Xenophobia

Over at his blog at RNS, Mark Silk notes that two events – the massacre at the Sikh temple near Milwaukee and the arson attack on a mosque in Joplin, Missouri – do not make a trend, but that it is vital people of faith and conscience start paying attention to the rise of xenophobia.

Silk calls attention to Gov. Scott Walker’s remark: “Our hearts go out to the victims and their families, as we all struggle to comprehend the evil that begets this terrible violence.” Silk replies, “Personally I don’t think we have to struggle too hard. The evil in question has to do with xenophobia and religious hatred, both of which can be stirred up or damped down by political leaders.” Silk -1; Walker - 0.

The exchange called to mind a scene from the movie “Game Change.” Sen. John McCain’s advisors warn him that he can’t win unless he drives up Obama’s negatives in the polls and that the most readily available means to do that is by attacking his association with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. In the movie, McCain says that there is a dark side to populism and that some politicians try to win elections by playing to that dark side. “I am not one of those politicians,” McCain concludes. The movie then recalls a famous moment from the 2008 campaign in which a highly flustered woman takes the microphone and says then-Sen. Obama is an Arab, and McCain takes the microphone back and corrects the woman publicly and reminds the audience that both he and Obama are devoted citizens who happen to differ on issues. It really was one of Sen. McCain’s finest political moments.

I am here in rural Connecticut for a couple of weeks. The other night at dinner with friends, I delivered my now typical indictment of President Obama’s political leadership. My oldest friend in the world chastised me. “There are people who were never going to give him a chance,” she said. “They looked up and saw a black man in the White House and it was if they felt violated, aggrieved. They hate him. It is unlike anything I have ever seen before.” Or words to that effect. My friend is right, of course, not that the venom of Obama’s enemies gives him a free pass on any issues. But, as ugly as much of the anti-George W. Bush sentiment was in certain circles of the Left, it did not have the dark, populist side to it that the anti-Obama venom has. Anti-Bush tirades were often vulgar, often false, often malicious, but they did not coddle racism or stoke xenophobia.

As Silk notes, George W. Bush deserves a great deal of credit for never feeding the beast of Islamophobia in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Indeed, he very publicly went to a mosque and met with Muslim Americans in a show of solidarity. But, as Silk also notes, today, many in his party have engaged in a renewed frenzy of xenophobic fear-mongering. The recent calls by five GOP congressmen, led by Cong. Michele Bachmann, for investigations into the supposed infiltration of the upper echelons of the U.S. government by people with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood is an example of what happens when people drink deeply from the well – no, not the well, the trough – of xenophobia. Again, it fell to Sen. McCain to take to the floor of the Senate and deliver a rebuke to Bachmann and her ilk. You have only to watch the “Sean Hannity Show” to see the way that propagandist extraordinaire stokes the fires on a regular basis, simplistically equating the Muslim brotherhood with terrorists, hosting an infamous Dutch bigot on the show, and putting special emphasis on Obama’s middle name, Hussein, to make the connections clear to all.

The Sikhs who were murdered near Milwaukee, of course, are not Muslims, although I wonder how many Americans think they are. A significant number of Americans continue to say they think President Obama is a Muslim. And, we are now learning that the perpetrator of the murders had ties to white supremacists. Are we surprised? Jared Loughner, the man who attacked Cong. Gabrielle Giffords in Tuscon and killed several people, may have been crazy. We are still learning about the inner demons of the young man who shot up the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. There may be little we can do about helping all Americans who struggle with inner demons, to protect themselves and others from those inner demons. That, truly, is an evil of the kind with which Gov. Walker should struggle to comprehend.

Xenophobia, however, is not an inner demon, it is an outer demon. It is primarily cultural, not psychological, although there are connections between the two I am sure. And, unlike some strains of mental illness which remain opaque to us, there is nothing mysterious about.xenophobia nor its current iteration, Islamophobia.

We Catholics have a special obligation here because we have so often been the target of xenophobia in the past. Nativism in America was not, originally, directed against Muslims. And, I would hope that those who are busy criticizing Cardinal Timothy Dolan for inviting President Obama to the Al Smith Dinner will pause for a moment and think of how their anti-Obama venom has contributed to the climate of xenophobia in the land. To be sure – indeed, to repeat – there are plenty of non-xenophobic reasons to criticize the president, and there are many non-xenophobic methods to deliver the criticism. But, certainly our Catholic leaders must be mindful of the cultural environment in which they deliver criticism. They must insist, as early generations of Catholic bishops insisted, that America’s goodness requires, and its aspirations to greatness demand, that we confront nativism and racism, and that one of the ways we do this is by refusing to indulge in the kind of heated, venomous rhetoric that is so often hurled at Obama. And, we refuse to say that this man is some kind of “untouchable” for any reason. He is an American. He is our president. I won’t be voting for him in November, but I am very, very glad that he is coming to the Waldorf-Astoria in October and that Cardinal Dolan issued the invitation and will be there to greet him. Just as the invitation quite obviously is no endorsement of Obama, it is quite obviously an endorsement of decency. In America today, decency must be cultivated.


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