It was Christmas break, my freshman year of college. A large group of us stood on the platform, waiting for the bus to take us home. A group of strangers, we stood making small talk, all relieved to have finals over and break about to start.
The talk lulled and I turned. I had to rush. The bus was here.
Like a wave, the crowd moved to where the bus was stopped. The bus slowly filled, leaving about twenty of us on the platform, laughing and joking to cover the worry that we’d have to find another way home. Right before he pulled away, the driver told us they’d be sending another bus for us.
More students came, the camaraderie increased and by the time the second bus showed up, we filled it with a laughing crowd.
I sat a few seats from the front and a guy from the group I’d been talking to slid in next to me, continuing the conversation.
Then he changed topics.
“I’ll bet I can guess your nationality,” he said.
I grew up in a big, diverse city where second- and third-generation immigrants identified themselves as Swedish-Americans, Greek-Americans, Japanese-Americans, etc., so I didn’t think anything about it. Being short, with dark hair and an olive complexion I’ve been mistaken for Greek, Puerto Rican, Portuguese, Native American, and Indian. I didn’t think he could guess. I said okay.
“Greek?” he guessed. “Italian?” He went on, but never got it.
Finally I listed my ancestors’ heritage, but he didn’t comment on anything until I mentioned a Jewish relative.
“You know,” he said, “Jews are trying to take over the country and the world.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
“There’s a Jewish conspiracy,” he said.
My dad had repeatedly warned me that I’d run into antisemitism, but this was my first encounter. In retrospect, I’m sure this guy had a litany of complaints against many groups.
“I know a lot of Jewish people,” I said, “and none of them are trying to take over the country.”
He started listing his “evidence” and I realized I was trapped on a full bus, stuck sitting with this guy for the next three-hour ride. I didn’t know enough back then to quit a losing fight, so I kept trying to talk sense to him. He kept going.
“The movie industry is brainwashing everybody. MGM really stands for Metro Golda Meier.”
He went on and on. Finally about the time he was complaining about being forced to buy kosher tuna fish, because all the major brands had a K on the label, the girl in the seat in front of me couldn’t take it anymore and came to my rescue.
Turning around and kneeling to look over the seat at him, she said,”I’m Catholic and you are terrible!”
I hadn’t thought about that bus ride for a long time. Events in the news and fake news lately have brought back memories I’d happily put behind me. Too many people are willing to skirt the surface, accepting headlines and sound bites as facts, expecting simple solutions to complex problems. It’s much easier to scapegoat a group of people than analyze a situation to look for a multi-faceted solution. It’s much easier to read the headlines, maybe the first paragraph, than dig down and read the details, look for the reporter’s sources.
We all need to read multiple sources before we believe what we hear and read. We need to pay attention to the difference between objective evidence and opinion pieces. We need to beware of conspiracy theories. We need to read what people who don’t agree with us have to say, with a mind open enough to ask whether any of what they have to say is valid.
If you think that an entire group of people can be all good or all bad, you are wrong.
If you think that Americans who speak up in protest are whiny or should be arrested, you need to read the constitution and some history.
If you think that all right-wingers are greedy, close-minded bigots and xenophobes, you are wrong.
If you think that all leftist liberals are unemployed criminals looking for a handout, you are wrong.
If you think that Fox News is a hard news network, you are wrong.
If you think that CNN is without bias, you are wrong.
If you think that Donald Trump can save the country single-handedly, you are wrong. The issues are too complicated for even the best president to do alone, and I do not believe we have the best.
If you think that Donald Trump can destroy the country single-handedly, you are wrong. A lot of people need to sit by and do nothing for that to happen.
And if you think that a single person can’t do much to help, think of the girl who turned around to join the fight. She may not have changed one idea of the bigoted bully next to me, but she supported me with her presence and gave me an ally for the rest of the ride.