Are Americans Better Than This?

Becky O'Malley
Monday July 09, 2018 - 01:53:00 PM

“We’re better than this.”

How many times have liberal Americans used this phrase as they condemn the Republican administration’s seizure of several thousand children as punishment for their parents’ attempts to enter the United States? It’s even been used by a few critical right-wing Christian Evangelical supporters of Donald Trump. I might have used it myself on occasion.

But it’s not true, like so many other patriotic characterizations bandied about these days. We are exactly no better than this.

This is who we are—Americans all, not just members of evangelical Christian sects like Attorney General Sessions. Stephen Miller, the most horrendous of the anti-immigrant reptiles Trump likes to surround himself with, was a Bar Mitzvah boy. Although the majority of the Supreme Court justices who have just upheld the worst bans on immigrants from Moslem countries were raised as Catholics, they happily turn their backs on exhortations from Pope Francis to show “Christian” charity to strangers among us.

Religion doesn’t save us.

And realistically, that’s not new news around here. Yes, we’re a nation of immigrants. Everyone except a dwindling number of Native Americans is descended from immigrants, but we’ve always been happy to raise the gangplank to keep the last batch of refugees from disembarking on our sacred shores.  

Somewhere buried in my too full bookshelves there’s a cheaply printed mid-nineteenth century publication by the (self-styled) Know-Nothings. It’s full of lurid fabrications about the nefarious practices of the Irish and Italians—the ancestors of the Kennedys and Alitos who now sit in judgment on today’s refugees. Even Clarence Thomas, whose ancestors were brought here in chains, shows no sympathy for shackled migrants and their imprisoned children. 

You’ve heard all this before. The news media, to their credit, have been exploiting the endless fount of sad stories about what’s happening on our southern border. Anyone who reads a paper, watches TV or listens to the radio can’t avoid them without some effort. Many citizens, of course, try hard to do just that. 

Sadly, this is not just an American problem. All over the world, for as long as there’s been recorded history, humans have wanted to keep out the stranger. It’s not even the different-looking stranger—the Russians and the Ukrainians look a lot alike to the naked American eye, and yet they’ve traditionally been at each other’s throats from time to time as they are now. 

But though we Americans are not actually “better than this” this country has one major traditional difference in attitude toward newcomers. We are at least aspirationally better than this. We say that we want to be better. 

It’s right there in the Declaration of Independence’s accusations against the wicked King George: 

“He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither…” 

Yes,yes, I know that the Founding Fathers were almost all White Guys, and they were taking land from the natives, but they genuinely aspired to encourage foreigners to live with them, which was not an internationally recognized sentiment in those days. 

These days, many of our country’s officials, starting at the top, are eagerly “obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners”, but public opinion is still opposed to this behavior, just as it was when George III was trying to do it. 

I was reminded of all this as I participated in the annual indulgence of the civic religion which occurs around the anniversary of the signing of that Declaration on July 4. 

Corny to celebrate the Fourth, you say? Maybe so, but many of our fellow citizens here in the urban East Bay think it’s just fine. 

I like music, and I like fireworks, and I like historic buildings, and Richmond’s cannily scheduled July 3 Fireworks covers all the bases. For the last ten years Maestro Michael Morgan has brought his Oakland Symphony to the old Ford plant, now the Craneway Pavilion, on the Richmond harbor. It’s a free pops concert with stirring music to accompany the show in the sky.  

(And yes, I admit I love fireworks, even though I also like birds, who don’t like fireworks. Surely we can be allowed a few small vices once a year.) 

The best thing about these events is the people, who bring picnics and set up camp chairs on the cement floor of the gorgeous huge building.  

Everyone from every continent was there on Tuesday night.  

Betty Reid Soskin, the world’s oldest park ranger at 96, with ancestors from Africa and Europe, did a cameo. 

Jovanka Beckles, AD 15 Democratic candidate, an immigrant from Panama, was spotted taking a selfie with the Maestro.  

Heartbreaking, however, were the tiny Latin kids there with their families, looking just like the ones we’ve been seeing and hearing about in the media, all too easy to picture locked in cages.  

Are we better than this? How can we let such things go on? 

Maybe we’re better here, now, in the Bay, at least? 

But the migrants in the Contra Costa County detention center not far away could certainly hear the fireworks. 

So the next day we went to another one of my favorite places, Lake Merritt, beset with handsome but untidy geese and smelling of barbecue. We were there to see the Oakland Municipal Band, an excellent ensemble of professional musicians who play in the nicely restored 1918 bandstand throughout the summer. 

Singing the patriotic songs for this occasion was soprano Eliza O’Malley, who will be St. Joan in Verdi’s Giovanna d’Arco next week with Berkeley Chamber Opera at the Berkeley Hillside Club next Friday night and Sunday afternoon. (Shameless plug. Joan of Arc: now there was a patriot for the ages! Verdi wrote this opera in 1845, and it was an inspiration for Italian revolutionaries in 1848.) 

This audience, sitting on the lawn, was another East Bay crowd which matched the description of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Queens district : “the UN on lunch break”. Among the families spread out on the lawn I recognized former Oakland Mayor Jean Quan and her husband Dr.Floyd Huen, descendants of Chinese immigrants.  

Another friend was there decked out in full patriotic red, white and blue. As I remember her story, she’s of Persian background, raised in Germany, who taught European languages to Oakland high-schoolers for many years. In other words, a typical American success. 

At the end of the concert, there was a rousing rendition of Stars and Stripes Forever. Per tradition, all of the children in the audience and some of the grownups marched around the bandstand waving little flags. Some sang along with the real lyrics, others with “be kind to your web-footed friend”, perhaps in honor of the geese. Jean and Floyd, old FSM lefties though they are, enthusiastically joined in the march. 

A lovely day in a beautiful park in a splendid if complicated city with a handsome diverse population…sneer if you must, but it won’t get much better than this.  

Now we just have to figure out how to communicate with our fellow Americans who don’t yet get it. For starters, those babies are still locked up without their parents.