Our national mythology runs deep. Even before we formed as a nation, people came to this land full of imagination and hope. That hope was never particularly altruistic or pure; profit motivated many, business opportunity urged others onward, the Dream has always had, at its roots, some degree of self-serving, and yes, greed. Those early inhabitants that European colonists encountered when they met them at the Atlantic shore know much more about the dark side of the Dream than I do.
Still, a Dream nonetheless. A Dream for a better way, a stronger existence, a freedom to live without the fetters of Old World traditions and the rigid social hierarchies that severely limited or even squashed economic opportunity and self-determination. To be sure, the Dream became manifest on the back and through the bloodshed of others considered chattel property and only three-fifths human. But incredible wealth and prosperity and the accompanying political freedom that secured that wealth and prosperity began to come to fruition and other countries and governments took note of what became to be seen as the noblest of experiments. The United States did not invent due process and civil liberties, but this union has perfected it to the degree such human relationships can be made perfect.
In the crucible of the bloodiest conflict, the Dream began to emerge as more sacred, more true, and more fitting for a nation that would borrow Biblical language and believe itself blessed and set apart, As ‘A City on a Hill’ for an existence guided by Providence. The Dream, even though it spread through our land, from East Coast to West Coast, by eradicating the inhabitants in its way, gained power and strength. The frontier moved west and democracy strengthened. Whether the small democracies of a few souls practicing self-determination in a West Virginia hamlet or a railroad town resisting or compromising with the power of capital, the Dream grew and grew and welcomed others to fuel the growing industrial power unleashed on the globe. The Dream must always be comprehended as relative; relative to the aspirations not available to others. But still, it must be acknowledged that whatever this country’s hubris and violence acted out against others in its expansion, something unique, and yes, valuable and worthwhile did take root here and called to others from all rounded corners of the planet.
The Dream embraced a maturity, it acted on its own behalf and on the behalf of other nations who resisted totalitarianism. The Dream fought against the global aggression of tyrants who would suffocate those with aspirations for human freedom and the ability to benefit by their own ingenuity, concentrated effort, and desire secure to secure prosperity for their progeny. The wars fought in the first half of the twentieth century, despite historical criticisms to the contrary, I believe were about protecting the Dream. Those that fought, bled, and died for the Dream did so as combatants whose roots ethnic roots belonged to the whole globe. They took up arms because they believed in the good of what they and their families had discovered here. Had they not known the power of that Dream to be the transformative agent in their humble lives, they would have abandoned their posts and surrendered easily. History indicates that they did not. Even those not privy to all the blessing and abundance that the Dream afforded to others, fought and died for something bigger than themselves. Their sacrifice has been honored not only by those in this land, but throughout the planet as a sacrifice for a noble cause, as a sacrifice necessary to secure freedom for themselves and others.
Our history becomes more complicated following the end of the Second World War because in our victory, our nation began to try to import our Dream. Some welcomed the initiative, others did not. Against the Soviet Union, we fought proxy wars and orchestrated clandestine machinations to protect the Dream, to protect our way of life, to keep alive the hope that free people can live in freedom and manage their well-being through mutual consent.
Is it not telling that in the 1960s and into the current era, as we have made significant efforts to limit the inflow of immigrant populations, that we have begun to see the more complicated and serious threats to our well-being as a nation. The Chinese Exclusion Act of the 1880s and the Mexican Repatriation of the Great Depression pale in comparison to what has happened with the severe limitation of immigrants from those continents such as Asia and Latin America; inhabitants of countries who we perceive have little to offer our bounty and ability to help us continue to nurture the Dream.
Even as the Civil Rights Movement demanded that the Dream include more of our populace; even as women fought to be full partners in the life of our land; even as students asserted their young voices and energy, we responded to this change by beginning to close our doors and seal our ports against strangers. It’s as if we have said to the world around us, we are done with you, we do no longer need your imagination and sweat, we are sufficient unto ourselves. We can manage.
But we cannot. In fact, we have never known such crises as that which we face currently. Our political structure is collapsing. It is proving itself inept and unable to deal effectively with serious threats to our well-being. The problems with health care, the ignorance surrounding our climate’s serious changes, the continued dependence we have on an economy that cannot seem to free itself of its unrelenting and increasingly inhuman military might threaten us far more than demigods with great industrial capacity to make tanks and warplanes. Our President’s failure to soundly denounce white supremacy is just one example that the Dream is under attack and eroding.
The refusal to allow children of immigrants to enjoy the benefits of this land’s surplus and exceptional opportunity is probably the largest threat to the Dream. Throughout our history, children of immigrants have accompanied their families, have experienced the hardship of living in a new land, have gleaned from their elders the values and aspirations of the generations that preceded them. As they came of age, nurtured by the support of family, inspired by the chance to make their way, and assisted by the imagination that this country seems to inculcate in others, they have planted. They have sown. They have reaped. And the harvest that they have brought to our national community has been nothing short of abundant, nothing less than essential, and nothing else but their share in the American Dream. In fact, in their commitment to their own lives, to their own families and descendants, they have reinvented the Dream and made it a living myth, a powerful story, and ongoing project of human endeavor.
To inhibit them, to deny them that which has not been denied before to our immigrant children, not in the magnitude proposed, is foolhardy and dangerous. Our national imagination depends on these young ones. They are the ones who have ‘eyes to see and ears to hear.’ Their voice is essential if we are to be led out of the morass that we find ourselves in. In negating these young ones, we negate not them and their security and hope for a better life, we negate ourselves. We deny the truth of the myth that is more powerful than our reality; the myth of our national identity that says we are a people who can overcome even the darkest of obstacles, who can retool, reform, and regroup.
Who better to help lead us into the next epoch of our history, into the next chapter of our history, then a generation of people who believe in the myth more than we do?
Our politicians have brought us to a dangerous moment in our history. We are at the precipice. We will cease to be the people we have thought ourselves to be if we follow through with this trajectory. I do not predict the future. But I do have some sense of the past. If this nation is to survive, thrive, and exist as a beacon of hope and land of plenty, then it much reconsider this dangerous line of action.
We are a great people because, even despite our deepest darknesses, we have extended welcome to others. That gesture has identified us. More importantly, it has saved us, because in extending ourselves to others, others have joined us and made us the people we are; a people free, prosperous, and secure. May it continue to be so.