Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Two Americas, one not so pretty.

Ross Douthat had an interesting column in the NYTimes yesterday. It was interesting in large part because he is trying to justify discrimination, not to say out right racist hatred, as something not just acceptable but desirable for America. The Republicans have latched on to the anti Islamist fervor (in regard to the "ground zero mosque") as a way to discredit Democrats, and the theorist Douthat is trying to equate that with those other quintessential American ideals like democracy, fairness and tolerance.

Douthat talks about two Americas. The first is the mythical America we generally invoke in times of crisis, the one where our founding fathers decided to create a nation where democracy would rule but not be tyrannical, where people had many rights and can exercise them as long as they don’t (legally) harm anyone else. The second, though, is the real America of history, where we speak (American) English, we are a majority Christian (originally protestant) nation and we expect newcomers to assimilate.

In that context, Douthat talks about how Mormons were forced to give up polygamy and American Catholics pushed Rome to take more liberal stances on various issues. He also talks about how immigrants were allowed in the US for a while, then immigration was cut back and those that were already here were pushed to conform and assimilate.

OK, so Douthat only chooses examples where American religious discrimination resulted in a more unified (if less tolerant) society. He uses this to suggest that since the Muslim religion is so different culturally, we are justified in our discriminatory attitudes, because what will result from our pushing them to be more like us is a more harmonious American society.

The problem with justifying discrimination in religion is that it then becomes impossible to reject it in other contexts, if indeed anyone actually tries. If you tell Italians or Estonians they have to learn English and dress better, are you going to celebrate African American heritage or gay culture? Are you going to give blacks or gays jobs? I mean, you may not trust gypsies, but at least they aren’t black or gay. Which is to say a gypsy “dressed for success” can pass for a WASP, but the black will always be black and the gay person holding hands with the wrong gender will always stand out.

Frankly, I see no reason to think the growing Republican (and even some Democrats) opposition to the mosque as anything but political opportunism. It is impossible to see it as particularly principled.

I think I agree with Douthat’s characterization of the two Americas. But while he limits his description to discussions of religion and the assimilation of immigrants, I see a characterization that covers the range of our social behaviors, from slavery and segregation through women’s rights and now the current controversies over the mosque and gay marriage. And I see in most cases that we fail time and again to live up to our own principles, that we are at best late in correcting our mistakes, and at worst cause or prolong the suffering of many of our citizens or other people around the world.

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