October 27, 2005

Novel Excerpt: Empathy

Here’s another excerpt from my nebulous novel

Riding in the New York subway the one night, I saw a row of posters for the Children’s Place clothing line along the ceiling of my train. That overpriced kids clothing line went digging through the garage sale clothes from the Midwest, mimicking the cheap-bin styles from my hometown in smug pastiche.

They stole the purple moony tie-died sweatshirt that the poor girls used to wear in 7th Grade, sweatshirts that smelled like poverty, weakness, and all the things that bullies teased out of you. The ads crammed model kids into school photo poses, pretending to grin like normal children with this white-trash chic.

Someday, squishy-brained alien archeologists will dust the Children’s Place posters like dinosaur bones buried in subway tunnels, wondering why we didn’t understand the Midwest. They’ll wonder how, with all our movies and ads, we couldn’t empathize with these poor places inside our own country.

Andrew O’Hehir figured it out another way in his profile of Gidi Dar, the director of the Israeli movie, Ushpizin. He quotes Dar talking about how to look at fundamentalism without oily smugness:

"'So I go into this fundamentalist world, and we know nothing about it. All the movies done about it are made from the outside. What I try to do is set all the problems and all the conflict aside for an hour and a half, and just accept their point of view. That's a big trip, I think. It's much more interesting artistically, first of all. And politically and culturally it has a much stronger effect. Because here's something you don't know, something you've never seen before. If you identify with these people and remind yourself that they're actually human beings -- and that besides certain differences in the clothes they are very much like you -- well, that's a better starting point for dialogue than you had before.'

This exercise is meant to remind us that whomever we demonize -- whether it's Islamic fundamentalists or born-again Southern Baptists -- are more like us, and therefore more comprehensible, than we generally choose to admit. Without such a perspective, Dar says, 'We're heading toward World War III. Actually, we're in it already. And it's only going to get worse.'"

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