Saturday, August 21, 2010


Demoralized by military defeat and economic depression, the Weimar Republic, Germany’s post-WWI parliamentary democracy, was destroyed by competing anti-democratic groups—fascists, aided by aristocrats and corporations, and communists—using propaganda and street gangs to fight for power. The right’s tactic to win support from the discontented was targeting Jews. Vilifying them and “foreign” influences led to restrictive legislation, violence, and the Holocaust. No one thought it could happen in an educated, industrialized country like Germany.

No one thinks that it can happen here, no one is talking about it happening here, but we had better think and talk about the possibility before it realizes itself. Already in our time of social turmoil and economic stress, the barriers of personal decency and political tolerance are giving way to the inchoate forces of American bigotry. Its renewed energy reflects insecurity and fear caused by bad times in employment and housing. Many white Christians and some white Jews respond by making scapegoats of minorities. Their prejudices link bad times to a black president.

History teaches two lessons about bigotry in politics. One, bigotry has no bounds and transfers itself from one target to another as politically convenient. Two, those who acquire and retain political power by demonizing and exploiting fear of others begin as threats to, and end as destroyers of, democracy. The dominant campaign tactic of the Republican Party is fear of them. “Them” is whomever they choose to demonize: blacks, “illegal immigrants,” Hispanics, Muslims, homosexuals, communists, fascists, socialists, liberals, progressives, Democrats—who next?

Those who respect historical facts know that yesterday’s GOP appealed to racists opposing civil rights laws and regulations. The Republican “Southern Strategy” was a largely successful attempt to win white Southerners, and a partially successful effort to win northern urban Catholics, from their affiliation to the Democratic Party.

Those who respect facts of current events know that today’s GOP appeals to bigots of all kinds: race bigots skilled in denial of their racism (they say that the NAACP is racist); religious bigots unabashed in pushing the president-as-Muslim lie and in abridging the religious freedom of Muslims (they oppose mosques in downtown Manhattan or mid-state Tennessee); and ethnic bigots inflamed by Mexican immigrants (they say that foreign invasion threatens national security). This Republican strategy, assisted, if not instigated, by various branches of the Tea Party, intends to inflame all white Americans.

The threat is serious when the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, a Jewish organization committed to freedom of religion, betrays its principles by opposing the construction of a mosque near Ground Zero. Its official explanation about compassion for victims’ families is plausible; so, too, in the context of anti-Muslim hostility and a “Christian Nation” crusade, its fear that Jews may be targeted next. If so, abandoning its principle seems a calculated move to prove the “real American” purity of American Jews and to disarm those who might raise that dual-nationality canard about them.

The good news relies on the past as prologue to the future. Americans have always pulled back from indulgence of fears and insecurities. Spasms of paranoia have gripped this country in the past century: the first “Red Scare,” with the Palmer Raids of 1919; the fear of anarchists in the 20s; and, of course, the second “Red Scare,” with its hearings by the House Un-American Activities Committee and Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 40s and 50s. In all three episodes, mainstream Republican and Democratic leaders proved resistant to the hysteria.

The bad news is that the GOP no longer has mainstream Republican leaders willing or able to resist hysteria and oppose bigotry. Fringe bigotry is becoming party bigotry as functionaries curry the fringe’s favor. Thus, the prejudices of Sarah Palin (too many of “them” at her Hawaii college, according to her father), Newt Gingrich, and leading House Republicans like John Boehner and Eric Cantor. The party is mounting a tiger to ride into the fall election but will have difficulty dismounting. If exploiting bigotry enables the GOP to acquire power, it may have to continue to exploit bigotry to retain power, regardless of damage to American democracy.

For its great concern is losing power, perhaps permanently. Demographic trends are reducing a white majority to a plurality. Because of its whites-only appeal, the GOP has opposed civil rights for minorities since the 60s and is attacking ethnic, racial, and religious minorities now. (It opposed women’s rights in the 70s.) By challenging post-Bill-of-Rights amendments, including those defining citizenship and enlarging the franchise, the party re-iterates its exclusionary, anti-democratic appeal—neither a demographically nor a democratically winning strategy.

The bigotry which the GOP is endorsing, arousing, or exploiting is consuming the party. The Gathering of Prejudices has become so racist, sexist, homophobic, and xenophobic that it is acting, not on informed self-interest, but on all-corrupting fears and hatreds which threaten American democracy. “Land of the free, home of the brave”— how long? Apartheid America—how soon?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


The furor over the possible construction of an Islamic community center with the two top floors for prayer a few blocks from and out of sight of Ground Zero reveals the worst hypocrisy of many Republicans and conservatives (a word or two on Democrats and liberals comes toward the end). If what follows does not apply to you and you do not agree with the views of Boehner, Gingrich, Palin, and other such leaders, then you had better speak up. They have been invoking the Constitution to judge Democrats and federal legislation under the Obama administration, but, comes a case that requires allegiance to the Constitution, and they are the first to abandon it.

Of course. In other circumstances, they have proposed radical amendments to the Constitution either to serve particular partisan planks or to advance a particular partisan platform. The latter is a doctrine of originalism eradicating either all amendments since ratification in 1789 or all amendments after the Bill of Rights, ratified in 1791. Either version of originalism runs into complications beyond the care or comprehension of these Republicans and conservatives because they are emotionally driven by their extreme reactions to anything which does not fit their definition of a white, Christian America, apparently the only thing which they wish to conserve.

Not that they do not have go-along-to-get-along types who are not white or Christian. So, when interviewed about the location of the mosque near Ground Zero, Eric Cantor, a Jewish congressman from Virginia, acknowledges the Constitutional right in the First Amendment to freedom of religion; he then adds as rebuttal in this instance, “but come on.” As a Republican leader and conservative spokesman, Cantor, in this comment, sets a new record for an intellectual articulation of a counter-argument. The Cliff Notes version of his statement would necessarily elaborate, in order to explain, his profundity; it would translate Cantor’s statement, as my title suggests, thus: “Muslims have freedom of religion, but they should not practice it, for they are also free not to practice it and should not out of regard for the feelings of non-Muslims.” Some freedom.

I like it that a Jew can forthrightly address this inflamed issue. I can imagine Cantor’s counsel to Jews in Germany in the 1930s: just hunker down, do not make trouble, and all will be well. We know how well this approach worked for Jews (and Christians) unwilling to stand up for their rights and those of others. Cantor is not alone; the ADL agrees with him. I wonder what they will say when it becomes the turn of the Jews in America if and when Christians find their community centers, temples, synagogues, and shuls offensive.

Let me offer to Cantor and those of his ilk a suggestion in line with his eloquent and erudite line of reasoning. Let us apply the same principle of have-it-but-hold-it to another provision of the First Amendment. Let us do the same with free speech: you have the right, but pipe down because someone finds your views offensive. In Islamic states, such speech restraint would accord with sharia law—a little irony, what?

Even more wonderfully ironic is that many Republicans and conservatives who have long decried what they characterize as liberal self-indulgence and sense of entitlement now attack a Constitutional barrier protecting freedom of religion and its restraint on the exercise of strong emotions, in this case, against Muslims and their religion. There has always been a struggle between free speech and the heckler’s veto. Now the struggle is between free speech and hurt feelings. Oh, my, the poor dears; scrap the Constitution. Plainly, the mob and its emotions have taken over the party, its allies, and its cause.

(I note that no one has asked why people who suffered painful losses nine years ago have been unable to do what is necessary to accept the fact and accommodate their feelings. I note that no one has asked how moving this Islamic center would help rather than perpetuate their distress. And I note that those oh-so-sympathetic Americans have waited nine years to give their support to the suffering survivors.)

Because words have consequences, reckless and inflammatory talk is dangerous. Because their demagoguery undermines understanding of and respect for the Constitution, Republicans and conservatives constitute a clear and present danger to American democracy and the rule of law. Rousing a mob to win an election means ruling according to the mob afterwards. I am not entirely partisan here; Democrats and liberals constitute the same clear and present danger, only to a lesser degree. They are busy ducking or spinning the issue, trying to game their campaigns, and figuring out a message instead of standing up for the Constitution and American values. Some, like Harry Reid, are caving out of political expediency; others will surely follow.

Appeasement does not work. Apathy does not make the problem go away. The answer is the one which Obama gave: the Muslim community has the right to build an Islamic community center or mosque at whatever site it chooses in accordance with applicable laws, whatever anyone might think—or feel—about the appropriateness of its location.

Saturday, August 7, 2010


Constitutional scholars walking streets and packing heat claim that they must exercise (use or lose) their Second Amendment rights. So they demonstrate their defiance of Obama’s alleged intent to take away their guns. Their proof: the only gun law which Obama has signed permits guns in national parks and monuments. They perceive an insidious ploy here: a fake-out to lull gun-owners into a false sense of security, then snatch their guns when they fall asleep—a paranoid perception perhaps inspired by the re-make of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”

Such Constitutional sages claim that their larger effort is to protect themselves from an over-reaching federal government threatening to take over the country and enslave its “real Americans.” They see the recent federal law to ensure that most Americans have access to affordable health insurance and thus medical care as the first shot in this attempted take-over, a clear and present danger to the not so unified states of America. They urge court challenges, state nullification, state militias, and succession. Most of this talk arises in former confederate states or states settled mainly by Southerners. It looks like the South is trying to rise again.

They want their country back, without the demographic changes long emerging, now evident, in the modern world. They want to turn back time and rewrite history. They want to return to imagined original and presumably unambiguous, unalterable meanings of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights only. However, their originalism overlooks that the Founding Fathers were not originalists! For the Constitution establishes a Supreme Court and provides for amendment. Our Constitutional sages also hoot and holler about liberty, freedom, and, recently, that “Christian nation” thing. Left out: democracy.

For some, democracy has never been popular. Yesterday, they liked a franchise limited by property qualifications, poll taxes, or literacy tests. Today, they prefer voter deception or intimidation, impediments to voter registration, and allegations of voter fraud. For others, democracy is popular when they equate the demos to white folks. Since the Civil Rights Movement, many have feared that laws abolishing segregation, promoting integration, implementing affirmative action, and ensuring voter rights have diminished whites and enhanced non-whites as citizens.

Eventually, their logic of original intent will drive these retro-Constitutionalists to try to restore that fractions-of-a-person thing. Their argument: the Constitution recognizes male whites, Indians, and “three-fifth” types; since it does not mention slaves, this fraction applies to all non-Indian people of color. Their assumption: the “demos” is predominantly male and white, and American democracy is white male rule or it is not democracy. So Constitutional originalism is code-word talk expressing modern racism, sexism, and xenophobia. In fighting “big government” and the modern world, these Constitutional retro-fitters advocate infringement, denial, or repeal of amendments extending Constitutional rights, including the vote, to racial minorities and women.

Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican senatorial candidate, preceded several Republican senators in advocating amendment or repeal of the Fourteenth Amendment, which defines citizenship and extends the Bill of Rights to the states. He approves property owners’ rights to deny food or lodging to minorities (would Jews need to wear yellow stars?). Party debates over immigration and civil rights reveal Republicans deliberating whether they support racist, sexist, and xenophobic doctrine—or representative democracy.

Republicans continue acting in support of “democracy” as white rule. They were for a democracy of all people until, with the election of a president of color, they realized that white people will no longer prevail in their circumscribed democracy. Facing long-term defeat, they offer unprecedented disrespect to an elected president and obstruct his legislation even before he proposes it in the hope that it and he will fail and thereby create an apparent example of black incompetence and inferiority. They fabricate: he is not a native-born citizen, so not qualified to be president; he is socialist, communist, fascist, or anti-American; he is a Muslim, the Anti-Christ, or God-knows-what-else. Race comes first; states’ rights, second; country, third; the Constitution, whenever, if cooked to convenience.

Of course, Republicans deny racism in their party; indeed, they accuse those who note its recent history of racism of being racists themselves or playing the “race card.” The GOP’s Andrew Breitbart is the epitome of this strategy. But the facts affirm many Republicans’ prejudice and animosity toward people of color. She whom many much admire left a Hawaiian college because, says her father, she felt uneasy amidst so many of “them.” Without her tacit appeal to “real Americans” who are fellow racists, Palin would be the answer to a Trivia question.

John Boehner’s “hell no you can’t” congressional speech expresses Republican fear that the Constitution as it is works against Republicans and that “We the People” are not who we were. Republicans are right: the Constitution we have amended; the People, enlarged and diversified. Responses to these changes reveal those who have flip-flopped on democracy and those who believe in the Constitutional rule of a reconstituted and reinvigorated demos.

Monday, August 2, 2010


“In the wet-ass hour, who’s your daddy?” Al Pacino’s question in “Sea of Love” is getting a re-run, with a twist, in a question by Arizona’s junior senator, Jon Kyl: are your parents legal residents? Since, in many places north of south of the border, the answer is often “no,” Kyl wants to amend the 14th Amendment, which grants citizenship to all children born in the United States, to bar citizenship to children born here of illegal immigrants.

Yo, Jon, how many generations? Better be just one, with the others “grandfathered” in (do we have something against grandmothers?). Otherwise, to those who have been fighting terrorism since 1492, we are all illegal immigrants, and none of us is a citizen.

Moving right along, right smartly ….

One problem is that “illegal” is arbitrary. Change the law, let anyone coming into the country get a “Green Card” at, say, a Border Patrol station or Post Office within, say, 30 days, and the entire problem of “illegals” goes away. Refugees from Castro’s Cuba were initially illegal, then made legal by the Cuban Refugee Adjustment Act of 1966. No problem then, but a problem now for people like Kyl who, let’s face it, hate Hispanics.

But haters like Kyl might prevail and open a box of Pandoras, as a friend puts it.

Having two illegal immigrant parents is pretty clear. What about having one illegal immigrant parent? Does the gender of the illegal immigrant parent matter? Is the dad illegal—citizenship OK? Is the mother illegal—citizenship not OK? (Sounds like we are getting pretty Jewish here in parsing citizenship the way Jews parse religious identity.) Does it matter if the legal parent is a native-born or a naturalized citizen?

While Kyl is at it, and given his concerns about voter fraud, maybe he should know a little more about the legal parent: is he (or she) Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, or Tea Bagger; Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, or other; white, black, brown, yellow, red, or albino—not to mention half-tones; and so forth and so on?

What about marital arrangements in which a citizen marries an illegal immigrant, has a child, and then divorces? What if the citizen marries a foreigner, returns to this country, has a child, and then divorces? What if money is involved? Except for the money, soldiers bring home war brides all the time. Has anyone every heard of the brides then divorcing their husbands? By the way, the amendment to the Amendment had better establish rules for custody. Now, go back to the previous paragraph and run everything through the gender-citizenship status-party affiliation-religion-race sieve again.