Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A Scolding from Our Mother of Exiles

When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for the Jews,
I remained silent;
I wasn't a Jew.

When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.

                    --Martin Niemoller, 1946

For my new work commute, I get to drive right by the Statue of Liberty every day. Each time I make the drive, I marvel at Our Lady of the Harbor, standing majestically, arm upstretched, and I feel so lucky to be just where I am. In recent weeks, though, it wouldn't surprise me if she turned around, sternly placed her hands on her hips, and shook her head disapprovingly at the land she represents and the city she overlooks. As Americans all over the country debate the building of an Islamic mosque and community center in Lower Manhattan, she must wonder at our hypocrisy.

Time magazine is asking this week if America is "Islamophobic" (in short, yes), and every news pundit from NYC to Kabul is asking viewers to weigh in on the Lower Manhattan controversy. Those respondents who are opposed to the construction near Ground Zero seem mostly to argue that because it is so close to the site of the Twin Towers, the center would be an affront to the families and friends who lost loved ones on September 11, 2001. There are two main points of concern for me with regard to this sentiment. The first is simply that Muslims, as a group, are not responsible for the actions of a few fanatics, just as Christians, as a group, are not responsible for Jim Jones, David Koresh, or Timothy McVeigh. Most frighteningly, though, it is not only in Manhattan that American citizens seem to oppose the construction of mosques. A protest took place in Murfreesboro, Tennessee last month against the construction of a mosque in that city (which is approximately 900 hundred miles from Ground Zero). Protesters offered the following insights, which I found courtesy of ABC News online:

Stan Whiteway (apparently aptly named) stated, "They seem to be against everything I believe in, and so I don't want them necessarily in my neighborhood."

Mark Walker claimed, "We are fighting these people, for crying out loud, we should not be promoting this."

From the Associated Press, I found that Bob Shelton said, "They are not a religion. They are a political, militaristic group."

Really?? REALLY?? Yes. Really. People think and say these sorts of things in 2010. Yikes.

So, how far is far enough, Manhattan? Two block is too close to Ground Zero, but is four blocks ok? What about 10 blocks? Will Tennessee be ok? What if Murfreesboro says that if Manhattan can block the construction of a mosque, so can they? What if every town says they don't want a mosque within their city limits? What if they decide that synagogues are equally problematic? What if they decide that Catholic churches are undesirable as well? Martin Niemoller's words could easily be frighteningly prophetic. Although the mainstream news media seemed mostly to focus on the portion of Time's recent poll that revealed that 24% of Americans believe that President Obama is a Muslim, the more concerning numbers were the ones that revealed that 28% of respondents said they believe that Muslims should not be permitted to serve on the Supreme Court, and nearly one-third said that they don't believe that Muslims should be permitted to run for president. Nazi Germany, anyone? As someone who just wrote a thesis arguing that nation-states' first step in perpetrating genocide is depriving a certain group of citizenship status, these stats terrify me.

Perhaps the most interesting contradiction within this whole controversy is that of the 61% of Americans who oppose the Lower Manhattan mosque's construction, I'm willing to bet that a good many of them identify themselves as patriotic Americans, yet their very opposition to this project makes life so much harder for the men and women serving overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan. These men and women in uniform work every single day on the mission of counterinsurgency, and a large part of completing that mission means both winning hearts and minds AND meeting with radical factions to attempt to bring them to the table of democracy. When Al-Jazeera broadcasts reports on the mosque in Manhattan and the staunch opposition to it that many Americans feel, how on earth will our servicemembers be able to convince the people of these regions that Americans are not there to destroy Islam or to discredit their faith? Furthermore, it seems to me that if our servicemembers can bring themselves to sit across the diplomatic table from radical fundamentalists in the name of bringing peace to the regions in which they serve, those of us back in the U.S. can find it in our hearts to accommodate a moderate Islamic cultural center whose goals are outreach and education. In other words, we have a responsibility to honor the service of these men and women and their willingness to put their lives on the line to bridge the gap between the U.S. and the Middle East. To do otherwise would be unpatriotic.

In short, these men and women could really use some help from us in mounting an ideological offense. The U.S. government and military both recognize our inability to physically prevent every attack. It only takes one person to bring havoc, grief, and pain into the lives of thousands, and we already know that our defense mechanisms will fall short in certain situations. Which is why we must use our offense effectively. We need to show the world -- particularly the Muslim world -- that we practice what we preach and that we truly do welcome diversity of thought and experience. That diversity is what has formed the core of our American identity. If we want to preserve our reputation as the "land of the free," we can't be thinking in the terms of "us" and "them" -- we're all "we."

The most insightful comments I heard on the Lower Manhattan mosque debate came from a caller to WNYC/NPR. The caller identified himself as Yasser, and he said that he is a proponent of building the mosque at the initial site in Lower Manhattan because, as a resident of Lower Manhattan and as a father, he wants his children to grow up with the understanding that there is no contradiction between being a New Yorker, being a Muslim, and being an American. When the interviewer asked him if the mosque could represent the unity of those identity markers if it were just a bit further from Ground Zero, Yasser added that telling Muslims that they could build the mosque further away would be a lot like telling African-Americans during the civil rights era that if they just sat in the middle of the bus, it would make things a whole lot easier. I tend to think that our Mother of Exiles, standing her watch in the harbor, waiting to welcome those huddled masses, would feel similarly.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Filling Up My Plate

"If you aren't certain about things, if your mind is still open enough to question what you are seeing, you tend to look at the world with great care, and out of that watchfulness comes the possibility of seeing something that no one else has seen before."
-- Paul Auster

When I initially thought about moving back to my hometown, I worried that I'd have too much on my plate because I'd have so many family members and friends so close by. I never actually thought about my literal plate, though.

Prior to moving back to New Jersey, I hadn't eaten meat in over two years, but I've recently discovered that being a vegetarian is a lot more difficult in New Jersey than it is in California. Being a vegetarian in California is as common as, say, being an Italian in New Jersey -- many people are; it's just part of the demographic. Hence, in California, people always seem to ask dinner guests if they eat meat, restaurants always offer multiple vegetarian options, and there are even many specialty stores and restaurants that cater to the dietary preferences of vegetarian eaters. Here, not so much. The last time I visited New Jersey, my dad asked if chicken on the grill was good for dinner. When I reminded him that I didn't eat meat, he replied, exasperated, "For Christsake. Chicken's not meat." (I'm fairly certain that he does actually believe that.) Restaurants seem to be similarly confounded -- yesterday I had to order a proscuitto sandwich without the proscuitto, and the deli staff seemed to need multiple verbal confirmations that my order had been correctly recorded.

Perhaps, though, the most uncomfortable experience is being served meat as a dinner guest in someone else's home. My husband and I had dinner at his grandmother's house last year, and I politely declined her pot roast on account of the fact that I don't eat meat.  Her response: "But it's so tender!" After 10 minutes of attempting to explain (in as dinner-table appropriate terms as possible) that my decision not to eat meat did not hinge on its tenderness, I gave up and finally accepted that grandmothers -- particularly those who cook for Italian families -- do not speak vegetarian. When my host is a non-family member, though, I can't even muster the nerve to tell him or her that I don't eat meat. I take some, push it around on my plate, bury it with my side dishes, and then bring my own plate to the sink when we're done eating. This routine is stressful, and it often leaves me quite hungry (and drunk if there's alcohol served, as I can't hold my liquor on an empty stomach).

I've recently wondered whether life would be easier if I just ate meat every now and again, so I tried it. As a dinner guest a few weeks ago, I ate a friend's baked ziti with meat sauce. All seemed to be going well until my stomach started gurgling and churning and generally urging me to hurry on up to the bathroom ASAP. As it turns out, when your body hasn't eaten something like meat in years, it forgets just how to digest it without incident.

So it seems to me that the best course of action would be to eat meat with some regularity, so as to avoid what would henceforth be known to my husband as The Baked Ziti Incident. Doing so, however, requires some sacrifice of what I see as My Principles. There are several somewhat vague reasons that I gave up meat, the usual suspects, really: environmental reasons involving the destruction of forestland to accommodate grazing land, ethical reasons related to the fact that we could feed the world if we used grazing land to grow grains instead, ethical reasons involving the ways in which animals are raised and slaughtered, health reasons related to hormones and antibiodics in food. (Notice that none of these reasons actually involves disliking meat -- I do like it, which makes it extra tempting to eat it when it magically appears on my dinner plate!) I should confess here that I'm not even really a vegetarian because I've never quite been able to give up seafood, which technically makes me a pescetarian. I tend not to identify myself as such to other people, though, because no one knows what it means, and then I feel like I sound even more pretentious.

So, here I am. I'm trying to negotiate a balance between my desire to honor my principles, my desire to avoid being a giant pain in the ass to those I love, and my desire to eat meat just because it tastes good. I think the solution is simply to be less anal -- eat meat when you feel like eating it and attempt to do so every so often. The problem with that solution, though, is that it means learning to be comfortable in the gray area. For me, absolutes, ironically, tend to be easier to live by. For some people, myself included, being OCD about certain things is actually easier than not being that way. It's harder to live in the middle than on either end because when you're on the ends, you know right where you are. In the middle, you have to make a kind of peace with your own amorphousness; you have to become comfortable in constant state of mild uncertainty. But, in the end, I think I choose uncertainty. It's harder, but it also leaves room for change and adaptation, things I feel are almost always good for me. We'll see how I do...