I came to America as an immigrant, now a citizen. The stories of the American Revolution absolutely fascinated me, especially as a little girl who came from a culture of corruption and oppression. I saw America’s founding fathers as men and women who risked everything for freedom.
Freedom was an idea 7-year-old me looked at like it was magic, absolute magic. I had never before heard of such a concrete idea rooted in personal autonomy. It changed everything for me.
The first American colonies were people rooted to the land — a satellite tethered to a mad king. They were willing to risk being called traitors, marked with treason, and have their lives upturned for the radiating simplicity of one shared vision: self-determination. That vision mapped everything I’ve done since coming to America, including the book I am now writing, “The Song of the Human Heart,” and the foundation I’m soon presenting, The Foundation for Human Belonging.
What I marvel at today, 35 years later, is not the document that marked the birth of our nation, for it is far from a stainless document, failing to extend the dignity of being human to all humans. What I marvel at is the curiosity it took to get to that point — the sheer, raw, brilliant, kaleidoscopic curiosity it took for people to believe they could be more. They had a dream.
That curiosity was missing from Joe Biden’s recent “Soul of a Nation” speech. No cultured curiosity scratched beneath the surface of what’s driving division in our country. There was no vision inspiring people to search deep within their souls for a common human belonging. Instead, President Biden’s words drummed the language of war, language rooted in harsh polarities that leave no oxygen for common ground, a necessary foundation of peace-building.
What deeply disturbed me in hearing President Biden give his “Soul of a Nation” speech wasn’t that he didn’t understand what extremism meant. I’ve been hearing his and his cabinet’s blunders on that all along.
Just ahead of his speech, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre gave a press briefing in which she said, “When you are not with what majority of Americans are, then, you know, that is extreme. That is an extreme way of thinking.” In other words, it’s “extreme” to think differently. More to the point, it’s now considered “extreme” to have a different opinion than Democrats.
Twenty years after 9/11 and a year after Biden disastrously handed Afghanistan to the Taliban, I know our elected leaders are still uneducated about extremists and ideological warfare. They were too lazy to understand Islamist extremism then — handing an entire nation and the fate of our allies over to the very people we went to war with — and they’re too unwilling to study the broader nature of extremism now.
It’s clear neither President Trump’s nor President Biden’s administration has understood what extremism is. If they had, they wouldn’t have been soft to the rise of supremacist groups on one hand, and soft on Antifa on the other hand. The irony in all this is that, at this rate, Biden’s failure of leadership in human dignity is poised to turn the Democratic Party into a supremacist group.
The web of extremism in the 21st century is a sophisticated problem. It requires a sophisticated solution. In the preventing violent extremism talks I give, I often start with a statistic mapping the rise and diversity of extremism over the last 40 years. The stats signal that extremism is not only quickening in frequency and violence but that the ideologies are mutating into overlapping territories. The issue is becoming more complex, which means that the window we have to get this right is closing.
It appears too many of our elected leaders, influencers, and pundits don’t know what’s going on, because otherwise they couldn’t in good conscience engage in the same tactics that create the problem, pushing us deeper into a spiral of distortion. Yet you don’t need to be well-versed with extremism to see it’s abysmally dangerous for President Biden to blow a dog whistle rallying his political base against half the country: 74 million Americans. Those are 74 million Americans with necessary questions that we should be seeing as an invitation to cross the threshold of a conversation rooted in curiosity.
Instead, President Biden dug heels into hate, becoming the very monster he’s been painting Trump as. Trump made a lot of mistakes, but he didn’t work to willfully assassinate democracy and endanger American lives under the guise of safety.
This is a treacherous way to lead people; it leads our constitutional republic right towards a future civil war, which is exactly what every extremist group wants. In the interim, it ostracizes, marks, and triggers a wave of self-censorship among people afraid to express themselves or engage in the agora of public debate.
Whatever happens or doesn’t happen tomorrow, President Biden’s “Soul of the Nation” speech dimmed the lights on what little democracy we have left.