Trying to assuage guilt

On my return from Sri Lanka last week, I read the back issues of the Cleveland newspapers and found that a big story was the vicious beating of a middle-aged white man by a group of six black teenagers who had accosted him while he was on a walk in his neighborhood. The man was saved from possible death because of the alarm raised by a resident (who is a faculty member at Case) who had observed the assault from his home front window and raised the alarm, which caused the attackers to flee.

The neighborhood happens to be in the same community of Shaker Heights that I live in, an inner-ring suburb of Cleveland. This neighborhood is a rarity in the US, one that is ethnically integrated and has been so since the era of civil rights legislation. The youths lived a few miles away in the city of Cleveland.

The assault was cowardly and deplorable and was condemned by everyone. But what really caused a furor was a Plain Dealer newspaper column on Sunday, January 6, 2008 written by local media personality Dick Feagler in which he argued that the message of such events was clear: integrated neighborhoods were an impossible concept in practice and white people who could afford to should simply move out of places like Shaker Heights and into almost exclusively white communities, where they would be safe from such attacks. He said that such an attitude should be called ‘realism’, not ‘racism.’

Condemnation of his column has been swift and widespread both from his fellow columnists in the Plain Dealer and from the general public, including the victim, the person who raised the alarm, and neighborhood community leaders.

While the attack itself was indisputably awful, the reaction of people to such incidents is a kind of Rorschach test, revealing a lot about them.

Feagler’s reaction was a classic example of someone using external events to assuage their own guilt. To understand it one must know that Feagler is an old-style journalist who models himself on legendary columnists Mike Royko in Chicago and Jimmy Breslin in New York. They were people from gritty, urban, working class backgrounds, hard-drinking and smoking, who would frequent the bars and other nightspots of their town and be friendly and familiar with the people of the streets, such as construction and other blue-collar workers, beat cops, petty criminals, pimps, and hustlers. From this wealth of diversity, they would draw the stories and language that filled their columns and gave their newspaper readers a glimpse into a rich world that lay just beneath the surface.

Feagler is a Royko/Breslin wannabee who proudly recounts his childhood experiences growing up in a working class Cleveland neighborhood and still tries to portray himself as a Clevelander. Many of his columns are complaints about the decline of the city and the schools from the time when he was young. But his problem is that he long ago moved away from the working class neighborhoods of his upbringing and into the well-to-do and predominantly white suburb of Bay Village, which is far from Cleveland, both literally and figuratively. He thus faces the dilemma of all those who like to portray themselves as just regular, working class folks, men of the people, at home with all classes and ethnicities, but have chosen to live in places that have little such diversity and are more like enclaves for the wealthy. Such people have a sense of guilt at abandoning the places that they grew up in. Running away from a situation rather than staying and trying to improve things gives one a feeling of being a coward and it is hard to live with that.

For many such people, the only way to salvage their self-image is to argue that they were forced into this action and that it was eminently sensible to move. When others take the same action that you did, you feel a little more vindicated. So Feagler’s call for other white people to leave integrated areas is really a plea for others to not judge him harshly for having left.

Although I disagree strongly with what Feagler said, I think I understand what is driving it because I live with feelings of guilt and cowardice similar to Feagler’s. I had always wanted to live and work in Sri Lanka, amongst the family and friends that I had grown up with, to try and improve the conditions in that country. But in 1983, following an attack on an army truck, a vicious anti-Tamil pogrom was unleashed by the then government of Sri Lanka in which unchecked mobs rampaged the streets, killing Tamils and setting fire to their homes and buildings, while the government’s police and security forces stood idly by, sometimes even egging the mobs on. I saw these things first hand and they required me my family and me (because we were Tamils) to go into hiding for about a week to escape possible death.

I was furious at the government for abandoning its basic function of maintaining order and instead handing power over to its mobs and goons. (When I saw the film Hotel Rwanda I relived the awful sensation of what it feels like when you are completely powerless and unprotected from mobs who had been your neighbors the previous day, and when even the government is against you, although what happened in Rwanda was a massacre on a far larger scale than occurred in Sri Lanka.) I felt that such a society was not one in which I could bring up my older daughter, who was then just three months old. So in sorrow and anger I emigrated to the US and have stayed here ever since, returning to Sri Lanka only for brief visits. The ethnic violence in Sri Lanka continues to this day, ebbing and (currently) flowing.

But when you leave a bad situation, you are essentially weakening the side that is trying to make the situation better, and strengthening the hand of the bad elements. Those who leave may try to justify it as ‘realism’ but there is undoubtedly an element of cowardice involved. The guilt I felt for essentially running away from a problem and leaving others to deal with it rather than facing up to it personally has never gone away, although I have come to terms with it. I still wonder if I did the right thing, although the people I know in Sri Lanka keep saying that I was smart to move away. I did notice that when others I knew also took the step of leaving the country, it seemed to justify my decision, making it seem to me like I did the right thing. When others stayed or even returned to Sri Lanka, it made my decision seem wrong.

For people who leave a bad situation, there is a temptation to eagerly highlight reports of horrible events because it seems to retrospectively justify their decision to leave. In my case, it is easy to resist that temptation because I still have close family and friends living in Sri Lanka and every incident of violence there triggers alarm about their safety. But if you have no remaining real links to the place you left behind, it is tempting to view events through the lens of one’s own emotional needs and focus only on the bad things that happen.

I think that this is what is driving Feagler’s views. Every person who continues to live in integrated neighborhoods is a silent living rebuke to his decision to move away from them into an ethnically and economically exclusive enclave, while every person who moves away is a vindication of his own decision. Every sign that Cleveland is getting better implies that he made a mistake in moving. Every sign of its decline shows his prescience in abandoning the city.

Feagler is old enough that he should have the self-awareness to realize that his advice to other white people to move out of integrated communities is largely self-serving. He has drawn the wrong lesson from this deplorable event. It is not about him and his need to assuage his own guilt.

The vicious beating was a terrible thing to have had happen but it was an isolated incident and the youths involved were not even people from the neighborhood where the assault took place, so it was not a reflection on ethnic relations within the community. Unfortunately, such things can, and do, happen everywhere.

POST SCRIPT: Jesus Christ Superstar

If you haven’t seen this 1973 rock musical, you have missed a treat. This is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s best work, raised to a high level by the superb lyrics of Tim Rice and the magnificent performance of Carl Anderson who sang the part of Judas. The film exploded into life whenever Anderson appeared and he stole every scene in which he appeared. Anderson died in 2004 of leukemia.

Here is Anderson in the opening sequence:

And here he is singing the title song:

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