Moral Witness Through Comedy

Imagining the hastening of the day when Arab Americans are just another unsuspected and unsurprising part of American culture.

By Michael Tomasky

Tagged Culture

In mid-October, I attended the fifth annual gala dinner here in Washington of the American Task Force on Palestine (ATFP). Given that the mere mention of an organization that sounds as if it advocates for Palestinian statehood and rights–which is indeed part of what ATFP does–raises suspicions in some quarters, I hasten to note that the task force is an entirely mainstream and respectable organization, founded in 2003 with support from Democrats and Republicans, peaceniks and neocons, alike. The keynote speaker at the first dinner, in 2006, was Condoleezza Rice. The keynoter the night I attended: her successor at State, Hillary Clinton (who learned in her New York-senator days not to go within a mile of a Middle East group about which there was the remotest question of its legitimacy). It was a highfalutin affair–Ritz Carlton, black tie, solid wines. The only thing to distinguish it from a thousand other such shindigs was a function of the observably higher incidence of tobacco use among Arabs than among the general population: After Clinton finished, a massive column of guests charged outside for a cigarette.

That I feel compelled to rehearse the task force’s credentials right up front says something about the condition of Palestinians, and Arabs generally, in the United States. I refer not so much to the headline-grabbing instances of prejudice, although there are certainly those, as we saw last summer with regard to the proposed Islamic center in lower Manhattan, and with mosques under construction in Tennessee and California. I mean something at once more prosaic and more, I would say, important over the long haul: how Arab Americans are and are not assimilating themselves into American culture on a workaday basis, and how other Americans (outside the universe of bigotry) are perceiving them.

Arab Americans are, for most other Americans, cultural outliers. There are about 3.5 million Americans of Arab descent: not a lot, but enough to matter demographically. On average they have higher levels of education and income than the rest of us. But there is this wall. Generally speaking, we don’t need to be social scientists to analyze this. We know the reasons: mistrust, not entirely misplaced but that unfairly tars many innocents, because of terrorism; a feeling–again justified, inasmuch as most Arabs come to us from countries that have not instilled in them democratic habits, but also too broadly and coarsely attached–that “they” don’t share “our” values; and more straightforward, nonpolitical things, like the simple fact that most people probably don’t even know an Arab American, so virtually the only image they have of Arab people comes from the media, and those images tend to be of the Fort Hood shooter and his ilk. As a result, other Americans’ views of Arabs are not favorable: A September 2010 survey by Zogby International shows that Americans are basically split, 43 percent favorable to 41 percent unfavorable. (Democrats held favorable views by a large margin, while Republicans and independents said they viewed Arabs unfavorably.)

The point about the negative images is key. When Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people at Virginia Tech back in 2007, I don’t remember any general alarms being raised against South Koreans. The reason they weren’t raised for him but are when it comes to Arab Americans was not, as some devoted multiculturalists might insist, a case of simple ingrained prejudice against Arabs. Obviously the crime of September 11 was far greater than Cho’s rampage. But even allowing for that, I think an important reason Cho’s crime wasn’t generalized was that Americans have a larger frame of reference within which they understand South Koreans who live in the United States. Koreans assimilate and intermarry more quickly than many other groups, and consequently Americans perceive them as industrious contributors to the nation. Even in the case of more political or ideological crimes, Americans never ascribed, say, a thirst for English blood to all Irish people back in the days of the IRA. In those contexts, the bad actors were understood to be aberrations and unrepresentative. But other Americans just aren’t sure who or what Arab Americans are, beyond the bad ones. There is a strong desire to know more, according to the Zogby poll, among Democrats and independents (though not Republicans: in addition to holding highly unfavorable views of Arabs, 44 percent don’t want to know more as opposed to 39 percent who do).

Martin Luther King Jr. bore moral witness against white America by marching and preaching nonviolently in the political arena. That’s one way to get the other side to see your most positive case. But it’s not the only way. I would suggest to the Arab-American world that in today’s United States, opening the eyes and hearts of others is best achieved not by politics, especially in today’s toxic political environment, but via culture. Call it moral witness through comedy.

When I was a little boy, my parents loved to listen to a record called When You’re in Love the Whole World is Jewish. I didn’t know any Jews then. My parents probably knew a grand total of four. But we listened, and we laughed; the jokes, though set in exotic locales like Westchester County, New York, and occasionally a little inside for us, for the most part settled on terrain that we could understand.

So how did this Italian-Episcopal (Mom), Serbian-atheist (Dad) family in the then-small and remote town of Morgantown, West Virginia, come to shell out good money for this little piece of Borscht Belt kitsch? I actually have no idea, as I never asked, but I don’t see how the answer could fail in some way to involve Ed Sullivan. On his Sunday night variety show, he introduced America to the Borscht Belt comics. My parents were Kennedy-Humphrey-style liberals who would have been open in any event to different cultures–they actually had some Arab-American friends too, of Lebanese extraction, though there weren’t many around–and I’m sure that my folks were, like virtually all liberals of their time, strong supporters of Israel. But I don’t think I’m going out on a limb if I say that Sid Caesar and his writers (Mel Brooks and Woody Allen among them) made a bigger impact on them than David Ben-Gurion and his cabinet ministers.

Culture is crucial; pop culture included. We are, I’d hope we agree, long past the time during which intellectuals sneered at pop culture. There is good and bad pop culture, just as there is good and bad intellectual work. And good pop culture opens minds. We have by now a fairly long tradition of pop-culture figures from Archie Bunker to Michael Scott (Steve Carell’s character in “The Office”) whose gobsmacking stupidity is there to show the rest of us how dull and brainless bigotry looks and sounds. Ellen DeGeneres’s sitcom may have been cancelled on ABC right after she came out in 1997 and sponsorships dried up, but she’s long since established herself as one of America’s most popular women, accepted and even venerated in the odorless and cloying atmosphere of daytime television. Culture does have its limits: There exist many positive Latino role models in American high and middlebrow culture, and it doesn’t spare Latinos from political attacks over illegal immigration and some other issues. So politics matters–obviously. But culture is important precisely because when those political attacks come, it provides a softer frame of reference and makes the general public understand that the immigrant group’s story is larger than whatever they’re baying about on Fox News.

The successful advance of gay rights or Latino status in this country in recent years owes a great deal to the unglamorous daily work of the organizers and advocates and attorneys who have devoted their professional lives to the cause. But those people exist, too, in the Arab-American community. What America doesn’t see is high-profile examples. If I were a wealthy Arab American, I mean really wealthy, instead of pouring my money into political activism on the model of George Soros or the Koch Brothers, I’d produce a television show with Arab-American characters. I imagine that sounds flip, but I am being completely serious. And not characters who “represent” their cultures, although a little of that is fine two or three episodes a year. Rather, just Americans: sports nuts, rambunctious teenagers, ditzy shopaholics, bumbling bosses, helpful neighbors, nosy neighbors, waitresses, pipe-fitters, teachers, and writers (this year is apparently the season of the South Asian, with about a dozen regular Indian and Indian-American characters on America’s prime-time line-up). Embattled humans who make big mistakes and can laugh at themselves and size up the world with wit and asperity. For that, from Huck Finn to Nathan Zuckerman, is among the most standard of standard American types. It’s finding that point on the graph where we see both otherness and sameness at once, which is the point where the otherness fades away.

Of course, questions of terrorism and extremism surround everything. One can see how painful it must be for an Arab American or Muslim who loves this country to hear her religion talked about the way they do on Fox News. Even so, anxiety about extremist violence obviously isn’t invented out of whole cloth. Even if something is stoked by hate-mongers, that something is still real. The task force, for its part, gets this about Hamas violence. Sometimes, when the discussion turns to attempted acts of terror in the United States, one hears in the utterances and omissions of some Arab-American spokespersons a certain hedging of bets; an insistence, for example, that the speaker abhors “all violence” rather than this act of violence in particular. Well, no. It doesn’t work that way. “All violence” includes violence committed by one’s enemies, which is the easiest thing in the world to denounce. That dodge sounds every bit as dull and brainless as bigotry does, and the broad Arab-American middle must resist it and make sure the rest of the country is aware of that resistance. One must rise above ethnicity in this country and love the principle that our shared values are thicker than blood. That is transcendently what it means to be an American, even if many Americans don’t in practice live up to it. But the bar is a bit higher for newer arrivals or petitioners–which isn’t fair, but is the way it is. King understood that fact, which is why he advocated nonviolence even in the face of bombings and lynchings.

I should say, I suppose, that the situation is made harder by the presence of conservative demagogues who whip people into states of rage over projects like the lower Manhattan Islamic center. When a building plan includes a multi-denominational reflection space and 9/11 memorial and yet is portrayed as a veritable second terrorist attack, it’s easy to see why some might lose patience and faith. But there’s only one way to siphon out the oxygen on which Gorgons like Sarah Palin thrive, and that way is not to complain about her more loudly, but to show the people she’s wrong, just as the Sarah Palins of previous eras were wrong about Catholics and Jews and Latinos. This will all be clear to a broad majority of Americans someday, but it won’t just happen. It takes hard work. And good humor.

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Michael Tomasky is the editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.

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