Genuine political debate lost in the fog of America’s polarization
There is no doubt that America is a polarized nation, with the two sides of the political spectrum now so far apart they cannot even see each other.
Some argue this all began when Donald Trump entered the race for president, eventually winning the election despite his history of thin-skinned pettiness and name-calling.
But I think it began long before that, when the Republican Newt Gingrich was the speaker of the House and led a drive to “religionize” American politics by embracing Christianity. In reality, he set a new standard in political polarization, although you cannot just blame him for that — you also have to blame President Bill Clinton, whose personal conduct in office had no bounds of shame.
Before we could even sort out all of the hate-driven personal politics at the end of the Gingrich and Clinton years, the US found itself diving head-first into demonization and fearmongering when a radical Osama bin Laden “upped the ante” in terms of anti-Americanism and launched his Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that killed thousands of civilians.
Despite some good programs, Trump cast his own dark shadow over his achievements because he was incapable of turning away from any petty challenge from his critics.
Things just continued to get worse from there and, despite the rhetoric from President Joe Biden that he would change things, they have not changed at all.
Last week, we saw the latest example of America’s “war on civility,” when Lauren Boebert, a Republican congresswoman from Colorado, gave a speech in which she described an encounter in an elevator with Ilhan Omar, a Democratic congresswoman from Minnesota.
Omar is a Muslim of Somali heritage, a naturalized American citizen born in Africa. Naturally, she is a target of the increasing Islamophobia that plagues the US. If you could isolate that Islamophobia from the context of public discourse, we could probably have a discussion about the pros and cons of her political views and policies. But in the America of today, unfortunately we cannot.
Boebert told a laughing and cheering conservative crowd that she got into an elevator with Omar in the Capitol and then saw a police officer running toward her in fear. “I looked to my left and there she is, Ilhan Omar. I said, ‘Well, she doesn’t have a backpack, we should be fine,’” she told the crowd.
Omar was wearing a headscarf. Boebert’s “joke” was an obvious stereotypical slam against Muslims and suicide bombings; a really ugly comment even by the standards of today’s polarized, angry America.
It used to be OK to make those kinds of jokes if you were a comedian on a stage and the audience understood that the performer was making light of serious issues. US and Western entertainment is filled with inappropriate jokes and stereotypical references that helped create comedy legends. In the world of today, however, even well-intentioned humor is often frowned upon because the current environment of anger causes people to look at others in the most offensive context.
Video footage of Boebert’s “joke” went viral, prompting Omar to demand that the Republican Party censure her. Boebert apologized for offending Muslims and contacted Omar, but a telephone conversation that was intended to smooth things over reportedly erupted into more name-calling and criticism from both sides.
The point I am trying to make is that all of this pettiness is distracting us from real issues of substance. Instead of talking about policies and issues, we are talking about personalities.
When people talk about personalities instead of policies, it usually suggests that those making critical comments cannot address the issues with any substance, so they instead resort to name-calling.
It is fair to take on Omar’s policies and political views, but there is no place for racially insensitive humor. Boebert’s bad-taste comment is not only a personal attack against Omar, it is an attack on every Muslim in the US, and even the world, as well as Christian Arabs such as myself, who are often confused for Muslims by the general public.
Omar represents the liberal far left in American politics and is a well-known public figure. Boebert represents the conservative far right in American politics and, until her clash with Omar, was little known outside of her Colorado district.
I know many Arabs and Muslims do not like all of Omar’s views. That is normal. That is politics. But make no mistake, when someone makes fun of someone else because of their Arab heritage or their religious beliefs, it is a slam against everyone who shares that heritage or those beliefs.
It is fair to take on Omar’s policies and political views, but there is no place for racially insensitive humor.
If Boebert had the qualities of a true political neophyte who is pursuing a leadership position, she would simply apologize to Omar, and to Arabs and Muslims in general. Then she could move past it and engage in a more substantive manner, discussing the real issues that separate the two representatives.
But in the polarized America of today, the gap between those on the left and those on the right continues to widen. The island of common sense and sanity in the middle of this polarized US is steadily eroding. The gap has grown so wide it is difficult to really hear, or even understand, what the other is saying.
We need to tone down the animosity if we intend to overcome the real challenges that are facing our world — and there are so many real challenges that we should be addressing.
- Ray Hanania is an award-winning former Chicago City Hall political reporter and columnist. He can be reached through his personal website at www.Hanania.com. Twitter: @RayHanania