In 1979 I was the victim of a vicious hate crime. Two 11-year-olds from my fifth-grade class (I was 9) shoved me into a smelly 30-gallon trashcan, face first, and called me "sand nigger" repeatedly while they spat their snot on my face and body. As I cried in humiliation and waited for the nightmare to end, I thought to myself, "These jerks don't know the difference between an Indian and an Iranian. Wow, they are really dumb." Bigotry is stupid, but it's also incredibly dangerous. Thirty-six years later, at the dawn of a historic peace accord with the same Iran, bigotry remains a violent and corrosive force in America.
In a recent spectacle, the narrow-minded owner of a small-town pizza place became a millionaire by spouting her hate for gays on the local news. Predictably, she was instantly canonized by the right-wing media (and politicians) just like Cliven Bundy, Willie Robertson and so many other bigots before her. But the hyperpartisan hate media are not the cause of our decay; they are merely parasites profitably feasting on increasing intolerance for their own financial gain.
After all, thousands of Americans -- not the media -- made this bigoted woman a millionaire overnight. Those people and the millions like them represent the most violent force tearing at the fabric of American society: the increasingly large swath of Americans who openly and boldly celebrate their bigotry, racism and sexism. Eager to champion anyone who speaks out against gays, blacks, women, Hispanics and especially Muslims, these people will point guns at federal officers, write checks to bigoted restaurant owners and vote in extremist politicians who in turn vote for heinous hate legislation like the kind we saw in Indiana.
We all know Indiana's law had nothing to do with religious freedom. Among our most cherished principles is the notion that your right to freely swing your arms stops at my face. If there is a "war on Christianity" here at home, then it is being waged by none other than those Americans, claiming to be Christians, who are corrupting the Bible's true meaning of love and acceptance to proliferate hate and intolerance. The American right has replaced Christianity with bigotry. I keep waiting for the vast majority of real Christian Americans who are peace-loving and open-minded to stand up and reclaim their great religion from the kooks.
In the meantime, the real "war" is not on Christianity but by those "Christians" who impose their views on the rest of us. More than three decades after my encounter with two bullies, my school-age nieces are forced to either bring Easter baskets to their taxpayer-funded public school or sit out and be ostracized as different. Meanwhile, all through the South, so-called "patriots" wave a flag representing the only force to wage war on American soil in the last 150 years of our history. Ironically, that war was fought to defeat the same bigotry we are battling today.
While climate change is an existential threat to all humankind, the greatest threat to peace at home is in our own backyard. Extremism is bad in any form, but it's particularly nefarious when hate is cloaked in the guise of patriotism, or when bigotry is wrapped in the blanket of religion. When the nuclear accord with Iran was announced, Iranians took to the street in celebration. When Indiana's gay-bashing law was announced, American business rose up with impressive speed to force a change back to equality.
Virtually all people everywhere want peace and prosperity -- except those thinly veiled extremists who want an America that's completely counter to our founding principles, one in which their birth status as white Americans anoints them to some special place in the universe. For them, compromise and acceptance are irrelevant, evolution and progress are unnecessary, and a changing society is anathema to a great country. For them, America's best days are behind us. They are the ones pushing for a war with Iran that should only last "several days."
Thankfully, for most of us, America's best future is ahead. It's one filled with increasing equality and openness and greater opportunity for all. In America we become the country we want to be, and the only way to get to that better place is to keep shouting down the voices of extremism, in whatever form they appear, with our hearts and minds, with our wallets and votes and with our unrelenting voices saying America is and has always been a place where "all men [humans] are created equal." As a parent and as a person, I sure hope we get there soon, because somewhere in America, a 9-year-old boy is walking home from school right now.