Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Danger of Democracy

There's a lot of talk right now about our democracy. I suppose that's not new. Americans have and inspire quite a bit of conversation on that topic. There's a lot of talk about racism and equality. That's not new either. It may never be new, I'm sorry to report. Despite the sensitivity of the subjects, these conversations are not inherently bad or inappropriate. They're uncomfortable, but not dangerous.

The impetus for the current discourse swirls in and around two topics: 1. the proposed Islamic center near the ruins of the 9/11 disaster in New York and 2. the proposed revocation or alteration of 14th amendment rights. Pundits and ponderers are batting the questions back and forth across cable news channels, over AM radio airwaves and throughout the paltry print that remains in any way relevant. No matter how elementary, these bluster-machines pretend their questions are massive, resounding elephants of truth tramping through the forest: 'Should the mosque be built there? In the shadows of the towers where Islamic extremists terrorized our country?' 'Should tourists be allowed to bring their pregnant women into the U.S.? Should Mexicans be allowed to do that?' No matter how unsavory or surreal the questions, our free society permits them - encourages them. There's no danger in the questions.

And as we've undressed the issues, we've had bad diagrams drawn and boring scholars expound and unfortunate theories traded. For a visual representation of the mess, picture the last day of a nominating convention when confetti makes its way maniacally up and around a vast arena, with no real direction, no purpose except to excite and distort. It's beautiful and chaotic and overdone. But not dangerous. Right?

Right. We're agreed until we get past the topic, beyond the questions and over the media-induced frenzy. Then we may part company. Because when I see injustice it's not just my moral self that reacts, it is my American self.

As an American I believe it is shameful and embarrassing that nine years after the fact we are still not properly caring for relief workers who rained down upon the disaster site in New York like angels from heaven. I am even more betrayed by the fact that we have not erected any meaningful replacement for the towers, the gape in the landscape serving as daily congratulations to the terrorists who created it. My American sensibility winces with real pain at the failure to remember our unity in the days that followed that disaster so that we could use that unity for strength against any challenge.

But nothing ruins me more as an American than the thought that we might prevent Muslims from building a place of worship and congregation near the site of the 9/11 attacks, simply because terrorists wearing masks of Islam participated in those attacks. Nothing could serve as a more polished symbol of ignorance about our own fundamental ideology than doing that. Except maybe revoking the birth-right citizenship of persons born in the U.S. without regard to parentage.

Traveling so far from our well-reasoned principles to a place where fear and extreme reaction control our policies would be a terrific step backward in the evolution of the American democracy. How? Please take a moment to think about what it means to tell a Muslim, a New Yorker, and a natural-born citizen of the U.S. that his place of worship is offensive or impermissible. Replace Muslim with Jewish. Tell a Jew, born and raised in New York, that his proposed temple near a German-American museum insults the nation. Replace Jewish with black. You get the idea.

And while you're at it tell my grandparents, who entered through Ellis Island and on make-shift boats from Cuba with nothing but hope in their pockets , that their U.S. citizen children, U.S.-born grandchildren and God knows how many American great grandchildren might not deserve citizenship here. Need to check their brownness... er their patriotism... uh, I mean... we'll get back to you on that. In the meantime, just tell your fellow Americans that American ideals work for us but not for them. There's equality under the law for me but not for you. No danger there, right? Wrong.

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

There is frightful danger. The power of democracy is its truth - it's freedom and justice - it's acknowledgement of the self-evident. The danger is the lie - the contraint and corruption - the suppression of the inherent right.

It is a lie that an Islamic cultural center near the 9/11 site insults the nation. The truth is it upholds and uplifts the fundamental ideals of the nation because in the United States who you are is as wanted and respected as who I am. It is a lie that those born here do not deserve the right of citizenship. The truth is, the coming together of my Italian-American mother and my Cuban father to create me here in this unique place on earth is what inherently makes me American. If my dad didn't have his papers in order would I be any less so? No.

I understand the fear that others might perceive us as foolish and weak. We must overcome that fear. Our very existence is proof that, once experienced, freedom, justice and truth have no competition. Terror cannot replace them. Bigotry cannot deny their potency. Fear is no match. The danger of our democracy is not that we might make ourselves vulnerable by offering too much liberty or fairness. The danger is that we may not use the power of our majority to ensure that the truth speaks louder than the lie.

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