"Twenty years ago I was a nobody," comic Joe E. Lewis once quipped, "but today I am a non-entity."
I never saw him deliver that line, alas, but read it in his autobiography, "The Joker is Wild." I like to think Lewis ended the sentence by drawing himself up to his full 5'7 height, pressing his hand to his heart, and fluttering his eyes in dignity, with a tone of hauteur. "Today I am a NON-ENTITY!"
That came to mind because today is my 34th anniversary on the staff of the Sun-Times, and between the general howl of the online world, the degraded status of newspapers in general and newspaper columnists in particular, I feel like some exotic animal—a cross between an Irish elk and a platypus—the last of its species, living alone on an island rock, where every day the sea level rises another six inches. The island isn't submerged, yet. But it's coming.
Until then, to mark the anniversary, as I have in the past, I thought I'd cast a line into my bottomless backlist, and randomly hooked this, from 2010, to share with you today. It is, alas, astoundingly current, as writing about prejudice invariably is. The original title was "So many of us are blind to anti-Muslim bigotry." You can see the effect my arguing for tolerance has had on the nation. But honestly, despite having had no impact whatsoever and transiting across my career without touching anyone or achieving anything, I am still glad that I made the effort.
|Tile panel (Metropolitan Museum)|
It was fun, to talk about the Divine Comedy. I concluded by pointing out how Dante, describing his elaborate paradise, pauses to mention that half of heaven is occupied by Jews.
I explained that, being Jewish myself and having soldiered through thousands of lines of Dante's often-abstruse terza rima verse, I felt rewarded by this gesture, an extraordinarily generous act for an Italian poet in 1300—an unexpected nod to a widely despised minority—and how today it represents a challenge to us all.
"There is a lesson there," I said, explaining that it is easy to deal sympathetically with your own kind, to demand others treat you with the respect and humanity that you deserve.
The hard part is to do this with other people, to treat them the way you yourself expect to be treated.
This isn't profound. It's just a wordier version of the Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you." Everyone endorses it in theory. But try to apply it to a specific case, and it just vanishes, crumbling to nothing at a touch, like ash, as if it weren't a timeless moral code at all, but mere words, empty of meaning
'WHY CAN'T THEY BE SENSITIVE?'
"I don't understand!" said the caller, a reader from Morton Grove, summarizing a column I wrote earlier this month about the Islamic community center planned for two blocks from Ground Zero in New York City.
I let him talk—fielding complaints is like fishing. Never try to reel them in too soon; play out some line and first let them tire themselves, flapping around.
Three thousand dead! 9/11! The feelings of the families trampled by inconsiderate Muslims!
"Couldn't they just put it a few blocks away!?!" he said, genuinely baffled.
"No," I said, "and here's why . . ."
I waited, with a fisherman's patience, and tried again.
"Do you own a house?" I asked. At first the question didn't register.
"What?" he said.
"Do you own a house?"
"Yes . . ." he said, reluctantly; lawyers tend to be circumspect.
"What color is it?" I asked.
"Blue . . ." he said, puzzled.
"OK," I continued. "Let's say you want to paint it white. You file whatever notice you need with Morton Grove that you're painting your house white. But your neighbors complain—they don't want you to paint it white. White's the color of purity, and you're a Jew, and Jews killed Christ. So no white for you. It offends them. How much weight do you put on their feelings?"
He didn't see the connection at all. This was not a matter of rights. It was simple. Build the mosque elsewhere.
Yes, and if only that were the end of it. But it isn't—it's just the beginning of what is going to be a painful process in this country, particularly between now and November, as Republicans gleefully fall upon another tiny minority they can demonize to whip up their eager base.
Seven out of 10 Americans agree with my Morton Grove reader, which means that 7 out of 10 Americans believe that all Muslims shoulder collective blame for 9/11—because that's the only thing opposing the mosque can possibly mean.
For some reason, they do not see this as the classic textbook example of bigotry that it so obviously is. I try to find metaphors to cut through their fearful certainty.
Make the Islamic community center into a Catholic seminary—parents oppose it, arguing that their children will be at risk, since everyone knows that priests are pedophiles.
Do we respect the concerns of the parents? I'd say no.
Why not? Some priests are pedophiles. Would not considering all as suspect be a reasonable precaution for a responsible parent?
No, because all groups have criminal members. There are lots of white Protestant pedophiles, for instance, but nobody protests the construction of a golf course because it might draw the WASP element.
This guilt by association is a sham smoke screen employed to indict people who are already feared because they are different.
The sad fact is, people are fighting the construction of mosques, not just in Manhattan, but all across the country, and for the same reason: they are afraid of them. In that sense, it is inevitable, maybe even good, that this is happening now, so we can examine and treat this festering wound in the American spirit.
It is too easy to lazily suspect mosques as nests of nascent terror, and too hard to understand that not only is barring them un-American and morally wrong, but dangerous too, in that it risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy—if you tell people long enough that they are potential terrorists who don't belong here, some fraction might eventually believe you.
It's always too easy to brush away someone else's rights as trivial and intrusive. Why do they have to sit at the lunch counter? Why does she have to go to the prom? Why build it there? Imagine the question were posed to you, based solely on who you are: Why are you here, when we're so afraid of you? Why don't you go somewhere else?
If it were being done to you, you'd understand in a heartbeat.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, Aug. 15, 2010