History has a way of being conveniently forgotten by most people. We tend to live our lives in pursuit of daily, hourly, or even up-to-the-minute gratification. This makes sense, as it’s hard to set a longer term goal and then reverse engineer things to see how one could ultimately reach that goal with hard work and sacrifice in the shorter term. It’s even harder for a community, ideology, or government to do this. Examples of this type of amnesia abound and are easy to find, but hard to remember again afterwards. As a nation, the United States has learned over and over again that people who come here for a better future will bring with them fresh ideas, a strong will, and definitive contributions. I’ve watched the movie “Gangs of New York” four or five times just to remind myself of this fact: When the Irish came to the US in droves around the turn of the 20th century, they were treated as less than, as trash, and as the scum of the earth because of their origin, poverty, and their religion.
My family learned a few years ago a little more about where my father’s “clan” came from. They were a border clan in Scotland that wasn’t really wanted there, moved to Ireland, weren’t wanted there, and ultimately came to the United States around a hundred years ago for a fresh start. Just last year my mother got her genealogy done, and since she was adopted at birth, the information was a revelation. Turns out she is half European Jew, and thus I am a quarter. I don’t know when her birth parents came to the United States, it could have been a long time ago, but given that she is a baby boomer, it seems likely at least one of her parents came here during or after World War II in search of safety and religious freedom.
I am unequivocally American. I know this to my bones. I know this from how I talk, aggressively asserting my opinion and aggressively asking others to share theirs. I know this from how I think, my belief in capitalism, and my willingness to argue with but ultimately accept the differences with another American who doesn’t believe in capitalism at all. And most of all I know this because of my ability to dream; my understanding that while Manifest Destiny and the Monroe Doctrine have in them the sins of ethnocentrism and genocide, they also include a grandiose vision for a nation unbounded where potential is only matched by performance. We are a country whose driving creed is an idea, not a religion or ethnicity.
People who want to come to the United States often share these same urges, dreams, and beliefs. Many people whose families have been here for generations upon generations have had their dreams trampled and feel crushed under the weight of immobility. This feeling is genuine, heartfelt, and tragic. People who voted for Donald Trump because they saw a possibility for change were exercising what they have left of an American Spirit. They were sadly misguided, in that their spirit led them to support a man who pridefully abuses women and exists as a mirror for the darker side of our society, the instant-gratification section of our collective psyche that wants things to be solved by aphorism instead of nuance. I think of Donald as not unlike the leader of the Natives in Gangs of New York. His passion and desire for power far outstrip his ability to reason, and his followers, in his own words, would follow him even if he shot someone on Fifth Avenue.
As a country we have the substance and character to overcome his challenge. We have the ability to reach for something better. To reach for a dream of a society that has nuance, that values our diversity and recognizes that when we ask each other for compassion, we receive it. Throughout my time here in the Dominican Republic, in a poor rural village, I have been quietly prideful of all of the great opportunities we have in the United States. Here the vicious cycle of poverty extends from the capital to the boonies. The people who have ferocity, ambition, and drive succeed. But even in their success they have so much less material opportunity than many people in the States who we consider unlucky. As has happened consistently whenever I have gotten the chance to travel, I am confronted by some of the unfair and evil choices the US has made in international policy and international trade. But more than that, I am confronted by our immense success and ability to create. As a nation we have a work ethic and drive that is genetic and trained. When we accept the strivers from all around the world, our diverse nation is stronger for it. I am reminded nearly every day here of how much power and meaning there is in our slogan: E Pluribus, Unum.