“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
– Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus”
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
– Thomas Jefferson, U.S. Declaration of Independence
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So tell me, America. Did we ever really believe this stuff?
* * *
The United States of America is an audacious idea, an amazing idea — that a nation could throw off the yoke of prejudice, the burdens of social caste, the chains of history and emerge as a truly free and equal haven. A place where all men (and women) are equal and accepted. A sacred experiment in justice, equality, and liberty.
But America is also a contradiction. We founded this beautiful little political science project with an economy driven by human servitude. We didn’t grant women the right to vote until 1920. We manifest-destinied our way across countless cultures between the Appalachians and the Pacific.
If I’m being honest, I don’t understand the contradiction. How can one nation be so selectively in love with its own image? We’re Narcissus sleeping at the pool, gazing lovingly not at our reflection but into our own dreams and memories. All we see is the torch of liberty, and not the pile of smoking embers underneath it.
Maybe I seem to be veering off into some sort of America-the-Ugly diatribe, so let me correct course right now. I love this country. I love our idealism, our democracy, our bricolage of ideas and cultures. I love the fact that I can get a cheeseburger for a buck without ever leaving my car. And it’s because I love this country — love what this country symbolizes, was founded for — that I have to point back to those words we hold so hallowed, and ask when will these be more than mere words?
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Exhibit no. 1: huddled masses. The movement in this country to stop Syrian refugees from entering at all costs astounds me. It’s a despicable transgression of our nation’s most iconic attribute — that we are the land of dreams, where anyone from anywhere can come, be welcome, and thrive. We’ve accepted wave after wave of immigrants and refugees, built entire beloved neighborhoods out of them: San Francisco’s Chinatown, New York’s Little Italy, Miami’s Little Havana. We’ve accepted everyone from Hmong fleeing the invasion of Laos to Jews fleeing the invasion of literally everywhere else.
What’s even more astounding is that this reluctance to live up to our collective promise as a nation is nothing new.
And then, even as I’m hurling ideas on the page for this piece like some political Pollock and I think the national conversation about immigration and diversity can’t get any worse, Donald J. Trump puts out this unbelievable piece of sludge.
(You know what, I removed the hyperlink in that last sentence because I don’t want to give that bigot any more web traffic, which seems to go straight to his overly-large head. I mean that literally — his head looks like someone gave a sandbag a spray-tan. You can google “Trump + 2015 immigration statement” if you want to read it.)
Trump wanting to ban people from immigrating to the US on the basis of religion is astounding in its audacity, its boldfaced, unapologetic, and increasingly unsurprising demagoguery. It also goes against pretty much every single moral value I hold as an American.
Then, he compares himself to FDR interning Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor, which makes just about zero sense for a couple of reasons — 1) when has a leading Republican candidate ever wanted to compare themselves favorably to Franklin “Let’s Just Spend Our Way Outta This One” Roosevelt, and 2) I like FDR for a lot of reasons, but his forcible relocation of over 100,000 Americans to prison camps WAS ALSO NOT A GOOD THING. I’ve lost track of whether Trump is brash, tone-deaf, or just willfully ignorant, and it’d be one thing if he was like everyone else on the internet shouting their bigotry and fearmongering into the comments section of YouTube. But this is a man who has a frighteningly large following, and he’s tapped into a well of something primal and disgusting buried deep in the American psyche. It’s like Trump has a divining rod for latent American racism, and what worries me most is that he’s finding water. I’m honestly scared that Trump is just riding the start of an ugly tide, and we risk it spilling over into the mainstream of American politics.
I do the Republican party’s presidential contenders a disservice to lump someone like Trump in with them, so I apologize, but even if the rest of the field is not as “unhinged” (to quote Jeb!), they all constantly wax poetic on America’s storied past. Every candidate on the right has a story about how the good ole days were grand and our Founding Fathers were brilliant demigods of democracy who descended from Mt. Sinai into Virginia with the Constitution in one hand and the Christian Bible in the other. This sense of moral righteousness is often completely at odds with the immigration policies they propose. Even if you ignore the case of Trump v. the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment (Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, for those of you following along at home), people like Cruz and Trump are professing a profound love for the Constitution while ignoring the parts of it that make America the greatest experiment in history: our founders’ desire to harbor the unfortunate from other nations, to grant them the opportunity they never knew elsewhere, and to safeguard the freedoms of life, liberty, and happiness for all people of this country.
We are a new nation, conceived in liberty. We are a welcoming nation, strengthened by our differences. And we are a bold nation, clad in democracy. Someday we’ll all realize it.
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A small addendum here to mention that I had another half to this post about gun control, but it was entirely too angry to post without deciding if I really want to unleash that kind of internet ire. Suffice it to say that I think it’s absolutely criminal that we’ve let the murder of our neighbors and coworkers and children become as routine as the local news station’s weather report. Cloudy tomorrow, with a slight chance of mass homicide in the early afternoon. Pack an umbrella with your thoughts and prayers.