PBS’s Smiley Sees ‘Tolerance Decreasing’ in America, U.S. Seen as ‘Arrogant, Elitist, Pompous’

 On Monday’s Tavis Smiley show on PBS, during a discussion with author Robert Putnam to discuss his book American Grace, after Putnam recounted the central thesis that various religions in America - and even non-religious people - tend to tolerate each other well compared to other countries, host Smiley made known his view that tolerance is "decreasing" in America and cited attitudes toward Muslims as a recent example. Smiley:

I'm not so sure that our religiosity these days makes us as tolerant as we think we are. Witness, you know, any number of examples of late - namely, Muslims come to mind - about how our tolerance is, it seems to me, decreasing, not increasing.

Moments later, the PBS host brought up the negative views of America held by some as being a nation that is "arrogant," "elitist," "pompous," and "nationalistic." As he analyzed the book’s title by defining the word "grace" as being "unmerited favor," Smiley continued:

And if American grace is then an unmerited favor, I’m trying to juxtapose that grace with what some see as our increasing arrogance, our increasing elitism, how it is that we could be the beneficiaries of this unmerited favor, this grace, and yet, around the world, we don’t appear to be graceful to so many other people. They see us as arrogant, elitist pompous, and not even just patriotic, but increasingly nationalistic.

Below is a transcript of the relevant portion of the Monday, December 20, Tavis Smiley Show on PBS:

TAVIS SMILEY: You didn’t say this, but you intimated this, I think, so this is my term, not yours, but I’m not so sure that our religiosity these days makes us as tolerant as we think we are. Witness, you know, any number of examples of late - namely, Muslims come to mind-

ROBERT PUTNAM: Sure.

SMILEY: -about how our tolerance is, it seems to me, decreasing, not increasing.

PUTNAM: Well, you know, that’s, you have to have the right historical perspective here. A hundred years ago, there were anti-Catholic riots in America. People were killed in the conflict between Catholics and Protestants, and, by now, our book shows Catholics are - along with Jews - probably the most popular religious group - outside their own circle, I mean - in America. Muslims are a special case. They’re new to America largely, and, of course, it seems to be tied up with the whole war on terror and all that.

But we found that there were three groups actually - not just one - that was kind of a little less among Americans. One is Mormons, one is Muslims, and one is Buddhists. Now, last I heard, there weren’t any Buddhist terrorists who were out wandering around. It’s, I think the reason that Muslims and Buddhists and Mormons are held in less high esteem is because they’re, we don’t know them. Most Americans really don’t know a Muslim or a Mormon or a Buddhist.

The proof of the pudding is that in the African-American community - which looks like a lot of the rest of America in most of its religious views, in fact, is even more religious than most Americans - African-American attitudes toward Muslims are substantially more favorable. Why is that? Because, in the African-American community, there are more Muslims, and therefore more folks in the African-American community, when they’re asked that question, are responding about real people that they really know and have respect for.

SMILEY: I don’t have data on this, but I think it’s also because black people know what it means to be disavowed, to be disenfranchised, to be the other-

PUTNAM: Yup, that’s right.

SMILEY: -in America and they resonate with what Muslims may be going through at this moment in American history, but I digress on that point. I’m still, I want to stay with this title before I go inside, and it’s a dense text, so before I go a little deeper inside, I’m still so fascinated by this title, American Grace. As you were talking just now, I’m thinking that, to my mind at least, grace is - how would I define this? - an unmerited favor, grace is an unmerited favor. And if American grace is then an unmerited favor, I’m trying to juxtapose that grace with what some see as our increasing arrogance, our increasing elitism, how it is that we could be the beneficiaries of this unmerited favor, this grace, and yet, around the world, we don’t appear to be graceful to so many other people. They see us as arrogant, elitist-

PUTNAM: Sure.

SMILEY: -pompous, and not even just patriotic, but increasingly nationalistic.

PUTNAM: Yeah, well, if I were writing a book about international affairs, I would completely agree with you. That’s exactly the stance that we seem to be taking in the world. And, although the advent of Barack Obama as the leader of the country has had some effect on that because he doesn’t seem like such an arrogant guy, I agree that in terms of foreign policy we seem like a pretty strong, powerful, sometimes even to people we seem like a bully. But we were looking at a different aspect of American society here in this book. We’re looking at the degree to which Americans are able to manage strong, divergent faiths. ..