Sunday, September 16, 2012

New York on 9/11

I seem to belong to a socio-political section of US society that Republicans, and particularly those who inhabit the Christian fundamentalist/evangelical fringe of that once respectable party, most despise. Socially Liberal, I support Gay marriage, equal pay, affirmative action and the right of women to make their own decisions regarding their bodies. Based on the "no harm to others" principle, my laissez-faire liberalism takes zero interest in what others are doing in the privacy of their own homes. As an atheist I am self-classified as one of the most reviled and distrusted "religious" (for that is how my atheism is classified on the State Department census) groups in America. This takes the biscuit, so to speak, that considering the reaction of American's to Muslims after 9/11, they are still more trusted than atheists. It doesn't matter how nasty a list of people you create, from terrorists to murderers and even rapists, atheists always come bottom. I recalled an exchange with an acquaintance of mine who, for reasons I cannot fathom, is a Biblical literalist (of the kind who believes the earth is 6000 years old and the Theory of Evolution a hoax perpetrated by evil scientists who will one day be punished by God...although the punishment - that of being cast into hell- seems preferable to me than the genuflecting servitude in perpetuity to whatever deity is alleged to be in control of heaven these days). My question to her was simple enough - "Is it better for society to have a law-abiding, productive atheist engaged in philanthropy, or a serial murderer who 'discovers' Jesus, repents, and becomes "born again"? I'll let you guess on her answer.

But these all pale to insignificance when I add yet another "strike" to my "most distrusted" moniker - that of being a vegetarian. After disclosure of this rather unalarming fact about my dietary preferences the questions follow a similar pattern.

"Surely you eat chicken...that's not really meat? I have a vegetarian friend who eats chicken every once in a while"

"Do you eat fish?"

It seems churlish to pedantically point out that the term to describe such individuals is "meat eaters", but I do point this out, and it is clearly confusing.

But at some point the true feelings of people surface.

That's a tricky one. Yes, Hitler was a vegetarian. He was also male, small, dark haired and European, and I am all those as well. But whereas I draw the line between myself and Hitler at that point I'm not thoroughly convinced that my questioners do as they sit there waiting for my confession of guilt for war crimes and the Holocaust...except for that growing group of Republicans who seem hell bent on denying the Holocaust ever happened.

It isn't easy being a vegetarian in America. For a country so technologically advanced it is surprising it can't get the math right on simple food production regarding wheat and animal protein. With huge swathes of the country seduced by the vision of consuming a plate full of cow every night, it is easy to see why they might view vegetarians as strange. The honorably motivated organizers and supporters of PETA (Peaople for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) have been skewered, so to speak, by those sporting bumper stickers proclaiming People Eat Tasty Animals

Suspicion of vegetarianism explains so much about the levels of ignorance in standards of food preparation and is my number one eating annoyance. I once visited a Subway store to order a "veggie" sandwich. The person ahead of me had a meatball sandwich with extra meat. The dribbles of barbecue sauce smeared the counter top ahead of my sandwich. Attempting to point this out felt like I was communicating in a foreign language. "I don't want my sandwich touching that meat sauce". The rest isn't even worth describing and when the server cut my sandwich with the knife that had only just been used on the meatball sandwich I walked out in disgust.

It's not that people don't want to help, it's that they show a level of ignorance that is staggering. But the bigger problem is where there is even no attempt to even cater for the possibility that someone might not eat meat. As I write this on board another United Airlines flight I have just been asked, in the first class cabin, whether I would like a shrimp salad, a hot chicken sandwich, or a turkey sandwich. Hmmmmm. That's a tough choice. "Well, I can pick the shrimp off the salad if you like", is the most helpful suggestion. "No, no, I couldn't possibly ask you to do that." A small pack of Almonds comes in handy for precisely these situations.

It was surreal to be in New York again on the 11th anniversary of 9/11. I recall visiting a few weeks after that disastrous day when the thick, acrid smoke and dust was still so very much evident across southern Manhattan. I couldn't take in the magnitude of what had happened. I was still struggling to imagine being faced with the "choice" of burning to death or jumping a hundred stories to my death and wondered how bad it was for so many to have chosen the latter as preferable.

I thought about some of these issues as I ran a circuit of southern Manhattan in the shadow of the new World trade center building, at about the time of the morning when these events happened 11 years ago. It was a beautiful, warm morning, just like 11 years ago. Clear blue skies with just a faint breath of wind. I thought about that morning and how so many people would have been doing what I was currently doing...and what others were still doing - tourists enjoying the morning, couples sitting in Battery Park, a ferry heading off to Staten Island, cyclists heading out towards Brooklyn Bridge, an elderly couple enjoying an expresso and bagel on the pavement cafe.

As bad news spreads about violence erupting in the Muslim world in response to the insensitive, but protected, free speech of an underwhelming "film editor", we have to remind ourselves to hold firm against such disproportionate and oppressive behavior. The cherished freedoms that were so much the focus of what was attacked that terrible day 11 years ago, must not be part of what we negotiate away in response to those who use violence and murder as justifiable expressions of their hurt feelings.

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