I upset some people, I see, with yesterday’s column on Obama’s Sunday night speech, in which I highlighted and defended Obama’s challenge to Muslim Americans to do more to identify and fight radicalism within their community. Citizenship, I wrote, has to be “earned, fought for.”
That “earned” was wrong. I can see that it sounded like I was making some demand of today’s Muslims. I thought I was merely describing a historical reality: that every immigrant group has had to fight for its place in American society. They’ve often had to do so, of course, in the face of really ugly hatred, and I should have said that—uglier, at times, than some of what Muslims in America face today. What Donald Trump said yesterday about ending all Muslim immigration was sick (and desperate, since Ted Cruz now threatens to beat him in Iowa) and is being seen as such by nearly everyone. It’s worth recalling that from 1924 until 1965, with a few exceptions, Trump’s position was essentially the law—an immigration pause was in effect, so we weren’t bringing in new people, Muslim or otherwise, period.
Trump aside, I want to follow up on this in a broader way, because it’s important that contemporary liberalism embrace the idea that citizenship entails rights and responsibilities. We live in an era of rights-based liberalism. That is, ever since the 1960s, probably the leading goal of domestic American liberalism has been the expansion and protection of rights for groups that were previously on the outs.
This has been mostly great, and in fact has produced some of the most admirable moral accomplishments in our history. But the rights revolution has also downplayed the reciprocal responsibilities that come along with rights.
I could quote Jefferson and Madison and the rest of them on this point to beat the band. But let’s just keep it more nuts and bolts. Here is the United States government’s official list of “Citizenship Rights and Responsibilities,” as found on the website of the office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Department of Homeland Security. Rights include freedom of expression, the right to vote, to seek office, and more, and responsibilities include defending the Constitution, respecting laws and the opinions of others, defend the country shoud the need arise, do jury duty, and more.
The website notes of the responsibilities that only some are explicit legal duties, but it asserts that “all are important to ensuring that America remains a free and prosperous nation.”
Now, to the American ear of 2015, that sounds corny, like something from a government-produced World War II film. Or it may even sound pernicious and coercive to some. It may reek of a certain kind of Cold War propaganda that often quite easily and quickly lurched over into “Better Dead Than Red”-style demagoguery and paranoia. So I can now see why what I wrote angered some people.
But I was just trying to say that it's important that liberals make an argument about the duties of citizenship, because if liberals and Democrats don’t define any duties of citizenship, conservatives will.
We’re at a point in history where the American-ness of Muslims is something right and left are going to be arguing about for a long time to come. The hard right, the Trump right, says all Muslims are by definition objects of suspicion and can’t really be Americans. The softer right, represented by Jeb Bush and Lindsey Graham and a few others, rebuts this; but for obvious political reasons, this soft right is only going to be willing to go so far in asserting and defending Muslim Americans’ full rights as citizens.
Liberals and Democrats emphatically should do this. That’s our historic job. But such assertions and defenses have to be made hand-in-hand with discussions about the obligations of citizenship.
So yes, I’d like to see Obama go to a Muslim-American group in Detroit and give a speech saying these things. Obama can emphasize that these principles don’t apply only to Muslims, but to all of us, including those who “earned” their citizenship by accident of birth, and he can say all that in a humane way.
That’s not conservatism. It’s liberalism—if the goal of liberalism is to preserve rights, well, rights are best preserved as part of the kind of social handshake I’m talking about. A Muslim-American community that figures out creative ways to show other Americans that they’re as American as anyone else, so that the point can’t possibly be missed, is a community that’s totally immunized against demagoguery. Slowly, the suspicions will lift, as will the demands that they denounce every act of terrorism between San Bernardino and Nigeria. And it’s the right way to isolate toxic xenophobes like Trump.
UPDATE: I want to add that I apologize for the way I expressed things in yesterday’s column. Some of the things people accused me of on Twitter go against everything I believe and have written for years. But I understand now how some of it sounded, and I am sorry.