Sunday, August 20, 2006

It’s the Bigotry, Stupid!

It’s time to play the racism card again. Every so often, the number one problem of our society—bigotry—raises its angry gorgonesque tentacled head throughout the media. Lately we’ve been bombarded with stories about Mel Gibson, the anti-Semite; Andrew Young, an icon of the civil-rights movement, incredibly inserting racist foot in mouth as a Wal-Mart rep; Virginia Republican Senator George Allen using a possible racial slur to make a point at a political gathering—all of this while we are told by pundits and partisans that bigotry in the good ole USA is nothing compared to what it was 40 years ago.

Oh really? All those old bigots died and left all of us clean tolerant love-thy-neighbor wannabes to carry on in the tradition of “all men are created equal?” So that book I’ve been working on--Pardon My Prejudice: America’s Excuse for Bigotry—which was inspired by what I see and hear on a daily basis just living in America, all that fire I felt that needed to be put on paper about what is wrecking the great American dream, or at least postponing its potential through the little everyday words of hate, was a mirage invented in my head for more writing practice? With all due modesty and respect for a margin of error, I am not that delusional.

In the midst of gathering my thoughts for this post, I came across the latest blog entry on Huffington Post by Dave Johnson, a super-blogger:

The other day I wrote about how the Right's amplification machine was picking up the signal on this, calling for "racial profiling" of Middle-Easterners, even though not all Muslims are Middle Eastern. Of course, never mind about Timothy McVeigh or Eric Rudolph and others of domestic origin.

Let's be clear what "profiling" means - it means singling out all people of a certain racial appearance for harassment and intimidation. And let's be clear about what complaints about "political correctness" and "multiculturalism" are - they are racist phrases demanding domination and privilege for those of European descent.

That goes for the anti-immigration activists as well. There really is a lot of grist to go into on the racist subject, and those who would deny this problem, or excuse it as a momentary aberration, like Jackie Mason, famous Jewish comedian, explaining that Mel Gibson’s drunken anti-Jewish vitriol was nothing he hadn’t heard before from other drunks, and shouldn’t carry any weight.

A better viewpoint comes from Jonah Goldberg’s latest op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times in which he argues that besides reinforced prejudice towards others who are different, like Nazi hatred of Jews, there is a learned fear along with the prejudice, so that the racist mind can actually believe that it’s worthwhile morally to act on the hatred:

…the Nazis really believed that the Jews ran the world and wanted to destroy Germany. They believed that Jews controlled not only the Bolsheviks to the east but the capitalists to the west. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was a mere pawn of his Jewish friends and advisors. The British Parliament, Goebbels wrote in one diary entry, was "in reality a kind of Jewish stock exchange." The "Jewish-Plutocratic enemy" was everywhere, benefiting from, and responsible for, every piece of bad news for Germany. In fact, the Nazis were sure that the Jews had declared war on Germany first, giving them no choice but to respond to the Jewish campaign to "exterminate the Germans." This paranoia led the Nazis to believe that rounding up millions of Jews and gassing them was an act of self-defense.

What is so frightening is how similar this is to the sounds from the Middle East today.
Goldberg goes on about Iran and the anti-Jewish rhetoric of Ahmadinejad. These leaders in the spotlight, including of course Nasrallah of the Lebanese Hizbullah, are not the only ones to stir up the base prejudices of their people.

The incursion into Iraq, and the ongoing proclamation by Bush and his neocon "nudgers" that the US is spreading democracy, has all the implications of racism. It’s obvious this policy is flawed since the flower and confetti–throwing grateful Iraqi population never appeared to welcome the invading army of US military might, as was predicted by Cheney and Rumsfeld. Chris Dickey explains simply why it didn’t work out quite as predicted:

What does not help in the process of encouraging peace (because no one is going to “bring” peace), is the notion that we Americans can apply our nationalist vision to people who never chose to participate in our immigrant aspirations to begin with: people who feel safer, stronger and saner in their worlds of belonging than in our world of having. When we make that mistake, threatening to the core their sense of who they are, all we do is invite hatred.

Chris, Newsweek’s Middle East and terrorism expert, understands intimately the thinking of the man on the street, as well as his leaders. One thing Chris makes poignant in his latest discussion of media priorities vs. reality, is the perpetual mutually-fed fascination with sensation in the US by those who provide the news, and by those who choose what news they want:

In the genocides of Rwanda and Bosnia, how many children with smiles every bit as warm and guileless as JonBenet Ramsey's were slaughtered by machete and hand grenade, sniper rifle and mortar shell? How many children died from AIDS in Africa or were orphaned by it? While the United States debated the true significance of that stain on the dress lovingly preserved by former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, the Taliban were taking over Afghanistan and their ally Osama bin Laden was declaring war on the Western world.

What does the American viewing news and media priorities have to do with prejudice, bigotry and racism? They are completely intertwined, because no one would care about the JonBenet Ramsey case if she were a poor African-American, or a poor African living in Africa, or an Iraqi girl slaughtered by accident in the crossfire between Coalition fighters and Iraqi insurgents. That’s just one example.

Chris chooses to use the closing of the movie The Ugly American, showing political figure Marlon Brando on a TV screen in a middle-class American home about to describe what he thinks will help the growing problems of Southeast Asia, and the viewer watching the TV clicking it off with his remote control as he reaches for a cold beer. That image, from 1963, shows that American apathy towards the rest of the world is nothing new. That this apathy partially derives from racism is not clearly understood.

Comments made by people are striking, that ardent racism is a thing of the past, that anti-Semitism was really bad after WWII when there were restricted neighborhoods etc, that African Americans have all the benefits of society since the civil rights laws were passed.

After Mel Gibson’s DUI dilemma, and the publicizing of it through Harvey Levin’s TMZ web site, I was looking at the latest info about a rabbi asking Gibson to speak on one of the High Holidays this fall. As I glanced at the comments after the article, I was amazed by the percentage of anti-Jewish remarks, and by the abject anger and hatred of them. But I also noticed that both sides of the “debate” were heavy with intensity. Apparently, bigotry-wise, whether you’re on one side or the other, you’re pissed! Here are some quotes:

fuck this homophobe / jew hater


It is about time jewish people get over this for crying out loud, i myself have had a bad experience with bad jewish a racist who was out to make his students life miserable, and to top it all off he was a faggot. Get over yourselves greedy idiots.

listen you jew loving b****es, who the FU** cares wat he said about the jews, he said they were responsible for all the wars in this world, THE MAN IS PROBABLY RIGHT, YOU A**HOLES, First i think people who talk out loud like that are stupid idiots in the first place, but don't think the jewish people are crying over this incident, they are too busy working the poor folk , those bitches dont even tip, they are the scum of this planet.

Good god. Enough is enough. The poor little Jewish people that can't handle someone talking bad about them need to grow up. Didn't your mommy ever tell you stick and stones.... I'm sure if she didn't that someone else has. This whole thing is completely ridiculous.

OK class—so what have we learned here: there’s a lot of anger out there. Anger needs to be focused, and sometimes it’s easier to see a group of people who are not part of one’s homogenous group as the problem, and cause, of one’s troubles. That’s a lot easier than blaming oneself for ones troubles.

Then there is disappointment: I have always admired Andrew Young, civil-rights worker with Martin Luther King, and political activist in the name of tolerance and understanding. So I was appalled and saddened to hear of his choice of verbiage to describe why Wal-Mart was going to help the inner-city communities he champions:

Young was asked about whether he was concerned Wal-Mart causes smaller, mom-and-pop stores to close.

"Well, I think they should; they ran the `mom and pop' stores out of my neighborhood," the paper quoted Young as saying. "But you see, those are the people who have been overcharging us selling us stale bread and bad meat and wilted vegetables. And they sold out and moved to Florida. I think they've ripped off our communities enough.

First it was Jews, then it was Koreans and now it's Arabs; very few black people own these stores."

Young resigned his Wal-Mart post, and I’m not the only one who saw the problem in what he said:

The remarks surprised Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, who pointed to Young's reputation of civil rights work.

"If anyone should know that these are the words of bigotry, anti-Semitism and prejudice, it's him," Hier said. "I know he apologized, but I would say this, ... during his years as a leader of the national civil rights movement, if anyone would utter remarks like this about African-Americans his voice would be the first to rise in indignation."

Well, nobody’s perfect. What’s happening is not just bigotry, but the ease with which it can be generated. Lack of tolerance for someone who is different comes from ignorance of the meaning of that difference. Knowledge of why people dress a certain way, or why their culture has certain aspects—that knowledge brings tolerance and understanding. The constant barrage of tiny bites of visual and audio stimulus which has become how we receive our information through the media—that promulgates ignorance, which perpetuates prejudice and bigotry.

Chris Matthews on the Imus show last Friday morning explained why cable news has devolved into one quick sensational story after another. He said the person watching with the remote-control clicker in his hand has a choice of hundreds of options to switch to—if there is hesitation or pause, he’ll click to another choice. Thus, the way to keep your audience is to offer quick bites, quick ideas, which leads to easy labels and generalizations—stereotyping—and furthers prejudice and bigotry which feed off of simplicity and naiveté.

William Lederer, who co-wrote Ugly American, also wrote in a preface to his book Nation of Sheep how the death of an individual affects each of us. He described a pyramid, where the top narrow section equaled the death of a loved one, and the bottom widest area was the equivalent of several million people in a foreign country dying—each segment of the pyramid would affect us equally.

It may never be possible for us to equate the death of someone in Tibet with the death of a member of our family. But unless we come to understanding that our priorities of interhuman relationships has to come down to treating others as we would treat ourselves--not only as individuals but as a nation--the current Middle East skirmishes and deaths are going to seem minor compared to what may be coming.

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