“Did you know Will Smith is a Scientologist?” my husband asked over tea this morning. Like most people, I’m aware of religious prejudices lodged in dark corners of my mind. As a wise rabbi once told me, Jews tend to have an immune problem with Christianity, having been exposed too early to too painful a dose. I do really well at ecumenical gatherings, enthusiastically taking part in a Buddhist chant, a Sufi zikr, a Lakota prayer. But when someone suggests singing about Jesus, my throat tightens. My people have no such history with Scientology, but after countless media reports, it sounds suspicious to me. I thought about the blog I’d posted recently on Smith’s involvement in a free-speech controversy, briefly regretting it. Then I thought, Don’t be bigoted. He’s entitled to free speech whatever his beliefs.
I have a friend who’s on many email lists. Lately, she’s been getting similar messages forwarded from some surprising sources, people she thinks of as progressive and open-minded. The messages say that Barack Obama is secretly a Muslim, and sometimes that his loyalties lie in Africa rather than the United States.
The Obama campaign asks that such messages be forwarded directly to them at firstname.lastname@example.org, so they can offer a factual reply to the senders. Obama’s Website has a page set aside for this subject, featuring testimonials from editorial writers and spiritual leaders of many faiths, including a heartfelt statement from Jewish leaders condemning the smear campaign.
I was reminded of that standing joke on Seinfeld: the gossip-addicted pals would suspect that someone was (for instance) gay; eye rolls and sharp intakes of breath would follow; then everyone’s facial muscles would relax as Jerry or Elaine or George or Kramer would speak the obligatory line: “Not that it matters.”
The humor is in the double message, that it matters to a huge number of people whether someone is a certified in-group member or tainted by association with a suspect category, and that we know it ought not to matter to us. In my lifetime, suspect categories have included Jews perceived as part of a secret cabal, Catholics presumably in thrall to Rome (as was whispered during John F. Kennedy’s campaign), black people “passing for white,” people secretly in intimate relationship with anyone in a suspect category, as well as closeted individuals of various sexual orientations. But nearly everyone knows it’s not socially acceptable to espouse discrimination. People who don’t want to look like bigots might house those prejudices in a cramped closet at the back of their minds, but will be careful to conceal them with the magic incantation: “Not that it matters.”
It would be nice to live in a country where a Muslim could be elected President, but we are not living there right now. For that matter, it would be nice to live in a country where a Jew could be elected President. At this point, the two seem equally unlikely. But Obama is neither Jewish nor Muslim. If he is elected, he will break the barrier for another category, African Americans, and that will make it a magnitude nicer to call this country home.
As a member of the category “Jew,” I wish I could convey how it feels to know that in some ultimate sense, one is a member of a pariah group. I’m the child of immigrants, so I have firsthand experience being denounced as “foreign” and “other.” If you’ve been reading my blog for awhile, you’ve probably come across stories of being chased home by kids who went to the parochial school down the block in the days before Vatican II; it happened like clockwork every year, when the catechism class taught the neighbor children that my people had killed Jesus. You may have read about the pre-women’s movement part of my life when I was married to my first husband, carrying his echt WASP name, and was thus able to eavesdrop on countless casual slurs: “He jewed me down on the price,” “She was loud and pushy, you know, one of the chosen people,” and so on, ad nausem.
Maybe some of those people who told the pollsters in New Hampshire they were voting for Obama had email in-boxes flooded with smear spam during the run-up to the vote. Maybe they chose not to confide their doubts to the poll-takers because they were a little bit ashamed, or because they were reflexively addicted to topping their bigotry with that familiar invocation, “Not that it matters.”
But since it does matter, sadly, to so many of our fellow citizens, I hope you will join me in forwarding the link that will put them straight on the issue. And perhaps the next time someone says “Not that it matters,” open the subject for a little heart-to-heart dialogue about how we can make that assertion come true.