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We Cannot Let the Seed of Hate and Discord Take Root

Seventy-seven years ago this week, my grandfather Angelo Lafayette Paterno stood up in a ballroom in New York City to give a short speech promoting religious and racial unity. It makes me immensely proud to know my grandfather in 1945 was a man speaking for diversity and equality, for a cause whose time had not yet arrived in America.

Angelo died in 1955, in an America that had yet to live up to the promise of its founding or the vision of his words. Even the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of the 1960s were still years away. 

Today at Penn State, the largest all-faith spiritual center of its kind on any campus in the United States houses dozens of campus ministries and student religious groups. The speech given by Angelo Paterno resides in every corner of that building, a building that Angelo’s son and daughter-in-law raised and donated money to build.

Angelo Paterno taught my father this noble ideal: America is a place where we welcome all, where we neither favor nor impede the life trajectory of one another because of ethnicity, who we worship or the color of our skin.

Decades later, our progress seems to be slipping backwards. We’re living in an era where distrust of others and acceptance of intolerant speech has seen a renewed resurgence. And it came to us at Penn State in the form of an invading group of outsiders preaching a sermon of discord that all true believers in the American promise must reject.

When considering my grandfather’s beliefs, it is instructive to remember what shaped his worldview.

The Emergency Immigration Act of 1921 set quotas and limits on the numbers of southern and eastern Europeans, many of them Jewish people, immigrating into this country. Angelo Paterno’s family came from Naples, Italy a couple of decades before that. By the time that law had passed he’d already served his country in the Army in World War I. Yet he saw a nation that rejected others like him because of the conjurers of fear. 

Now 101 years later the same racist rhetoric used to denigrate certain immigrants in 1921 is being rehashed and regurgitated to stoke fears, and grab power in our elections. A century later, descendants of people who had to overcome the hatred of “their kind” of immigrants have turned their disdain towards a new generation of people yearning to breathe free.

But the fears being stoked go beyond that.

An acquaintance recently asked who I would be voting for in the upcoming election. He stated that I could not possibly vote for a candidate because he allegedly wanted to “let Black murderers out of jail.” Last I checked, many white people were murderers as well, but that imagery doesn’t scare people. And there rises once again the 1988 Ghost of Willie Horton.

Must we still resort to stoking the discordant fires of hatred that haunt our history? No wonder that some of these same people fanning the flames are going to great lengths to hide some of that history.

But there are things that history should teach us all. Do not follow those who offer grievance leadership in a platform offering only fear and resentment. Instead, follow those who speak of possibility, speak of unity and speak of solutions to the problems of our time.

This week’s event at Penn State was to be an exercise of grievance leadership, which is an intellectually bankrupt exercise of weakness offering no true way forward. The event was designed to trigger publicity-grabbing video and photographic imagery of conflict. It was designed to spark a reaction where the invading hate speech group could spark a cancellation and then claim victimhood of censorship.

Many students were understandably angry that the event was allowed to be scheduled. But true leaders are secure in knowing our cause is right and remain unafraid to stand by the First Amendment. Some ideas may make us uncomfortable. But from the discomfort of disagreement comes learning and growth. 

The filmmaker Deeyah Khan put herself out there by making films that required her to sit down face-to-face with neo-Nazis and fascists who would be inclined to hate her as a woman of color. But she learned and by extension her film taught others. Likewise, universities must be places where the free exchange of ideas can tear down walls. 

When Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia he stated: “For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”

But free speech is no longer guaranteed when it crosses the line to incite violence. And one also wonders whether, given the siloed way many get lies disguised and presented as fact, if reason is in fact left free to combat errors.

One of the truisms in the 21st  century is that any lie repeated often enough takes on the aura of truth. How else to explain the incredibly implausible conspiracy theories that are traded as fact in the attempt to grab power?

We’ve come to a place where intelligent but calculating people have manipulated millions of minds to believe the insidious lie of massive election fraud. A narrative that was concocted to do two things. One was to assuage the bruised ego of a candidate legitimately routed and rejected in the election. The other goal is more dangerous. It is designed to provide an excuse for every lost election and provide a rationale of distrust to undermine our system of elections.

And here on campus, upholding the freedoms of this country may require us to allow guest speakers tearing at the fabric of our democracy. In 2022, from hate groups to bizarre anti-Semitic rants from celebrities, the zone of discourse is flooded with nonsense. 

But what was once nonsense is growing more mainstream and more dangerous. 

The seed of hatred is finding fertile ground in minds being tilled and fertilized by the “fear regime” and their accomplices in certain media outlets. These outlets spew forth the stories and narratives feeding the weeds that will choke democracy in America.

At a time like this we are well-served to remember the words Angelo Paterno spoke in 1945 that are once again relevant in America and around the world:

“The forces of intolerance and hate are on the march today. The seed of hate and discord is being sown all around us. It is our task to indicate our worthy ideals into the warped minds of the weakling before this seed takes root.”

I’m no farmer but I do know that manure from bulls, chickens and bats make great fertilizer. For lack of better prose to describe what we saw Monday night and see all-too-often in America, it was bull shit, chicken shit and bat shit crazy all rolled into one.

But from our campus to communities across this country we must realize that an America headed towards a more perfect union must leave that shit behind us.