Ryan J. Suto's Blog

28 February 2016

Xenophobia Has No Place in America

Posted on Fair Observer.

On January 16, Amine Aouam was battered on the streets of Philadelphia so badly that he regained consciousness in the emergency room. His transgression? Speaking Arabic. Last November, two men were temporarily barred from boarding their flight in Chicago, causing delays and involving airport security. What was their suspicious behavior? Speaking Arabic. In October, Said Othman was stabbed in Brooklyn, and in February 2015, a man was attacked in Dearborn, Michigan. Speaking Arabic was also the provocation in these acts of violence and hate.
This pattern troubles me, as it should trouble all Americans. These attacks are not isolated and cannot be ignored; they are the implicit consequence of the vitriolic rhetoric that has surrounded Islam and Arabs this election season.
These men, along with countless others whose victimization has gone unreported, bear the burden created by the xenophobic and opportunistic rhetoric and policies proffered by many of our public figures.
While neither Arab nor Muslim, I cannot help but feel that my family has been attacked when I read of such ignorant hatred. My late grandmother was born in 1922 to immigrants who, like all who freely came to these shores, arrived in hopes of living a better life.
An oft-told story of Grandma’s involved social rejection from other children at school because her family spoke Polish at home. Facing ostracization, she vowed to no longer speak her parents’ language. While Grandma regretted not passing on her Polish heritage, her commitment to America never waned. She proudly recalled her time working in a factory in central New York as part of the ubiquitous war effort during World War II.
Yet my repulsion from such bigotry goes beyond my family’s past—they feel like attacks against my family’s future, as well. My fiancée is an Arab Muslim, heiress to the same rich cultural tradition of the aforementioned victims in Philadelphia, Chicago, Brooklyn and Dearborn. Like Grandma, she was raised in a bilingual household that welcomed everyone with open arms and open hearts. If we have a son, he might look like Amine or sound like Said. Will I have to worry for his safety, simply for speaking his mother’s language?
This must be the same worry that every Arab parents faces in America today. Xenophobia and ignorance have once denied my family’s access to the benefits of bilingualism. Do not allow it to happen again.
In every area of American triumph, there are the fingerprints of the hard work and unique insights of new Americans. They are grateful for new beginnings and bring with them the experiences and lessons of the lands they left, enriching the lives of us all. Despite this, since before our founding, conflict between newcomers and those already here has, unfortunately, been a tradition on this land.
But if Americans wish to derive pride as a nation built by and composed of immigrants, refugees, pilgrims and slaves, this is unacceptable.
So let us begin a new American tradition. Let us marginalize the bigots who use hatred as a political tool. Xenophobia should not be an effective tool in America. Let us be not only a diverse people, but an open and accepting people as well. Let us celebrate the cultural and religious flexibility that the founding ideals allow, and embrace our differences, not denigrate or diminish them.
Instead of denying Muslim refugees and attacking Arabic speakers, we should show them współczucie, the Polish word for compassion. That is how Grandma, who loved irrespective of race, religion and even sexual orientation, would have wanted it.

The Presidential Race We Deserve

The political discourse of shouting, speaking in platitudes, making vague and nebulous claims, blatant lies, mis-information, and xenophobia has dominated this election cycle. Individually none of this is new in politics, but they are combined and accentuated to create the worst political discourse that I can remember. While it is easy to blame particular candidates, demographics, or industries, the blame for the degradation of our national politics lies with We The People.

First, political campaigns react to nothing more strongly than polls, perception, and donations. No political candidate could afford repetitious lying or unapologetic scapegoating if there were either financial or electoral consequences. Relatedly, the ubiquitously vilified American media are largely, at the bottom line, private corporations which aim to turn profits. Contemporary coverage and narratives are more often driven by our desires than by civic duty. Our clicks and views tell outlets what stories will lead to greater ad revenue and bigger audiences.  

Next, our understandable frustration with our economy, foreign policy, and other issues has turned the American people against anyone with prior political experience. This is an erroneous approach. By analogy, if an airplane crashes due to pilot error, no one would fire the pilots and hire accountants—instead, better pilots would be employed. Likewise, we should not replace our current politicians with surgeons, businessmen, or preachers, but instead with better politicians. Indeed, when a plane crashes, hundreds can die in an instant, but when a country is led by misguided policies, thousands can die in needless violence, hunger, or disease. The aversion of the American people toward those with even a basic understanding of legislation and governance has decreased the political discourse among presidential candidates and will undoubtedly decrease how we are served by our government.

Last, and perhaps most importantly, we have allowed ourselves to under-fund crucial programs in civics and humanities at both primary and secondary levels. By viewing education as merely a means to employment, teaching only performance on standardized tests, and obsessing over science and technology education, we habitually let our children down by ignoring coursework and lessons which instill citizenship. Studying the humanities, for example, has been shown to increase empathy, a trait badly needed in our public discourse about immigrants, refugees, and Muslims. Greater requirements and resources for courses in history, political science, and government would create a more informed, more engaged, and more diverse electorate than we have now. More knowledgeable voters would have a greater ability to discern fanciful promises from practical solutions, and have a greater understanding of the context and contents of our Constitution.

From school funding decisions to clicking sensationalist headlines, and from tolerating xenophobic statements to shunning policy nuance, we have built a political discourse that reflects the worst in us. In this election, our candidates represent how little we collectively think about and pay attention to public policy. In order to change our politics, we must change ourselves. Thomas Jefferson tasked us to do so, famously writing, “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.” It may be too late to change 2016, but by improving our civic knowledge and engagement, we can lay the groundwork for a better 2020 and beyond.