Opinions

Kumar ’17: The great American identity crisis

By
Staff Columnist
Thursday, February 9, 2017

Is the United States an isolationist hermit or a welcoming haven for immigrants and refugees? Do we still hate Russia’s guts, or have we finally put the Cold War behind us? Is Australia among our closest allies or not worth even an hour of our time? Were we founded on Judeo-Christian values or the universal ideals of liberty and equality? Should we prioritize the freedoms of speech, press and assembly or the right to bear arms? Do scientists and technocrats search for the truth, or do they merely shove their dubious agendas down our throats? Do we crave the boldness of a tough executive or the impartiality of a cool-headed judiciary?

Many of these questions are as old as the country itself, but the very fact that we are asking them all at once signals an existential crisis from sea to shining sea. One of the causes for this meltdown is Americans’ inability to distinguish between what is true and what is false. The rise of fake news during the election and the subsequent lies put forth by the White House of President Donald Trump about the inauguration crowds, voter fraud and the fictional Bowling Green massacre have planted seeds of doubt about the reliability of the media and the government — traditionally trusted sources of information — in many Americans’ minds. With the coining of the term “alternative facts” by Trump’s counselor, Kellyanne Conway, those seeds of doubt have taken root, sprouting fast-growing shoots of distrust among the public.

In addition to this threat to democratic transparency, it seems that Americans can no longer agree on what is right and what is wrong. Of course, there will always be disagreements on “political” questions like the correct size of government, the appropriate role of the United States in international affairs and divisive social issues. Until recently, though, it seemed that the country had reached a broad consensus on certain basic norms that can be referred to generally as “common decency.” Common decency includes demonstrating respect for people with disabilities, condemning genocidal regimes like Nazi Germany and white supremacist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan and reassuring our allies that they matter.

The 2016 election and Trump’s nascent presidency have vaporized this delicate mutual understanding of basic social norms. During his campaign, Trump mockingly imitated a reporter with a disability. The White House’s statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day didn’t mention the Jewish people, six million of whom were exterminated by the Nazis. And Trump abruptly hung up on the Australian prime minister less than halfway through an hour-long phone call — despite a recent survey that noted that Republicans consider Australia to be the United States’ strongest ally.

Given that the president represents the country in an official capacity, it is unsurprising that his rupture with common decency has trickled down to the public. Last week it was reported that a group of Texas high school seniors gathered for a class photo yelled “Heil Hitler” and “Heil Trump” while performing the Nazi salute. Though the school announced that it would pursue disciplinary action in response to the outrageous anti-Semitic gesture, it seems that American society may be descending toward moral turpitude.

How can we explain this apparent slippage from the norms of common decency? Indeed, this is a vital question to pose in light of the proliferation of comparisons between President Trump’s executive order barring citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries and the discriminatory, inhumane actions pursued by Hitler’s regime. How is it possible that some Americans decry the executive order as unconstitutional and utterly contrary to our values while others continue to support the president and his supposed desire to protect the homeland?

Two key factors have contributed to this widening gulf between Americans. First, misinformation from the government and accompanying suspicion of the mainstream media have led many Trump supporters to view the order as necessary for national security. If the leader whom you trust sounds the alarm that a terrorist attack could take place at any moment if the borders aren’t sealed, then how could you not support sealing the borders? Such rhetoric is deceptive, of course, since few terrorists have come from the countries on the banned list and visa recipients and refugees have already been vetted by the federal government.

Second, this powerful securitarian rhetoric clouds Trump supporters’ ability to consider the discriminatory intent of the executive order — discrimination that arguably renders the measure unconstitutional. In this climate of fear, small wonder, then, that common decency is carelessly thrown out the window. Regardless of partisan preference, we all want our families and our communities to be safe. But arbitrary discrimination along national and religious lines and the exclusion of desperate refugees from the country will not forge a path toward a less dangerous world.

In learning about atrocities like the Holocaust or struggles like the Civil Rights Movement in school, it was easy to look back through the decades and use the labels “good” and “evil.” Yet with each passing day in Trump’s America, the gray area between “right” and “wrong” seems to become all the fuzzier. In order to re-establish political unity in this divisive moment, we must restore faith in the arbiters of truth — the media and the government, among others — and return to basic norms of common decency. If we fail in these two tasks, then the world’s oldest democracy may cease to live up to the high ideals to which it has aspired for nearly two and a half centuries.

Nikhil Kumar ’17 can be reached at nikhil_kumar@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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