The Selective Amnesia of the Spotless American Mind: a 400-Year Tradition of not Being Bothered by History or Compassion


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.”

–Inscription on the Statue of Liberty, gift from France in 1886

Jk, lol.”

–Ted Cruz, R-TX


What strikes me about the waning neo-conservative movement, flailing about in its death throes, is the ability of its proponents to hold two contradictory views simultaneously.  In a Kafkaesque display of absurdity, Texas lawmaker Tony Dale pleaded with Gov. Greg Abbott not to admit Syrian refugees into Texas because lax gun laws would make it too easy for them to procure weapons.

Meanwhile, rival motorcycle gangs in Waco have deadly shootouts in the parking lots of shopping centers.

To quote Sterling Archer, it’s “like O. Henry and Alanis Morissette had a baby and named it this exact situation.”  Though, I would be lying if I said the choice between living in Texas and Syria wouldn’t give me pause for at least a few seconds.  In fact, it might be to the benefit of all refugees if Texas is nixed from a list of possible asylum locations in the US.

Screen Shot 2015-11-18 at 10.11.12 PM

From the vantage point of living abroad, I often look on at the actions of American politicians with my multi-national friends in half-joking expectation of cartoonish behavior. There go the Americans, again, rewriting history and ignoring science. There go the Americans, so gullible and uninformed even about their own history that they’ll go and legislate bigotry and directly repudiate the supposed ethos of their country.

It’s embarrassing.

The half of me that’s joking assumes these are just unfair stereotypes and that ideology in the States is just as diverse and measured as it is anywhere else.  There must be dumb hicks in Manchester and Barcelona and Nairobi just as there are dumb hicks in Wichita, Fairbanks, and Tampa.  Likewise, one could find intellectuals in those places as well.  It is even possible that a cultured intelligentsia is the silent majority in many regions (though, let’s face it, statistically improbable).

The one aspect of society that does seem to be exceptional in America is our solipsistic worldview.  Even the name “America” itself is fraught with ambiguities that Americans are happy to disregard, if they are aware of them in the first place.  Inhabitants of Latin America, for instance, would argue that they, too, are Americans, along with citizens of our northern neighbor, Canada; in Colombia, my Spanish tutor taught me an alternative word to describe my nationality (which, as it turns out, comes up a lot in beginner Spanish conversations): “Estadounidense.”  In Hong Kong, it is the convention to say you are “from the States”–and then, only when prompted.

I am quick to contest those who would cite American pathetic passport numbers as evidence of our insularity–numbers which, between 2007 and 2015, actually rose from about 25 to almost 40%.  After all, you don’t need a passport (yet) to travel within the 50 states, where you can explore climates that range from arctic to tropical, scale three major mountain ranges and trek across four deserts, and ingratiate yourself in starkly disparate societies that are basically cultures unto themselves, some even with their own distinct languages.  The distance it would take to drive across Texas alone would take you from Paris to Krakow and beyond.


Furthermore, trans-Atlantic travel is prohibitively expensive in its own right, but especially relative to the low cost of travel that Europeans enjoy within the EU.

And yet when we do travel it is with blissful obliviousness to ever having left the country.  I’ll joke that an American cannot travel abroad because every place an American sets foot is America.  I’ve seen different Americans on multiple occasions attempt to use the US Dollar as legal tender–in Asia–as though this were a completely normal practice.   (To be fair, the full faith and credit of the US government is still stronger than that of any credit card company.)  We are infamous for our unwillingness to try new cuisine.  I am one of only a few Americans I know in Hong Kong who are unconvinced that the American way is the superlative way of life and who aren’t desperate to return after six-to-eighteen-month stints.

Another common complaint from citizens of other countries is that in the rare event that Americans do visit, we stay in hostels and hang out only with each other.  Perhaps this is not a custom unique to Americans, and, of course, my evidence is anecdotal and observational, but it certainly suggests an American indifference to learning about other cultures.

It is in this framework that we rob ourselves of a capacity to empathize.  No wonder we plug our collective ears at the plight of Syrian refugees when we can’t even bother to learn the difference between the Sunnis and the Shi’a, let alone the geography of the very region we invaded.

In my estimate, Republicans in particular demonstrate a special brand of lacking empathy.  We see it on display when Republican senators only shift positions on same-sex marriage when their sons come out as gay.  Or when conservative news anchors change their minds about family leave after giving birth.  (One of the best Jon Stewart jokes I ever heard was when he pondered aloud whether Megyn Kelly was suffering “Post-partum compassion.”)  Or when Rush Limbaugh came out in support of treatment over incarceration for drug offenses when it happened to him.

Why is it so hard for us to imagine that someone else’s experience is different from ours?  And why, curiously, do we seem to forget about the parallels between our ancestral persecution and the contemporary persecution of others?

Selective Amnesia

Current events quiz!

Whom of the following came out to oppose the admission of Syrian refugees to the United States?  Was it:

A. A known racist business tycoon, or

B. A first-generation American, the son of Cuban immigrants?

If you guessed “both,” ding-ding-ding, you are correct.

In fact, the first-generation American, Marco Rubio, at one point painted his parents as political refugees who fled Cuba after the rise of Fidel Castro, although it turns out they were actually economic migrants who emigrated from Cuba three years prior.

Now, I’m not saying that makes his family story any less compelling, but guess who wasn’t turned around when he arrived in Miami?  That’s right, Mario Rubio.  You know who was turned around at US ports when he arrived off the coast of the United States?

My grandfather, a Jewish refugee fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe.

Marco Rubio at one point wanted to let people believe that his parents had escaped political oppression.  But if they had, couldn’t he have made the argument that they could have been undercover communist militants posing as refugees?

Whereas it would have been difficult for my Jewish progenitor to try to pass for an Aryan soldier after months of enduring deplorable conditions, under attack, aboard the HMT Dunera en route to Australia.

It should be more difficult to look at the drowned, bloated body of a three-year-old boy washed up on a Turkish beach and close our eyes.  I just argued that Americans are painfully bad at empathizing with a situation unless we have experienced it directly–but we have experienced this directly!  America was built by people who imagined they were fleeing political and religious persecution, and such has been the narrative of every generation since.  It should be more difficult to forget the hardships our parents and grandparents endured to give their children a better life in the USA.

God on Their Side

If our own shared experience isn’t enough to color our opinions, then perhaps our [sort-of] shared religion can.

Over the past few days I have seen people quote the PR manual of all PR manuals–divine instructions from God him/herself:

“You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

–Leviticus 19:34

The role of Judeo-Christian tradition in the revolutionary period seems to be a point of contention; most see religious references peppered into rhetoric and probably everyone at the time would have at least said they believed in God, but Jefferson took pains to re-write the Bible sans miracles, and they all seemed pretty clear on separating the church from the State (likely meant as more of a protection for the former than the latter).  As a result, though the law of the US was codified by Christians,  it was justified with reason and philosophy.

That explains why I don’t think it is particularly effective to try to make a policy argument using bible verses.  That, and the fact that the Bible also says a bunch of other confusing, contradictory, historically inaccurate, and sometimes inflammatory stuff, so if we’re cherry-picking our scriptures, why not choose one of the following?

“If there are foreigners living among you who want to celebrate the LORD’s Passover, let all their males be circumcised. Only then may they celebrate the Passover with you like any native-born Israelite. But no uncircumcised male may ever eat the Passover meal.”

–Exodus 12:48

God pre-dating Mean Girls by a few millennia

God pre-dating Mean Girls by a few millennia

If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods” (gods that neither you nor your ancestors have known,  gods of the peoples around you, whether near or far, from one end of the land to the other),  do not yield to them or listen to them. Show them no pity. Do not spare them or shield them.  You must certainly put them to death. Your handmust be the first in putting them to death, and then the hands of all the people.”  

–Deut. 13:6-10

In Ted Cruz’s ideal iteration of a religious test for Syrian refugees, do you think that would be on the quiz?

The Fabric of American Society

So what is the secular, philosophical ethos of America that we like to remember only when it suits us?

At the crux of it, America is a young empire built on a long tradition of immigrants coming wave after wave, but also built on a long tradition of anti-immigrant sentiment.

I already Godwin’s Law’ed this entry several paragraphs ago, and, indeed, the most pertinent example of anti-immigrant hostility embodying a great moral failure is that of America closing its borders to Jewish refugees in the 1940s.  The fact of the matter is that, while US policy severely restricted immigration in the 1920s, it wasn’t like we rolled over in the morning of the 20th century and came up with this novel idea that we should be precluding people from coming to US shores willy-nilly.  We have always descended from immigrants, and then, a generation later, decided that immigrants to the United States are the root of our moral and political rot.

The Holocaust is a popular historical reference, if overused and perhaps less instructional as it has become a caricature for pure evil, but what about the anti-immigration movements of the 1850s?  After a revolutionary wave swept Europe in 1848, political refugees of the German States sought asylum in the midwest.  Americans thought those guys were okay, because they were journalists and academics and professionals–you know, the respectable type, maybe analogous to South, Southeast, and East Asians who migrate to the States now on H1-B visas.¹  You could maybe tolerate living next to a German doctor or a lawyer if you were an American in the mid-nineteenth century, but what you could not stand for was living beside an Irish Catholic–rich enough to board a ship to flee the potato famine, but destitute by American standards.

When Donald Trump says about Mexican immigrants, “They’re bringing drugs.  They’re bringing crime.  They’re rapists,” I can’t help but hear echoes of responses in 1850s America.  A journalist with the Chicago Post wrote of desperate Irish immigrants: “Putting them on a boat and sending them home would end crime in this country.”²

From suspicion, stereotypes, and sectarianism was born the Know-Nothing movement, so named because if you asked them about their activities, they were supposed to respond that they knew nothing.  They organized around anti-immigrant attitudes, along with the notion that the Catholics, with their sinister allegiance to a foreign ruler (the Pope), would somehow contaminate US policy.  They even ran a Trump-like candidate, Millard Fillmore, for the US presidency (again).


The Know-Nothings: Knowing nothing before it was mainstream

It was not the first reactionary, anti-immigrant movement, and it would certainly not be the last.  Americans of all decades since our inception have scrambled to prove that we are the “true” Americans and that everyone else should leave.  But American history is a competition for origin story that can necessarily never be won, by virtue of the fact we obliterated the original Americans on arrival.  …Sort of like terrorists.

The Gulf in Logic

Which brings me to the most compelling argument in support of extending asylum to Syrian refugees, one that supersedes appeals to our fundamental principles (a country built on mercy toward immigrants), appeals to culpability in their suffering (we went over and mucked up the socio-religious-political balance in Iraq in the first place), and appeals to general human compassion, and it is this: that the main reason we are concerned about refugees is unsubstantiated.  The argument that Syrian refugees will be a major threat to US security is a specious one.

First, the attackers involved in the Paris massacre who have been identified appear to be European nationals.  French media reported that there was a Syrian passport found near the body of one of the attackers, but we don’t know much other than the passport was fake.  Regardless, this seems to suggest that immigrants and refugees aren’t the problem, but rather, their radicalized sons and daughters are.

Second, the process of granting asylum in the US is so rigorous that we’re barely letting any refugees in, anyway.  Bureaucracy has essentially churned the system to a halt.  But of the 784,000 refugees the US has accepted since 2001, politicos estimate that anywhere from 0% to .000038% have been involved in the planning of any terrorist activity, and none have perpetrated acts of terrorism (though the children of one did).

It seems like, under the scrutiny of the US screening process for asylum seekers, a terrorist might opt for an alternative channel through which to commit heinous acts.  There is ample reason to believe that those willing to undergo the process are truly desperate.  So desperate they would even accept relocation to Texas.

At the end of the day, as I tell my debate students, we will have to weigh values to determine the course of action.  I submit that the governors who have come out to reject publicly Syrian refugees have made the wrong value assessment.  The values clashing in this debate are security and respect for human dignity.  I would argue that the former should never outweigh the latter, that compassion and human rights should always triumph over an imperative for safety.  I would argue that compassion and the preservation of our human rights–so fragile and often in the balance–are the only guarantors of our safety in the first place.  But if you are going to make the judgment, then the threat to our safety is so minuscule, and the offense against humanity so vast and so reprehensible, that any decision arrived at short of asylum for refugees is morally bankrupt.  Perhaps it has the baggage of ignorance and fear-mongering tipping the scales.  We can do better.



  1. Not to negate or trivialize the prejudice and discrimination any of these parties face in a contemporary, xenophobic America
  2. The key difference here, that I feel obligated to point out, is that when the Irish arrived, statistics show that crime did increase–up to four-fold in Boston–while low-skilled, unemployed Irish immigrants living in desperate conditions turned to street fights and prostitution to alleviate boredom and, you know, survive.  On the contrary, immigrants from the Americas today typically come to the US to work, and are actually less likely to be incarcerated than the native population.

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