I did a lot of driving on December 25, 2015. National Public Radio offered wall-to-wall coverage of a new power narrative. Americans, US taxpayer-funded NPR drilled into its Christmas day listeners, are an ignorant, violent, lynch mob. Muslims are their potential victims. One thing and one thing only might inspire Muslims to become terrorists: Christian Americans saying mean things.
NPR did not attempt to sell this narrative in the old school tones of voice-of-God journalists broadcasting who-what-when-where-why style news accounts. Stentorian newsmen would immediately activate alarms implanted in listeners during their college classes on sticking it to the man, fighting the power, and questioning authority.
Rather, the Muslims-as-victims narrative was entwined into heartwarming stories told by seductively voiced women distributing cookie recipes. It was the unquestioned premise of curl-up-around-the-fire storytelling. It was the relevant unstated undergirding of irrelevant, cardboard-prop “news.” Good propaganda is obvious. Excellent propaganda hides in plain sight, and insinuates itself, like a virus, into every organ, including the heart.
On Christmas day alone, NPR features on the hateful American/Muslim victim theme included the following three broadcasts.
Award-winning author Diana Abu-Jaber has called America “the belly of the beast,” “insular,” and has declared that “America is not the final word.” On NPR Abu-Jaber wove a homespun family tale, accompanied by a recipe, of cookies baked by a bigoted American Catholic shrew and appreciatively consumed by her model Muslim son-in-law. “Gram didn’t approve of her Jordanian son-in-law. She saw him as an interloper. He was this Muslim menace … She would just pick at him and peck [sic] him and … then eventually he’d break down and he’d jump into the fray. ‘You’d probably run around like a bunch of savages waving turkey legs.’ And my father would say ‘Well, actually, the Muslims invented civilization.'”
The NPR storytelling program “The Moth” included Khaled Latif’s “Shattered Silence.” Latif alleged, without evidence, that he has overheard Americans say, “We need to get all the Muslims together, and send them out of the country, because they are all violent, and they are all terrorists.” He also alleged, again without evidence, that an American woman tried to push him down a flight of stairs. “It was a really, really tough situation,” he moaned helplessly. Latif spoke quietly of the incredible courage Muslims must muster to live among violent American bigots. Latif made no reference to any hadith or Koran verse that might cause Americans to look askance at fealty to Koranic commands. Latif’s absence of evidence matters; Muslims have faked hate crimes.
In rural Wyoming, NPR listeners learned, “anti-Muslim rhetoric” from a “Catholic ex-Marine” is terrorizing defenseless Muslims “with deep roots in the area … they’ve been in Wyoming since 1960s” The broadcast’s antagonist, the Catholic, is a fool. He fears a “problem” with Islam that “can’t happen” in Wyoming, according to NPR. The Catholic has stirred up locals who “belittled Muslims and even threatened to throw bacon at the mosque.” We all know how many tragic deaths have resulted when bacon has been used as an anti-architecture projectile. “The rhetoric has gotten so bad, so negative, so harsh.” NPR assured its listeners that there is no significant difference between Islam and other belief systems. “It’s not entirely unlike what I’ve experienced when I’ve gone to church … [the Catholic] has no reason to be nervous … Everyone wants to be peaceful and coincide [sic] with each other.”
In mid-December, 2015, Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai said that it’s “really tragic that you hear these comments which are full of hatred, full of this ideology of being discriminative towards others … The more you speak about Islam and against all Muslims, the more terrorists we create … If your intention is to stop terrorism, do not try to blame the whole population of Muslims for it because it cannot stop terrorism. It will radicalize more terrorists.”
The power narrative is wrong. Jihadis commit violence for the reason jihadis have always given for committing violence. They are following the commands found in the Koran and hadiths.
Further, being the butt of bigotry does not compel anyone to commit violent acts. I know. I am the butt of bigotry far worse than Malala Yousafzai, Diana Abu-Jaber, Imam Khaled Latif, or Aftab Khan have ever faced.
I, and others like me, have been America’s favorite ogre. We were denounced in Congress by powerful scientists who defined us as quite literally subhuman. We were mocked and demonized in high and low culture. We didn’t become terrorists. We put our shoulders to the wheel and we worked to make America great.
My very white, European, Christian mother entered the United States through a loophole. American law declared her racially inferior and unfit for entry to the US.
Let’s talk about the real facts of American immigration. We need to go back in time to 1859. Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species. The book had unintended consequences. E. B. Tylor, the “father of anthropology,” was among many scholars who applied a Darwin-inspired evolutionary paradigm to human cultural differences. Hunter-gatherers were analogous to less evolved species. Margaret Sanger compared Aborigines to chimps. European peasants like my mother were somewhere in the middle of the evolutionary ladder – higher than Aborigines but not fully human. A refined Victorian gentleman occupied the evolutionary pinnacle.
As Social Darwinism reached its height, a new and massive immigration was reaching America’s shores. Eastern and Southern European peasants had relatively recently been freed from serfdom: 1848 in the Austrian Empire and 1861 in the Russian. “Freedom” often meant the lord of the manor expelling serfs from land. America was industrializing. Industrialists invited in this cheap labor.
Before the c. 1880-1924 immigration, almost all white Americans had roots in Northern and Western Europe. Peasant immigrants from countries like Poland and Italy were repellent to Americans. They were dirty, illiterate, and untamed. They were, in still largely Protestant America, Catholic, Orthodox, or Ashkenazi Jewish. They were physically strong and uncomplaining, and undercut American workers’ wages. They solved their problems with alcohol and fists and they frightened people.
Industrialists used them up. Given the inexhaustible supply, they were less valuable than slaves. The largely Irish Catholic Church refused them seats in pews. Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, wanted them sterilized. Both Princeton Professor Carl Brigham, the inventor of what would become the Scholastic Aptitude Test, and Robert Yerkes, professor at Harvard and Yale and founder of the National Primate Research Center, singled out Poles as racially deficient and argued against allowing them into the US. Leaders at the Bronx Zoo and the Museum of Natural History, Henry Fairfield Osborn and Madison Grant, published bestselling and well-reviewed books and articles “proving” immigrants’ racial inferiority. Hitler said that Grant had written his “bible.” Bestselling novelist Kenneth Roberts published numerous anti-immigrant pieces in the popular and influential Saturday Evening Post, famous for its beloved Normal Rockwell covers. A typical passage:
“For the most part they are dirty people, and the stench that rises from them is strong enough to be used as a substitute for gasoline. The workers in the consulate frequently become ill from the odor … [they are] backward, illiterate, dirty, thickheaded peasants … it is no more possible to make Americans out of a great many of them than it is possible to make a racehorse out of a pug dog … These people are inconceivably backward. They wear clothing that seems to have ripened on them for years, and they sleep in wretched hovels with sheep and cows and pigs and poultry scattered among them.”
This quote is a tiny fraction of the avalanche of hate speech that America produced regarding people like my mother. Similar material appeared in virtually every major secular, general interest publication in the US, as well as scientific journals and government publications, including the “liberal” media like the New York Times and The Atlantic Monthly.
In 1924, Congress passed a law to keep Eastern and Southern Europeans out of the US because of their racial inferiority. During the Holocaust, Assistant Secretary of State and FDR friend Breckinridge Long used his power to prevent “all that Slav population of Eastern Europe” from entering the United States. Long denounced them as “entirely unfit to become citizens of this country … they are lawless, scheming, defiant, and in many ways unassimilable.” Even immigrants running from Hitler were denied entry.
Before World War II, the West betrayed my mother’s natal country, Czechoslovakia, at Munich. During the war, America supported the Soviet lie that the Katyn Massacre of 22,000 Polish army officers had been carried out by the Nazis – it wasn’t – it was the work of America’s Soviet ally. Roosevelt personally participated in the suppression of this truth. As the war was ending, at the Yalta Conference, FDR certified Stalin’s domination of Eastern Europe. The Cold War, in my mother’s telling, reached its nadir when Americans used radio to urge Hungarians to rebel, and then stood by watching as Russian tanks mowed them down.
For the first half of the twentieth century, Poles and other Eastern Europeans were officially deemed racially inferior because we were, allegedly, thick, stupid peasants. For the second half of the twentieth century, Slavs were America’s favorite foreign bad guys. We were Rocky and Bullwinkle’s Boris Badenov and Natasha. We were the black-clad spy in Mad magazine’s spy v spy. We were Rosa Klebb, or the Russian Mafia, or Irina Sedova, to James Bond. We were Ivan Drago to Rocky Balboa. We were Stanley Kowalski to Blanch Dubois. We were the enemy puppet master behind North Vietnam, Cuba, and Nicaragua. When kids played war, we had to die.
As American fought the Cold War on the ground and the movie screen, America needed to justify that Poland, the country that fought the Nazis first, last, and hardest was abandoned at Yalta. Denigration worsened in the post-war period. Here’s the first Polak joke I ever heard: “How do you know if your house has been robbed by a Polak? The garbage can is empty and the dog is pregnant.” Kids in schoolyards, Johnny Carson, and the New Yorker could and did tell Polak jokes with impunity. The Polak joke retained the essence of the Social Darwinist racism of the early twentieth century. Not just Poles, but all Eastern European peasants were thuggish brutes.
Through the Marshall Plan, post-Nazi Germany was redeemed and re-embraced into the West. The hostility Americans felt about Nazism was shifted eastward. In recent films and popular press articles, Polish peasants take on the burden of guilt that properly belongs to Nazi Germany. We have become the bad guys in World War II. That we fought the bad guys while Americans were at home watching the war from afar is forgotten, or obscured in jokes about Polish armies – a joke made recently by an American university president.
This isn’t just my story; it isn’t just the Polish story.
The largest mass lynching in American history took place in 1891; the victims were Italians. During World War II, baseball legend Joe Dimaggio’s father’s fishing boat was confiscated. He was born in Italy; that alone marked him as a threat to America’s navy. Frank Sinatra’s father took the name, now both poignant and laughable, of “Marty O’Brien.” Band leader Harry James ordered Sinatra, then young, desperate, and unknown, to change his surname to “Satin.” Sinatra’s “eyes went cold,” an eyewitness reported. He said to James, “You want the singer, take the name,” and walked away.
The American Anthropologist, the flagship journal of its field, published, in 1913, an article stating that “the Jewish nose” may be the result of “excessive sexual indulgence … indignation … disgust, contempt, and disdain, scorn … [or the acknowledgment of] guilt … a snarl, sneer, and defiance … a menacing attitude, with pride … the peculiar position of the Jew for centuries may account for the Jewish nose.” As late as 1986, Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist was asked about restrictive covenants on his property that forbade it being resold to “members of the Hebrew race.”
In the face of this epic bigotry, from every level of society, the c. 1880-1924 immigrants and their descendants did not become terrorists. It’s possible that Sacco and Vanzetti did. Their guilt or innocence is still debated. Leon Czolgosz did, but he was a one-man operation, not part of any trend of Polish-American presidential assassins. Emma Goldman did, and it’s possible that the Haymarket bomber did – but that bomber remains unknown, and he may have been an agent provocateur. The vast majority of us did not become terrorists, nor did we consider terrorism.
We worked hard to prove the naysayers wrong. We joined the armed forces and fought for America, as did my Polish-American father, as had Tadeusz Kosciuszko and Casimir Pulaski long before him.
We founded the Kosciuszko Foundation, the Sons of Italy, the Anti-Defamation League. Poles did everything they could to distance themselves from the brute stereotype, like hosting Chopin recitals and debutante balls.
Jews founded universities like Brandeis and hospitals like Mount Sinai and made essential contributions to that most American of products, Hollywood. Catholics similarly founded universities like Notre Dame and too many grammar schools and hospitals to mention.
On September 12, 1960, John F. Kennedy delivered his famous speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. Kennedy knew the Protestants’ worst suspicions of Catholics, and he addressed those suspicions head-on. “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president how to act.” He never cited Protestant prejudice as a carte blanche for Catholics to be anti-social, never mind violent.
What did I do with my heartache? I wrote a book, Bieganski, analyzing negative stereotypes of Eastern Europeans. In the countless hours I spent researching that book, I read many extravagantly hateful attacks on peasant immigrants like my mother. I read many responses from immigrants. I interviewed dozens of immigrants and their children. I never, not once, encountered a single response from an immigrant or an immigrant offspring saying, paraphrase, “They say mean things about us so let’s become terrorists.”
Rather, the immigrant responses I read were more like this passage from Thomas Bell’s Out of this Furnace. A Slovak steel mill worker says,
“If we were to sing some of our songs and explain what they were about – would it surprise them to learn that we sang about such things and had such feelings? If we told them how we lived in the old country, how we worked the land, the crops we grew, the little money we saw from one year’s end to another, our holidays and festivals – would they realize that even though we spoke different languages we were still men like themselves, with the same troubles, the same hopes and dreams? I hoped that we might learn to respect one another, that we might even become friends.”
One cannot imagine Tashfeen Malik, Syed Farook, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Mohamed Osman Mohamud, Nidal Hasan, Anwar al-Awlaki, or any number of other American jihadis writing a paragraph anything like Bell’s, above. One can’t imagine Linda Sarsour or a CAIR spokesman writing that passage, either.
Why didn’t 1880-1924 immigrants and their offspring turn against America, in spite of all the very real harm that was done to us? Maybe because we come from a religious tradition that states that vengeance is God’s alone. Maybe because of what Alan Dundes called “The future orientation of American culture.” We were determined to build a better future, not wallow in the slights of the past. Maybe because we recognized the truth encapsulated in this quote from Martin Luther King Jr, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Many of my informants told me that their or their ancestors’ suffering inspired them to work to make the world a better place. Maybe it was sheer pragmatism. My father proudly acknowledged Poland’s status as the “Christ of nations,” that repeatedly fought invading hoards from the east and south. But in Poland, my father pointed out, peasants like us could count on a smoke-filled one-room hut, the lord of the manor’s fist, and a bowl of cabbage soup. In America, we could be president. “America is the greatest country in the world,” he insisted. What’s good about America is unique to America and if we devoted our energy to focusing on the bad rather than participating in the good, we’d be cutting off our nose to spite our own face. Even peasants realize that soiling your own nest is the idiot’s choice.
I am on record as opposing anti-Muslim bigotry. NPR-style “Muslims as victims” propaganda, in an absence of a serious discussion of jihad, will exacerbate, not relieve, tensions. In school curricula, in political rhetoric, in journalism and in sermons, it is well past time for honest discussion of jihad.