Congresswoman Honoria Torres speaks on American Culture at a local New Jersey college.
STUDENT UNION SPEECH AT COUNTY COLLEGE IN NEW JERSEY, FEBRUARY 2019 TRANSCRIPT
Congresswoman Honoria Torres: Thank you for the invitation from both the Young Democrats and Young Libertarians of County College. Too bad I couldn’t get an invite from the Young Republicans, too, but I suspect you’re out there.
A fascinating topic, too. “American Culture.”
Culture is a sense of values. A simplistic definition, but its brevity is its beauty: compelling and direct and a little vague. It is not my own. As an undergrad almost twenty years ago a professor of Western Civilization made this definition of culture the predicate for his course on ancient history.
Culture is a sense of values. Contrary to popular media, culture is not born from TV, film, or the internet, and certainly not by the Kardashians. Our American sense of values starts in the home, from the cradle to the dinner table and all points between.
The family is immediate and existential, with a reservoir of tradition, and this provides the basis of culture and political idealism.
What do Americans value? Let’s think big picture here: We value Mom, apple pie, and the flag.
Let’s talk about Mom first. We value motherhood, the family itself, protecting those who need a hand… not just women, but people in need… We value children, and childhood. We respect our neighbors: their faith, their engagement, their sense of security that we share each day and night.
We value apple pie, too. Who doesn’t like apple pie? We value the bounty of America, its natural resources are ours to use, but more importantly it is our responsibility to keep this generous nation producing and beautiful for generations unborn. The plenty of America is her communities, communities that respect each person, revere achievement while not mocking it, to live by written and unwritten codes of civility and good conduct, and sometimes a common sense of struggle to get through the day with a smile.
Yes, and we value the flag. If not the cloth itself, as adults we must know that the common defense is essential to maintaining our national identity. We are the strength of the world, the indispensable nation. We are the world’s greatest ally and our adversaries’ fiercest foe. We value our Constitution, the cornerstone of our republic, based on an idea, and an ideal. Our nation’s history came from an imperfect start, corrected by a bloody civil war, and we still try to ensure that all our people understand that all of us are created equal. And today we value the legacy of that sacrifice through respect for our military.
And the flag represents the law. In many many respects, what separates our nation from many others is its respect for the rule of law, our rigid support for property rights, and for honoring contractual obligations. And those who hold the highest offices of our nation are held to that same rule of law.
Culture is a sense of values.
There has been much angst, put in a rhetorical blender without a lid on top, about cultural appropriation.
So how does one “appropriate” a culture negatively? You don’t unless your intent is impure. Most likely it’s a compliment. Hoop earrings are only for one race? Where the heck did that come from? Cultural appropriation, if there is truly such a thing, is a sense of another’s values, even if acquired unconsciously. Although sometimes these affectations are not universally embraced, and the test of time will determine if it becomes the part of the tapestry of American culture, it can’t be muscled. People either dig it, or they don’t.
Accusing someone of cultural appropriation is popular today with aggrieved persons.
There are two avenues here: the legitimate harassment versus the hyper-sensitive recipient. Some statements by accident or design inflame or shock the conscious of all Americans. Wearing a KKK robe as a joke isn’t cultural appropriation: it’s vile, stupid, and not the least bit funny.
Wearing a Native American headdress to a football game? Please. That’s the definition of a fan.
While civility is an American value, it is not unique to us. One thing I am certain of, though. Hyper-sensitivity, kneeling at the altar of political correctness, is not an American value.
Deliberately antagonizing a race or gender or faith or class is not an American value. Those things are not a part of our culture.
This blackface craziness in Virginia is sad and reflects on the individuals involved, not the party. And there won’t be much of a hue and cry from Republicans. I’ll get in trouble for saying this, but you won’t see old pictures of Republicans in blackface… the white hoods cover it all up.
(Groans and Laughter)
Seriously, there is a process for this, and if public opinion does not send someone packing, perhaps courts will.
I always circle back to the importance of the family. From the family springs a sense of community, which grows into the municipality, the state, the region, the republic, the world. For a shared culture to endure, we have to get the cornerstone, the family, right.
Political parties are like a family at the dinner table. Each family will have priorities, like faith, community, sports, or kindness to animals. Each person will have variegated observations, is protective of his or her own plate, and is supportive of the others, especially the vulnerable. Each member embraces one, none, or all the family priorities, and as each matures these inclinations will strengthen or weaken.
As each family member seeks his fortune, joining other families, or starting her own, the core of values, of a common culture, will either remain firm or fade into oblivion.
As individuals we embrace our own values, shape them through experience and education, and create the seeds of a common culture for future generations.
If our political discourse would embrace a culture of civility, our nation might begin making progress through compromise, not acrimony.
Scorched earth politics does not have to be a part of American culture. Although our nation fought a civil war 150 years ago over an ideal -- equality for all – it does not mean we haven’t learned from it and grown and matured just like any other family does through trying times.
I have a daughter and three sons… triplets. The boys fight like all boys do, but anyone who tries to take on one of them will find three wolves. That’s not meant to threaten or intimidate. It’s the way close families work. Brothers and sisters protect one another.
Discourse today would benefit from a primary trait learned at the home: mind your manners. We cannot have a shared culture without being civil. Each family will not be completely in agreement, but we can listen to opposing views without disdain or hatred.
Television media is worsening our culture daily, fanning flames of discontent where there need not be any.
Americans value Mom, apple pie, the flag, our freedoms, and, yes, confrontation. But we can still mind our manners. That is a cornerstone of an enlightened culture.
Thank you… yes, I can take some questions.
Q/ONE: You didn’t mention anything about gender identity. Isn’t it right to recognize that gender is fluid? That we can identify as any gender we want?
TORRES (T): Since the topic is about American Culture, I want to answer in that vein. The issue is not gender identity, it’s about how to recognize it. People who see themselves as gender fluid, I believe, want to be recognized, respected, for the gender they wish to be identified by. Fine. Now that is different from accommodation, and requiring everyone assimilate to your opinion.
Q/ONE: You don’t think the trans- gender community should be recognized?
T: No, I don’t think society owes you anything. Not you, but, the trans community in general.
(Shouting and cross talking)
T: I am concerned that I cannot have an opinion on this issue. That there are not good people, and I believe I am one, with well-thought out concerns. Since the gender decision is a personal one, it’s a personal issue. Now, wait, wait, a person’s identity should be respected. No matter who or what gender a person identifies with, there is no room for discrimination. That person has all the rights and responsibilities of any other citizen.
I do not believe that this is a public discussion. I am not a doctor, and I am happy with my identity. Once a person achieves majority, those decisions are personal and should be respected as such. I wish trans gender people the best and I hope they find happiness.
And I am not going to cop out. This is not the same as race or faith or even sexuality. It’s about creating a new gender, or eschewing the gender assigned at birth. Life can be cruel and hard and often overwhelmingly confusing. I do think the maturation process moves in our veins at different rates, and that being educated and having a sound support system is crucial to that process. Next question.
Q/TWO: Not to keep up the same topic, Congresswoman, but do you think diversity is part of American Culture?
T: Absolutely! Diversity is the seed of our culture… it creates the sense of what we value. It also begs a question: does diversity require assimilation of any kind? I think so. Diversity comes from the obvious, but it is also diversity of ideas… but assimilating to ideals. Let me repeat that. Our American culture is about the diversity of ideas, but an assimilation of ideals.
We need to focus on what our unifying ideals are. Sure, we respect or condemn ideas all the time. But we have unity. There is no future for our nation if we Americans are not willing to secure our culture, to rally around our ideals.
We have historical ideals, like Mom, apple pie, and the flag, and what they represent, right? But there is also an element that I think is often missing from the discussion… good old-fashioned decency. That should be our strength.
I understand there is some agitation here. But I do appreciate everyone being civil. I freely admit that in an effort to economize with words, to be efficient, that sometimes we lose our sensitivity… but if we always put sensitivity first, we risk losing our objectivity. That will not be productive. Over -sensitivity does not forward the conversation, and as long as the basics of good manners, comportment, and decency are followed, I think we will all find more agreement than discord in our shared American culture.
Q/THREE: What about civil disobedience? Is Antifas right to protest a part of our ideals as represented by current political leadership?
T: Good question, but there’s a lot to unpack there. First, masked protesters are up to no good, and are technically cowards.
(Boos and laughter)
T: It’s good to see that there is a diversity of opinion on that point.
T: When I think of civil disobedience, I think about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Not antifa hooligans. But Dr. King’s marches and speeches and protests were more civil than disobedient. He never condoned violence or vandalism or vulgarity. His message resonated with everyone, and his words and image are enshrined with the great leaders of our past throughout our nation.
Now, as to the current administration that antifa thinks it is exposing. I don’t know what the president thinks or wants to accomplish, but his tweets and absurdly childish ad-libbing are mildly entertaining, shows his worst face and limited capacity, and maybe, just maybe, is just a smokescreen. I know that democrats take him lightly at their peril.
Masked protesters should not be treated with anything but disdain. They do not help the discourse, many do not act decently, and many are deliberate agitators.
Q/FOUR: Is our country hopelessly divided? Do you believe that people who burn the flag or march in the streets should be arrested? Assimilation sounds very, uh, Orwellian.
T: Well, congrats on doing your required reading!
T: The point is well made, but mine is subtle… In the novel 1984, everyone had to think the same way. Assimilate on ideas. We celebrate the diversity of ideas. To have an American culture worthy of defending, we do need an agreement, an assimilation, to what the ideals are.
Q/FOUR: As a follow-up, that seems intolerant of other ideals.
T: I don’t think so. It’s the ideals of our nation which has immigrants risking their lives to come here. The ideals of our nation are of the highest order, embodied in the Constitution and its amendments.
A word on tolerance. Tolerance is not knee-jerk acceptance. That’s a false promise of agreement. There are few hard and simple answers to complex questions. Moral questions are not necessarily political. Legal questions are not necessarily about justice. Scientific questions are not necessarily about religion or faith. Even innovation is not necessarily about technology, even as the first quarter of the 21st century is drawing to a close. And, yes, culture is not necessarily about values. But our sense of values… that is our culture.
I want to thank everyone for attending tonight, and for your kindness and civility. I hope I have stirred the pot enough to spark debate, but also to find common ground and agreement. I am a student of history, and I believe that our nation’s future will require sacrifices today to guarantee our vision, our shared American culture, in the future.
Remember this: culture is a sense of values. What are yours?
Thank you, and good night.