Tuesday, June 26, 2018

What We Put There Ourselves

The Supreme Court's decision in Trump v. Hawaii is a disgrace.

There are many things to be said on this disgrace -- what it means, where it takes us going forward. But for now I'll limit myself to one: the refrain one has been hearing a lot over the past two years, on issues ranging from the Muslim ban to the practice of caging immigrant children. "American doesn't do this." "This is not who we are."

I respect the instinct behind those sentiments. But I think they're wrong.

These are appeals to what exists "in the soul" of America. Much like the convicted criminal whose friends plead to the judge that he's "really" a good guy, much like the internet provocateur who tearfully insists that "in her heart she knows she's not racist", these are appeals to let an unseeable and intangible essence trump actual behavior and practice.

To that endeavor, the great philosopher Richard Rorty had a cutting retort: "There is nothing deep down inside us except what we have put there ourselves."

Does America countenance banning immigrants on basis of the faith? Do we allow for asylum-seeking children to be caged?

Yes, clearly. America does do this. We're doing it right now. If we don't like what that says about us, then it's up to us to change it. There is nothing deep down inside us except what we decide to put there. It got there through us, it can only be removed by us.

The problem with this appeal to what lies "deep down" is not that our essence is actually corrupt -- I don't believe America is "essentially" (unavoidably, irretrievably) racist any more than I believe that we're "essentially" non-racist. The problem is that when we believe that something "deep down" is in fundamental tension with these sorts of practices, it suggests that there is some sort of natural arc that will resist them for us -- absolving us from putting in the hard work of doing the resistance ourselves. Or worse: it seductively promises that these things can't be happening here because "that's not who we are." It becomes tautology that an act of the United States of America can't truly be racist precisely because "that's not who we are."

But it's wrong. It is who we are, right up until the moment that it isn't. There's nothing deep down inside us that prevents us from being a racist, bigoted, prejudiced nation. It is not destiny, or character, or essence that makes America what it is. It is our choices, our decisions, our behavior, our practices.

I predicted the Supreme Court would uphold the travel ban. And I made another prediction as well:
15 years after the ruling, it will stop being cited. 30 years after the ruling, it will become part of the anti-canon. 45 years after the ruling, it will be beyond obvious that it was an embarrassment, but fortunately, the sort of embarrassment we as a nation have thankfully outgrown. 
And 60 years after the ruling, we'll do it again -- or something very much like it.
Until we learn the lesson of Korematsu -- the actual lesson, not the limp pseudo-history Chief Justice Roberts offered in a lame attempt to act as if he was overruling the case as opposed to renaming it -- we'll keep on repeated the cycle.

There is nothing deep down inside of the American system or way of life that checks against a Korematsu -- or a Trump. There is no intrinsic resistance, no arc of the universe inexorably pressing the other way. There is simply us -- our choices regarding what America is, and what it isn't. That, and only that, is what exists inside of us. "Who we are" as a nation is no more and no less than what we choose to put there ourselves.

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