I finished my morning work a little early Thursday, and thought I would spend the 15 minutes before lunch curled up with A Colorful History of Popular Delusions, by Robert E. Bartholomew and Peter Hassall. Prometheus Books published it in October and a Canadian friend was kind enough to send to me, thinking I would like it, which I do.
I had barely begun reading when I came upon this paragraph, in a section about rumor. The authors are discussing assimilation, which they define as "the tendency for people to shape the emerging rumor in such a way that it is sharpened as a reflection of social and cultural stereotypes."
The paragraph is a bit long, but bear with me, because I want to see if it sparks in your mind the same thought it sparked in mine:
A classic example of assimilation took place in the hours and days following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, as rumors questioning the loyalty of Japanese-Americans spread quickly across the Hawaiian Islands. Such fears, while unfounded, had long been the subject of concern on the Islands, as 160,000 Hawaiians had Japanese ancestry. [Sociologist Tamotsu] Shibuttani recounts some of the rumors, which included claims that a ring from a local high school (McKinley High) "was found on the body of a Japanese flier shot down over Honolulu; the water supply had been poisoned by the local Japanese; Japanese plantation workers had cut arrows pointing to Pearl Harbor in the cane field of Oahu; the local Japanese had been notified of the attack by an advertisement in a Honolulu newspaper on December 6; ... automobiles driven by local Japanese blocked the roads from Honolulu to Pearl Harbor; Japanese residents waved their kimonos at the pilots and signaled to them [and[ some local men were dressed in Japanese Army uniforms during the attack." Despite failing to be verified, these stories continued to persist long after the attack, especially in the mainland press. When a rumor persisted that the Pacific fleet had been destroyed in the attack, and continued to circulate across the US mainland for several months, President Franklin D. Roosevelt felt the need to give a national radio address to dispel the claims and restore public confidence.Did you read that and think: "Donald Trump"? I sure did.
Propagating the rumor that Muslims in Garden City, New Jersey, celebrated the Sept. 11 attacks, breathing new life into the calumny, sticking to the ugly lie even after it was shown there is no hint of evidence behind it.
FDR took pains to correct the false story about the Pacific fleet, knowing that such rumors stoke fears and undercut morale. Trump does the opposite, because his presidential run is a candidacy based on fear. It doesn't matter to him that alienating American Muslims is exactly what ISIS wants, that it hurts our security rather than helps it. Trump perpetrates the falsehood because he needs such stories to justify his plan to bar Muslims and harass mosques, to justify his entire candidacy. Only terrified supporters could have brought him this far. Fear is the fuel Trump runs on.
Of all the wild and damaging statements Trump has made, I think disseminating the fabrication about Garden State Muslims is the most obscene, anti-American and immoral, not just because it is a patently-false racist slur, one he clings to even after its falsity is established. But also because it undercuts our political environment's already tenuous grasp on fact. Trump establishes himself as as man who does not care what the reality is, and his success inspires imitation and warps democracy. His strategy is the bedrock of fascism. Forget facts. You are what we say you are.
The Pearl Harbor rumor is important to remember because it shows the perverse genius of hatred, its creativity in manufacturing libels to pin on victims and justify their oppression. It's so varied: the class ring. The kimonos. The arrows cut in sugar cane fields. We've seen similar wild imaginings repeated a dozen different ways around Sept. 11.
I've been called upon, from time to time, to justify my support of Muslims, and I have a solid response: This is America. In America, we don't judge people by their religions, nor condemn them for the real acts—never mind the imagined ones—of their co-religionists. Period.
There's one more rationale. Occasionally someone will point out that Muslims in other countries and even in the United States, often have dim views on Israel, or Jews, and I don't deny that. I reply that I am not treating them according to their standards of morality, but according to mine. Pointing out what they do or think in Saudi Arabia has no bearing on what we think or do. Of course descending to the level of others is always tempting. Their behavior is seen as a kind of permission. This is nothing new. There have always been a species of false patriots, like Donald Trump, ready to try to protect America's greatness by abandoning the practices that make us great. Not realizing that it is in the face of danger that we must cling even tighter to the things in which we believe. I would be more concerned if I weren't also convinced, in my heart, that Trump will fail, eventually. He has to. His kind always does. If they didn't fail, we'd have never made it to this day.