At the corner of Meeting and Market Streets here, an old black man plays a sweet, sorrowful tune on his sax. Oh, the trouble he's seen. Yet the memory-filled melody somehow makes you happier than any happy song you can recall at the moment, and more reconciled to the human condition. Which is just what the blues are supposed to do. Welcome to Charleston, or New Orleans East.
I'm here to give a talk as part of an annual lecture series sponsored by the Jewish Studies program at the College of Charleston, but I'm much more interested in what the students and others in attendance have to say.
After all, I already know what I've got to saysomething about the need to preserve a culture of civility in political discourse. I'll frame my talk in the context of an ancient Talmudic text on ethics called Pirke Avos . How controversial can that be?
First, because it's a largely Jewish audience, and we'll argue about anything. As the old joke goes, two Jews, three opinions. If not more.
One lady approaches me afterward and explains that culture, or at least a distinctive one, is the enemy. Only if we humans do away with all the cultural differences that divide us, and deal with one another in a "humanistic" way, will conflict cease and we'll all live happily ever after.
Uh huh. Even if such a thing could come to pass, a new culture would begin with the first word spoken, even the first gesture made. And soon distinctions would arise.
A language is one of the markers of a culture, and it'd be a pity to lose any of them. Each reflects and creates a world.
Homo sapiens, Homo faber, Homo ludens . . . Man the reasoning, man the maker, man the playful is a cultural animal. Eliminate culture and you've eliminated man.
Not that it could be done; even a value-free culture, if that's conceivable, would value its sterility. Its commandments and taboos would soon be as numerous and complex as those of any other culture. See the history of Political Correctness. As arid a culture as it is, it's overflowing with Thou Shalts and especially Thou Shalt Nots.
As the lady continues to explain her theory, all I can do is nod my head agreeably; it's part of my cultural conditioning: Be nice. You're a guest here. But at the end of her discourse, I can't resist saying, "Ma'am, I would agree with you wholeheartedly if we were conducting this conversation in Esperanto."
There's a reason Esperanto never caught on. It's artificial. It's not rooted in the slow accumulation of historical experience. An artificial language may have its uses in a computerized age, but it won't have the cultural resonance of a language that, like English, developed out of various others, and, with all its roots and branches, its norms and dialects, its prescriptive rules and descriptive usages, is still developing.
Another questioner has his own idea about what's responsible for all the trouble in the world. (Any theory that begins with, "All the trouble in the world is caused by . . ." is itself in trouble.) The enemy this time are the fundamentalists of every creed who, he says, only divide people. They lack the flexibility that civilization requires. Wouldn't I agree?
I could scarcely disagree more. Fundamentalism, you may have noticed, has become a bad word. Listen to the way it's deployed on NPR or in any of the tonier publications. It's used the way Communism or Fascism once were to mean almost anything we don't much like.
But no matter how hard my inquisitor might try, it's hard to blame the Holocaust on the fundamentalists. Ditto, the Soviet Gulag. Or the Cultural Revolution in Mao's blood-Red China. All were the products of largely secular fanaticisms. And none lacked fashionable defenders at the time.
Often enough, it was those of deep, fundamental and decidedly unfashionable religious belief who risked all to defy such regimes. Oh, the troubles we've seen. And the Nice People we've known who, for reasons of their own, have gone along with the mob.
Of all the widely varied ethnic and religious groups that make up the wide-ranging American political spectrum, none of them including the Jews have been more ardent in defending the right of Israelis to live in peace and security than the Religious Right. And these are the folks I'm supposed to hate and fear?
When they come for me, I hope I'll know better than to rely on those who are described as moderates when it comes to their faith. The nice, respectable, mainline Presbyterian Church (USA) now has launched its own sordid little war on the Jews at least those in Israel. Of all the states in the world to boycott, it's chosen the Jewish one. Why am I not surprised?
The P.C. (USA) could doubtless defend its decision a dozen ways from Sunday, none of them very convincing. The old, familiar animus cannot be disguised; you can smell it.
Tell me again how the folks we really have to fear are the fundamentalists. Me, I'll take my chances with the good ol' boys. When I need a place to hide out, I believe I'll light out for the woods and look for some ramshackle house in a patch of weeds with a few old tires and car bodies out front and maybe a pick-up in back with one of those bumper-stickers on the rear that reads, "My boss is a Jewish carpenter."
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