Thursday, August 26, 2010

Potatoes, Racism, Mad Men and the “Ground Zero Mosque”

It’s amazing how many forms a thing can take. Potatoes can be al gratin, baked, boiled, fried, mashed. The versatility of this starchy wonder is what makes them such a dietary staple. Potatoes are delicious, but their versatility and staying power is a trait that they share with something not so tasty—racism.

I’m in the middle of reading a book of historical fiction about the South in the 60s, filled with “respectable” white people who degrade their black help in ways both conscious and unconscious. And even though people of my generation and younger are aware of the kind of violent, overt, disgusting, senseless racism that prevailed during that time, it’s still chilling to be reminded of, even if it’s something we didn’t live though and will never be able to fully comprehend. And it’s easy and comforting to be self-congratulatory and view racism as a thing of the past. But that’s so far from the truth -- it’s here, it’s widely accepted, its just taking different forms.

Take for example the new view of “separate but equal” that is being debated in New York right now, and even the language used to describe the controversy conveys the bias: “The Ground Zero Mosque.”

First, the flaws in the argument:
1) It’s not a Mosque; it’s an Islamic Cultural center.
2) It’s not on “ground zero” (which is an odd term to begin with) it’s two blocks from where the world trade center used to be on the “hallowed ground” of a closed Burlington Coat Factory store one block from a strip club. (Although the WTC itself was built on a slave grave site, so hallowed ground argument has some weight just not the weight the argument makes)
3) There is absolutely no correlation to this building, or these people to 9/11.
4) There is a similar prayer room at the Pentagon (one of the other 9/11 sights) that no one seems to care to protest.

Those protesting the building aren’t simply wrapping themselves in the flag to justify their racist inclinations, they are helping to set a dangerous precedent: politicians (both democrat and republican) are fanning the bigotry for their own ends (many of them are the same people who voted against health care benefits for 9/11 first responders, btw). And everyone is leaving Muslims out of the conversation.

Whether the controversy has been manufactured as an election year tactic or not, the visceral hate and bigotry was all too easy to whip up. We’d like to think that we are a cosmopolitan and progressive city far from the backwoods lynching mentality of the South in the 60s (many comments on recent stories about the 51Park project have tried to dismiss protesters as being from “out of town”), but when you hear of cab drivers getting stabbed because they are Muslim , and a deluge of hate crimes all over the city it’s hard to maintain that bigotry is either a thing or the past or a practice exclusive to those in “fly over states.”

Viewing this community center’s construction as an affront to 9/11 victims (some of whom were of course Muslim themselves) is the equivalent to labeling all black men as criminals after one steals your purse. And proposing that it be built further away is equivalent to building a separate bathroom for the help.

On Sunday night’s episode of Mad Men, cosmopolitan Roger Sterling used his role in WWII to justify his unwillingness to work with the Japanese. He asked, “Since when is forgiveness a better quality than loyalty?” Of course, his internal conflict, just like this one isn’t one of forgiveness, or loyalty. It’s a matter of perspective. Because a country filled with this kind of hate, violence and bigotry is a huge terrorism threat.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Does Life in Fact, Go On?

My book club had an interesting discussion about Zeitoun by Dave Eggers last week – a book focusing on the story of one family in New Orleans during and after Katrina. Aside from the rage about how our government can be so incompetent and how everything we believe about justice and law can be thrown out the window in a crisis, there was an overall feeling of amazement of the conditions and treatment that people endured.

We all saw the images of people floating down dirty flooded streets or sweating, crowded and hungry at the Convention Center in New Orleans, or the people trapped in rubble in Port-au-Prince, but that kind of devastation seems abstract when you are far removed—even though Louisiana is in America, once it’s not on the news everyday it’s not as urgent when you still have food, DVDs and AC and clean sheets.

We’d all like to think we could survive or even be heroes in a crisis, but very, very few can—most of us simply couldn’t make do. Perhaps more frightening then the very real chance that a disaster of some kind will strike much closer to home is the idea of living with the aftermath.

My BFF’s sister just started her year of doctoring in Haiti (amazing right? makes me feel like I’m not doing anything with my life). I know this blog post doesn’t have much of a point on my part, I really just wanted to share this snippet from her blog:

“With approximately 5,000 people, the GHESKIO camp is small relative to some of the other camps spread throughout Port-au-Prince but it was still overwhelming to see such density of misery and community in crisis and the unshakable boredom that comes with being fenced in on all sides. Tents are packed one on top of one another. At the far end of the camp, there’s a line of port o’ potties and outdoor showers, and a stagnant stream of filthy water carves out the spaces between individual domiciles. People were . . . going about their lives. Cooking, playing cards, sitting at the entrances to their tents. You could almost accept that for many of these folks life in the city would simply normalize, inevitably, given a long enough time scale; and you might even be able to imagine yourself making a stoic go of it under a plastic tarpaulin for nearly 7 months. But there’s no normalizing this bizarre and untenable situation on any time scale that doesn’t include the end of human civilization, itself. And, no, you’re not that much of a badass”