There was an anti-war song from the sixties that I always loved, titled “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” The refrain was “oh, when will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?”
I’ve thought about that refrain a lot lately, as America has increasingly retreated into one of the ugliest nativist episodes in a history dotted with them. It’s ironic, in a way, that just as we seem poised to accept the justice of GLBT claims for equality—a recent CNN poll actually found a slim majority in favor of same-sex marriage for the first time ever!—hostility to immigrants and Muslim-Americans has become vicious. And make no mistake, this mindless lashing-out at those considered “other” threatens all of us who come from groups that have been or could be demonized, because it strikes at the very heart of what it means to be an American.
What makes Americans out of our diverse and disparate population is fidelity to a certain set of social/legal principles; a particular approach to the age-old question “how should people live together?” The very heart of that approach is our belief in judging people on the basis of who they are and what they do—on the basis of their behavior rather than their identity. It is that fundamentally American approach that has allowed the gay community—and Jews, and Catholics, and African-Americans, among others—to argue the unfairness of discriminatory stereotypes used to justify unequal treatment.
The arguments against the community center/Mosque a few blocks from Ground Zero are based on just the same sort of anti-American stereotyping that we recognize as pernicious in other contexts. Treating all Muslims as if they are terrorists is no different than treating all Germans as Nazis, all Catholics as pedophiles, all Irish as drunks, all women as weak and emotional, all gays as promiscuous. Every community that has fought for the right to have its members treated as individuals rather than as part of some monolithic whole, and every American who believes in our constitutional principles, should be standing up for our peaceful Muslim neighbors.
I know we’ve been through times like this before, but I can’t help worrying that the internet has dramatically increased the reach and immediacy of the craziness. Propaganda outlets like Fox “News” and political opportunists like Newt Gingrich play on the fears of the economically and socially insecure. It has never been easier to disseminate outright lies: Obama is a Muslim who wasn’t born in the U.S., the Imam of the proposed Mosque is funded by Saudi Terrorists, illegal immigrants are having “anchor babies” who will be raised as terrorists and sent back into the country to attack us…Ridiculous as these and similar claims are, there is a cohort that really does believe them.
They believe them because they want to. And in today’s media environment, it is so easy to create a “bubble” where you hear only those things you want to hear, listen only to those who will feed your paranoia.
My friends and family are tired of hearing me say this, but here’s my theory of what we are living through right now. A group of old, pissed-off white guys (and they are disproportionately old and guys—the average age of Fox’s audience is 65 and it’s largely male) woke up one morning and looked around. There was a black man in the White House, a woman running Congress, gay people getting married, brown people speaking Spanish. And they are throwing a world-class tantrum. They want “their” country back: the country that privileged white, heterosexual, Protestant males over the rest of us.
I hope and believe that this is a final eruption—a last gasp of spleen and bigotry—before their cohort dies off. But it is doing a great deal of harm while it lasts.
When will we—and they—ever learn?