London has a new mayor, and the phenomenally accomplished Sadiq Khan—with a biography any good socialist would cheerfully give his or her left arm for—has been receiving congratulations from future colleagues worldwide on his victory in the election, which boasted the highest turnout ever for a mayoral contest. The mayor of Paris swoons over his “humanism” and “progressiveness.” Jakarta’s governor calls his victory an “inspiring story of democracy, merit, and tolerance.” A breathless tweet from -H herself extols Khan’s virtues as a “champion of workers’ rights and human rights.” Even the sister of his challenger, Zac Goldsmith, calls his victory “a great example to young Muslims.” This son of a Pakistani bus driver, who grew up on a council estate, avoided a rough crowd at school, developed a passion for education, politics, and equality, and keeps it real by taking out the trash and putting his two daughters to bed, is the darling of those who would unify a splintered electorate everywhere. Except, presumably, that other self-proclaimed great unifier, Donald Trump, who as of this writing remains undecided as to whether Khan would be allowed into the U.S. if he were victorious in the Presidential stakes.
These days in politics, you can either be a lover or a hater. There is no in between. Khan is a lover—a lover who because of his heritage and his looks would likely be targeted for suspicion in any number of cities in the United States of today. He insists, in his first interview with Time as Lord Mayor, that being British, Western and Muslim is not a contradiction; that his election symbolizes the spirit of Londoners who “respect, embrace, celebrate” their diversity; and that “it’s really important” that he “use his experiences to defeat radicalization and extremism.” He’s vocal on the need for good role models for young British Muslims today, so that when presented with the sometimes alluring prospect of fighting for ISIS, they can “just say no.” He’s not shy about his convictions and he’s willing to stand up for his beliefs, even when that puts him in danger—a fatwa was issued against him thanks to his support for gay marriage. Perhaps most importantly, he believes that his election means that “actually there is no clash of civilization between Islam and the West.”
I’ve been trying for a day now to reconcile Khan’s ascendancy to a position that puts him in charge of the daily lives of nearly 15 million people with the irrational hatred of Muslims in the U.S. that forces innocent travelers off planes; earns people death threats because of the color of their skin; and constrains the devout to abandon plans to build places of worship. This isn’t saying that there’s no anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.K.—there’s plenty, much of it in evidence during this election. Zac Goldsmith ran a campaign The Guardian called “soaked in racism”—ironic and sad, given his own not-exactly-mainstream-British heritage. But somehow the innate generosity of spirit and openness of mind that has always characterized the England we like to imagine, the England of Downton Abbey, triumphed—putting Khan and, by association, the entire nation on the right side of history. Would that I were certain the same sterling qualities of character would suddenly emerge over the next few months in our own political discourse.
It seems so, well, unfair that the often tortured relationship Britain has with its former colonies has come to this—to the seemingly inexorable rise to power of the son of an immigrant from one of those colonies—when we in our own country spend our time, when we’re not vilifying or murdering the descendants of people we used to buy and sell, complaining about those nasty immigrants who are taking all of our jobs away, threatening our families, and destroying our society. And indeed, it is a slap in the face to the much-ballyhooed idea of American democracy that a man named Khan now holds one of the highest political offices in the U.K. when here, he would have trouble getting ahead these days unless the middle letters of his last name were reversed. The big-hearted and hopeful America of the 1950s and 1960s, the America that marched steadily and compassionately toward progress of every kind, has disappeared into a vortex of debt, dissension, and disgust—a place where kindness and decency no longer have any real currency, and division is the order of the day. Democracy has room for every kind of attitude, of course, and we have seen glimpses of this America before. But today, thanks to the legacy of a generation’s worth of indiscriminate, profligate greed, we have more division than ever. Which means more hatred, and then more division, on and on, the ouroboros busily eating its own tail until someone cuts off its head. The dirty little secret of America—which, if things go the wrong way this November, will not be so secret any more—is that hatred has become not just the overriding tone of our discourse and the raison d’etre for much of our popular culture, but our guiding national principle. “Haters gonna hate,” in the sunnily styled vocals of our foremost pop diva. And how. Too bad we can’t just shake it off.