Wissot: When America stopped dreaming, from ‘America first’ to ‘America alone’ (column)
July 6, 2018
I was standing on the corner of 42nd Street and the Avenue of Americas in Manhattan when John Glenn's motorcade drove by. The date was March 1, 1962, nine days after Glenn had become the first American to orbit the Earth. I was 17 years old and playing hooky from my job delivering Western Union telegrams in the Hell's Kitchen section of the borough, which was several blocks west from where I was standing.
The route the motorcade took, which began at the very tip of Manhattan at Battery Park and ended several miles later at Central Park, was known as the "Canyon of Heroes." It still is. It is how New York City has always celebrated extraordinary achievement, from Charles Lindbergh to the 27 World Champion New York Yankee baseball teams.
I was witnessing the beginning of the last decade America would still dream about the future with unabashed confidence. John F. Kennedy had challenged us in his inaugural address the year before by saying, "Do not ask what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country." It was that optimism which resulted in the creation of the Peace Corps six weeks later. Two months after that, he set a goal of landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade. And you know what? We did.
The point I am trying to make is not that America succeeded in fulfilling all its ambitions. Quite to the contrary. We failed as often as we triumphed. The push for civil rights was derailed by urban riots. Lydon B. Johnson's War on Poverty programs were accused of breeding welfare dependence.
But what separated the 1960s from the present was that we still believed as Americans that we had both an obligation and an opportunity to improve our society and make the world a better place to live.
Fast forward to today. We have almost passed the one and a half year mark of the Donald Trump presidency. Where JFK inspired us to be altruistic and reach for the stars; where Abraham Lincoln appealed "to the better angels of our nature"; and where Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in the depths of the depression, told us "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself"; Trump has spent his time in office fanning the flames of paranoia and prejudice.
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He has told us we have to be fearful of terrorists from the Middle East and "rapists" and "criminals" from Mexico. He has instituted a Muslim travel ban and created chaos on our southern border by separating asylum-seeking parents from their children.
Our president has all but declared our lady in the harbor closed to new business. Her replacement is symbolized in the shape of a 2,000-mile border wall.
Trump's anti-immigration stance is rooted in a long and shameful chapter in America's history. Truth be told, fear, suspicion and hatred of newcomers by locals has always been a part of immigration in this country. It was true in the mid-19th century, when fears of a papal takeover resulted in discrimination against German and Irish Catholic immigrants.
It appeared again in the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred Chinese women and workers from entering the country. It reared its ugly head one more time with the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924, which almost completely barred entry into this country for citizens of Africa, Asia and the Caribbean ("U.S. has a long history of restricting immigration," Kelly Jean Kelly, USA, Jan. 31, 2017).
Trump's xenophobia also contains a meritocratic element to it. He wants to replace the family reunification program and the visa lottery system with a more selective process, which would offer immigration to mostly educated applicants with specifically defined job skills ("How Trump's 'merit-based' immigration system might work," Julie Hirschfeld Davis, New York Times, March 1, 2017).
This would be a rude departure from what the American dream has meant to millions of immigrants who came to this country seeking better lives for themselves and their families.
These immigrants were not always their countries' best educated and trained. Most came seeking employment opportunities not available to them there. What they brought was hope and ambition, not a polished resume of impressive credentials. Many realized that it was too late for them to become successful here, but by taking the hardest and most menial of jobs, they believed they might provide a better future for their children. ("World of Our Fathers," Irving Howe, 1975).
Trump's unwillingness to maintain long-standing bonds with our closest European and North American allies has transformed "America first" into "America alone" ("America alone?" Krishnadev Calamur, The Atlantic, June 10, 2018). Will his administration's cruel and harsh treatment of immigrants seeking political asylum at our southern border cause the citizens of this country to think of ourselves as America ashamed?
I sure hope not.
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at email@example.com.