The 19th century was a period of public and political turmoil in Russia, which is perhaps why the influential novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky is said to have commented, “To live without hope is to cease to live.” Perhaps Americans have never understood that feeling better than we can now. We are also facing grave national choices in a whirlpool of public and political turmoil. The way ahead is uncertain and the voices of leadership are tangled. It is time to consider what role we play as Americans when hope is at a premium for many and our own very definition of self is stake.
The images of refugees streaming across Europe, clinging to overcrowded boats in the Mediterranean Sea, huddled in the middle of rubble in bombed out villages in the Middle East is almost more than I can take. It is as if the world has fallen down around us, as if all of us went to bed one night and woke up the next morning on a different planet. Most damaging of all, it is a planet I do not want to be on. Why? Because this is a planet I grew up believing would never exist. At least not here. Not in the United States. This has become a planet at war with itself.
The United States, I was told as I grew, was a land with an open heart, a land of mixed cultures but one soul. A land made strong and creative by immigrants, it had become a melting pot of ideas. Thanks to all the citizens of the world who came here to escape poverty and oppression, war and destruction, a cross section of the world worked together here to turn its land and build its buildings and staff its business and shape its future.
Most of all, it was a land in which the culture of others mixed its customs with our own so that we could all be proud to be Irish and Italian, Polish and Hispanic, African and Asian, Christian and Jewish, Buddhist and Muslim, Hindu and Orthodox — “American” — because so many had come as immigrants to add to the DNA of it.
At the same time, it was not an easy process for any of them, we know. We remember “Irish need not apply,” the “Chinese Exclusion Act,” “white drinking fountains” and, on election day, non-Catholic presidents only. But, given the time it takes for one worldview to become integrated with another, it did, in the end, always work....