Over the first couple years of the Obama administration, every little movement away from the conservative movement ideal has been met with howls from the right. "Socialism!" "Destroying the country!" "UnAmerican!" This isn't entirely a new phenomenon. During the Bush administration, liberals were wont to lament that they should move to Canada, that Bush was the worst thing to ever happen to America, etc. (Full disclosure: I wasn't immune to this impulse. "The End of the World As We Know It" got heavy play from me in November 2004.)
As Eugene Robinson pointed out in a characteristically excellent column this week, conservatives have made a habit out of playing the victim since the election of Barack Obama. Everything that happens is a step towards the destruction of the country. The Democrats will end up turning America into a third-world socialist hellhole. Or something.
This kind of hysteria and defeatism has culminated in the inane, asinine, stupid, and depressing argument over the Cordoba Initiative (or Park51 or "Ground Zero Mosque" if you must). How is it that we freak out over the possibility of Muslims in New York City? In a country founded on immigration, how did it become acceptable to discriminate against an ethnic or religious group? I grew up being told that part of what made my country great was the way we acted as a melting pot of cultures the world over. Indeed, America has a much better record on immigrant assimilation than similarly wealthy countries in Western Europe. When did that end?
There's always been a xenophobic fringe in this country. But the impressive part is that it was always a fringe. In France, Jean-Marie Le Pen, of the xenophobic National Front party actually made it into the runoff against eventual winner Jacques Chirac in 2002. Thankfully, our resident xenophobes like Lou Dobbs or Pat Buchanan have never had that sort of mainstream success. If it were just some fringe groups behind this controversy, it would be unfortunate, but understandable. The depressing thing is just how deep into our mainstream it has gotten. Conservatives of every stripe have come out in opposition to the building of the community center with varying degrees of vitriol. Democrats have cowered and either ducked the question or tried to sit on the fence by affirming their right to build but not the wisdom of doing so. It's left to the chattering class (mostly, though not exclusively, on the left) to loudly embrace the principles that this country was founded on.
This brings me to the point of this post. When did America become so fragile? We survived a revolution against the British Empire, the burning of the capital in the war of 1812, a civil war, two world wars, Korea, Vietnam, the assassination of several presidents, and the 9/11 attacks. Through all that, we've survived and thrived. But now universal health care and a Muslim community center will tear the union apart? I'm sorry, I don't buy it.
Is it possible to have legitimate policy disputes without them turning into debates on the very nature of the country? I'm fairly certain that enacting near-universal health care will not destroy the country. Just as I am pretty sure that failure to enact it will not destroy us either. Demagoguery and screaming makes for "good" television, revs up the base and can even make for "good" politics. But it's not necessary. We can have a debate in this country that doesn't come down to a zero sum of "this will catapult the country to success and that will make us Greece." We're a stronger country than that. We can withstand all manner of threats. And the successful assimilation of minorities isn't even a threat, it's an integral part of this country's history.
We're stronger than this. Let's stop acting like we're not.