I’ve been reading “The Sketch Book” by Washington Irving, the author who gave life to the Headless Horseman and Rip Van Winkle. “The Sketch Book” contains both of these classics of early-American literature. It was published in the late 1820’s when the United States of America was an infant nation taking its first solid steps into maturity. I picked up the book out of a longing to read some great writing that really challenged me in a way modern writers cannot. I expected that kind of experience reading something written almost two hundred years ago. What I didn’t expect was to read passages that seemed to speak directly to the political and moral climate of the United States in 2016.
In a chapter about the animosity that existed between English and Americans in the 1820’s (not a big surprise on the heels of two wars fought between the nations!), I felt like Irving’s ghost was addressing issues that are popping up all over the place today.
The first quote that struck me was this one: “Governed, as we are, entirely by public opinion, the utmost care should be taken to preserve the purity of the public mind. Knowledge is power, and truth is knowledge; whoever, therefore, knowingly propagates a prejudice willfully saps the foundation of his country’s strength.”
Like so many others I have been angered and frustrated by the things said and issues promoted by Donald Trump in his bid for the candidacy of the Republican party. The broad generalizations, mockery, bombast and overall asine-ness of his ridiculous campaign is reason enough to be disgusted. But what has really discouraged me is the lack of responsibility shown by someone in a position of power and influence in what he will say and represent in the public sphere. It is not a stretch to say that Trump has “knowingly propagated prejudices”. Reading Irving’s quote I realized what else has me fuming: In the mindless quest to “Make America Great Again”, he is actually sapping the great strength of America. He will not make America great by this strategy but drag it down somewhere far below mediocrity, to a place that is base and petty and self-serving.
Washington Irving reminded me that people in positions of influence, especially in a democratic land where the voice of the people give it power, have a responsibility to use their words with care, to promote justice and peace and truth, and to give meaning not to ignoble but to noble purpose. By this you promote the “purity of the public mind”. I have been witnessing so much of the opposite lately that I have felt the greatness slipping away from the U.S.
What is the greatness of America? The next quote I came upon in Irving’s book reminded me of that. But it also brought discouragement as I considered the debate in my homeland over the refugee crisis and how some states were refusing to give asylum to people desperately in need of it. Here is Washington Irving again: “Opening, too, as we do, an asylum for strangers from every portion of the earth, we should receive all with impartiality. It should be our pride to exhibit an example of one nation, at least, destitute of national antipathies, and exercising not merely the overt acts of hospitality but those more rare and noble courtesies which spring from liberality of opinion.”
I have lived in Canada for the last fifteen years but I was born and raised in the United States. Growing up, you learn about the make-up of your nation; you learn the pride in being a land of free people who came from every corner of the globe; you learn to believe that your nation, above all others, will do the right thing when confronted with the choice to do or not do what is right. Now, as an adult, I know a lot of what I was taught growing up was a form of American Mythology that helps to promote the idea that the U.S. is the greatest nation ever. You grow up singing lots of spangly songs of patriotism, believe me! Yet there is a deep truth in the fact that America has been a light and a hope for millions of people over more than two centuries. Those famous words at the Statue of Liberty, penned by Emma Lazarus, and taught and quoted over and over cannot be ignored: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
Emma Lazarus in her poem called the Statue the “Mother of Exiles” but I don’t thinks she was just talking about the Statue. The United States has been the Mother of Exiles for so many. In fact, many Americans can trace their roots to a time when their grandfathers and fathers were exiles; people yearning to be free from religious persecution, ethnic cleansing, poverty, prejudice and the like. How can it be, then, that a group such as the Syrian refugees – a group that certainly could be described as tired, poor, huddled masses yearning for freedom – be confronted with proverbial closed doors and barred gates?
The answer, of course, is fear. Fear specifically of ISIL but fear more generally of a big, bad outside world that will destroy your way of life. Yet what is that way of life but freedom? And who is free who can abide anyone being denied freedom themselves? Who can let fear give voice to their opinions who know that ultimately what has always been true, in the words of JFK, is that the only thing America has to fear is fear itself? Fear strips away freedom; it takes away your freedom as it takes away a freedom others so desperately crave.
America doesn’t need to be made great again. America is already great. But America needs to be reminded of its greatness. It is being forgotten. Worse, it is being replaced by something lower than mediocrity: Spite, vitriol, a shallowness that threatens to swallow up everything like a Black Hole.
The fear needs to be named. And then the fear needs to be rejected in favor of the boldness that has always marked the United States as the home of the brave and free. That’s the America I still love. I suspect that the vast majority of Americans agree.
I appeal, as one of my favorite Americans once did, to the “better angels of our nature”. Abraham Lincoln was attempting during that first inaugural address to avert a coming horrific conflict. Unfortunately, America slipped into the bloodiest era of its history. My hope and prayer is that by appealing again to those angels in us, this time around, instead of horror there will be peace.
“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” – Abraham Lincoln