Part One: Lowe's Decision
This week home improvement mega-chain Lowe's pulled its advertising from the TLC channel's show All-American Muslim. TLC describes the show like this:
All-American Muslim takes a look at life in Dearborn, Michigan–home to the largest mosque in the United States–through the lens of five Muslim American families.
Each episode offers an intimate look at the customs and celebrations, misconceptions and conflicts these families face outside and within their own community.
To some Americans — for example, the Florida Family Association — this portrayal was unacceptable. Does "All-American Muslim" portray Hamas suicide bombers sympathetically? Does it glamorize calls for the destruction of Israel? Does it suggest that honor killings are a rational method of maintaining good family order?
No. All that "All-American Muslim" does is fail to depict such issues. The quarrel of people like the Florida Family Association is that "All-American Muslim" portrays a group of Muslim-Americans as regular folks, faced with regular challenges, with blowing people up and imposing Sharia Law on the West not among them. This, to the Florida Family Association, is necessarily propaganda:
The Learning Channel's new show All-American Muslim is propaganda clearly designed to counter legitimate and present-day concerns about many Muslims who are advancing Islamic fundamentalism and Sharia law. The show profiles only Muslims that appear to be ordinary folks while excluding many Islamic believers whose agenda poses a clear and present danger to liberties and traditional values that the majority of Americans cherish.
One of the most troubling scenes occurred at the introduction of the program when a Muslim police officer stated "I really am American. No ifs and or buts about it." This scene would appear to be damage control for the Dearborn Police who have arrested numerous Christians including several former Muslims for peacefully preaching Christianity. Dearborn Police falsely arrested Nabeel Qureshi and Paul Rezkalla in 2010 and Sudanese Christian Pastor George Saieg in 2009 for preaching Christianity at the Annual Arab International Festival. Information on these two arrests are posted below.
The first two episodes start off with Muslim youth complaining about non-Muslim Americans’ perception of them as extremists after 911. The show then reports on these youths’ daily, weekly and monthly prayer rituals. Many Imams who are at the head of these prayer rituals believe strongly in Islam and Sharia law. This TLC show clearly failed to connect the dots on this point but then again that appears to be their intent.
In other words, the FFA believes that it is propaganda to portray some American Muslims as regular people without mentioning that there are also some Muslims who are extremists. Imagine, for a moment, applying this logic to other religious groups. Imagine arguing that it's propaganda to portray a Jewish family without mentioning Baruch Goldstein or Irv Rubin or the USS Liberty "for balance." Imagine attacking any of the many television shows portraying Catholics on the grounds that they do not depict clerical molestation of children. Imagine saying that "Big Love" is propaganda not because of its portrayal of polygamy but because it fails to spend enough time depicting Mormons like Ron and Don Lafferty. Imagine saying that it is propaganda to portray conservative Christians (like those in the Florida Family Association) without mentioning people like Eric Rudolph.
Well, actually, it's not too hard to imagine any of those. America is full of nuts saying stupid, stupid things about popular entertainment.
But it is hard to imagine a major company like Lowe's caving to such an argument about other faiths other than Islam. And make no mistake — spin as they might, Lowe's did cave here:
While we continue to advertise on various cable networks, including TLC, there are certain programs that do not meet Lowe's advertising guidelines, including the show you brought to our attention. Lowe's will no longer be advertising on that program.
Our goal is to provide the best service, products and shopping environment in the home improvement industry. We appreciate your feedback and will share your comments with our advertising department as they evaluate future advertising opportunities.
Lowe's is now desperately trying to pretend that it didn't cave to the FFA, and that it just sort of coincidentally decided that "All-American Muslim" is unsuitable:
Lowe's spokesman Katie Cody clarified, insisting that the reason why they stopped their ads was not solely the Florida Family Association.
'We understand the program raised concerns, complaints, or issues from multiple sides of the viewer spectrum, which we found after doing research of news articles and blogs covering the show,' she said.
'It is certainly never Lowe's intent to alienate anyone,' she continued.
The Florida Family Foundation, triumphant, can wander off to pester other advertisers for buying ads on shows that fail to portray homosexuality as an E-ticket ride to Hell. Lowe's, having caved to the FFA, is now reaping the whirlwind and trying desperately to please everybody:
It appears that we managed to step into a hotly contested debate with strong views from virtually every angle and perspective – social, political and otherwise – and we’ve managed to make some people very unhappy. We are sincerely sorry. We have a strong commitment to diversity and inclusion, across our workforce and our customers, and we’re proud of that longstanding commitment.
Lowe’s has received a significant amount of communication on this program, from every perspective possible. Individuals and groups have strong political and societal views on this topic, and this program became a lighting rod for many of those views. As a result we did pull our advertising on this program. We believe it is best to respectfully defer to communities, individuals and groups to discuss and consider such issues of importance.
Lowe's apologia merely hands a roadmap to anyone who wants them to pull advertisements from shows in the future. It's also bringing out the attitudes of their supporters, and the supporters of the Florida Family Association. The comments on their Facebook post show off the folks who support them and the FFA. Take Dr. Dan S. Gilliam, Sr., apparently a psychologist in Wildorado, Texas, who says "I guess it is time to return to Lowe's. At least they can hear and analyze what customers say about promoting a race that would like to kill Americans. If you don't believe that, then you have your head in the sand." Personally I wasn't aware that Muslims are a race, but then I'm not licensed in Texas. There's Billie Jo Connor of Berwyck, Pennsylvania, who is either confusing Muslims with Latinos or is trolling me: "Welcome to america everyone comes from different backgrounds but i for one believe if u come here u should learn english and we should not press 1 to hear someone who i can understand im not gonna learn another language to live in the good ole USA! Merry Christmas!" Or there's Mary Calkins Malone of Yelm, Washington, who has grasped the core message of the FFA that Lowe's has endorsed through its action: "Yay, Lowe's! I don't think All-American and Muslim should be in the same sentence."
Part Two: Americans Living From the Outside In and From the Inside Out
The Florida Family Association is wrong. Lowe's was wrong to yield to it.
Earlier this year, when I wrote about the tenth anniversary of 9/11, I discussed a theme our pastor emphasizes that has become very significant to me:
A life lived from the outside in is a life defined by what has happened to me. A life lived from the inside out is a life defined by how I conducted myself in reaction to what happened to me. We should not define ourselves as the nation that was attacked on 9/11. We should define ourselves as the nation that stood up again, dusted itself off, looked to the injured, honored its dead, and persevered after 9/11.
It is beyond question that some Muslims are violent religious extremists who will kill Americans if they can. It's even beyond question that some such Muslims are here in America. It's clear that some Muslims favor imposition of Sharia law — antithetical to American values like equality and freedom of expression and worship — upon societies, and that some harbor a grand ambition to impose Sharia law here in America.
But those Muslims — however many of them there are — are powerless to change America's nature by themselves. The most horrific terrorist act, the most aggressive campaign to impose their religious values upon us — none of that can, by itself, alter fundamental American traditions and values. Those traditions and values were born in rebellion and deprivation, raised on the frontier, toughened through slow and painful progress from wrong towards right. They include hard work, fair play, due process, equality before the law, liberty, and individuality. Terrorist bombs cannot quell them.
But Americans' reactions to terrorist bombs could.
Americans could live from the inside out — we could define ourselves as the people who defend equality and free expression and freedom of worship and freedom from government interference no matter what, in good times and bad, come what may. Our we can live from the outside in. We could define ourselves as "the country that was attacked by Muslims and now is at war with Islam." God knows that's how people like the Florida Family Association wants us to see ourselves — a fond wish they share with both actual Muslim extremists and lip-service-paying dictators in Muslim countries, who dream of the power they would reap from America declaring war on all Muslims. By doing that, we'd not only commit ourselves to total and endless war, we'd change what America is in response to the threat of Islamic extremism. Muslim fanatics wouldn't have to destroy America — we'd do it for them by turning it into something different, something else, something small and ugly and inglorious. We would abandon consistent and ordered liberty for the vain hope of safety. "Liberty," said Learned Hand, "lies in the hearts of men and women. When it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it." (Thanks to Mike for reminding me of that quote.)
We've flirted with doing this, after 9/11. We've allowed the government to assume much broader powers, unreviewable powers, upon the premise that "9/11 changed everything." That danger is not past. And the mindset displayed by the Florida Family Association and endorsed by Lowe's threatens to push us much, much closer to the abyss. People like the Florida Family Association believe that there is no such thing as an "All-American Muslim" — that "Muslim-American" is an inherently contradictory term. They might agree in theory that America is a land of freedom of expression, but they will employ some categorical dodge to explain their position on Islam — like the increasingly popular "Islam is a political agenda, not a religion." (Note that this appeal to the categorical is exactly how the government convinces us to hand it more and more power over us — by saying things like "this belongs in the 'terrorism' box, not the 'freedom' box.")
So, such people want to affix an asterisk to "Muslim-American." That asterisk is indelible and stains us all, as surely as if we agreed "there is no such thing as a Jewish-American, because Jews have divided loyalties to Israel" or "there is no such thing as Catholic-Americans, because Catholics have divided loyalties to the Pope." No doubt there are some Muslims divided between American values and the values of Islamic extremists, just like there are some Jews divided between American values and the best interests of Israel and some Catholics divided between American values and papal edicts. But it is a central tenet of the mighty American experiment that we should treat people as individuals based on their abilities and acts, not based upon their origins or creeds. If we accept the proposition "we welcome all religions except Islam" or "we recognize freedom of religion for everyone except Muslims" or "we treat everyone equally except for Muslims, because of what some Muslims have done or want to do to us," or even the milder "any Muslim must be viewed with suspicion; no Muslim can be portrayed without a reminder that some Muslims are grave threats," we become a nation that lives from the outside in. We re-define ourselves based on wrongs done to us, rather than continuing to define ourselves by what we are capable of doing in the face of any challenge or any wrong.
It's fashionable, in some quarters, to call words like these naive. Islam is different, we're told. Sharia law is on the march, they cry. You're a fool to extend protections to people that they would never offer to you. But if hewing to these values is naive, I'll live with being naive. Frankly, I think that the mindset of the Florida Family Association and their ilk offers far more fertile soil for Sharia law than tolerance. I'm not worried about secular humanists (or "liberal" Presbyterians like me) yielding to Sharia law some day. I'm far more worried about the sort of people who invoke "America is a Christian nation!" to every social, cultural, legal, or political issue. These are the people, I fear, who are already susceptible to the belief that dogma trumps everything.
Make no mistake: the Florida Family Association and its members have the freedom to call for boycotts of anything they want. Lowe's can cave to the advertising-related demands of any cultural group they want; they're a private entity and they have rights too. But the rest of us also have freedoms. I submit we should use those freedoms to criticize Lowe's and defy the mindset of groups like the Florida Family Association. Let's define ourselves by continuing to defend core American values even when facing tremendous threats. Let's live from the inside out.