Thursday, December 31, 2015

Progress in the New Year

It’s the last day of the year. It’s a time when everyone in the world reflects on the previous three hundred sixty-five days, what their triumphs were, and what their pitfalls were. But it’s also a day when we peer into the possibilities that the next year may bring. Commonly, this comes with a mentality of change. Many of us that are brave enough to see ourselves as imperfect think about what we could do differently next year so that we may improve and evolve as people. Why can’t we have the same mentality as a society? Why can’t we think this way when it comes to our government and the people that government serves?

I think if you were to ask Americans about our place in the world as a society and as a country, the majority would stick to the old propaganda-borne belief that this is the greatest country/society in the world. And there is some basis for that claim, but it is a holdover belief from a time when it may have been true that we were at the forefront in comparison to the rest of the world. I don’t believe we have simply maintained that position. Rather, like other societies we might be compared to, we have occupied that status in waves, followed by time periods where we grew comfortable, socially and economically.

Here’s an example. The Revolution and ideas that helped us to construct our new government were radical—extremely radical. The ideas behind the social contract and unalienable rights were from the minds of Enlightenment writers who were seen as so radical and dangerous to the status quo that they were often censored and/or imprisoned. Guys like Voltaire lived much of their lives in exile from their own countries. Paired with the audacity to challenge the most powerful imperial force in the world and its monarchy, that made the new United States of America a cutting edge example of what governments should be for a brave new world. It directly inspired the French Revolution, which inspired governmental and social changes all over Europe, and eventually the rest of the world. But we didn’t remain a world leader in that way. We lulled throughout the nineteenth century and clung to our past status of greatness. We were among the last in the western world to end slavery, and even that came with an actually war in which some still wanted to cling to the archaic institution. Even beyond that, our practices of discrimination persisted for another century and more. We sunk into a deep attitude of isolationism and materialism. The only other time that we regained a true status of global “greatness” was in the change enacted in response to the Great Depression and during our fight against imperial Japan and Nazi Germany. But once again, in years to come, we still clung to the ideals and achievements of yesteryear, claiming to be the greatest country in the world, but with no evidence to back such a claim.

What made us great in those times that we could legitimately claim global leadership? Many of you will not like this truth, but the answer is progressivism. Those revolutionary ideas were radical because they were progressive. They challenged the status quo. They challenged those whose power stemmed from doing things the way they always have been done. Franklin and Jefferson challenged the power of King George. Abolitionists challenged the power of wealthy slave owners and their greedy ideals. Civil Rights leaders challenged the power and dominance of white Americans, and that struggle still persists. These events are significant in our history. This, paired with economic and technological innovations over the years has been the source of what makes us great. And this, my friends, is what one would call progressivism. To many conservatives this is a dirty word. But why? That same conservative may hold Jefferson or Lincoln in high esteem and examples of what made the US great, but he or she forgets that these people were progressive, and that’s why they were great. Great and innovative people think outside the social and cultural norm. They invent things that have never been. They are not content or complacent with what has always been. They seek to improve.

There is nothing wrong with being conservative. I think a lot of conservative ideals are great—ideals that center around morality and certain values. But often times, politically, officials and policies use this as a way of convincing people to make sure that those in power stay in power both in terms of elected office and in control of wealth, just as did slave owners and monarchs past. This is the status quo. This is the voice that seeks to ensure that nothing changes for the betterment of everyone in our society. This is King George asserting his own personal supremacy over the people of the North American colonies. This is David Koch ensuring that he and his brother can buy a government that makes policies that support their own greed. And this isn’t necessarily good for all of us in our society. The greatest moments in US history saw men and women challenge this stagnation. Change is what makes us great. And it’s what is helping our contemporary nations to surpass us as being world leaders. Progressivism is not a dirty word. But not progressing—becoming too comfortable in the way things have always been—ensures that everyone else surpasses us. We become regressive. We hold ourselves to our own ideals, regardless of global consensus. We gladly isolate ourselves from an increasingly integrated world that tries new things and boldly solves problems with new solutions. And we become socially, morally, culturally, and economically archaic. And if you want to know that that looks like, just visit Saudi Arabia or Yemen. 

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

A Dangerous Game We're Playing

Thousands roar in support and allegiance as they gaze up and across the crowded space at a spectacle of a stage at the head of the venue. It is a shrine of flags and symbols of propaganda. The audience chants and venerates the speaker at the podium as he addresses them with furious pride and smug rhetoric. He tells them their country will be great again. He tells them they will again be dominant. And to do this, society must be pure. It must be pure of those who would undermine its fabric with their lifestyle—a lifestyle so foreign to the values or the rest of the population that it should be done away with. Those people should be blocked. Their culture should be snuffed out. They are not to be trusted. They should be feared. They are less than us. I could easily be describing an old news reel from the late 1930s—one in German. But no, I’m describing a presidential candidate’s rally. And the political leader? Donald J. Trump.

Donald Trump has come out and full-on supported the notion that our country should block entry of all Muslims into the United States. For the record, I’m not opposed to tightening our borders out of caution, given that recent weeks have seen the execution of terrorist attacks outside of troubled Middle Eastern countries. We should scrutinize those applying for visas or attempting to enter the nation, particularly if they have recently visited ISIS or al-Qaeda-controlled areas of the globe. But barring all people based on a cultural common denominator is something we’ve worked against in the United States in the last several decades. Seventy-odd years ago, we were interning Japanese Americans in camps based on their heritage, and now we commonly recognize the folly in that kind of xenophobia. Fifty years ago, civil rights activists were staging sit-ins at restaurants that wouldn’t serve African Americans. We now see this practice as “un-American”. Or is it? Perhaps that’s perfectly American. Because while we can say, “sure, that’s an awful thing to refuse service to someone based on skin color”, aren’t we recently seeing people do this on the basis of sexual orientation? We have always been prone to discriminate against the minority. We have a very long history of assimilating out the cultural particulars of groups outside of the dominant norms. We make you speak English when you’re in our presence and tell us “Merry Christmas”, though you are a Jew.

So when Trump advocates the barring of everyone who practices a certain religion or when other elected officials publically suggest internment camps for Muslim Americans, it shouldn’t surprise us. That’s what Americans have always done. Just ask the Native Americans. But it is also an echo of a darker time in history when another leader and another society began a dangerous rhetoric about a religious group that they too had a problem with. Germany was already highly anti-Semitic by the rise of the Third Reich. Such anti-Semitism had its roots into the previous century. By the time Hitler was elected chancellor in 1933, he didn’t have to push much. Within a few years, strong public mistrust and opinion about Jews had turned to extreme discrimination that eventually saw Jews rounded up into ghettos and then on to camps. There, millions would be systematically exterminated. Am I saying that Trump, as a president, would ever round up Muslims and execute them in death camps? Not even close. This, I would hope, would never happen in today’s America. My point is that we are playing a dangerous game in terms of our legacy and especially for the Muslim Americans who work and live among us. One only needs to look to social media to see the hate and prejudice cultivating in certain US social circles. Memes and hateful overgeneralization feed that bias, and every time two radicalized Muslims carry out an act of violence, it confirms the existing view that none of them should be trusted. Like Nazi Germany, that prejudice exists. And all they needed was a leader to push forward that public opinion. And that’s all we need for Americans to take that next step into discrimination against Muslim Americans. All we need is that charismatic leader and his words that inflame. Let us instead reject the sins of our past in favor of a new America. Come on, folks. We’re smarter than this, right?

Friday, December 4, 2015

Terrorism is Terrorism

I’ll paint the scene as I imagine it. It’s a public place—maybe a mall or a restaurant. People are enjoying each other and living their lives. Not one of them left home expecting it would be the last time they saw it. As they are carrying out their business, a masked man walks in with an AR-15 type weapon (Colt holds the official trademark of that name). He has several clips at his disposal, each with a capacity of about thirty rounds. He can unleash these as quickly as his finger can pull the trigger. He also has a handgun he carries at his side. He opens fire and fills the air with bullets as if it were some aroma that diffuses about the room. There is no escape. People try to hide or run, but who can outrun a bullet? In the end, dozens lose their lives or are severely injured. By the time the police arrive and eventually kill the perpetrator, the news has broken via social media and the local news crews. Panic spreads in the community as people fear that their loved ones may have been there and may be dead. As it graces the headlines at CNN, the country learns of yet another massacre in a US public place, and they mourn. Maybe they fume with anger. And everyone awaits for the identity of this horrible person. He has yet to be unmasked. No one knows his face. No one knows his origin. How do you categorize him?

That’s an important question. Without knowing anything about this person, we all agree that he has committed a senseless act of violence. He took dozens of innocent lives—took mothers away from children and sons away from fathers. But an interesting thing will happen once this man is unmasked. The police will approach, finally assured that he is dead and poses no further threat. They will pull the mask from his face and once his identity is revealed, a new label will be attached. If he is a white man, likely Christian, he will be touted as a mass murderer. Maybe a disturbed or disgruntled citizen with mental health problems. He is a US citizen with no previous indication of violent tendencies, though neighbors thought he was quiet and perhaps a little “off”. If it turns out the shooter is Hispanic, rumors begin to spread that he was a cartel member in the country illegally. But what if the shooter is an Arab? He has tan skin and a name like Ahmed or Fareed. Maybe he is a radicalized Muslim, maybe not. Either way, he now receives the label, “terrorist”. My question is this:  why did only the Muslim get that label?

Think about it. With a mask, we knew nothing about this person. We just all agreed that what he did was horrible. We would want answers. We would want justice. We would want our leaders to try to find a way to prevent things like this from happening ever again. But once we know his level of skin pigmentation and his name, we start to think differently about him. If he’s a white Christian, he actually falls in with most mass murderers America has ever had. And it seems that we’re so used to it that it almost comes off as business as usual. We mourn as a country for about five minutes, a handful of people whine about their guns, we tune in to Dancing With the Stars, and wait for the next massacre. But when we unmask a Muslim American who was no more on the radar as a homicidal asshole as the white guy, he’s a terrorist and we have to take action NOW! Facebook fills with hate memes and Fox News-inspired rants about Americans getting their heads out of the sand. People rail against liberal “apologists” and call for the country to do something about the “Muslim threat”. All of a sudden, it’s a priority. Trump even starts talking about deporting all of the Muslims as other lawmakers suggest rounding them up into camps like Japanese Americans circa 1942. Somehow a Muslim extremist killing a dozen people is far worse than and Anglo-American doing the same. And while I can appreciate the fact that the radicalization of Muslims in America is a problem, and stands to threatens lives, this has happened, comparatively, only a handful of times. Most of our mass murders are carried about by white people, yet we don’t call it what it is.

And that is what I’m proposing. Do we have to reserve the “terrorist” label for Ahmed? Or can we call senseless murder and violence for the purpose of striking fear into the hearts of the public the same thing, regardless of who does it? Terrorism is terrorism. Violence is violence. Let’s put a stop to all of it.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Hate ISIS, not Islam

It’s easy to be angry in the aftermath of such a senseless attack on humanity. A handful of extremists perpetrated the wholesale slaughter of so many innocent people. That should make you angry. But who, specifically, are you angry with? Is it possible that emotion overtakes you and as it spills over, you have to find a place and direction for those feelings? Maybe. But the seeds have long been planted. For most of us, it was 9/11. If you’re a bit older, perhaps it started with Beirut in 1983 or with the Iran hostage crisis. Could we even place the beginnings of western views and mistrust with Islam as far back as the Ottomans or the Crusades? Sure. But I want to make an argument for Islam and how it might not have as much to do with ISIS or the attacks in Paris as one may think.
First, let me say that I have known many Muslim Americans at this point. Most of them were students. I’ve known some of their parents. I’ve known others more casually through work or acquaintance. And if I’m being honest, other than the fact that their faith comprises a tiny minority of the overall American aggregate, all of them were quite like anyone else. But Americans unfortunately have a different mental image of Muslims. When most of our citizens conjure images of Muslims, we think of people within a Middle Eastern setting. We think of dust and hollowed-out buildings. We think of a city-wide call to prayer from the nearest mosque and men selling fruits in the market. We think of veiled women herding around their children with their heads hung in subjugation. This might not totally be incorrect in a lot of places in the Middle East. But it’s also not totally accurate. It all depends on where we’re talking about. Yet, we default to the description I just gave because that’s how we always see it in the movies or in TV shows. And those shows are almost always about bad-ass US troops kicking some jihadist ass. Right off the bat, Americans are force-fed a set of images that further push the common, average Muslim into a category that is somehow lesser than ourselves. That they all come from backwardness where evil always seems to loom around the corner. This is despite the fact that your neighbor or coworker who is Muslim isn’t anything close to that. They just go to work, provide for their families, go to school, and live their lives like anyone else. And yet you lump them in with terrorists.

There is a distinct difference between the American Muslim and perhaps the Muslim who lives in somewhere like Yemen or Saudi Arabia. While some of this has to do with religion, I think the think we often overlook is the influence of culture. Western culture is overwhelmingly Christian. If you really want to compare the holy books of Christians and Muslims, you’re going to get a lot of similarities. They come from the same basic region and over the span of history, aren’t really separated by much time. They each reflect popular culture of ancient times, along with punishments for breaking social norms. You can find that stoning someone to death is okay according to both the Qu’ran and the Bible. But we don’t stone people in the west. We have disregarded that ideology while clinging to the more positive core beliefs of our religions. Of course, I’m mostly talking about Christianity. But if you look closely, you’ll find this also in most Muslim Americans. I especially see it among my students who were born here. A lot of the girls aren’t even required to wear the hijab (head scarf) by their parents and are allowed to go to school where they congregate with boys. Their parents know that this is the cultural standard here. In this, American culture has shaped the practice of their religion without diluting the positive aspects of it. I’ve never had a student have to step out of class to pray in the middle of the day. They do it when they get home. Again, our culture shapes the way they practice. We have to understand that the Middle East is different. They have had very limited exposure to western culture before a few decades ago, and it’s largely limited even today. Slowly, western standards have seeped in, and this is part of why groups like al-Qaeda have a problem with Westerners. But even within the Middle East, you’ll find different cultural standards that regard women, marriage, etc., depending on what country or what region you visit. The fact that Jordanian women have far more freedoms than Saudi women tells me that this isn’t so much about Islam as it is about cultural standards.

You see, every religion in the world has, at some point in time, been used to control others. Slavery in the southern US was a cultural and economic standard. Yet, to justify the obvious evil in owning another human being, many southern Christians turned to the Bible. They twisted and contorted what the scripture actually said to fit their needs, justify their actions, and keep their slaves subservient. Spanish Catholics during the Renaissance were intolerant of Jews. The justification for torturing or expelling them was religion. Medieval Christians wanted to regain control over the Palestine. Religion became the excuse and catalyst to attack in that region. People go to war to control a territory and its resources. They go to war for selfish reasons. They just need an excuse.
And this brings us to ISIS. Leadership in ISIS wants to consolidate all Muslims in the world under one caliphate. This isn’t dissimilar from Nazi ideology in consolidating all Germanic territories and people. They want to establish an “Islamic State”. This is political in nature. Islam ends up being an excuse to do so and a method of recruitment. Reports from people who have defected or escaped from ISIS overwhelmingly testify that ISIS leadership is highly hypocritical. They don’t at all practice what they preach. They are bent on domination and territorial gain. But they recruit on a basis of jihadism. They prey upon a young, impressionable Muslim man—one who may have lost family in a drone strike; who may be upset with Americans. And all the recruiter has to tell that kid is that this is the kind of attack on his faith and way of life that the Qu’ran speaks of, and that it’s his duty to defend it (even though most Muslims know better than this). And just like that, you have a radicalized ISIS fighter. What you’re left with is an ISIS leadership with a political goal and a fighting force who believe they are fighting a holy war. Sounds a lot like the Crusdades, actually. You want to take over a territory, and all the Pope has to do is tell the peasants that they can go directly to Heaven if they die for God, and you have a religiously-charged army fighting for a self-serving political entity.

But in the end, it has little to do with Islam. Islam isn’t the problem. Islam is the excuse. It’s a manipulation tool. People can be bad. Be upset with the people. Be upset with ISIS. Be upset with terrorists and their tactics. But this does not provide free license to hate everyone who practices the religion. That’s wrong. And do not tolerate it. 

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

PC America

Yesterday, I became aware of something via social media that I couldn't have imagined would be an issue to people. All I kept seeing was post after post about Starbucks and their holiday season cups. I was fully prepared for the tired old complaint that "Merry Christmas" so festively printed across someone's warm paper cup of overpriced joe forces Christianity down their throats. Or maybe it was going to be a "Happy Holidays" generic wish to all patrons and the following outrage that God was now being forced into absence in American society by liberal, hippie corporations of the Pacific Northwest. But nope. Didn't happen. Instead, it was outrage over a simple, no-frills red design to temporarily replace the normal white ones. No abstract snowflakes. No vague outlines of evergreen trees. Just red. Most Americans picked up their order, said "Hey, the cup is red," shrugged, and moved on. But a (I imagine very small) group of people decided that this was an outrage.

It seems that the very absence of anything at all, so some, detracts from the reason this season is considered special to people. Admittedly, the overwhelming cultural influence on the months of November and December is the Christian holiday of Christmas. True. But it's also worth reminding Americans that there are Jews who celebrate Hannukah, people who celebrate Kwanza, and then millions of people here who practice hundreds of other religions or no religion at all. It's easy to forget that your way isn't necessarily for everyone else. Still, even people who aren't Christians celebrate this season as a time for family, giving, hope, thanks, and shameless commercialism. You can be a Hindu and participate in the office Secret Santa exchange. Religion is a personal thing. What you celebrate is a personal choice. You don't have to ram it down every American's throat every chance you get. You do you. And if you need "Merry Christmas" emblazened upon your pumpkin spice latte to feel like a Christian, perhaps you might need to spend a little more time in church.

But this got me thinking, first, about hypocrisy. Funny enough, it's highly likely that these same individuals screaming about how Christianity is under attack...over a damned coffee cup...are the same people who have been whining for months about how easily offended everyone else is. "Toughen up," they say. "Why is everyone so easily offended? Everything has to be soooo politically correct. The Confederate Flag is just a symbol of southern heritage." Okay, fair enough. That's your opinion and your unique perspective. But within this hypocrisy over what warrants outrage, complaint, or even protest, can't we see that such sensitivity over a certain event or subject absolutely has everything to do with personal perspective? Wouldn't you say that everyone can be offended by something? Personally, I'm not offended by much. I can appreciate poking fun at most anything--and I do mean anything. But it's worth saying that a poorly-timed joke about ALS (Lou Gherig's Disease) might touch a nerve with me, and many people in my wife's family for that matter. My mother-in-law died of this horrible disease almost nine years ago. But how are you to know that in passing? One minute, I'm laughing at a diabetes joke, and the moment you hit ALS, it's not funny. Or with my Louisiana roots, Katrina wouldn't be funny to me. But if these things aren't close to your heart, no big deal. That's not your fault. There's a point where we all have to realize the risks of humor or opinion. We might meet with a person with strong feelings about this, and they're going to react. That's life. But have Americans become too PC? Too sensitive? Too easily offended? Social media memes would have you think so. It's been a very popular set of memes and mosts lately. Here's your answer. NO. WE HAVE NOT BECOME TOO SENSITIVE.

It used to be that the only way you would come across public opinion or learn of a grassroots movement, protest, strike, whatever, was to read it in the paper or to see it on the evening news. Reporters collected information and you got it through those media outlets. Fifty years ago, you would have been reading about marches in Alabama or the Freedom Riders. You would've formed an opinion, and if you wanted to express that opinion, it would have been to Gladys, Dorothy, and Martha at your weekly Bridge game. And that's about as far as it would have gone. Maybe you wrote a letter to the editor and the whole town saw it. Public opinion was localized and public expression was minimal. On top of that, the only information you had to go on to form those opinions came from a limited set of sources and people. But times have changed. Back in the day, if you witnessed something that sucks--something you took personal offense to or saw that you disapproved of, chances are that very few people were going to get wind of it. You tell a few friends, you mutter under your breath about "what this world is coming to", and you go about your business. Today, you can take a video on your phone, upload it to Youtube or Facebook, and tell everyone you know about what a crazy asshole this person is. And just maybe enough people will like and share that post that by dinnertime three million Americans in twenty-eight states know what a crazy asshole that person is. And then there is a reaction. Immediately. You see, what we mistake for oversensitivity over a subject is really just regular sensitivity over it. We just happen to see everyone's reaction to it in real time. We have a lot more exposure to things that potentially outrage us, we have a forum for expression of that opinion, and we might find a million or so other people in the world that agree with us as passionately. So through internet and the social media, we are now able to grasp the full magnitude of how our whole population actually feels about a subject. And I find this outrageous.