Yes, Mr. Kristof, This Is America
On September 11, New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof published a piece entitled “Is This America?” In the course of observing “how venomous and debased the discourse about Islam has become,” Kristof insists that “this is one of those times that test our values, a bit like the shameful interning of Japanese-Americans during World War II, or the disgraceful refusal to accept Jewish refugees from Nazi Europe.”
Kristof stands as just another example of the recent onslaught of naïve incredulity in the face of the controversy around Park51, the proposed burning of the Qur’an, and the persistent prominence of the Tea Party. How could America, our America, behave like this?
An editorial in Time magazine refers to Islamophobia as “this summer’s political fad”; on the Huffington Post, a Columbia professor insists that when it comes to Park51 “there is simply no actual controversy”; on Slate we are exhorted to ignore Terry Jones, “a lone idiot in Florida”; a Salon reporter actually describes Jones as “fringier” than other extremist figures; the director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life seems to think that the uproar around Jones’ isn’t so worrisome, since it is a “wise society” that provides extremists with “the space to burn themselves out”; Hilary Clinton claims that Jones, “with a church of no more than 50 people… doesn’t in any way represent America or Americans or American government or American religious or political leadership”; Christopher Hitchens declares the arguments against Park51 “so stupid and demagogic as to be beneath notice.”
Meanwhile, a large group of American interfaith leaders regretfully admit “that at times in our history particular groups have been singled out for unjust discrimination and have been made the object of scorn and animosity by those who have either misconstrued or intentionally distorted the vision of our founders.” But at what time in American history have particular groups not been the subject of bigotry?
There is more going on here than meets the eye. The rendering of Jones and the opposition to Park51 as non-issues not only fails to contribute to the debate, but rests upon a dangerous presupposition about the definition of America. Kristof’s headlining question, the interfaith leaders’ reference to the “vision of our founders” as opposed to ostensibly exceptional times like our own, and articles like Michael Moore’s “If the ‘Mosque’ Isn’t Built, This Is No Longer America” point to an unsettlingly ahistorical trend. Each relies upon a utopian understanding of America as a land in which multiculturalist tolerance is the de facto norm, a definitional component of what America is and has always been.
Unfortunately, contemporary Islamophobia is not a stain against the otherwise spotless canvas of American history. If anything, that canvas is filthy and should be acknowledged as such. This, Mr. Kristof, is America: land of the screed, home of the enraged.
Rather than viewing the “shameful interning of Japanese-Americans during World War II, or the disgraceful refusal to accept Jewish refugees from Nazi Europe” as rare, exceptional tests in American history, we need to view those events as constitutive elements of the American experience. Was America not American prior to the abolishing of slavery? Was America not American prior to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, during the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, the Zoot Suit Riots, or the pursuit of Manifest Destiny? Anti-miscegenation laws were belatedly toppled in the ’60s, but today 37% of Americans would not approve of a family member marrying outside of his or her race. Are those people not American?
Although responses from Christian organizations have been overwhelmingly against Pastor Terry Jones’ proposal to burn Qur’ans—the World Evangelical Alliance, the National Association of Evangelicals, the Vatican, the Church of Jesus of Latter Day Saints, etc., etc.—the characterization of Jones as a fringe extremist reflecting little upon the values of America as a whole is highly questionable.
Consider a recent survey of American Protestant pastors, ministers, and priests. When asked to identify with either George Bush’s statement that “the Muslim faith is based upon peace and love and compassion” or Franklin Graham’s controversial 2001 remark that Islam is “a very evil and a very wicked religion,” 47% of the respondents were on the side of Graham, 12% agreed with both, and only 24% agreed with Bush.
Maybe we need to redefine the fringe?
One poll shows that 49% of all Americans have unfavorable views of Islam; only 37% have favorable ones. According to another, 46% of Americans think that Islam encourages violence more than any other faith. Even in New York, ostensibly a mecca of cosmopolitanism, 50% of respondents to a New York Times survey opposed the building of Park51, while only 35% supported it.
The prejudice transcends party lines; Democrats are twice as likely as Republicans to view Islam favorably, but when it comes down to it, a majority in both parties opposes Park51. But it also transcends Islam itself. When the Boston Review asked non-Jewish respondents, “How much to blame were the Jews for the financial crisis?” a remarkable 24.6% “blamed ‘the Jews’ a moderate amount or more, and 38.4 percent attributed at least some level of blame to the group.” That’s a total of 63% directing at least some degree of blame towards Jews. Significantly, Democrats were more likely than Republicans to blame Jews a moderate amount or more.
Last week, after a red-eye flight across the country and three nights shivering on a bare mattress, I got sick. Day after day, as I sneezed, wheezed, and shuffled, I told myself that I had merely not slept well, that I was adjusting to the time change, and that I just needed another cup of coffee. I refused to believe that I was sick. Each symptom was only an errant fluke, certainly not indicative of anything serious. But then I finally sat down with a piece of paper and wrote down my symptoms:
1. Stuffy nose
5. Difficulty focusing
6. Sore throat
If it looks like a cold, feels like a cold, and sounds like a cold, then chances are that it is a cold. Only when I was willing to apply a realistic diagnosis to my condition—rather than incredulously treating it as a strange aberration that would quickly disappear—was I finally able to respond to it: with tea, with rest, with medicine.
We have to stop treating American bigotry as a series of exceptions—like silly season—and finally deal with it as a chronic condition. America, I have a diagnosis, and you do not look good. If it looks like racism, feels like racism, and sounds like racism, then I’m pretty sure that’s what it is. Let’s stop reacting with disbelief, as if someone pulled the multiculturalist rug out from beneath our feet, only for us to land on our surprised asses in an America we’d never seen before.
American values certainly include freedom of religion, respect for the Constitution, and some modicum of comfortable tolerance, but there are a lot of other American values besides those. Racism is and has always been as American as lukewarm hamburgers. The Tea Party, of course, is defending American values, as are the Minute Men, as was the John Birch Society, as was Joe McCarthy’s Cold War witchhunt, as were the opponents of FDR who insisted that he was a Jew and called him “Jewsevelt.”
Yes, America has a long history of immigration, tolerance, and declaring itself a “melting pot,” but it also gave birth to political cartoons like “The American River Ganges,” from 1876. It portrays Catholic bishops (as alligators) emerging from (pagan) waters, having traveled to American from the Vatican in the background—in order to eat our schoolchildren. “The Usual Irish Way of Doing Things” shows a drunken Irishman on top of a powder keg. And “From the Oldest to the Youngest Nation” features a giddy Chinese man sending firecrackers to Uncle Sam’s shores in what is bizarrely interpreted as a vengeful conspiracy against American children: “If pigtails are cut, laundry windows broken, and washing-bills unpaid, does not the knowledge that half the infantile population of these United States are burnt and maimed by the Chinese infernal machines… more than equalize matters”?
If the sheer ridiculousness of a theory like that seems a relic from another time, then consider that today America’s most popular radio host, Rush Limbaugh, rails against immigrants who are simultaneously “unwilling to work” and taking our jobs. And today, as in the 1800s, we fear that these others are after our children.
If contemporary political discourse is “debased,” then it has been for a long, long time. The perverse wishful thinking that Obama is a Muslim does not indicate anything new. Terry Jones, the opposition to Park51, and American Islamophobia are not exceptional, unexpected, or attributable to “like 100 unbalanced people.” America has always been racist first, multiculturalist second.
When this country does manage to get beyond its narrow-minded bigotry, it’s not by insisting that racism is a rare aberration and gasping in surprise, but by openly acknowledging the utter depravity of our condition and doing something about it. Our great civil rights movements—against the majority’s delusions about race, gender, and sexual orientation—have always known this. By pretending as if Islamophobia, anti-immigration, or the Tea Party are odd and temporary, we excuse ourselves from taking them seriously, and from seriously fighting against them.
In this context, President Obama’s lukewarm support of Park51—“I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding. That’s what our country is about”—is simply not enough. We know that people have the right to construct a building, so what are you going to do about it?
We need to stop treating our well-meaning American values as foundational, self-justifying, and obvious. And we need to stop acting surprised when they are tossed aside. The right American values are fought for, not assumed. So I nominate a new Buddha for killing: America, land of the free. Once we kill it, we can actually pursue it. If we continue to define America as if it always already conformed to what we wish it were, one day we will wake up, look around to find old-fashioned jingoistic exclusivism irrevocably established, and say, “Oh yeah, this is America.”