Danny Thomas, a Beloved Arab-American
WAR tends to make sharp lines in people's minds about ``friends'' and ``enemies,'' and these sharp lines can grossly distort our pride as Americans in our great heritage as a ``melting pot.'' The death of Danny Thomas on Feb. 7 dramatically illustrated this distortion. When Danny Thomas died, it was no surprise that, even in the midst of the fury of war, the evening news on all the major networks carried long and affectionate tributes to this great entertainer, whose conspicuous kindliness shone through his personal life as surely as it did through his stage personality.
But, as a Middle East expert suddenly addicted to television by Middle Eastern events, I was struck by the conspicuous absence of any mention of Thomas's background. Only one network mentioned that his family was Lebanese. The media seem unable to deal with the fact that Arab Americans have for a long time been an important part of American life, significant both in their numbers and in their contributions. At least we get a few interviews with recent Arab immigrants in Dearborn, Mich., or Toledo, Ohio, who tell us (often in heavily accented English) that they are experiencing some anxiety about the Gulf war.
The media complained that they needed more accurate military information to report on the war. But everything they need to know to give us a real picture of Arab-Americans, who now number nearly 3 million, is public knowledge readily at their disposal. Arab Americans first started coming to this country in the 1880s. The period from the 1890s to the First World War was the high tide of their immigration, as it was for so many other groups that came from Southern and Eastern Europe. They formed an import ant segment of the labor force in our New England mill towns such as Lawrence and Fall River, Mass., and Manchester, N.H., just as they would subsequently form a large part of the work force in many auto plants in the Michigan area.
From the beginning, the Arab American community contained people whose talents were widely recognized in American life. Khalil Jibran, the author of ``The Prophet,'' spent his earliest years in America in a house on Tyler Street in Boston, once the center of a vibrant Arab American community. Today Arab Americans are to be found in every walk of American life, although few other Americans recognize them as such: singer Paul Anka, diplomatic negotiator Philip Habib, actor Jamie Farr of ``M.A.S.H.,'' cons umer advocate Ralph Nader, heart surgeon Michael De Bakey, Heisman Trophy winner Doug Flutie, and a host of others. Arab Americans are also prominent in politics, including President Bush's chief of staff, John Sununu, and Senate majority leader George Mitchell of Maine.
Unfortunately, in times of war it is common to demonize one's enemies and to slide into the kind of racism of which our treatment of Japanese Americans in World War II is one of the most shameful examples. It is no small irony that one of my Saudi graduate students receives hate calls because of his Arab family name, even though Saudi Arabs have risked their lives as our allies.
Sadly, ``Arab'' has become - with the half-conscious cooperation of the media - shorthand for ``the dangerous other'' although, as the names mentioned above show, many Arabs are not ``the other,'' they are ``us.'' No wonder Arab Americans feel threatened when they are targeted by the FBI for questioning, and no wonder that some of them expressed amazement, as was reported in a story of the Chronicle of Higher Education on Jan. 23, that colleges should even consider giving out information on their Arab A merican students.
If we fought in the Gulf for any sort of principles, if President Bush's repeated references in his State of the Union message to democracy are to have any meaning, we must be vigilant against the racism that treats any portion of our population (or of humanity) by category and not as individual human beings. And, as Americans, we must be proud of the Arab American heritage woven into our tradition by such outstanding Americans as Danny Thomas, whom we will all miss.