Who'd have thought that as we storm into the 21st century, the intersection of white upper-middle-class liberals and aggrieved blacks could remain so wretchedly amusing?
Last Wednesday night, at the First Unitarian Church in Brooklyn Heights, a "Community Forum on Police Brutality and Racial Profiling" occurred, which means that the Unitarians of the world assembled in their bland and wheezing glory, their trousers hiked to their debilitated sternums, their flattened arches nestling symbiotically into fungal oxfords, faces beatific with the certitude of salvation under the mild gaze of their anodyne Creator. Unitarians are the best: the grand patrician liberal busybodies of Christendom, shuffling with corduroy trousers and meerschaum pipes, preaching the Living Gospel, saying things like, Well by gum, Fred, it certainly isn't cricket not to listen to what this fellow Mr. Muhammad has to say.
The photographs of past ministers that line the First Unitarian Church's back wall can convince even an unbeliever like myself of the political necessity of strychnine-chuggers, snake-handlers, guys who break into prophetic hives, adherents to erotic Marian cults, not to mention good old American peckerwood fundamentalism?anything that puts the blood back into the music, religiously speaking, that reaffirms the possibility of a big, nasty, damning, punitive, hairy-ass God who's not always as quick to forgive and forget as he tends to be at the corner of Pierrepont St. and Monroe Pl. in Brooklyn Heights on a soft evening heading toward spring. Each of the faces in the church's photos seems opiated by a cloying goodwill. Guys like this actually used to exist in America?men with names like Caleb Samuel Simeon Dutton and Frederick Augustus Farley, the type of men who preached a tolerant gospel, cereal diets, temperance, an enlightened internationalism and other nonsense.
"These are all our ministers from the beginning," a friendly fellow told me as I examined the portraits. "Of course, they were all white men. That's the way it was then."
It probably still is.
The forum was the standard political forum: a panel of activist heavies sat at a table in front of the church, including Normal Siegel and some guys from the Legal Aid Society and a representative of Al Sharpton's National Action Network. Each spoke for several minutes. Only one of the speakers?a tall, severe dredlocked man named Tim Witherspoon, of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care?gestured toward the truth: which is that the best way for the world's white Unitarians to combat social injustice is for them to disappear from the face of the planet, along with the other components of the politically enlightened haute bourgeoisie. The disingenuous liberal presumption that Whitey can necessarily help, rather than remain an ineluctable part of the problem?the presumption, in other words, that there's an easy way out of the American nightmare (quilts, multiracial badminton, membership in the "Weaving the Fabric of Diversity" committee that, incredibly, exists at this church)?is troubling. Witherspoon was having none of it.
"Racism is a problem coming from the European population," he boomed, slowly so that it penetrated his auditors' skulls. "It's a European axiology... Because you are creating these problems for us."
He also said: "If Abner Louima five years from now went insane and snapped and took a machine gun and started shooting people, would you blame him? But you have to think about that."
And: "Y'see, y'all sitting with your heads in the sand, and when you're sitting with your head in the sand you expose your posterior. And you will get a swift kick."
A couple of black people stood and cheered at these sentiments, while the white majority maintained a rigorous silence.
Then the floor was thrown open to questions, and liberals slithered down the aisle to address the panel. The first question, from a glum middle-aged fellow, referred to his sickly sense of himself. He was, um, you know, in agreement with Mr. Witherspoon, who had said that, um, well, that the problem was, um, Western Europeans. But, like, since he himself was...you know, a Western European...um, what was it that, like, he was supposed to...you know... um...do?
Witherspoon: "We need you to step out of your comfort zone... Because, see, I might not be in your neighborhood. Because if I'm in your neighborhood, they might be calling the police... Because then you will be the nigger in your community, and if that doesn't bother you?then you have arrived."
Witherspoon wasn't the only one bringing the noise. Two muscular middle-aged black men took to the mic, one after the other, after the white guy was done.
Black Guy #1: "If there are any good white people?and this is something I seriously doubt?then you would be doing everything you could to rectify this situation, for your own good."
At that, Norman Siegel stood and started complaining. But the black guy didn't seem to care. Who was Siegel to him? He had the courage of his experience, and who was to say he hadn't earned his anger?
Black Guy #2 predicted a "long hot summer," observed that "everyone's life here is on the line" and announced: "I don't know any good white people. I really don't. That's my experience."
And maybe it is. Who's to say? As he spoke, I reckon, the Unitarian congregation imagined itself huffing through the Brooklyn Heights streets, horn-rims flying, sandals a-flappin', glabrous arms pumping in shortsleeve chambray shirts, straining their shag-fluttering hearts, pursued by frenzied spearchucker Hutus... But yet those two black questioners and Witherspoon were the only people in the room gesturing in the direction of those difficult truths that the evening was designed to evade.
Minister Strook! Cut the cord! Clear the sanctuary! Exterrrrrminate the brutes!
As I left I thought of the final scene of Gravity's Rainbow, in which the assembled join in a rousing and innocent hymn even as the rocket hovers a fraction of a second above their heads.