The Schizophrenic American Soul

I’ve always tended to view America as an exceptional place. We’re a great nation. Our Declaration of Independence and Constitution have inspired nations around the world. We put the first man on the moon. Our great cities lead the world in commerce, and in awe-inspiring skylines. We defeated The Nazis and communism in our world. Our national parks are beautiful. Our streets are safe, our economy booming, and our people are living in relative peace. We created suburbia and the Middle Class. The Interstate Highway system that President Eisenhower created was visionary. America is an incredible place. Millions of people want to come here. My ancestors picked up their lives and came here. I’m thankful every day that they did.

Every once in a while though, we’re reminded that there’s more to America, sadly. We enshrined slavery in that great Constitution. The brutality of the “Trail of Tears” is one of our worst offenses. While Ellis Island is a beautiful part of my American story, the racial quotas and crackdown on immigration that was enforced after Ellis Island closed is a black mark on our history. Jim Crow existed here, and with it segregation, for a century. The Japanese internment camps of World War II were real. Bull Connor and George Wallace are a part of our DNA.

The same country that elected JFK, also elected Richard Nixon. The same country that elected Barack Obama, then elected Donald Trump- in fact some of the same people actually voted for both. The same country that welcomed my Slovak great-grandmother and her family at Ellis Island would close their borders and enact racist immigration rules just months later. We can be great, and terrible, almost in the same breath. Our friends, our families, our neighbors can be the nicest people today, and rationalize unspeakable atrocities tomorrow.

I have tried to remind myself of this throughout the national debate over taking children from their parents at our border, but it’s not quite working. We are taking babies away from their mothers as a “bargaining chip” for the President to get his border wall. We are arresting people in violation of international treaties when they seek asylum at our border. What we are doing to these people, people who are not violating our laws by simply asking for asylum, is barbaric, inhuman, and unjust, even if they were violating our laws (to be clear, any asylum seeker is not). I’m struggling to remember the good things about our country right now, because we elected this barbaric regime.

I got into politics during the time of George W. Bush, and I thought the Iraq War was the atrocity of my time. That war pales as a wrong next to what we are doing right now. We are destroying the lives of children, damning refugees coming here seeking our mercy, and once and for all proving that our supposedly religious nation is very good at being soulless and heartless.

I think back on my great-grandmother often. She died when I was nine, and we were very close. Her English was broken until the day she died, she had no higher skill to offer her labor, and she certainly didn’t come here rich. How would Donald Trump’s America have treated her? Would my friends who voted for Trump have wanted to “send her back” in 1925? It took her almost 20 years to become a citizen then, but would she have ever now? I’m very afraid of these answers, and if these hypothetical questions bother me, surely the pictures of actual babies taken from their moms must bother me now.

In a strange twist of fate, I find myself in support of the voice of former First Lady Laura W. Bush right now. She is standing up as a moral leader in our time, challenging the Trump Administration on this moral question. If only more Republicans would follow her lead, and show as much fortitude in this moment of moral reckoning, maybe America could stand up and be a moral leader again.

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