September 22, 2008

A Moment of Seriousness

It was with much thrill and delight that I discovered Tony Blair was to make an appearance on The Daily Show last week. After all, Jon Stewart is one of my favourite comedians, and Tony Blair is one of my favourite politicians — the combination was bound to be a winner.

But actually, I found the interview kind of upsetting, if only because it tapped into some much broader (very deep and important) thoughts I’ve been having about the world lately — thoughts that are no doubt related to the tone of the current election campaigns, though I suspect not caused by them entirely.

See, it seems to me that in among all the big ideas that are getting thrown around these days — and here I’m referring not just to all the promises of hope and change and hope again, but to the whole spectrum of abstract ideas, from democracy to freedom to unity to tolerance to whatever — the much more important idea (and I admit, it’s an idea too) is getting lost: the idea that, in the end, hey, we’re all just people.

I started feeling this way, I think, after an ah-ha! moment I had while in Dubai. Ramadan was beginning as I arrived there, and the stores were littered with endless posters promising special promotions for the holiday season: Discover the holy month with new Ramadan applications from Nokia! Break your fast this Ramadan with a family bucket meal from KFC! And at first I found it kind of funny, in my jaded, cynical way, that this religion that we’re always being told is so obsessed with holiness and purity was succumbing so readily to such tacky hucksterism.

But as I was sitting staring at that KFC poster (admit it, you thought I’d made that one up, didn’t you?), it struck me that, really, it wasn’t any different from the sorts of posters KFC puts up all over the United States at Christmastime. But then, of course it’s no different; just because you take your religion seriously, it doesn’t mean you don’t need to make a living. Why shouldn’t capitalism be just as well established in the Middle East? (And, yes, I realise Dubai is hardly Mecca, but I think it’s still a fair point.) All this nonsense we’re fed about the clash of cultures and the strange, spooky world of Islam obscures the fact that, Islam or not, the Middle East is just a place where other people live out normal, prosaic lives, just like ours. In that respect it’s not so different from New Jersey.

And that really was a revelation for me. I mean, obviously I don’t deny that there are palpable differences between the West and the East, but suddenly those differences seemed to pale, to me, in the face of something as simple and as profound as everyday human life.

Anyway, to go from this quasi-mystical serenity straight back into OBAMA WANTS YOUR TWO-YEAR OLD TO HAVE SEX made the latter appear, as you might imagine, a little more vulgar than perhaps it would have otherwise. And it highlighted to me just how much we’ve forgotten about our common denominator, even within the United States. We’re so caught up in these big abstract ideas — gay marriage! Freedom of religion! The right to life! The right to choose! — that we fail to understand that each and every person who takes a different stance from us on one of these issues is still a person, with a family and a job and a collection of hopes and worries that is overwhelmingly similar to the ones that keep us awake at night.

And more than that, they are people who we live and interact with in a civilized and friendly way on a day-to-day basis. It makes no difference to me if the guy driving my bus, or teaching my class — or even just smoking on the street corner — thinks abortion is wrong, or whatever. He’s just another person who lives his life without ever, really, causing any problems in mine. But when we spend all day hearing about how THEY want to take away OUR RIGHTS, you can’t help but get a little leery of the bus driver, you know? Even if he’s just blindly standing up for his beliefs the same way we’re blindly standing up for ours.

Which brings me back to Jon Stewart. Now, if you haven’t watched The Daily Show much, perhaps you don’t know just how anti-Bush and anti-war Jon Stewart is — but I don’t think there’s a public figure who’s been as consistently vocal against the occupation of Iraq as he has. So naturally, with one of its architects sitting two feet away from him, he couldn’t help but sink his claws in just a little. He poked and prodded and pestered Tony Blair with questions, and jibes, and comments that were almost sneering, until the ex-PM got very serious and said, with regard to invading Iraq:

“When you take a decision like that, I hope . . . it’s not an easy decision, it’s not one you take lightly, it’s one with an awesome responsibility . . . You never take a more difficult set of decisions . . . But you know, in the end you have to take a decision. You have to come down on one side or the other. And these are things you then live with for the rest of your life — and so you should.” (emphasis mine)

And then, even in the face of such gravitas, Jon Stewart went on to badger him for another five minutes.

Okay, so it wasn’t an apology. It wasn’t an admission that he made the wrong choice. But it was a very poignant, very honest answer, in response to a very difficult question. And while history will show whether or not he was right or wrong, at that moment, when Tony Blair decided to invade Iraq, he was a human being who was put in an awful, terrible, difficult situation, and he did the best he could. He knows it’s caused death and suffering. He knows he’s caused death and suffering, on a scale vastly larger than any of the people who we label vicious criminals and put away in jail. And now he’s sitting here, in front of thousands of strangers, admitting to his sins.

And if that doesn’t change what’s happened, if that doesn’t make things right — then so what? Can’t we stop and appreciate the horrendous burden that this person suffers with? He didn’t want to be Prime Minister so he could decide whether to invade other countries, but it happened — and he had to deal with it, and he still has to deal with it. I know I’d be suffering if I were in his position. And that’s why, if it had been me sitting in the interviewer’s chair, at that particular second, I would have stopped giving him a hard time.

Maybe that’s the reason I’m not a talk show host. But it seems to me that if the big ideas, no matter how noble, can obscure humanity — the biggest idea! — with such success, well: perhaps it’s time for us to start ignoring the big ideas. Let’s forget about our lofty ideals, for a moment, and remember that even the pro-life homophobe is a person (and so, of course, is the gay abortionist). They pay their taxes and drive their kids to school and wonder if their savings will still exist next month. In the end, in fact, they’re just like us — and if you deny that, you’re no less warped or fanatic than you imagine them to be.

So why can’t we just cut all this crap for a while, and try to get along? No one is out to get you. No one wants to make you suffer. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a pro-life movement, or, for that matter, a pro-choice one (or pro-war, or anti-war, or whatever). But a person’s not a demographic, a person’s not an abstract belief, and a single person is certainly not the war in Iraq. People are people, and, regardless of anything else, they deserve, at a minimum, to be treated that way. For shame, Jon Stewart. For shame.

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