As much as I love my desi and arab foods, I decided to give everyone a taste of the South for dinner on Wednesday with our esteemed guest Omid Safi. Candied sweet potatoes, green beans, and a macaroni and cheese casserole. The girls gave me significant help since I muffed the macaroni and cheese. Apparently you’re supposed to pour the eggs slowly. Unsurprisingly, I wound up with a three-inch thick omelet on the first go.
Omid was every much a fiery activist and social critic as he was a nerd, which, coming from the proudest of nerds himself, I say only with love. Omid took us on a safari through Rumi to Martin Luther King, Jr. to Cornel West, his own run-ins with the bigoted industry of Islamophobia, the American education system, the corporate influences in our politics, directly into the heart of the American wilderness.
I use the term wilderness to connote something wholly American, a short-hand of the great social critics from Jonathan Edwards to Ralph Waldo Emerson to Martin Luther King, Cornel West, James Baldwin, and even Imam WD Mohammed. This wilderness refers to the 40 year wandering of Moses and his people in the Sinai desert after escaping from Egypt in search of God’s Promised Land, Israel. It was during this period that his people worshipped a calf, continually murmured (whispered to one another about giving up or turning back), and it was during this period that Moses fully embraced his role as a teacher, training his people in virtue and character through generous social criticism. The great ironic tragedy of the story, though, is that Moses never entered the Promised Land. In fact, most of the original followers who fled Egypt did not enter the Promised Land. Israel was the ideal only an arm’s length away, almost attainable. And so, in the tradition of social criticism in this country, we use the wilderness to signify the period of political education in which ordinary people gain strong character through self overcoming, striving in unison toward an ideal that is just a stone’s throw away. In fact, Imam WD Mohammed used to say: “There is no more beautiful place than the wilderness of America.”
Omid read the American wilderness as one of great hope and great challenge, one that has produced the love and vision of Martin while also producing the very conditions against which he fought. But love is anemic without justice. Quoting my own professor Dr. Cornel West, Omid said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”
How might love appear in the public domain? To what extent can love be political? And is social justice bland or even destructive when it lacks love?