Wednesday, February 11, 2009

E Pluribus Unum

The Oscar Nominated Danish short film Grisen (The Pig) asks a simple question: should we adjust to newcomers, especially to those who look and live so differently from us, or should they adjust to us?

Asbjorn, an elderly tailor, checks himself into a hospital for a colonoscopy that ends up in surgery to remove polyps. Throughout his ordeal, he finds his only consolation in a cheesy albeit whimsical painting of a smiling pig hanging in his room. Silly as it may sound, he soon considers the pig his guardian angel who keeps him company and gives him courage and strength.

Upon waking up from surgery he is confronted by a few surprises. First, he might have cancer. Second, he now shares the room with a man constantly surrounded by loud family members speaking a language he recognizes but does not comprehend. And third, his solace - the pig - has been removed from the room.

He asks about the missing painting and tries to converse with his neighbor but does not get answers. It turns out that the picture has been removed as his roommate and the family are Muslim. Because of their religious beliefs, they find the porcine image offensive.

Still needing comfort, Asbjorn draws his own little pig on a pad and pins his illustration on the wall. Soon thereafter, the son of Aslam, the man lying a few feet away, rips the sketch off the wall, crumples the piece of paper, and tosses it into the waste bin. As can be expected, all hell breaks loose. Asbjorn contacts his lawyer-daughter, who rushes to her father's aid, confronts the son of Aslam, and threatens to sue the hospital for violating Asbjorn's rights.

"What about our rights?" the son of Aslam shouts.

In Western countries that are seeing increasing numbers of immigrants with darker complexions, exotic manners and strange beliefs, and in the United States whose population is a third non-White, who adjusts to whom? Should Latinos and Asians who come to America learn English? Or should the majority learn Spanish? Should newcomers learn to behave like "Americans?" Or should most people let go of their cherished ways and traditions? Whose rights prevail?

Or, is it an either/or proposition? The United States was founded by and thrives because of immigrants. Yet opposition to newly arrived strangers is a recurring theme in history. Racial and class conflict constantly bubble up to this very day. Fact is, the nation's founding principles of freedom, justice and equality along with its burgeoning diversity will continue to draw foreigners to its shores. Principles and Diversity can also guide us all from conflict to tolerance. E pluribus unum.

As for Asbjorn and Aslam, turns out that Aslam was blind all along and Asbjorn agreed to be Aslam's eyes while they share the room.

Image: Japanese American children and their classmates say the Pledge of Allegiance in San Francisco, CA. Raphael Weill Public School during World War II.

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