MUSLIMS ENTER AMERICAN POLITICS
- 10 Nov - 16 Nov, 2018
October was a difficult month for me and my wife. None of what we’ve had to deal with is out of the ordinary in the grand scheme of things – health challenges, worries and changes concerning our elderly parents. But in the short term, all of it added together has been pretty exhausting and has distracted us from our jobs, from the routine chores of maintaining our household, and from political and other events going on in the outside world.
Being forced to focus narrowly on your own private concerns can disconnect you from society in ways that are unhealthy. But I’m finding that, in these particular times, it can also offer perspective and refreshment, by serving as a corrective to the compulsion to pay daily attention to the out-of-control avalanche of horrific developments that passes for American public life. Any of us who were raised, in calmer times, to take an engaged interest in our communities and wider society find ourselves flummoxed by not only the unhinged and malign inanity of the President of the United States himself, but by what should be, by now, the unavoidably obvious fact that the national regime he heads is committing aggressive and intentional administrative and rhetorical warfare not only on the structures of government but on the very idea that politics, per se, is a legitimate thing in America.
With the forcible appointment of Brett Kavanaugh, they have effectively weaponized the Supreme Court – and, as the right-wing ideologue Newt Gingrich has now admitted, that will pay dividends for Trump if and when the Democratic Party gains control of the House of Representatives following the November 6 elections and tries to subpoena his tax returns. Such a legal challenge to Trump, Gingrich said at a Washington Post live event on October 26, would likely reach the Supreme Court, and then “we’ll see if the Kavanaugh fight was worth it.” There were audible gasps in the audience after he said that, but nothing is shocking or surprising anymore. I gasp anew every day. That the Kavanaugh appointment severely undermined the Supreme Court’s very institutional credibility matters not a whit to the American right. For them, it’s all about “winning” as they define that term. And if the rest of us – most Americans, that is – lose, so much the better.
Meanwhile there is, as I write this eleven days before the high-stakes congressional elections, the very open question of whether the elections themselves will have clear and uncontested results. I know that this sort of confusion and recrimination is common in Pakistan and many other countries worldwide, but the brazenness with which a faction is attempting a thoroughgoing takeover (or dismantling) of all national institutions is something most Americans now alive have never witnessed or experienced, or imagined possible in this country.
The alert essayist Rebecca Solnit claims – correctly, I believe – that “this administration has been in effect a slow-motion coup” and adds: “Some fear that the administration will suddenly seize power and declare an unchecked authoritarian regime; others note that this has been happening gradually. Two factors countering the attempt are the chaotic incompetence of the Trump administration and the watchful outrage of the general public. A third might be the revulsion of longtime government employees in many sectors, from the military to the intelligence community to the scientists and administrators across the nation.”
Seattle – ‘New York alki’
Complicating all of the above is the uneasy sense that America’s death spiral is somehow happening somewhere offstage from where I’m situated. This sense arises partly from my recent personal distractions, and partly from the fact that the city of Seattle, where I live, is in the far northwestern corner of the continental United States, 3000 miles from New York and Washington, DC. Not long after moving here from London in 2006, I made a short trip to New York as an invited panelist at an event discussing Pakistan. A woman I found myself chatting with asked me where I lived. Generally I find, when I’m on the East Coast, that when I tell people I live in Seattle their eyes glaze over, or they take an awkward moment to try to find something polite or relevant to say. If they’ve visited here they might murmur something about rain or scenery or coffee, but Seattle exists at the far periphery of their world. What this particular woman said was, “I could never live there. It’s too far away.”
I suppose that’s true – if your vantage is New York. If you live in Seattle itself, it’s right in the thick of things, especially these days. It may be instructive to note that the moniker jauntily given in 1851 to the first white settlement in what became the latterly booming city of Seattle was New York Alki. In the Chinook Jargon that functioned as a lingua franca in this region at that time, the word “alki” meant “by and by” or “eventually.” Given all that’s going on in Seattle now, the settlers’ cocky optimism was prophetic.
Seattle is only one example of an American city that is not New York or Washington but where, even so, many intelligent people are reading, writing, and otherwise paying attention to all that’s going on in the world, as well as trying to get on with their private lives amid all the hysteria and looming danger of a large country in the early stages of a state of collapse. But it’s a striking one because Seattle is booming and growing so very robustly right now.
This perspective was brought home to me one day recently, when I rode a commuter ferry back to Seattle from the nearby city of Bremerton, after a couple of days near there dealing with family issues. The ferry takes a full hour. It was dusk, and the shores were lined with forests. The majestic cone of the great volcano Mount Rainier was visible through clouds. And the ferry rounded a point of land, the impressive Seattle skyline came into view, and I felt I was coming home. •