Martin Luther King liked to say, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Sometimes, though, it seems the bend gets a bit of a kink in it.
Or, perhaps, the moral universe is a bit like Sisyphus and his rock: It expands, only to retreat in the face of bigotry, a process repeated over and over.
Consider the news of the last week or two.
Item: President Obama plans to correct an historical act of discrimination by awarding the Medal of Honor to two dozen Hispanic, Jewish, and African-American veterans previously denied a medal because of racial or ethnic origins. The review of the combat history of the veterans who served in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam began twelve years ago, before Obama became president. But he has made correcting historic racial and religious wrongs — as well as ending the ban on gays and lesbians in the military — part of his tenure as commander in chief.
Item: Gay marriage, the latest frontier in the expansion of civil and human rights that marks the history of the United States, is now legal in 17 states and the District of Columbia. In Utah, Oklahoma, and Virginia, federal courts have declared state bans of gay marriage unconstitutional, but those decisions are now under appeal.
Item: A gay athlete played Sunday night for the Brooklyn Nets, the first openly gay player in a major American sport. Another openly gay athlete plans to enter the NFL draft.
So far, so good.
But then the following ugliness appears via the ravings of former rocker Ted Nugent: “I have obviously failed to galvanize and prod, if not shame, enough Americans to be ever vigilant not to let a Chicago communist-raised, communist-educated, communist-nurtured subhuman mongrel like the Acorn community organizer gangster Barack Hussein Obama to weasel his way into the top office of authority in the United States.”
There’s much in Nugent’s rant that is abhorrent. But of particular note is the phrase “subhuman mongrel,” the kind of wording the Nazis used to justify and encourage genocide against Jews. The Nazis referred to Jews as “untermensch,” or subhuman, and “mischling,” or mongrel. Jews as “untermensch mischling” was a fixture of Nazi propaganda.
“Mongrel” is Nugent’s way of referring to the mixed-race heritage of our twice-elected president; it is also a perforative reference to every American whose ancestors came from different backgrounds (that’s many Americans, by the way).
It would be easy to dismiss Nugent for the vulgarian he is. But that would ignore the resonance of his remarks among certain far-right elements of the Republican Party. No doubt fear of angering these elements influenced Greg Abbott, the Texas attorney general and a gubernatorial candidate, to campaign with Nugent and to refuse to condemn his hate speech. The current governor of Texas, Rick Perry, chimed in with, “That’s just Ted.”
The national uproar finally forced Perry to condemn Nugent’s comments and Abbot to lamely add that he wouldn’t “use or endorse” such language. Nugent offered a non-apologetic apology: “I do apologize — not necessarily to the president — but on behalf of much better men than myself.”
It’s not just Texans, either. Aides to Republican Governor of Scott Walker of Wisconsin, a frequently mentioned 2016 presidential candidate, engaged in a hate-filled email correspondence several years ago that only recently became public. One aide says he had a nightmare in which he woke up “Black, Jewish, disabled, gay with a Mexican boyfriend, drug addict, and HIV-positive!!!…” The email continues: “Say it isn't so!!! I can handle being a black, disabled, one armed, drug-addicted, Jewish homosexual on a pacemaker who is HIV positive, bald, orphaned, unemployed, lives in a slum, and has a Mexican boyfriend, but please, Oh dear God, please don't tell me I'm a Democrat.”
Then there’s the Arizona legislature, which last week passed a measure allowing business owners to cite religious conviction as a legal reason to deny service to same-sex couples. Governor Jan Brewer vetoed a similar bill last year, so she may yet save Arizona lawmakers from their own bigotry, not to mention the state from a likely boycott should the measure become law.
There’s much reason in 2014 for optimism and to agree with Dr. King about the “arc of the moral universe.” But as long as bigots like Ted Nugent get a pass from “respectable” Republican politicians, or aides to a possible presidential candidate feel free to indulge in racist fantasies, or a state legislature passes legislation singling out a whole class of people for exclusion, then progress to eradicate bigotry will be fitful.
Which is to say that all Americans, but especially those in positions of power, must speak out against bigotry and in favor of righting historic wrongs.