Combating foot-in-mouth disease

Like many columnists, I write about what I think, rather than about established fact. That’s OK, as long as it’s clearly marked as such.

'Price tag' attack on mosque 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS)
'Price tag' attack on mosque 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Acouple of years ago I interviewed a Very Famous Writer. I was extremely nervous about the interview – not least because this writer has a reputation for not suffering fools gladly. Naturally, I was convinced that I was going to make an absolute idiot of myself. Worse yet, the writer’s PR person was going to sit in on the interview to make sure that we stayed on task – talking about the writer’s new book and her visit to Israel – rather than about, say, the chances of peace in the Middle East.
I arrived early for the interview, a bundle of nerves. As I entered the hotel, the PR person phoned to say that she was stuck in traffic and was running late. As I hovered nervously, the Very Famous Writer walked into the lobby. Caught unprepared by her entrance, I briefly considered hiding behind a pillar. But this clearly would not do; we were to be formally introduced a few minutes hence, after all. So I did the grown-up thing and walked over to say hi.
She was very pleasant, ordering me a coffee and chatting with me in the charming and unguarded fashion that probably wouldn’t have been possible if the PR person had been hovering solicitously over us. She seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say about myself and the world; I began to relax, even to feel a bit confident about myself.
After chatting about this and that for a few minutes, the talk turned to the pressing issues of the day. “The newspapers here aren’t very optimistic about the resumption of peace talks, are they?” the VFW asked.
“Oh, but no one believes a word of what is printed in the newspapers,” I replied airily, reveling in the self-importance of my new role as of the VFW’s confidant. Then I froze. Given that I was writing a feature about her for a newspaper – this newspaper, in fact – this was, perhaps, not the most judicious thing I could have said under the circumstances.
She raised a querulous eyebrow. “Might this extend to what you’re going to write about me?” she asked.
“Um... well...” I replied, waiting for the earth to open up and swallow me. Not only had I put my foot in my mouth, I had actually tried to choke myself with it.
She stared at me intently for a moment, then burst into laughter. “Your face is an absolute picture!” she chortled. And we went on to have an excellent interview, despite the earnest ministrations of the PR person, who eventually arrived. It can be useful to have one’s delusions of grandeur punctured occasionally.
I consider myself privileged to have the chance to write regularly for newspapers and magazines.
Not for the financial rewards, of course (ahem, ahem), but because it gives me the opportunity to explore the stuff that goes on in my head within the wider world. I don’t always make as much sense as I would like to, I suspect; but given the very kind e-mails that I receive from time to time, I imagine that I must be doing something right at least part of the time.
The thing about writing a column, though, is that it becomes very easy for one to fall in love with one’s own voice, with one’s own opinion. Sorting through some of my papers the other day, I started to read over some of the columns I’ve written on these pages over the last couple of years. Some of them – I am immodest enough to say – are pretty good; elsewhere, I see my shrill strident words in print and cringe.
I think about this now because, when I started to work on this week’s column, I’d intended to write a commentary about the recent spate of arson attacks and violence. Vandalizing a place of worship, shooting a protester in the head, attacking soldiers tasked with defending the country: all are deplorable and inexcusable. But I also wanted to say something about why these things are happening now, and what they say about the social fabric of Israel at the tail end of 2011.
But that’s where the problem lies. Like many columnists, I write about what I think, rather than about established fact. There is nothing wrong with speculation and conjecture, as long as it is marked out clearly as such. But as a writer I should have enough humility to make this distinction in my head, and the responsibility to transfer this to the printed page.
But I don’t; not all the time. Just like when I committed my faux pas with the VFW, I sometimes allow myself to become so engrossed with the sound of my voice as to shut out everything else – including, as was the case then, the fact that I am a part of the establishment that I had so cavalierly dismissed.
Maybe, just maybe, my views about Israel today are correct in every respect. But will this change anything? I think not. At best, a piece like the one I had planned to write – at a time like this – will be of no use at all. At best. All that I’ll gain is the very specious consolation of being able to say “I told you so.” Which, as my mother says, is uncharitable and unchristian. (I’m sure it must be un-Jewish, too.) So, instead, I’m going to mention something else, a good news story that has largely gone unreported.
The Nebi Akasha mosque in Jerusalem was desecrated last week, its walls daubed with vile obscenities and inflammatory rhetoric. And at first I’d intended to write a piece about what I thought were the factors – direct and indirect – that contributed to this disgrace.
Rather, I’d like to mention the actions of a man called Avi Mayer. As was reported in Canada’s Globe & Mail, Mayer works nearby at the Jewish Agency and has no connection to the mosque. But when he heard that it would take days before the vile graffiti could be cleared away, he knew that he had to act. He went to a hardware store, bought green paint and cleaning fluids, and went to work to clean the walls himself.
“This kind of thing isn’t good for anyone,” the Globe & Mail quoted him as saying. “I’m ashamed that it’s happening here.”
A simple gesture that speaks louder than the 1,000 words of this column. The kind of activism we all should celebrate, rather than allowing ourselves to to be dragged down into finger pointing and the blame game by the vile actions of others.
For those who are celebrating, a happy Hanukka/Christmas/New Year. For anyone that doesn’t cover, have a good week.