Us versus Them, Redux

When I was growing up in Anderson, Indiana, Jews were often viewed as an alien species. I can remember being asked—in all seriousness—whether Jews had tails, and whether we lived in houses, like “real people.” In addition to these innocent if disconcerting questions, I also remember being called a “dirty Jew” for the first (but not last) time, when I was in second grade.

Fast forward. I was in my late teens and in college when John F. Kennedy ran for President. I vividly recall fellow students assuring me that Catholics were stockpiling arms in the basements of their churches (presumably to be used if he lost, but that was unclear). Those with less vivid imaginations nevertheless muttered darkly about “popery” and warned that a Kennedy Presidency would mean American obedience to Rome.

America has largely moved beyond those particular bigotries, and it would be comforting to believe we’ve matured enough as a society to avoid that sort of crude stereotyping of whole groups of people.

Apparently, many of us haven’t.

Recent news articles have reported on efforts in several cities—including supposedly cosmopolitan New York—to prevent Muslim congregations from building mosques. Opponents of those building permits have characterized Muslim places of worship as “terrorist cells,” and the religion as an incubator of anti-Western, anti-democratic values. Here in Indiana, where perennial candidate Marvin Scott is running for Congress against Andre Carson, one of two Muslims serving in the U.S. House of Representatives, ugly anti-Muslim sentiments are regularly posted to Scott’s Facebook page.

Are there Muslim terrorists? Sure. There are also Catholics whose devotion to the Church trumped their American duty to report child molestation to the authorities. There are Jews who engage in “sharp” business practices. There are lazy black people, emotionally volatile women and gay pedophiles. There are also all-American Christian terrorists like Timothy McVeigh, WASP crooks like Enron’s Ken Lay, strong women like Hillary Clinton and innumerable lazy white guys and heterosexual pedophiles. Judging people on the basis of invidious stereotypes doesn’t get us very far.

One of the foundations of the American value system—embedded in our legal system and culture—is this recognition that people deserve to be judged on the basis of their individual behaviors, not on the basis of their race, religion, gender or sexual orientation.  

We are living through some very tough times right now, and it is understandable that many of us are looking for scapegoats—someone to blame for a world that seems increasingly out of our control. It is human instinct to look askance at those who are unfamiliar, who look different, who come from other places or who follow different customs. There are also genuine issues that arise when groups new to the American landscape are in the process of assimilating to that landscape.  But we dishonor the American principles of equality and fair play when we treat any community as monolithic.

 Muslims—like Protestants, Jews, Catholics and other believers and nonbelievers—are just “real people.”

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