Bigoted and isolationist rhetoric reflects a tarnished image of America

The Advocate’s editorial board has a somewhat spotty track record regarding the quality of its columns, but this one nailed it. Recent declarations by 31 governors that Syrian refugees would be denied entry to their states (under dubious legal authority) because one of the attackers in the recent Paris bombings appears to have come from Syria shows the worst and ugliest side of American politics. Sadly, while we normally only see this kind of stupidity on the elephant side of the aisle, the jackasses got in on it too, with Democratic Governor Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire and our own Democratic gubernatorial candidate adding their voices to the chorus of fear and paranoia. This follows our current governor’s letter to the president demanding more information about the handful of Syrians who have been allowed into Louisiana; it seems that, for once, our current administrator was actually ahead of the game in ramping up the scare tactics about Muslim invaders. Kudos, I guess.

Here’s the problem with all of this absurd hand-wringing: while the U.S. has long had (and continues to have) probably the most rigorous screening process for any migrants in any country in the world, the volume of immigrants fleeing persecution at the hands of ISIS in Europe means that such screening is virtually impossible. Is there a good chance that the attacker in question did indeed come to France from Syria? Yes, there is, but consider this: approximately 10,000 people pour onto the shores of the Greek isles every day trying to escape the violence and destruction in their homeland. 10,000 is the total number of people that the administration has agreed to accept in the U.S.

No other country shares America’s unique heritage of immigration and it is one of the ideals that defines us as a nation that we welcome immigrants, especially those seeking asylum from totalitarian regimes. Now Ted Cruz wants to have a religious litmus-test as a condition of entry to America. Cruz should be ashamed of himself for so many reasons, and this is just the latest of them. Our own state “leaders” should be equally ashamed for their blatant appeals, in this election season, to the very worst demons of our nature.

Why Romney lost and why the Republicans still don’t get it

A lot has been written and said about the spectacular electoral failure of the Republican Party in the November election, and much of it misses the point. CNN and other broadcasters pontificated on their tables and interactive maps and talked about how the GOP lost women and blacks and Hispanics and young people, and all of these things are undoubtedly true but not all that interesting in and of themselves. The more salient part of this is why the Party of No not only flopped in its efforts to unseat an admittedly-divisive sitting president (just why he is so divisive is probably worth its own article), but lost seats in both houses of Congress, including races that were considered easy victories like Todd Akin’s challenge to Claire McAskill.

Ask 10 Republicans why this happened and you may get 10 different answers. Mitt Romney, suffering from an apparent bout of Aesop’s fox syndrome, sulkily declared that Obama must have “paid off the electorate.” He didn’t mean that literally–he meant that the president had promised those constituencies that didn’t vote red money or some other form of government largesse in exchange for his reelection. Slightly smarter or less bitter observers like Louisiana’s own Bobby Jindal or Wisconsin’s Scott Walker hastened to say that Romney’s reaction to his loss was a bit stupid and suggested that the true problem with the Party lay in its failure to appeal to a broad spectrum of voters. Both of these men are, of course, playing to a national audience with these statements and it’s probably the worst-kept secret in politics that they have ambitions beyond governing a single state.

As others have pointed out, it’s worth paying attention to deeds as well as words. At home, Jindal has promoted an extreme social-conservative agenda that plays well to his base–and particularly the religious right–in this most crimson of states but which has been met with suspicion by moderates and independents. His recent push to put public funds in the hands of charter and private schools aligns perfectly with his previous efforts to dilute science education in the state with his Orwellian Louisiana Science Education Act. This is an important context in which to examine Jindal’s public proclamations, wherein he pays lip service to the idea of creating a more inclusive political party that embraces many groups–the so-called “big tent.”

The reality is that this is more empty rhetoric, because the GOP has continued to push an extremist agenda, even while giving the appearance of holding its more extreme elements at arm’s length. During the election, in a case of belated damage control, the national party stumbled over itself to distance itself from comments made by numerous Senate candidates who made abortion a central issue in the campaign by stating in various ways that their god had a hand in many terrible crimes against women; meanwhile, a similar policy statement is to be found on the official party platform and on the lips of its vice-presidential candidate (Paul Ryan is basically Sarah Palin, except that he actually did read all of the newspapers).  On the economic front, fiscal hawks like Speaker Boehner are taking a hard line against raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans and are pushing the vague and ultimately meaningless trope of “tax code reform” that Romney was promoting as his “economic plan” during the election. This self-imposed “fiscal cliff” nonsense is the last gasp of the absurd “trickle-down economics” that  Republicans have been shoving down our throats for the last 30 years, and I hope they choke on it. The only thing that trickles down on the poor and the middle class when the rich get richer is the excrement that always rolls downhill.

Intellectual luminaries within the party suggested an alternate reason for why young people didn’t vote Republican. Bill Bennett suggested that liberals have taken over the public schools and indoctrinated America’s youth with pinko propaganda. He’s actually serious about this and it gets better. The prescription is to not to get rid of onerous and intolerant policies that drive people away the party in droves; it’s to take over schools and insert their own propaganda. It’s well worth taking a look at this film to see what Bennett and his followers have in mind.

This particular piece of idiocy just got cranked up to 11 this week in the wake of the tragic school shooting in Connecticut. Congressmen Louie Gohmert of Texas and Dennis Baxley of Florida have actually suggested that the answer to mass shootings in this country is for people to have more guns. Perpetual carnival acts James Dobson and Bryan Fischer declared that their god had once again intervened to “allow judgment to fall upon us” because of abortion and gay marriage and because there is no state-sponsored prayer in schools. Sure, you can always count on fringe loonies to say things like this after children are gunned down at school, but here’s the kicker: Mike Huckabee, the guy who was almost the GOP’s candidate for president in 2012, was saying the same things. If the party leaders really want to know how they’ve gone so astray and why Americans don’t trust them anymore, nothing sums it up quite so succinctly as this.

Here’s a pro tip for Mr. Huckabee and the rest: your god doesn’t belong in public schools and your religion is not the only one in America. The amendment that goes at the top of the Constitution–# 1–declares that Congress shall make no law respecting religion. That’s the “establishment clause” and it means that government, including public institutions (like schools), are to be religiously neutral. I don’t suppose you’d be too thrilled if the kids were facing Mecca and praying to Allah on prayer mats in the public schools under the imam’s watchful eye. So go ahead and blame those of us who want to take guns off the streets, who want to protect women, who are gay, who believe you can be moral without gods; Democrats will continue to clean your clocks at the polls as we all vote against you.

And on a personal note, fuck you, you self-righteous assholes.

No one’s hands are clean in sordid Innocence of Muslims affair

As I was listening to this interview on NPR the other day, I pondered just how this mess started and who was really to blame. The answer is that we all are to blame to some degree. Is it ridiculous to storm embassies and murder people because you don’t like a movie? Yes. But should America recognize that it bears some responsibility for fostering an environment where such offensive material is not merely allowed but encouraged? Oh yes.

Mr. Saunders was speaking on a slightly different but nevertheless relevant topic: the notion that Muslims invade countries like sleeper cells, reproduce rapidly, and threaten to dominate host country populations within a few generations. It’s a bit of a silly notion but one that has been making the rounds since Italians, Jews, Mexicans, and other unsavory types first began making their way to the Land of Opportunity. The point is this: we readily accept that the “others”–the people who don’t worship the same god (well, they actually do, but don’t tell your Christian friends because they would never associate their deity with the likes of Allah), dress the same way, speak the same language at home–are a threat simply by virtue of being different. Particularly in the post-9/11 world where everyone who reads seditious books or travels to the wrong countries is to be treated with great suspicion, we have let this narrative dominate public life in this country.

This survey by Gallup shows how American Muslims and other Western Muslims feel oppressed and isolated within the cultures they live in. This is an atmosphere that we subtly (and sometimes not-so-subtly) promote when our leaders make casual references to jihads and Crusades and when the media are filled with images of ethnically black or Arab Muslims as terrorists and supervillains. Many Muslim stereotypes (being prolific breeders may be among the least offensive) pervade not just American culture but Western culture in general and in this climate of hatred and fear all it takes is one unstable individual with ready access to weapons and you get a Sikh temple massacre or a Norwegian killing spree.

America and the rest of the world should acknowledge their sins in this regard, but the Muslim countries where so much fear and animosity has been stirred by the actions of a small and as-yet-unidentified group of filmmakers who have produced the equivalent of low-budget hate porn must shoulder some share of blame for this catastrophe as well. Ordinary citizens of places like Libya, Egypt and Iran should take the self-appointed leaders who claim to speak for them to task for igniting this tempest-in-a-teapot. Amid news that Iran has upped the ante by raising the bounty on Salman Rushdie’s head, claiming that if Rushdie had been killed twelve years ago, no one would have had the temerity to make something like the Innocence of Muslims trailer, maybe it’s time that the world’s mainstream Muslims acknowledge that, while they are personally deeply offended by depictions of Mohammed in Western media and would prefer that they did not exist, they are not a reason to blow up planes or destroy embassies.

Let’s be clear about something: one of the things that makes America a great nation is that we allow the presentation of unpopular points of view. Dissent is tolerated and even encouraged to some degree. At least that’s the way things are supposed to be. Increasingly we are seeing a shift away from the officially secular society that this nation was founded as over two centuries ago as hints appear that this country can be, always was, and should be a Christian nation. This too is wrong. As most of those who spout this kind of nonsense know, most of our founding fathers were deists (believers in a vague and impersonal deity who has no interest or involvement in the day-to-day affairs of individuals) not Christians. The Establishment Clause exists because 5,000 years of human history taught those men that “officially” religious countries are inevitably set up for conflict with neighbors who are not co-religionists. Turning this country into a kind of theocracy only sets us on a path to perpetual war–like our distant neighbors in the Middle East.

Nor should we abandon that most valuable of secular principles, the freedom of speech, to legally sanction the producers of this absurd film trailer. It is, as I said above, one of the great ideals of this society that even the atheist, the racist, and the blasphemous are given a voice, not because every voice has equal merit but because we privilege no one voice over another under the law. Thus, while the president was right to release those ads decrying the content of the video as not being representative of America (and we surely hope that it is not), he was equally right not to accede to the demands of those calling for state punishment of the offenders, who have committed no crime in this country.

Mitt Romney, in what I can only see as a desperate attempt to appear relevant, jumped in front of a camera last week so he could berate the president for “apologizing.” He is an idiot. I can’t even imagine which of his goofy advisors told him that the murder of an ambassador overseas in what appears to have been a well-planned assault could be fertile ground for partisan political maneuvering.

In any case, we should all take a hard look at our own reactions to this unfolding saga and what it means for the role of religious freedom, pluralism and the dream of what America can and should be, while reminding our brothers to the East that authoritarian rule and religious laws are not the sort of virtues that we wish to emulate.