“Understanding the spirit of our institutions to aim at the elevation of men, I am opposed to whatever tends to degrade them.”
This Abraham Lincoln quote, from a letter he wrote prior to his election, was part of my Presidents Day post two years ago. It came back to me as I read today’s news reports about the ongoing humanitarian crisis in this country’s immigration detention centers. In those subhuman camps, degradation of our fellow travelers appears to be not only the result of our actions but the actual policy objective. If immigrating to the U.S. is seen as difficult, the thinking goes, perhaps fewer will attempt the journey.
We may say, “We’re better than this.” But at the moment, this is what we are as a country. Our institutions are under attack, not only in spirit but at the very core of their existence. We have purported leaders who only want to elevate people who look, think, and act like themselves, conveniently forgetting the “self-evident truth” that “all men are created equal.” As they undertake these policies, they repeatedly lie about the purpose and the outcome of their work.
Elevation of all fellow travelers, while administered throughout our history in a haphazard fashion, has nonetheless been a core ideal of the United States from the day that our founding document asserted that all are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” However, in today’s political climate we have a government that went to federal court to argue that it shouldn’t be required to give detained migrant children toothbrushes, soap, towels, showers or even half a night’s sleep inside Border Patrol detention facilities. Our government also takes a humanitarian aid volunteer to federal court for the “crime” of leaving food, jugs of water, and blankets in the desert so that refugees stranded in this no-man’s land wouldn’t die. The real time parallels to the parable of the Good Samaritan are clear and chilling.
Writing on the Feast of Nativity of John the Baptist, my friend Deborah Meister focuses on the children, and notes that the story of John’s birth is about the upending of human order. Why?
According to the angel, so that one will come “to turn the hearts of fathers to the children.” (Luke 1:17). It is a strange phrase; it rings oddly on our ears, which are more accustomed to the fifth commandment, which enjoins children to honor their parents. But to honor one’s children is to be attentive to the future: to be aware of the kind of world we are bequeathing to them.
We’re not doing so well at that, these days. Tens of thousands of children have been detained at our borders, in subhuman conditions, denied soap, toothbrushes, or warm blankets, sleeping on concrete floors and trying to eat frozen food which has not even been reheated. If these conditions had been imposed by their own parents, the U.S. government would have intervened to place the children in protective custody; today, the government inflicts such harm, while too many Americans remain silent or passive or complain but do nothing. Of the children who were born here, 21% (about fifteen million) live in poverty. Approximately 1.5 million schoolchildren are wrestling with homelessness. And that’s without even looking at the state of the ecosphere, which threatens to take away our first, last, and best home if we do not change our ways.
Why do our politicians use their policies — supported by a not insignificant minority of Americans — to inflict such harm on so many who are defenseless? There are a host of explanations, but we regularly hear the justification that the immigration policy is designed to “protect” our homeland. We are also told that our cherished individual freedom inevitably leads to inequalities. In other words, it is a feature of our winner-take-all capitalistic system, which so many wrongly (in my view) equate as the equal of democracy.
Which brings me to the other giant we honor on Presidents Day — George Washington — a singular figure in the American revolution and the “indispensable man” as described by historian James Thomas Flexner. Washington warned that we should “Guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism.” It strikes me that much of what we hear about the policies that harm the defenseless are promoted by “pretend patriots.”
Lincoln and Washington were, of course, flawed as men. However, they rose above those flaws in times of great peril to the country. As in all great leaders, their words and — just as importantly — their actions resonate across different times and various political climates to touch on our responsibilities as both individuals and as members of a larger community.
Rather than faux outrage over how we revere the national anthem or the flag, honoring the defenseless among us should be a minimum standard for real patriotism in a country where the spirit of our institutions is to elevate our fellow travelers.
More to come…