Years ago, when I worked in a psychiatric halfway house, there was a pair of terms used by the staff as a kind of shorthand. “Within normal limits” meant that a resident patient’s internal distress and behavior toward others were not so disruptive or dangerous as to require a new treatment plan. If, however, a counselor described a resident under her care as having moved in some fashion “outside normal limits”—through an escalation in aggressive actions, for example—this told the rest of the staff that that resident’s treatment needed to be attended to and adjusted.
There are many ways of characterizing the current resurgence of nativist movements in the United States and Europe, and I find myself often thinking of those two terms. For whatever we might think of the the current state of U.S. political culture, it is safe to say that it is outside normal limits.
Nativism is dangerous, as even a cursory knowledge of recent history makes abundantly clear. But it is not dangerous to everyone in the same way and to the same extent. Nativism is not a doctrine, though it can be, and often is, codified into one. It is more than anything a rallying point for those who feel beset by uncertainty, fear, and resentment. It collectively expresses a feeling that one’s way of life and one’s very identity are under attack. The challenge for leaders of nativist movements is to inflame their supporters’ sense of embattlement by aggravating established social divisions, such as those based on ethnicity or religion or culture or regional affiliation. There must be targets of blame. These are not hard to find—one simply looks for those most vulnerable. During times when nativist impulses are strong, the reliable due north on the compass of blame seems always to include immigrants and religious minorities.
Two articles in the new issue of Tricycle—an interview with the Buddhist scholar Duncan Ryuken Williams and a discussion with the American Muslim activist Sofia Ali-Khan and Zen teacher Kurt Spellmeyer—are our attempt to shed light on Buddhist concerns related to the workings of American nativism. One tells of the past—the internment of ethnically Japanese Buddhists during World War II. The other focuses on the present—the targeting of American Muslims. Placing the two articles side by side will, we hope, allow the past to illuminate the present and the present to illuminate the past.
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.