This week marks the 40th anniversary of Sesame Street, a cultural icon of public television. The significance of this milestone is evident with the appearance of our first lady, Michelle Obama, on the legendary show. As we celebrate the 40th anniversary of Sesame Street, I am reminded of the nostalgic time of my youth when this type of television programming contributed to the lives of Americans. I grew up in the neighborhoods of Chicago, attended public schools with African-Americans, and those of European, Asian, and Hispanic descent. I remember my parents attending neighborhood potlucks where we met Koreans and Puerto Ricans for the first time. To us, the America of those days was a true cultural melting pot.
To me and many others, Sesame Street made total sense; it reminded us of the diversity of our social environment. But it also brought home the importance of a multicultural society in America. It showed how people with names like Morgan, Maria, Jose, Felix, Ernie, Oscar, and even Big Bird can live on the same street and love one another, despite their racial and cultural differences. Sesame Street also introduced me to some legendary musicians such as Stevie Wonder, who even performed his enduring classic "Superstition" on the show. No doubt the virtues of diversity, multiculturalism, tolerance, the arts, and brotherly love mark the highlights of Sesame Street.
Unfortunately, these same virtues are once again coming under attack by an untamed radicalism disguised as conservative patriotism. The tragic murders of military personnel at Ft. Hood by an American Muslim have given fodder to the most pathetic elements of xenophobic and provincial nationalism not seen in years. Most surprisingly, the restraint and reasonable response of military leaders such as General Casey, President Obama, other political leaders, as well as most mainstream media, is being rejected in the deep caverns of conservative talk radio, radical Christian commentary, and of course unhinged Fox News, as a cover-up, and liberal "political correctness" gone mad. Even mainstream pundits are joining the mobbing of a religion and its faithful. Their main charge: the liberal establishment is failing to recognize and admit that Islam is to blame for what occurred at Ft. Hood last week.
I will not insult the readers of this post by dignifying the ridiculous claim that a religion can cause murder or even save a life. The last time I checked, the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, the Quran, and the Vedas have never committed homicide or suicide. To the contrary, only adherents of a particular faith engage in acts of violence or benevolence. So, let us dispense with the childish game of which religion or scripture is better or worse, and prone to more violence.
Moreover, it is willful amnesia and a contradiction of recent history to chronically refer to Muslim violence despite the recent invasions of Muslim nations including Bush's misguided and immoral invasion and occupation of Iraq with the official Iraqi civilian death toll now at 85,000 and with other credible estimates as high as 655,000. Let us not forget the genocide of 800,000 people in Rwanda where over 90% of the population is Christian, the attempted genocide against Bosnian Muslims at the hands of Orthodox Serbs, and the massacre of over 2,000 Muslims by Hindu militants in India in 2002. Therefore, the assertion that Muslims are more predisposed to violence than other people of faith is logically absurd, and historically fallacious.
Indeed, it is far too juvenile to paint the events at Ft. Hood into a framework of "us versus them", "good and evil", "You're either with us or against us." As noted Christian author James Allison writes:
"cheap meaning is always derived by positioning oneself over against some "other" considered to be wicked. Cheap meaning makes life apparently exciting in the short term; it seems to give a purpose, but in fact it is a mirage, an illusion. There is nothing that can ultimately substitute for the long, slow, patient task of being brought into being as a human."
An addiction to cheap meanings such as the Manichean explanations of human behavior for violence is illusory and fails to account for the complexity of human conduct. In other words, the inherent right-wing tendency to look for simple and bigoted explanations for human behavior extraneous to European and Christian civilization is fatal to the search for truth and knowledge.
Recall that within weeks of the terrible events of 9/11, right-wing and conservative organizations and websites were infesting the American landscape with an effort to scapegoat those they deemed responsible. Their targets were not only Islam, but also liberal ideology, which they sought to eradicate from the academy, politics, and the media. Their apparent strategy was to uncover the liberal biases in "left wing" colleges and universities, and to take Hollywood and the liberal media to task for its weak moral foundation, and their perceived tolerance of terrorists.
Back then, I found it strange that this rabid ideology was attacking the civic virtues of multiculturalism, tolerance, patience, and critical higher education in the context of terrorism. Despite the well-established fact that al-Qaida attacked the United States because of its grievances against the U.S. for its intervention in the Middle East and support for Israel, and not due to jealousy or hate of freedom, or tolerance, patience, multiculturalism, civil rights, or political correctness, right-wing ideologues speciously pinned the blame on liberalism and Islam. After the national shock of Sept. 11, it was manifestly obvious that these ideological militants were exploiting the outrage and grief suffered by this nation by making incongruous links which were largely imaginative, but politically motivated.
After the historical debacle of the US invasion of Iraq, the Democratic victories of 2006 and 2008, and the historic election of Barack Obama, many neo-conservatives and right wing lunatics had gone dormant. But now, they have once again been swiftly unleashed by the criminal events at Ft. Hood, Texas last week.
The present day right wingers, aided and abetted by the conservative media and Republican politicians, are using the tragic deaths of our soldiers and the suffering of their families to further poison their political base with a toxic brew of religious bigotry, cultural fears, anger, and revenge, cultivating a false sense of patriotism, and taking aim at the liberal world for being too soft on the real culprits. These are the same folks who have questioned President Obama's citizenship, used bullying and thuggish tactics at political rallies against Healthcare Reform this summer, accused this country of becoming socialist, and continuously pressed for adventurous militarism with tax- payer dollars at a time of economic distress.
One would hope that the Sesame Street themes of tolerance, withholding judgment, brotherhood and neighborliness would be welcomed by patriotic Americans of all backgrounds. Yet, these are the very same virtues that are now being attacked and threatened by the increasing right-wing militancy in the United States. Liberals, progressives, moderates and sane conservatives must not allow these fanatical folks to set the political agenda and to further misguide well-intentioned Americans back into the shameful experiences of Jim Crow segregation, Japanese internment camps, or of the 2002 pogroms in India, and genocide in the Balkans in the 1990s.
Prudence, patience, moderation should be maintained while the investigation of the Ft. Hood murders is completed by law enforcement officials, not Sean Hannity or Michelle Malkin. The investigation may lead to the suspect's ideological views, religious influences, or his lack of mental capacity. But no matter the outcome, we should not permit right-wing hooliganism, whether it stems from the media, the halls of Congress, or from extremist pulpits, to dictate how we view tragedies and interpret human beings with cultures and religions separate from our own. We all need to be reminded periodically of the civic virtues from Sesame Street.