THE MEANING OF AMERICA – When America Fears
Part one of a four part series by Avery Slom for the ASPL blog
I’m not sure what’s going on in America, now. It’s as if we’ve forgotten who we are, forgotten what we are, forgotten what America means…again. But those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, as the saying goes.
We may be in one of those phases of xenophobia, paranoia, and borderline insanity that we seem to go through from time to time. Throughout our short history as a nation, there have always been individuals who have reacted in anger against people they regard as ‘different’, whether they be Chinese or Irish or Catholic or whatever. Apparently, any perceived difference, no matter how trivial, can be seen as dangerous for those sufficiently prone to fear. But sometimes the nation as a whole, or at least a significant part of it, seems to tip toward irrationality in response to situations we don’t fully understand and impulsively perceive as existential threats.
It happened in 1798 when we passed the Alien and Sedition acts as a reaction to the anarchy and disorder resulting from the French Revolution. It happened in the 1850s with the Know-Nothing Movement in response to the fear of Catholics. It happened during the Civil War, when Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus, allowing people to be imprisoned for criticizing the war. It happened during WWI, when speaking against the draft could land you in jail; and in WWII when 110,000 Japanese-Americans were sent to concentration camps surrounded by barbed wire because they might be a threat to national security (none were ever convicted of this). It happened again in the 1950s, when McCarthyism lead to hundreds being arrested and thousands losing their jobs because they might have communist sympathies. In each case, cherished civil liberties that define America were infringed. Paradoxically, it was our reactions to perceived threats that truly endangered the Nation. They threatened the very core of what America is all about.
America was founded on the principles of freedom and opportunity, not just for a few, but for everyone. It’s what made us different. It’s what made us special. When the United States of America was first realized as an independent nation based on these ideas, we were an inspiration to people all over the world.
Today, there are those who are attempting to instill an exaggerated fear of Muslims, Mexicans, gays, and probably several other things. They talk of building a wall, banning immigrants, deporting foreigners, denying basic rights, and sanctioning faith-based discrimination. To my mind, these notions intended to protect America are more than misguided. They are contrary to what America means.
The Meaning of America Blog Series:
- PART 1 — When America Fears
- PART 2 — What Made America Different?
- PART 3 — America Was Meant to be Different
- PART 4 — The American Idea