Saturday, October 30, 2010

lousy knees

You shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.

-- Leviticus 19:34

I get worried. I get nervous.

-- Juan Williams, Oct. 21, 2010

For nine years I have trusted my cars to a Muslim. I don’t know what country he comes from, and I’ve never asked: he is an honest man. He distinguishes the essential work from the desirable. He does the work I tell him to do, and for a fair price. I have come to trust his judgment. He figures out ways for me to keep my ancient automobiles alive without spending more than they are worth. On the one occasion when his work went wrong, he did the right thing, and with alacrity -- he had the work done again at his own expense, and he stayed on the case until he got it right. His conduct in this one area of my life has been so exemplary that, if it were necessary, I would trust him in other respects as well. I have recommended him to others. There are politicians, pundits and bankers in America who would be improved by taking moral instruction from him. He has succeeded by his honesty, and now he owns several stations.

The only people who can claim to be original in America are the ones who no longer possess it. The rest of us are either immigrants, or descendants of willing or unwilling immigrants. We are refugees all from our particular Egypts. Trouble is, each new wave of immigrants thinks itself the normative one, the standard by which all who follow are guaranteed to fail. And when some of those who stayed behind in Egypt become our enemies, their refugees come under suspicion. The Japanese-Americans did not do well in America during an earlier war. And now there are those who want to drive out the Muslim-Americans.

The Park51 Cultural Center is not a mosque, is not located on Ground Zero, and will not be visible there. There is nothing to discuss here: those who rage about a “Ground Zero Mosque” are liars.

I, on the other hand, report to an office that is actually near Ground Zero. From my seat in a 1 train, as I go to or return from errands of mercy, I see through gaps in the tunnel wall some daylight of the still empty space. The tunnels themselves, where I spend much of my working day, are the next terrorist target. If once again war comes to my city, as it did to London and Madrid, I will be on the front lines. Though I never had basic training, I am a soldier. An unarmed soldier with lousy knees.

A few days ago I stood in a crowded subway at rush hour. A woman sat down on the bench below me, clothed in what I later learned is a niqab -- a robe of black, covering the entire body and face, with only the eyes exposed. I shuddered. And then I was angry.

This goes beyond the identification of one’s faith -- the yarmulkeh, or the turban and tiny sword of the Sikh, or the brightly colored scarf worn by many Muslim women, or the little crucifix hanging on the chests of many Christians, or the pendant of a flaming chalice worn by some ministers of my faith. This was a statement of the radical form of her faith, by a person concealing her identity.

The freedoms and opportunities of America, which for centuries have drawn the most energetic of the world’s oppressed, do not come for free. Their price is accountability. I can’t reward my mechanic for his good work if I do not know who he is. And because I know who he is, I could raise hell with him if he treated me badly. He can’t succeed without accountability.

Here was a person demanding my respect for her faith, without letting me know who it was I should respect. Honor without accountability. Concealing herself like the outlaw in a bank-robbing movie, clothed in a garment loose enough to conceal a deathly cargo, she placed herself in the very spot from which the next battle may begin. As Juan Williams said, I got concerned, I got nervous. I’ve seen the movie from Madrid. Honestly now, process observer, can you blame me? She gave me the creeps.

The train arrived at my station, and I got off. Nothing happened. As Juan Williams said a few seconds after the remarks for which he was fired by a radio network he was not working for at the time, we are not at war with Islam. But there is a radical form of Islam -- a perversion, some would say -- that is at war with us. It doesn’t take two to make a war.

We must not make enemies of those who would be our friends. That would be the stupidest, and most certainly disastrous, kind of self-defense. That’s the way empires destroy themselves. Muslims, like Slavs and Mediterraneans and Central Americans and Celts and even Anglo-Saxons before them, have come here because their home worlds were disastrous and they saw here a chance for themselves and their progeny. Surely we who arrived in America before they did can understand their purpose.

But it is not easy to love the Alien among us when some who speak in the Alien’s name have killed us. To pretend that we do not feel some turbulent emotions about this contradiction would be dishonest and irresponsible. We must get control of these emotions, but we cannot control them if we do not name them. That’s what Juan Williams was doing. And it’s what I’m doing right now. We’re naming these emotions.

We liberals sometimes forget our own psycho-babble. All together now, boys and girls, remember -- emotions are neither right or wrong, it’s what we do when in the grip of our emotions that is right or wrong. Emotions are crucial data of the moral situation, and we ignore them at our peril. Ignorance leads to error, and moral error is sin.

I am no progressive. I am a liberal: born a liberal, educated a liberal, lived and will die a liberal. And I grieve when the institutions of liberal value betray that value. Though NPR’s firing of Juan Williams does not rise to the full squalor of Shirley Sherrod’s firing by the Agriculture Department, it is another instance of the rot within liberal culture, its substitutions of correctness for honesty, of verbal formalities for moral responsibility. If we don’t do better than this, we don’t deserve our place in history.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

helluva time

In my mind, I’m 5 foot 3, but deep down I know I’m only 5 foot 2.

-- Menachem Pressler*

What goes for a tiny pianist would go for a writer, an actor, a preacher, or a prophet. Skill is not enough. Mastery is not enough. Talent is not enough. You have to know you’re better than you are. Humility is a fine thing until the lights come up. Then there’s no democracy, only emergency.

If I’m doing one thing (A), what happens when they tell me to do another thing (B) instead? I figure out a third thing (C) to do, and they think I have obeyed when I have not. Deep down I’m a contrary sumbitch, always seeking a way to do it my way.

But if the audience is pleased, what’s the harm? Have I not performed well? Is this not honesty?

When the lights come up, it’s emergency. Surveys can’t lead you out of this mess, and if the crowd knew how to save themselves they’d have done it by now. They don’t know what they want. They don’t know what they need. You have to lead them. You have to show them what they want, and what they need, and let them name it as they will. Afterward they might say, “Thank you, that’s what we wanted,” but they didn’t want it in time and couldn’t have described it. They hadn’t a clue. That’s what it’s come down to, when the lights come up.

I don’t want to be onstage with nice guys. When the lights come up, my comrades should be ruthless, and do what’s necessary when it’s necessary. Not what everybody thinks they want. And not at some prudent time when the council has met, pondered, revised, temporized, compromised, incorporated alternatives, and ensured that no constituency is left out of the process. By then you’re watching the boat drop over the horizon. Permanent regret.

Many a man wishes he’d known, at the age of eighteen, that there comes a moment when you have to kiss the girl, and nothing else is to the point or even acceptable.

Authority adheres to you not because you’re always right, but because when the lights come up you dare what others dare not. That’s charisma. The boy Yeshua, left behind in the temple by mistake, debated the scriptures with those older and wiser. He did not ask permission, he did not defer – he spoke as one with authority. He was having a helluva time it seems, until his mom and dad came back, turned off the lights and took him home, where he had no honor. The boy knew his stuff, it seems.

You’ve got to know your stuff, and you’ve got to play the notes, but the people can’t tell you which notes to play or how to phrase them. Smile and say that’s an interesting suggestion, you’ll give it careful consideration; then do exactly as you please. They’ll probably imagine you took their advice.

We don’t have an organ in our church, but we have a grand piano, and a grand pianist who plays it grandly. A survey produced an anonymous plea: “Could he please not play so loud?” Hmm, let me see. Such an interesting suggestion. We’ll give it the most careful consideration. The name of the instrument is piano-forte. That is, soft-loud. It’s meant to play softly and loudly in alternation. The music written for it is sometimes soft, sometimes loud. That’s how classical music works. It spins its long tales by contrast of many variables, and among those variables are softness and loudness. European classical music is perhaps the world’s only music in which softness and loudness have MEANING. Shall we excise the loudness that is written in the name of the instrument, the notes of the music? Shall we ask the artist to play in only one key, or facing away from the keyboard, or with one hand tied behind his back? We shall in fact direct him to do exactly as he pleases. That’s the kindest response.

You must know your stuff, and know the public more intimately than they know themselves. Note their anxiety, but disregard their account of it. When the great gong-show starts, give them what they could not know they yearned for, and might resent you for exposing. This humility before The Spirit is not a moderate thing but a scandal, an outrage, a peak of arrogance. How dare you do what needs to be done? How dare you do what, if you do it without delay or compromise, they might some day thank you for?

You’re the one who takes the risk. That’s your side of the covenant. They’re the ones who might throw tomatoes. You could be horribly wrong. But if you ask them what to do, they will certainly, sooner or later, throw their tomatoes. They don’t really want to be consulted.

An artist’s love, like that of a poet, a preacher or prophet, is tough love. Listen to the spirit. Do as it directs. Don’t apologize. Have a helluva time. Act as one with authority. This is not moderate behavior.

At the crucial moment you must be more than you are. If you’re five foot two you must grow to five foot three. This is not the time to take suggestions. Be a nice guy later, but right now you must know, and nurture, your inner sumbitch.

“A Pianistic Quarterback Passes to a Younger Generation,” New York Times (November 30, 2003)