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Monday, April 19, 2021

Britain’s Owen Patterson came to New York and told his story. I wondered why he does it.

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I found myself wondering this morning how Owen Patterson, who was getting off the plane from Britain to New York, got through the woods, if only to the federal courthouse steps, where protesters were chained and boisterous, demanding that Judge Wesley White must block Jeff Sessions from reversing the previous court-ordered order blocking the original travel ban. A group of British immigrant activists stood, elbow to elbow with the pastor Patterson, holding signs with transphobic slogans. One exclaimed, “I’m European! No transphobia here!” Another had a picture of President Trump inside a Hitler costume.

When I last wrote about the ACLU’s legal challenge to the travel ban, we knew that the travel order would never again go into effect in any way, shape, or form, because the court in Maryland had wisely blocked its enforcement. We had thought there would not be many interested observers, since the ruling only applied to one instance of the ban.

And yet here I was standing on the courthouse steps today, listening to Patterson, a Baptist minister, explaining his thinking behind the tactic. We invited him in to an impromptu panel discussion organized by the Newseum’s Future of Journalism lecture series. Patterson said the ban was a President Donald Trump ploy to get voters, particularly evangelical Christians who saw Muslims as a danger to U.S. national security, to re-elect him. “Wherever they hold their feet to the fire on that, they want to hold their heads in shame.” He said that when a president proposes policies like travel bans that harm refugees, it plays to “a widespread fear in our country that the perpetrators of these attacks are Muslims and we might be next.”

Patterson is a pastor, but his testimony also made me think of a piece of literature I read in the summer about the intersection of bigots and “distrust of government” in American politics. Studies find that voters who object to immigrants from Muslim countries also object to immigrant Chinese Americans and Japanese Americans, so it was only a matter of time before white supremacists would come to resent Muslims more than they did earlier immigrants, since they felt increasingly at-risk as well.

Transphobia is deeply embedded in the American psyche, my reading had shown. So is distrust of government and the “rule of law.” The extreme case: The “Birther” movement, in which the idea that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States provoked widespread doubts about whether he was a “natural born” American citizen — and whether he possessed the qualifications to serve as president. Patterson said he was afraid that Trump could repeat a birther playbook. His fear was not unique. “We believe we don’t have a secure border,” said the Muslim activist Madiha Ahsan.

The issue of free speech and what goes over a bridge here is complicated and urgent. There is a new scramble for influence in ways that politicians have often minimized; the digital threat to discourse can be more menacing than the actual physical presence of people, or even of a brief disruption.

Judge White had ruled on the travel ban after a weeks-long hearing that was riveting for a good reason: The ban represented the first salvo in a larger political fight over immigration, which is only gaining traction as politicians look for ways to keep their campaign promises and constituents’ attention. Federal judge Claude Hilton had dismissed the case on the ground that the travel ban was a “purely religious question” that could not be litigated. Then came the 9th Circuit ruling on Oct. 2, and Judge White put the court order in effect. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has vowed to appeal that order.

Patterson told the audience that he had been scared by his reaction. Was his message a satire? Would people take the bait? He had planned for a church audience and he thought he could be a big tent pastor.

Patterson had come to the U.S. for religious reasons, he said, and he wanted others to have those reasons, and freedom. After Judge White stood by his decision in a post on Medium, Patterson emailed me to express a “good morning.” He ended it with, “Worry about that ACLU expense report.”

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