By David K. Shipler
All countries need myths, especially if they’re at least a little bit true. They inspire imagination, set high standards, and foster hope. The American Dream is such a myth, for it challenges the society to make real the principle that anyone who works hard can prosper. American democracy is partly mythological in an age of voter suppression and billionaire campaign funding.
President Obama has summoned up another myth—one about American character—by often declaring that this or that bigoted, inhumane, self-destructive policy is “not who we are.” That’s partly correct, but only partly. The notion of a people inherently devoted to inclusive, rational decency is a beautiful myth being sullied daily by the leading Republican presidential candidates and now, as seen in the Iowa results, by their supporters. If they are “who we are,” then we have some work to do on truth-telling, cooperative problem-solving, and respect for the country’s religious and ethnic diversity.
Obama has been ridiculed on the political right for overusing the expression to cast moral judgments on conservative positions, as if an opposing view violates the innate qualities of who we are. A brief collection of video clips makes the point. What they fail to convey, however, and what the mainstream press usually omits, are Obama’s soaring calls to Americans’ better nature, his faith in the nation’s finest values and aspirations. He sounds either uplifting or self-righteous, depending on whether you agree or disagree with him.
He has called health care reform “fundamentally about the character of our country, doing right by one another. It’s who we are.” While continuing excessive surveillance practices, he has urged “the appropriate balance between our need for security and preserving those freedoms that make us who we are.” Even as his Justice Department has prosecuted government leakers more aggressively than any administration in history, he has said that “a free press is also essential for our democracy. That’s who we are.” The contradiction between behavior and rhetoric also says something about who we are.
His phrase has permeated many policies and many officials’ statements. Obama, in pushing the American Jobs Act to fund infrastructure improvements, urged a vision of a big America, not “a small America where we let our roads crumble, we let our schools fall apart, where we stand by while teachers are laid off and science labs are shut down, and kids are dropping out.” He called this “a contest of values. That’s what’s at stake here. This is a fundamental debate about who we are as a nation.”
In denouncing Donald Trump’s call to close mosques and exclude Muslims from entering the United States, Vice President Biden warned that victory over ISIS would come by “refusing to compromise our fundamental American values: freedom, openness, tolerance. That’s who we are.”
In objecting to a Republican measure to strip young illegal immigrants of the chance to defer their deportation, the White House press secretary, Jay Carney, said, “It asks law enforcement to treat these [young people] the same way as they would violent criminals. It’s wrong. It’s not who we are.”
And as Eric Holder left his post as attorney general, acknowledging the long list of problems remaining to be addressed in criminal justice, he said that no issue would be insurmountable “if we are true to who we are as Americans.”
So who are these mythical Americans? They are one side of a complex reality, a conflicted national personality that welcomes and suspects strangers, that opens and closes doors of acceptance, that embraces and eschews uncomfortable facts, that yearns for pluralism and conformity, that celebrates individualism and ordered authority, that practices generosity and self-indulgence.
Like Thomas Jefferson, who denounced slavery while owning slaves, the complicated American character contains a long history of extreme opposites. We have persecuted people on religious grounds, massacred and uprooted the natives of this land, exploited and abused immigrants based on ethnicity, denied blacks and women the vote, segregated African-Americans, interned Japanese-Americans, imprisoned protesters on the political margins, tortured prisoners with White House approval—and then in retrospective regret have corrected and protected and erected legal and cultural barriers to the repetition of most such abuse.
Now, unleashed by Trump’s skillful manipulation of mob impulses, plus the acquiescence by silence of his Republican competitors, hatreds against various groups are being legitimized and are poised for conversion into violence, perhaps even political violence. Trump’s second-place showing in Iowa will not make him disappear. More significantly, it will not discredit the ugly voices that have gained ground in the so-called political conversation. Ted Cruz will be looking for their votes.
Drawing a causal link between repugnant words and violent actions is rarely possible, but can it be a coincidence that Planned Parenthood, vilified by Republicans with doctored videos, has become a target of gunfire and arson? Can it be a coincidence that attacks on mosques and Muslims soared amid the odious rhetoric of Trump and other Republicans that followed the terrorism in Paris and San Bernardino? The fantasies of a cottage industry of anti-Islam organizations, fabricating arguments that Muslims are bent on taking over America, have found resonance among extremist Republicans, including Ben Carson.
So virulent has the threatening atmosphere become that the Justice Department mobilized U.S. Attorneys in several parts of the country to make pleas to citizens. “Recent and horrific terror attacks around the world have resulted in a regrettable and divisive rhetoric, and unlawful conduct in some corners,” wrote John R. Parker, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Texas, in the Dallas Morning News, “throwing millions of law-abiding and patriotic Arab and Muslim Americans, as well as others perceived to be Muslim, into the frightening reality of feeling unsafe and threatened right here in the communities we share.”
That is who we are. We are also a society in which Muslims have found happy and prosperous lives, perhaps more successfully than in any other Western land, a tribute to the side of our character that some of us celebrate, and others of us fear. Perhaps Obama should change his phrase, and instead of speaking about “who we are,” speak instead about “who we want to be.”