What America and the world now face isn’t a clash of civilizations. It’s a struggle against our darkest impulses
Cities are contradictions segregated by race and class, the spatial organization of a capitalist order that exploits difference to make a profit; they also foster diverse encounters and solidarities as people work, party, transit and live together. Share public restrooms. Sit in a park. Make eye contact acknowledging how wonderfully and horribly bizarre it is that this person on the bus is having such an embarrassing personal conversation in front of everyone.
Among the 129 reported murdered on a festive night in Paris were people from all corners. Their number included Patricia San Martín Núñez, 61, a Chilean exile who fled Pinochet’s murderous regime, and her French-born daughter. The latter’s five-year old son survived. They were attending a rock concert.
ISIS, in a statement, described Paris as “the capital of prostitution and vice.” They no doubt knew, and perhaps even preferred, that their victims would be many colors and religions, speaking many languages.
Cities are simultaneously the spatial realization of oppression and a bulwark of decency and joy amidst chauvinism and racism; they are a built environment remade each day by commuters, outdoor chess players, carpenters, musicians and bored teenagers. They are the Kurdish proprietor of my neighborhood pizza shop giving me a free pie, made lahmajoon style, after I confided that I thought Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is an autocrat and warmonger.
That is the city that nationalists and bigots want to destroy. That includes the American right wing which, like its European counterparts, quickly found its own use for the innocent blood spilled in Paris.
“President Obama and Hillary Clinton’s idea that we should bring tens of thousands of Syrian Muslim refugees to America: it is nothing less than lunacy,” said Ted Cruz, who has also suggested that the United States stop worrying so much about civilian casualties from air strikes. Refugees, apparently, should remain in Syria, living under the Islamic State or the Assad regime and resigning themselves to slaughter at one hand or another.
Marco Rubio, chiming in, declared that a “clash of civilizations” is at hand.
“There is no middle ground on this.” he said. “Either they win or we win.”
ISIS would no doubt agree. Both envision a world where all Americans are likely imperialists and all Muslims potential terrorists.
This vision cannot make sense of the reality of a world where so many forces and interests are at play. Where the daily lives that people live resist any reduction to skin color, language or religion. Where tens of thousands of Beirutis protest their government’s sectarianism, corruption and ineptitude—a fight that continues even in the face of last week’s suicide bombings, apparently carried out by the Islamic State, targeting Shiites and killing dozens. Or the October bombing of a left-wing, Kurdish-aligned party’s march in Ankara, reportedly carried out by ISIS and killing more than 100—and then exploited by Erdoğan, who has used a crackdown on the very same Kurds to consolidate his power.
The right wing of all sects hate cosmopolitanism and favor chauvinistic homogeneity. That shared hatred of difference, and of each other, is their foundational irony.
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For the right, the Paris attacks did not foster solidarity but rather a macabre gloating: their paranoid creed that refugees and migrants invite death and destruction has supposedly been vindicated. The idea is a Fortress America defended with high walls and lethal air strikes. Keep migrants and refugees out; run sorties without regard for civilian casualties.
Conservative politics is plumbing new depths of hysteria because the world is indeed spinning out of control. The worse things get, the more dangerous right-wing explanations become.
Bitterness is cresting as militants emerge out of destroyed rogue states to simultaneously wage conventional warfare and asymmetric terrorism. Wounded soldiers see the cities they bled to “liberate” fall to ISIS control; they are told, in a tinny post-Vietnam echo, not that they fought for a bad war but that Obama sold them out by withdrawing troops. We’ve been stabbed in the back: domestic traitors open the door to foreign enemies.
Xenophobia is a critical feature of white supremacy in the United States. And white supremacy is at the root of the right-wing explanation of “what is wrong with America.” Most critically, racism is the right’s only explanation for the economic crisis because immigrants must take the blame for low wages—at least if the corporations that shipped jobs overseas and crushed unions are to be spared public opprobrium. This year, the national security threat and the economic peril posed by foreigners has morphed into a singular menace.
America, as Trump says, never wins anymore. That’s true. The question is who to blame. The political fight is over how to explain what’s gone wrong. White supremacy is how the right displaces people’s anger from the wealthy. The only substitute for bigotry and violence is solidarity.
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The most recent development in American white supremacy is the idea that Mexicans no longer just steal American jobs but pose a criminal threat as well. Ever since Kathryn Steinle was allegedly shot dead by an undocumented immigrant in San Francisco, Donald Trump’s profession that Mexicans are rapists and criminals has taken on a veneer of scientific proof.
North Carolina recently passed legislation requiring local police to fully collaborate with immigration authorities so as to speed the deportation of undocumented immigrants. State Representative George Cleveland, a bill author, acknowledged that witnesses to crime could be scared away from contacting police. He doesn’t care.
“If they want to live in a community where bandits can treat them any way they want to be treated because they’re afraid to point out to law enforcement who’s doing it, that’s their problem,” Cleveland, echoing conservative sentiment toward Syrians, toldthe New York Times.
Racism is resilient and adaptable. The Ku Klux Klan was founded in the wake of the Civil War to defeat Reconstruction and reimpose black subjugation. A second iteration of the Klan boomed in the 1920s, attacking foreigners, Catholics and Jews. In France, National Front party, with clear roots in Nazi sympathy, has jettisoned its traditional anti-Semitism in favor of Islamophobia, more palatable to the contemporary European mindset. Today, unrepentant white supremacists in the United States have hailed the nativist turn in domestic politics as a vehicle to advance and mainstream a brazenly racist political agenda. But many conservatives have also flocked to Ben Carson. He is a bigot who by virtue of being black offers them absolution, as Jelani Cobb argues.
“That the party responsible for the Southern strategy, the racist populism of the Reagan era, and the current age of voter suppression can count a black neurosurgeon among its most popular Presidential candidate is in itself a form of vaccination against charges of racism,” Cobb writes.
White racism against black people remains the central feature of American white supremacy but it prevails most forcefully in the structural racism that produces second-class school systems, economic marginalization and mass incarceration. Acknowledged bigotry against black people, however, has become disallowed in the political mainstream thanks to centuries of black struggle.
American racism, however, cannot do without some embodied evil. Mexicans and Arabs fulfill a role that black bodies can no longer so brazenly play in the iconography of American white supremacy. The hatred of Mexicans and Muslims is the permitted public expression of that same white racist order—and legitimates it. Note that Obama is more often called a Kenyan or a Muslim than he is a certain verboten anti-black slur.
The possibility that one of the Paris attackers was a Syrian who hid himself amongst the refugee tide now justifies closing borders in Europe, and in the United States. One Republican governor after another announces that Syrians are not welcome, and demands that cities turn their own police forces against Mexican residents.
That single potential Syrian attacker has received more media attention than the fact that most of the attackers appear to be French. The refugee flow to be worried about is that of ISIS recruits fleeing a second-class life in Europe, who then wreak terror upon an imaginary homeland inhabited by real people who want nothing to do with a fantastical and cruel caliphate.
This is not a clash of civilizations but rather a struggle shared by many against militarism, obscurantism and reaction. The very serious people who insist that irreducible difference must be erased by closed borders and military force refuse to recognize the historical fact that the Mediterranean was a wellspring of cosmopolitanism before European colonialism helped destroy it.
In places like Beirut, “the cohabitation that allowed cultures and languages to flourish beside the quays did not survive the onslaught of nation, race and sect,” Charles Glass wrote in the London Review of Books, describing the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the spread of European empire. “Diversity and simple self-interest were replaced by demagoguery, tribalism and nationalism and islands of diversity and mutual tolerance began to disappear.”
But Beirut is cosmopolitan still, home to Syrian, Palestinian and Armenian refugees and to immigrants from Ethiopia and Sri Lanka, belying the stigmatization of the southern neighborhood targeted by suicided bombers as a “Hezbollah stronghold” and implicit military target.
ISIS and right-wing Westerners seek a similar goal of a world starkly divided between Muslim and Christian. Between us and them. An attack by one side always props up the other, a violent feedback loop that pushes each side away from one another and into fortified camps, stigmatizing diversity and making it dangerous. It’s a war where both opposing sides are constantly winning.
A cosmopolitanism framed not by Benetton ads but based in solidarity, the recognition of common interests, joys and aspirations, is the only alternative. That is the city at its best, whether it be Paris, Beirut or New York. And that’s what the worst among us want to destroy.