Sunday, August 29, 2010

Monday, August 23, 2010

Why So Scared?

One of the more puzzling phenomena of the early cold war is the "red scare" paranoia of the late 1940s and early 1950s. By that I don't mean to suggest that there was no potential threat to the U.S. in the cold war. The Red Army, in the words of Churchill, "tore the guts out of the German army," so a healthy respect for the Soviet potential to do harm to American interests and allies was entirely appropriate.

What I'm referring to is not the foreign policy of containment, but the domestic condition of near-hysteria regarding communism, the fear that the threat was not foreign armies, but right here among us. I've often thought that this tendency of Americans to bring the problem home was, at root, a reaction to the disorienting sense of being unable to control such large, global events. Realistically, what could one person do about the armed might of the Soviet Union? Nothing. But what if the threat is here at home? What if it is the disloyal State Department official, or that unorthodox teacher at the local school? That person can be fired. That person is not distant, is not invincible: this is a fight one person can really contribute to, and win.

These thoughts have come to me as I've pondered recent developments such as the anti-immigrant mindset represented by the Arizona law and especially the utterly irrational response to the Islamic community center in lower Manhattan. Like Americans in those cold war years, we are told we must be constantly vigilant against insidious enemies, and increasingly, we are seeing them not abroad, but right here at home.

On immigration, people frustrated over the inability to control the borders decide to target anyone who looks like a potentially illegal immigrant. "Maybe we can't stop them all from coming in," they seem to be saying, "but we can find some of them and send them back. Or scare them into leaving. That we can do."

Similarly, nearly nine years into the amorphous "war on terror," we see no end in sight. The war in Afghanistan is deadlier than ever for American troops. Drones strikes in Pakistan are more common than ever. Quietly, the Obama administration has extended the fight to new fronts such as Yemen. And on and on it goes, with the average person powerless to affect it. That sense of powerlessness explains, I think, at least part of the present rage over the Islamic center. "This we can do--no mosque, no way!"

But like the hysterical anti-communism of the early cold war, this is targeting the wrong people. Back then, the right-wing tried to lump together everyone to their left as "communist" (ignoring such things as the fact that one of America's staunchest allies was Britain's explicitly socialist Labour government). Anyone who was even slightly different from the cultural norm ran the risk of running afoul of the loyalty test. I can still hear those old newsreels with Joe McCarthy's bullying voice rattling off the ethnically suspect names (many of which ended in vowels) of people who didn't sound like good, loyal Americans to him.

The public's vulnerability to scapegoating in times of economic recession and international tension I can somewhat understand, but what about the demagogues like McCarthy who exploited it? Why did they act so scared? Why did they make it seem as if the U.S. was a fragile edifice in imminent danger of collapsing in the face of the Soviet threat?

Here again I think it is useful to make the distinction between the foreign policy and the domestic. The people making foreign policy in the Truman and Eisenhower administrations were not frightened. They had a healthy respect for Soviet power, but they did not feel threatened by its ideology. They always retained a firm conviction that the liberal tradition that had prevailed against Nazi Germany and imperial Japan would outlast Soviet communism. And it did.

The founding document of the cold war, George Kennan's "X" Article, demonstrates the confidence of those leaders. The policy of containment he called for was "patient [and] vigilant," it was confident, not fearful. Kennan understood communism, and saw as early as 1946 the possibility that "Soviet power ... bears within it the seeds of its own decay, and that the sprouting of these seeds is well advanced." Time was on America's side, because its system was better. It simply had to be patient and vigilant. (Containment was far from perfect, and its perversions in places like Vietnam are among its failings. But Kennan himself opposed the Vietnam war and stated that containment "has nothing to do with outward histrionics, with threats or blustering or superfluous gestures of outward 'toughness'.")

In contrast, the red-baiting demagogues like Nixon and McCarthy demonstrated no such confidence in America and its liberal principles. Nixon denounced what he called the "College of Cowardly Communist Containment" and accused Truman of being a "traitor" and "appeasing communism in Asia." McCarthy warned that "a conspiracy so immense" of communists in the American government threatened the U.S. with losing the cold war. The paranoia they expressed and exploited led to such abominations as the 1950 McCarran Internal Security Act (initially sponsored in the House by Nixon), which Truman vetoed but Congress overrode.

That act required registration of communist organizations, established a Subversive Activities Control Board, provided for denaturalizing allegedly "subversive" citizens, and allowed for the detention of U.S. citizens deemed potentially disloyal during times of "internal security emergency." Truman called it "the greatest danger to freedom of speech, press, and assembly since the Alien and Sedition Laws of 1798." In his veto message, Truman plainly stated the important principle at stake: "In a free country, we punish people for the crimes they commit, but never for the opinions they have."

Truman saw what the bill's supporters did not: you cannot effectively fight totalitarianism by becoming totalitarian yourself. The self-styled super-patriots who pushed this legislation had no confidence in the inherent strength of the American system--ultimately, whether they consciously realized it or not, they were jealous of a totalitarian system's ability to disregard such niceties as civil rights and liberties. They felt it made the enemy stronger and they thus emulated it.

And so it is with the fearmongers who have whipped up today's hysteria. They have no faith in the ability of American culture to encompass varied ethnicities and religions. They yearn to be able to act like our enemies (remember Gingrich's comment about the lack of churches and synagogues in Saudi Arabia). They see enemies lurking everywhere, and in response they act more and more like the people we are supposed to be fighting.

In that famous article, George Kennan had some words that were directed at the Soviets, but apply to Gingrich, Palin et al today: "It is an undeniable privilege of every man to prove himself right in the thesis that the world is his enemy; for if he reiterates it frequently enough and makes it the background of his conduct he is bound eventually to be right." If Americans follow the lead of today's demagogues and act as if all foreigners, all Muslims are our enemies, we will one day be right.

On the other hand, if we remain true to our best selves, we can survive, prevail and prosper. What Kennan said of the cold war is true of the crises facing us today. It was, he said, "in essence a test of the overall worth of the United States as a nation among nations. To avoid destruction the United States need only measure up to its own best traditions and prove itself worthy of preservation as a great nation." What we need to today is the confidence of Truman and Kennan. But in Gingrich and Palin and all of those who parrot their party line, we are getting the fearful lack of faith in America of Nixon and McCarthy.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Two Nations, Not Alike in Dignity

When I studied Civil War causation in graduate school, there was a school of thought called the "Two Nations" theory. This thesis, unlike the economic or constitutional/states rights arguments, did not deny completely the importance of slavery but sought a more comprehensive explanation for the division of the United States. It held that in a whole host of ways, the two sections by 1860 had really become two distinct nations, and slavery was just one factor among many that explained that development.

I found that argument more compelling than the idea that the country split over the tariff, or that the same people who had recently demanded a fugitive slave law that greatly expanded federal power at the expense of the states were suddenly so dedicated to states rights that they needed to leave the Union just because they had lost an election. But ultimately I found the "Two Nations" theory wanting, and agreed with Lincoln: "All knew that this interest [slavery] was, somehow, the cause of the war."

The "Two Nations" idea remains a common and useful analytical tool, however, in a country whose political system naturally lends itself to duality. In my U.S. history survey class I use the familiar "rural v. urban" split to help describe the culture clash of the 1920s. In 1962 Michael Harrington used the idea of The Other America to draw attention to the stubborn poverty that coexisted alongside postwar prosperity. In 1984, Mario Cuomo eloquently and memorably described Ronald Reagan's America as in fact a "Tale of Two Cities." More recently, John Edwards tried to ride his conceit of "Two Americas" all the way to the presidency.

And now we have Ross Douthat, the conservative columnist the New York Times hired after the abysmal failure of its William Kristol experiment. Douthat normally eschews the overt partisan hackery that marked Kristol's brief sojourn at the Times in favor of a more serious-minded approach akin to that of David Brooks. Last Monday's piece, "Islam and the Two Americas" tries to find a way to excuse and elevate the Muslim bashing that has accompanied the proposed Islamic community center in lower Manhattan, but ends up doing exactly what the Two Nations theory did for the Civil War--distracting from what is really happening.

Since I had been toying with the same "Two Americas" idea, I was interested in what Douthat would do with it. The first half of the essay is a fair statement of the basic tension between what he calls "two understandings of America, one constitutional and one cultural." The problem comes when Douthat effectively argues that the two nations are equal: "both understandings of this country have real wisdom to offer, and both have been necessary to the American experiment's success."

Wisdom? Douthat has just noted that the so-called cultural understanding "often strikes cruder, more xenophobic notes" and "persecuted" and "discriminated" against some religions. Where exactly is the wisdom in xenophobia and religious persecution?

Douthat wants to portray American history as a game of "good cop, bad cop." The first America says all the right constitutional things, and the second America threatens (without really meaning it, of course) to rough you up if you don't start talking like a good American. Douthat refers to the "threat of discrimination" against immigrants if they failed to assimilate. It was more than a "threat." It was reality. This fact Douthat breezily brushes aside, with a glib sense that it all turned out just fine in the end, so no harm, no foul.

He even asserts (without proof or even argument) that it was this "threat" that produced assimilation, as if immigrants on their own would never adopt American ways. Remarkably, he even states that it was nativist discrimination against Catholics that ultimately made "it possible for generations of immigrants to feel unambiguously Catholic and American" by forcing them to change. (And all along Catholics mistakenly thought it was their hard work, political activism, and service in the military that accomplished that goal.)

Although he evidently fails to see it, Douthat actually endorses the bigotry of those nativists. He does not say that the nativists were wrong in their prejudices, and that Catholics were good Americans and others eventually came to accept that, but that Catholics changed and became good Americans in response to discrimination. Thus he essentially argues that bigotry plays a positive role in our history and contains "wisdom."

All of this is meant to put a pretty face on the ugliness behind the reaction to the Islamic center. Douthat seems aware that there are nasty motives lying beneath at least some of the protests. But he excuses them by asserting that they still serve a positive function. This excuse-making is even more insidious than the denial that there is anything at all prejudiced about the opposition. Those people who say "I support religious freedom but ..." are at least paying lip service to principle even as they undermine it. Douthat, in the guise of intellectual sophistication, implicitly acknowledges and excuses the bigotry (even praising it for its alleged big-picture "wisdom").

All of which brings me back to the "Two Nations" thesis. Sometimes the attempt to broaden the perspective does more to obscure than enlighten. Yes, there were differences between North and South by 1860, but none was so great or determinative as slavery. To reduce slavery to merely one of many factors is to distort reality, and ultimately this argument distracted attention from the basic truth Lincoln stated.

Similarly, Douthat attempts to distract his readers from the collective guilt implicit in the opposition to the Islamic center and the bigotry that presumes that Muslims cannot be good Americans. There are two Americas on this issue of basic principle, and one is right and the other is wrong. They are not equal, and they do not both contain wisdom. Apologetics like those offered by Douthat aid and abet the worst aspects of the American character. The "cruder, more xenophobic" strain of Americanism deserves no defense and serves no positive purpose. The "first America," representing "our nation's high ideals" needs every intelligent voice to rally to its cause when so many who should know better are enabling bigotry.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

"Even One More Mosque"

It isn't just about Ground Zero.

The New York Times Sunday had an article about growing opposition to mosques around the country. This opposition is neatly summarized by a sign held by one protester: "Mosques are monuments to terrorism." The sign is from a protest in Temecula, California, which is over 2700 miles from the World Trade Center site.

Protests have also greeted another another proposed mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and it became something of an issue in the recent Republican gubernatorial primary. Three weeks ago, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey (who lost the primary) said: "Now, you could even argue whether being a Muslim is actually a religion, or it is a nationality, way of life, cult whatever you want to call it." One of the opponents of the California mosque parrots that line in the Times article: "I do believe everybody has a right to freedom of religion. But Islam is not about a religion. It's a political government and it's 100 percent against our Constitution." This woman organized a protest of the mosque with people she met at Tea Party and anti-immigrant rallies.

This is what people do when the principle of freedom of religion gets in the way of their fears and prejudices: they deny that it is about religion, and they make it political. As I noted in my last post, this is what anti-Catholic bigots did in the 19th century. Since the structure of the Catholic Church was monarchial, with a king-like pope and nobility in the form of cardinals and bishops, it was obvious that Catholicism was inherently anti-democratic and thus anti-American.

The current hysteria has now found its purest, clearest expression in the words of American Family Association radio host Bryan Fischer: "Permits should not be granted to build even one more mosque in the United States of America, let alone the monstrosity planned for Ground Zero. This is for one simple reason: each mosque is dedicated to the overthrow of the American government."

As despicable as his words are, it is instructive to have the hatred and bigotry stated so forthrightly. There is no hiding here behind the idea of opposition to a specific site, or the need to be sensitive to the raw emotions of 9/11 families. Here is the underlying, perverted "logic" revealed in all its horrific glory.

Like the woman in California, Fischer pretends to honor the principle while abandoning it: "Because of this subversive ideology, Muslims cannot claim religious freedom protections under the First Amendment." As Newt Gingrich did, he asserts that Americans should show their superiority by descending to the level of their enemies: "There is no such thing as freedom of religion in Islam, and it is sheer folly for Americans to delude themselves into thinking otherwise." (By this standard, the United States should have established gulags for political dissidents during the cold war.)

Fischer makes it clear that what he really wants is for Muslims to renounce Islam: "If a mosque was willing to publicly renounce the Koran and its 109 verses that call for the death of infidels, renounce Allah and his messenger Mohammed, publicly condemn [terrorism and terrorist groups] then maybe they could be allowed to build their buildings. But then they wouldn't be Muslims at that point, would they?" Note how Fischer is NOT content to have Muslims renounce terrorism--they must also "renounce Allah and his messenger Mohammed" and, one supposes, become Christians. (Recall Ann Coulter's response to 9/11: "We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.") The reason is clear: in his twisted mind, Islam and terrorism are inseparable.

This inability to separate the religious from the political sadly comes as no real surprise. Modern American conservatism, at least since the rise of Jerry Falwell's "Moral Majority," has had this fusion of the sacred and secular at its base, and this is the consequence. Once you accept the historically flawed idea that "American" equals "Christian," you of necessity must see "Muslim" as "anti-American." Muslims do not accept the fundamental belief of Christianity, that Jesus was the Son of God and savior of the world. Thus, in this closed world view, they are "anti-Christian" and so are also inherently "anti-American."

That is the danger of the adoption the increasingly prominent idea that the United States is a "Christian nation." The most recent manifestation, Vacation Liberty School (modeled on Vacation Bible School), seeks to indoctrinate children with the idea that "on the Fourth of July, the Founders simply took the precepts of Christ which came into the world through his His birth (Christmas) and incorporated those principles into civil government." The incredible distortion of American history in its curriculum is a topic for another day, but for now the point is this: by adopting this explicitly religious model of instruction, adapting it to history, and holding the event in churches, the Christian right in this country is doing precisely what it accuses Islam of doing: taking places of worship and turning them into vehicles for political indoctrination.

This projection is no accident. Much as they might deny it, American Christianists have some things in common with radical Islamists. Both reject any separation of church and state, and both see secular American society as plagued by moral degeneration. Recall that two days after 9/11, Jerry Falwell blamed "the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, the People for the American Way--all of them who have tried to secularize America--I point the finger in their face and say 'you helped this happen.'" And Pat Robertson sat there and agreed.

More recently, in reaction to the California gay marriage decision, columnist and former vice-president of the Moral Majority Cal Thomas wrote: "Muslim fanatics who wish to destroy us are correct in their diagnosis of our moral rot.... While their solution--Sharia law--is wrong, they are not wrong about what ails us." Thomas doesn't say what the right solution is, but it doesn't seem a stretch to suggest that, for him, it is Biblical law. His problem is not with religious law, as long as it is the right religious law.

When people react with such vehemence against the building of mosques, they are revealing far more about themselves than about Muslims. While I'm not suggesting that people like Fischer and Thomas are crypto-terrorists, I do think their ideas are dangerous, fanatical and antithetical to true American principles.