Friday, October 21, 2016

In Defense of America

This election cycle, it is all the rage to hate on the United States. On the political right, Trump's campaign slogan implies that America needs to be fixed. On the political left, political discourse can often make it sound like America is the most racist, mysogynistic, and unjust country on the planet. It has gotten so bad, in fact, that Canadians have even rallied to try to buoy the spirits of their neighbors to the south.

I teach high school social studies, this year to sophomore United States History students. It is a very difficult year to stand in front of students and try to provide a fair and balanced perspective. I can hear the disillusionment about government in the things they say to each other about the election, and I fear their generation may already be jaded about America's political process. And of course the rude debate styles and personally insulting rhetoric of the candidates for President are to blame. Or are they? Certainly there is an unprecedented level of animus between the candidates, but we as Americans are just as culpable for the prevailing attitude about our country.

This country was founded by “a bunch of old, privileged white guys” to be sure, but along the way we have fought to enfranchise more Americans, make working conditions better for employees, create safe places to live for our citizenry, and create an inclusive society. Yes, we have failed in many ways, but we have always been willing to confront our problems as a society and work to solve them, even if we are often unsuccessful at first. Even when Americans have attempted to block what many of us view as progress, it has been a vocal minority. Even today, a large portion of Trump’s supporters are not racists slathering at the mouth, but rather white, working class Americans frustrated that the changing global economy seems to have left them behind.

I am teaching my students about the turn of the twentieth century in the United States right now, and it seems to me that we should pause to think about that America. That America in which people left behind nearly all of their belongings and sometimes family to come to our nation. That America, where reformers worked tirelessly to make living and working conditions better. That America, where people worked back-breaking jobs to provide for their families. That America, where our patriotism was not based solely on the power of our military, but on what we could achieve together. Where we built skyscrapers that astonished the world, and where a majority of the population in some American cities was foreign born. These are the people who built our nation, and we do them a great disservice by disrespecting what they sacrificed so much to build. They endured racism and political corruption too, but through it all, they survived.

Few nations on earth would have weathered the storms that America has faced, and we still have a long way to go, but we are a great nation. Right now. At this moment, there are millions of people waiting in line to come into this country, from all over the world. I hear the saying, “If you don’t like America, you can leave.” Perhaps a better saying might be, “If you don’t like America, do your part to make it better.” The people who fled from global religious and ethnic persecution, economic disaster, and political strife throughout history did their part when they arrived here, and we enjoy standing on the foundations that they built with blood, sweat, and tears. The American Dream only dies if we all stop believing in it.

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