Sharia Law Is Coming to Montana, Or, The Media Has a Problem, But Not the One They Think

Mural by David Fernandez in Hamtramck, MI, the first Muslim-majority led city in the US. Things are pretty peaceful and boring there, apparently. (Photo by Tom Perkins in The Nation)

Ya know they murdered X
And tried to blame it on Islam
He turned the power to the have-nots
And then came the shot” -
Rage Against the Machine, “Wake Up”

“Conservatives never listen to the lyrics.” -Mike Marano

The other morning on my way to work I heard a story on the BBC about how Montanans (Montanans? Montanites?) are reacting to the Muslim ban. Namely, while some are protesting in much the same fashion as others throughout the land, the louder voice is a virulently anti-Muslim one.

The reporters spoke to a man — a preacher, apparently — who was feeding his chickens, and he expressed his belief that 45 is doing a great job, because what we don’t want is radical Islamists coming here as refugees and trying to establish Sharia law and “harm our women.” Now granted, given the implied ownership there, I was a bit surprised and charmed by his assertion that should Islamists try something like that, they would find that “the women of Montana are armed.”

But the vast majority of my un-charmed being was busy screaming, “REALLY?”

Because the next part of the piece mentioned how the Montana legislature had just passed a bill to ban Sharia law from being implemented in the courts.

The BBC is a news outlet I love and depend on for a perspective outside the US that tends to place the emphasis in slightly different places. And in this story, they did what they do best: that peculiarly British trick of smugly withholding much commentary, while allowing the idiots to speak and dig their own rhetorical graves. They presented these perspectives with a straight face (especially admirable given the reporter’s name is Aleem Maqbool, which, I don’t actually know if he’s Muslim, but I’m willing to bet the guy talking to him thought he was regardless), then finished the piece by noting that Montana has a population of one million, and that about 20 refugee families in total have actually settled in Montana since the ‘90s.

Now, a quick Google search reveals that this whole Sharia law thing isn’t new: if anything, it’s a massive right-wing movement to pin the problems of the white working class on Muslims, who want to…come to this country and cut people’s hands off? And throw acid in women’s faces…? Or something…?

Not that these people give a Shiite about these poor handless schmucks, or the disfigured women they just love to show pictures of to support their cause. They have no interest in helping people in other countries who might actually be oppressed. No, what they’re worried about is all the millions of radical Islamists who want to go live in Montana so they can impose their laws on innocent Christians!

Because that is totally what happens.

Of course this is all old news, and we know who to blame for it.

The thing that gets my politically correct panties in a twist, however, is that there are so many other legitimate things for these lovely white people to be worried about. Like literally, seriously, nobody is coming for your women (well, except Trump now, I guess). I’m glad they’re armed. Perhaps they can go thin the deer population, or defend your flocks from coyotes, or kill some actual rapists or something. They are not going to need to be shooting Muslims who are trying to cut your hands off.

And this is where the media — and the Democrats, for that matter — have such a huge problem: the media is the message, stupid. And the culmination of this colossal media putsch by Fox and friends is — your enemy and mine — Donald Jumping Cheetosophat Trump. Congratulations, hate-mongers: you won.

My friend Mike — quoted at the top of this story — told me a wonderful, which is to say incredibly depressing, story later the same day I heard that BBC piece. Geraldine Ferraro, aka the first woman to ever get within striking distance of the US Presidency, went into small towns in the Midwest that were being gutted by Reagan’s policies, and asked the people why they still supported him after he had destroyed the unions and decimated the small-town America he so lionized in his speeches. They said to her: “For the first time, we’re standing tall.”

That was when she knew, she later said, that she’d lost those people. They believed so fervently in Reagan’s eagles and amber waves of grain that they thought they were “standing tall” when in reality they were baring their necks for the slaughter.

In an interview with the Rolling Stone after Trump’s election, President Obama admitted that while he campaigned heavily among the people and spoke directly to their concerns when he was campaigning, he didn’t always do the best job of communicating the work he was doing once he was in office. If Ferraro’s story shows anything, it’s that this was a massive mistake. Because it is clearer than ever that the messaging is more important than reality. An article I caught today from Democracy Journal, entitled “Keep It Simple and Take Credit,” amply demonstrated the folly of, well, not doing those things. Because in the 30-some years between Reagan’s heyday and now, rural whites have gone from to believing it’s morning in America to buying that it’s not billionaire corporate kleptocrats who are out to ruin their way of life, but Muslims.

“No, I do understand, it’s technically vulnerable to that, but there’s no such thing in nature. It’s not a threat!”

Given this background, it’s not all that surprising that we now find ourselves in a world of alternative facts and a political divide so deep it’s as though we’re speaking different languages. The primacy of messaging over content has gotten so intense that people can say literally anything, and if one side says “you’re lying” and the other side says “fake news,” then both sides are considered equally valid in the public eye. When nobody has any credibility, then whom can anyone believe?

The simple answer is, whoever tells them who to blame for their problems. Now, I know Godwin’s law has been temporarily suspended and it is very fashionable right now to compare Trump’s administration to the Nazis, but that’s only because Hitler is the most famous and obvious example of autocracy we can think of. Giving people someone to hate to deflect their anger from the people in power is a time-honored American tradition. Still, given that right now we have actual literal goddamn Nazis being given a platform in this country, I’m going to go with it. There are reasons why, as Katherine Cross writes elsewhere, we punch Nazis rather than trying to engage them on equal terms. Whether you call it fascism, Nazism, autocracy or the alt-right, it “serves as a refuge for whites dislocated by mass society and modernity, who seek someone to blame for their anomic dread.” This is how Hitler rose to power, and how dictators of all stripes have risen to power for centuries. It’s nothing new: they do it because it works. Rather than allowing a leader to unite the nation’s poor and downtrodden against the real oppressor, putting the 1% at risk, the 1% pretend to be united behind one segment of the poor population and set them against a common enemy: usually, other poor people of a different color, religion, nationality or other difference. Presto: two birds, one stone, no waiting to think about whether to cast it first.

Much has been made of the idea that the rise of Trumpism is the fault of the liberal elites ignoring the white working class for so long. The best explanation I’ve seen comes from David Wong, but while it is sympathetic, even Wong, who comes from that world, sees that the solution is not to elevate the voices of the most hateful and create a false equivalency for their worldview. I’m not sure what the solution is, now that this group of people’s wholly legitimate grievances have been leveraged by rich and powerful shitgibbons into a white supremacist movement. We cannot allow these forces to determine the direction of our democracy — but at the moment, their message is the one that is resonating most strongly.

Is there a message that can save us? Is there anything the media can do, besides placidly and smugly reporting the actual facts and knowing that the public that constitutes their choir is diligently clucking their tongues and shaking their heads in recognition?

“Conservatives never listen to the lyrics.” That line stuck with me, not just as a literal jab (see Paul Ryan’s troubled relationship with Rage Against the Machine, or Ronald Reagan’s appropriation of “Born in the USA,” for examples), but as a metaphor for how conservatives will twist the misery of their people to fit a narrative that serves them, responding to pain with recrimination and hate set to a catchy beat and pictures of American flags.

President Obama succeeded over two campaigns using a simple message: Hope and Change. But when his practical, measured approach, devoid of further sloganistic signaling, failed to keep people inspired, we slid down the fascist sewer-drain into the mess we currently find ourselves in. Folks, if you thought Obama didn’t bring the hope and change you wanted, wait til you see what making America great again means in reality.

Oh wait, you probably won’t, because you’ll keep on swallowing whatever he tells you. Or because he’ll get us nuked.

Not that I don’t have hope. I do; I find a great deal of inspiration in the movement that is coming together in the streets, in the press, in the judiciary, to topple this fraudulent, fractious fuckshow of an administration. I’m trying, to the best of my resources and ability, to be a part of it. But I’m continually dismayed by the knowledge that what we’re fighting against is a very real conglomeration of very real people in this country who, whether because they are genuinely evil (like Bannon, Spencer, and their ilk), or because they are so crushed by anger and loss that anything is preferable, believe that some human beings are not as worthy of dignity and respect than others. What message, what banner, what possible slogan can reach them? And if we don’t, what happens next?