185: Must Our Diversity Lead to Conflict? Avoiding Ugly Images from the Past

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    “It became more and more obvious to me that at the heart of every other global crisis –- both in the potential of making problems worse and in the potential leverage point for making them much better -– is religion. Are our religions going to be forces for fear or forces for healing?”

    Best-selling writer and activist Brian McLaren from our Conversation With Brian, coming on Wednesday.   

In our ReadTheSpirit Planner, a free newsletter we publish via Email each Monday morning, I told readers that the world seems to be stumbling into a dangerous season of fear. Just think of the headlines we’ve read in recent days: Unemployment rates and oil prices are soaring, the values of stocks on which many retirees depend are dropping and there are rumors of looming war with Iran, not to mention ever-worsening crises in Africa, especially in Zimbabwe.
    The good news is that, as people of faith, we are the people with the spiritual resources to swim in such stormy seas and continue to find hope and healing.

    But, today, let’s take a hard look at one of the serious challenges we face:
    In a new digital age in which an entire century of media is available to us — we need to keep watch when ugly images from the past resurface in our midst. In explosive seasons like this one, ugly stereotypes are like dry kindling just waiting to be touched by matches.
    While preparing this week’s ReadTheSpirit stories for you, I spent quite a long time talking with the Christian activist Brian McLaren. Once again, he pointed me toward the importance of facing this timeless problem of fear and the assumptions that breed fear. Come back on Wednesday to read the entire Conversation With Brian — and on Thursday to read even more about a landmark project that Brian, Phyllis Tickle and a half dozen other major writers are launching right now.

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    But, consider: If we look around carefully, it’s not hard to spot this problem close to home.
    The Turner Classic Movies channel is devoting much of June to exploring both the stereotyping of Asians in American films — and those artists who managed to transcend these biases. Look through your TV listings and you’ll find dozens of TCM films with Asian themes sprinkled through June.
     I watched several films and commentaries that TCM ran in recent days concerning the Hollywood pioneers Anna May Wong and Sessue Hayakawa. Their life stories are amazing tributes to perseverance against often staggering odds.

    Anna May Wong (at left) was Hollywood’s first Chinese-American star, which placed her in the awkward and demanding role of trying to change global images of Asians in an isolationist United States. Sessue Hayakawa (below), best known today for playing the prison camp commander in “Bridge Over the River Kwai” at the end of his acting career, was Hollywood’s first Japanese-American star.
    Both stars struggled to break out of stereotyped images of Asians as cruel, lustful and devious — or, just as bad, as simple-minded dolts in their obedience to powerful forces.

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    Hayakawa eventually left movies as he became an ordained Buddhist master and wrote the spiritual memoir, “Zen Showed Me the Way.” He probably was the more successful of the two in overcoming hateful stereotypes.
    But the TCM series this month gives all of us lessons to ponder. Among the films airing in June are  examples of stereotypical Asian detectives (Mr. Motto, Charlie Chan and Mr. Wong among them — all played by non-Asian actors). Those films also are back on DVD with new collections of their adventures debuting almost every month.

    The problem is: Just as China and India are rising to become the world’s next superpowers, Americans’ ideas about Asians are intertwined with this poisonous old stew of stereotypes.
    Now, you may argue that we’re all too sophisticated to be taken in by ignorant stereotypes. But I was stunned last week when a review copy of a new paperback book by an evangelical writer hit my desk. As I skimmed through several chapters, I realized that this was quite literally an attempt to summon Christians into a worldwide struggle with Islam. The writer’s ignorance about Islam is astounding. Nevertheless, the author confidently tries to tell Christian readers that they should fear for their lives, because — this author claims — there are countless hordes of Muslims around the world whose lives are driven by hatred and who have made a “commitment to kill innocent women and children.”
    I am not going to mention the title, the author or the publishing house — because I don’t want people to seek out this horrifically ill-informed book. Let’s let it vanish into its own obscurity.
    But the fact that it crossed my desk — along with dozens of other new religious books last week — is one more sign of how common these ugly voices are in our world.

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    This weekend in the flagship Borders store in Ann Arbor, I ran across another unreconstructed slice of old-fashioned bias. In the midst of the huge Mystery section stood a large, stand-alone display of paperback reprints of “Shadow” and “Doc Savage” novels with lurid covers from the past.
    I wondered if someone had updated these tales — much like Spielberg and Lucas updated the pulp fiction of 1930s movie serials for the latest “Indiana Jones” release. But, no, these editions are low-cost reprints of the original novels, complete with savage stereotypes.
    In one volume, “Who Is Lingo?” we get a brutal scene featuring a devious Asian killer, called a “chink” in the text. The killer has devised a technological marvel: a killing chamber that traps its inhabitants, then pumps lethal gas into the room. As the killer operates the lever, he says, “Room fillee. Takee couple minute to killee people in there. Me timee.”
    In another volume, “The Magicals Mystery,” the killers are Indians, each one called simply “the Hindu” or sometimes “the creature” in the text. They are devious masters of deception, as well, able to contort their bodies into tiny places, then slither out to murder people. And, to heighten the drama, the text describes these Indian assassins as looking like snakes. In one case: “His wasted face was apish, with lips so drawn that the hiss must have come from between his teeth. He was, in a sense, a human reptile.”
    The illustration (at right) is from this “Hindu” story.
    Pretty sad to see beautiful new paperback editions of these books — marred by all the ugly stereotypes of our past.

Finally, let’s end this reflection on a positive note:

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     Tuesday through Thursday this week, you’ll find stories here about
new approaches to building interfaith and cross-cultural understanding.

    If you missed it last week, check out our Conversation With Stephen Simon, the pioneering filmmaker who is circling the globe now with positive stories through his Spiritual Cinema Circle.

    Plus, check out our bookstore, where we recommend dozens of great books that point toward understanding, hope and help.
    And, here’s a very timely question for you. To be honest, we can’t quite figure out whether Adam Sandler’s new movie, “Zohan,” is a groundbreaking comedy because of its attempt to salute interfaith brotherhood — or whether it’s so offensive that no one should take it seriously. Yes, I’ve seen the movie and, yes, I laughed out loud in a number of scenes. If your weekend included “Zohan” — hey, Email us with your thoughts on the movie!

CARE TO READ MORE?

    Anna May Wong and Sessue Hayakawa aren’t easily accessible these days, unless you have NetFlix or carefully watch for their films on TCM. Unfortunately, the remarkable spiritual memoir, “Zen Showed Me the Way,” is now out of print, but you can find used copies online. In both cases, Wikipedia has pretty strong starting points for exploring their lives.
    The Anna May Wong page has all sorts of resources.
    The Sessue Hayakawa page is nearly as elaborate.
    Please — if you’ve a particular interest in these actors or have a memory to share with us of seeing their films —Email ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm and tell us about it.

    The Shadow and even Doc Savage both continue to have loyal fans. And, here at ReadTheSpirit, we stand proudly in the cheering section for the rebirth of comics, graphic novels and even the kind of pulp fiction that fueled the Shadow and Doc. In short: We love this genre, overall.
    But — we draw the line at anything that demeans whole groups of people — and, even if you’re a fan of the Shadow, Doc and all the rest, let’s be honest: You know they sprang up in an era when hateful stereotypes were commonplace.
    Our suggestion is that — just as Spielberg and Lucas did with Indiana Jones and just as so many comic artists and graphic novelists are doing with their superheroes these days — we need a good scrubbing of our literary past. We can celebrate heroism, sacrifice, loyalty and compassion in a healthy way only if we’re not doing it at the expense of other people.
    But, hey — You know that already, don’t you? If you do want to learn more about the Shadow, he’s got a huge Wiki page, too. So has Doc Savage.

AND FOR MORE STORIES RELATED TO THIS WEEK’S SERIES …
    We’ve got an in-depth Conversation With Phyllis Tickle, the chief architect of the new series that Brian McLaren is kicking off. The interview with Phyllis focuses on a recent book she wrote about the words of Jesus.
    On Tuesday, we explored one of those global pillars: Pilgrimage.
If you missed it, go back and take our 10-question pilgrimage quiz. See
how much you know. You’re sure to pick up some cool new facts to share
with friends.
    On Wednesday, we published an extended Conversation With Brian McLaren, who Phyllis chose to write the kick-off volume in her series.

    Tell us what you think!

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