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?

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