America is not really a nation of laws. Our statutes govern only the grossest of behavior. The way Americans behave toward each other day-to-day—attitude and etiquette, willingness and wariness, prejudice and tolerance—is governed mostly by our national culture.
Our culture is a set of beliefs, customs and behaviors that won’t be violated by the great majority of citizens, in part because they consider it a matter of right and wrong, and in part because they fear condemnation by society at large.
From the end of the “segregation now…segregation forever” era until the presidential campaign of 2016, the open, unapologetic use of bigotry has been suppressed. But, as you know, that’s no longer the case.
Hate speech is not just ugly, it brings ugly consequences.
Hate crimes have increased for three years in a row.
Hate crimes are overwhelmingly committed by white supremacists.
Heavily-armed White militias are targeting central American refugees.
Anti-Semitic assaults more than doubled in 2018.
Up until mid-2016, those of us in the progressive base generally felt that it was somebody else’s responsibility to push back against hate speech. Throughout the long presidential primary season, surely it was the media’s job to call out Donald Trump, or the task of other candidates in his own party, or the responsibility of Republicans in general.
But that time has long passed. Our society is in the process of making a crucial choice: Will we accept and even reward the open, unapologetic use of hate speech? Will we allow Donald Trump to change our national culture, to make acceptable the unacceptable? Will crude bigotry become mainstream—the new normal? Will we see candidates for every office imitate Trump’s tactics? Will political organizations dedicated to white supremacy be allowed to grow?
Sadly, millions of Americans are joining the ugly throng, for bigotry is never far from the surface of any mass of people. Of course, the malice unleashed is not confined to Mexicans and Muslims, it is being directed at everyone who looks “foreign,” as well as Jewish and African American families whose ancestors have been American far longer than the bigots’.
If we allow our culture to accept crude insults of any group, every other group will later become victims. We will live in a different kind of America, one which has turned its back to our dearest political values: freedom, opportunity and security for all.