I don’t usually write much about many of the political events that dominate the news. Most of the time, our national discourse is dominated by the trivial and to even comment on it is to give undue importance to it and feed the flames. But another reason I don’t comment is because there is usually enough commentary and analysis elsewhere and by the time I think that I have a perspective on it that may add something new to the discussion, the issue has usually faded away because it was never one of major significance to begin with.
So I had not planned to write anything about the controversy over the proposed building of an Islamic center a couple of blocks away from the site of the destroyed World Trade Center in New York City. To me it seemed a non-issue or at most a zoning issue that would fade away as quickly as it came into prominence. I really do not care where religious people build structures in which they can waste time praying to their non-existent gods. What really bothers me is that they get tax benefits for this nonsense, but that is a topic for another day.
But the opposition to this center has been lasting longer than it deserves, fanned by ugly xenophobic elements who seem determined to create a climate hostile to Islam in the US. Gary Leupp, a professor of history at Tufts University, has produced a useful timeline of how this thing got blown up out of all proportion. One distortion used to fuel anger is for opponents to refer to it as the ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ and the site as ‘hallowed ground’ when in fact it is more like a YMCA equivalent for Muslims and is at least two blocks away from the World Trade Center site. New York City blocks are huge so that proximity is not an issue, even if it was a valid argument to begin with. Furthermore, it is laughable to talk of that area as ‘hallowed ground’ when it seems like a typical busy New York area with its usual assortment of street vendors, eateries, stores, adult entertainment businesses, tourists, and the like. As I have written before, all this talk of venerating the World Trade Center site strikes me as phony grandstanding, a symptom of the epidemic of overdoing public grief.
But the event that triggered this post was the recent protest demonstration in which a black man named Kenny, who is said to be a carpenter working on the site, wandered past the crowd on his way to work. Because the crowd thought he was a Muslim (he was wearing a skull cap), they started hurling abuse at him.
Watching this ugly scene reminded me of something and after a while it clicked: it was the hateful abuse by white people directed at Elizabeth Eckford, the 15-year old black girl who attempted to integrate a Little Rock, Arkansas high school in 1957. She was captured in this memorable photograph, trying to maintain her dignity while enduring the abuse.
My recollection of the Eckford story also brought to mind John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, his 1960 account of his travels across America in the company of his dog. There is one chapter late in the book where he describes what he saw in New Orleans during the effort to integrate schools there. He describes the actions of a group of middle-aged women who dutifully turned up every day and took their stations directly across the street from an elementary school to jeer and hurl abuse, to the roars of approval of the crowds behind them, at the little black girl who arrived under the protection of US marshalls.
No one captures the moment like Steinbeck and what he wrote on that occasion made such an impression on me decades ago that I’ll give an extended quote:
While I was still in Texas, late in 1960, the incident most reported and pictured in the newspapers was the matriculation of a couple of tiny Negro children in a New Orleans school. Behind these small dark mites were the law’s majesty and the law’s power to enforce-both the scales and the sword were allied with the infants-while against them were three hundred years of fear and anger and terror of change in a changing world. I had seen photographs in the papers every day and motion pictures on the television screen. What made the newsmen love the story was a group of stout middle-aged women who, by some curious definition of the word “mother,” gathered every day to scream invectives at children. Further, a small group of them had become so expert that they were known as the Cheerleaders, and a crowd gathered every day to enjoy and to applaud their performance.
As I walked toward the school I was in a stream of people all white and all going in my direction. They walked intently like people going to a fire after it has been burning for some time. They beat their hands against their hips or hugged them under coats, and many men had scarves under their hats and covering their ears.
Across the street from the school the police had set up wooden barriers to keep the crowd back, and they paraded back and forth, ignoring the jokes called to them. The front of the school was deserted but along the curb United States marshals were spaced, not in uniform but wearing armbands to identify them. Their guns bulged decently under their coats but their eyes darted about nervously, inspecting faces. It seemed to me that they inspected me to see if I was a regular, and then abandoned me as unimportant.
It was apparent where the Cheerleaders were, because people shoved forward to try to get near them. They had a favored place at the barricade directly across from the school entrance, and in that area a concentration of police stamped their feet and slapped their hands together in unaccustomed gloves.
Suddenly I was pushed violently and a cry went up: “Here she comes. Let her through… Come on, move back. Let her through. Where you been? You’re late for school. Where you been, Nellie?”
Nellie was received with shouts of greeting. I don’t know how many Cheerleaders there were. There was no fixed line between the Cheerleaders and the crowd behind them. What I could see was that a group was passing newspaper clippings back and forth and reading them aloud with little squeals of delight.
Now the crowd grew restless, as an audience does when the clock goes past curtain time. Men all around me looked at their watches. I looked at mine. It was three minutes to nine.
The show opened on time. Sound of sirens. Motorcycle cops. Then two big black cars filled with big men in blond felt hats pulled up in front of the school. The crowd seemed to hold its breath. Four big marshals got out of each car and from somewhere in the automobiles they extracted the littlest Negro girl you ever saw, dressed in shining starchy white, with new white shoes on feet so little they were almost round. Her face and little legs were very black against the white.
The big marshals stood her on the curb and a jangle of jeering shrieks went up from behind the barricades. The little girl did not look at the howling crowd but from the side the whites of her eyes showed like those of a frightened fawn. The men turned her around like a doll, and then the strange procession moved up the broad walk toward the school, and the child was even more a mite because the men were so big. Then the girl made a curious hop, and I think I know what it was. I think in her whole life she had not gone ten steps without skipping, but now in the middle of her first skip the weight bore her down and her little round feet took measured, reluctant steps between the tall guards. Slowly they climbed the steps and entered the school.
The papers had printed that the jibes and jeers were cruel and sometimes obscene, and so they were, but this was not the big show. The crowd was waiting for the white man who dared to bring his white child to school. And here he came along the guarded walk, a tall man dressed in light gray, leading his frightened child by the hand. His body was tensed as a strong leaf spring drawn to the breaking strain; his face was grave and gray, and his eyes were on the ground immediately ahead of him. The muscles of his cheeks stood out from clenched jaws, a man afraid who by his will held his fears in check as a great rider directs a panicked horse.
A shrill, grating voice rang out. The yelling was not in chorus. Each took a turn and at the end of each the crowd broke into howls and roars and whistles of applause. This is what they had come to see and hear.
No newspaper had printed the words these women shouted. It was indicated that they were indelicate, some even said obscene. On television the sound track was made to blur or had crowd noises cut in to cover. But now I heard the words, bestial and filthy and degenerate. In a long and unprotected life I have seen and heard the vomitings of demoniac humans before. Why then did these screams fill me with a shocked and sickened sorrow?
The words written down are dirty, carefully and selectedly filthy. But there was something far worse here than dirt, a kind of frightening witches’ Sabbath. Here was no spontaneous cry of anger, of insane rage.
Perhaps that is what made me sick with weary nausea. Here was no principle good or bad, no direction. These blowzy women with their little hats and their clippings hungered for attention. They wanted to be admired. They simpered in happy, almost innocent triumph when they were applauded. Their was the demented cruelty of egocentric children, and somehow this made their insensate beastliness much more heartbreaking. These were not mothers, not even women. They were crazy actors playing to a crazy audience.
Steinbeck could well have been writing about the New York City mob. Of course Kenny the carpenter was not a small schoolchild. He was a big, tough looking guy who looked quite capable of taking care of himself. But the comparison I want to make is not about the victims of the abuse but of the nature of a mob.
What makes people get into such a rage that they can take part in acts of senseless and petty cruelty based on the most base of tribal instincts? Did the people at the anti-Muslim rally have even the vaguest inclination that one day people will look on them with the same contempt with which we now view those who spewed hate at those black schoolchildren? Will they regret their actions later and wonder what got into them and wish they could make amends? Or have they permanently lost all sense of decency?
These questions occurred to me long ago when I read Steinbeck’s words and again when I saw the New York protesters. I have no answers.
POST SCRIPT: Satirizing the mob behavior
The Daily Show on the Islamic center controversy and points out the shameful and hypocritical behavior of Fox news in fanning the xenophobia.
|The Daily Show With Jon Stewart||Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c|
Stephen Colbert also weighs in on this issue and the equally absurd one of whether Obama is a Muslim.
|The Colbert Report||Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c|