Thursday, November 03, 2005

RIP: Theo van Gogh, Rosa Parks

Francis Fukuyama reminds us at OpinionJournal that Theo van Gogh, Dutch filmmaker with impressive artistic bloodlines ("radical libertarian, ... television producer, talk show host, newspaper columnist, and all-around mischief-maker," as described by Daniel Pipes) was executed one year ago yesterday for the "crime" of making a controversial documentary exposé about the difficult life of a Muslim woman in Europe.

The execution was not state-sanctioned, of course-- it was a cold-blooded daylight murder on the streets of Amsterdam, which left no ambiguities about its motive, since the Morroccan/Dutch jihadist who killed Van Gogh left a five-page raving screed pinned to the victim's chest with one of his knives (the other having been used to perform the near-decapitation that followed repeated bullet-wounds, inflicted as Van Gogh pleaded for his life). One of the most notable aspects of this murder is how the Hollywood Left-- those freedom fighters for tolerance and the right to speak our minds-- met the news with a massive collective yawn.

Kathy Shaidle (who also has a short piece on Van Gogh) once boiled down that special brand of Hollywood hypocrisy to this unforgettable one-liner: "If George Bush is Hitler, why isn't Bill Maher a lampshade?"

That was in reference to Maher's recent outrageous throw-away line comparing Laura Bush's love for her husband to Hitler being loved by his dog. But for Maher's name in the above question, read in Michael Moore (speaking of all-round mischief-makers), Barbra Streisand, Cindy Sheehan, Noam Chomsky, Ward Churchill, Juan Cole, Markos Moulitsas, Jimmy Carter, and Senators Kennedy, Leahy, Durbin, Pelosi, Boxer, Byrd, Rangel, Reid, blah, blah, blah-- and countless others who would be easy candidates for an obscure shallow grave if George Bush were really the fanatical dictator of the fascist state that the extreme left has painted in their common rhetorical excess.

If Bush is more dangerous than Hitler (as an unbelievably large chorus of voices would have it), where are the ovens? Where are the death trains? If he's really more of a threat to the world than Saddam ever was, where are the mass graves? Where are the parched marshlands and the burning oil wells? Why are CBS and CNN and the New York Times still in business? Why is Michael Moore not lying on a Manhattan street with Project for a New American Century memos stabbed into his chest? (PNAC is a nefarious neo-con plot so secret that it has a massive website where every position paper is published in full.)

Why? Because the "Bush-is-Hitler/no-better-than-Saddam" accusation is, not to put too fine a point on it, INSANE. And it could only be made by people who are benefitting from the fact that it is a LIE. The Hollywood Left and the traditional megaliths of the press would be well-advised on this particular day to figure out where the real enemy to their freedom is, and to update the famous retrospective of Pastor Martin Niemöller: "First they came for Theo van Gogh, and I didn't give a damn..."

Maybe we know who Rosa Parks is because of one of those strange accidents of history. You see, she's not the first black woman in the 50's to have refused to get out of a "whites only" seat on a bus.

That may have been Martha White of Baton Rouge, Louisianna, in June 1953, whose manhandling by a bus driver when she tried to make use of a hard-won provision of a city council ordinance (allowing blacks to take front seats if they weren't being used) touched off a bus boycott in Baton Rouge. The boycott lasted less than two weeks, probably because it had been preceded by effective leadership (Rev. T. J. Jemison of Mt. Zion Baptist Church) working the system for months, to change local laws and restore reasonable bus-fares, and it took place within a municipality that was clearly less committed to institutional racism than was Montgomery, Alabama.

And in Montgomery itself, young Claudette Colvin had endured the same indignity as Rosa Parks would nine months later, being arrested when she refused to surrender her seat. But Colvin was a somewhat foul-mouthed teenager, pregnant by a married man, and not the ideal choice for a community icon.

But in Rosa Parks, Montgomery and the nascent civil rights movement found the inspiration it needed-- a dignified working woman "of a certain age" who radiated something more than mere beauty (though she certainly had that, and retained it through the decades). There are those who say that Parks was consciously pariticipating in a "test case" which had been pre-arranged to push the movement into high gear. That doesn't make what she did any less courageous, or the way she did it any less inspiring. She had no way of knowing whether she would survive the arrest with even her life, much less her well-being and her principles intact, or the birth of a new freedom to her credit.

The turmoil of the civil rights movement-- marches and fire-hoses and burning churches-- was a pageant of the strange for those of us who observed it from the distance of a white suburb in the peaceable kingdom of the American Pacific northwest. I remember at a very young age asking my parents who Martin Luther King was and what he was up to. The reply was rather unforgettable: "He's a man who broke the law." Whatever the merits of his arguments may have been, his association with civil unrest was very disturbing to people like us, especially my parents who had come from the midwest and mingled with all races on the buses of south Chicago. They just couldn't see how it had come to this. As a young woman my mother had been offered bus seats by old black ladies and refused them-- it would have violated the natural order of things to do otherwise.

On the other hand, my mother often told the story-- mindboggling to me now (I was there, but too young to remember) -- of how when we lived in north Florida in the late 50's, there were two Catholic churches in our community of Fernandina Beach: one for the whites (where blacks could sit in the back), and one for the blacks (where such whites as there might chance to be were expected to self-segregate to the back as well).

In an effort to be fair (!) the Mass times alternated: one week it was 9:00 a.m. at the black church and 11:00 at the white one, and vice versa the next week. Well, our family never was much for early rising, so on the weeks where Mass at our church was at 9:00 we might very well be late. If my mother had one principle about Mass attendance all her life, it was that when you're late you don't parade down the aisle to the front and create a distraction-- you take seats at the back without disturbing anybody. That's what we did-- the race of our pew neighbours was of no concern to our family (of damn Yankees, I suppose).

My mother remembers a white usher coming up to our pew at the back and placing his hand on her shoulder. As he leaned over and whispered, "Wouldn't rather sit up front?" he deftly attempted to more or less re-arrange her rotator cuff muscles with his well-placed fingers. She replied in no uncertain terms, "No, I would not!"

When we lived in Florida my mother employed the only domestic help she ever had in her life-- it was cheap, and everybody did it. My parents paid the minimum wage-- 50¢ an hour-- and we ate lunch in the kitchen with the cleaning lady. Nobody did either of those things. Big faux pas.

Some people would call my parents' behavior heroic, and maybe the same people would call my parents' attitude deplorable. (My sister's long-ago attempt to date a black guy did not succeed-- "these things take time..."-- and they still grouse about Martin Luther King getting his own holiday). I suspect that many Americans whom the extreme left would characterize as complicit in "systemic racism" are just people like my family, growing up within our traditional communities, acting pretty much with justice and charity on a person-to-person basis but struggling to understand or justify the sometimes violent collision of movements and collective identities.

For better or for worse, there have been many figures in the civil rights movement over the decades who have staked a claim upon the collective identity, and the voice, of American racial minorities. Rosa Parks has always stood a little apart from all that-- her voice was seldom raised, and we know her as an individual, while the collective swirled about her. She remained a woman of faith and exemplary character. She survived being attacked and robbed in her own home, at age 80, by a black youth who recognized her face, and then struck it-- an incident from which she drew no wrathful conclusions and exhibited no bitterness. These qualities are part of why we know who Rosa Parks is, and it's hard to imagine that this was an accident.

For my part, I heartily endorsed Martin Luther King getting a calendar holiday (though I think Washington and Lincoln should still each get one too)-- we need reminding of how he prayed that race would stop being the measure of all things. And when I heard that Rosa would lie in state in Washington, like the presidents and selected heroes before her, I thought that was great news too-- it would have violated the natural order of things to do otherwise.