As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me—
although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free.
“Theme for English B,” Langston Hughes
“‘[N]ext to of course god america/ i love you,'” opens e.e. cummings’s satirical sonnet about the hollowness of political pandering to love of God, family, country—a staple of stump speeches by both major political parties in the U.S.
The speaker turns to war toward the end:
why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-
iful than these heroic happy dead
who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter
they did not stop to think they died instead
Late in the presidential election cycle of 2016, this poem resonates in a way that should leave every American resolute to defend the ideals we claim are at the core of a free people.
As summer creeps toward fall, we are not just about to elect a president, but are faced with a test; it is pass/fail and there are no re-takes.
The test is the Khan moment, when a grieving Muslim family spoke out at the Democratic National Convention to confront the rising and emboldened bigotry that is personified by Donald Trump but endemic of the Republican Party.
For decades, the Republican playbook has included a wink-wink-nod-nod approach to very thinly veiled courting of racists, sexists, bigots, and homophobes. Trump has now taken that playbook to a new level—with outright Islamophobia and xenophobia at the center.
My son Humayun Khan, an Army captain, died 12 years ago in Iraq. He loved America, where we moved when he was 2 years old. He had volunteered to help his country, signing up for the ROTC at the University of Virginia. This was before the attack of Sept. 11, 2001. He didn’t have to do this, but he wanted to.
Tillman’s and Khan’s service and deaths share being politicized for partisan purposes—adding additional layers of insult to injury.
But both also are about far more than partisan politics; they expose that cummings was right: Political pandering to God, family, and country as well as the public’s cheering for that pandering is ultimately hollow.
Both Republican and Democrat politicians are warmongers, elites willing to fight wars on the backs of the “heroic happy dead.”
The Khan moment, however, raises a blunt question: Which party, which candidate, Trump or Hillary, are racists, sexists, homophobes, Islamophobes, and/or xenophobes supporting?
And there is the damning truth because Trump and the Republican Party are the voices of bigotry.
Many, myself included, believe the war in which Humayun Khan died was yet another senseless war, a waste of human life and valuable national resources.
Many also recognize that the Khan family as well as others scarred by these wars have no political party unsullied by warmongering.
Yet, as a pacifist, I must acknowledge that many marginalized people choose to join, serve, fight, and die in the U.S. military.
Black, brown, gay, female, and Muslim—these soldiers may be guided by higher ideals than the calloused and hollow political leaders waging those wars.
What, then, would these marginalized people be fighting for?
The Khan moment stands before us a test about religious freedom.
A young Muslim man may have seen far more promise for religious freedom in the U.S. than in other countries—until after his sacrifice his parents had to sit by and listen to Trump call for religious intolerance, to watch as a major political party nominated this man in the wake of naked hatred.
Religious freedom for some, but not others, is not religious freedom.
The Khan moment is not about limited government, taxation, crumbling infrastructures, or hundreds of legitimate but ultimately mundane issues about which people can have partisan political disagreements.
The Khan moment is about the Statue of Liberty, the Constitution, and the continuing inability of people in the U.S. to live the ideals instead of simply mouthing them.