ValueSpeak
A Weekly Column
By Joseph Walker

WHEN BIGOTRY POSES AS PATRIOTISM

"Excuse me. Do you mind if I sit by you?"

The afternoon bus was crowded, so the request wasn’t surprising. But the gentleness of the man’s voice and his accent prompted me to look up from the magazine I was reading.

He was in his thirties, of average height and looked for all the world like a younger, thinner version of Saddam Hussein – moustache and all. And OK, I’ll admit it – I flinched when I saw him. Just a little. But enough for him to notice.

"Never mind," he muttered, his voice edged with anger and resignation. "I’ll stand."

Embarrassed, I tried to recover. "No – please, sit down," I stammered. "You just . . . startled me a little, that’s all. I mean, I was concentrating on this article . . ."

The man glanced at the magazine in my hand. It was opened to a photograph of angry Iraqis waving their fists and burning American flags. He looked at me, smiled weakly and sat.

"It is troubling," he said, looking at the article. "So much hate in the world."

I nodded and returned to my magazine, and we rode in silence for several minutes. At least, there was silence between us. But around us was a swirl of commuter conversation, especially from the teenagers in the back of the bus. They grew louder and more boisterous until I finally became aware that every joke and comment was laced vitriol aimed at my seat-mate.

I observed my neighbor out of the corner of my eye. His gaze was focused on the back of the seat in front of him. His jaw was clenched. He was pretending not to hear – sort of.

In retrospect, I should have jumped to his defense. Racism is racism, even when it masquerades as nationalism. Instead, I tried to relieve the tension by engaging in conversation.

I leaned toward him. "I guess you were right," I said.

He looked at me, puzzled. I nodded in the direction of the young people behind us. "Too much hatred in the world."

He smiled. "I try not to pay attention," he said softly. "But sometimes, it is hard."

Then he added good-naturedly: "I guess I shouldn’t take it personally. I’m Iranian."

Something tells me that detail wouldn’t have mattered to the comics behind us.

During the next few minutes I learned that my seat-mate was a college student pursuing a medical degree. His brother was killed during the "holy war" between Iran and Iraq, and an uncle was killed during "Operation Desert Storm." So he understood the passion he was hearing from the back of the bus.

"What I don’t understand," he said, "is why they are here and not in the military. In my country, if you feel so much hate you go where you can fight. Here, you just talk."

Defensively, I tried to explain that what was happening to him on the bus was somehow more civilized than what was happening in Kuwait. But I quickly discovered that it’s awfully hard to make an ethical case for hatred, regardless of the form it takes.

Besides, he wasn’t really being critical.

"Whenever I go home I keep telling my family and friends that there is much to admire in the American people," he told me as my bus stop approached. "And when I am here I tell my American friends that there is no reason to fear my people."

He signed. "They laugh at me – in America and at home. To me, it is sad."

Sad – but not surprising. One of the first rules of international conflict is that difficulties between nations usually result in difficulties between people. That’s an understandable fact of life – and death. But the mix of fear and patriotism can fool people into thinking that it isn’t enough to vanquish our foes on the battlefield; we must also hate and humiliate them .

Such thinking has nothing to do with patriotism. It diminishes the spirit and cheapens the soul. And it shines a bright spotlight on differences between people at the very time we ought to be doing everything we can to find common ground.

And the truth is, commonality isn’t all that hard to find. There is a great deal that we share – things like the ability to love and be loved, the need for tenderness and acceptance, the yearning for home and family – by virtue of simply being human. Those things are far more significant than divisive superficialities like race, nationality and political persuasion.

Which is why we need to think about what’s going on in the world in terms of our own attitudes, values and priorities. We’re all spinning around on this planet together, and our mutual survival ultimately depends upon our ability to get along. And so when there are difficulties we care, and not just because our national nose has been tweaked. We care because we’re family.

Even in the back of the bus.

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— © Joseph Walker


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Look for Joe's book,
"How Can You Mend a Broken Spleen? Home Remedies for an Ailing World." It is available on-line through www.Amazon.com.