Monday, January 14, 2008

Talking back to "This American Life" - episode #322, Shouting Across the Divide

Over the weekend, I spoke with my pastor about podcasts. He recommended NPR's This American Life (the RSS feed for which can be found here), hosted by Ira Glass. I thought I'd give it a shot, and what follows below is my reaction to it.

I should state up front that I'm not a huge NPR fan, although I do enjoy Car Talk and Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me! Both of these programs tilt a bit leftward for my tastes -- although nowhere near as far left as the NPR "news" programs -- but they're mainly entertainment (and as often as not, also educational). I think it's a disgrace that there are still taxpayer subsidies for NPR and PBS at all, in the age of Internet podcasts and streaming audio; satellite radio; and digital radio and TV broadcast, none of which are subsidized to the extent that NPR and PBS are. Left to compete on a level playing field -- and yes, that includes those icky advertisements, not just insufferable pledge drives -- I believe that the left-leaning programs on NPR would be gone in short order, as was Air America. With dozens of choices in the media, I don't believe Americans will pay to hear how much America sucks and is unfair.

Which brings me 'round to the subject of this post. Episode #322 is the story of an American Muslim woman ("Sari") and her family, including 12-year-old daughter "Chloe". "Sari" grew up in the US, married a Palestinian immigrant from the West Bank, lived in New York for a while, and eventually settled in some unnamed East Coast town where the kids could play outside. Life was wonderful.

And then came September 11, 2001. "Sari" and her family started to experience anti-Muslim backlash. People gave her the bird while she was driving in her hijab. Neighbors started looking askance at her. Her car was vandalized, and a note left in it indicating that the family should leave the country. "Sari" tucked the note away in her purse, got the car fixed, and went on with her life as though nothing had happened.

{WOOP} {WOOP} MISTAKE NUMBER ONE {WOOP} {WOOP}

Um, "Sari", some redneck asshat breaks into my ride, I'm on the phone with The Man right now. You know what I'm sayin? The heat? The Five-O? Oh, never mind. Call the frickin' police, dear. That's why they get paid. At the very least, you'll need the police report number to file an insurance claim -- and maybe they'll knock on a few doors and scare the bejeeezus out of whichever redneck neighbor did the deed.

Anyway, after that, life in Unnamed Town settled back down for a few years -- until a few years later, on the anniversary of September 11th. "Chloe's" class was handed a book on the 9/11 attacks, in which it was intimated that Muslims were responsible for the attacks, and that Muslims hated Christians and Jews. (That first bit was also in the 9/11 commission report, BTW, though maybe not stated in a way that fourth-graders could grasp.) When "Sari" complained to the principal about the book, she was told that it was a district-wide reading assignment, and that there was nothing that could be done.

{WOOP} {WOOP} MISTAKE NUMBER TWO {WOOP} {WOOP}

You should have been at the next school board meeting with that book in hand, "Sari". If it turns out that it wasn't a district-wide policy, then the principal is a liar and should lose his Christmas turkey for the year. If it is a district-wide policy, then you casually mention that you're a Muslim, that you've never been to flight school, and that you had no wish to harm any of the Christians and/or Jews in the meeting, and would they please knock off purchasing this kind of crappy book in the future? KTHX. Maybe you win, maybe you lose, but at least you get it out on the table.

Of course, that's the only bad thing that happened, right? Oh, my, no, the rabbit hole deepens ...

"Chloe" starts to take abuse from her classmates, who call her a "Nasty Muslim" and tell her to go back where she came from, etc., etc. In the emo manner of all fourth-grade girls throughout history, "Chloe" decides that long-held beliefs must give way to popularity with the mean girls, and renounces Islam. (It should be noted that such apostasy is grounds for death in a number of countries, including Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iran, Sudan and Afghanistan, but not in Unnamed Town, and in any event, probably not for 9-year-olds -- yet.) The family declines to celebrate Ramadan that year, and keeps the whole Muslim thing on the down-low. Problem solved, right?

Wrong. The 4th grade teacher, who we'll call Mr. Ned Flanders, declares that the class will read one Christmas book per day in December. "Chloe" is particularly disturbed by the candy cane lesson, in which Mr. Flanders states that the J-shape represents Jesus, and the white and red symbolize Jesus' purity and blood, respectively. (Mr. Flanders apparently does not spend a lot of time on Snopes, but he's probably too pious to let facts stand in the way of a good Christian urban legend.) Net effect of the lesson is that only Christians who believe in the power of Jeeeee-zus will be saved, and all others shall be cast out into the Pit of HELL to BURN!!!

Of course, this does not sit well with "Chloe", who tells "Sari" about it, resulting in a meeting with the principal. The principal agrees, and presumably tells Flanders to tone it down, and we all have a happy Christmas (void where prohibited, your results may vary).

First day back from Christmas Winter Solstice Break, Flanders tells "Chloe" that she needs to transfer to another class, since this one apparently makes her uncomfortable. She runs from the school, gets home, buries herself in her bed, and won't come out. The next day, she returns to school

{WOOP} {WOOP} MISTAKE NUMBER THREE {WOOP} {WOOP}

Why the hell did you let her go back the next day, "Sari"? Obviously, something was wrong, and it probably had to do with school, since that's the place from which "Chloe" fled in such a funk. Think, woman!

Anyway, the next day, "Chloe" heads back into class -- only Flanders has already told the class that "Chloe" is gone, so now everybody's wondering WTF "Chloe" is doing there. "Chloe's" BFF comes to explain the situation, and comfort her, and everything is sorted out.

In the meantime, "Chloe's" siblings reveal that they have been teased by their classmates as well. Shortly thereafter, "Chloe", having transferred to another classroom, tries to hook up with her BFF in the hallway. BFF pretends not to notice "Chloe". Then, in the lunchroom, "Chloe" talks directly with BFF, who, in a gesture of Islamophobic rage ...

Turns.
Her.
Head.


"Chloe" is devastated. She drops out of school. The district pays for a tutor for "Chloe" for the rest of the year. The Justice Department (!) gets called in, spanks the district hard on the backside (diversity training! performance goals and oversight of Mr. Flanders!), and the school is once again declared safe for humanity.

Well, that just wasn't good enough. "Sari" sought a transfer to another school in the district, but, though they searched every building, officials were unable to absolutely guarantee that no elementary school child in any building would not act like elementary school children do, and that "Chloe" would never be teased again. That left just one choice -- they had to move. They were forced to leave.

{WOOP} {WOOP} MISTAKE NUMBER FOUR {WOOP} {WOOP}

Uh, "Sari", you're a stay-at-home mom -- ever heard of homeschooling? Or maybe you could get a job, and pay for private school tuition? The public schools do not yet have the sole right to educate your children, dear. This is America. Nobody forces you to do anything (except pay taxes upon fear of imprisonment or confiscation of property, but that's a different post.)

But the move didn't come without a cost. The husband, Mr. Wonderful West Bank, wanted to move the family back to the garden spot from which he had barely escaped with his life. "Sari" called bullshit, so Mr. WB took off, leaving her as a single mother with five kids, and presumably no child support checks with a Palestinian return address.

So the story ends with "Sari" working two jobs, never seeing her five (!) kids, and asking them to write her letters about their day, which she reads late at night through a puddle of tears.

OBTW, in one quote, "Sari" says "I have to believe this [how the family was treated] was a fluke.". Then she turns around and says "It's a sign of our times. It's happening all across America ... We hear stories of different things going on, in schools and places of employment ..."

{WOOP} {WOOP} MISTAKE NUMBER FIVE {WOOP} {WOOP}

No, dear. You are alive, and you are still free to make your own choices, and your kids are healthy. Just because your life sucked for a while, it does not mean that America sucks.

Oh, and Ira, and NPR in general, just because you can find one sob story, caused by public school idiocy and kids being cruel, does not mean that America sucks.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

This American Life is actually not an NPR show. So there go all your fun conspiracy theories.

gwr said...

Thanks for your comment. I realize that various stations contribute content to NPR, and that there is a distinction between NPR and non-NPR properties.

However, the show is promoted on NPR, airs on NPR, and is available via podcast from the npr.org Web site. So if the show is not an NPR property, the owners of it are certainly not doing much to disassociate themselves from the NPR brand.

I'm interested in the conspiracy angle -- what did you find in my post that theorizes a conspiracy, anyway?

aloewy said...

"No, dear. You are alive, and you are still free to make your own choices, and your kids are healthy. Just because your life sucked for a while, it does not mean that America sucks."

Nobody... not Sari, not Chloe, not Ira Glass, not NPR...NOBODY said , or implied America sucks.

The implication was, as you must know, is that cruel tribalism is what sucks.
And can you guess which country aspires more than any other on the face of the earth to get rid of cruel tribalism? Clue..the first amendment to its constitution prohibits the establishment of a state religion.

Oh and what would be your reaction to a Mr. Flanders if you had been an orthodox Jew?. well, I am and I'd hound the bastard to unemployment office after suing his ass for hurting my kid.

Look, I'm as conservative as they come, but that story was reported fairly and should make us all think about our fellow men.

gwr said...

Thanks for taking the time to leave a thoughtful reply.

"Nobody... not Sari, not Chloe, not Ira Glass, not NPR...NOBODY said , or implied America sucks."

Disagree here ... I transcribed the last quote from "Sari" pretty much verbatim. It's the one that includes "It's happening all across America" -- which is the part that caught my attention. I don't know how she could make that broad of a statement based only on her experiences and those of her family. It is an indictment of all Americans as Islamophobes, based on anecdotal evidence only.

And it seems that, since the TAL editors left that part in the broadcast, they endorse the view as well.

"Oh and what would be your reaction to a Mr. Flanders if you had been an orthodox Jew?. well, I am and I'd hound the bastard to unemployment office after suing his ass for hurting my kid."

Agree completely. "Mr. Flanders" should have been fired by the district before the DoJ ever laid a glove on him. Proselytizing any faith in a public (?) school is inappropriate behavior for a teacher, who's a perceived authority figure. He clearly abused that authority, and should be removed so he cannot do it again.

I would have reacted much more positively to a story in which American Muslims encountered bigots and small-minded xenophobes in their daily life, but rightly chose to regard them as the minority, and realized that America is (as you implied) generally a tolerant place. That's not how the story ended, sadly.

Thanks again.

DC said...

Thanks for your post. I genuinely respect the fact that you've taken the time to think seriously about this program, the issues it brings up and to share your thoughts online.

However, I'm not sure where your motivation to criticize "Sari" comes from. I, too, wished that she and her husband had stood up earlier and more strongly, but I can certainly understand why they chose to try and ride out the storm quietly. Why is her negative experience in America, which I find to be truly heartbreaking, so offensive to you? Why is someone else's misfortune an affront to you personally? I would really like to know more about that.

I also disagree that the show ended on an anti-American note. On the contrary, they introduced us to a federal prosecutor who was handling many cases of hate crimes and discrimination after 9/11. And yes, he affirms that such crimes and discrimination rose dramatically after 9/11. So these kinds of things were happening across the country. Not in every town, but yes in many places.
This man was doing important work to protect citizens and residents from such discrimination, and I think that's something to be proud of.

I don't see how this story is anti- anything except for anti-discrimination, anti-ignorance, and anti-hate. I do not see how this is anti-American at all.

I would be curious to know more about where your reaction to this story comes from.

GoHskrs said...

Thanks for your post. I genuinely respect the fact that you've taken the time to think seriously about this program, the issues it brings up and to share your thoughts online.

However, I'm not sure where your motivation to criticize "Sari" comes from. I, too, wished that she and her husband had stood up earlier and more strongly, but I can certainly understand why they chose to try and ride out the storm quietly. Why is her negative experience in America, which I find to be truly heartbreaking, so offensive to you? Why is someone else's misfortune an affront to you personally? I would really like to know more about that.


Thanks for your comment. The story was neither offensive to me, nor a personal affront. I simply wrote the post to point out that there were several points along the way at which "Sari" could have made different choices and did not.

I intend no personal criticism of any of the people whose stories appear on the show. I reserve that for the production team of TAL, who used the bully pulpit provided by their program to tell us how this incident diminishes us all as Americans. I reject their assertion.

I also disagree that the show ended on an anti-American note. On the contrary, they introduced us to a federal prosecutor who was handling many cases of hate crimes and discrimination after 9/11. And yes, he affirms that such crimes and discrimination rose dramatically after 9/11. So these kinds of things were happening across the country. Not in every town, but yes in many places.
This man was doing important work to protect citizens and residents from such discrimination, and I think that's something to be proud of.

I don't see how this story is anti- anything except for anti-discrimination, anti-ignorance, and anti-hate. I do not see how this is anti-American at all.


My reaction was to "Sari"s statement "It's happening all across America...". Based on what we know about "Sari", she cannot possibly know this. She could have said that she's seen media reports of discrimination, or that she's heard similar anecdotes from friends and acquaintances, etc. -- but that's not conclusive enough evidence to make the statement above. It paints with far too broad a brush, and because it aired, I have to assume that TAL's production team wanted it to be heard.

I'll acknowledge that the US has its faults, and they are numerous. However, I will not accept the characterization of America in toto as an Islamophobic nation. Are there bigots and intolerant people in the US -- of course. Are crimes committed against individuals because of nationality, race, religion -- yes, there are. Do we let these incidents define us as a country -- no, we do no. If crimes are committed, we punish the guilty; we do not collectively assume their guilt as a nation.

I would be curious to know more about where your reaction to this story comes from.

I'll admit to being a bit fuzzy on the details, as it's been over a year since I listened to the episode. I just don't believe that the intolerance featured in the episode is intrinsically part of "This American Life".