Gary Horton | Are We Who We Think We Are?

Gary Horton

Happy New Year to the Santa Clarita Valley! On to what will prove, one way or another, a monumentally important year. 

Americans have long thought of themselves as an exceptional people, blessed of God. Some speak of us as a “Shining City on a Hill.” Our compassion and empathy are said to be unmatched. Britannica Encyclopedia states, “American exceptionalism, idea that the United States of America is a unique and even morally superior country for historical, ideological, or religious reasons.” Empathy, love, that which we say we are. 

Carrie and I own a beautiful painting called, “Am I who I think I am.” This is a uniquely detailed painting of a late 1950s woman, looking like a perfect housewife, dressed to the nines, with everything in perfect order, as she stares hauntingly at the mirror, apparently waiting for something pivotal to happen. Her expression is concerning and uncertain. She’s uncertain about whether her husband loves her. Uncertain about her appearance. Uncertain about whether she is happy in the gilded cage in which she exists. The tension in the painting is palpable, and the painting is so well done, this tension bleeds into other life aspects, as we contemplate the full meaning of the painting. 

As we set goals for the New Year, we must consider what is happening all around us as Americans. Again, we find ourselves with a serious Trump threat against America’s democracy and decency, and against many of the national characteristics that had us believing in our “exceptionalism.” Indeed, our functioning democracy, which, until Donald Trump did his “good people on both sides” and “rigged system” schtick and full-blown coordinated insurrection, was key to this exceptionalism. In a world filled with monarchs and despots exploiting their subjects, political observers as early as 19th-century French political scientist and historian Alexis de Tocqueville noted America’s commitment to individual rights and importance of the person over the collective as a key source of our “exceptionalism.” 

Is America still this exceptional people of unique honor? Do we still carry this heavy torch, leading the world in democracy, righteousness, and importantly compassion and empathy? 

We are, more than anything else, a nation of immigrants. All of us, save for the 10% remaining of American natives we wholesale slaughtered, are immigrants to this land — many for just the past one or two or three generations. Our families showed up; we bore a generation or two of kids, and now we too often behave like we own the place. Manifest Destiny gave us the entire continent, and now, after having camped out here a couple of generations, we feel God-blessed to call shots with reckless swagger, when we should approach matters of the human condition with utmost humility and empathy. 

Now again, a twice-impeached presidential candidate and 91-indictment criminal suspect Trump attacks American compassion with his fascist commentary: “You could go to a banana republic and pick the worst one, and you’re not going to see what we’re witnessing now. No control whatsoever. Nobody has any idea where these people are coming from, and we know they come from prisons. We know they come from mental institutions [and] insane asylums. We know they’re terrorists. Nobody has ever seen anything like we’re witnessing right now. It is a very sad thing for our country. It’s poisoning the blood of our country. It’s so bad, and people are coming in with disease. People are coming in with every possible thing that you could have.” 

Trump denigrates the poor and suffering because it resonates in the hardened hearts of the 30% of Americans aligned with him, ginning up angry older voters who are already terrified of an avalanche of social and techno-changes confronting them. 

Conversely, since 1909, “The New Colossus,” a poem by Emma Lazarus, has been inscribed on a plaque affixed to our universally loved Statue of Liberty. It reads:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame, 

With conquering limbs astride from land to land; 

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand 

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame 

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name 

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand 

Glows worldwide welcome; her mild eyes command 

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame. 

 “Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she 

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor, 

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, 

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. 

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, 

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” 

America once stood in unity with that “Mighty woman with a torch” – her name being, “Mother of Exiles.” With silent lips our mother cries, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore …” 

But this was an America before Trump. Today, says, Trump, “They’re poisoning the blood of our country. They’re coming from Africa, from Asia, from all over the world …” And 30% of Americans nod their heads in solemn agreement, perhaps even holding their MAGA hats over their hearts as they betray Godly calling. Still, Trump feeds their xenophobia to ecstatic cheers. 

You know, most of our own families were indeed wretched themselves, way back when they themselves first arrived … 

Friends, there is little doubt our immigration system requires a substantial overhaul to meet the needs of our 21st Century nation and our God-mandated exceptional humanitarian obligations. But dehumanizing the very huddled masses yearning to become free defiles our empathetic exceptionalism to gin up anger, racism and votes. 

So, are we who we think we are? Not if we dehumanize desperate immigrants seeking refuge. Can America absorb them all? Not under current protocols and processes. Can we treat them respectfully, honorably and lovingly? Absolutely, if we’re exceptional, as so many want to say. However, if we align with the “taint the blood” and “vermin” crowd, we’re akin to my uncertain lady looking in the mirror: Everything seems OK on the surface, but just below, things look very dark, leading uncertainly toward an America ruled by despots, authoritarianism, despair, and denigration of the weak, the poor … the wretched. 

As we select new leaders in 2024, if we wish to remain the America we think we are, we must retain our core values of decency and vote accordingly.

Gary Horton’s “Full Speed to Port!” has appeared in The Signal since 2006. The opinions expressed in his column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Signal or its editorial board.

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