A few years ago, one of my favorite British ’80s bands, The Men They Couldn’t Hang, released a comeback album. The killer single was called “I Loved the Summer of Hate”, and it was as exuberant and singable a bit of pop punk as you ever did hear. I listen to it quite often on my iPod.
But I can’t say I share the sentiments of the song title. Though my family and I have had a wonderful summer (working on a book, trips to France and Israel, seeing friends and family), I’ve been increasingly worried and depressed by the tone of American political discourse. In the arguments over the health care plan, gay marriage, “birthright citizenship”, and above all, the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque”, the rancor has hit a level of ugliness I haven’t seen in my life. My political memory goes back about thirty years or so, and I’m enough of an historian not to substitute my recollections for the entire American experience, but still — I’ve never seen anything like this. I’ve deleted Facebook friends whose anti-Obama, anti-Islam rants became too incendiary to bear; I’ve had more political arguments since Memorial Day than I had in the previous three or four years. It has felt to me very much like a “summer of hate”, and I’ve found it all deeply disheartening.
The mosque controversy has encapsulated all of the nastiness for me. I’ve tried, and failed, to understand the arguments of those who do not want the Park51 project built in lower Manhattan. I’ve noted with bemusement that many right-wingers (including loads who’ve never set foot in New York) speak of the area in which the mosque might be built as “hallowed ground”, a reference that stands in sharp contradiction to what Jill Filipovic (in her wonderful post on the controversy) describes as New York’s usual reputation in the conservative mind as “Sodom to San Francisco’s Gomorrah.”
I have thought this week of my many Muslim students. I thought, for example, of Farah, a young Muslim worman who dropped out for a semester after being repeatedly verbally assaulted on campus in the aftermath of 9/11. I thought of Karim, a young man who worked hard to reconcile his homosexuality with his faith, and who turned me on to Al-Fatiha. I thought of Djamila, who came a semester after Farah and about whom I wrote in this post. I thought of the religious studies courses I TAed in 1991 and 1992 at UCLA, and my many friendly meetings with the splendid Maher Hathout who so often came to speak to my students. I have thought of these folks, and I’ve gotten very angry.
I’ve never before felt so clearly that we are indeed in a “culture war.” The phrase was originally Pat Buchanan’s, and when he first uttered it (I think at the 1992 GOP convention), I dismissed it as rhetorical overkill designed to stir up the shock troops of the religious right. But eighteen summers later, I’ve come to see Pat was on to something: we are in a battle to determine what America is and will be, and what role that America will have in the broader world. I’ve insisted for too long that I’m not a combatant, even though my sympathies clearly lie with the left, with pluralism, with cosmopolitan toleration and with social justice. But after what I’ve heard this summer directed at President Obama, what I’ve seen happen in Arizona, and after what I’ve witnessed from those opposed to the Park51 project, I can’t claim to be on the sidelines any more.
I don’t hate conservatives. But I do hate the vision of this country offered by the right; I do hate the claims of swaggering American exceptionalism, the claims that Islam is somehow not part and parcel of the best aspects of the Abrahamic tradition, the claims that those who are born on this soil ought not to be offered all the protections of citizenship if their parents arrived here illegally. I am no great patriot, but I love America enough to fight against those whose vision for it is so small.
I’m a father now, of course, and as a consequence spend a great deal of time thinking about my daughter’s future. Though Heloise may not choose America as her home (her multiple passports will give her options), she will be raised here. And I want my multi-racial daughter to grow up in a nation that is open, tolerant, just, and compassionate. Not in my memory have I heard so much invective from those whose vision for our collective future is so radically at odds with those values. And so, as this summer nears an end, I’m a bit stunned, a bit depressed, a bit angry — but mostly, I’m a lot committed. If I wasn’t before, I’m a footsoldier in the culture war now, and my time and my prayers and my money and my sweat are going to this very real fight.