Sunday, January 29, 2017

Fear and loathing in the cat food aisle

Photo by Sebastian Farmborough

    The haters won. In the recent presidential election at least. Our country was invaded from within and now we have to watch, powerless, as they give their fears and biases the strength of law in our once-great nation.
    The only defense — at the moment — is to object, to loudly state the truth, declare the wrongness of this, and reaffirm our abused American values. President Donald Trump signed a brazenly-bigoted executive order Friday barring all refugees from the United States for four months, barring Syrian refugees indefinitely, and barring immigrants from seven Muslim countries: Iraq, Iran, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Libya and Somalia.

    Chaos ensued worldwide. And while, yes, protesters gathered spontaneously at airports and pushed back and a federal judge stayed the order, whether over the long term the courts will be respected any more than the media or any other pillar of American democracy that Trump is kicking at is doubtful.
    The pretext was to avoid terror. But this comes from the dynamic of welding terrorist acts committed by Muslims to their faith, while writing off non-Islamic acts of terror as being due to something else. This bias was shown when Trump said he would encourage the entry of Christians, who are also persecuted abroad, though nowhere near the numbers or severity of people in countries like Syria.
     This shameful prejudice will cost the lives of people who could have become upstanding American citizens, draw justifiable scorn upon our country, and make the United States less, not  more, secure. The only comfort—cold comfort—is the knowledge we are not alone in this prejudice, nor is it anything new, as this column from 2009 reminds us. I think this explains why Donald Trump was elected as much as anything can. It was written back when the column contained subheadings, and I've left those in.


     Two weeks ago, the people of Switzerland voted to ban new construction of minarets, the towers associated with mosques.
     Which raises the obvious question: How many minarets are already in Switzerland? There must be a whole lot, to provoke this extraordinary ban.
     How many? Guess. Ten? Fifty? A hundred?
     Four. There are exactly four minarets in Switzerland. And now that's all there will ever be.
     Italy is considering a similar ban — odd, since, traditionally, Germany usually took the lead in this sort of thing. You'd think, in Europe, they'd be a little reluctant to go down the step-on-the-scary-minority route. They've been there before.

Don't block the coconut shrimp!

     The Swiss ban is based on fear, which, sadly, the Swiss do not have a monopoly on, as this e-mail illustrates:

    I was in Costco in Niles yesterday around 5 p.m. The store was packed. I was going in to buy cat food. The pet food section is on the far wall, at the corner. As I approached the cat food, I saw three women in full on burkas. Completely cloaked except for their eyes.
     They were kneeling and praying to Mecca. In a COSTCO. In the USA. I gotta tell you, I was totally freaked out and totally enraged. At that moment I wanted to attack them, physically. Really. I couldn't believe it, and I thought it was totally wrong. If you have to pray to Mecca, don't go to Costco. I got my cat food, and walked past them and I just said, loudly, "This is the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA."
     What could I have done? I wanted to complain to the management, but by the time I got through the line to pay I just wanted to get the hell out of the store. That experience totally made me sympathize with the woman who pulled the headscarf off the Muslim woman on the South Side. I am not a religious person at all, but I was enraged. What is going on? What do you think about that? . . . I had a cell phone with a camera, and I wanted to film them but I couldn't do it.
     Here she gives her full name and place of employment -- which I, a kind soul, will withhold.
     I wrote her back:

     While I appreciate your candor, you should realize that this is one of those times when a complaint says a lot more about the complainer than it does the thing being complained about. A few questions—What is it about a Costco that makes it less appropriate a location than anyplace else for those women to pray? Had they been a trio of elderly women doing the rosary at the coffee shop in a Borders bookstore, would you also have been "enraged"? If the answer is no, then it isn't an issue of people praying in commercial public spaces, but how they pray and what kind of space they pray in. Is Costco somehow especially sacred to you? I mean, I know they hand out that coconut shrimp, but still . . .
     And what does "This is the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA" mean to you? I thought it meant that this is exactly the sort of place where a woman, however she dresses, could feel safe from being attacked by strangers enraged by her attire, as opposed to, say, Saudi Arabia, where she might be attacked for wearing a short dress. Is the Saudi way actually the American way?
     Frankly, if you're sending this to me, then you haven't quite grasped what I've been writing, lo these many years. As the saying goes: Hating other people is like taking poison and expecting someone else to die. Had you viewed this calmly, an argument could be made that if we allow religions to start using our discount stores as places of worship, then the aisles will be clogged and we won't be able to get to our cat food.
     That is reasonable, and I would agree. But it is also a long way from rage. Would you feel the same if a group of Christmas carolers were blocking your way to the cat food? If Islam is so offensive, then why were you the one who was "enraged" in Niles, while the Muslim women were the ones praying to God?
     My older son's junior high school math teacher wears a full burka with a face veil, something I was surprised to discover at parent-teacher conferences. When I later asked my son why he hadn't mentioned that before—it seemed interesting, the sort of thing one might toss out in casual conversation—he said, and I quote: "You know, Dad, you taught us that kind of thing doesn't matter." I'm proud of that. Turns out she's a good, enthusiastic math teacher, a fact that would have been lost to me had I worked myself into a knot over her outfit. As it was, it took me maybe 30 seconds to get used to talking with a woman wearing a veil, a path I heartily recommend.
     It's still a person under there.
     Thanks for writing. I don't usually argue with readers, one-on-one, at least not at such length. But yours is, alas, a common attitude that most people don't have the lack of inhibition to actually come out and say, and I couldn't pass up the opportunity to try to set you straight.

Neil Steinberg
                             —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Dec. 13, 2009


  1. I hope that letter to you was someone just wanting to raise your ire and not someone's true feelings. Otherwise my faith in humankind as being able to be good and just, eventually, is decimated. :(

  2. You're kidding me, right? Have you looked around at our country? Who we've elected? That was mild.

  3. peoples anger is often the result of their fear. fear of the other is primal and very powerful. the combination of anger and fear likely resulted in many people voting for mr trump . fear and anger no matter the cause or focus are difficult emotions to manage. we all could benefit from learning to find alternatives to these base emotions and attempt to elevate ourselves to a place of more reasoned reactions and behaviors. like so many people that participated in the womens march last week. many of whom seem poised and ready to return to the streets as they did last night at airports around the country. i hope people will take the time and make the effort to join in peaceful thoughtful protest of some of the policies being enacted by our government. at the same time I'm not sure folks should be praying in groups in big box stores anymore than they should be playing frisbee. at least not without requesting and receiving the permission of the management. unless of course they are engaged in civil disobedience

    1. I think people will be more likely to keep their protests thoughtful and peaceful if you start using capital letters and correct punctuation.

  4. I remember this quite vividly. Your response was one of your best.

  5. People think their view of the world are self evident (not something I'm immune to myself) and so reveal the sordidness of their souls without shame.


  6. What's a "coffee shop in Borders"? I was in a store this week that has a working PAY PHONE!

  7. The feelings of the Costco visitor seem reminiscent of Juan Williams expressing his thoughts to Bill O'Reilly, and getting fired from NPR for it. Juan said when he sees people in Muslim garb he gets worried and nervous. Strangely when I see people in Muslim garb, I find it reassuring. It's when I notice they've suddenly all disappeared, that's when I feel apprehensive.

  8. They were praying to a false god in one of the high churches of American consumerism. Instead of facing east toward Mecca they should have been facing west toward Kirkland WA

  9. It's telling that most people who are offended by some stranger practicing a "different" religion in a public place are also offended if they are wished anything other than a MERRY CHRISTMAS.

  10. It was indeed a good column, pertinent to the day.

    Moslems do carry modesty in dress too far for my taste and the burqa does seem symbolic of the way men keep women under their thumbs in all fundamentalist religions. But then, how other people dress is really none of my business. To quote Mr. Jefferson in another context, "it neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."

    And it is, as Neil says, good to always realize it's still a person under there. In London a few summers ago I was passed in a Marx and Spenser's aisle by a women clad, every visible inch, in black. I could tell from her gait that she was young, and as she started up a stairway a pair of Nike's flashed out from fringe of her skirt. It made me wonder what other un-Islamic garments might lurk beneath that all-enveloping burqa.

    Tom Evans

    1. Having been educated by nuns for 12 years, I can tell you that there was always a good deal of speculation as to whether they had hair under that wimple.


  11. Replies
    1. really guys? what else a young muslim women might be wearing under her niqab or in the unlikely case here in the us a burqa is none of your business and you should just leave it at that Tom

  12. I don't remember this column. Did you ever get a response from her?

  13. Thank you. This piece is one of many reasons why I have appreciated your blog for a long time. Keep 'em coming.

  14. An eloquent response, Neil.
    I'm really puzzled as to why she chose you as a sounding board. What was she thinking?


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