Thursday, August 12, 2010

Alfred Hitchcock and Knowingly Knowing

Alfred Hitchcock knew what he was doing. His films terrify us for two reasons. The first is the quotidian quality of his characters and situations—there’s nothing exotic at all about the heroes of “The Man Who Knew Too Much” or “North by Northwest.” Nor did Hitch need creepy old houses or dense woods to create his worlds: a concert hall or an open field in bright sunshine will do just fine, thanks—but I defy anyone who’s seen “North by Northwest” to ever look at crop-dusters quite the same again.

Hitchcock’s other insight was just as simple: he understood that the human imagination produces horrors far more vivid than any film-maker could possibly create in a studio. The scariest moments in “The Birds” don’t come when the… erm… title characters actually attack, but rather when, seemingly innocuously at first, they begin to gather on the telephone wires. Similarly, we don’t know what’s waiting at the bottom of those stairs in “Psycho,” but we know to be afraid of it. This is why there is more horror, in any legitimate use of that term, in any of a half dozen of Hitchcock’s scariest films than in all the Dead Teenager flicks ever made put together. We are, in short, hard-wired to be afraid of the unknown. Hitchcock knew it, and used that knowledge to make great films. Alas, today’s right wing knows it, too, and they play on that fear to attempt to legitimize their own prejudices and paranoia.

It was probably sometime in the late 1980s, a decade or so after I graduated from college, that I first heard the term “knowingly know,” a term that refers to not simply the fact that one’s acquaintance is a member of some group, but that one recognizes that they are. I’ve heard the phrase most often with respect to homosexuality. Even if only 2% of the population is gay, if you know 35 people, the chances are better than even you know someone gay. If I recall correctly, there were 306 people in my high school graduating class: even at the 2% figure (certainly at the low end of estimates), the mathematical chances we were all heterosexual would be about 1 in 500 (.98 ^ 306th). Still, I didn’t know any of my classmates to be gay—a very different thing from whether they actually were or not.

In college, I had one gay friend and a couple of acquaintances—or so I thought until years later, when I learned that another of my closest college friends was in fact gay. When, at some point in the early 1990s, my friend and colleague told me that she and her partner had traveled from Iowa to Wisconsin the previous weekend to be “married” in a Quaker ceremony, it took me a little by surprise—not because I didn’t know of their relationship, or because I disapproved in the slightest: I simply hadn’t given the concept of gay marriage any thought. I am pleased to say, in retrospect, that it took me less than two seconds to move from confusion to congratulations. It was, in short, a no-brainer: of course Karen and Penny should be able to marry each other. The fact that I’d hitherto never considered the possibility said something about the time, something about the small-town world I had always inhabited, and something about my own egocentric but perhaps understandable conflation of my own lived experience and the normative.

I will, of course, never know if my reaction would have been any different had the concept of gay marriage been presented to me in the abstract, especially if I’d never “knowingly known” any gays or lesbians. And this is the essence of the “knowingly know” phenomenon: being presented with an impersonal, generic concept is a fundamentally different experience than choosing whether to endorse a policy designed to better the life experience of one’s friends.

Anyway, that college friend I didn’t know was gay until years later? I was privileged to attend his wedding—complete with two plastic grooms atop the cake—in the early summer of 1994. Now, of course, practically everyone not merely knows someone gay, but knowingly knows. And poll numbers reflect that change in cognition. A CNN poll released Wednesday shows, for the first time, that the majority of those polled said that “gays and lesbians should have a constitutional right to get married and to have their marriage recognized by law as valid.” While that’s good news from my perspective, other results from the same poll were more troubling. And that’s why this blog piece isn’t really about gay marriage at all.

What saddened me in particular was this question: “As you may know, a group of Muslims in the U.S. plan to build a mosque two blocks from the site in New York City where the World Trade Center used to stand. Do you favor or oppose this plan?” Over two-thirds of respondents, alas, opposed. True, there has been considerable fanfare about the opposition, not merely from the usual demagogues like Gingrich, Beck, and Palin, but also—chillingly—from the Anti-Defamation League, which issued what’s Alex Pareene aptly describes as a “shameful, mealy-mouthed statement” about the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque”: touting religious freedom in one breath and then suggesting that because of “understandably strong passions and keen sensitivities surrounding the World Trade Center site,” the proposed site should be abandoned because “building an Islamic Center in the shadow of the World Trade Center will cause some victims more pain—unnecessarily—and that is not right.”

Give me a damned break. First off, this is precisely the kind of namby-pambyism that used to give liberals a bad name. Someone might get upset? That’s a reason to suddenly forget the 1st Amendment? And who, exactly, would be “cause[d] pain”? In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, President Bush, hardly a hard-core Islamophile, said this:
These acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith. And it's important for my fellow Americans to understand that. The English translation is not as eloquent as the original Arabic, but let me quote from the Koran, itself: In the long run, evil in the extreme will be the end of those who do evil. For that they rejected the signs of Allah and held them up to ridicule.

The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That's not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don't represent peace. They represent evil and war. When we think of Islam we think of a faith that brings comfort to a billion people around the world. Billions of people find comfort and solace and peace. And that's made brothers and sisters out of every race—out of every race. America counts millions of Muslims amongst our citizens, and Muslims make an incredibly valuable contribution to our country. Muslims are doctors, lawyers, law professors, members of the military, entrepreneurs, shopkeepers, moms and dads. And they need to be treated with respect. In our anger and emotion, our fellow Americans must treat each other with respect.

Whatever may have happened later, and indeed whatever his motives may have been at the time—political calculation, geo-strategic positioning, or deeply-held personal belief—Mr. Bush, then if never else, said and did what was right, and it seems that most people listened. True, there were some isolated incidents of violence against Muslims, vandalism against mosques, and the like, but it could have been far worse than it was, and President Bush deserves credit for his calming influence.

Unfortunately, that dose of reality seems to have worn off, and there are far too many today who appear incapable of distinguishing Islam from a tiny group of radicalized adherents (if, indeed, the hijackers can be said to be Islamic at all, any more than Fred Phelps can be described as Christian). These, then, are the pain-afflicted victims cited by the ADL: people who can endure the empty chair at the dinner table or the hole in the ground where colossal buildings once stood, but not an expression of the religious freedom central to this country’s identity for well over 200 years.

But then I got to thinking about knowingly knowing. The CNN poll is national; The Wall Street Journal commissioned one last month of just New Yorkers. The headline reads: “Poll: Majority of New Yorkers Oppose Ground Zero Mosque.” If one didn’t know that the WSJ is now another Rupert Murdoch mullet-wrapper instead of the corporatist but reputable newspaper it once was, one might be tempted to stop there and conclude that the people of the area have a real aversion to the completion of the Cordoba Initiative, as the project is called.

But read a little further. Manhattanites actually approve of the construction: “support for the $100 million project appeared to be strongest in Manhattan, where 46% of poll respondents said they were in favor of it, compared to 36% who said they were opposed.” Now, I realize that there was a time gap between the WSJ and CNN polls, but surely the real difference between them is the demographic profile of those surveyed: most especially where they’re from.

Lost in the rhetoric is the fact that a major impetus for the “Ground Zero Mosque” (which isn’t a mosque per se, and which is two full city blocks from Ground Zero) is simply this: it’s needed. According to a WSJ blog by Aaron Rutkoff, “The project is driven in part by the needs of a growing Muslim population in Lower Manhattan. The nearest existing Islamic prayer space, the Tribeca Mosque, has been holding three evening prayer services on Fridays to keep up with demand.” In other words, there are a lot of Muslims in Lower Manhattan. People there know them, interact with them, in many cases are them. In other words, they knowingly know.

But, outside a couple of major cities and a smattering of other areas, how many Americans knowingly know anyone of the Islamic faith? How many folks in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, site of another backlash against Islam in general, actually have had a conversation with someone named Farooq or Mohammed or Amir?

Let’s leave aside the compelling arguments that the right’s outlandish rhetoric plays directly into the hands of radical Muslims by actually making the case that American foreign policy is indeed a “war on Islam,” when it plainly is not. Let’s also pass over the fact that dozens of Muslims died in the 9/11 attacks, that it was a Muslim man who alerted authorities to the bomb in Times Square in early May, that one of the prime movers of the Cordoba project is quoted as saying, “We decided we wanted to look at the legacy of 9/11 and do something positive,” and that she hopes “to reverse the trend of extremism and the kind of ideology that the extremists are spreading.”

Let’s just look at the numbers based on knowingly knowing, or, looked at differently, in terms of how much the respondent’s life would actually be affected by the completion or non-completion of the project:
General U.S. Population: Opposed by 39 points
New Yorkers (all five boroughs): Opposed by 21 points
Manhattanites: In favor by 10 points
If I didn’t know better, I’d say there’s a pretty clear correlation between knowingly knowing and supporting the Cordoba Initiative. Perhaps the right, erstwhile champions of local control, ought to STFU?

There will be anti-Muslim bias in some circles for a long time to come, just as there still is in some places against African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Jews, Hispanics, gays… But there is an antidote to this poison. It’s called education: not the teach-to-the-test crap advocated by many on the right (and some, truth to tell, on the left), but areas like critical thinking, argument formation, written and oral communication, multi-cultural experience. Ignorance doesn’t merely breed fear: it is the very essence of fear. Just ask Alfred Hitchcock.

This is a battle, but one that must be won. That’s why I’m still in the trenches. Unafraid.


Max J. Pell said...

Great post. You hooked me with the Hitchcock analysis and I should have known you'd flip it into a political statement.

manjushri924 said...

Thanks, Max.