U.S. President George W. Bush this week called his Pakistani allies "Pakis," a word I dislike even using in print. This is an entirely different level of "mangleton" than his previous gaffes, like referring to the "Grecians" or the "Kosovians." God knows what he'd call us if we weren't already called "Canadians." "Cans" maybe.
Smart comes in all kinds of different ways, as Bush once said. There's book smart, he said, and then there's "instinct and judgment and common sense," the latter clearly being the kind he favored and yet the kind of which he has none, not a mote, not a wisp, not a dusting.
Bush's people hastened to say he meant no disrespect. Bush apologists may believe he had tired of being mocked for his suffixal additives and instead of the predictable "Pakistanians" had simply chosen "Pakis" as a short form.
It's easy to snicker at Bush for being stupid, but his stupidity combined with wealth and power has been lethal for so many people. I look at his face and see millions of Americans who have just been told it's all right to use the word "Paki" as long as you mean well.
But it's not all right, not under any circumstances. Racism is a rebarbative sin, one of those for which you go straight to the bonfire eternal, no waiting.
Recently, at a fairly boisterous dinner party, I was horrified to hear a man I had known for decades -- I knew him as a good man -- say loudly, "Oh, he's just an ugly Jew. Admit it, he's got that ugly Jew face." And no one spoke up.
Some people believe in honesty and "the personal is political" moral confrontation that cleanses the Earth of these foul racist humours. Others just kill.
I, on the other hand, split into two, watching myself as if I were filming myself in a movie. Kill/not kill/ vituperation/tears? It felt like an hour, but was probably 20 seconds. I reacted with my usual tactic of "freezing out." It's a Bridget Jones self-help strategy. In The Edge of Reason,when she found a little Oriental boy in her boyfriend's bed, stark naked, smiling weirdly and holding out two wooden balls on a string, and a baby rabbit, her policy on possibly criminal boyfriends was: "We do not call them. We do not see them. We simply detach."
So I protested at the remark and vainly tried to return to the subject of the "ugly little Jew" whom I defended. And then I detached. The friendship is officially over.
It's shameful to be a racist, and it's hideous to be a victim of racism. But there's one person whose feelings are rarely considered: The person who witnesses racial cruelty. A horrible hot wash of shame started at my head and ran down my body. I felt dizzy.
I thought of what my Jewish friends would think if they had heard this. Shades of Some of My Best Friends are Jews, but what of that? What would my highly principled mother say? Or my stepdaughters?
The worst thing was that my protest aroused not the slightest reaction, these being people who, Bush-like, have no notion that racism is profoundly unacceptable. It's like explaining to a two-year-old why one eats on the table, as opposed to under it. Floor dining is a faux pas of the highest order.
The child stares blankly and clings to the table leg.
There was the remote possibility that this man, who had only begun to say strange things recently, including some slightly off remarks about blacks and Asians, had fallen mentally ill.
One would not wish to be unkind to the unstable. Perhaps he had suffered a stroke and was about to fall to the floor in a manner that would erase the slurs that preceded the collapse.
Sadly, this did not happen.
It's all very well for Barbara Amiel to complain about the anti-Semitism of the British upper classes. Who'll defend it? Here I sit pondering the anti-Semitism of the Canadian middle classes. Who'll notice it?
Flashbacks: I remember sitting in a Paris restaurant listening to an elegantly dressed businessman at the next table talking loudly to his colleague about "un pays sans Juifs." His friend saw the shock on my face and tried to shush him.
And I sat paralyzed, realizing my French is such that it was possible the man was decrying the notion of a France without Jews, not extolling it. Maybe stabbing him with a fork would be a Clouseau mistake.
Such are the dilemmas of people like me, possessed of a toothcomb conscience and an overdeveloped sense of personal guilt. Over Christmas, I reread Gitta Sereny's biography of the commandant of Treblinka. If your reading preferences tend this way, history echoes in your daily life. I hear today's modern Jew-haters -- who don't much like Arabs either -- and think, "Franz Stangl would have liked you."
And I have to keep telling myself, it doesn't matter what monsters, or indeed their scattered ashes, would have thought. What matters is that people who refer to "ugly Jews" or "Pakis" are hateful. I detach from you, I really do.
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