Paul Thomas

Mid Life Crisis in Land of the Free

Sep 4, 2010 | Americana

Observing American politics these days is a bit like watching an old family friend go through a mid-life identity crisis: he’s dumped his wife for a pole-dancer, become a Buddhist, and got himself a tattoo and a ponytail. You wonder: what next? You think: this won’t end happily.

Throughout its history America has seen itself as the bastion of liberty, mankind’s last, best hope. Its sometimes reluctant metamorphosis from anti-imperialist to quasi-imperialist to global superpower with the overlapping roles of leader of the free world and world policeman has bolstered this self-image.

American Exceptionalism had a number of drivers: its historical detachment from and distaste for the cynical geo-political manoeuvrings of the European powers; being a nation of immigrants many of whom fled poverty and persecution to seek a better life in the new world; the belief that the USA is the apple of God’s eye; and the Constitution which safeguards the republic by ensuring its leaders remain true to and circumscribed by the ideals and principles set down by the founding fathers.

At times the rest of the world has struggled to reconcile the USA’s ruthless use of power and pursuit of self-interest with its sense of itself as uniquely blessed and virtuous – the shining city on a hill. Nevertheless the America symbolised by the Statue of Liberty - bulwark and refuge, the land of the free and the land of opportunity – is mankind’s most alluring creation.

The words on the plaque inside – “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore” – reflect an enormous generosity of spirit, but America has benefited hugely from opening its arms: its prosperity is in no small part due to the hard work, energy and ambition of successive waves of immigrants from all corners of the globe.

Now, however, many Americans seem to be in revolt against these defining principles and their own history. Conservatives all the way up to sitting Republican senators are calling for the repeal of the 14th Amendment which guarantees American citizenship to anyone born in the USA. Their targets are the children of illegal immigrants.

As critics have pointed out, the whole point of making birth the cut and dried qualification was to render citizenship impervious to political vicissitudes. With its spurious fear-mongering about anchor babies – children of illegal immigrants whose extended families could somehow piggyback their way into the US - and readiness to trample on basic human rights, the anti-immigration movement seems exactly the sort of political lynch-mob the 14th Amendment was designed to thwart.

As articulated by former Republican presidential candidate Fred Thompson, the rationale for overturning the 14th Amendment – “That law was created in another time and place for valid reasons; it probably needs to be revisited” – is precisely that put forward by advocates of gun control. Faced with the argument that what was appropriate for a small, scattered, mainly rural population 200 years ago doesn’t make sense for a highly urbanised, heavily policed society of 300 million people, the gun lobby simply hunkers down behind the constitutional right to bear arms.

The opposition to the proposed mosque two blocks from Ground Zero seems at variance with the First Amendment right to freedom of religion and America’s traditional respect for private property. Aside from the further fraying of the social fabric, the first casualty of this campaign – and similar campaigns against proposed mosques nowhere near Ground Zero - could well be President Obama’s attempts to convince the Muslim world that America is at war with jihadist terror, not Islam.

Obama’s election seemed like a transformational moment in American history. Even as a stain on the national honour was being rinsed out, the inspirational narrative of log cabin to White House was reaffirmed. The ongoing fraudulent or wilfully ignorant attacks on Obama’s legitimacy suggest this assumption was premature.

Last weekend the angry and almost exclusively white right staged a rally at the site and on the 47th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech.

As if that wasn’t provocative enough, the headliners were Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin. Last year Beck, a cable news demagogue who fires up his unsophisticated audience with warnings of Apocalypse Soon, called his country’s first black president “a racist with a deep-seated hatred of white people.”

The week before the rally, Palin rode to the rescue of a right wing radio host who was taking heat for spitting out the N-word 11 times in five minutes while talking to a black woman complaining of abuse from her white husband’s friends. “Don’t retreat,” Palin urged the broadcaster. “Reload.”

This article originally appeared in the New Zealand Herald.