Monday, October 25, 2010

Did you know William Shatner is Jewish...?

...and Canadian??  Leonard Nimoy too -- Jewish, that is, not Canadian (so we're told).


Not so long ago, in my childhood (no snickering, please), I remember school-yard conversations where kids would, conspiratorially, share such information.  Adam Sandler would later join in with a song on the subject...remember?  A generation before, a Jewish kid risked being called a kyke or a "Christ killer". Hell, in my mother's childhood Maine, it was perfectly acceptable (if you were Anglo-Protestant) to discriminate against Franco-American Catholics -- and they were white and Christian.

Later, as an adult, I remember the first time, while reading the newspaper on the subway in New York, that The Times used "gay" instead of "homosexual" in an article.  It was about 1990 or 1991.

I also remember Presidents -- was it George H. W. or Clinton? -- who started including "synagogues" when referring to places where Americans worshiped -- as in "churches and synagogues".  Even W., much to his credit, tried (in vain apparently) to separate Islamic fundamentalists from other Muslims even while beating the war drums to fight the former.  (The fact that Saddam Hussein, while no nice guy, wasn't an Islamic fundamentalist didn't seem to bother him...but that's another story.)

My point is:  over our history, groups facing discrimination and even outright hatred are eventually folded into our society; and, while some of this happens naturally -- painfully -- over time, it is often consciously helped along by those with powerful bully pulpits, like the President or other politicians or influential media outlets.  Together, they facilitate such societal quantum leaps as a Catholic becoming President, or an African-American becoming President, or even my mother re-marrying a Catholic.

And now this has to happen with the next group waiting in line: Muslims.

It's a uphill battle, let's face it.  Through no fault of virtually all of the world's 1.5+ billion Muslims, their faith -- or at least a radical, fundamentalist hijacking of their faith -- is now associated with two ongoing wars following the deadliest attack on American shores (one of only a handful) since Pearl Harbor.  Some Americans, who know Muslims personally or have traveled in Muslim countries or have a more embracing worldview, know this is deeply unfair. Others do not, and the reasons for this run the gamut from odious bigotry to simple lack of experience to knee-jerk, irrational prejudices that immediately produce guilt and shame.  And, just as there is a recognized difference between aggravated assault and a misdemeanor, I believe there is a difference between real bigotry and a subconscious (or even conscious) fear.

It's on the battleground of the latter that we can most effectively wage and win the war against prejudice.  The most recent volley -- Pictures of Muslims Wearing Things -- reminds people that Muslims are our neighbors, colleagues, Nobel Peace laureates, writers, scientists, etc.  It's a fundamental point.  My only quibble with the site is that it a) preaches to the choir and b) shies away (so far) from addressing the actual fear-based and fear-producing prejudice of what Juan Williams called "Muslim garb" -- i.e., Muslims wearing religiously-inspired or -prescribed clothing.  In doing so, I think it does itself, as well as the Muslim objects of irrational prejudice, a disservice.  And that's a shame.  It can and should go farther by showing similar, everyday people in similar, everyday situations wearing the kind of "things" that actually provoke the particular fear that Williams admitted to and that got him, rightly or wrongly, fired.

We may have killed the messenger, but sadly the message lives on.

So what do we do?  For starters, we can ask -- demand? -- that our most famous person of partially Muslim descent (I'm talking to you, President Obama) start educating from the unique position(s) he holds.  Instead of ill-advisedly running from some misconceived "taint" of his heritage, he should embrace it, leading by example.  He should talk about his time in Indonesia; he should celebrate his quintessential American-ness.  He once said he was a mut.  Aren't virtually all of us muts, too!?  Cannot we coalesce and come together as a nation and society around our shared muttiness?  To give credit where credit is due, Obama has added "mosques" to "churches and synagogues" in his speeches...other religions and those of no religion, too.  But he needs to do more.

And not just him.  We all need to do more.  And what better way to confront and combat the Palins and Huckabees who run around telling the "heartland" that the "barbarians are at the gate"? Instead of congratulating ourselves on our open minds and inclusive hearts, and shaming and vilifying those who admit to irrationally pre-judging, we need to acknowledge the fear and say:  look, I understand where you're coming from, but here's how you're wrong.

Tut-tut-ing and mocking may feel good, but ultimately it's counterproductive.  At some point, we're going to have to get serious enough to do the hard work of forgiveness, healing and reconciliation.

[Image via BBC.]