Sharron Angle, the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Nevada, suggested recently to a group of tea partyers that the U.S. was being taken over by Muslims. Seriously.
She pointed to Dearborn, Mich., and wondered aloud how it could have happened that Sharia law was allowed to take over there. Never mind that, as Dearborn's mayor, Jack O'Reilly, later pointed out, no one was tapping into Islamic law to run the city. (Angle's defense? She said she read "somewhere" that Sharia law was in effect in Dearborn.)
Leaving aside Angle's grasp of facts, her comment is just the latest foray into the dark world of American xenophobia. Mexican immigrants have been demonized along with Muslims in 2010, not to mention the first black president (he's Kenyan, he's Muslim, he's not one of "us").
And these are only the newest in a long, sorry history.
In the past, our politics and rhetoric demonized Catholics and the Irish, the "yellow" hordes, "dirty" Italians and "stupid" Poles. Why does such a successful nation of immigrants engage periodically in mass spasms of intolerance?
One school of thought has it that, despite America's melting-pot mythos, a deep-seated strain of racism and disdain for strangers simply runs through the American character.
Another holds that our ambivalence toward the "other" is tied to economic cycles and flares up in times of great social uncertainty. By that explanation, Islamophobia and anti-immigrant fervor are right on time, a perfect match for the Great Recession.
But there's yet another, bigger, less well explored explanation: The U.S. suffers serious bouts of xenophobia precisely because it is a nation of immigrants.
This argument sees American unity built on a somewhat fragile foundation. Instead of the shared ethnicity, religion and mores that bind together many nation states, we have only the political ideal of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. On top of that, our profoundly heterogeneous society, which creates many good things (explosive creativity, for one), also sparks a perpetual identity crisis, perpetual unease.
Swiss psychoanalyst Arno Gruen has argued that xenophobia and extreme nationalistic fervor in individuals is often compensation for "inner emptiness." It's an observation that seems to fit American unease all too well.
To overcome it, to make ourselves feel better, we "need" enemies, the sense of rootedness and cohesion that crises, and even wars, can bring. (This isn't only an American trait; all nations use their enemies, real and imagined, as rallying points.) Historically, the United States, in part because it's bordered by two vast oceans, has had only a few legitimate exterior enemies. But we freely create them from within.
Sometimes there is a thin thread of pragmatism in our paranoia: the animus toward Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor, the perceived threat of communism and communists, and even the fear of Muslims post-9/11. But as history has proved time and again, any semblence of rationality in these cases gives way to emotion. And our fear and our demagoguery have damaged American principles and law to a far greater degree than our supposed enemies.
Angle may believe what she is propounding. But rather than recognizing real threats, she is tapping into the socio-cultural emptiness that Americans feel obliged to fill from time to time.
In the last few months, we have filled it with the help of the preacher in Florida who invited Americans to come on down and burn Korans. And with the help of Arizonans who applaud a law that forces their neighbors to be ready at all times to prove they are in this country legally. And with the help of too many Americans who cheer them on.
To explain the cultural and even psychological underpinnings of a national tendency is not to excuse it. Periodic flare-ups of xenophobia are no cure for the discontents of diversity or the economy. Manufacturing enemies creates no more than the illusion of cohesion and stability.
In the increasingly globalized 21st century, the U.S. should be able to lead the way in forging a common sense of national purpose despite our differences. We can start by recognizing our insecurities, instead of acting on them.