Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Jimmy Carter's Visit to JMU

Days before former President Jimmy Carter was scheduled to receive an award at JMU, he made a remark on NBC that got his name all over the news and talk shows for days. People raged against him; people reasoned for him.

Ah, our prejudices are once again at play in the public square.

Our biases got even more blatant in the aftermath of his speech at JMU Convocation Center on Monday. Me? I like Jimmy Carter. Always did. So when I heard what he told Brian Williams in an NBC interview last week—that Joe Wilson’s outburst during President Obama’s speech was “based on racism”—I had plenty of excuses for Brother Jimmy.

“I am, in plainer words, a bundle of prejudices—made up of likings and dislikings,” wrote the 19th century essayist, Charles Lamb.

Some people chalked it off as a sign of Carter’s age. He’s 84 and his mental powers are diminishing. But what I’ve heard and read by him in recent years tell me this is not so. My first excuse was Carter’s Georgia roots. Let’s face it, even if his family was not prejudiced against blacks, most of the people around him growing up would have been. Throughout his youth, he would have seen blacks working in subservient jobs. When I first moved to Virginia and heard slimy cracks against blacks, I was struck by the depth of feeling. So perhaps, I reasoned, Carter was speaking from his own latent racism.

It could also have been a knee-jerk reaction. In her most recent Salon column, Camille Paglia criticizes her own party (not blinded like so many by her party affiliation) for its members’ docility, due to “ideological brainwashing” in college. “The top schools, from the Ivy League on down, promote ‘critical thinking,’ which sounds good but is in fact just a style of rote regurgitation of hackneyed approved terms (‘racism, sexism, homophobia’) when confronted with any social issue,” Paglia writes. “The Democratic brain has been marinating so long in those clich├ęs that it’s positively pickled.”

So I excused Carter because he’s just been a Democrat for too long.

This remark on NBC, in light of Carter’s lifetime of authentic service to the public, was not enough to turn me against him. I prejudged Carter as a good and honest man.

Carter’s speech on Monday was titled, “We Can Have Peace in the Holy Land.” He reviewed his efforts as President on behalf of Israel: He put pressure on the then-Soviet Union to let Jews leave Russia, many of whom emigrated to Israel. He supported a law that prohibited U.S. corporations to boycott Israel. On Israel’s 30th birthday, he announced a commission to establish a memorial to Holocaust victims. In 1978, he negotiated peace accords at Camp David between Israel and Egypt and, six months later, a peace treaty between them.

“I left office believing that Israel would soon realize its dream of peace with its other neighbors,” Carter told the Convo crowd, “a small nation that exemplified the finest ideals based on Hebrew scriptures I have taught since I was 18 years old.”

Then he went on to describe the current plight of Israel in relation to the Palestinians who live within its borders. He placed the blame for the current situation squarely where it belongs, on those who are shooting the missiles and mortar shells, on Israelis first and on Palestinians.
What I heard is that he is pro-Israel, but that does not blind him to the crimes Israel is committing against its neighbors. I was shocked, the next day, to find that others thought Carter’s review of his past efforts toward Israel was just a ploy to pretend he is not biased against them, and that his motive was to totally fault Israel, which she described as “dangerous.”

Zonk! See what I mean? You hear what you want to hear. I hear what I want to hear. “A biased opinion is one you don’t agree with,” said the newsman David Brinkley on CNN in 1995.

The reason for Carter’s visit to Harrisonburg exemplifies all the reasons I’ve admired him all these years. He and Rosalynn were presented with the Mahatma Ghandi Global Nonviolence Award. The award is given by the Ghandi Center to recognize peacemakers who support nonviolence, love their enemies, seek justice and share their worldly goods with those in need.

Say what you will about Jimmy Carter, he certainly has demonstrated those beliefs in his life, words and actions.

But then, maybe that’s just my bias.