Monday, November 30, 2009

it doesn't even make sense ...

I know that people are frightened of “the other”, and I know that, since at least September 11, 2001, primary alien number one for the west has been Islam. But I am still astounded by the racism (or religionism, as the case may be …) that is directed towards Muslims by people in North America and Europe.

Last week, I read an article about a Michigan town that has put in a bid to have the Guantanamo detainees housed in their empty jail. The fact that this plan to save the town from economic ruin is controversial is not, in and of itself, surprising. There’s always going to be NIMBYism associated with prisons. What is surprising, though, is some of the rhetoric coming from the townspeople who oppose the plan. Regarding the jail’s former inmates – murderers and rapists – one of the locals is quoted as saying: “well at least they're human, they're just like you and I, American citizens.” In other words, what dehumanizes terrorists and “enemy combatants” is not their acts of violence, but their foreignness.

Next on this week’s anti-Islam hit-list is the recent Swiss referendum to ban minarets on mosques. What we’re talking about here is an architectural feature that identifies mosques as, well, mosques. According to my trusty sources at wikipedia, the minaret is used for the call to prayer. But that is not the case in Switzerland, so what we’re really talking about is a physical identification of a building as a mosque. The ban is weird for several reasons: there were only 4 mosques in Switzerland; and there apparently aren’t problems with Islamic militancy there. The purported reason behind the ban is pure fear-mongering: the argument is that the minaret is “the thin of the wedge” of allowing Islam to take a foothold in Switzerland, and will lead to covered women, sharia law, etc etc. And, despite the strong opposition to the ban by many Swiss leaders, the public bought it – voting 57% in favour of the ban.

One of the things that strikes me about both of these reactions to the stranger in our midst is that they are irrational. Justifying that some anti-social killers are “human” because they come from the same place as you, while others aren’t, because they don’t, doesn’t make any sense. Neither does restricting the practice of a religious freedom that is not causing anyone harm. And so the question is, why? Is it because people need a “them” so there can be an “us”? Is it because the thought of seeking commonalities, rather than focusing on differences, is somehow a threat to our own identities? Or maybe it’s just because these people don’t know any Muslims, and it’s easy to dehumanize when you are considering a concept, rather than actual people. Whatever the cause, this conflict between civilizations, or whatever it is, is never going to end, as long as people on both sides react to “them” with visceral fear, rather than reason.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

seeing with different eyes

Today, I knew I would have to walk home from church, so I brought along my little pocket camera, because I often find myself wishing I had my camera when I am on a walk. And it wasn't long before I had my first photographable subject:

And once the camera was in my hand, I started seeing everything I passed with different eyes. And I realized that that's one of the things I love about photography - it makes me engage in my surroundings, and see the art in the mundane. I used to consider myself an artist, but I don't act, or sing, or any of the things that I used to do. But walking down the street with a little camera on a grey november day made me realize that I can still be an artist: I just have to think like one.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The World's Greatest!

A few weeks ago, it was the world’s biggest bowl of taboulleh – made by a Lebanese chef who wanted to wrest the title back from the Turks. And today, it’s the biggest meatball – because the record rightly belongs to the east coast of the U.S., and those Mexican usurpers who stole the title last August have to understand that nobody messes with the birthright of the Italian-American.

Now, I understand national pride associated with traditional foods, and I understand the appeal of seeking world records (while I don’t feel the personal drive, I can intellectually see the appeal behind wanting to be the first or the fastest). But I don’t understand the drive that causes people to combine these two desires (I also don’t understand the need to make the longest paper-clip chain: a record captured by students at Wilfrid Laurier shortly before I attended: my residence don had participated, and told us how cool it was. I was sceptical …). I guess there’s a certain kitschy appeal, but still . . .

The desire to achieve world records of no consequence seems to come from the same place that makes people want to be on reality television: a wish to be special without necessarily having to perfect a skill or craft of any kind. And it’s kind of sad, because fame doesn’t make people special . . . we are all special, intrinsically. I have to admit that I still dream of writing the Great Canadian Novel and/or becoming Secretary-General of the U.N., and it’s partly because I want to be important. But since I will likely not become Margaret Atwood and Kofi Annan’s love child at any point in the near future, I choose to put my energies into small things that can make a difference, instead of grandiose gestures that are ultimately empty.