Jewish World Review Sept. 12, 2001/ 23 Elul 5761
Just ask Rod Dreher, a columnist for the New York Post and the latest casualty in the guerrilla war on words. Dreher, a "known conservative" - sort of like a "known wife abuser" or a "known heroin user" - dared to mock the extravagant funeral of a little-known (but popular among a certain group of people) R&B singer named Aaliyah, who died recently in a plane crash.
In his column, Dreher noted the obvious, which was that Aaliyah's funeral ceremony was reminiscent of a royal send-off with horse-drawn carriage, release of white doves and the requisite contingent of public sobbers. He suggested that the funeral was a tad over the top for a virtual unknown, as opposed to a head of state or a real royal, such as Princess Diana.
Bad thought, Dreher. Bad, bad, bad.
For his "wrong" thought, Dreher has been labeled a racist, according to none other than the newly thin presidential candidate Al Sharpton. Commenting on Dreher's column, Sharpton - whose campaign one suspects will not focus on racial unity - said, "We will bring down anybody who tells us how to mourn our own."
Subsequently, Dreher has received death threats, including one whimsical voicemail that went like this: "Look, white bitch, you're not answering your phone, but you can't hide forever. One of us is going to be waiting for you outside your building, and you're gonna be thinking you're going home. But we're gonna step out and choke yo' ----- neck."
Most people who dare to opine publicly have had a taste of such poison. We've all been treated to hate mail (hey, shouldn't there be a law against that?), and most, including yours truly, have received a death threat or two.
Not to flirt with fate, but shortly ago I was on the receiving end of some unpleasant correspondence when, like Dreher, I commented on a death rite. My affront was to note that the response to Dale Earnhardt's "shocking" death while driving 180 miles per hour around a sharp curve was not precisely shocking after all. Like Dreher, my point wasn't to mock the dead, but to suggest that our wailing and gnashing was out of proportion to an event that some maverick thinkers might have presumed predictable.
Inarguably, Dreher and I might both be accused of poor taste or bad timing. I accept service on both counts, and probably not for the last time. But death, like the reactions we couldn't help noticing, seems disproportionate to the offense. Couldn't we just meet for coffee and chat amicably about our disagreements? I'll treat.
What's disturbing about such incendiary group reaction to the slightest offense isn't so much the death threat per se, though I admit summer's been hell under this bulletproof vest. More distressing - and perhaps symbolic of more serious problems - is our zealous overidentification with groups. We're not one nation under G-d; we're a consortium of disparate groups, barely tolerant of one another.
Everybody's got the T-shirt, the cap, the bumper sticker, the loopy lapel ribbon, the cause and the -ism. Absent a war, plague or famine, we have little to unite us and just about everything to divide us. Meanwhile, you have to admit, someone's lost his little sense of humor.
America has become the brat who wakes up on the wrong side of the bed and punishes everyone in sight. You poke a little fun at him and he kicks you in the shin. The grown-up version leaves a death threat on your phone and proves the rule that profanity is the resort of those who can't think.
Maybe Dreher shouldn't have declared as "tasteless" one group's idea of appropriate mourning, but social commentators are like that. Maybe I should have ignored the immensity of fans' reaction to a race car driver's death and written about something more interesting, such as Social Security. Then again, maybe people like Al Sharpton should lighten up and give the race card a rest.
Now there's a good