Monsters

Zadie Smith in The New Yorker:

Z_Smith “We’re monsters, I fear. What monsters we’re”—it’s a line from a recent Frederick Seidel poem, “Downtown,” about the Fourth of July, and the sadness of fireworks over the Hudson (“the flavorful floating shroud”) and the casual brutality of eating shad roe (“What a joy to eat the unborn”). It reminds me of this whole, unlovely decade, which started downtown, and made us all monstrous, me as much as anybody. I was for the war, at first. Later, I was pleased when President Obama promised to commit more troops to Afghanistan, not because I thought it would end that war but because I hoped it would win him the election. I sat at dinner parties and felt envious of people who had not supported the war, as if whether or not a lot of armchair intellectuals did or did not support a war was what the war was actually about. For a few Google-eyed hours, I thought that Sarah Palin was not Trig’s mother. The rise of the Internet dovetailed with this tribalism. You could pass a decade online without ever hearing from the “other.”

About one thing, though, we could all agree: everything had changed. Or had it? The 9/11 perpetrators wanted a world in which (their version of) religious belief trumped all other concerns. But in the real world our concerns are necessarily diverse: we must attend school and find work, provide for children, look after parents. And in these matters we cannot avoid one another for long. Of course, mixed communities are not without tensions—no such community exists. (Relative racial and cultural homogeneity—as Northern Ireland knows—is no guarantee of peace.) But we have many common causes and priorities. It’s to be noted that class meant little to the terrorists: they saw only two human categories, believer and heathen. Here on earth, poverty and privilege cross the religious and the cultural divide. Look a little closer at the recent CCTV footage, in London: we riot together, and together we clean the streets.

Last Christmas, standing in an apartment building in New York, I was struck by a hallway where papier-mâché Stars of David and holy crosses came together in a decorative seasonal theme. Here these “people of the book” (whose religious texts overlap and divide as deeply as either text with the Koran) lived peaceably in the same space, finding one another’s religions by turns amusing, irrational, beautiful, banal. What enabled it? It took generations; it passed through periods of unspeakable horror; sometimes people forgot, sometimes they forgave, and they did both these things imperfectly. Practical matters helped. General economic parity, difficult acts of good will on both sides, and a democratic country in which the apparently impossible has the freedom to happen. It is not a perfect relationship—there’s no such thing—and it took two thousand years to get this far. We forget: these things take time. “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice,” said Martin Luther King, Jr., who presided over another meeting of supposedly irreconcilable peoples. Not everyone is a monster.

More here.

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