America First

For days, weeks and possibly months, the political sport of dissecting the election will continue. A wide range of explanations will emanate from leaders of both political parties, elected officials at all levels of government, commentators and the media. As we did during the campaign, we run the risk of over load and possibly even addiction. It might be more profitable to step back and slightly alter what we should examine. I suggest vivisecting the electorate itself—the people of the United States, regardless of how they voted or why they voted as they did. Who are we as a people? And what does it mean to put America first.

“God bless America” has become the norm for ending presidential speeches and even most campaign speeches. In and of itself it is innocuous. But it is also a blatant attempt to manipulate the listeners, at least those who believe in God. President Nixon first used the expression to deflect attention from his criminal activities surrounding the Watergate scandal. President Reagan used it to inflame the passions of patriotism. And now, in spite of the fact that it has become commonplace, it serves to suggest that every word in the speech that preceded it must be true because the speaker believes in “God and Country.” But there is a problem. Maybe the expression is not so innocuous after all, for it creates and then plays into a myopic vision of the world.

If there is one word that encapsulates this past election it is xenophobia—in its broadest sense. Not just fear of foreigners, but fear of anyone and anything that is different. Fear of people who are different whether because of their place of origin, the language they speak, the color of their skin, their sex or sexual orientation, their faith, their political beliefs. This broad definition of xenophobia also encompasses fear of international trade, of political and cultural exchange, even of scientific knowledge. In this kind of fear and uncertainty it is much more difficult to determine who are we as a people. Everything seems to have become unfamiliar and threatening. So we define ourselves by our past.

I am not convinced that the values of the right and the left are all that different. What I am convinced of is that we fear each other. But there is a solution. Getting to know an individual or group of people who are different from us; placing them and ourselves on the same plane; accepting them as equals; this is how we eliminate fear. By way of example, the reason that same sex marriage is so acceptable to most younger Americans is that they have grown up with friends who are gay, lesbian, bi and, more recently, transgendered. But when we ghettoize our existence, when we wall each other out—or in—we feed fear. And in that world of fear, who we are as a people becomes less attractive.

It is not surprising that the overarching xenophobia that drove the recent election centered around immigration. Immigrants are the ultimate other. They look, speak and worship differently than we do. And they come here to share (some would say take) our prosperity, our way of life. But this is the great conundrum for the Christian, and by extension for all other Americans.

Prior to WWII, most political and religious groups accepted that nations had an inherent right to limit immigration. After witnessing the devastation of the Nazis, and the Fascists and the threat posed by Communism, the Catholic Church made a profound move away from that right. This was partially influenced by the Church’s universality, and by its own immigrant experience, especially here in the United States. More importantly, though, the Catholic Church was evolving a body of social teaching that began in 1891 with Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical letter “Rerum Novarum.” In 1963 John XXIII declared in “Pacem in Terris” an absolute right to emigrate, and by 1967 Pope Paul VI made clear in “Populorum Progressio” that an individual’s right to emigrate supersedes a nation’s right to close its borders. Over the last fifty years, the Church has only reinforced its defense of the rights of immigrants to move where they will.

Although not popular with politicians or nativists, the Church’s teaching should surprise neither a believer nor a student of humanity. What country we are born into is purely an accident of birth. The land does not belong to us. We are its stewards, not its owners. For the believer all the earth belongs to God. For the non-believer it belongs to the whole of humanity. Immigration, along with globalization, must be seen as part of God’s plan for a universal humanity, one in which everyone partakes of and shares the world’s resources and where the few do not prosper at the expense of the many—not only within one country, but around the globe.

The Cold War that emerged at the end of WWII brought with it terms such as “Super Power” and “Leader of the free world”—words and ideas that became part of our daily lexicon. Whatever positive imagery arises from them, they also carry an unmistakable downside—dividing the world into us vs. them, and further deepening suspicion and fear. But we need not be restricted to the concepts that rise from those terms. Our imaginations remain unlimited and we possess the creativity to conceive the world any way we choose. The founding of the United Nations with its Declaration on Human Rights proves this. We have the ability. We seem to have lost the will.

I am glad to have been born in the United States and I appreciate my life here. But I do not believe in America first. America is a land of great opportunity, but it is not inherently better than other countries. We profoundly proclaimed our right to freedom and self-determination with words that have inspired people the world over:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The rights articulated here belong to ALL people, not just Americans.

Our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution have long been beacons to the world, enshrining the concepts of liberty and justice. But when we surrender to the grasp of xenophobia they are reduced to the status of dusty documents, illuminating neither us nor the world. We should not accept America first. We should only accept America together. To borrow the language of fictional Camelot, all countries should be seated at a round table where all are equal.

Déjà Vu

Oppression and injustice, not unlike revolutions, always begin small. A cadre of like-minded individuals gain influence among a modest group of people, then they establish policies and doctrines that cement their authority over others, frequently minorities.

In South Africa, for example, the National Party started out as a disgruntled band of Afrikaners who wanted to assert power over the native blacks who had inhabited the land for hundreds of years. To be fair, the National Party also considered themselves natives (without the barbaric and uncivilized connotations), since their Dutch ancestors had arrived at the Cape in the sixteen hundreds. Without being too simplistic, their history was the same as every other colonial power: a conquering country arrives and steals the land of the native people, claiming it for their own.

From the vantage point of the Afrikaners, they built the country, bringing modern technology and western civilization to the natives. Of course, their concept of civilization did not include any measure of equality such as sharing the land or the resources or the wealth. Their building of the land depended on enslaving the natives, eventually corralling them into townships and so-called homelands.

It is tempting to forgive people who claim that that kind of slavery and injustice are over. It is part of our past, they say. Not our present. Even in the United States the Supreme Court, i.e. the Republican appointees, have begun defanging and stripping significant power from the civil rights legislation claiming that it is no longer needed. Even where voting rights have been historically denied or curtailed in the offending southern states the Court now says there is no longer a need for protections. Equality has come to the land they say. It is not so tempting, however, to forgive those five justices—they should know better. In case there is any doubt regarding the blatant blindness of the Court, we have Ferguson, Missouri.

Not unlike the Afrikaners, a cadre of white individuals has staked a claim over the city, controlling its power structure and policing. As happens all-too-frequently in the U.S. an unarmed black man was killed by a white cop. Missouri, by the way, is a southern state.

You’ve got to hand it to Ferguson, though. At least in South Africa the government hired and bribed black policemen to kill black citizens. That’s too subtle for Ferguson. Just let a white man do it. In the open. In broad daylight. In fact, shoot him six times with one of the bullets entering the head execution style. If this sounds as though I am playing a race card or fanning the flames of discontent, consider:

Michael Brown, as we all know, was unarmed. Initially the city officials gave little information about the shooting and when they did, the statements were inconsistent and incoherent, sometimes even flat out contradictory. We were told the officer knew Michael Brown was a suspect in a convenience store altercation. Then we were told the officer knew nothing of the kind. We were told that Brown was stopped for walking in the street, apparently a very serious crime in Ferguson,k one that can lead to death.

For one week the name of the officer, Darren Wilson, was withheld. As is typical in these cases we were told how wonderful and highly regarded the officer is. Apparently Wilson is a good guy who just shoots unarmed people. In the Old West it was called “circling the wagons.” Today it is just called protecting your own. Hmm. And I thought the police were supposed to protect the civilians.

This satirical tone is rooted in the fact that this kind of incident is not unusual, and achieving justice has become nearly impossible. Juries are reluctant to convict a police officer for shooting a suspect—even when the citizen is not suspected of do anything wrong. The officer simply claims he was in fear of his life. Apparently, too many white cops are afraid of unarmed black civilians. This is unfortunate, for there are more than enough examples of officers shooting in true self-defense. And no one wants to see police killed in the line of duty. Hence the jury tendency to give the officer the benefit of the doubt. But…

One has to wonder how the police department and city officials would react if a black officer killed an unarmed white citizen? It was not that long ago that black men were routinely and unjustly lynched after being falsely accused of raping a white woman. Maybe the Supreme Court is wrong and racial prejudice and injustice are not just memories. Wait a minute. No. Not maybe. The Supreme Court
is wrong.

My earlier reference to the Old West is underscored by the fact that Wilson shot Brown at high noon. At least in the movie of the same name, Gary Cooper shot people who were really trying to kill him! At the very least, police officers need to know that unlike Marshall Kane, or Wyatt Earp; unlike James Bond even; being given a badge and a gun is not a license to kill.

Note to the Supreme Court, to Congress and to the authorities in Ferguson. We can no longer tolerate this kind of déjà vu.

A Supreme Mistake

Money talks. This is an old aphorism in American culture and probably among people the world over, for human history has demonstrated that the rich generally get whatever they want. The haves never have enough and the have-nots never get enough. This is sufficiently problematic in the world of finance. But when that world intersects politics, the result is generally disastrous.

Democracy, certainly the American version of it, is predicated upon the principle of one person, one vote. No one individual possesses a greater claim than any other on the outcome of an election. At its core, democracy is essentially egalitarian. But this guarantee of equality is eroded when elections are determined by the amount of money available in a campaign. That is a lesson we should have learned in the 1970’s.

The Watergate scandal toppled an administration and led to the only Presidential resignation in U.S. history scarring the reputation of Richard Nixon, arguably a great statesman. But it did more. At the time, the scandal awakened Congress and the American people to the corrupting influence of money in politics, proving that this corruption is not just theoretical. The buying of politicians and political influence is intrinsically perverted and leads inevitably to a political and social landscape that is as dark as the night that follows the day.

The U.S. Supreme Court, at least five Justices, appear ignorant to historical reality. In yesterday’s decision McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, “There is no right more basic in our democracy than the right to participate in electing our political leaders.” Ironically, and not just a touch cynically, that is exactly the right that the Supreme Court has now stripped from most Americans.

I am baffled by one aspect of this decision: Why didn’t the Supreme Court just abolish elections altogether and merely put candidates up for auction? Oh, come to think of it, they did. How many Americans have $3.6 million to contribute to an election? People might do well to ask themselves whether their individual votes equate with participation compared to that kind of wealth.

There is an element of incomprehensibility in the court’s decision. Money is a tangible object, but the Justices want us to believe that spending it to influence elections is an exercise of free speech. This suggests that some people are more free than others because they possess more wealth. It also makes slaves of the poor, reducing the average American to a plantation worker. And if I am not mistaken, we already fought a war over that.

America is quickly falling, if it hasn’t already, into a world of oppression. An abyss where the oligarchy control all aspects of government—legislative, executive and judicial. We’ve seen this before, throughout history and around the globe. And we know the result. People will put up with oppression for only so long before they revolt. We did it ourselves over two hundred years ago. The last line of defense should the Supreme Court, but it has now fallen prey to the power and whim of the wealthy. As such, more and more citizens will begin to realize how powerless and disenfranchised they truly are.

I fear we are nearing a new revolution. Since the court’s ruling in McCutcheon infringes on the fundamental rights of the governed, maybe it is time to revisit our own Declaration of Independence. That founding document states, “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new Government…” Then again there might a less drastic solution.

In American democracy the government is the people. That’s why we have elections in the first place: to vote in and out of office those who, respectively, do or do not represent us. It is a reality today that running a campaign costs money. Perhaps the time has come for the government to equally fund all campaigns—the federal government for federal candidates and state governments for state candidates—and to eliminate all private funding. This is money that belongs to all the people, not just a privileged few. I realize that such a proposal will fall on many a deaf ear. But elections should be determined by the power of a candidate’s ideas and convictions, not the size of his or her bank account.

Money talks, but it is not speech.