Taking Back America is About Personal Responsibility

Statue of Liberty, New York, Photo by Alex Be.

Statue of Liberty, New York, Photo by Alex Be.

UNITED STATES - No one should have to pay for the crimes of others, or be condemned simply because they share skin tone, profession, or religious affiliation. America isn’t that far removed from a time when Blacks, Native Americans, Jews, Catholics, Mormons and others had no legal recourse for being discriminated against. But we as a country and society have made great strides. However, in the last few days, much to the dismay and horror of the majority of Americans, the disenfranchised have chosen to discard reason and rational discourse to engage in ex-judicial violence. They have advocated for “race wars.” They are more vociferous and aggressive in their condemnation of foreigners. They are blinded by emotionalism and have conflated their desire to return to a past that made sense to them with the right to threaten a sitting President Barack Obama with death.

They are advocating for undemocratic policies, and seek to elect leaders willing to discard the sacrosanct ideals embodied in the U.S. Constitution. Within the last three days we have witnessed the death of two black men shot dead by officers, and a reported retaliatory shooting, murder, and wounding of several policemen in Dallas, Texas. Yet, in the midst of this mayhem and climate of blame and hate, cooler heads are prevailing and calling upon us to act with dignity, restraint, love, and civility in the face of the deeper undercurrent of distrust, fear, and intolerance which currently besets our nation.

On July 4th the Washington Post featured a post in which Fernando Herboso, 58, and his brother Carlos, who are Hispanic and own their own real-estate company, recount the difficulties they are encountering when trying to sell homes to Muslims wearing traditional clothing in the supposedly progressive suburbs of Washington, DC. They report an incident which occurred when they were showing a U.S. military veteran and his wife a home in Frederick, MD.  When they entered the community clubhouse and went out to the pool area a patron verbally assaulted them.

According to the article, the “woman lounging at the pool took one look at his client’s hijab and said it loud and clear: “We don’t want Muslims in our clubhouse. Take off that robe over [sic] your head!” she boomed.”

In another incident a child of one of his clients needed to use the restroom and the house they were touring had no running water. So he took her across the street where a woman was in the front yard watering her grass. He politely asked her if the little girl could use her restroom and without a word the woman shut off her hose, walked into her house, slammed and locked the door behind her.

This is the America we live in today, a sad reminder of days we thought were long behind us. Practices which we believed eradicated through the enactment of Civil Rights Laws and in this instant, the Fair Housing Act.  U.S. citizens are succumbing to baser natures and vilification of the other in lieu of examining their own role in why they are unable to keep pace with the demands of the new world. With bravado they proclaim that they are no longer holding back and are going to ‘tell it how it is,” but it would seem, to everyone but themselves. People who once privately embraced racism, misogyny, xenophobia, antiSemitism, anti-Muslim, and isolationism, now publicly defend these reprehensible characteristics and when confronted claim they have been misinterpreted.

But White Nationalists are unapologetic in their incitement of violence, or their exhilaration that their agenda has been elevated to the national stage. Sites like The White Genocide Project, promote the myth that racism against whites is a fact and that white people are the only ones who have to give up the country they built. They believe that Asians get to keep Asia, Muslims and Arabs get to keep the Middle East, Jews should be exterminated, and Black people get to keep Africa. Because, according to them all across Europe and in America white people are being forced out of their countries.  But, here is the problem.....America was stolen from the Native Americans, built on the backs of African slaves, and expanded westward through the construction of Central Pacific Railroad at the hands of Chinese-Americans. This is not to say that many other immigrants also didn’t contribute, however, in the early decades of its establishment, the blood, sweat, and tears of these three groups built this nation.

Thus, there are no halcyon days when this was a 'white' country to 'take it back to' or even to make great again. There is only the historical evidence of the dark days of violence, openly legislated systemic racism and intolerance, which resulted in the murder of millions of black slaves, the near annihilation of the Native Americans, and the abject treatment and exploitation of many other immigrants.

Meanwhile, across the pond, the passage of the Brexit referendum is the ‘canary in the coal mine’ for Americans being swayed by nationalism, seduced by nativism, and ensnared by nostalgia. The referendum presented British citizens with the choice to leave or remain as member country of the European Union. Overwhelmingly, the country voted in favor of leaving, though many regretted the decision upon review in the cold light of the morning after, leading to over 4 million people signing a petition to hold a second referendum.

The measure passed in large part because of cunning pandering to fear and xenophobia wrapped in the illusion of restoration of days of yore, and the charlatan promises to rob from the rich and give to the poor. For those who voted in favor of leaving or simply to make a political statement of their dislike of the status quo, they were shocked to discover that the passing of the referendum would not lead to greater freedom, opportunity, and affluence. Instead, it ushered the country into a Charles Lutwidge Dodgsonian universe, in which the young people and immigrants are Alice in anything but ‘Wonderland.’ The minute it approved the referendum Britain had to confront the impending reality of diminished presence and participation in the global market space, as well as being excluded from the privileges and ease of mobility that came with being citizen of the EU.

For young people like Sarah Abbasi, there is a great deal of anger toward the older generation holding the future of her generation captive. In her op-ed in The Guardian she wrote that “The future of the younger generation in the UK has been decided against their wishes. A nostalgic older generation has shaken my identity and I no longer fully understand what it means to be British. The number of students wanting to pursue opportunities in another EU country is likely to decline; it remains unclear whether or not future generations will even have the opportunities that were made available to me, which moulded me into an outward-looking, inquisitive and ambitious British.”

In numerous interviews and polls of Brits over 60, they revealed that they wholeheartedly supported leaving the EU so that they could take back their country or return to the way things used to be. In essence they voted to leave so that they could return to the idyllic days of a bygone era. One is tempted to ask if these elderly British citizens also longed for the loss of wealth that occurred immediately after World War II? Or perhaps they wanted to return to the 1970’s when Britain suffered a long running period of relative economic malaise, dogged by severe inflation, strikes, and citizens being regularly targeted in deadly terrorist’s attacks perpetrated by Irish Republican Army (IRA). Maybe they yearned for the times when “Unemployment exceeded 1 million by 1972 and had risen even higher by the time the end of the decade was in sight, passing the 1.5 million mark in 1978? (Source: West Sussex County Times)

It was reported by The Telegraph that the pound has crashed below $1.30 and bond yields hit record lows as Brexit aftershocks rattle global markets.  With the pound trading at its lowest levels in thirty years, inflation is predicted to hit the country hard. This means that older citizens who voted for the measure, were so wedded to the past they failed to take into account the realities of living as a pensioner on fixed income. Now these pensioners must look at their unvarnished history, no longer obfuscated by hazy memories, to accurately recall the difficulties they faced in that ‘better past.’ They must grapple with the present reality of decreased purchasing power of their pensions forcing many to make hard choices, even to the point of forgoing basic necessities.

When British citizens voted on behalf of xenophobia, racism, and isolationism, they deceived themselves and willingly bought into an irrational assertion that it is possible to resurrect the past. These older citizens who live predominantly in areas of the country which suffer from high unemployment as a consequence of the loss of industrial and mill jobs, became willing participants in what can only be described as mass psychosis. They chose to believe in the absurdity that the anachronistic industries that no longer meet the needs of our technology driven world would magically reappear. They longed for and fervently hoped to return to the ‘glory’ days of the Industrial Era. An era as outmoded and inefficient as slavery, the horse and buggy, and gas lights, etc.

Similarly, during each U.S. election cycles, candidates up and down ballot promise the return of factory jobs that supported families and communities in areas of the United States known as the Rust Belt. Politicians count on these constituents looking backwards, resisting progress, acquiescing to complacency and apathy, instead of aggressively retooling their skill-sets to prepare them to compete and grow with technology advancements. They count on their refusal to work in other market sectors despite the evidence that manufacturing has been in rapid decline for decades. Particularly in the steel mills and coal mines 'pink slipped’ workers refuse to acknowledge that these jobs will never come back.

With regard to the fossil fuel industry, many countries, including Saudi Arabia, are planning for future decreases in demand for oil and gas. According to Bloomberg News, the Kingdom plans to invest $109 billion in technologies to harness renewable clean energy sources from solar panels, wind, geothermal and nuclear reactors. Here in the States, coal companies are shuttering their doors and moving their base of operations overseas where regulative oversight is less stringent, and occupational health and safety rules non-existent. Robert Murray, owner of one of America’s largest private coal company, mendaciously informed employees that his company plans to lay off as many as 4,400 workers, or 80 percent of his workforce, and that their only hope to keep their jobs is to vote for a coal-friendly political candidates.

The fact of the matter is the industry is obsolete, and cannot compete against natural gas and other renewable energy producers. But, this didn’t stop Murray or politicians from stoking fears, peddling false hope, and persuaded the workers to blame others for their inability to compete in the new economies. Instead of inspiring confidence in the future, or offering educational opportunities to enable these workers to become more competitive, they appealed to their resentment. They urged them to wallow in self-pity, play the blame game, and adjured them to eschew personal responsibility.

When politicians cynically display and profess empathy for the plight of manufacturing workers and miners, cajoling them into giving them their votes with the patently false and empty promises of bringing back their jobs, they too are guilty of avoiding personal responsibility. They know that they will not be held accountable for the things they promise, so they can say anything with impunity in this culture of irresponsibility. Yet, these jobs will never come back because America no longer has a need for, nor the appetite to, pay for the high costs of these materials when manufactured domestically.

Additionally, our economy is much more complex and driven by domestic and international market forces. We now trade across borders intangible assets, resources, goods and services that are sold at greater profit to emerging countries. Though the economy is not as robust as we would like, we are not in a Great Depression, and the huge infrastructure building programs which were implemented as part of a strategy to kick start our economic engines, are no longer integral to our continued economic stability. Thus, to posit that we are going to turn back the clock, reinvigorate the Rust Belt and put people to work on large infrastructure projects is simplistic a best and deceptive at worst because we live in a world governed by technology.

The past is irrevocably complete and there is something profoundly pathetic and inimical about trying to steer a present into yesteryear and selling it as the future. The time of isolationism is past, we live in a global economy in which working poor and middle class people, especially in America, couldn’t survive without access to the low-costs products produced in China and elsewhere and sold in mega-stores like Walmart and Target. The very idea that the U.S. can pull back from its role as a global leader, ignoring the positive impact of international politics, policies, and trade is absurd. We have become and are becoming an increasing pluralistic and culturally diverse country and this cannot be reversed. So the preposterous idea of expelling all Mexican immigrants, building a wall, or otherwise seeking to once again homogenize the power structure, is not only xenophobic, but would also economically devastate the country and set a dangerous precedent that is antithetical to the democratic ideals of our nation.  

According to the New York Times, if unauthorized farm workers are expelled from the U.S. it would result “not just [in] more expensive produce, but the collapse of American labor-intensive agriculture. Instead of milk from a nearby dairy, the only kind available would come from abroad, and it would be irradiated or powdered. Meat would come from Brazil, shellfish from Thailand, fruits and vegetables from New Zealand — and that's the good, expensive stuff. There would be plenty of inferior products too, and much much less of anything would be fresh.

But worst of all would be the jobs lost for Americans. According to economists, every farm job supports three to four others up and downstream in the local economy: from the people who make and sell fertilizer and farm machinery to those who work in trucking, food processing, grocery stores and restaurants. Do we really want to lose those jobs too? No one in America is going to benefit from expelling immigrant farm workers. And the cost won't be pennies: it will run to billions of dollars.”  

And then there are the technological advances that skilled and highly trained immigrants bring to the economy. Already a challenging process, further restricting or outright closing our borders to immigrants will negatively affect our quality of life and access to innovations which streamline our daily interactions.

The Hill recently reported that “More than 100 chief executives of major tech companies and trade associations — including Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer — urged President Obama and Congress on Thursday to reform the existing immigration rules for highly-skilled workers. In recent years, tech giants have argued that the U.S. isn't producing enough graduates with the advanced technical skills needed to fill the several open engineering and research positions they have. In their letter, the tech executives note that IBM, Intel, Microsoft and Oracle combined have 10,000 job openings in the U.S.  

“We call on you to address the need for more qualified, highly-skilled professionals, domestic and foreign, and to enact immigration reform this year."

Once again, it comes down to personal responsibility. There are jobs in the country which Americans are unwilling to do – field workers, domestics, cleaning people, manual day labor, fast food employees, etc. Yet, we blame the immigrants who are willing to do what every other immigrant group has done who came to this country. You start at the bottom, you work hard, you save, poured your hard work and sacrifice into the futures of your children. These people were and are not afraid of responsibility. They did and do not shrink from the challenges of becoming captains of their destiny. They did and do appreciate the gift of democracy and freedom, and we would do well to return to this.

We shall fall as a nation if we chose to circle our wagons to the exclusion of the majority of people who do not look like us, pray like us, or talk like us. Emma Lazarus inspired us to enlarge our tents in the second and most famous stanza of her sonnet “The New Colossus,” in honor of The Statue of Liberty.

"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-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

If we chose to turn our backs on this path and shutter our borders, we shall dim that light of that beacon that will guide us through these uncertain times. If we start to single out groups of people and accuse them of being un-American, we risk reviving the “practice of making accusations of subversion or treason without proper regard for evidence.” In so doing, the U.S. shall lose its moral authority, and become no better than other countries where differences are not tolerated and often violently eradicated.

It is up to us to bury the carcasses of mythos, inhumanity, and the shamefulness of a past that didn’t serve us well as a nation. We must at every opportunity disabuse those who extol a time when people could abuse, subjugate, and kill others with impunity simply because they believed it was an inalienable right. We must resist all attempts to force us into suspicion and distrust, and reporting on our neighbors. We must remember our recent past, when tactics disguised as policy were implemented to disenfranchise American citizens.

We must stand firm and denounce all efforts to implement a national registration system for law-abiding Muslim Americans. We must remember our history so we don’t repeat it. We need look no further than January 14, 1942 following the attack on Pearl Harbor to see the ruinous and un-American conclusion of this type of thinking and rhetoric.

Today, it is the Muslim Americans, but in 1942 it was Japanese Americans. First, was the War Department’s blanket Executive Order 9066, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt which authorized the physical removal and detention of all Japanese Americans into internment camps in the interest of national security, after having classified them as enemy aliens. 127,000 Japanese American citizens, some of whom were veterans, became subject to racism, violence, and had their houses, businesses, and other property stolen. Not just because of the executive order, but by being labeled as such, they were distrusted as potential sleeper agents who could turn upon their communities and country even unto future generations.

Let us not ‘Regrexit’ because we have blithely succumbed to fear mongering and hatred, or apathetically acquiesced to the belief that there isn’t much we can do. We are responsible for this American experience, and we are the people, who are for the people, and governed by the people who protect the best of this democratic experiment. We should not let a vociferous minority define us as the majority. We should continue to enlarge our capacity for tolerance predicated upon an innate desire to be compassionate toward ourselves and each other. We must continue to push ourselves and our Constitution to embody the best in us, because it is only in this way that we will continue to evolve individually and as a nation. We must take to heart and heed the timeless warning that all evil needs to prevail is for good people to remain silent.

Today, America is at a cross-road, we face a choice between two paths and the future lies on the one less traveled. It is within the boundless possibilities of the unknowable that we can reaffirm our commitment to protecting the ideals of democracy, diversity, pluralism, and freedom. However, it will require bravery, it will require honesty, and it will be difficult. People have grown accustomed to blaming others and outside circumstances for their personal failings. We must take responsibility and face reality - a man is born, he lives, and he dies. If we are unhappy with our life and desire for change, we should as Ghandi recommended, ‘be the change we wish to see in the world,” and this starts and ends with personal responsibility.

Editor-in-Chief: @AyannaNahmias
LinkedIn: Ayanna Nahmias