(RNS) Pigheadedness is on a roll. At the end of October, we were assured by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that harassing Muslims by parading severed pig heads around a Muslim festival is protected by our constitutional rights to free speech.
Now Donald Trump proposes to forbid all Muslims from entering the U.S. Jerry Fallwell Jr., president of conservative, Christian Liberty University, wants students to carry concealed weapons to protect themselves from Muslims. And just last Sunday (Dec. 6), a severed pig head was hurled from a pickup truck to land at the door of a Philadelphia mosque.
So far, the pig-head hurlers are not claiming First Amendment rights. Playing Frisbee with a pig head with the intention of desecrating a mosque doesn’t obviously fall under our free speech rights. It more likely falls under our vandalism and hate crime laws.
But one thing it certainly does — is feel good.
And Trump and Falwell’s belligerence feel good too, which is why people get a kick out of it.
What’s the kick?
Only small percentages of Americans consider Muslims to be dangerous (29 percent), promoters of violence (26 percent) or spiritually evil (19 percent), according to a recent Lifeway Research study. Fifty-one percent view Muslims living in the United States the same as any other community living here (according to a Reuters-Ipsos poll last week).
But enough Americans to keep Trump the top GOP candidate are sorely looking for what he’s offering. When people grasp at extreme solutions, it means there is a problem.
America is coming off of the worst economic slump since the Depression; millions haven’t really recovered. Even without the 2008 financial crash, the economy is changing in deeply unsettling ways for some. In 2009, Pat Buchanan said of the white working and middle classes: “America was once their country. They sense they are losing it. And they are right.” Middle-class purchasing power has been declining since the 1980s, and millions of people, even with two parents working, see their kids’ lives being tougher than their own (see the Dec. 9 Pew study). Not only a way to make a living but a sense of control over life — a sense that you know how to get around in America and that your home, the US of A, is going to stay your home — all that is unraveling.
Shortly before that, we had a war in Iraq and Afghanistan that we couldn’t win. Before that, a few guys with box cutters blew up our sense of physical security. Now we have wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen that we don’t know how to win. And the wars are coming stateside.
This is daunting. People don’t like feeling daunted. They want to feel effective. America, a young nation without centuries of wars and failures, has an especially hard time of it. With our can-do-ism and prevailing narrative of upward mobility, we want to marshal that rough energy that made the country, throw the bastards out and set things right.
It’s when we don’t know how, when the problems are complex and daunting, that quick fixes have their special lure. The best ones know we’ve been wronged and make us feel right to fight back. Against whom? The best targets are ones that are already a bit illicit, “other” and alien. The usual “usual suspects”: those of different religion, race or sexuality — the Jews, blacks, immigrants, homosexuals. People who aren’t “people like us.” We “sense” they’re trouble. So when we’re told that they are the source of present troubles, it “clicks.” It feels right. Throw the bastards out.
After the 1980s farm foreclosure crisis, millions lost their livelihoods, security and sense of at-homeness. The results included substance, wife and child abuse — and a spike in membership in far-right, white supremacist, nativist groups.
Trouble is, quick fixes don’t solve complex problems. After the high of efficacy subsides, the problems remain as before, tragically pushing people to the next Trumped-up solution promising to set things right. Or worse, aggravating the problems at hand.
Banning Muslims from America or indulging in religious vigilantism won’t address whatever is pushing people to terrorism. But it just might recruit a few more to ISIS’ cause.
(Marcia Pally teaches at New York University and is a regular guest professor at Humboldt University’s theology department in Berlin. Her new book, “Commonwealth and Covenant: Economics, Politics and Theologies of Relationality,” will be out in early 2016.)