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Issue #19, Winter 2011
Moral Witness Through Comedy
Imagining the hastening of the day when Arab Americans are just another unsuspected and unsurprising part of American culture.
Michael Tomasky
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.
Issue #19, Winter 2011

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Michael Tomasky is the Editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas and American Editor-at-Large of the Guardian (UK).
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