Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Loathing of Juan William's Fear

I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia. My dad had guns and ammo ready for the inevitable day when The Blacks would enter our home to kill us. Years later, after we moved to Arizona where The Blacks were and are still hard to find, I helped my dad sell his guns to a hunter-cowboy (as in hunter-gatherer, since cowboy hunter could have more than one meaning). My mom feared communists more than black people (evidenced by the proud hanging of a portrait in her living room of a black New Orleans clarinetist - her appreciation of music trumped prejudice) but had a special loathing for The Black Communist, Martin Luther King.

So, I was raised in the world of fear and loathing of The Other, which I don't think was an exceptional experience in the 60s and 70s. Somehow, I knew that this fear wasn't right. But there's a difference between the visceral fear of the outsider that rises from the primitive nether regions of our being and the (hopefully) secondary impulse of reason or (hopefully not) knee-jerk, thoughtless action. Rational thought overcomes irrational fear. If we're conscious of the fact that all humans have irrational primitive fears, then we know that reasoned thought should always sit between the irrational fear and any action we choose to take.

At the age of 13 or so, I snuck out with my friends, dressed in my forbidden jeans and fringed tie-up knee-high moccasins and wandered around Philly's hip 69th street - full of record stores, head shops and, um, black people. I was fearful, but fascinated. Was I a little hipster wannabe hypocrite (admiring soul music but fearing the soulful)? Well, yes.

What I'm getting at here is that I'm guilty. Yes, I'm a liberal and a progressive and I support movements to protect "outsiders" or the disenfranchised from abuse. But, I'm still guilty of having primitive fear of The Other. Hell, I'm afraid to leave my apartment to go to the grocery store sometimes, which is irrational. But I know, after much thought, that there really is nothing to fear and because of this, I doubt I'll ever picket the grocery store or join the anti-grocery-store movement. (Just for fun, substitute New York Mosque for grocery store in the last two sentences.) I also hang on to things my ex boyfriend used to say to me about lesbians (there's a lot of unreasonable jealousy and domestic violence in lesbian relationships and lesbian hairdressers will make me look gay) and have a hidden fear of hanging out with lesbians. But I vehemently and actively support the gay marriage movement and follow gay blogs and have lots of gay friends who follow my blogs. Am I a gay-wannabe hypocrite (admiring the gay life but fearing the gayness [uh-oh!])? Well, yes.

One day this summer, while going through security at Charles de Gaulle airport on my way to Athens, I was behind a guy who refused to unzip his carry-on for the security lady. She kept demanding in French, and demonstrating with her hands, that he unzip his bag. He just kept babbling in another language and then got his phone out and turned away from the guard and nervously started dialing. She asked in French, "What language do you speak?" and he mumbled Italiano and ducked away again for some more furious dialing. I couldn't help him with the Italian, but he wasn't looking for any help from me. I just kept thinking, "This isn't rocket science, just unzip the bag like the big getting-annoyed guard is asking you to."

I moved around him and started to put all my clothes and jewelry back on and gather up my bags. My travel companion was still going through security, so I leaned against the wall next to another security guard to watch the show. By now, the guard was summoning other guards and the crazy guy was ducking and dialing and walking in ever-larger concentric circles. Finally, as he swept by me, I heard him frantically talking to someone on his Arabic. How do I know this? Because I have neighbors who speak Arabic all the time, while the three daughters (one in full burqa and the other two in tight, sexy Western clothes) translate my English or lousy French into Italian and then Arabic so their mother can get my jokes.

My travel companion came up to me and we walked towards the gate. I joked that a terrorist had been trying to get through security ahead of me. We laughed. And then I surreptitiously kept an eagle eye out for the guy for the entire time we waited for our plane to board. I didn't want him to be on my plane.

I looked for his fellow conspirators in the waiting area. What was I looking for? Young men, with or without beards, who looked like terrorists. Go ahead, you can call me Jan Brewer or Sheriff Joe Arpaio or... Juan Williams.

This nervous guy was somehow allowed to enter the boarding area. I was sure he'd be carted off to the dungeon under the airport. But there he was, still nervous. He stayed at the far end of the boarding area so I was praying to The-God-I-Don't-Believe-In that he would board another plane. I didn't jump up to board our plane first (which is what I always do). I waited until the last person boarded and then saw him coming our way. I boarded, but in the process of getting into my seat, I didn't actually see if he got onto the plane. I worried, a little, throughout the flight. I felt the fear, then used rational thought to stop me from making a fake trip to the bathroom to see if I could spot him and then heroically dive on him before he could ignite his underpants.

I do all this worrying under the guise of a perfectly calm, liberal face.

You know what else I'm guilty of (if you missed it, read above)? This: "Me? Prejudiced against lesbians and Muslims? That's impossible. Didn't you just hear me say I have lesbian and Muslim friends?"

Anyway, enough (for now) about me and my hypocrisy. Let's talk about Juan Williams. As I listened to him make his job-losing statement about his fear of people in Muslim garb, I first thought, "Yup. Me too. Thanks for being honest." Then I thought, "This could be a Shirley Sherrod moment." You know, where she was telling a story about her own prejudice and how she came to terms with it and changed her behavior. But, unfortunately, that wasn't the case.

The sin here, with Juan Williams, is not that he has such thoughts, but that he, as a respected American journalist, legitimized irrational fears in a public forum, on a network which is known for right-wing inflammatory rhetoric, to an audience that is known to be gullible, without offering a path towards redemption for having these irrational fears. He did clarify that America must protect the constitutional rights of all citizens and prevent bigotry, but, and of course there's a but, we can't forget the connection between 9/11 and Islamic radicalism. So, he rationalized his fears and gave them legitimacy. And anyway, the hate cat was already out of the bag.

What was missing in his non-apology? Oh, discussion of and outreach to non-radical Muslims.

How do we get past irrational fears of The Other? By getting to know The Other. There are two paths we can all take after 9/11. Batten down the hatches, sound the alarms, be ever watchful against this vague enemy and wait for the ever-impending doom. (This is a great way to keep Americans off balance, by the way, and distracted from what our government is really doing and also fills the coffers of the military industrial complex.) Or, we can, as a government and a nation of people, go meet every Muslim we can find and put together a plan, in partnership, where the voices and actions of sanity drown out the voices of radicalism and terror. There is huge power in partnership and positive, forward movement based on greater understanding. It is also a lot cheaper, and it causes fewer lasting wounds, to get to know The Other, than to bomb them.

Will Shirley Sherrod ever forget her prejudice against white people? I doubt it. After all, it wasn't just a slight or insult here and there. It was generations of abuse that exists in her individual consciousness and in the collective unconscious of her people. Will Jews forget The Shoa? Should Native Americans forget how we purposely killed them and forcefully moved them to reservations? Should anyone ever forget that America, in concert with Iraqis and in collusion with other nations, tortured people? No. But instead of hating the past, we eventually need to learn from it and move towards healing the future.

Will I ever evolve my irrational fears of The Other? Probably. Because I don't have a generational abuse issue in my DNA. Some Americans would disagree with me on that - the ones who pretend to be victimized (i.e. reverse discrimination, Fred Phelps and Juan Williams claiming their constitutional right to free speech has been violated, and "we want our country back!" and "thar tekkin' arr jobs!" and "that Mosque is on hallowed ground!!"), but in truth, we have no Shoa, no small pox blankets, no enslavement that could hinder our evolution from irrational prejudice to enlightened oneness with all human beings.

Just living in my ethnic neighborhood in Paris, full of Muslims, Halal shops and restaurants (especially my favorite Terrorist Pizza place) has opened up my eyes and heart. (Not quite enough yet to stop me from counting swarthy bearded men in airports and train stations - but give me time.)

I think that redemption is within me, if I choose to apply the light of reason to my darkest thoughts and reach out to The Other.