Thursday, May 04, 2006

Heroes and Neighbors

Ayaan Hirsi Ali was in my backyard this week, and would to the gods I had been able to get away and see her. She's been making the rounds of East Coast America's establishment, including NPR and PEN, where Ron Chernow confirmed my bad opinion of him, carried over from his puzzlingly popular Alexander Hamilton book, by giving her an introduction that was more an apology than an endorsement.

It would be enormously enjoyable to see her visit places like Atlanta and Birmingham on her American tour, where she'd shake up minds and hearts in a different fashion and no doubt get a warm and heroic reception. But she is going deliberately into the fetid dragon's dens of modern leftism, with a message meant to unsettle sleeping reptiles and prod them into thought.

“My criticism of the West, especially of liberals, is that they do take freedom for granted,” Ms. Ali responded. She noted that Western Europeans born after World War II are unused to conflict. “They have lost the instinct to recognize that there can be such a thing as an enemy or a threat to freedom, and that’s what I’m witnessing in Europe now,” she stated. “[There is] a pacifist ideology that violence should never be used in any circumstances, and so we should talk and talk and talk. Even when your opponent tells you, ‘I don’t want to talk to you, I want to destroy you,’ the reaction is, ‘Please, let’s talk about the fact that you want to destroy me!’ ”

Bull's-eye. But I can write that all day (provided I could be that articulate) and it never would escape the echo chamber. Because my Sioux name is Middle-Aged White American Son of Privilege.

She can say things and they'll have to listen. She's a woman. She's an African. She's educated and articulate. She's a member of the "Liberal Party." She's not a Christian. Though she doesn't present herself as such, she's a victim (she was genitally mutilated, for chrissakes, and her close friend was murdered by religious fundamentalists). If she can feign lesbianism and avoid red meat, she'll have batted for the cycle, liberal style.

I don't mean to imply this is solely a left-side deafness. When I drove past anti-Iraq war and anti-Bush rallies around here, I saw the lean straggle of crusty, bitter old college professor hippies in jeans and T-shirts walking from their expensive cars with the "No Blood for Oil" bumper stickers, and I saw patchouli-reeking drum circles. And I thought, "can't you please make the minimal effort involved in avoiding the exact stereotype? Nobody in this county is going to pay any attention to you, whether you're right or wrong. They're going to dismiss you on sight. They'll never even bother to read your signs."

In my head I wrote a business plan for a service that would hire out protesters that would go against type and thus catch people's eyes. Can you imagine the impact of an anti-Bush rally populated by young buff men in NASCAR T-shirts and stylish businesswomen?

[Judith was there, too, by the way]

* * *

Of course, for her bravery, Hirsi Ali has been rewarded by the Eurocrats by being evicted from her home because the neighbors are afraid to live next to someone who makes waves.

I remember the aftershock week that followed Sept. 11. The attacks cracked through America's shell and some of what oozed out was darkly ugly. My girlfriend at the time lived in Birmingham, and one of her best friends was a pretty Persian girl, identifiably Middle Eastern on sight. Nobody knew what was happening, or what was going to happen next. There were stories of physical attacks on anyone who looked vaguely Islamic; there were fears of how law enforcement would react.

But her neighbors rallied to her, and every time that girl left the house, for an errand, for her job, for anything, someone went with her. Just in case. There were stories like that everywhere. People who had never been inside a mosque turned out to stand guard over one, just in case. Those of us with Middle Eastern neighbors kept an eye on them, always asked how they were doing, if they needed anything. Just in case.

I don't think we're better than the average European. But I do think we're different. How could we not be? We and they are the same people, as recently as 300 years back. We and they segregated ourselves voluntarily. Those who took religion seriously, those who were greedy and ambitious, those who felt the stirring of individual spirit stronger than the urge to stay safe in the herd -- they came here. At tremendous risk, they plowed tinderbox boats over a month of ocean. They survived here, in the bear-haunted forest, by keeping an eye on each other. They're our grandfathers and grandmothers.

Those who were content, or unwilling to take risks, stayed home. Modern European history has many heroes, brave men and women. But they are, on the whole, exceptions. The mass of Europeans kept their heads down and hoed their own rows. When the knock on the door came in the middle of the night at their neighbors' houses in 1942, they closed their eyes tighter and pulled the covers around themselves tighter and pretended to sleep.

That's the difference between Germany and the Netherlands, on the one hand, and America, whose root stock is strong in those lands.