If Americans Won’t Talk With Each Other, Then How Do We Expect To Govern Alongside One Another?
Over the past two years, I have been on Fox News and other conservative television outlets over 50 times. I lost count some time ago of exactly how many times I’ve gone on air. I am a peculiar choice for the Right to bring on: a progressive (if practical) Democrat from Maryland who is the son of immigrants, I don’t really share much in common with their base. However, I kept going on. This is in-part because I felt I had a lot to learn about debating from the short video segments which require you to think on your feet. But over time, I came to realize another important reason for me to be on Fox News: if Americans won’t talk with each other, then how do we expect to govern alongside one another?
In 2013, USA Today reported only 1/3 of Americans trusted one another. Social Scientists reported that that was a recipe for disaster—corruption often follows chronic distrust. Moreover, America’s more diverse and younger populations are concentrated on the coasts, near favored ports of entry. High paying jobs also are located in such localities, hollowing out the middle of the country. This has left Americans more stratified and less likely to come across people of different walks of life for a simple cup of coffee at a local diner, let alone for a civil conversation about politics and public policy.
For me, being in close quarters with one’s political adversaries often has the strange effect on building relationships between the most unlikely of friends. My best friend from high school is, inexplicably, a hard-right Republican and the son of Russian immigrants. My best friend from college is also a Republican—with a uniquely vocal commitment to combatting climate change and Donald Trump. She’s the daughter of Ukrainian immigrants. Our raucous debates often end with them needing a drink or two, and a reminder of just how badly political and social pluralism help to salve the wounds of division that today plague our country.
The Muslim Catholic Schoolboy
For me, the appreciation of needed to engage those with whom I disagree came at an early age—when I was barely 10 years old. At that age my parents enrolled me in Catholic School. They themselves had been products of Christian-based learning institutions while growing up, and they felt the moral discipline, high standards and rigor of such an education serve me well. Admittedly, I loved my educational experience: learning European History, studying the Bible, understanding the catechism—as a Sunni Muslim, these lessons imbued me with a sense of respect and deep reverence for the priesthood and religious Catholics. Socially, the experience was searing and yet also meaningful in terms of my education in America. Many of my classmates were privileged young men belonging to the local aristocracy of Catholic Maryland. They were mostly white, blond haired and blue or green eyed—and they were not exactly pleased to have the son of "Saracens” in their midsts. I had never heard of a Saracen before, and had I not consulted an American College dictionary at home, I still would have no idea that word is a pejorative term for Muslims from the medieval era.
The year before I enrolled in Catholic School, an elderly civil rights activist had been my elementary school teacher. Her name was Adele Tootle, and she had taught us about the freedom riders, Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, and the immense suffering and gross intolerance that were the eras of slavery and Jim Crow. It was in that class that I met the first African-American Muslim I ever knew, my friend Khadija. My other friends included an Egyptian girl named Maya, a Ghanian-American named John Samanda, and my best friend, Michael Peitzmier—who was half Hakkan Chinese and half German-American. Mrs. Tootle’s instructive and often passionate teaching style in a classroom that was only about half white, and populated with students from every race and nationality imaginable left me with a deep appreciation for what America was and is: a place where all nations and tribe come to know one another.
A year later in Catholic School that understanding of America had not penetrated our country’s 1%. While our priests and clergy at the school were happy and embracing of their talkative and happy-going pupil, some of my classmates had very different ideas about the notion of “race-mixing” and allowing an “enemy of the Church” into the classroom. While my teachers did their best to deal with bullying and put an end to prejudice as an un-Christian value, bitter sentiments are often hard to wash out when they are dyed in the wool at home.
My experiences at Catholic School changed my life. I felt the need to explain myself, my identity and justify my personhood, only a year after learning of the 400 year history of discrimination against African Americans. In a way, that year felt as if Providence was instructing me in the art and craft of reaching out to those with whom I share the kinship of humanity, but not very much else. Those lessons in helping people see past their first impressions and fears became the bedrock of who I have strived to be: a bridge builder.
The Need for Pluralism
When I was first approached about going on Fox News, I was skeptical that anything could be achieved beyond honing the art of posturing and delivering withering one-liners veiled in tired, dry talking points. I felt it would be a waste of time, and sometimes—like all entertainment, it was exactly that. But slowly, as I spent more and more time with conservatives, independents and Republicans both on and off-air, my opinion changed. I realized the importance of speaking with those with whom I disagree on much beyond the right to free speech.
The need for pluralism—political, religious, social—is a part of the American Dream that we cannot lose sight of. That’s why I go on Fox News.