, deviating far from Weishaupt’s original concept of defeating superstition, they devolved into various forms of mysticism, ritual and secret rites.

I suppose it’s no wonder then, that the Illuminati of modern understanding have transmuted into little more than a conspiracy theory of evil lurkers in the shadows, manipulating public policy and infiltrating governments to establish a New World Order (which, when described, actually sounds a whole lot like an old world order called Nazi Germany). Groups now going by the name of Illuminati and claiming descent from the original order are almost certainly no such thing, unless by descent they mean from the original group’s fascist notions of appropriate membership.

That would certainly explain how The Good Guys became The Bad Guys.