A few words about the search for America. Meaning not the piece of land bounded by Atlantic and Pacific but, rather, the one that exists as a fixed point in the communal psyche, the one that registers true north on our shared moral compass. It is the America where Beaver Cleaver lived, the America of manicured lawns and neat three-bedroom homes bordered by fences made of white pickets. It is the monochromatic America where dad worked and mom kept house and the family went to church together every Sunday, the America of once upon a time and never was. Some of us have been trying to get there (get back there?) for a very long time.
Conservative bloggers and pundits have exploited the longing for this America with shrill desperation to make voters fear Barack Obama, he of the "funny name" and exotic parentage. The lies have been brazen and prodigious, vivid illustration of the axiom that untruths big enough, repeated persistently enough, become true. So the airwaves and the Internet swarm with mendacity: Obama is a Muslim; Obama does not salute the flag; Obama mocks the Bible; Obama is not a citizen; Obama is the anti-Christ. Amazingly, the lies do not crumble under the weight of their own fatuity. Amazingly, they fester instead.
It is not surprising to see such tactics from the people who managed to paint a war hero as a traitor in 2004. But last week brought news that similar tactics were considered by one of Obama's fellow Democrats: Sen. Hillary Clinton. According to a story in the Atlantic Monthly, Mark Penn, one of Clinton's senior strategists, issued a memo urging her to attack Obama's "lack of American roots" during the party primaries.
"His roots to basic American values and culture," wrote Penn, "are at best limited. I cannot imagine America electing a president during a time of war who is not at his center fundamentally American." In other words, Obama was born in Hawaii (is that even a real state?), spent part of his childhood in Indonesia and does not resemble the presidents on the currency. Ergo, Obama is not American.
It is to her credit that Clinton never picked up on this line of attack. It is to Penn's lasting dishonor that he, even in the midst of a hard-fought campaign, offered it. He is toying with dangerous forces.
Perhaps it's enough to note by way of illustration that according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of hate groups in this country has risen by almost half since 2000.
Yes, economic dislocation drives that rise, as do terrorism and a rancorous debate over immigration. But that rise also reflects the bone-deep terror of those who feel that the further you get from true north - true normal - on the compass, from picket fences and church on Sunday, from a white middle American wholesomeness of once upon a time and never was, the further you get from America. To them, anyone who doesn't fit that America - Muslims or Mexicans or gays or liberals or businesswomen or American Indians or India Indians or any guy with a funny name and exotic parentage - represents a clear and present danger.
That's wrong, of course. And Penn knows it's wrong, but thought to exploit it anyway. That's beyond cynical.
One can only imagine how that cynicism plays with the Muslim who fights for this country because he thinks this country is worth it, or the gay man who petitions for change because he knows that here, change is possible, or the Indian woman who came here because, she felt, this is where opportunity lives. Their faith gives the lie to the cynicism of political calculation.
And proves that some of us have no need to search for America. Some of us know it's been right here all along.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald.