As always at this time of year, I depart from my usual humorous approach to things to get serious. Surely, there is plenty to get serious about. The world has always been a scary place, but today with the very livability of our planet in question, it’s particularly worrisome. I was very happy to see the world reach an accord on climate change, though we all know that this will still be a long haul. But as the late great Janis Joplin said, “It’s gonna be a long hard drag, but we’ll make it.”
One good place to start is to recognize the fact that every one of us is a feeling and often suffering human being. We hear so much these days about “us and them.” But we are all “us.” I have been thinking about this a lot lately, after Donald Trump’s statements that it is time to bar all Muslims from entering the United States. Like so many of us, I was horrified at this, but even more disturbing was the positive reaction of a large number of people.
What I thought immediately after hearing of Trump’s remarks was that this was analogous to Hitler and what he said about the Jews. Even before the Holocaust started in earnest, Hitler’s outspoken anti-Semitism led to attacks on Jews and Jewish businesses. How did it feel to be Jewish in Germany when Hitler came into power? Think about that, really think about it. Think about the fear.
I can’t say I know this, but I strongly suspect that that is how many American Muslims are feeling today. And Muslims are not “them.” They are us.
Is terrorism scary? It absolutely is. And has much of terrorism been done by Muslims? Unfortunately, yes. But we should never confuse the fact that if the majority of bad acts are done by members of one religion, or one color, or one gender, it means that the majority of the members of that religion, color, or gender would ever do such a thing. It is a tiny, tiny fraction of the Muslim population that has perpetrated these egregious acts.
A recent New York Daily News cover was a brilliant depiction of what Trump’s remarks could ultimately mean. It featured a drawing of the Statue of Liberty lying on its back with Donald Trump having just cut off its head. And then there were words on the page, which read: “When Trump came for the Mexicans, I did not speak out because I was not a Mexican. When he came for the Muslims, I did not speak out because I was not a Muslim. And then he came for me….” This is a play on a famous quote by Martin Niemöller, a pastor who opposed the Nazis: “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.”
We should always be very wary when our government “comes for” any of us.
Many years ago, when my brother was writing his doctoral dissertation on the novels of Thomas Hardy, I read several of Hardy’s novels. One of those was Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which was published in 1891. There was a passage in there about how important each person’s life is to him or her, even if others did not see that importance.
I’m sure I wrote it down in one of my notebooks, but given that I find it hard to locate things I’ve written down in the last year, trying to find something from 1970 is beyond hopeless. But it could have been this:
“She was not an existence, an experience, a passion, a structure of sensations, to anybody but herself. To all humankind besides, Tess was only a passing thought. Even to friends she was no more than a frequently passing thought.”
For me, the key is to remember that these “passing thoughts” are human beings with experiences, passions and sensations. It’s something for all of us to keep in our heads, whether we’re on the phone with a customer service rep or thinking about people whose religion is different from our own. Empathy is not easy and can be painful, but the solution is not to simply disregard the full humanity in all of us.
So to all my fellow human beings, a happy holiday season and best wishes for a tolerant, thoughtful, happy and healthy new year ahead.
Writer’s note: If you start to notice my columns appearing less frequently, you’ll be right. After 31 years (yes, 31 years!) of writing them every other week, I have cut down to one every four weeks. The kind words of so many of you have kept me at it for these three decades, and I thank you for that. But amazingly, I am busier now than I have been in years, so I’m just trying to cut back. It’s not you, it’s me.