In the pilot episode of the short-lived (but well-written and well-acted) HBO series The Newsroom, we are introduced to a TV anchorman named Will McAvoy, played by Jeff Daniels.
At the beginning of the episode, he’s asked what makes America great and he says that he can’t think of anything great about America. Later on in that episode, his executive producer MacKenzie (played by Emily Mortimer) tells him where he messed up: the greatness of America is in its promise, its attempts (to varying degrees of success) to live up to the enlightenment ideals upon which it was founded.
I recalled that scene yesterday, when I attended one of the more than 700 marches around the country, in protest of the zero tolerance policies created by the current administration and enforced at the US-Mexico border, which has resulted in all sorts of atrocities being committed against people seeking asylum in this country. The most high-profile of these atrocities (rightly so) is the separation of parents from their children.
A lot of people — pundits and politicians alike — are saying that these kinds of policies are not the America they know and love.
While there may be a truth to saying things like that, it would be wrong to categorize them as being inconsistent with some of the more shameful events in American history. Things we should be embarrassed about on behalf of the country.
Is this policy really any different from any of the other anti-immigrant rhetoric that has pervaded social discourse for almost as long as the US has been a country? There was once a time when shop owners would bar Irish immigrants from patronizing them.
Or what about the way we decimated the natives and stole their land away from them? We intentionally infected them with smallpox!
What about slavery? Remember that the constitution itself explicitly said that slaves count as 3/5 of a person.
I could go on… Japanese internment camps, unequal treatment of men and women, the fact that this year marks a mere fifteen years since it’s been legal to be gay.
And that’s just shameful domestic policy.
Going back to the Monroe Doctrine (at least) we can point to America intervening in other countries’ affairs to the detriment of the locals. Just in the Americas, we’ve done horrible things in and to just about every country in the Western Hemisphere, many of which are the sources of our current immigration “crisis”.
And that’s not even getting into the horrors we inflicted on September 11, 1973.
I’m sorry to say that this zero tolerance policy is something entirely consistent with many of America’s misdeeds. That doesn’t make it right, for sure, but I would much rather recall what we’ve done wrong so we know how best to make it better.
The promise of America is constant improvement. We fail more often than not, but that’s what we can all strive to do. It’s even in the preamble to the constitution: we want “to form a more perfect union”.
That’s something we can seek to do. That is the America I know and love. The government right now doesn’t represent that. At all.