A Witch Hunt – Islamophobia in America

Last week, the Pope surprised the world when he exonerated Jews for the killing of Jesus. It was a nice gesture, though he was a little bit late to the party. Jews have endured thousands of years of turmoil as direct and indirect results of that accusation. In the Pope’s book, he outlines his rationale: though some Jews were to blame for elements of Jesus’ demise, the world cannot hold all Jews accountable for the sins of a few. It’s a logical realization that should have been recognized long ago.

Over the past few days, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter King (R-NY) has been on a quest with an unclear purpose. He and his GOP colleagues have begun to hold hearings to, in essence, uncover all the things that make it wrong to be a Muslim in the United States. King – once a staunch proponent of Muslim rights and opportunities worldwide – has declared that his views changed in the aftermath of September 11th when America’s Islamic community was “not responding the way they should have.” In short, Muslims didn’t measure up to the Peter King protocol.

Peter King is a Catholic. Accordingly, his sanctioned spiritual leader – the supreme representative of his system of belief – is the Pope. Anyone who knows anything about textual interpretation can deduce that Peter King is out of line with his leader’s rational principles.

But if King is not inclined to heed papal counsel, he need look no further than my high school classroom. Can an entire grade be suspended for the academic dishonesty of one student? Absolutely not. In that vein, neither can an entire ethnic people be held responsible for the barbarous actions of a few.

Benito Mussolini was a Catholic. He was also white. When was the last time you heard someone call the whites or the Catholics out on “not responding the way they should have” to Mussolini’s tyrannical rule? The people who bombed Pearl Harbor were Japanese. Did the United States government become unwarrantably suspicious of Japanese Americans? Yes, and many Japanese Americans were wrongfully locked up in internment camps for the remainder of the war. A group cannot be blindly held responsible for the actions of individuals.

Islamophobia takes an extreme perspective and applies it to one of the largest religious populations in the world. But the laws surrounding Islamic tradition – the customs that are practiced by billions worldwide – are no more rational than those of Kashrut (Judaism), or communion (Christianity). The Hajj is no less holy than the trip I took to Israel last summer. There are, of course, extremists in every facet of cultural life: The orthodox Jews in Meiah She’arim, Israel who would consider me – someone who eats ‘unkosher’ cheese – a sinner, the priests who rail against love that is different from their own, or the Farrakhans who marginalize Islam and thus give it a bad name. Radicalized Islam is a problem, no doubt. But radicalized anything is a problem.

It’s not naiveté that has led me to this conclusion; it’s simply the acknowledgement that we’re all humans – legitimate, thoughtful, and very, very flawed humans. Perhaps Rep. King would like to investigate the “radicalization” of the Catholic church, or the “radicalization” of the Republican party, or even the “radicalization” of the people who stand up in town hall meetings and blatantly suggest the killing of prominent public officials. Peter King is in no position to be accusing others of “not responding the way they should have.” There is an explicit double standard here – hypocrisy beyond hypocrisy, jingoism beyond jingoism.

The Pope is right: we must prosecute those who have committed a crime, but their sentence must not extend to those who are innocent. For that reason, Muslims in America must be treated as equals and – like all law-abiding citizens – must not be subjected to Peter King’s McCarthyist tirades.

An Electorate on Edge – The Role of Patience in the Healthcare Debate

I drove to a coffee shop earlier today in an attempt to seclude myself from the minute-to-minute shuffle that accompanies the process of moving houses (that my family is currently wrapped up in). I had pages and pages of history notes to sift through — so I just needed a place where I could clear my head and forge forward.

A few minutes after I’d sat down at a table and started looking though my notes, I realized that I’d forgotten to retrieve one last bit of information on the North’s Civil War strategy. So I opened up my laptop, dragged my cursor down to the blue ‘Safari’ icon, and waited as the tiny clock-like pinwheel on the URL bar twirled and twirled.

But I quickly became impatient and within seconds found myself wearing out my index finger by tapping incessantly on my keyboard’s ‘enter’ key. I couldn’t stand the seven-second wait for my browser to load. I needed immediate gratification at the risk of my own sanity.

And then I had one of those ‘a-ha’ moments (the ones that used to be depicted in old Tom and Jerry reruns when a giant lightbulb would appear above a character’s head): I realized that my agitation wasn’t an isolated incident. I’m a junior in high school, so it’s no secret that patience isn’t my forte; but neither is it that of the American populace. We’re an electorate on edge, a country whose thirst for instantaneous indulgence usurps any bit of willingness to roll with the punches when the going gets tough.

Last week, the House — sporting its fresh coat of red — voted to repeal the landmark healthcare bill that promised to to insure over thirty-two million additional people, end health insurance companies’ implementation of lifetime coverage limits, forbid discrimination against patients with pre-existing conditions, and — in essence — overhaul the broken healthcare system and its tired regulations.

Healthcare was (as most issues in this presidency are) a highly partisan battle. It further polarized Washington. It created enemies out of friends. But, of course, one side won, and the bill’s policies began to take effect in the weeks and months after its passage. The White House website says that all of the aforementioned policies among “other changes including new benefits, protections and cost savings will be implemented between now and 2014.”

Hold on a second. So does that mean we have to wait?

And now America’s fuse is lit and Congress’ spiral of reverse gratitude is already spinning. Republicans have long been tapping their feet and anxiously looking at their watches; and as soon as they got into power, they pounced.

Michele Bachmann wants to “repeal [the] president and put a president in the position of the White House who will repeal this bill.” Despite the gravity of that demand and — in my opinion — its breach of both civil and human rights, Bachmann represents a growing mass who expect something from nothing. It’s the same portion of the population who expected the economy to be “fixed” within months of Obama’s election and are “shocked” to find out that he’s done “nothing” to repair the economy.

Things take time. Long-run investments are what sustain economies. If the United States (or even my family, for that matter) only made short-term economic choices and divested from every stock or venture that didn’t immediately yield a massive positive result, it would be in a much downgraded position. When healthcare hasn’t finished coming into effect and Republicans already decide that it hasn’t quite done the trick, that’s an irresponsible decision.


The Potency of the R-Word – As Featured on the Huffington Post

As featured on the Huffington Post:

It hardly comes as a surprise when Ann Coulter makes an offensive comment. The conservative commentator seems to make a career of spewing language that denigrates a different party practically each week. This week’s off-color moment came when she tweeted about a cable news appearance by Christopher Barron of a Republican gay rights group called GOProud.

Wrote Coulter: “Great video: head of GOProud interviewed by retarded person on MSNBC.”

She is hardly the first public figure to cause offense with the R-word. Earlier this year, Rahm Emanuel, the president’s former chief of staff, called conservative Democrats “F—-in’ retarded.” Rush Limbaugh piled on, calling Emanuel’s subsequent make-up meeting with mental health professionals a “retard summit.”

It’s not just celebrities, though. As a high school student, I hear the R-word thrown around in offensive ways daily.

I’m in my trig classroom staring at a whiteboard that’s crammed with brackets, exponents, and an array of colorful digits. I’m trying to understand the problem on the board, but I feel like I’m reading a foreign language. My classmates are just as puzzled. One, realizing the problem’s complexity, sighs and lets out two words: “That’s retarded.”

Retarded. It’s ubiquitous. I can’t escape it. But I have never gotten used to hearing it. In fact, each time I hear “retarded” misused, I feel as though someone has stabbed a piercing blade into my neck. But as much as “retarded” pains me, something holds me back from confronting my classmate. The word renders me helpless and impotent. I can’t challenge him because he’s not out of the ordinary; everyone says it.

And not just kids. I’m standing at the checkout counter of my high school’s student store, Rice Krispies in hand. As the register stubbornly refuses to dispense a receipt, a mom volunteering behind the counter becomes more and more flustered. Irritated, she expresses her frustration: “This thing is retarded.”

Apathy has a major influence on the way my contemporaries use language. “Retarded” has become one of the go-to negative adjectives the Internet generation (alongside words like “gay” and “lame”). And while “retarded” is not usually spoken from a place of deliberate insult, it carries an insulting connotation: “Retarded” is used at the expense of a vulnerable group.

I’m at cross-country practice looking out at a long, rigorous course the coach has just ordered us to tackle. I turn hesitantly toward my teammate, whose exhaustion has clearly been exacerbated. At a loss, he resorts to the only adjective he can attach to his disappointment: “This is retarded.”

The R-word is a blade in my neck. My body stiffens and my fists clench at the mere mention of the word. But hearing it is unavoidable. So I’ve developed a sort of sympathy toward the ignorant, an assumption that people don’t know how their words hurt; that they’re simply in the dark.

But it isn’t sympathy alone that holds me back from the treacherous brink of confrontation. There’s another layer–something simpler that moves me to evade saying “please don’t,” or “that hurts”: 16-year-olds don’t have much of a platform to stand on in the arena of language use. And, furthermore, I run the risk of seeming almost sanctimonious; lecturing my friends and family on their choices of words when I’m still trying to discover my own voice.

Nonetheless, I’ve had no such luxury of darkness. Down the hall from my bedroom, my autistic brother struggles to carry on a conversation, getting stuck repeating the same phrases over and over again. (Granted, there are differences between autism and the other sorts of developmental delays that once fell under the umbrella of “retardation.”) Most of my peers have not witnessed the deeply rooted frustrations of missing out on a typical childhood. Few of them hear pleas like my brother’s to “go to school with the other kids.”

Sometimes I do leap abruptly at the opportunity to wag a finger. “Do you have a brother with a neurological disorder?” I’ll ask, my tone dripping with disdain. “Tell me, what is it about that math problem that’s mentally delayed?” But my discomfort with a generation’s forceful linguistic trend has changed the way I’ve chosen to express my displeasure. Public scolding, I’ve learned, rings hollow and elicits little more than an awkward blank stare. It’s not that I’m afraid or timid; but sometimes–even when I feel like my “retarded” bubble is about to burst — I just have to ask myself, “Is it worth it?”

Like it or not, it is.

I wish my generation (and their moms, where necessary) would realize something: words can be both powerful and toxic. Some serve a variety of purposes; but some are meant to be attached to one exclusive definition. Those words aren’t fit to be taken out of context and attached to scenario after scenario, ad nauseam. The movie you saw last night isn’t retarded, the Christmas sweater your Great Aunt Gertrude knit you isn’t gay, and your Monday afternoon SAT class isn’t lame. The more often we hastily slap one of those labels onto something, the more often we denigrate, disparage, belittle, and inevitably rule out a magnificent portion of our population.

The math problem was challenging, sure. The cash register wasn’t working and the cross-country course was disheartening. That MSNBC host may have asked some questions that Coulter didn’t like . But do any of those scenarios entail any sort of neurological delay? Most certainly not.

To preserve the sanctity of language and defend the integrity of another population of otherwise easy-targets, thought should always precede action and compassion should inform language. The next time you want to express how awful, offensive or frustrating something is, try coming up with another word. My suggestion: Coulterish.

Backward Benevolence

“But daddy,” sobbed the little boy, faint tears trickling down his face, “You promised!”

It’s a familiar scenario–one that we’ve all faced at one point or another. The child is at the will of the parent–who is disinclined to keep his word–launches into a lecture on the powerful art form of “no means no.” But this scenario, derived from the microcosm of family life, has been blown out of proportion: “Daddy” is President Obama and the little boy is none other than us–the American people.

My auspicious political outlook is the type that makes cynics cringe. In October, I was still pulling for Sestak and Conway. Even after Lieberman had put his foot down, I had hope that a single-payer plan would still be accomplished. Optimism, in all my ostensible naïveté, has kept my mood somewhat positive and upbeat. I’ve grown to swallow the truths of the Obama administration with a grain of salt. But the very thin thread that has been carrying the weight of my disappointment in the president’s policy decisions is on the verge of snapping.

The quasi-messianic, wet behind the ears, charismatic, and, if nothing else, promising young man whom we sent to Washington two years ago had (and still has) quite a bit on his plate. There are, of course, aspects of the various markets and the economy that change and fluctuate in their own right–the invisible hand at work. But the potential policy shift that is on the verge of breaking my thread is what differentiates a Democratic presidency from a Republican one. It’s a quintessential distinction between the two parties’ platforms. Obama ran as a Democrat. 63.7 million people voted for a Democrat.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, February 26, 2009: “The President said in the campaign that health care reform would be achieved through some additional spending, largely by rolling back tax cuts for the very wealthy, and coupled with some savings in the amount of money that we spend on health care.”

Tax Policy Center, Urban Institute and Brookings Institution, An Updated Analysis of the 2008 Presidential Candidates’ Tax Plans: Revised August 15, 2008: Obama would “repeal the cuts in the top two marginal income tax rates ahead of their scheduled expiration,” and, “in addition, upper-income households ultimately (would) bear most of the burden of the corporate tax increases that Senator Obama proposes.”

Obama the Senator promised tax breaks for the middle class, not for the super-rich. Obama the Candidate promised tax breaks for the middle class, not for the super-rich. Obama the President promised tax breaks for the middle class, not for the super-rich.

As Americans, it is our responsibility to care for those who cannot care for themselves–even if it means an additional exerted effort. It is a fundamental difference between the right and left of this country. Some believe that the ideal path to sustaining a prosperous society is to take from the little people and give, give, give to the big guys. I have confidence–as does the whopping mandate that put the president in the white house–in the notion that those who cannot afford to pay high taxes shouldn’t pay high taxes; they should give back in other forms. Those who can afford to pay higher taxes should pay higher taxes. Taking from the poor and giving to the rich? It’s like Robin Hood in reverse. It’s backward benevolence.

President Obama is on the verge of compromising his sociopolitical integrity and redirecting his moral compass. And I feel like a helpless little boy.

A Shattered Cultural Taboo

Left-wing political commentator Juan Williams was fired from his post at National Public Radio Wednesday night for a remark he made which was perceived by many to be insolent and politically incorrect. During an appearance on Bill O’Reilly’s show on Monday, Williams, O’Reilly, and Mary Katherine Ham debated about the dubbed “The War against Islam.”

“Political correctness can lead to some kind of paralysis where you don’t address reality. I mean look, Bill, I’m not a bigot. You know the kind of books I’ve written about the civil rights movement in this country,” Williams said. “But when I get on a plane, I gotta tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they’re identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried, I get nervous.”

That last sentence, unmistakably, was what cost Williams his job. His remarks “were inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices,” NPR wrote in a memo that explained the firing. From one point of view, several left-wingers expressed outrage at Williams. From another, conservatives like Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin called for NPR’s funding to be cut as a result of Williams’ termination.

But were Williams’ remarks also inconsistent with American mainstream standards and practices? Did he cross a red line that few daring Americans cross? Did he set himself apart from the fray–admitting a type of innate racial skepticism and distrust that is unique to his own conscience? I think not.

Williams’ inborn action of profiling that is now being tossed around in a very public arena is the same action that happens in the minds and souls of Americans every day. This basic xenophobia doesn’t only take form in airports (for people of Arab descent), it also seeps through in legislative and cultural trends. The Arizona immigration law, while it has nothing to do with Islam or the Middle East, exemplifies a quintessential American concept: we are afraid of the unfamiliar.

Juan Williams got fired for violating a supposed cultural taboo. But the cultural taboo is only a facade. Racial profiling is like gossip–society claims to frown upon it, yet everyone does it.

Sure, America is still the “city on a hill,” and in many respects a beacon of light to the rest of the world. But this exclusionist notion of categorical American supremacy needs to end. We use racial and ethnic profiling as a subconscious exertion of our ultranationalism.

And if racial profiling is a passive action, there’s a coherent method of combatting it: a commanding awareness of our actions.

Check Your Balances

“Only in Washington is it a radical idea to read a bill and know how much it costs before we agree to pass it.”

Who said this? Sen. Jim DeMint. Why did he say it? Because, today, his office sent a memo to Republican Senate staff, letting them know that he would be putting a legislative block on all bills on the Senate floor that he did not approve of.

Some say that he’s doing this in an attempt to usurp Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s power–perhaps trying to gain momentum, with the ultimate goal of taking over the role as Minority Leader. He’s already campaigned for several non-establishment Republican congressional candidates around the country which has been seen as a similar move. That’s politics.

But reading a bill and knowing how much it costs is not a radical idea in Washington. It’s a responsible idea. If only that was DeMint’s idea.

Perhaps the rules of the Senate need tweaking. But what Sen. DeMint is forgetting is that we already have a system of deciding what does and doesn’t pass in the Senate. It’s a system that’s worked for us for us for a little over two centuries. It’s called voting. When our representatives in the House and Senate think that a project shouldn’t be funded or that an amendment should be stricken from a bill, they don’t block it from coming to the floor. They simply vote “no.” Checks and balances are an imperative part of our governmental system so that one branch–or one person–can’t get too powerful, and so that the populace is represented based on the opinion of the populace and not the opinion of an old fart from Charleston.

It is unthinkably self-centered and ignorant for one man to think that he should be the author and editor of the entire congressional agenda.