Rampant Xenophobia

What is happening to our country? I look around, and I do not recognize it. Bigotry and irrationality are holding sway, and the most precious American values are under attack. The very character of our country is at stake.

With economic pain at the highest level ever seen by most Americans, and with minorities especially hard hit, we’re seeing a revolt not by people of color, nor the unemployed, nor the foreclosed upon. Instead, we’re seeing a revolt by the white middle class. It’s a revolt against the very notion of a positive role for government in helping people. It’s a revolt against Latin American immigrants. It’s a revolt against Muslim Americans. And it’s a revolt against our black President.

Opportunistic and rightwing Republican politicians, business front groups, and media outlets like Fox have ginned up the hatred.

The tea party movement began in the spring of 2009, when Barack Obama was still popular. Funded by Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks and promoted incessantly by Fox, the tea party phenomenon caught on. The anger was free-floating, the issues were inchoate, but the import was obvious: The rightists were on the march.

This spring, much of the anger attached itself to the scapegoat of illegal immigration from south of the border. Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona led this disgraceful charge by signing a law that required police to pull anyone over they suspected might be here illegally. And a majority not only of Arizonans but also of the American public supported this law.

“We’re all Arizonans now,” said Sarah Palin, who rushed to Phoenix to stand by Brewer. (Imagine a serious candidate for the Presidency saying in 1963, “We’re all Alabamans now.”)

The issue then moved from Phoenix to Washington, D.C., where Republican Senators fanned the flames of intolerance.

Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina introduced an ugly phrase to the national conversation: “anchor babies.” He said pregnant Latin American women cross the border to deliver so their children can become automatic citizens.

“People come here to have babies,” says Graham. “They come here to drop a child. It’s called, ‘Drop and leave.’ ”

From this phantom problem, Graham leapt to the conclusion that the idea of “birthright citizens is a mistake.” Taking a drastic step further, Graham said he was considering legislation to alter the Fourteenth Amendment so as to deny citizenship as a birthright.

Adopted on July 9, 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states at the very beginning: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”

Amazingly, almost half of the American public agreed with Graham that this birthright should be taken away. Perhaps it didn’t dawn on them that they’ve been enjoying this birthright, too.

Then, just as it seemed as though the Republican distracto-machine might be slowing down, the rightists sped it up with another issue: the so-called Ground Zero mosque, whose very name was a distortion.

All summer long, the nation convulsed over a proposed Islamic community center, Park51, two blocks from Ground Zero.

Palin was one of the first to ignite the controversy, calling it an “unnecessary provocation” and saying that it “stabs hearts.”

Newt Gingrich, also a GOP Presidential hopeful, piped up in his typically unhelpful way, saying, “Nazis don’t have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust museum in Washington.”

Gingrich implies that the Muslim Americans at Park51 are disciples of Osama bin Laden, when nothing could be further than the truth. The Nazi analogy is a smear in and of itself. (And by the way, Nazis do have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust museum if they own the property there or if they are carrying the sign on a public sidewalk. But Gingrich would love to have this argument, since every repetition of the word “Nazi” in conjunction with this controversy is a public relations victory for his side.)

Soon, 71 percent of Americans were saying that it’s inappropriate to build a mosque near Ground Zero. Harry Reid and Howard Dean shamefully echoed this sentiment.

In mid-August, protesters in New York City gathered to oppose the Islamic community center with such signs as “All I Need to Know About Islam I Learned on 9/11.”

Ignorance and intolerance and political opportunism make for a poisonous concoction.

The sad truth is that Republicans may succeed in gaining political ground with their xenophobic tactics. But it’s a scorched-earth policy, charring our Constitution and our cherished values of tolerance and freedom of religion in the process.

There’s a battle on right now for the soul of this country: Are we a generous and welcoming nation, or a fearful and bigoted and parsimonious one?

We all have a say in that answer. And it’s not a question we can afford to dodge.

This is but an excerpt from Matthew Rothschild's Comment in the October issue. To read the full article, and the entire October issue, and to subscribe to The Progressive for just $14.97 (a 75% discount!), simply subscribe now by clicking here.