Several hundred people turned out this past Sunday at the Islamic Center of Virginia, in Chesterfield County, for a show of unity and solidarity. There's a lot of that going on these days. Similar events have taken place at Islamic centers in California, Colorado, and even Wyoming.
Events like those don't really produce tangible results. They don't pass any laws or upend any executive orders or launch any products or feed any hungry kids. But then neither does sending a get-well card to a friend in the hospital. Neither did putting up American flags after 9/11, for that matter—but just about everybody felt it needed doing. Gestures count.
It's not all mere gesture, though. At the end of last month a mosque in Victoria, Texas, caught fire and burned. This was right after Donald Trump issued his executive order on immigrants and refugees. The cause of the fire is still unknown, but people could be forgiven for wondering.
Anyhow, what's worth noting is the aftermath: The folks of Victoria, pop. 65,000, rallied around the congregation. Four Christian churches offered their buildings so the Muslims would have someplace to pray. A representative from Temple B'Nai Israel went to the home of the Islamic center's president and handed him the keys to the temple. In the meantime, a GoFundMe page set up to collect donations for rebuilding has raised more than $1 million.
Then there was the story out of New York, where someone had scrawled swastikas and vile anti-Semitic messages on a subway car. A group of riders undertook a spontaneous cleanup with hand sanitizer and tissues, and in less than five minutes, the graffiti was gone. One of them posted the story on Facebook, and it quickly went viral.
Which should come as no surprise. The national climate lately has not exactly been all butterflies and rainbows. On one side you have a lot of folks who seem to think a dark shroud of fascism is about to be draped across the land as uniformed men with cattle prods start rounding up dissidents. On the other you have a lot of folks who are outraged by all the fear and outrage from the first bunch—and who seem to take grim pleasure in turning the machinery that's been grinding them down for so long against the people who used to run it.
Polarized media—traditional and social—help keep animosities jagged. "This Awful Person From the Other Side Just Said This Crazy Stuff About Our Side" is, unfortunately, the sort of headline that gets the juices flowing and the mice clicking. It's also an easy headline to write, because every side has its bug-eyed-lunatic contingent. (If you think yours doesn't, just spend a little while on websites favored by the opposing team. You'll see.)
Solzhenitsyn understood the tribalist impulses that drive such motivated reasoning. "If only it were all so simple!" he wrote in The Gulag Archipelago. "If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being."
Granted: There are evil people, and they do commit evil deeds. But few of them think of themselves that way. The wicked man is right in his own mind, to paraphrase a maxim. Still, you can't make a Utopia by weeding out the wicked. Every time that's been tried, the result has been atrocity on an industrial scale. The wicked usually have some good in them, and vice versa. You might get even the Dalai Llama to endorse homicide if you stuck him in a traffic jam on I-95 for a few hours.
Back before the election, Pedigree (the dog-food company) sent a woman in a Clinton T-shirt to a Trump rally, then sent her to a Clinton rally in a Trump T-shirt. In each case she brought a "lost" dog and pretended to be trying to find the owner. Rally attendants noted her shirt, but they let it go. Turns out dog lovers belong to every political persuasion. (You can watch the 3-minute spot by Googling "a vote for good.")
That's worth keeping in mind these days, as black plumes of toxic rhetoric belch forth from the foundries of scorn and hate. And it's worth looking for the stories about subway riders and solidarity-makers, too. Because, in the dark smog of our political climate, they are like the lamplighter of old—who used to walk through the streets at dusk, setting the lamps aflame. It's been said that if you looked out your window, you couldn't actually see the lamplighter. But you could see where he'd been.
This column originally appeared at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.