Friday, August 20, 2010
A Nation of Racist Morons?
Coming soon, a combination all-purpose item of headwear!
According to a recent poll, 18% of Americans believe President Obama is a Muslim. According to the same poll, 43% of Americans don't know what religion he is. Worse, these numbers are sharply up over previous polls. Other polls suggest that a quarter or the American population believes he was born outside the United States.
In the midst of serial manufactured cable-television and internet outrage where the liars of the right-wing propaganda channels (I love that The Field Negro blog calls Fox News "Radio Rwanda") spout utter nonsense, and even allegedly centrist or liberal media routinely feature complete know-nothings and bigoted fabulists as "opposing voices" to add readers, ratings and pageviews, these statistics seem more than a little troubling. And what does it mean that these numbers change toward the wholely fantastic? Who thinks these things? And worse, who changes their mind to think these things?
Though few are willing to say it, it's really clear that to a large number of people "Muslim" is pretty much a form of the "N" word that doesn't require self-censorship. For an overlapping number of people "Muslim" is identical to "terrorist," holding the same demonizing purpose as "communist" used to.
In the ongoing controversy over Cordoba House in New York City, the remarks of those opposed to the so-called Ground Zero mosque say so much more about what these people actually think. We all know Newt Gingrich probably really does think all Muslims are terrorist nazis (setting aside for the moment his problem with terrorist nazis is the "who" not the "what"). But when even professed liberals like the New York State governor Paterson say that the location of Cordoba House is painful to some or controversial they are fundamentally acceding to the belief that all Muslims share in the guilt of 9/11. Here's more polling data: According to the Economist, 53% of Republicans believe that Muslims have no constitutional right to build a mosque where the Cordoba Center is planned, and 14% of Americans believe mosques should not be permitted in the U.S. at all.
There have always been stupid and gullible people. But stupid and gullible people, especially when they are afraid, are so easily manipulated; this is where the danger lies. Alex Kane wrote an excellent piece on his blog lately
about the genesis of the "ground zero mosque" controversy. He compares it to another manufactured controversy, the one over what was to be New York City's first Arabic-bilingual public school. He neatly reminds us that these are anything but groundswells of stupidity: these are issues being manipulated into a froth by far less stupid political forces, chief among them the political supporters of Israel. Again and again the facts about Cordoba House, about Muslims, about Muslim Americans, are set aside in favor of "gut" feelings and prejudices. For some this is ignorance, but for others it is something else.
In the recent lawsuit in California overturning the anti-gay Prop 8 ban on marriage equality there's an interesting parallel. The pro-gay plaintiffs, and the judge ruling in their favor, structured their arguments brilliantly and factually. They explicitly debunked any factual notion that same-sex marriage threatens heterosexual marriage. They showed that the only hand the anti-marriage equality forces are holding is one of prejudice and emotional belief out of step with secular constitutional law. The judgment makes fascinating reading. Yet in the anti-gay forces' rebuttals to the ruling, and in the reporting on the decision by the allegedly neutral media, both these parties do nothing but repeat the arguments that are clearly already anticipated and rebuked in step-by-step fashion by the judge in siding with the marriage equality proponents. There are knee-jerk bigots acting out of ignorance, but there's also something else going on.
Behind that aggressive and increasing stupidity of so many Americans over Obama's birth and religion are forces actively manipulating ignorance into something else altogether. When delusional liars like Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin begin to lead these legions of stupidity into the streets, as they plan to do shortly in a march on Washington, DC, to profane the memory of Dr. King's "I Have a Dream Speech," the joke starts to become not nearly so funny.
And while defending Cordoba House and decrying racist stereotypes does bring up issues of value to those who treasure the fight for civil rights and who fight for a just society, ultimately it's all such a distraction. The issue of Cordoba House is a trifling, unimportant non-issue. There is no legal controversy. New York City governance has done its job and paved the way for the Islamic center to be built, and there are already undisturbed and uncontroversial storefront mosques just a couple more blocks distant from the site of the World Trade Center. The idiots who want to believe Obama is a Muslim--as if there were something wrong with that in the first place--are a minority firmly on the wrong side of peace and progress anyway.
But these issues keep people from focusing on the continuing economic crisis that the Democrats are unable and the Republicans are uninterested in fixing. They keep people from focusing on the need to undercut terrorism by radically changing American foreign policy. They keep people focused on the gotcha game in which liberal and conservative media enable each other while keeping their audiences firmly hypnotized and safely oh-so-outraged while confined to their sofas or mesmerized by their handheld devices.
We will be a nation of morons if we let all this continue.