Politics in the U.S. has reached a level of toxicity that those of us who worked the campaign trail during the 2008 elections couldn’t have imagined. Foolishly, perhaps, my friends and I on the Obama campaign thought that things would get better once he was in office.
Instead, the hatred has grown and swelled, enveloping people who didn’t succumb during the endless campaign season, and threats of violence seem to be everywhere.
Fed up with it last week, I lashed out on Twitter:
If half these a**holes inserted “Jews” where they rant about “Muslims,” do you think it would become clear how f***ed up this all is?
I mean really, we’ve never seen where scapegoating an entire religion or ethnicity can get us…
Someone replied “apples and oranges” to me and I almost had to laugh. Because it’s not, of course.
Later on in the week, I listened to Qasim ‘Q’ Basir discuss his new movie, Mooz-Lum, on GRITtv, and he said much the same thing as I had:
“Every time I see something that seems offensive or just totally wrong in general, I say what if they were saying this about black people, or Jewish people, or anyone else, would this be OK? Most of the time it’s like no! This is not OK! The idea that they’re questioning our president, asking if he’s Muslim, what if he were a Caucasian man who may have had African-American blood in his bloodline years, generations ago? Would it be OK for people to say ‘Is he part black?’ Would that be OK?”
Well, many commentators have noted that in fact, the constant Muslim-baiting of Obama is based in part on reminding white Americans with a much longer history of racial resentment directed toward black Americans than they have toward Islam that he’s black. So playing fill-in-the-blanks there isn’t as much of a stretch.
But in a country whose foreign policy is based around unconditional support for Israel, despite plenty of lingering antisemitism in all corners, it’s heresy to note the similarity between ginned-up anger at Muslims as the racial Other du jour and the ginned-up anger at Jews in times past.
Marty Peretz, publisher of The New Republic, caused even Nicholas Kristof at the New York Times to make the comparison to antisemitism when he wrote:
But, frankly, Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims. And among those Muslims led by the Imam Rauf there is hardly one who has raised a fuss about the routine and random bloodshed that defines their brotherhood. So, yes, I wonder whether I need honor these people and pretend that they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse.
The public castigation from Kristof forced Peretz to backtrack, but the fact that a public figure like him–one long identified, for what it’s worth, with the Democratic party–felt comfortable writing this in public speaks volumes about how far our public discourse has fallen.
I’m Jewish. I had to explain to nice Jewish families on the campaign trail that no, Obama was not going to allow Iran to nuke Israel (and bit my tongue to keep from further explaining that while I’d like Obama to take a hard line on Israel and maybe stop selling them weapons, that was probably quite unlikely, actually). I could see the residual fear in the faces of people not unlike my grandparents, the mistrust of people who might hate them for simply being who they are.
In my time at Hebrew school and studying history, I learned about how anger and fear were created, in a time of economic crisis, in a country looking desperately for someone to blame. I learned what happened to those who took the blame.
I hate Nazi comparisons, and to suggest that this country is on the road to Fascism would be hyperbole. And yet, what if you take those lines of Marty Peretz’s–a man considered a liberal by many–and substitute the word Jew? What if you take Dinesh D’Souza‘s words–published in Forbes, not an anonymous email–about Obama and his father, and change two words, so it says “the U.S. is being ruled according to the dreams of a [Jew] of the 1950s”?
I know what it’s like to stumble across a slur directed at you. Just the words hit like a slap across the face that you have to stand there and take–you can’t fight back, it’s already out of range. And these words that are coming now from all angles, fast and furious, in anonymous emails or from the mouths and pens of well-paid writers and politicians, are increasingly hitting the headlines along with reports of vandalism and violence.
I believe in the first amendment as a bedrock principle of the U.S. government–free speech, freedom of religion, freedom to peaceably assemble. I believe that the best cure for bad speech isn’t censorship, it’s more speech. I don’t have a platform the size of Peretz or D’Souza. Few of us do. But we’re going to have to speak up, and loud, to counter all the hate flying around right now.