Tuesday, May 18, 2010

We Are Not Our Prejudices

In 1966 and 67 when they were filming the original Planet of the Apes the cast and crew stumbled upon an interesting sociological phenomenon. For those of you who have never seen the movie or haven’t seen it in a long time, there are three species of ape featured; chimpanzees, orangutans and gorillas.
Roddy McDowell and his counterpart, Cornelius.

The makeup worn was extensive and delicate. Once on, it really could not be taken off for the entire day of shooting. Actors had to eat smoothies for lunch through straws…and delicately. So, meals were generally eaten with full on ape make up. Here’s what would happen.

No matter who was underneath the make up, black, white, Asian or otherwise, each of the three species tended to sit at the same tables with each other, never mixing until someone realized what was going on. The chimps would sit with the chimps, orangutans with orangutans and gorillas with gorillas.

This, to me, tells us a lot about how we as the animals known as human beings operate. We are naturally gravitated toward that which is like us, and suspicious of that which is unlike us. Old point, I know. But an important one because I think this goes to the heart of what America strives to be, as opposed to what it is.

We have initial reactions in our guts about what’s different, who’s different. These reactions are not rational, they are based on nothing more than fear. Sometimes there is a level of experience behind that fear. Sometimes not. But the instinctive needpreference to be with the familiar is paramount.

For some of us, this is a given and we develop, over time, a strategy to overcome our prejudice. We ask ourselves questions, such as; What am I really afraid of? What am I basing this reaction on? Can I get past this sensation to see what’s really there? With a little effort we tend to be able to move past it.

That’s why I have held to my belief that we are all racist in some way shape or form. It’s inherent. What makes us better, what moves us past that is our other innate behavior. The ability to question ourselves.

Some of us are better at it than others. I don’t have much patience for people who refuse to do it. People like George W. Bush, Sarah Palin, or for that matter Christopher Hitchens.

Some of us simply sink further into our prejudices. We remain comfortable with them. We look for statements and events that make that security blanket of the familiar thicker and warmer. We don’t notice that when we take that blanket and pull it over our heads, it gets too dark to see that there’s a world outside that blanket, and it’s not exactly a world that fits our warm comfort.

Hence, Arizona. Now look, I don’t actually have an issue with maintaining some enforcement of expecting people to have proof of citizenship on them. The fact is, if you have ID, you should have it on you. That’s true no matter where or what you are. But when the law suddenly states that law enforcement can act on its own hunches (because there’s no real way to define ‘reasonable suspicion’ any other way. ) and when you threaten that the state can sue said law enforcement for NOT acting on those hunches..well..you’re just saying that you’re making sure you look out for the unfamiliar.
My beautiful homestate filled with flawed sheeple.

Governor Brewer can state over and over again that racial profiling is illegal. But until she actually says WHY it’s illegal and listens to the Sheriff’s of the border counties on why the law makes it harder not easier on their efforts, then she’s acting on that prejudice. She proves my point even further when she signs legislation banning ethnic studies in her state for middle and high schools.

(It’s worth noting too, that those Mexicans they hate so much were there first.)

It’s no better here in New York City where two mosques are being planned for the area right across the street from Ground Zero.

Reprehensible Representative Peter King is offended and some 9/11 families are too as well as the same idiots who are afraid to try terrorists on American soil. Well, I’m sorry these people can’t see past their prejudices on this one either.

Honestly, when I first read about it, I too had a moment of twinge. I’m ashamed to say that my initial reaction was one of distaste. But then I remembered something. I’m an American and an intelligent human being and I stand for better than that.

Islam did not smash down the Twin Towers. A bunch of sick idiots following a power hungry schmuck hiding behind religion did that. And frankly every religion is guilty of that sin.

Let me explain something about the financial district of Manhattan. It is one of the most excellent examples of bad planning that you can imagine. Most of the tallest buildings in the city are concentrated in this area. An area where 60% of the streets are the same width they were 400 years ago when New York (then New Amsterdam) was first settled. To say this area is crowded during the day would be as if to say boiling water hurts when you touch it.

Those small streets themselves are lined with shops and food carts. The vast vast majority of those carts and many of those shops are owned and/or run by Muslim Americans. I’m talking about donut and coffee carts, falafel stands, hot dog stands, kebob stands, (is it bad that I keep thinking about Homer Simpson buying Kluv Kolahsh in front of the World Trade Center?) halal hamburger stands, pretzel and chestnut carts, jewelry shops, restaurants, delis......


Now, you have a vast population of Muslim Americans working in this area. They have been here for a long time. Some of them were killed on 9/11. Are we actually going to suggest that they can’t have a place to worship, because they happen to share a claim to a faith that was had by the dickbrains that crashed the Twin Towers?

The fact is, we need a 13 story mosque in that area, because people of all faiths and professions literally spill onto the streets in that part of town.

When I worked in midtown it took me door to door 40 to 50 minutes to get to work. In the time I was working in the Financial District last year, 3 miles closer to me, it took over an hour. That’s because of crowd navigation. I’m not exaggerating.

So there is not only a spiritual need, but a PRACTICAL need.

Are we really going to not get past our own prejudices caused by associations that are more emotional than rational?

I say no. I say we are Americans and we stand for freedom.

It shouldn’t surprise me. Gretchen Carlson has the audacity to suggest that a Muslim woman won Miss USA out of political correctness. Other right wing idiots seem to be falling over themselves to join the chorus on that one. It couldn’t possibly be because she’s hot.

Actually, the real problem is that Carlson, a beauty pageant queen herself should be careful. All beauty pageants are bullshit and if she starts trying to peel away at that issue, she’s just going to skin herself alive.

We need to poke our heads out of our security blankets and see the world and recognize the world outside doesn’t have room for us to not question our fears.

I’m sorry for the grief of the 9/11 families. I am friends with a 9/11 widow who in fact thinks this is all nonsense. But they need to move beyond the blanket over their grief and remember who the real enemy is.

Otherwise the terrorists have already won.

They like us in our dark warm blankets, because then we can only see what’s in our dark little fearful minds instead of what is actually happening.

Let’s remember who and what we stand for. Let’s remember that for the past 150 years we have built this nation on the sweat and backs of the different. Let’s.Be.Better.

I also recommend this piece for some historical perspective on the Crusades.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Twelve Years

Twelve years ago this week I was spending my days going through my father's apartment with my brother. Dad had shot himself on the 9th and his body was found by his oldest friend in New York on the 12th. Twelve years ago Wednesday.

Twelve years ago I was sifting through grief, memory and questions questions questions. Not the ones you might think. The fact is, when I got the call from my brother that the police had called him from Dad's apartment, I knew what had happened. I'd hoped I was wrong. But I knew.

Mom said it best that night when we called to let her know. "He was always so sad". It was true. He was also scared. Whatever the combination, he had a dim world view.

I loved my dad. He was basically a good man who never really dealt with his anger issues, his alcoholism or his strengths. A talented actor, he'd packed us up from Tucson Arizona, sold the Ford Falcon and got us on a train to New York City and went straight into substitute teaching and social work. His career as an actor was essentially small productions in holes in the wall (before the moniker "Off Off Broadway" was coined.) and extra work in movies.

As a kid I would listen while he would lament the vagaries of the business and how hard it was...and it instilled in me the belief that the business was indeed brutal. It didn't stop me from wanting to be an actor. It didn't stop me from thinking I could do better. But these things are insidious and the sins of the father are often visited upon the son. His beliefs did become mine and even when I achieved some pretty good if minor successes, my joy would be tainted by fear of the success not lasting.

Now to be sure, being an actor isn't easy. It can be brutal, but I can see very clearly as I look back how my own thoughts and feelings that were inherited affected the way I approached my career and subsequently the way my career developed...or didn't as it turns out.

Twelve years ago fears and doubts overtook my father to the point that he no longer was able to reason. This man who raced down the street with me...encouraged me to take the training wheels off my back when he knew I could. The man who when he saw I was floundering in my efforts to audition for the High School of Performing Arts bought a gazillion plays for me to look through and helped me find the right pieces and even coached me. A man who as a social worker had saved or improved as best he could, so many lives, wasn't even able to remember a simple meditation technique because anxiety had overcome him.

He'd been given Buspar and started to take it, then stopped. 12 years ago it got so bad that he sat at the edge of his bed and ate the barrel of a .357 magnum. He left a note that was really more of an excuse than anything else. Fears of a cancer that didn't exist.
Two weeks later, the girl he wanted to marry, a dancer from Japan was finally allowed back into the country. He'd become convinced it wouldn't happen after months of legal back and forth. Fear of being alone and abandoned convinced him that his life wouldn't work out as he desired. So it seems he decided to just stop trying.
12 years later I still wrestle with loving him and hating him. Remembering his capacity for compassion for everyone while he seemed to only have pity for himself. I am sometimes on the edge of forgiving him. And then I remember having to tell my daughter what happened. I remember how as she is now almost 20 years old, she can't play chess because that's what she used to do with Grandpa. I can't quite do it.
For the past 12 years, for about 3 weeks before and after the anniversaries, he shows up in my dreams. Sometimes as if he's never been gone, sometimes as if he's only been on some trip in South America or something and we all just THOUGHT he was dead.I forget about it...forget it's that time of year...sometimes even the days of his actual death or the day he was found go by entirely unnoticed. Sometimes not.
Twelve years later I can watch Dirty Harry make one line comments about his Magnum and still get a kick out of it. But when Heroes first aired and there was an episode with half a skull being cut off and brains removed, I get completely worked up.
I wrestle with fear too. And it's not hard to see how it keeps me from acting. Clouds my thinking. I've made a decades long struggle of shifting from "can't" to "can". It hasn't been easy.
Twelve years ago I cremated my father. Twelve years later I'm still cremating parts of his legacy so I can rise from the ashes.