Care for your garden – but care for people, too

SAN DIEGO — Commencement speeches should pose a challenge. At this moment, it’s clear what message graduates — and the rest of us — need to hear:

“Instead of aiming for a better job and a bigger house, strive for something that is often more difficult to achieve: being a better person. Don’t be self-centered. Make a positive impact on others. And don’t ever look down on anyone.”

It’s fine to work hard, achieve financial success and enjoy the benefits of your labor. But it’s not fine to use your elevated position to insult or pick on someone that you see as less than.

Like a gardener. You see, I have a story for you.

First, some context. America is getting meaner. We’re closing our doors, retreating to our living rooms and watching news channels that reinforce what we believe. We’re angry whether there are jobs or no jobs. We’re angry whether the economy is good or bad. We’re just angry.

It’s easy to make this about President Trump. If you oppose him, you think he made Americans more abusive. If you support him, you think the abuse comes from his critics.

Whatever is causing it, the evidence of our deteriorating civility is everywhere.

In one of the latest incidents caught on video, a white man in Riverside, California, viciously insults a Muslim woman who is wearing a black niqab, a headscarf that covers most of her face except her eyes. The man asks the woman, “Is it Halloween or something?” She replies that she is Muslim and asks if he has a problem. “I don’t like your religion,” he says. “How’s that? I don’t want to be killed by you.”

We can recall the presidential candidate who labeled Mexicans criminals and rapists, or the one who said that anyone who didn’t support her belonged in a “basket of deplorables.” We can point to coffee shops and college dormitories, where police are now summoned if a white person feels threatened by the presence of a black person. We can look at the White House staffer who jokes that the administration needn’t worry that Sen. John McCain opposes its choice to head the CIA since the Arizona Republican is “dying anyway.” We can refer to the cringe-worthy video of an arrogant Port Authority commissioner in New Jersey scolding police officers over a traffic stop.

Or, if we want to be here all day, we can talk about the ham-fisted way that many cable television pundits discuss immigration. Fox News contributor Tomi Lahren — who seems to have flunked history but majored in hysteria — recently insisted that welcoming immigrants with “low skills” and “low education” who speak foreign languages is “not what this country is based on.”

It’s unclear which country she was talking about.

And when genealogist Jennifer Mendelsohn looked up Lahren’s German and Norwegian ancestors and found they were not exactly Ivy League graduates who spoke the King’s English and came over on the Mayflower, suddenly it was Lahren who was offended. She accused Mendelsohn of trying to play “gotcha.”

All those are examples of manners going out the window. But I want to talk about how people treat gardeners and landscapers — most of whom these days are Latino immigrants.

Recently, on a social-media forum for people who live in my neighborhood, a woman posted an angry screed against “self-designated gardeners” who are just “mow and blow guys with limited English.” She said one of these impersonators had “destroyed” a $1,000 plant, the care for which she had entrusted to someone making just $20 per hour. The woman found support from the mob, with one person after another expressing hope that she found a “real gardener.”

I know what you’re thinking, and I thought it, too. If this woman wants a “real gardener,” she should be willing to pay more. Or she could — gasp — tend to her own yard.

Another woman, who claimed to be a “horticulturist from the East Coast,” offered her services — but only as a “consultant” and presumably for much more than $20 per hour.

But the Humanitarian of the Year award goes to the lovely gentleman who suggested the woman go to the authorities. “Please report this to the police or ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement],” he posted. “There are some illegals hanging, looking for homes to robb [sic] acting as landscapers.”

We used to worry about criminals and drug traffickers. But now, you’re a “bad hombre” if a plant in your care perishes.

I said that we should all aspire to be better people. Surely, we can be better than this.

Ruben Navarrette’s email address is His daily podcast, “Navarrette Nation,” is available through every podcast app.