Lincoln Steffans, the great old turn-of-the-century muckraking journalist, tells the story in his AUTOBIOGRAPHY of the group of bored city desk reporters who created a crime wave one summer by the simple device of reporting everything that turned up on the police blotter each day. There was no actual increase in crime, of course, but the public, suddenly inundated by stories of rapes, burglaries, and murders, started demanding action from the bemused city administration. August is traditionally the silly season in American poliics and public life. The A-team of reporters are off, the public is seriously involved in going to the beach and watching the pennant races, Congress is out of session and, like as not, the president is vacationing. But the media have column inches and air time to fill, so the stories get a little wacky. Everyone understands that after Labor Day, an appropriate seriousness will descend upon the land.
It would be comforting to classify the current uproar over a proposed Muslim community center near "ground zero' as just one more bit of Silly Season news filler, but I very much fear darker angels are at work here. Xenophobic know-nothing hysteria is a constant theme in American politics. "Freedom Fries" are scarcely an innovation. Recall that when the United States entered World War I, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor fired the entire German Department. It is entirely appropriate that the most fanatical, narrow-minded medieval Christians and Jews in America should condemn all Islam for being -- fanatical, narrow-minded, and medieval. The schoolyard taunt -- it takes one to know one -- has never been more apposite.
LBJ famously said of the White House full of Harvard whiz kids he inherited from the assassinated JFK, "I just wish one of them had run for sherif." Somewhere in my heart is a voice that says of the urbane, fiercely intelligent, fundamentally decent Barack Obama, "I just wish he had once faced Bull Conner." I have given up the hope that this ugly strain in America will ever disappear. It seems to be a permanent motif of the national grand opera. Over and over again, we are forced to confront it, fight against it, beat it back, and try for a few sane moments to engage with the real world, not the world of over-heated sectarian fears and hatreds.
Perhaps there is an element of summer silliness in the current hysteria. If that is so, all I can say is that I have never looked so longingly to labor Day.