In October 1993, Leon Wieseltier wrote a “Diarist” in The New Republic magazine that I remember to this day. The trigger was his fury over the Clinton administration’s failure to intervene militarily in Bosnia. But his subject was America and Europe. He wrote that:
“There is no such place as ‘the West.’ There is Europe and there is America and they are distinct chapters in the history of decency. Consider the European tradition of nationalist thought. There is no vision of heterogeneity in that tradition, there is only the anxiety (an admirable one) about minorities; but the anxiety about minorities is just a scruple of homogeneity. Its premise is that otherness is still a problem. The distance between the ideal of minority rights and the ideal of a multiethnic society is vast; and it is the distance between the democratic dispensation of Europe and the democratic dispensation of America. If my god was Allah and my skin was brown, I would try the States.
When I read those words I had just arrived at Oxford, where I would spend the next two years. The university was beautiful and I learned much from my professors and fellow students.
But I felt like an outsider every day. Often, I didn’t understand Oxford’s rules. And I sometimes suspected that forthrightly asking what the rules were constituted a violation of them. I didn’t experience anti-Semitism.
What I experienced was the expectation that being Jewish was private, something you don’t flaunt. While I was studying at Oxford, Calvin Trillin wrote a story in The New Yorker about a rebellion in north London against the construction of an eruv. Among the eruv’s most passionate opponents were other Jews. The eruv, one local explained, “threatens their invisibility.”
Over the last two decades, some of that British reticence about publicly expressing your Jewishness has faded. But it made a big impression on me. And as often happens when one lives away from home, my time in the UK made me more self-consciously, patriotically American.
I remember telling an Indian friend who was moving from Britain to the U.S. that she would find America more welcoming. In my country, I said, almost everyone is from somewhere else. The line between insiders and outsiders is fuzzier and easier to cross. Wieseltier’s words had captured my own trans-Atlantic journey, and I was sure they would capture hers.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that time since Britain voted to leave the European Union. Reading about England’s rebellion against immigration reawakened my memories of feeling like an outsider there. And it reminded me of my fervent faith that America was different, better—not only for Jews, but for people with brown skin who prayed to Allah.
It was easier back then: before September 11, before the “War on Terror,” before prominent Republicans began opposing the building of mosques and the admitting of Muslim refugees, before Donald Trump.
Two decades ago I naively believed that it would be far easier to be Muslim in the United States than in Europe because Americans, especially conservative Americans, admire people of every religion who practice their faith.
Two decades ago, I couldn’t imagine an AIPAC crowd cheering a candidate who proposed a religious test for admission to the United States. Two decades ago, many American Muslims still voted Republican.
Still, I think Wieseltier was on to something. What makes America unusual isn’t that we’ve produced Donald Trump. There are Trumps across Europe and one of them, Boris Johnson, now stands a better chance of becoming Britain’s prime minister than Trump stands of becoming America’s president. What makes America unusual is that we’ve produced Barack Obama.
Yes, Sadiq Khan is London’s mayor. But neither Britain nor any of the other European powers have come close to electing a man with African, Asian or Muslim roots to their highest office. Trump is certainly terrifying. But he’s a backlash against an extraordinary leap forward in American national identity that has no parallel across the Atlantic.
Barack Obama is not just an African American president. He’s an African American president who doesn’t shrink from publicly expressing his African American identity. Obama has said that, “if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon” Martin, the young African American shot in Florida in 2012.
He’s sung “Let’s Stay Together” at Harlem’s iconic Apollo Theater and “Amazing Grace” at Mother Emanuel, the African American church in Charleston, South Carolina where a white man murdered nine black parishioners.
Obviously, being black in America is far harder than being Jewish in America. But through his presidency, Obama has reminded me of what I most cherished about the United States while studying at Oxford: The sense that in my country, being publicly accepted didn’t require checking my real self at the door.
To be sure, America has pathologies that Britain does not. We’re more violent, more unequal and money more deeply corrupts our politics. But when it comes to acceptance of the other, I still think the United States has special virtues.
I believe Trump will lose decisively, in large measure because of a massive turnout by Latinos, for whom this election will mark a historic coming of age. And I believe that the men and women who dominate American politics in the years to come will resemble Obama far more than they will resemble Trump.
Is this blind patriotism? I hope not. Because if I’m wrong, I’ll have to admit something I could never have imagined admitting during my Oxford days: that I don’t really know my country at all.
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