It should be no surprise that America is so torn about whether to welcome refugees or to spurn them. This split, also evidenced in how we treat our own marginalized populations, dates to our very inception as the flawed realization of a noble idea.
White Europeans “discovered America” as a tyranny-free space where they might worship as they pleased, free from torment or persecution. That they needed to forcibly uproot, displace, import, enslave and disenfranchise millions of others in order to build their Land of the Free is not generally part of the myth.
Yes, torture, displacement and dehumanization are as integral to America as the Declaration of Independence. Yet “the better angels of our nature,” appealed to by Lincoln as he sought in his first inaugural to heal a bitterly divided land, would have us recognize in others the very rights, needs and aspirations we know are true for ourselves.
This disjunction between our national vision and the abhorrent means often enlisted in its implementation is central to the “America” project. It helps explain many citizens’ willful blindness to the glaring contradictions destabilizing today’s America and the blistering denials of any possible stains on our perfection.
Yet far beneath the glistening high-rises and sleek billboards, on the ground in our far flung cities, small towns and at our borders, women, men and their children are screaming in pain. Their plights and plaints are much the same; the urgency of their shouts force upon us the realization, at last, that:
Our long neglect of those in need here at home can no longer be separated from our refusal to be moved by those in desperate need at our very gates.
Those better angels, as embodied in our Bill of Rights, our ubiquitous houses of worship and charity, and in wisdom as old as Jesus and Hillel, would have America leading, both in welcoming those fleeing well-documented torment abroad and in serving those among us who suffer for lack of decent nutrition, healthcare, shelter, education, economic opportunity or safety from violence.
But we are not leading.
Rather, we’ve ratcheted up the machinery of hate, jacking up the inputs of fear and suspicion to sufficient levels of toxicity to divide us along class, ethnic, color, gender and religious lines and to blot out any possible identification with those seeking refuge, in poverty or simply different. In pulverizing the idea of a multicultural America, this widespread hate-mongering threatens our ability to hear or respond to those in pain.
The “America” project is larger than this, with far more at stake. We must refuse the poisonous brew spewed so brazenly across our national air- and cyber-waves. In doing so, we discover the opportunity to lift our national attention to the common purpose of fulfilling our personal and collective aspirations, as one nation of many peoples with much in common.
Here at home, the harm has already been done — the stresses of generation upon generation enduring severe privation, degradation, incarceration, unsafe housing and worse are visible today in nearly every American city, native American reservation and coal-mining community. The impacts can be seen in children’s widespread asthma, trauma and failure to thrive or to learn, and in their parents’ hypertension, diabetes, substance abuse, employability, domestic violence and rates of infection with sexually transmitted disease, including HIV-AIDS.
It’s too late for apologies.
The simple reality demands that we stanch this lethal bleeding today, with all means at our disposal, to stop this transgenerational crime of inequity with this generation. At the same time, the urgent call of those seeking asylum affords us the opportunity to show who we are as a nation — one nation — by offering safe harbor and a thoughtful path to citizenship to those betrayed in their homelands by brutal leaders, gangs or fundamentalist fanatics.
Neither undertaking is bleeding-heart liberal fantasy: both are doable, in our time, now. Taking care of our own and of those seeking our help will not break the bank or deprive those who consider this country theirs of their right to the American dream. Doing so would open up pools of fresh talent to meet America’s challenges. Responding to the extreme need of those within and at our borders will help us recognize “the other” as ourselves and feel large, capable and powerful again — as individuals, in charge of our choices, our lives and our families’ future, and as a nation that actually practices the values comprising our once-inclusive vision.
The fastest way forward to meet this dual call?
First, we must finally hear, heed and respond to the needs and pleas of those without, whether they are fleeing violence or suffering the impacts of chronic poverty.
Then, we must recruit, design, finance and utilize the tools best equipped to fill these needs, whether for actually affordable health, mental health and elder care; access to family planning, including long-lasting reversible contraceptives; integrated schools focused on building a just society through learning, thinking and youth leadership programs, with English language and civics training for those new to our shores; the requisite training and daycare centers, to get and keep livable-wage jobs; substance abuse programs, counselors and job training for those in recovery and those in transition from prison; safe, affordable and fully functioning infrastructure, from safe water to safe streets and public transport to energy to the internet.
This is not complicated.
Implementing this program will save money long-term while marking the healthy beat of America’s enormous heart.
It requires only taking these first steps, and then advancing step by step, with critical guidance and feedback at every step from women and men, young and old, who yearn only to help themselves.
It means expanding the small acts of kindness and compassion we see performed every day in America to include those for whom it has not occurred to us to feel empathy.
It means living what we were taught when we were little: to love our neighbor as our self. This clarion mobilization of America’s better angels is equally apt for our children, our communities, for the hard work cut out for us in 2016 and in the years ahead; it’s a six-word, age-old message, with no room for hate or hesitation.