Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Don't Ask, Don't Tell Party

The Republicans announced that sometime soon they will come out with their legislative agenda for the coming legislative term. I, along with a lot of other people, have come to refer to the Republicans as the “Party of NO” because up to now their strategy has been to filibuster and block any legislation, great or small, that is proposed by the Obama administration. If the president is for it, they’re “agin it.” Their most recent victories were to block debate on the Dream Act (a bill that would legalize children of undocumented immigrants who were brought to this country at a young age and have spent virtually their whole life in the US), and the army’s policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" (which would allow gays and lesbians in the military to be open about their sexuality and still serve in the military). Now granted both bills were tacked on to a military expenditure bill, which unfortunately was the only way proponents thought they could get debates on these issues. However, it is dreadfully sad that two bills deserving a hearing were denied even the possibility of debate.

Based on these latest ploys I have changed my designation of the Republicans from “The Party of No” to the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Party” because their agenda and strategy has been to engage in a high level politics of denial. The reality of undocumented immigrant children and gays and lesbians serving in the military are NOT the figments of someone’s imagination, they are real people undergoing real suffering because of our legislators’ inability and unwillingness to face and deal with that reality. Apparently Republicans (and some Democrats) believe that as long as they don’t ask about some of the grave issues facing people in our nation, they won’t have to do anything about those issues. They are not only “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” on the gays and children of immigrants, but on a whole host of other issues as well.

They are “don’t ask, don’t tell” on health care, as they want to repeal the health care reform bill that was passed a year ago. Just don’t tell them that the 40,000 uninsured Americans that existed when the bill has passed has now reportedly risen to 50,000. They scream about Medicare and higher health care premiums for a relative few, while 50,000 people go with no health insurance at all. They aren’t  asking and don’t want you tell them.

They are “don’t ask don’t tell” when it comes immigration. Don’t ask them to seriously consider why people are coming over the border because they might have to look at U.S. corporations that are exploiting the workers south of the border. Don’t’ ask the U.S. Chamber of Commerce who up until recently were for immigration reform because they saw the undocumented workers as a ready supply of cheap labor. Don’t ask them to compute how much money working immigrants give back to this country in terms of taxes and social security , the benefits of which they will not receive. They don’t want to face those facts. They aren’t  asking and don’t want you tell them.

They are "don’t ask don’t tell" on climate change. Some don’t even think there is such a thing as global warming. So don’t’ ask them to look at the scientific data on the effects of global warming and the need for a radical reversal of our use of oil based products and coal based fuel to feed our carbon rich lifestyles. They don’t ask why oil companies get government subsidies while companies trying to develop alternative green  energy sources must scrape with relatively little. They don’t ask the oil companies to pay their fair share instead of going off with record profits year after year, quarter after quarter. They aren’t  asking and don’t want you tell them.

They are  "don’t ask, don’t tell" on taxes too. They don’t want to hear about repealing the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. They scream about how it will hurt small business persons (when in fact only three percent of all small businesses fall into this category). If they really cared about people paying their fair share, they could make changes in the law for the small business people. But no, they want to protect their wealthy friends because their wealthy friends fund their campaigns. (In this too I must say Democrats are no better than Republicans).

They don’t’ ask what must be done to hold banks accountable. They don’t ask about addressing the serious problems in public education. They don’t’ ask about the terrible waste of life and resources spent in meaningless wars overseas. They don’t’ ask about REALITY, but rather choose to operate in the politics of denial.

And the truly sad thing, is that we let them get away with these lies. In some cases we even support them because it personally benefits us, and we fail to ask the bigger questions about where this politics of denial is taking us as a people and as a global community.

When I watch what goes on in the House and the Senate, I wonder if the Republicans (and some Democrats) are really that blind that they don’t see the needs around them, or are they so callous they just don’t care. I am of the mind to tell them they are both blind and callous; but then they weren’t asking me, were they.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Taking Us Back to The Real Past

One of the benefits of being a university professor is that often I get to pose questions to my students that I am asking myself. Unbeknown to them my students become my counselors to my personal queries. This fall I am teaching Race and Ethnic Relations, a course in which we look at the struggles around race and ethnic discrimination, the injustices that discrimination has created, and approaches to addressing those injustices. As you can imagine it is a course that is unfortunately always relevant and tends to leave us with more questions and answers.

The first assignment is to have my students read George Fredrickson’s Racism: A Short History. In the context of reading about the historical origins of racism, I ask my students this question: In what ways should the history of racism be incorporated into our culture’s dominant historical narrative?  My conviction is that history not only tells us where a people has been, but helps us understand that people’s present identity as they try to shape our future. In this country the history of racial and ethnic discrimination is a history we pay lip service to, but a history from which we have not learned some important lessons. It is not that that the history we recite in our schools and in political speeches is untrue, but rather that it is just not the whole truth.

The importance of learning from our history seems quite relevant as conservative Republican and Tea Party candidates says they want to “take back” the country. As I have shared elsewhere in this blog, that statement always makes me want to ask: Take back from whom and to what end? So for a few paragraphs I would like to look back at a few key moments to see what they might teach us about where we are today.

I would start this retelling thousands of years ago, rather on or around 1492 as we usually  learn in school. I would point us to a time when groupings of indigenous peoples inhabited the land we now call North America. Many of them lived lives of basic subsistence, close to the land, and in harmony with their surroundings. Those in the fertile Northeast grew maize and other crops, while those wandering the Great Plains followed the buffalo. There were the Cherokee, a federation of tribes whose form of governance would be reflected in the U.S. Constitution. Some of these indigenous groups were peace-loving while others were war-like. They had practices that seemed barbaric to European minds, but they had also had an ability ot live in harmony with their surroundings. Only when Europeans came with their insatiable need for “growth” and "progress” did the ground go barren and species of buffalo, wolves and other wildlife begin to disappear. As today we reap the consequences of this ecological neglect, grapple with the effects of global warming, and literally see our ecosystem seek to rediscover a balance with hurricanes, floods and other “natural disasters” we could learn something from how our Native American forbears learned to revere the land as they lived on it and off it.

I would then take us back to the 1620’s when the first African slaves were brought to this country in Jamestown, VA. I would recount the brutal way in which  those slaves were treated and their families were arbitrarily split up, and I would have us recall their fierce resistance to this oppression. I would point out that  resistance is a sign of the human spirit that will not allow itself to be silenced. I also would point out that the tremendous economic growth in the South and the North during the early centuries of U.S. history was achieved on the backs of that free slave labor. So when employers today seek to move their operations to places where they can pay employees $8/day and avoid safety and environmental regulations, as is the case many U.S. companies operating in Mexico, and when people on both sides of the border react with violence, resist border  guards and break laws seeking to restrict their free movement into this country, I would remind our leaders that slavery didn’t work then and won't work now. Moreover I would remind us of the terrible legacy of pain and injustice slavery has left us, from which we have yet to fully recover, and I would ask: Do we really want to do this to ourselves again?

Then I would tell the stories or religious minorities and how they were treated and yet persevered. I would talk about the Know Nothing Party of the mid 1800’s that preached that all Roman Catholics should be driven from this country, and which spearheaded a violent repression of East European and Irish immigrants. I would also talk about Joseph Smith’s Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (more commonly known as the Mormons), and how they were driven from communities by Christian groups in upstate New York and Illinois, and migrated west until they found a place called Utah where they could be left alone. I would talk about their tight communities with a strong emphasis on family has produced great athletes, thinkers and leaders. Then, I would remind Mormons like Glen Beck and Mitt Romney (as well as Christian and Jewish groups who themselves at one time were persecuted) that seeking to denigrate and exclude Muslims from basic freedoms today is  exactly as their ancestors were once unfairly treated. Like these earlier religious groups, Muslims seek a the freedom to worship and live out their religious convictions in harmony with their neighbors, and to deny that is to repeat the injustices of the past.

So I agree, let’s take back the country. Let’s take us back to learn from the past we have hidden from ourselves and from which we refuse to learn.

Let's not go back to some mythical past that never actually existed, but rather go back to the real past, Let's  learn that how we are treated the poor, the slave, the immigrant, and the religious minority was a terrible injustice then, and is equally so today. If I was to incorporate the history of racial, ethnic, and religious discrimination into our dominant historical narrative, I would also tell it in such a way that those of us who are the benefactors of these atrocities would be so ashamed of that part of our past, that we would say "never again." I would want us to continue to honor the accomplishments, but also to reflect on the failures, and learn from both.

The past of Beck, Palin and their Tea Party conservatives is a myth, and a dangerous one at that, because it only serves to blind us from the atrocities we are creating in the name of some history that never existed.

That's a past I don't want to relive - so I say let's go back so we can learn from it.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Not Learning from History: American Attitudes Toward Islam

For the past several weeks, the news has been filled with the debate over whether a proposed Islamic Cultural Center (inaccurately referred repeatedly to as a mosque) should be built near Ground Zero in New York. On top of that this week Pastor Terry Jones from Gainesville, Florida has planned a well publicized “Koran-burning Ceremony” to mark the 9th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Moreover there have been other protests around the country in Tennessee and California also protesting the building of mosques. What is so troubling in these reports is the way in which grief, fear and ignorance have been exploited for personal and political gain.
Recently, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released a report on American attitudes regarding Islam as a religion and Muslims in general.  Some of the insights from the report are revealing in their political implications, and what they suggest about US citizens in general. Overall the study revealed that Americans are divided on their favorable or unfavorable views of Islam (30% favorable, 38% unfavorable, 32% don’t know). However, that is only the tip of the iceberg. Consider these other findings
-          While 51% believe that the New York mosque should not be built in its proposed location (compared to 34% who say it should be allowed to be built), 62% of those polled believed that Muslims should have the same rights to build houses of worship in local communities. [Does anyone else see a contradiction in these numbers?]
-          54% of Republicans have an unfavorable view of Islam, compared to 27% of Democrats.
-          The older a person is the more unfavorable that person is toward Islam.
-          The less formal education a person has the more likely he is to have an unfavorable view of Islam.
While in no case do a majority of Democrats, college educated people or young adults have a favorable perspective on Islam, it is clearly evident that older, more conservative and less educated people tend to have the most unfavorable views of Islam. Additionally as the first bullet (above) indicates we profess freedom of religious expression, but don’t extend that freedom to Muslims.
However, the most telling chart came near the end of the report, where people were asked about how much they knew about Islam as a religion. Pew has asked this question several times over last decade, so the chart helped reveal how much Americans have chosen to learn over the last decade. In 2010 approximately 55% of Americans said they either knew little or nothing at all about Islam.  What is striking is that in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks 61% of Americans said they knew little or nothing at all about Islam – only 5% difference.
What this tells me is that despite having been attacked by “Islamic extremists” nine years ago, we Americans have done little to understand the religion of those who attacked us. Moreover, we have not sought to understand the difference between a militant Muslim and a peace-loving adherent of the Islamic faith. To turn it around, it would be akin to not trying to understand the differences within Christianity between a Jim Jones or David Koresh on the one hand, and the Mennonites or Presbyterians on the other. I would not want my faith to be judged on the basis of militant extremists, but in fact that is exactly what we have done toward Muslims both in the US and abroad. What the Pew report makes clear is that a majority of people are reacting out of ignorance and fear, rather than understanding and a willingness to learn.
In part responsibility for this maladjustment needs to be placed at the feet of the media and certain politicians. Today I listened to an interview with Pastor Jones and wondered:  Why are they even giving this whack job a hearing? Why treat him as if he is an appropriate representative of America or Christianity? Why not denounce him for the self-righteous hate-mongerer that he is? Politicians like Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin, and newscasters like Glen Beck and Shawn Hannity (FOX News) have used the NYC mosque debate as another way to slam Democrats and President Obama. I give credit to people like New York City Mayor Bloomberg and others for speaking out in favor of the mosque building going ahead as planned, but there are too few leaders willing to take a strong stand on principles that all Americans take for granted. This includes religious leaders.
As a Christian and an American, I am embarrassed and saddened by the current attitudes toward Muslims revealed in the report and in the news. This current scape-goating of Muslims is yet another example of the pattern of US history where Americans have repeatedly singled out certain groups of people to vent their fear and guilt in place of seeking understanding. US History is filled with examples of historical scapegoats from African slaves to Native Americans to Irish and East European Catholics to Latino farm workers to Chinese railroad workers to Japanese Americans to Jews to undocumented immigrants. What is equally sad is that some members of these previously denigrated groups now point the finger as Muslims.
Just as with slavery, the treatment of Native Americans, and the internment of Japanese- American during World War II, one day we will as a nation look back and shake our heads at our shameful behavior toward our fellow citizens who happen to practice Islam. One would hope we could learn from history, but as more than one sage has reflected, if we do not learn from the mistakes of history, we are doomed to repeat them; and so it seems we are repeating them once again.