Sunday, June 29, 2014

That PC Thing

A few days ago I was talking with my friend Mike, a writer and founder of the Arlington Writers’ Group in northern Virginia. He’d read a blog I recently wrote about rising anti-Semitism in France, and the chat drifted to a conversation he’d recently had with his daughter about a friend of hers. Mike couldn’t quite place which friend his daughter was referring to; she told him this friend was the one with whom she played volleyball, the one who always got good grades, and had come over to their house a couple of times. Still, nothing for Mike, who simply couldn’t place the girl. So the daughter found a picture of the volleyball team. Her friend was in the second row, third from the right. Mike’s daughter’s friend, it turned out, was black, but the daughter had not once used that particularly obvious identifier to describe the girl.
We spoke about that for a little while, hypothesized the possibility that kids no longer recognize race as a factor in their relationships. If so, did that mean we were heading toward a brighter, racism-free world?
Me, I’m a cynic. I think what has happened is that we have so constantly played the political correctness cards that people--adult and adolescents alike--have decided it is safer to not even mention race when we speak of someone, lest we be labelled petty and bigoted. Personally, I find this notion both strange and frightening.
I was working for the Washington Post a few decades ago when a debate raged in the newsroom regarding the validity of identifying the race of a purported or suspected criminal in a story.  The older reporters thought the individual’s color was a necessary part of whatever they were writing about--politics, fashion, sports, the arts and society, and yes, crime. The younger staff, many of whom were black reporters, thought this was blatant racism. Personally, I agreed then and still do today with the late Bob Maynard, a friend and celebrated journalist, who thought that yes, absolutely, race should be mentioned. Bob was black and often wrote about discrimination, but on this particular subject, he was steadfast. We identify people using the color of their hair and eyes, their morphology, their geographical origin, their gender, education, marital status and profession, their religion, shoe styles, whether they like seafood, and which team they root for. Leaving race out, he thought, was almost in and of itself a racist act.
In time, the term racial profiling would creep into the national consciousness and spur yet another debate, further adding to the misbegotten notion of political correctness, and adding yet another level of opaqueness to national obfuscation. 
What I’d really like to know is whether the urban kids of today really do not see race. I suspect they do, and that perhaps amongst themselves, there is no taboo in saying someone is yellow, red, tan, white or black. But we---the adults, the media, the entertainment industry, the entire environment of their young lives--have let it be known that one’s color is not up for discussion or even recognition.  We prefer not to be accused of any ism and will go to great length to be circumspect.
That’s odd, and I’m pretty sure, not helpful. Race is simply a fact of life that should be neither more nor less important than any other individual feature. Negating its existence by not mentioning it does nothing to eliminate prejudice or discrimination.
Quoting the very white, very French and very bourgeois Monsieur Prudhomme, that’s my opinion, and I share it.

Monday, June 23, 2014


It’s sad when one has to admit being embarrassed by one’s country of birth.
Normally, I’m almost stupidly proud of France. I defend the place and its inhabitants whenever detractors--and there are many--surface, and I’m pretty good at justifying French politics, even if they’re a mystery to the non-Gallic. I can cite a long history of intellectual brilliance, and I have at my disposal a veritable Yellow Pages of people who have influenced modern thinking, from Molière and Sartre to Edith Piaf and the Baron Bic (yes, the inventor of the disposable pen and lighter, and the windsurfer.) Recently, though, I’ve hit a wall. It shames me that the nation I truly love is quickly regressing and becoming, once again, openly anti-Semitic.
There’s always been a wide streak of anti-Semitism in Europe, dating back thousands of years. The Germans made it their business to eliminate all Jews. The Swiss helped, though they’ll deny it. The Brits pretend to be more civilized, though it’s often simply that they’re more discreet. The Spaniards invented the Inquisition, and the Italians created the openly anti-Jewish papacy. The Poles, Hungarians, Russians and other East Europeans have been no better.
In France in 1894, there was the Dreyfus affair, which split the country, and my family.  My great-grandfather was convinced the Jewish Army captain was indeed guilty of treason, and when Dreyfus was exonerated and reinstated as a major, Great Grand Dad (Arrière Grand-Père) took to his bed for weeks and even forsook visiting his mistress.
During World War II, the defeatist Vichy government covertly assisted the Nazis in arresting and sequestering Jews. In recent times, the French have had to come to terms with a streak of historical denial that for decades averred that yes, we did apprehend the Jews, but we never shipped them to death camps. That turned out to be a horrendous lie. The government’s admission of a whole other truth barely a decade ago shook the French and ignited a debate on France’s role in the making of the Holocaust. The dispute still rages.
In 1972, Jean-Marie Le Pen, then a largely unknown French politician, created the highly protectionist National Front party which would eventually revive a misguided sense of French chauvinism, as well as an anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic polemic. Le Pen’s daughter, Marine Le Pen, took over the National Front and is now its leader, while her father became a member of the European Parliament, to which he was re-elected six times by his followers. The National Front has made inroads and though it is now in decline in France proper, it received 4,712,461 votes in the 2014 European Parliament elections, finishing first with 24.86% of the vote and 24 of France's 74 seats.  It was the first time the anti-immigrant, anti-EU party had won a nationwide election in its four-decade history. The party's success came as a shock in France and the EU and many politicians announced their concerns about the results. Germany's Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, described the National Front as “fascist” and “extremist.”
In the wake of this success, the anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant movements in France have once again blossomed, partially fostered by Dieudonné M’bala M’bala.
Dieudonné (aptly named, God-given) is a Franco-African comedian who once campaigned against racism in France. About a decade ago his politics changed radically and he approached Jean-Marie Le Pen. The two became political allies and friends and Dieudonné described Holocaust remembrance as “memorial pornography.” He was convicted in court eight times on anti-Semitism charges and though often banned from mainstream media, he has become an internet sensation. A quasi-Nazi salute he invented where the arm is pointed downward rather than up, became notorious in 2013 and is now employed by every social misfit in the country.
All this astounds me, concerns me, scares me. That my birth-country has such a short memory is truly disturbing. That it would adopt an openly ultra-right wing spokesperson such as Dieudonné astounds me. Truly, I don’t know what to think.
Stay tuned.    

Friday, June 13, 2014

Ordinary People

There are inexplicable things. 

On a warm spring day in my small town, a short and squat Asian woman waits by the bus stop. She is the personification of every National Geographics photo of Mongolian femininity. Only the yurt is missing. She wears a fur hat, and has a black eye. She is smiling, showing strong and even porcelain-white teeth, and she’s holding a McDonald’s Happy Meal.

A few minutes later, that very same morning, a tall, cadaverous man strides by dressed from head to toe in a grey sweat suit, the likes of which has not been seen since 1964. He wears a jaunty golf gap and strides purposefully forward, his head bobbing a good 12 inches forward of his knees. He is a human egret and I don’t understand why he does not pitch headfirst, a victim of his own momentum.

Sitting at an outdoor table at a sidewalk café, a man with a hole in his throat smokes a cigar. He is a neighborhood fixture, and for a decade at least has maintained this strange regimen. I have never seen his mouth, which is always covered by a soiled handkerchief. He places the cigar over the hole in his throat and inhales; he exhales through his nose. His eyes are rheumy and bloodshot; he coughs, dabs at the hole in his throat with a Kleenex, looks at his cigar, and repeats the procedure. This is a vision to scare small children, and every time I see him, I wonder what happened to this man and why. I discovered many years ago that he is mute. I suppose his vocal chords have been destroyed, a precursor of the fate of his remaining physiognomy.

At the local coffee shop an elderly man’s voice rises as he talks on his cell phone; it’s hard not to overhear. He’s shouting to someone called Mary that he knows the difference between Belgian endives and watercress and he will bring home the latter, not the former, which he knows she dislikes, and yes, for God’s sake, he can be trusted to know which is which even if  Mary, obviously, does not believe him. “Good bye!” he yells, then looks guiltily around. At least a dozen customers have heard the argument. He frowns and bullies his morning bagel.

Later that afternoon I run into Mary, a homeless woman who speaks fluent if accented French. Mary lives at the Quarry Motel, a guest of the state and of the county, and the better part of her day is spent in front of a local Starbucks nursing a large cup of decaf.  Mary’s hair is dyed a deep and glossy black with blue overtones and her mouth is a slash of scarlet. She can be angry or kind, and occasionally a mixture of both. I know her story because a couple of winters ago, I gave her rides home during the worst of the cold, and she rewarded me with a threadbare blue scarf she pulled out of a plastic bag. She said it was my color, and strangely enough, it is.

Mary says she was the wife of an Army general who dumped her for his secretary, long enough ago that Mary had no legal protection. Today, she would. Back then, the military did not concern itself with the former wives of officers, and she found herself without income or home. She worked in the glove aisle of Garfinckel’s and lived at her sister’s house until alcohol got the best of her and the sister died.  She was fired for cursing at a customer while under the influence, and luckily this was the same month her Social Security kicked in.

Mary speaks French, passable Italian, and Korean--fairly decently, I was told. She served in the American Embassy in Seoul with her military husband, whom, she will tell anyone listening was an evil sonofabitch who screwed anything in skirts but refused to give her children.

Mary’s days are numbered, I suspect. She has taken on the florid hue of a street drunk and when I saw her, she wore the fruity reek of a cheap wine drinker. She’s unsteady on her feet and her two top incisors are gone, leaving a cavernous black inch-long gap in her teeth. I guess she’s given up going to AA meetings.

Some years ago, she was commended by a local sober house for the imaginative sculpture she created in the front yard. It was a kinetic thing of bicycle wheels, tins cans stripped of labels, and sheet metal cut and bent in the shape of angels’ wings.

The local paper ran a picture of it on its front page, and a week later the neighbors got a court order to take it down. Mary disassembled her creation carefully and when the complaining neighbors were gone on vacation, buried it in their backyard.


Wednesday, June 11, 2014


For the past several years I've been getting my hair cut every six weeks or so by a very nice Ethiopian woman. The challenge is to somehow dissimulate my growing bald spot without making it too obvious, and she does this well. I seldom have to wait, and the shampoo, haircut and conversation run me twenty dollars, which in these days of $400 jeans and $90 tank tops is a pretty good bargain. For a few days I can forget that the top of my head is essentially naked, shiny, and prey to the elements.
In the time that I've known her, Beylanesh has dated, married and become the mother or a gorgeous baby boy. She is now a divorced  single mother who will readily admit that she married only to have a good-looking child. She is charming and petite, has a wonderful smile and likes to talk. Today, as every time I see her, I realize that I never have had a good grasp of what she's talking about, and vice versa. Part of it is accents, part of it is culture, but a major reason for our lack of tangible process with the spoken word is that we have agreed to miscommunicate. It's easier that way.
During our first few encounters, we spent the better part of the twenty or so minutes she works on me saying, "What?", "Excuse me?" or, "Sorry, I didn't get that." It took three sessions for me to understand that Ethiopian women often have names ending in 'nesh,' which means 'you are.' I love knowledge like that. Beylanesh, for her part, learned that I sell used cars. I don’t. How she came to assume such knowledge is beyond my understanding, but I've grown comfortable with it. She asks how business is and I say it's not doing well. She nods and between snips comments, "It's the weather, the economy. Afghans are not buying camels in the summer months. Ronald Reagan." Or at least that's what I think she said. Today, she also told me that her mother barbecued the couch.
Our misunderstandings are safe. Beylanesh probably goes home to her son and mom and tells them I tried to sell her a four-wheel drive camel. Nothing will come of this, and it will affect neither of our lives. But what is it about communicating that has become so complicated and error prone?
Just recently, a friend and I exchanged a phone call after a long silence, and both of us realized we had misinterpreted an earlier conversation, and that the misunderstanding had caused consternation and sadness. We made amends and we made peace, but some of the harm lingers. Did my friend really say that? And what, exactly, was meant by that choice of words?
Something like 80 percent of communications is non-verbal, which explains all the misunderstandings originating with emails and phone calls. We rely on body language, eye cast, arms and hands and the curve of a wrist, the furrow of a brow or the set of a jaw to understand what is really being said to us, and while the friends whom I love deeply will know what is going on in my world without a need for words, most communications remain haphazard, as likely to fail as not. It's the nature of the beast. Words--unlike numbers that are set and definitive--at best convey only a semblance of what we are trying to put forth; they're often more enemy than friend, and I very much doubt any two people in the world speak exactly the same language. On occasion, I find a word in French will come closest to what I want to say, but if I'm talking to an English-speaker, this won't help much. It works the other way if I am in Europe.
So what are we to do... Silence is an option I exercise on occasion; if I travel from home I might make it a point not to talk for several days. Not communicating on purpose has its advantages: you can't be misinterpreted if you have nothing to say. Or perhaps you can. As always, there are contradicting thoughts. Confucius called silence the true friend that never betrays. A few hundred years later, Francis Bacon said silence was the virtue of fools. Personally, I like Mark Twain best: It's better to keep my mouth closed and let people think I am a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.

Monday, June 9, 2014

The Coffee Shop, Part II

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about my favorite coffee shop, where the bagels are fresh and the coffee satisfying, but the service is execrable unless a crew of West African is working the morning shift. There are four of them, three Senegalese from Dakar, and one from Côte d’Ivoire. They speak Kwa or Wolof, and their common language is French, since both countries once were French colonies and that language is still taught in school. They have been toiling several years in the coffee shop, and none has reached a managerial position, a fact that understandably irks them. In the time I’ve been going there after my six a.m. sessions at the gym, I’ve witnessed the franchise owner install two white Americans who did not know how to operate the espresso machine, a largish Mexican whose command of English was marginal at best, a tall Middle-Eastern man who spent the better part of his time arranging loaves of bread by size, and a spectral Romanian who surveyed the queue of customers with a jaundiced eye free of any sympathy for his clients.
Yesterday, the Africans decided not to show up for work, leading to a state of pandemonium rarely witnessed in the fast-food industry. The owner was called in by his panicked staff of two (one of whom, I am persuaded, does not know how to read) to work behind the counter, dispensing sourdough boules and three-cheese baguettes. The two other employees managed to jam the bagel-cutting machine and short-circuit the commercial toaster. The line of disgruntled customers snaked around the shop.  It was, one of the Senegalese later told me, un bordelle complèt, what English speakers call a clusterf*ck.
Today the Africans came back to work. The queue of bagel and java buyers moved at a steady clip, the coffee urns were replenished with alacrity. The regulars got their orders quickly, and even the lady who comes in every Monday, orders two dozen assorted bagels, each either sliced or toasted but not both, left with a smile. Efficiency reigned. The walkout had its desired effect; Mamadou, an Ivorian from Yamoussoukro, was promised a promotion next month to assistant manager. Still, he does not trust the franchise owner who apparently has reneged on his pledges more than once. Mamadou and his co-workers have a plan.
Just a few hundred yards down the street, a new bagel shop will soon be opening. It’s a franchise as well, but one known for its studied productivity and catering prowess. A large sign in the window advertises available positions, and my African friends have already put out feelers.
When they leave--which I’m almost positive they will--they’ll take dozens of customers with them, which is as it should be. I have every intention of being among the deserters.