- The men who brought Africans to these shores and enslaved them, who raped them, murdered them with impunity, and kept them in chains for 250 years, they were Americans.
- The men who committed genocide against the native population, while Spanish conquistadors only married with them after conquering them, those were Americans.
- The whole idea of “lebensraum,” or living room, came from the American West.
- The concepts of eugenics, a “science” based on the claimed “racial purity” of white folk, these too were American inventions.
Bull Connor was an American. Dick Cheney is an American. Americans created the A-bomb, and Americans dropped it on two cities. Lynching is as American as apple pie. So is Jim Crow. So are chain gangs, and so were the blacklists.
Donald Trump took advantage of these lesser angels to create his Presidential candidacy. There is nothing un-American, or even anti-American, about him. He is one of us.
The question is, why haven’t these ideas, and these evil men, ever triumphed in the end? Even when given political power, failure has been the inevitable outcome. The direction of America still points upward, forward, toward greater freedom, toward more democracy, toward more wealth and positive change. A child born in America today will live more than twice as long as her grandmother did, and enjoy luxuries unimagined in grandma’s time.
It’s partly down to our history, to our founding documents, and those better angels Lincoln spoke of. Deep in every American’s gut is the idea that things should be better, that the union can be made more perfect for our children.
But why is that?
America is the only nation in the history of the world you can join by simply raising your hand and renouncing your old allegiances. It has always been thus. It’s hard to be German without actually being German. You can’t be Japanese without being Japanese, or Chinese without being Chinese.
But you can be an American. Once you join, you become subject to the same laws, and are given the same benefits, as every other American. Maybe you won’t enjoy them fully, maybe our lesser angels will always be suspicious of you.
But your children will enjoy them.
This, despite the fact that our lesser angels have always been deeply suspicious of immigration. In the 1840s they created secret societies of which they pretended to Know Nothing, in order to condemn Irish immigrants like those on my mother’s side of my family. Later, in the 1880s and 1890s, there were many who were suspicious of men like Gotlop Blankenhorn or, for that matter, Donald Drumpf, not just because of their German language, but because they engaged in the business of wine or beer, when Prohibition was a rising tide. (That's my dad, Gotlop's grandson, at the top in this picture, when he was 14.)
In our own time we have nativists being told to fear Mexican immigrants, Central American immigrants, and immigrants from Muslim countries. We are told these are rapists, murderers, drug dealers, or Fifth Columnists, jihadis-in-waiting, and some are persuadable, just as some Irish immigrants went back to fight the old battles, and some German immigrants remained loyal to their old country.
But these are also the people who serve me at my DeKalb Farmers’ Market, which makes a practice of hiring new immigrants, giving them minimum wages and training in American values, then waving them goodbye as they find better opportunities. Each one wears a name badge that includes the languages they speak, and either a white dot or a black dot, because they’re paired together with someone else who has the same background, which means they’re not isolated, as the San Bernardino bombers chose to become isolated.
When I check out with them I smile, I try to pronounce their names, I speak English to them, and I try to engage them. Then, as I pick up my bags, if the interchange has been pleasant, I will say two words, “Welcome Home,” and I will draw from them the most beautiful smiles you have ever seen.
America is a vast place with great resources, but more than anything else it is an idea. It is the most powerful idea man has ever created, the idea that no matter where you are from, your children can be anything, and can do anything. They can create great enterprises, like Steve Jobs, whose father was Syrian. They can enjoy fabulous inherited wealth, like Donald Trump, whose great-grandfather was the aforementioned Donald Drumpf. They can become President, like Barack Obama, whose father was a Kenyan exchange student.
If you were born in America, you have won the global lottery. You may not believe that, especially if you’re African-American, come from an enormous family with little income, and have no history going back generations of even middle-class respectability. Yet that path remains open to you, every black person I know understands this, and despite the continuing racial animus of their white neighbors, most of my black neighbors are great Americans, too.
We all have lesser angels in our nature. We all have better angels, as well. America’s ability to accept immigrants as full-fledged members of the club lets these better angels emerge, and the mixing of their children makes us unique among the nations of the world.
Look at our national soccer team – strikers from Haiti and Iceland, midfielders from Germany and Mexico, native-born goalies, defenders from everywhere, not the most talented bunch but they work their tails off, and they’re better together than any of them are individually.
Most Americans, like me, are mongrels, we’re mutts. My father was German, my mother half-Irish, but her grandmother was half-Polish and half-English. They met in England. In the mid-19th century he was a dashing young cavalry officer, she was a scullery maid, and their love made both sides of the family extremely angry. You’re marrying a Pole? You’re marrying a scullery maid when we had the money to send you overseas for your education?
So the lovers came to America, around the time of the Civil War. They had a daughter, who became a midwife, who married an Irishman, who gave birth to my grandfather. I believe my mother sought to honor that grandmother by giving me a similar-sounding name, which is why I’m the only Dana Blankenhorn you’re likely to meet, since who else but an American would hang a Polish first name on a German father’s son?
When I look in the mirror, and I look at the family portraits on the mantle, I see her, still. Anna Korczyniewski O’Donnell (left). A great American. Notice the resemblance?
Every American family has similar stories of struggle, and of small triumphs. Look at that soccer team again. The Germans are only half-German, since their fathers were American servicemen. The Mexicans have the blood of Mestizo, of American Indians, coursing through their veins. The goalie has Tourette’s. Or just go by the Farmer’s Market to pick up a few things, and say “welcome home” to some of the good Americans working there.
That’s what makes America great. That’s what makes America different. That’s what the lesser angels are always fighting against. That’s why these lesser angels, always, lose the battle. They lose because we all have our American stories, and because we know better.
This Christmas time, as the lesser angels dominate the news with their messages of hate and fear, stockpiling weapons against an Armageddon of their own imagination, keep your American faith close. God bless the United States of America.
And if you were born in another country, one more thing.