An American Refrain

Like many people, I’ve been grappling with making sense of our current political landscape. What to say about the hate speech being spewed by the leading GOP candidate, the anti-immigrant/anti-refugee/anti-Muslim fervor he seems intent on whipping into an ugly frenzy—and the lack of strong rebuke from his fellow candidates? What to say about candidates for the office of President seriously entertaining the idea of barring people from entering our country because of their religion? Of turning their backs on refugees—many of them children—fleeing persecution?

It is deeply troubling that this is where we are. But it is also, sadly, where we have been so often. This is an old American refrain.

For the past several years, I’ve been deep in the research for the DIVINERS series. Often, I talk about the parallels between America of the 1920s and America today, things I have uncovered while digging into our past. Here’s the thing about research: It’s Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. One minute, you’re looking into the Patriot Act and it brings you to the Sedition Act of 1918 and finally to the Palmer Raids of 1919-1920, which were a federal response to fears about anarchism, (a response rooted somewhat in fears about immigration), in which many innocent people, again, mostly immigrants, were targeted and deported.

If you look into the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which sharply restricted Chinese immigration—an exclusion based on race and class—before banning Chinese immigration outright over the next twenty years, you then see how this one piece of terrible legislation snakes all the way up through the American Eugenics movement (a particularly nasty tide of American nativism disguised as pseudo-science that was a huge hit with a guy named Adolf Hitler decades later) and on to Virginia’s Racial “Integrity” Act of 1924 (quotes mine; I just can’t type that straight on), which prevented interracial marriage, a law not overturned until 1967 with Loving V. Virginia.

I write fiction, but I didn’t have to make any of this up. It’s all there in the history books, or not there, which is part of the problem—the SOMA-like amnesia of the American populace. Recently, Mayor David Bowers of Roanoke, Virginia, in refusing to admit Syrian refugees to his state defended it as being similar to when “President Franklin D. Roosevelt felt compelled to sequester Japanese foreign nationals after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.” To be clear: the mayor of an American city talked about one of the ugliest episodes of American history, when Japanese-American citizens were placed in internment camps because of racism and political hysteria, as a good thing.

So when I hear people say, “Well, Trump’s just a buffoon. He’ll spin out eventually,” I feel a deep wave of fear wash over me. Because we have been here before, and the consequences were grave, the damage deep and lasting. Pay attention to what Trump is exposing about our nation: After his recent anti-Muslim statements, his poll numbers jumped eight points. With each outrageous comment, he is pulling up the soft, padded carpet of America and revealing its warped, rotting, termite-infested foundation. It was racism and fear-mongering in 1882 and 1892 and 1921 and 1942, etc.; it is racism and fear-mongering now.

The base of the Statue of Liberty is emblazoned with Emma Lazarus’ famous paean to America’s golden lamp lighting the way for the oppressed: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddles masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore…” But the fine print of that message seems to read, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore…except for you and you and you.”

So often lately, I wish that my father were still alive so that we could discuss all of this. I know he would be writing blistering op-eds and trying to figure out how to help this new wave of refugees. He died twenty years ago today. AIDS was listed as the cause of death, but make no mistake—it was discrimination that killed him, the hateful idea that AIDS was a gay disease well deserved by a marginalized group of citizens still being denied basic civil rights, and so the government could be slow to act. When the GOP deifies Ronald Reagan, I mostly remember that he did nothing about the AIDS crisis.

Just yesterday, Justice Antonin Scalia mused about ending Affirmative Action in a case before the court now, Fisher V. The University of Texas (my alma mater). To understand Affirmative Action is to understand that people of color have been disproportionately discriminated against in every aspect of American life since always. Affirmative Action, which has been around as long as I have, was an attempt to redress these centuries of discrimination. And, in fact, a report in the New York Times shows that in states where Affirmative Action has been banned, there has been a sharp decrease in the numbers of students of color enrolled in universities. But according to Scalia, “There are those who contend that it does not benefit African-Americans to get them into the University of Texas, where they do not do well — as opposed to having them go to a less advanced school, a slower-track school where they do well…One of the briefs pointed out that most of the black scientists in this country don’t come from schools like the University of Texas. They come from lesser schools where they do not feel that they’re being pushed ahead in classes that are too fast for them…”

Perhaps, like me, you need a moment to put your head back on your neck after it has exploded.

This is a racist statement from a justice on the highest court in our land. A man who earlier showed his contempt for marriage equality with a sneering dissent that likened the landmark decision to grant civil rights to American citizens as being as substantial as “the mystical aphorisms of the fortune cookie.” I am reminded of another piece of recent research, another sneering Supreme Court Justice—Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who, in deciding Buck V. Bell (1927), made the infamous statement, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Buck v. Bell granted states the right to surgically sterilize—against their consent—those American citizens they deemed “unfit.” Carrie Buck’s “crime”, by the way, was that she was considered “feeble-minded” and “promiscuous” for having a child out of wedlock, like her mother. Carrie’s baby—baby!—was judged to be unfit as well, which gave rise to Justice Holmes’ statement. This was another piece of horrible legislation influenced by American eugenicists fanning anti-immigration fears of an “impure” gene pool.

Sometimes, Supreme Court justices aren’t so supreme is what I’m saying here.

We seem to be surprised by the right wing’s blatant bigotry, xenophobia, ignorance, and hatred, and, in some corners, even entertained by Trump’s extreme fascism drag performance. The ugly truth is that America loves a bully. Whether it’s Donald Trump or Dick Cheney or Andrew Jackson, we love a swaggering cowboy spouting bad movie lines about mounting Biblical-styled crusades to crush our enemies real, imagined, and created. We make enemies of the poor, the asylum seekers, the immigrants trying to build a better life here, women, LGBT-rights advocates, and young African-American men buying Skittles or playing their car radios at a volume white America deems “too loud.” We allow politicians and radio pundits to turn real people—complicated and deserving of their humanity, people with bright futures and smiling high school graduation photos and families who love them—into easily demonized and dismissed cardboard cut-outs because it’s easier than fighting the amorphous enemy that is an amoral economic system run amok: Corporations who pollute the air and water, “downsize” at will, and skip out on taxes despite posting staggering profits. Actual villains created through deregulation and delusional greed, through the idea that we, too, can be millionaires or even billionaires like Trump, who, it must be said, came from money. We cling to our Horatio Alger self-made man stories like religious texts long out-of-date and out-of-touch when the truth is that it is the middle and working class who are the unsung heroes of American life. The teachers and firemen, the nurses and aides and managers, the bricklayers and steelworkers putting up the infrastructure of our lives, the parents getting their kids off to school before showing up to work long hours maybe even with a touch of a cold.

This commitment to fairness along with our diversity is our strength, has always been our strength. Not bombs. Not billionaire figureheads. Not closing our borders, our hearts, and our minds. America is not supposed to be a zero-sum game. A loss for one of us really is a loss for all of us. And the gains we make for others—in civil rights, in eradicating poverty, in educating ALL of our children, in building a safety net for those who need it most—really are gains for all.

There have been strides made in the past few years, of course. Marriage equality (Tough shit, Scalia) and We Need Diverse Books and Black Lives Matter and a new, more inclusive and intersectional wave of feminism all come to mind. These victories came courtesy of the people, by the people, for the people. It happened via Twitter and Facebook, through videos uploaded to the Internet for all to see so that it was harder for certain uncomfortable truths to be quite so easily dismissed. Turns out these are exactly the Droids we’re looking for. It happened through the linking of arms and marches in the streets, voices raised in a roar that could not be drowned out by Fox News anchors and pandering politicians eager to keep the lobby money rolling in.

It’s important that we do not stay silent and we do not ignore the lessons of history. For every history teacher out there trying to educate young people, thank you. For students at high schools like those in Jefferson County, Colorado, who held signs reading, “Teach us the truth” as they staged a walk-out rather than be condescended to with censored textbooks designed to promote “”patriotism and … the benefits of the free-enterprise system,” you are awesome. We, the people, must continue to educate ourselves so that we are not drawn in by Lonesome Rhodes-esque hate-rhetoric designed to stimulate the worst in us, instead of appeals to the strength that can be found in our collective compassion.

If you are a young person reading this: This is your future we’re talking about, from the real horrors of climate change to the consequences of war and intolerance and not understanding how interconnected all of this is. Read. Travel. Talk to people whose lives and beliefs are different from your own. Respect those differences. Develop diplomacy and accept compromise, which is not weakness but the way most things actually get done. Work toward fairness. Understand that you are a part of the world; the world is not only you. The greatest tribute you can pay to America and the ideals of fairness, equality, democracy is to make sure that system works for EVERYONE.

One of my strongest memories as an American is of July 20, 1969. I was five years old. The day had come up hot and clear in my south Texas neighborhood, a place that was home to citizens who had once been immigrants from Mexico, Poland, Germany, Ireland. My block was Tejano music and Grand Ole Opry. Republicans and Democrats. We were at war then, too, half a world away. Boys on my street served. And others protested the war. But for a few hours that evening, none of those differences mattered. Neighbors crowded around TV sets together. Food was served. It was a Sunday. My father had preached that morning at Woodlawn Presbyterian Church just as he always did. Tired, I crawled into his lap. He wrapped his arms around me. My mother and brother scooted in close. And we watched in awe as Neil Armstrong float-stepped onto the surface of the moon, an impossible journey made real. “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” he said, and we all cheered as one.

And that is a lesson Mr. Trump and his supporters might do well to heed: Why should we crawl around in the mud and the muck when we are capable of reaching for the stars?

67 thoughts on “An American Refrain

  1. After I read this in your article:

    “But according to Scalia, “There are those who contend that it does not benefit African-Americans to get them into the University of Texas, where they do not do well — as opposed to having them go to a less advanced school, a slower-track school where they do well…One of the briefs pointed out that most of the black scientists in this country don’t come from schools like the University of Texas. They come from lesser schools where they do not feel that they’re being pushed ahead in classes that are too fast for them… Perhaps, like me, you need a moment to put your head back on your neck after it has exploded.”

    it reminded me of this article:

    thought you might be interested.

    I thought your “young african american men buying skittles” line made you seem a little estranged from them, btw.

    Anyhow… thanks.

  2. I really enjoyed this post. Thank you for taking the time to express your thoughts and feelings so clearly. While on agree with your points I also find myself trying hard to synch your idealized version with the harsh realities of the real world. As someone who has served this country for almost twenty years it’s the ideals that keep me going and continuing to serve but as a father of four with two grandchildren the harsh realities are a daily battle. How much to push back. How hard to fight for my country against a perceived threat that in reality is so small but is able to generate so much passion in others.

    Oh read the news from around the world. The daily attacks, the daily bombings. The hundreds of people killed in far off places like Nigeria and Kenya and Sudan. In india and Pakistan. Mexico and South America. Those stories downtown even register here in the US and you won’t find them unless you take the time to look.

    And I wonder how much of my idealism I’m willing to forego to prevent those forces of evil from coming and infecting my country.

    No good answers in this battle of the mind and soul. It’s not a battle that will be won by bombs or boots on the ground. While those serve to bring down the fever of this disease, they won’t provide a cure.

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  4. My Senior Citizens Center has domestic and foreign affairs political discussion groups, attended regularly by about 20-30 people. This is in the Deep South, but most of the participants are urban Yankee transplants who still believe government has answers, so they want to regulate everything. They are also heavily invested in war contractor stocks, such as Halliburton, utility stocks, such as Southern Company, employee abuser stocks like Wal-Mart and McDonalds, and they can’t understand why anyone with intelligence would vote for Trump.

    However, all these transplanted Yankees, who are all too smart to vote for Trump, are not smart enough to avoid spending 90 minutes of group time arguing over the TV-corporate spin on “The Donald,” as the rabbi likes to call him. I finally got my two major points across to at least a couple of the geezers today. (They’re a little hard of hearing, so I have to yell a lot.) My points were these:
    1. Why are so many refugees fleeing Syria? It’s not ISIS. It’s the US presence that’s making their homeland living hell. The US is the one doing the bombings, and creating the mayhem everyone is running away from.
    2. What is Trump’s foreign policy? Not to reject immigrants but to butt out of the Mid-East and let them plant farms where we’re planting land mines. Maybe then they won’t want or need to leave. They already speak the language.

    I contend many of Trump’s supporters are Vietnam era veterans, families, or protesters who remember what a tragedy that was. Perhaps we need to look at Donald Trump with new eyes.

  5. What you fail to see is your own naivete. You’ve believed in things that aren’t real, that only exist as an imitation of a copy of a previous imitation

  6. Pingback: An American Refrain | Edward Fagan

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  8. Powerful piece with excellent advice for young people like myself. I like how you examined history; when people seem so shocked by Trump’s current behavior (and don’t get me wrong, it does warrant a strong emotional response), I always think back to the acts you mentioned. Same old song and dance.

    “I write fiction, but I didn’t have to make any of this up.” Let me conclude by mentioning how much I like this line and how relatable I think it is.

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