DC Trawler

Marty Peretz reminds me of my grandmother

If you are looking for something deep and psychological to read today, look no further: New York Mag has profiled Marty Peretz, editor of the New Republic and eater of his own foot. This scene in particular struck a chord with me:

At a basic level, he said, he can’t be a bigot; he mentioned two close, personal black friends, one who is “so fucking smart,” and then a third, a black student whom he had plucked from Harvard and made the circulation director of The New Republic. “I hired Muslims—I hired Fareed Zakaria,” he added.

I have a soft spot for tokenism, which is what Peretz is invoking when he says he knows Muslims and black people. Not because I approve of it (I don’t), but because it took me a long time to figure out how tragic it is.

I was the first person in my family, which traces its southern lineage to the Civil War, to date someone who is not white. M had long, straight, jet-black hair, brown skin, curves, and she sometimes rolled her Rs. After she met my dad and stepmom, and nothing seemed amiss, I figured that my family cared more about culture than color.

In other words, It didn’t matter in the least that M was Peruvian because she acted like a South Florida WASP.

Then one day, while lying on my bed, M told me that she was Jewish.

The announcement stunned me like dynamite. I was raised Southern Episcopal, after all, and the Jews had killed Jesus.

Horror (had I been deceived?) quickly turned to fascination (I cannot remember meeting a Jew before this). M told me that her mother’s parents (as well as her adoptive father’s parents) were the only members of their families to escape the Holocaust. M answered all my questions about menorahs and yarmulkes. M wasn’t phased when I asked her to say something in Hebrew.

I waited to tell Gaga (my grandmother and our family’s undisputed matriarch) until the day they met. I wasn’t ashamed of M for being Jewish, or of myself for dating someone who wasn’t Christian; I just didn’t know what it would mean to the people back home, and in case it was bad, didn’t want to give my grandmother time to cancel. “Interesting,” was all Gaga said about it during our phone conversation.

M spent the morning preparing. She did her nails in red, white, and blue with little glue-on gems. She blow-dried her hair and picked out a conservative blouse. She rattled off facts about my mother’s family while she plucked her eyebrows. She asked me what conversation topics were off limits. She promised to not swear or smoke (my grandfather, an Episcopal priest, died of lung cancer).

The introduction went OK. Gaga appeared enthusiastic/curious. M was enthusiastic/terrified. I was enthusiastic/anxious. Gaga’s Volvo pulsed with enthusiasm/etc. as we rode downtown.

At the restaurant, we ran out of things to talk about before we’d even ordered our food. I made a big deal of folding my napkin a million different ways. M was intent on dissolving every sugar granule at the bottom of her iced tea. Perhaps hoping to restart the conversation, Gaga pulled a Peretz. “I don’t know what Michael has told you, M, but I really like Jews.” Then she named every Jew she knew: Joe Lieberman, and if I remember correctly, the old man who repaired her vacuum.

M didn’t know what to do, so she simply smiled. Gaga was out of gestures, so she spent the rest of the meal telling me stories from the family vault. M didn’t say another word until it was time to head back to campus, where she cried until makeup streamed down her cheeks like two shimmering creeks of sorrow.

A few months later, it was my turn. M’s mom and adoptive dad and grandparents took me out to a nice Italian restaurant. I ordered calf’s liver with onions and bacon, and M’s grandparents praised my adventurous palate. They asked me what I wanted to do with my life. They asked me what I thought about politics. They told M she was lucky to have such a smart young man in her life. Before M and I drove back to school that Sunday, her grandmother took my hands in hers and asked me to take care of her granddaughter.

It was not until many months later that M’s grandmother told me how she came to escape Germany. How, when she arrived in the British Mandate for Palestine during the early years of the Ha’apala, she was told to pick a new name, because the ugly and Wagnerian “Helga” had come to symbolize her peoples’ near extermination. How she opened the Torah to a random page and placed her finger on a new name: Rachel.

Gaga grew to adore M during the two years we were together (they were both cut-throat Scrabble players). I never told Gaga about M crying after lunch, but I suspect part of her knew that the meal did not go well, and that she would’ve died had I brought to light just how much she upset M.

Peretz, on the other hand, dies right there in the interview. The second half of the paragraph that I mentioned above ends like this:

The litany provoked a flash of self-consciousness. “I’m really demeaning myself here,” he said miserably, before continuing. Peretz is enough of a liberal to realize that any scene in which a man sits in the dining room of the Regency with a reporter, listing all of his friends and associates who are black or Muslim, is a scene in which that man is drowning. And yet here he was.

This is what is so tricky about tokenism: You do not have to be a liberal to know that there is something gross about listing human beings as if they were items on a grocery list. And you do not have to be a bigot to believe, or hope, that knowing and loving and associating with people who are different than you matters for something, and that those associations can improve and redeem you.

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  • JoeJ

    The article inferred that Peretz was in same unspecified way, a bigot.

    Why didn’t he respond to the actual charge – didn’t he avoid the charge by giving the lame excuse that he knew people of race?

    Is everyone who knows a black person – not a racist – hardly!

    Where there is smoke there is fire – did Peretz put out the fire – hardly.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Bob-Fisher/7801141 Bob Fisher

    While I understand, specifically with regards to the story you’ve told, that ‘tokenism’ is offensive, isn’t it a huge jump to assume that someone is engaging in ‘tokenism’ when they say they have a black friend?

    It’s simple argumentation. Someone makes the assertion that “Bob hates biscuits.” Isn’t the easiest refutation of that assertion to show a picture of Bob eating and enjoying a biscuit?

    If someone says, “Bob hates softball,” and Bob proceeds to hold up his softball jersey and 5-years running Softball Team MVP trophy, isn’t that the easiest way to refute their wrong assertion?

    Similarly, if someone calls me a racist, isn’t the easiest and simplest refutation of that assertion to tell them that I go to happy hour with a black guy every Friday?

    In regards to your story, absolutely, there’s no reason to jump into an explanation of “You’re Jewish, so I’m going to tell you about all the Jews I know”; obviously, that is ‘tokenism’ in the way you’ve described it. But these days, this scenario is more often represented when someone who *is not* a racist or a bigot is accused of being so; at which point, they’re somehow forced to prove that they’re not. It puts the individual in an impossible position, because every instance that would prove they are *not* racist (like, for instance, habitually socializing with people outside your race, dating people outside your race, etc) is somehow deemed racist or ‘tokenist’ if it’s brought up.

    Maybe, just maybe, ‘tokenism’ itself would start to fade away if needless, spurious accusations of racism did first.

  • des1

    Mike, I really enjoyed your story.

    Of course I would have enjoyed it more if I didn’t have to try posting this 75 times only to have the computer tell me that each one (no matter how long I waited) was within 15 seconds, so wasn’t allowed.

    Do you supposed you could upgrade to 20th Century software in 2011?

    • Mike Riggs

      Sorry about that, Des! I’ll pass along your concerns to our tech crew. Thank you for reading.


  • zelda

    Simply put, saying something dumb about who your friends are doesn’t mean you’re a racist.

    • JoeJ

      Clearly what we are talking about is a defensive reaction to the subject of race.

      The question is – why would one be defensive? Is the one being defensive a tribalist?

      Is tribalism a rational idealistic part of Western culture?

      Of course it is not!

      • zelda

        I don’t think he’s being tribalist. Otherwise he wouldn’t bother describing all his ethnic friends. And it certainly isn’t a rational part of Western culture, which would explain the distrust of Islam. It’s a pretty tribalist religion.

        • JoeJ

          It is hard to carry on this discussion without knowing why Peretz was charged with bigotry.

          Citing friends and associates does not relieve one of the charge of bigotry. There are a millions people who know blacks and who are also bigoted against blacks.

          As to your statement on Islam – there is probably more bigotry against Muslims in America than any other group.

          • zelda

            It doesn’t necessarily relieve one of the charge, but neither does it confirm it. And any bigotry against Muslims stems from Islamic bigotry against the West. In America, they weren’t even a blip on the bigotry radar prior to 9/11. But of course, when Islamic bigots murder 3,000 people in the name of their religion, it tends to force one to question the compatibility of the religion and it’s followers with Western, non-tribalist ideals.

        • JoeJ

          You seem to be very concerned about 9/11 – it has been 9 years sense that happened.

          Just how much longer do you think we should be killing Muslims over that tragedy. It is said that a million Muslims have died in the aftermath of 9/11.

          The more we kill of them, the more they want to kill us (which is understandable).

          When is enough enough – shouldn’t we call a truce and leave the Middle East?

          • zelda

            Until they stop wanting to kill us. I would love to call a truce because that would mean they’ve given up. But until that happens, there won’t be a truce whether we want one or not. It’s not a truce loving society over there. Best to just keep killing them until they’re tired of dying. Of course then they’ll just continue the regional slaughter of moderate Muslims, but at least we won’t have to think about them anymore.

          • JoeJ

            My, but you are one hard person — where does that come from?

            This is going on ten years! This cycle of killing has to stop – shouldn’t we be the ones to stop it? Aren’t we the responsible people in this horrible equation.

            Jesus said “live by the sword die by the sword” — isn’t it time we put the sword down?

          • zelda

            My but you are one soft person – where does that come from? You watch 3,000 innocent people die at the hands of utterly brainwashed religious extremists and you want to quote Jesus at them as if they are rational humanists?

            Your premise would make a kind of kumbaya sense if that was who we were dealing with. Even the ridiculous communists knew better than to actually start something directly with us. But we are dealing with tribalist religious fundamentalists who don’t even understand their own objectives, much less the higher nature that would cause us, the greater power, to stop fighting them. They will not end the conflict until they are defeated and any further violence on their part results in their abject humiliation. They must understand that we are the greater force and that Allah is not on their side.

            And yes, we are the responsible people in this horrible equation. That means it is up to us to defend not only ourselves from these violent psychopaths, but also the truly moderate Muslims and the other innocents who happen to incur their displeasure.

            As for what Jesus says, who cares? Muslims? Probably not. Besides, we aren’t the ones living by the sword. Defending oneself and one’s country isn’t living by the sword. So if you’re going to quote Jesus to any effect, then apply it to terrorist Muslims. If we are the responsible party, then they must die by our sword. Otherwise there is no incentive for them to put the sword down and the lesson is objectively false.

          • JoeJ

            My, but you are amazing – in the year 2010, you still have the mindset of a caveman – from what ancient tribal ideology do you come?

            Your hate for Muslims is just overwhelming.

            Jesus said to love your neighbor and to love your enemy – in a practical sense this means trading with them – not killing them. We need to send them iphones – not bombs — in the long run, trading is the only way out of tribalism. Your ideology is killing America!

            Methinks you need to get with Jesus.

          • zelda

            A caveman? Really? Well as long as we’re going with standard pseudo-intellectual cliches, it’s 2010 and you have the mindset of a caveman who won’t use his digging tools.

            Firstly, I do not hate Muslims. I think Islam is a moronic, violent religion, and I hate terrorists. I understand very well that there are moderate Muslims. I also understand that they are in constant danger from violent Islamic fundamentalists. See if you can set your peaceful caveman brain ahead a few millennia and try to grasp the difference. I hope that isn’t too nuanced for you.

            Secondly, we have traded with Muslims. Bin Laden didn’t like that, remember? Amid all the Jew hate and religious foaming, he also mentioned that he didn’t really like our having any business dealings with Muslim countries. And they do have iphones. They use them as timers for their explosives. That is the purpose of technology for them, because they are terrorists with no specific goal in mind except the mindless defense of a primitive, backward, idiotic religion that demands this as proof of loyalty.

            Thirdly, I don’t really care what Jesus said. He said a lot of things. Most of his lessons need to be learned by the Islamist primitives seeing as how he was speaking to tribalist societies. Not a whole lot of eye plucking going on in daily American life. So you may turn your own cheek and spend the rest of your life learning to dig. Doesn’t bother me. But don’t you dare turn my cheek or the ones of moderate Muslims and minority Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, animists, and any other minority group unlucky enough to live in Muslim countries. And what about them? Does it not matter to you that terrorists target them too and to a far greater degree? Do you just consider them cannon fodder so you don’t have to get your hands dirty? Because that’s very Pontius Pilate of you.

          • JoeJ

            My, but you do sound like a cave person – sorry but, “beat’m till they submit” is right out of the cave – it is barbarism 101.

            You are so vehement and so bloodthirsty – I find that strange. Still you will not disclose where you are coming from – what is your ideology? My guess is that 80% of the America people would back away from your take no prisoners caveman barbarous ideology.

            Clearly I am a Christian who believes in the precepts of Jesus. I do not believe that more killing is the way out of our morass.

            We have been responsible for so many Muslim deaths – and you are itching for more. Your method only begs for more bloodshed. We suffered 3,000 deaths with 9/11 — sense then they have suffered a 1,000,000 deaths – that is a ration of 333/1 – what more do you want? Why is it hard for you to understand that they want to attack us in retaliation for all the blood we have spilled?

            The wise and righteous thing for us to do, is ratchet back the whole situation and leave the Middle East.

            I don’t understand you – you are foreign to me.

          • zelda

            I must admit it’s a little difficult to counter the argument that fighting barbarians is in itself barbaric, because you do have a point. No one is as civilized as a corpse.

            But if Islamist bloodlust is caused by our retaliation, what was their excuse prior to 9/11? The logic of your argument is nonexistent because they were killing Westerners (and many others) long before we were at war with them.

            Tribalist religious extremism isn’t logical. You can’t appeal rationally to irrational minds. They celebrated 9/11 and thanked Allah for killing the Americans, but somehow the Jews did it and blamed it on Muslims. We can’t make peace with them because they want a war with us and there is no argument to convince them that they don’t. Or maybe you have one? Maybe Jesus mentioned something to you. If so, quit holding out.

            And left to their own devices, the most violent will end up with the power as always. Are you really okay with this? Does it really not bother you as a professed Christian that these thugs will continue to brutalize the Christian minorities in their countries? That they will continue to beat and stone and hang women?

            So how about you stop embarrassing yourself with your religious whining and not-so-Christian insults and answer the questions I asked.

          • JoeJ

            My, but you get a failing grade on all the hallmarks of Christian Western culture.

            Life is sacred — you want more killing.

            Hope — you see no value in hopeful kindness and good.

            Two wrongs do not make a right — clearly you think one wrong deserves another.

            Forgiveness — you have none.

            Truth — I really feel that you have been dishonest with me – I have asked what you ideology is many times – and you have given me no answer. You are hiding something that would explain your hateful attitude.

            I think we should end this conversation – I have said my all, and now we just talking past each other.

            Happy New Year!


            p.s. You get the last word.

          • zelda

            I’m having trouble believing you aren’t a crude parody. On the chance that you aren’t:

            Firstly, you have not shown yourself to be an accurate judge of the hallmarks of Christian Western culture. By your own rationale, we should not have fought the American Revolution and would not even have a Western culture. If you can ignore the continuing slaughter of innocent, moderate, non-violent human beings by irrational, religious terrorists, you have pretty much abdicated any role as an enlightened advocate of the Western ideal.

            Secondly, I wholeheartedly agree that life is sacred. Allowing the crazed Islamic death cultists to keep taking it betrays a most disgusting apathy to its value.

            Thirdly, you talk about hope when you have no understanding of it. Until you can comprehend the hopelessness of psychotic religious murderers having ultimate power over your life, you won’t understand the utter despair of learning that the ones who could stop them just don’t care. In the name of Jesus, no less.

            Fourthly. “Two wrongs don’t make a right?” Seriously? Are we in Sunday School? To dumb it down for you, I don’t consider defending the innocent from brutal, hateful, religious psychopaths a wrong.

            Fifthly. Forgiveness. I don’t forgive the slaughter of innocents, especially when the slaughter is ongoing. Holding anyone to your irrational religious standards is bordering on extremism. The perpetrators are damaged creatures, brainwashed by centuries of thuggish despots exploiting their irrational minds. I don’t wish to stop them out of hatred; just a very deep concern for the innocents who are unlucky enough to draw their brutal attention.

            Lastly, you have an irrational obsession with ideology. I have told you no lies. My feelings on Islam and its violent followers are based on firsthand knowledge and verifiable fact. I’ve lived in an Islamic country and my family had to quickly leave it in the rumblings of the Islamic revolution. 3,000 innocents were murdered in my country by Islamic psychopaths. A dear friend was killed in Afghanistan but not before telling us of finding the mutilated body and severed head of a moderate Muslim who wanted to help us so that he wouldn’t have to live under the Taliban. There is no ideology involved and no secrets, just common decency and compassion for the innocent.

            I agree at least that I am talking past you. You seem to be a little out of your depth and you haven’t said anything at all. You have only spouted boring cliche and infantile Christian platitudes and then cemented your hypocrisy with some rather unChristian insults. Your arrogance is very much without basis.

            You haven’t answered why you don’t care about violent Muslims continuing their slaughter of moderates, Christians, and other minorities in Muslim countries. So until your Holiness is ready to stop lisping about Jesus and deal with ugly, terrifying reality, there really won’t be anything more to say.

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  • zelda

    Then again, you don’t have to be a conservative to understand that a fumbling, artless, defensive response to implications that your aversion to terrorism or out-of-control government spending stems from hatred of all people different from yourself, doesn’t necessarily indicate that someone is indeed a racist.

    • homebiscuit

      Fumbling, artless, hatred, racist…huh?