Groupthink on both sides of the Atlantic

Posted: Dec 08, 2003 12:00 AM

There was something in the New York Times story "Actors in All-Latino Cast Savor a 'Historic Moment'" that reminded me of the BBC story "Gloucester Muslims tell (British Home Secretary) Blunkett to resign" -- but what? That is, how could it be that a story written to celebrate, politically and correctly, the Hispanic-ness of a Broadway cast have anything to do with a heated gathering of British Muslims at a Gloucester community center? What could acting in "Anna in the Tropics," a Pulitzer Prize-winning play, have to do with debating the arrest of a local bloke suspected of Al Qaeda links? The stories are without parallels.

Or are they? Both stories are deeply marked by their subjects' ethno-vision, the tightly blinkered perspective that makes for rigid groupthink and cumbersome apologetics. On Broadway, it allows actors, who are as lucky as they are deserving, to rise to the peak of their careers and see only a view dominated by the bogeymen of identity politics.

Actress and dancer Priscilla Lopez, 55, for example, is typical. She's found great professional success as an actress and dancer in a range of roles from "A Chorus Line," in which she played Diana Morales, to "A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine," for which she won a Tony Award playing Harpo Marx, and more recently, in the movie "Maid in Manhattan," in which she played pop queen Jennifer Lopez's mother. Yet Lopez finds point and purpose in worrying about being typecast as a Hispanic, and, then again, not being typecast as a Hispanic. Sometimes, the article reported, she even "felt guilty for working while so many Latinos did not."

Talk about being damned if you do and damned if you don't (and also damned if no one else does). It is such a mindset, a continuous loop that circles but never reaches reality, that will probably link the expected early close of "Anna in the Tropics" not to a faltering play that drew mixed reviews, but rather to the conviction that Broadway just wasn't ready for a "Hispanic" play. In the self-deluding perpetuation of group mythology, the destiny of the individual, or the individual play, is lost.

In the Muslim enclave of Gloucester, the context may be entirely different, but the school of group-thought is the same. Last week, Sajid Badat, 24, was arrested by Scotland Yard under Britain's antiterrorism laws. This week, he was charged with being in cahoots with Al Qaeda-linked British shoe-bomber Richard Reid. In between, Gloucester's 2,500 Muslims have, as a group, seen fit to close ranks around him and Badat has been the subject of emotional outbursts, fervent declamations and bizarre requests.

"We are always expected to apologize for something that we have not done," community spokesman Ahmed Goga told the BBC. "Everyone in this community has condemned 9/11 time and time again. But we are being demonized and castigated despite being British through and through. Well, a lot of us feel we should not have to do it anymore -- and it's time we made a stand."

Made a stand on Sajid Badat's innocence? At this point, it's no cakewalk for the Badat defense. But ever since the young Gloucestrian was arrested, with the police confiscating a few plastic explosives from his home, local Muslims have not only exhorted fellow Britons to reserve judgment on Badat, but practically to withhold comment altogether. The press has been condemned as "filthy and racist." The police have been criticized for allowing neighbors to learn of the arrest on television (as if townspeople should have been privately notified) and for beefing up their ranks locally because it might "cause damage to the community's image." Home Secretary David Blunkett, who praised police for making the arrest, was accused of "building walls between our communities." As one speaker at a public meeting on the subject put it, "You have not arrested an individual but an entire community. Sajid is innocent and so is this community."

This notion of "collective innocence" is not uncommon in Gloucester's Muslim community. Indeed, the local imam of the Ryecroft Street Mosque has actually ruled out guilt as a Muslim option. ("A Muslim cannot be a terrorist as a terrorist cannot be a Muslim," he, um, explained.) Which is nonsense -- and worse than nonsense.

When everything is viewed exclusively through the scrim of religion, race or ethnicity, the individual disappears. Personal responsibility -- and the responsibility of the group to the person -- is lost in the creation of a destructive and dangerous mythology.