By now you’ve no doubt heard of the kook pastor from Florida who planned to commemorate 9/11 by burning Korans. So provocative was this act that General David Petraeus momentarily set aside his considerably full plate of managing the war effort in Afghanistan to issue a statement. Petraeus warned that this particular pastor with his flock of 50 would endanger American lives, fan the flames of anti-American sentiment in the Middle East, and contribute propaganda for terrorist recruitment. As Petraeus well knows, it is a strategic imperative for the US to court moderate Muslims throughout the Middle East. He also must appreciate the hypocrisy of Koran. After all, the only way that the American occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan can end is by returning those countries to effective home rule. We depend on allies who read from the very same book that a handful of Floridians wanted to burn.
Meanwhile, many of the right-leaning critics of this Florida kook have used their condemnations of Koran burning as an underhanded way to endorse an equally jingoistic project, opposing the inaccurately named “Ground Zero mosque.” Says John Boehner, the House Minority Leader, “Just because you have the right to do something in America does not mean it is the right thing to do.” Sarah Palin echoed the same sentiment on her Facebook page in, well, identical words.
Once built, the Islamic community center will hardly occupy hallowed ground. Instead, it will occupy the site of an abandoned Burlington Coat Factory, and its neighbors will include strip clubs and sex shops. What should have been a Lower Manhattan zoning board issue blew up all of a sudden into today’s single greatest manifestation of red-blue polarization in America.
As always, Jon Stewart’s comedy is more enlightening than just about anything you can glean from cable news. “See the parallel?” he says of the planned Koran burning and the mosque. “A Christian is an extremist by burning the Koran. A Muslim is an extremist by reading from it… It almost makes no sense!”
Birthers and Tea Partiers tell us that Obama is a foreign-born, closet socialist/Muslim/fill-in-the-blank-with-something-un-American, with plans to establish a caliphate—Islamic rule—in America. But when his pinko partisans respond that no, the record is clear, the president of the United States is a capitalism-loving, God-fearing Christian, they fail to address an even more basic point: So what if the president was Muslim? Legions of WASP Americans once feared that if elected, John F. Kennedy would have installed a direct phone line from the Oval Office to the Vatican. Yet claims that a Catholic president would be subservient to the pope turned out to be bogus; the Oval Office hotline instead was connected to the Russian embassy, where it likely saved us from nuclear annihilation. Besides, it now seems more likely that the pope would give his orders to the president via BBM.
Repealing the Fourteenth Amendment, which guaranteed full citizenship for freed slaves, has become the Tea Party’s latest obsession in a country in which Africans were once brought to America against their will and their descendents toiled the fields for decades while being considered just three-fifths of a human being. Meanwhile, Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck have the audacity to co-opt Martin Luther King’s legacy by leading a rally at the Lincoln Memorial on the anniversary of the Freedom March, and Beck rewrites history nightly as he dons fake glasses and paces in front of a cluttered chalkboard for an audience of millions.
Meanwhile, Arizona has given legal sanction to the racial profiling that had long been practiced by renegade Sherriff Joe Arpaio and his vigilante Minutemen, while Mexicans are being accused of getting impregnated with malicious intent so as to drop off “anchor babies” on American soil in hopes of getting green cards years later.
In this climate of extreme polarization and intolerance, Sarah Palin asked her Muslim followers on Twitter (it’s hard to imagine that she hadn’t already alienated all of them) to “pls refudiate” the “Ground Zero mosque.” She later tweeted “Shakespeare liked to coin new words too. Got to celebrate it!” But no one is buying that she’s the Bard reincarnate. Instead, she’s just further proof of the truism that those who advocate for English as the national language are themselves often the least qualified to speak it.
The economy and our foreign policy are in shambles. At home we are dealing with the consequences of consuming beyond our personal means, and abroad, making military commitments beyond our nation’s means. One in ten Americans is currently unemployed, a frightening prospect for those of us for whom graduation—and with it, life outside the Tufts bubble—is in sight. The amount of blood and treasure being spilt and spent daily in the Middle East is already staggering, and the ramifications are sure to haunt our generation long after these ordeals are concluded.
All the uncertainty in our contemporary lives is a source of tremendous fear that we collectively deal with, as any student of Professor Paul Joseph will tell you, by pinning our paranoia to the strangers in our midst. By thus channeling our fears and angst, we gain an illusion of control. Problems of foreign policy and economics have diffuse roots that are difficult to identify and even harder to root out. How much easier is it to say the Muslim is responsible for our wars and the Mexican for taking our jobs? Nativism is an all too familiar trope in American history, but who among us today would defend the internment of Japanese in World War II?
Ultimately, it seems to me that this problem of intolerance comes from our inability to pull the emergency brake on our constant jabbering, jerk to a momentary halt, and think critically about the world we live in. We talk at each other, not to each other. We live in an age of email blitzes of talking points memos from our favorite politician or pundit on the left or right. We rattle off bullet points neatly packaged by our favorite blog rather than pick up a newspaper and mull over the day’s news reflectively over breakfast. Even when we’re not on Twitter, we think in 140 or fewer characters.
Of course our politics only exacerbate the problem, or perhaps they merely reflect it. The Senate was once known as “the world’s greatest deliberative body,” but the most common sight on C-SPAN is that of Senators delivering speeches written by interns to an empty chamber. The moderates of the Senate are an endangered species, most being dead or now decrepit. To win elections, one must win primaries, and to win primaries, one must please the party base. How sad it is to see Arlen Specter look so frail and emasculated!
If I had it my way, I’d shut down all the cable news stations, the lefty ones and the righty ones as well, and the anchors would repent for the emptiness of their words and the frivolity of their programs. The blogs would be subjected to impartial fact-checkers of my choosing. From that point on everyone would get their news from the New York Times and Jon Stewart.
Crap. I’m back where I started, stuck in a conundrum. Trying to get everyone to stop imposing their opinions, I’m imposing mine, a paradox for the philosophers identified by English professor Jay Cantor in an essay for the Boston Globe written during the 2008 election. “Like a lot of people, I collect these opinions, and I forget where I got them, like head colds,” he writes, describing opinions as coming through us rather than from us. “And like viruses,” Cantor continues, “these opinions have taken over all the neurons inside my head, driving out all my ideas and substantial feelings and thoughts, the way Velveeta drove cheese off grocers’ shelves.” In this new school year, let us produce and consume opinions of more nuanced flavor and higher nutritional value.