Sunday, November 22, 2015

Strong and Wrong

These days, former President Bill Clinton's famous observation - "When people feel uncertain, they'd rather have somebody that's strong and wrong than somebody who's weak and right” - is getting quoted a lot and deservedly so. Certainly, it seems to fit our current contentious climate, when fear seems to be so widespread in the country and demagogues seem to be doing their best to heighten it further. 

Of course, we have all seen this movie before - notably in the forced internment of Japanese- Americans during World War II, a panicked, xenophobic response to a real, but extremely exaggerated fear following Japan's successful surprise attack at Pearl Harbor. 

When people become frightened, their fears need to be named and acknowledged so that they can be addressed rationally. Unfortunately the opposite has been happening. The Administration does not bear sole responsibility for underestimating ISIS, but it has certainly not projected on an emotional level the sense of urgency in its response that the nation needs. Perhaps that is because it has been burned before. When, for example, Syria famously crossed the President's "Red Line" a few years ago, the Administration's response proved less robust than what, in retrospect, was evidently needed. But significant responsibility must also be borne by those elements that opposed or undercut even that modest level of response. 

But, back to the present, fear - both the legitimate fear of terrorist attack and the illegitimate fear of foreigners and strangers that has been a dark undercurrent to so much of American history - must be addressed rationally. Too few have been doing that, and their voices have been loudly drowned out by the facts-be-damned, shrill and demagogic voices that are dominating the airwaves and so setting the tone for what sadly substitutes in this society for intelligent and mature political debate.

Nor can it be ignored that nativism has long been and remains a particularly vile force in American culture. A nation that has grown great by its openness to generations of immigrants has nonetheless always struggled with a perverse fear of foreigners that has constantly threatened to undermine America's greatness. One thinks, for example, of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the prejudice experienced by Italians and other southern Europeans, the reluctance to admit more Jewish refugees in the 1930s, the Japanese internment during World War II, and of course the current crazy fear of the undocumented immigrants living among us (and doing so much of our work). As I said, we have seen this movie before. But, better than apologizing for such shameful behavior at some later day, it would be far better to recognize the persistence of our nation's nativist dark side - so as to acknowledge it for what it is and rebut it rationally.

Because, in the end, wrong really is no so strong after all!

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