Waiting for spring in America
Point of View
The sun hangs longer in the sky. Sunrise to sunset, the time of sunlight now dominates the pie graph in my ‘daylight’ app on my iPhone. We Alaskans feel the undeniable stirrings of light and life. After the long darkness that tests our psyche at the depths of winter, most of us welcome the forces of the spring solstice.
Tell me, then, why I am feeling so depressed; so uninspired? Here is a hint: politics.
By most measures, we Alaskans are among the most fortunate human beings alive — ever. We live in the wealthiest state (per capita) in the wealthiest nation on earth. Our taxes are low and our economy is healthy and looking up. We have (on aggregate) the prospect for a long life and we live at the intersection between technology and biology that promises decent health and a reasonably pain-free existence. We are interconnected and interdependent and the world is largely changing for the better.
Tell me, then, why we are complaining? Why are we so fearful and angry about our lives and prospects? Here is a hint: politics.
Living in the United States in 2012, to use a politically incorrect phrase, is like living in an asylum being run by the inmates. The crazy making being generated by the slow-slog of the Republican primary is an embarrassment to our country. Remember, that interconnected and interdependent world I mentioned above is watching our democracy in action. The media lens that magnifies the tentacles of racism, religious extremism, xenophobia and misogyny slithering in the shadows of this high-stakes political year, exposes the weakness of our national character.
That weakness in character is a fundamental insecurity wrought by a nation of immigrants. While we can boast of our accomplishments as a nation, there is a persistent dark side of our national character.
Our colonial heroes of national myth, for example, were not only stalwarts, but a goodly number of them were a bunch of scalawags, scofflaws and interlopers. These bad actors stole from the Indians and jeopardized the treaties negotiated by the Crown with the Indian Nations. They forced the Crown to pay for English troops and German mercenaries to garrison the colonies and protect the Indians from them. The history of the English settlements is studded with tribal conflicts, including the war of the Pequot against the Connecticut settlers in 1637; the uprising of the Wampanoag and Narragansett against the New England colonies in 1675–76, known as King Philip’s War; the wars with the Yamasee on the South Carolina frontier; and Pontiac’s Rebellion in the Northwest Territory in 1763. After Great Britain’s victory in the French and Indian War, the Crown tried to maintain peace with the Iroquois whose reserves were invaded by colonial settlers. The only outrage expressed by colonialists was that the Crown would make such an agreement without consulting them. The Colonialists saw the principle purpose of their militias was to defend their purloined settlements against angry Indians.
Once the American republic was established, the jingoism of American nationalism (nowadays called American Exceptionalism), lead to international and domestic conflict. John Q. Adams established the policy of Continentialism which viewed America’s destiny as controlling all of the North American continent. Various policies lead to the creation of northern and southern boundaries of our nation and the establishment of the Monroe Doctine that declared the continent closed to colonial exploration and claims by other countries. Manifest Destiny was a doctrine of mid-19th century Democrats, which was also called the “Anglo-Saxon doctrine,” which envisioned a white, Anglo-Saxon nation. The Whigs and, later, Republican Party battled this essentially racist notion which they also saw as inviting endless wars of attrition against Native Americans and other established colonial interests like England, France and Spain.
This white nationalism laid the seeds for the rise of the Know Nothing movement of the 1850s that was an anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant movement. Anglo-Saxon, American-born males controlled this movement, and spread conspiracy theories about the largely Catholic immigrants from Ireland, calling them “minions of the Vatican.” They feared that the Vatican was planting a Papal army on the continent with the goal of terrorism and the conquest of America.
As laughable as such conspiracies sound, they were widespread and received significant popular support. After the Civil War and with the rise of the urban America and continuation of western expansion, Nativist movements enjoyed a renaissance. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was popular in the West where enclaves of Chinese workers were established in major railroad settlements and U.S. labor unions saw immigrants as a threat to their members’ hard fought interests. The Immigration Restriction League of the 1890s targeted mostly the “undesirables” from southern and central Europe. In the early 20th century, the American citizenry turned against German-Americans. As with all phases of these nationalistic movements, the anti-German hysteria had no basis in reason or reality. After intense lobbying by the Nativists, the congress passed the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 followed by the Immigration Act of 1924. The targets for these acts were immigrants from Italy and Poland.
Today, obviously, the long tradition of Nativism and unreasoned hysteria is alive and well and playing its part to generate negativity and nausea in the politics of our day. While the target is Latin-American immigration, it appears to springs from the same weakness in the American character that is compelled to question the legitimacy and nationality of our country’s first black president.
So while I celebrate the coming of spring after the long Alaskan winter, a dark chill continues to suffuse our political landscape. When, I wonder, will spring ever arrive in America?
As always, write to me and let me know what you think. My e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.