Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Clarence Thomas, O.J Simpson, Tribalism and Me

About fifteen years ago I was visiting my sister in Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, where she was dying of leukemia. While waiting in that hospital, trying to keep my balance between false hope and real despair, I watched the Clarence Thomas hearings on television in the visitor's lounge. I was not alone.

A great many African American doctors, nurses and orderlies had assembled there to view the proceedings. As testimony by Thomas's former associate, Anita Hill exposed the Supreme Court nominee as a sexist, a hypocrite, and a liar, it seemed clear to me that he would be rejected by both the black and white public who watched the proceedings. How could anyone want to see this hack, this right-wing pompous creep with his pubic hair jokes succeed Thurgood Marshall, the great African-American jurist? It seemed impossible that the African-American community would get behind an enemy to their progress, and accept the slandering of Miss Hill as "a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty." All I could see was the Republicans using a black man to advance their social agenda to peel away the New Deal. Surely a people who had suffered as much as African Americans had, could not support such a man? It wasn't the first time I was wrong.

When Doubtful Thomas was finally voted through the committee, a great cheer rocked that TV room. The amiable African-American nurses and orderlies who were attending my sister in her last days were caught up in a raucous victory celebration for Thomas. While I saw a ruthless opportunist, they saw another black man under attack by the white world, and seemed to endorse his self-serving claim that he was experiencing a judicial lynching. We all know the outcome. Thomas is our most radical Justice, and we are stuck for a lifetime with this immutable block of judicial ice totally lacking in compassion for the poor of any color, a steadfast ally of the most reactionary forces in this country. It wasn't the first time I was right.

I don't have to tell you about the outcome of the O.J. Simpson trial. Like most white Americans I was astonished by the joyful response of the black community to the not guilty verdict for this very guilty murderer, but then I hadn't really examined my own tribal connections, and, if I had, no doubt I would have better understood the cheers, even though I could not justify them.

I was a child living in America during the Holocaust and I can never forget the horror I felt when I first saw those newsreel photographs of the murdered Jewish bodies piled up in the camps. When the state of Israel was founded, my Jewish family saw Israel as the last chance for the world to right the monstrous historic wrongs against the Jewish people by providing them with a safe homeland. As a boy I cheered the beleaguered Israelis as they triumphed over their Arab adversaries in battle. Israel had proven that Jews knew how to fight, and better yet, they knew how to win. I took pride in what the Israeli's had made of their country, not just by creating a democracy; fractious and alive as any democracy should be, and despite its orthodox fundamentalists introducing modernity to the Middle East, modernity not just in architecture and in agriculture but in civil liberties, free elections, and women's rights. Slowly, over time, my cheering diminished.

During the last Israeli incursion into Lebanon, as the civilian casualties mounted, I felt a deep concern for the hapless Lebanese people caught in the crossfire of yet another senseless war, and for the endangered Israelis where every win was now another loss. Once the bloodshed began the cry of "He started it!" seemed a dumb, childish, playground excuse that solved nothing. What mattered was the suffering and the hellish punishment of innocent peoples by tanks, or suicide bombers. Although I worried about the Israelis, and I suppose I always will, I thought I had finally gotten beyond my own parochial passions, that I was able to give equal value to the humanity of all the combatants in the Middle East, including the Palestinians. And yet...and yet...during a trip to London, I came upon a peace rally in Trafalgar Square, where a huge crowd of protestors were demonstrating against the Iraq war. I felt solidarity with the protestors until I saw the many anti-Israeli signs decrying the "Zionist" murderers, with anti-Semitic slogans and cartoons worthy of Joseph Streicher's "Der Sturmer." One look and suddenly I was a Jew again, alone, cut off from those who allegedly espoused the same anti-war cause that I embraced. Life is tricky that way.

I have never before written about the Arab-Israeli conflict because I recognize the tribalism within me. Like those who cheered O.J. and Clarence Thomas, it is driven by the hurts of the past, and this will always be so until we recognize our common humanity and not just our tribal roots. In the seventies and eighties finding one's roots was the way to overcome the negative stereotypes that many minorities faced and often internalized. But in my mind finding one's roots was a beginning, and not an ending. I am not asking that we deny our ethnicity, our unique culture, or our history, but that we first accept our common humanity. Easy to say and hard to do. It sounds as banal as the lyrics of a sixties peace song, but what choice do we have?

If I could I would declare a ban on all pride: Black Pride, Jewish Pride, Irish Pride, Scots Pride, French Pride, Muslim Pride, Italian Pride, Indian Pride, Hispanic Pride, Greek Pride, and you can throw in Women's Pride, Million Man March Pride, Gay Pride and Flag Day for good measure. You name it, I am the anti-pride man. And while I'm at it, down with all parades, with the possible exception of the Thanksgiving Day Parade, where Snoopy and the other gas balloons are inflated once a year, unlike the political and tribal gasbags who are always with us in their inflated state. It's not just that parades halt all traffic and litter the city streets; it's that they stop all thinking and litter the human mind. Group identity sounds great, often it feels great because it helps to salve our existential loneliness, but in practice it does not serve our greater goal of a world at peace. Tribalism is far too dangerous when the drum-beat can quickly become the suicide bomber or the atomic blast. Tribalism, ethnic pride, is a fuse waiting for a match. George W. Bush has lit that match in Iraq and used American tribalism as a rallying cry for his war without end. Tribalism in the twenty first century is as pernicious as global warming, far more dangerous than bird flu, and it is time for both the finger pointing and the cheering to stop. And please, please, for starters, less pride and no more parades.