Today, President Trump signed a brand new travel ban applicable to six majority-Muslim nations, in what is only the latest sign that the America of popular myth, the shining City on the Hill, is increasingly populated by ghosts and memories of the golden age.
Yes, dear reader, that was quite the hyperbolic opener, wasn’t it? Ah, if only it were meant in the spirit of mild sarcasm or deliberate overstatement. Sadly, it seems that more and more our conception of what it means to live the American Dream revolves around whether one is already in America. And while this notion may seem obvious and right to some, its toxic effect on our national culture cannot be overstated. We are a nation of opportunity, or we are nothing; and thus we are a nation of immigrants, or we are nothing more than another historical footnote, a nation that was once exceptional but threw away its own advantages.
Those same pundits and politicians who praise American Exceptionalism have already forgotten what that phrase actually is supposed to mean. They think it means something nebulous about freedom, or maybe that we invented democracy, or if they are honest, possibly that we have the best bombs. Well, dear reader, allow me to assure you — lots of places have freedom, lots of places have democracy, and lots of places have bombs. None of these things make a nation exceptional in this day and age. None of these things create the City on the Hill.
What makes America great, what has always made America exceptional, and what built and maintained the exceptional Shining City that was America, was the nation’s ability to attract the best, draw the brightest, and lure the hardest working to our shores. This is what drew my ancestors, and yours. It was the hope, the Dream, and the certainty that in America, your worth was dependent on your work.
Allow your humble author to repeat: What made America great was that in America, your worth was dependent on your work. The limit was what you were willing to risk, and how many times you were willing to rise again from failure; beyond that, you were free, you were protected by the law, and your children could take advantage of your labors. This was the hope that drew our grandfathers to this nation; it is the brick and mortar that built the City on the Hill, the beacon that shone across the world and attracted people from every nation and station to come to the U.S.A. in search of a better life.
And they came in their tens of thousands, over the years. The nation reaped the fruits of their labors, cities burst at the seams, and we benefited from the finest minds and strongest backs the world could provide.
The rot started to set in, frankly, when politicians failed to recognize that the policies of immigration had lagged far behind the nation’s requirements. Why, one must ask, do we have an entire shadow economy of migrant laborers, people who are unprotected, illegal, and subject to the tender mercies of immigration enforcement… and yet so critical to the nation’s farm output? Why, one must ask, do we have so many people in our service industries who stay in our cities at great risk on over-stayed visas? If market forces did not support them, they wouldn’t be here.
Obviously there is an inefficiency here, dear reader, that has long gone unfixed. Policies failed, and rather than fix the policy our politicians chose instead to demonize the workers — those people who came here for the Dream, the same as all of our grandfathers, and stayed because their opportunities (even in the most demeaning jobs) are better here than in their own nations. We have seen the same demonizing tendencies in other nations that seek to blame their problems on the great mythic Other — Venezuela, Iran, and North Korea all play the same game our right-wing politicians and talk show hosts are trying to foist on us.
And now, as a result, many of our friends and neighbors are perfectly happy to tear apart the families and lives of Hispanic migrants, and rail against Middle Eastern and Indian immigrants, secure in their knowledge that the are “upholding the law.” Truly, there is little in this world more heinous than the actions of a man convinced of his own righteousness.
What good is the law, dear reader? Who does it serve? Should it serve the interests of the exploiters, those industrialists and overseers who are happy to use a labor force on the one instant, and deport it on the next? Should it serve those politicians and pundits whose only claim to fame is the fear and hatred their words engender? Or should it serve the interests of the City on the Hill, and that ephemeral notion that we should welcome fellow seekers of the American dream?
Perhaps we cannot let in everyone who wishes to join us in pursuit of a better life (although I have yet to see a valid defense of this position). But what does it say about the soul of a nation built on the principles of hard work, free religion, free expression, and equal treatment under the law, that our highest officials now actively seek (with the support of much of our citizenry) to bar entry to a vast number of people whose only crime is that they once lived in an unstable country? Truly, these are the people we should accept with open hearts and open hands. Not just because it would be a humane thing to do, but also because these are the people who will become our most ardent citizens!
Consider, dear reader — who has more zeal, the lifelong churchgoer or the convert? And who will have more faith in the nation, more patriotism, more incentive to selfless service to the country, than one whose family was saved in their most desperate hour by the goodwill of citizens of the City on the Hill? We are squandering a powerful and limited resource — an empowered, active, and loyal source of new citizens — with the foolish and short-sighted actions of the xenophobes who “lead” us now.
This will not get better on its own. Those who are now in power act with the merciless certainty of an inquisitor in all his red glory. They are certain their cause is right, certain that they are summoning a miracle for our economy and national culture by pushing out those they deem (through no apparent act of reason or justifiable metric) unworthy, dangerous, or just plain Muslim.
Dear reader, if you take nothing else away from this essay, understand this: these men who claim to lead us, these fools who would Make America Great by Making America Cruel, these monsters in suits — they summon no miracles with this shameful display. They summon demons instead — those pustule-encrusted imps whose names are Xenophobia and Isolationism, and whose rallying cry is “America First!” These fiends have been the death of empires in the past, and they bear us no better will.
They will tear down our City on the Hill even as they claim to rebuild it. They will tarnish its domes and blacken its walls even as they claim to Make America Great Again. They are amending the American Dream that all is possible with hard work with an additional clause that reads “as long as you are white, straight, and Christian,” and in doing so they are killing the only thing that ever made our country exceptional.
We are no longer the City on the Hill as long as men who claim to represent us push the ideas that minimal risk is more important than maximum benefit, that cruelty is justified in the name of economics, that security is more important than humanity, that division is preferable to inclusion, and that one faith is more important than another. Perhaps this is why Mr. Trump stated he wanted to “drain the swamp;” he was planning on building a new city amongst the alligators all along.
One last thing — if nothing else, dear reader, I can promise this: if we are the City in the Swamp, another will rise to become the City on the Hill. And the future will belong to them.