Media Persist in Portraying An America That Does Not Reflect Our Diversity

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Tarring President Obama and millions of other Americans who don’t look anglo enough has become the grand compulsion of ideologues on the right.

A Pew poll this week concludes that 18 percent of Americans believe the President is a Muslim in spite of ample evidence that he is not. And the number who believe this lie seems to be rising.

The finding goes hand in glove with the belief of many Americans that Arabs are black in spite of the plain fact that they are Caucasians who, like many American Caucasians, have often intermarried with non-Caucasians.

That people believe what they want to believe is hardly news. But what is news is the looming issue of otherness in America. Barack Obama was elected by an overwhelming majority. He is our first African-American president. The Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln, which opposed Obama and now seeks to tar him with otherness, freed America’s slaves. What an irony that in its paucity of ideas the party has seized on racism to win and hold office.

But otherness is hardly a black and white issue. Ask the Hispanics who feel increasingly unwelcome because of anti-immigrant sentiment. Ask the Arab-Americans.

America is redefining its idea of Americanness and it is moving in the wrong direction. It is in fact moving to the Land of Neverwas. And it is abetted in this regression by media whose abiding concept of what it is to look American is the image of a wholesome North European with a few “others” sprinkled around to pay lip service to diversity.

The situation is analogous to Alexander the Great’s project to Hellenize the known world, a project that largely succeeded and of which we are a direct beneficiary. He ordered his Macedonians to marry into conquered peoples. He integrated these people into his armies and government. And his Macedonians bitterly complained because they deemed themselves superior to the peoples they had overcome.

For Alexander’s Macedonians their resentment was easy to define. They knew who they were. Not so Americans. The Anglos among us are now a clear minority. Our population is still overwhelmingly white, but its roots are many, and Alexander couldn’t have imagined the degree of racial mixing that has occurred in America. So who are “us” and “them” in America? Who do the racists think they are? Literally. People of North European origin, undoubtedly. Therefore privileged. But they are hardly the original Americans. And as for the anglos, the Dutch preceded them, even though New Amsterdam, with its great tolerance for diversity, is not given the historical significance assigned to Jamestown and intolerant Plymouth. Such is our persistent anglocentrism.

So it seems to be a matter of shadings, accents, religions, degrees of assimilation. The right-wing ideologues say Obama is a foreigner. They deny that he is native-born, in spite of all the evidence. And just in case that doesn’t quality him for otherness, they miscast him as a Muslim.

But it is legal to be a Muslim in America. Religious freedom is a constitutional right, as every immigrant happily knows. So to do their dirty work the bigots must tar Islam in its entirety, not just its fanatical fringe. And that is what they’re about when they insist Barack Obama is a Muslim, because they know that making the case that he is a member of Al Qaeda goes too far, even for them.

Otherness can mean not being white enough, not being tall enough, not sounding southern enough, not going to a fundamentalist church, not approving of making bankers’ wars, not voting the right way, not agreeing with Sarah Palin or Newt Gingrich, not accepting lower wages to make the rich richer, any damned thing. It can even mean not flying a little American flag from your car. The purpose of the concept is to ostracize, to alienate, to create a nation of “us” and “them.”

But then what? Repeal the section of the Fourteenth Amendment granting citizenship to infants born here of foreigners? And after that? Perhaps something like the Nuremberg Laws establishing the concept of unwelcome, undesirable citizens? And then?

Give the Nazis a little time, a little patience, and then they’ll settle down and play fair, many Germans argued. How did that work for them?

The concept of otherness with which the bigots are tarring the President is far more dangerous than Al Qaeda. It is the enemy within, for either we are all in the same boat or we are not, and if we are not, the boat will founder. We rejected-once and for all, we thought-the idea of class, and now an effort is being made to reimpose it. If President Obama is one of the others, so are all African-Americans, all Hispanics, all Italians, all Arabs, all Asians, everyone who does not look North European enough to pass a Nazi eugenics test. This is the danger to which the polls are alerting us.