Because There Are No Bigots...

Toward the end of this thread I got into an interesting debate with a commenter who resented the notion that those who oppose the Park51 are "either ignorant or bigoted." I try to resist either/or formulations, and surely somewhere there are people who oppose the project for reasons that are neither ignorant nor bigoted. (Property values? Sight-lines?) I haven't heard many of those reasons, but leaving that aside, the notion that those who are against Cordoba House might be motivated by bigotry is generally a call for a defense of the basic decency and wisdom of the American people, a majority of whom, presumably oppose the project.

Here's Howard Dean offering the definitive defense of American earnestness:

I think some of my own folks on my end of the spectrum of the party are demonizing some fairly decent people who are opposed to this. And, again, in no way am I defending, you know, the right wing of the Republican Party. But there are 65 percent of the people in this country are not right-wing bigots. Some of them really have deep emotional feelings about this.

If only because bigotry knows no political wing, it is surely true that 65 percent of this country does not qualify as "right-wing bigots." But the implicit notion that because a majority of Americans oppose the project, bigotry can't be at the heart of that opposition simply does not square with American history or, frankly, human history. One need not reach back to the Trail of Tears, Jim Crow, Black Codes,a segregated military, an unwillingness to prosecute lynching, or red-lining to see public policy animated by mass bigotry. It's been 15 years since DOMA, and not even two since Prop Eight. The current fight over Don't Ask, Don't Tell originates in a compromise with mass bigotry.

The notion that that there are no actual bigots in America is hinted at in Dean's last sentence, that opposition to Park51 comes from "deep emotional feelings," as opposed to a presumably thin and shallow bigotry. In fact, bigotry is often quite substantive and emanates from "deep emotional feelings." The planter in the antebellum South who refused to emancipate his slaves was not committing evil simply because it felt good. He was, in the main, doing it to protect the interest and welfare of his children. In other words, he had "deep emotional feelings" about the fate of his progeny and the nature of their inheritance.
This of course, as they say, explains everything and excuses nothing. Bigotry is insidious precisely because it's acolytes tend not to be serial killers, rapists and child molester. As a kid, I heard the word "faggot" and "chink" used regularly by some of my best friends. That bigotry was in their hearts, really has nothing to do with their relative goodness in other arenas. Given human history, given the justifiable rage in the wake of 9/11, the contention that bigotry would not be at work in the fight over Park51, that America has permanently washed bigotry from its public arena, that the machinations of the opposition are of no import, is vain sorcery.

Americans are not beneficent demigods. It's nice that most of us now favor gays serving in the military, and surely the same will be true of gay marriage in due time. But that favor was won by fighting against an all too-human bigotry. Indeed much of what makes the country great is its willingness to wage war against the bigotry within its own midst, and thus never delude itself into thinking such bigotry to be mythical. That war is long, and results are often not made manifest in the lifetime of its greatest partisans. But the story of this country is a narrative of a nation growing more tolerant, not less. The primary authors of that narrative are people who, in their best hours, refused to delude themselves.

To hate is to be human. Nothing can change that.