Ever since their transfixing appearance at the Democratic National Convention, many have tried to explain just why Khizr and Ghazala Khan resonated so deeply with the American people.
Some think it was the undisputed heroism of their fallen son, Army Capt. Humayun Khan, who died while sacrificing himself to save his men during Operation Freedom in Iraq. Others have pointed to Khizr Khan’s dramatic decision to hold up his dog-eared copy of a pocket Constitution when asking Donald Trump, “Have you even read the United States Constitution?”
But I would like to suggest a third explanation. As the mayor of Charlottesville, the Khans’ adoptive hometown, I believe Mr. and Mrs. Khan connected so deeply because they belied the stereotypes millions of Americans have about Muslims — and, in so doing, highlighed the pluralism central both to our great democracy and to Charlottesville today.
For Donald Trump, Muslims have made the perfect “Other”— a foil for him to fulminate against. Trump has repeatedly depicted Muslims as enemies of the voters who make up his base. The virus of Trumpism recently infected our City Council’s chambers, when during a recent meeting, a protester began shouting that Muslims were “monstrous maniacs.”
The Khans destroy such noxious stereotypes. When they each spoke during and after the Democratic National Convention, it was with a firm and inarguably patriotic passion about their love for this country.
Their personal story, too, surprises: they were born in Pakistan, moved to the United Arab Emirates, then lived in Canada and then the D.C. area. As an attorney, Mr. Khan has specialized in “e-discovery.” Mrs. Khan loves Persian literature and textiles. They are huge fans of Thomas Jefferson.
In other words, they are their own people. And that makes them one of “us,” rather than one of “them.”
This provides a great clue for how America can move forward from this particularly dark period of American democracy. We’ll progress by rejecting a politics of labels, and instead embracing democracy as a field where a thousand flowers truly bloom.
We are each as unique as our fingerprints. As a father, I’ve seen this. Even as infants, my twin toddler boys immediately began carving out their own paths in the universe, beginning with their first distinct giggles in response to my tickling finger. Today, as they piece together sentences, their individual personalities are already presenting themselves.
This matters for democracy itself. In her devastating analysis of totalitarianism, the political theorist Hannah Arendt described “natality” as the ability of each human being to give birth to a fresh idea. In other words, we can literally change the world every time we speak from the heart. But powerful forces conspire against this uniqueness. We must never take this ability for granted.
We all struggle to navigate through boxes and frames and stereotypes, just as others strive to impose them on us. In my own life, I have never fit conveniently into labels, whether my family’s multi-faith background (my wife’s and my wedding, for instance, included elements of Judaism, Catholicism, Quakerism, and Unitarianism), my parentage (my birth father died while my mother was pregnant, and I was adopted by my father years later), or my professional life (including work as an attorney, professor, author, strategic consultant, and national security expert).
While fitting in has certainly been difficult at times for me, being a round peg in a square hole has also provided some of the greatest rewards of my life. And, in this, I’m not unusual at all; in fact, I’m completely ordinary. Because we all want to blaze our own path. We all want to be ourselves.
This is one reason that Barack Obama’s 2008 candidacy struck such a deep chord. The mixed-race son of a white anthropologist and African graduate student who was raised by his grandparents in Hawaii and became a community organizer after Harvard Law School. His story was so unique it became universal.
The story was irresistible to anyone — everyone — who has felt pigeonholed. Even the aggrieved lower-educated white voters Donald Trump is preying on know know the pain of stereotypes. (See the recent book by our local historian Nancy Isenberg titled “White Trash” for the horrible history of that particular stereotype.)
But to Donald Trump and the Paleolithic thinking he represents, we are not individuals with unique potential. We instead belong to static groups who must be pitted against each other in a Darwininan race for survival. Judge Gonzalo Curiel was suspect because “he’s Mexican.” Women are to be rated on a scale of 1 to 10. He even said of a supporter at a rally, “Look at my African-American here.”
The Khans, by their life story and their very personalities, subvert such thinking, so it’s no surprise the Khans chose for their home a community that embraces difference. Our moniker in Charlottesville is a “World-Class City.” We are frequently rated among the country’s best places to live, and I would contend it’s our culture that is the key to our stature. We are, of course, the home of Thomas Jefferson, who once asked, “Where is our republicanism to be found? Not in the constitution, but merely in the spirit of the people.”
In my book “Demagogue: the Fight to Save Democracy from Its Worst Enemies,” I observed that the Founding Fathers saw this “spirit” as the only true way to defeat demagogues — the mass leaders, like Trump, who seductively prey on the prejudices.
What is that spirit in C’ville today?
It’s the African-American civil rights warrior from Alabama who sings arias on the Downtown Mall. It’s the refugees from Bosnia who have started a successful hair salon. It’s the pastor trained as an engineer, the environmental attorney writing a novel, the Russian literature scholar who was a stand-up comic.
We’re also home to a large office of the International Rescue Committee, which has helped hundreds of Muslims — fleeing oppression — to settle in our area, without incident.
By their powerful testimonials, the Khans have added another chapter to the long and remarkable history of America’s real constitution, our living spirit. At our Aug. 15 City Council meeting, we thanked Mr. and Mrs. Khan with a proclamation recognizing their sacrifice as a Gold Star family and their commitment to our Constitutional values. When I spoke with Mr. Khan beforehand, he began tearing up as he described why Jefferson’s legacy made our country “so great.”
He was exactly right. And that’s why our biggest thanks to the Khans should be for just being themselves.