I’m not quite ancient yet but I’ve been around long enough to have witnessed some pretty big upheavals in U.S. politics. Though I was a child at the time, I can remember the civil unrest in Watts, not far from my home; the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King; and Vietnam. I was a young teenager during Watergate, and was fascinated by the slowly mounting drama of televised testimony. The years that followed brought with them Iran-Contra, Bill Clinton’s impeachment, several wars, 9/11—one sees a lot of things just by being alive. But I don’t think I’ve seen so great a shock to American life as the rise of Donald J. Trump. Like so many others, I’ve found myself caught up in the dizzying succession of near-daily leaks, revelations, and, yes, tweets. So much unfolds with such breathtaking speed that a few weeks can feel like a few years.
I know I’m not alone in saying I’d like nothing more than a break from the ceaseless chaos. So when I sat down to write I hadn’t planned on writing about President Trump. But he’s a persistent fellow. The man is ubiquitous. Before I knew it he’d rolled into my mind like a dense fog.
Ultimately, of course, I invited him in. One thing that gained him admittance was the targeting of immigrants and American Muslims, not least the talk several months back (or was that yesterday?) of a Muslim registry. The precedent cited by some supporters was the internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War. At least with regard to a religious registry, no one need ask whether it can happen here, since it has happened at least once already: the U.S. government first targeted Buddhist and Shinto priests, deeming them a higher security risk than Christian Japanese Americans, who were also interned.
Suspicion of difference can lead to resentment of difference, a sentiment easily mined for political ends, usually to divide and distract us. This is what we are seeing today, both in the U.S. and elsewhere. In this issue, we feature two articles that we feel can tell us much about how to navigate what divides us. In “Dialogue Across Difference,” features editor Andrew Cooper engages Sofia Ali-Khan, a lawyer and Muslim rights activist, and Kurt Spellmeyer, a Rinzai Zen priest and Rutgers University English professor, in a dialogue about the threat religious minorities face in the current climate. And in “Camp Dharma,” Duncan Ryuken Williams, a Soto Zen priest and professor of Japanese religions and culture, draws upon years of research to shed new light on Buddhist life in American internment camps during World War II. Williams’s work holds up an apt and homegrown example of what can happen when we give in to the nativism and xenophobia that Spellmeyer and Ali-Khan discuss with such clarity.
We are a diverse country, and one of our common narratives tells us that even as we struggle and often fail to value our differences, we are better for them, guided by the ideal of an ever more perfect union. But that is not the only narrative. We also have been a nation riven by all manner of fear, hatred, and suspicion. At our best, we find ways to be enriched by our differences; at our worst, our group animosities get the upper hand. is is damaging and dangerous for us all, but especially for those who are, for one reason or other, most vulnerable.
It needn’t be this way. The boundary lines where we set up identities, whether individual or collective, can be the site of conflict. But they can also be the place where we meet.
As for the ceaseless distractions and heightened tensions, well, that is why we practice.
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