Last night, we gathered to celebrate an American hero, Norman Mineta. Dianne Fukami and Deborah Nakatomi’s documentary (An American Story: Norman Mineta and His Legacy) about the former Mayor of San Jose, Congressman, and Secretary of Commerce and Transportation under Democratic and Republican administrations revealed a life rooted in his parents’ immigration story set against the backdrop of the Asian Exclusion Act of 1924, their incarceration as Japanese Americans during World War II, and his own resilient, optimistic, and tenacious spirit that coalesced with his own communities’ desire for political change. And change he brought. First elected to the House (along with 63 other new Democrats) in 1974 as part of the backlash to the corrupt Nixon administration, he was a vital advocate for Japanese American redress and reparations until final passage as H.R. 442, and became a very early supporter of marriage equality. He led San Jose’s transformation into Silicon Valley’s southmost hub, but also had an eye on the less fortunate and vulnerable. He chose to spend time in a wheelchair to see what it was like to navigate the city with a disability. This led him to push for curb cutouts, now standard in nearly all American cities (this was long before curb cutouts and ramps were required by the Americans with Disabilities Act).
OK, this alone kind of blew my mind. Years ago, an elderly Russian immigrant couple (the wife was my patient), reminisced to me about their refugee story, and marveled at the caring they saw in this country. “America has curb cutouts,” the wife said. “Your buses kneel to help passengers onboard.” And just to melt my heart a bit: “America is a good country.”
If we’d only known then that Norman Mineta was one of the forces behind this most basic issue of transit access. That a child of immigrants, once persecuted and oppressed by this “good country,” actually helped make this country what it is today.
Well, is America a “good country” or a “bad country?”
Choose “C: All of the above.”
It’s been good and bad from the very beginning, and at this moment, I’d say we’re once again seeing the fruits of several of our original sins. The founding fathers had extraordinary virtues and foresight, certainly, but racism and inequality were embedded into the tapestry of this nation even as it declared its independence with the stirring humanitarian vision that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Oh yeah, except Black Americans and any other non-whites, except women, except Native Americans. And on and on. We have fought this dialogue/duality/hypocrisy for over 200 years, with many casualties of life, body and spirit, and a measure of triumphs.
There’s also the original sin of self-centeredness. America was nothing if not ambitious from the get-go. As we all know, Hamilton rapped his way into a strong Federal government and banking system, to help support a strong military. (He even advocated for a president-for-life.) Soon, came Manifest Destiny, ongoing massacres of Natives, and a drive to conquer and subjugate the continent. While the early Puritans believed that “God hath made man a sociable creature,” while they prized usefulness to community as a central element of a person’s worth, and decried personal aggrandizement, they also endorsed the pursuit of wealth. They were consummately hypocritical moralists. Christopher Lasch noted (in 1979’s Culture of Narcissism) that “many of its practitioners, especially in New England, waxed fat and prosperous on the trade in rum and slaves.”
Even this veil of hypocrisy was torn off, and by the late 19th century, “the captain of industry gave way to the confidence man, the master of impressions. The young men were told that they had to sell themselves in order to succeed.” The pursuit of happiness, where happiness was defined in material wealth and possessions. Or later (in the 70s and on) as merely a personal kind of satisfaction or fulfilment. Susan Cain, in Quiet, notes that a (supposed) ‘culture of character’ gave way to a ‘culture of personality’ as marketing and cutthroat capitalism drove forward. By the mid-20th century, management books were describing business leaders this way:
“He wants to ‘be known as a winner, and his deepest fear is to be labeled a loser.’ Instead of pitting himself against a material task or a problem demanding solution, he pits himself against others, out of a ‘need to be in control.’ As a recent textbook for managers puts it, success today means ‘not simply getting ahead’ but ‘getting ahead of others.”
Hmm. Sound familiar? A Frontline documentary notes that Fred Trump, the father of our president, told him he had to be a “killer” in life, to win at all costs. Roy Cohn, his early mentor, operated by the same principles. Before I am accused of being totally biased, I will allow that we are all “C: all of the above.” We’re a mix of good and bad, self-centered and transcendent. In my book Facebuddha, I call it being “two-spirited.” (With apologies to the Native American transgender community for borrowing their term.) We are all narcissistic to some degree, and some amount of narcissism is considered healthy, even necessary for life. Whether we’re for ourselves or for others is a basic existential question of the human psyche. And narcissism is clearly not limited to our national boundaries. Finally, sometimes you might have to be a bit self-centered to combat self-centeredness. But ultimately, self-centeredness is at the root of all self-aggrandization and other-devaluation. Sexism, homophobia, tribalism, religious hatred and even MLK’s Giant Triplet of racism, materialism and militarism – all boil down, in my mind, to self-centeredness. You have to know your enemy before you can defeat it. (Of course, underneath self-centeredness lies vulnerability, insecurity, sometimes overwhelming fear, and sometimes trauma, all of which can lead to defensiveness, entitlement and even self-righteousness, or what I call “the power complex.” Defeating our enemies involves having compassion for how he, she or they got to be who they are. How they, too are suffering human beings, who make us suffer in their wake. But a big yes to setting limits on them!)
But then we have ample examples around us of answer A above, among them, Norman Mineta. In his banter with Willie Brown (who came along with Claudine Cheng, the president of the APA Heritage Foundation, to present him with the APA Heritage Award for Lifetime Impact), he displayed a warmth, charm and self-deprecating and gently teasing humor that only enhanced his humanity and likeability. It’s been noted that President Trump, for example, is known for punching-down, but not self-deprecating humor. It’s a small but telling insight to character.
To bring the point home, your loyal Superfan slowly marched down to the microphone from the back row to ask the first audience question.
SF: “Thank you, Secretary Mineta for a lifetime of ongoing service and dedication to justice and community. And thank you to the directors for bringing this story to light at a very dark time in our nation’s history – at least many of us think so. Secretary Mineta, what have been the seeds of resilience for you, all these years? And what has kept you from disillusionment and corruption as you’ve risen in power?”
The audience breaks into laughter at the word corruption.
Secretary Mineta looked at Superfan with warmth and absolute interest, and answered with his characteristic clarity. (Full audio clip available with his complete answer on my podcast at Soundcloud, iTunes and Stitcher.)
“This is when I should have said ‘next question!’
“There are two things that each one of us owns that nobody else does and we have to protect. One is our name. The other is our reputation and our integrity. I remember my dad always saying – he started in the insurance business in 1920, and retired in 1978. I started in 1956 in life insurance. I finally went to him three years later and said, ‘Pop, I can’t do this the rest of my life, so I’ll set up the fire and casualty side of our agency.’ And out of that…he really kept talking to me about integrity. I remember Dan Inouye, when he was leaving Hawaii to join the Army, his father walked him to the bus stop where he was going to go to Honolulu to board a ship to go to the Mainland. His father said to him, ‘never do anything to disgrace your name, your family, the Japanese community, or our country.’ It just rung a bell with me all the time. I just thought about what my dad said, what Dan’s dad said to him. And then we had an issei in San Jose, Mr. Ikei Ishimatsu, who was a very successful celery grower. He said ‘you know, the reason we couldn’t have any access to anyone in 1942, because we were about as popular as a skunk at a garden party.’ No one could get appointment with the mayor, city council, members of the assembly, or Congress or Senate. Remember Earl Warren (candidate for governor in 1942) was using this evacuation issue as one of his driving message. So this whole issue of integrity was constantly heartening…We have to look at the integrity of the individual. Are they for themselves, or do they want to help.”
It’s a beautiful and important message for our day; but also a tremendous amount of pressure. It’s not just goodness and character as a foundation for one’s self-worth or spiritual growth, but also out of a sense that one has to behave so not to invite even more backlash and opprobrium. To lose face with one’s community and those who already have preconceived notions about who we are. It’s another way we as people of color are policed (and self-policed) in ways that those with privilege are not. Power and privilege corrupt, and absolute power and privilege corrupt absolutely. Maybe changing this dynamic means changing the way we construct power altogether. Or at least make character an even playing field (or learning experience) for everyone.
He answered another questioner, “as we look to the future, we must keep our eyes on the rear-view mirror.” Indeed. And the inner-view mirror as well.
And off we went to the party at the Asian Art Museum, where Secretary Mineta warmly greeted and spoke at length with one admirer after the next. I’m pretty sure the only reason he’s not still there right now is that the museum closes at midnight. Thankfully, Norm Mineta never closed up shop for his good work.
As I left the museum, a homeless woman at the corner of McAllister and Larkin howled a question to the world. “Is there illness in this community, or are there bastards?”
Again, I chose C. All of the above.
A lot of work to be done. I wish us all well.
See you at CAAMFest, where all those views, forward, rear, and inner, will be available like nowhere else in this terrible, beautiful world.
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The views expressed in this column are the writer’s own and do not necessarily represent the views CAAM.
Ravi Chandra, M.D. is aand in San Francisco. His full-length nonfiction debut, , won the 2017 Nautilus Silver Book Award for Religion/Spirituality of Eastern Thought. He just found out Thich Nhat Hanh won the Gold – so he can’t really complain. His latest longform essay on gun psychology, is available now. He also leads . More MOSF posts can be found . You can or follow him on , or