Robert Azzi: Challenge the ignorance

  • House Speaker Paul Ryan (right) administers the House oath of office to Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican, during a mock swearing-in ceremony on Capitol Hill in Washington on Jan. 3. AP

For the Monitor
Monday, March 20, 2017

Recently, a talk show host in Iowa, Jan Mickelson, asked Congressman Steve King: “If we don’t raise godly children to take our place . . . that vacuum will be filled by whatever washes up on our shore and makes a claim on our territory. Civilization has to be on purpose. Isn’t that correct, Congressman King?”

“It has to be on purpose,” King – an unrepentant racist who keeps a confederate flag on his desk – responded, “and I would recommend a book to your listeners, and the title of it is The Camp of the Saints.”

Jean Raspail’s The Camp of the Saints – which derives its title from Book of Revelation 20 – is a rabidly racist 1970s novel in which the sentiments of the author are expressed thusly: “I’ve always led a rather quiet life . . . (Yet) I’m sure I would have shown a certain zeal in poking my blade through Arab flesh . . . what a horde of Turks I would have cut down. . . . Like the War Between the States, when my side is defeated and I join the Klu Klux Klan to murder myself some blacks. . . . Perhaps I’ve done my bit, killing a pinch of Oriental at the Berlin gates. A dash of Vietcong here, of Mau Mau there. A touch of Algerian rebel to boot. At worst, some leftist or other, finished off in a police van, or some vicious Black Panther.”

What kind of person recommends this kind of book? What have we become? Where is the outrage that King – and Steve Bannon – hold this book in such high esteem?

That they believe, as King states, that “culture and demographics are our destiny,” and that “we can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.”

When Raspail rails against “a million poor wretches armed only with their weakness and their numbers,” I hear echoes too of President Donald Trump advancing his racist Muslim ban and building a wall, and I hear State Rep. Ken Weyler of Kingston saying, “Giving public benefits to any person or family that practices Islam is aiding and abetting the enemy. That is treason.”

I hear not only Raspail, King and Weyler but I hear Trump advisers Bannon, Steve Miller, Sebastian Gorka and Michael Anton, all of whom seem to share sentiments that the immigration of non-white people corrupts America.

I hear Trump appointee to the U.S. Department of Energy Sid Bowdidge’s (from Bedford) comments on Twitter that President Barack Obama wasn’t using the term “radical Islam” because “they’re his relatives” and who called the San Bernardino shooters, “Scum sucking maggots of the world. Exterminate them all.”

Thankfully, Bowdidge has been fired.

When I hear, in the community where I live, the voices of such small-minded politicians living in such fear that their white privileged world is being challenged by citizens demanding standing, dignity, respect and equal opportunity in the Public Square, I wonder where we’ve all gone wrong – whether there is more I could do, could have done.

What, I ask today, have we as a nation or as a state done, how have we sinned, to bring such hateful ignorance into our company, corrupting our discourse and scarring our children’s futures?

How does the America that embraced generations of immigrants embrace people like Bannon and King.

I share these Raspail quotes so you don’t have to read them, so you don’t have to confront and imagine, as you turn the page, which of your neighbors embrace such sentiments – to read as you are looking over your shoulder. Neighbors who live in such ignorant fear of the Other that they forget that they too were once strangers in a foreign land.

Today, I want to say that if you voted for, support, contribute to, or stand in silence alongside people who espouse such bigotry and hatred then you’re one of them – you are Steve King, you are Jean Raspail – and I believe each of you complicit in attempting to delegitimize, disenfranchise and exclude Americans not like you from the Public Square.

America is not a world unto itself – white, sterile, homogenous.

America is part of a world increasingly filled with billions of poor people overwhelmed by misery – a world where America acts, economically, militarily, politically, with near impunity with little regard for the consequences.

Too often America acts out of ignorance.

Challenge the ignorance: Instead of House Speaker Paul Ryan’s beloved Atlas Shrugged and Bannon’s oft-referenced The Camp of the Saints, read the literature of the peoples themselves. Be suspect of anyone who claims that only they know the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth and be wary of those who can’t recognize nuance, are ignorant of allegory and fearful of metaphor.

Be open to embracing the beauty and varieties of human experience and truth will emerge.

Today, I’m reminded, as I witness hate and venom spilling into our public spaces, of the words Georgetown University’s Father Thomas Reese directed to Congressman Ryan in 2012: “Survival of the fittest may be okay for Social Darwinists but not for followers of the gospel of compassion and love.”

I know that there’s a hard-core of people whose minds will not be changed, who eyes will not be opened, whose hearts remain untouched.

I know, too, that there are those who struggle to discern the differences between sacred and profane, between light and darkness, who struggle to read the signs of grace, mercy and forgiveness that fill the hearts of most of humanity.

Yet, I know, as certain I breathe, pray, speak, that I believe that whoever is hungry let him come and eat. Whoever is shackled let her be free.

That whoever truly believes in compassion, love, justice and dignity believes in that for all of humanity.

(Robert Azzi is a photographer and writer who lives in Exeter. He can be reached at theother.azzi@gmail.com and his columns are archived at theotherazzi.wordpress.com.)