Two weeks ago First Lady Melania Trump boarded a plane on her way to a visit with detained immigrant children wearing a jacket that said “I REALLY DON’T CARE, DO U?” (It was gone when she got off the plane in Texas.) A hundred think pieces have run since trying to understand what she could possibly have intended by this strange decision.
For writer and activist Rebecca Solnit, though, the point is not the jacket or the motivations of the First Lady, but the “politics of disconnection” within our country. “There are so many ways to really not care,”Solnit writes at Literary Hub, “and we’ve seen most of them exercised energetically these last couple of years and really throughout American history.”
Our justifications for not caring are legion: “...that you have nothing in common with them. Or that they are not real. Or that they are evil. That you owe nothing to them.” Or, she writes, considering the arguments of today’s left wing, “I would support it but it’s flawed, I would work with them but they are impure, I would join but they’re not good enough.”
Ultimately Solnit wonders if the more meaningful political distinction we should be considering is not left vs. right but “the ideology of disconnection versus the ideology of connection.” Do we see ourselves as having an obligation to our neighbor or not?
Do we see ourselves as having an obligation to our neighbor or not?
As we celebrate our country’s independence this week, I can’t help but wonder whether the position of disconnection Solnit identifies is not some cancerous bit of ideology that has grafted itself onto the national psyche, but rather a foundational part of the American project.
Ask a hundred people today to describe the American Dream and most will give an answer inspired by the best-known phrase from the Declaration of Independence: “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Americans have long looked to these three ideas as the fundamental expression of our aspirations; and yet the most striking element about them is how often we employ them while ignoring that none of them acknowledge the broader context in which we live. “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” has nothing to do with a society or with each other; it really is just a more alliterative way of saying, “I should be able to do whatever I want.”
In fact, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” was not presented in the Declaration of Independence as a description of the American Dream, but as an enumeration of the inalienable rights of all human beings. King George’s refusal to respect these God-given rights gave the United States justification for declaring independence.
“Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” has nothing to do with a society or with each other; it really is just a more alliterative way of saying, “I should be able to do whatever I want.”
But to some extent that history is irrelevant. The individualistic dream that we ascribe to the Declaration of Independence is an inescapable element of our national identity and imagination.
And with that comes a ready impulse toward disconnection. After World War II, what was the American dream if not a house in the suburbs, a place of one’s own removed from “the issues” of the city, and always presented not just with a pretty little lawn but a white picket fence? White flight wasn’t racist, it was insisting on the life we were promised. Or even if it was born of racist attitudes, what did it matter? Concern about the needs of others was a choice, not an obligation. Like the heroes of Horatio Alger, Americans pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. We are not required to pull up one another.
But there is another document at the heart of our nation’s founding, and it offers a very different American Dream: the Constitution.
The Constitution is not a text you sit down with on a Sunday morning and a cup of coffee to let its idealism inspire you. It is a blueprint for government; its purpose is not to move readers but to clearly establish the legal framework of rights and responsibilities through which our country will function.
Even the Bill of Rights, some of whose amendments we may look on with great pride for the protections they created, are written in the bland language of law. “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction,” states the Thirteenth Amendment, the brutal history of longing and loss behind its creation altogether absent.
Even so, unlike the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution’s purpose was in fact to describe our aspirations. What did we hope for? What did we want for our lives?
Notably the Constitution begins not with our individual rights but a community working together: “We the People of the United States,” trying “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”
What is the American Dream? It is a community of justice, peace and safety for all, with an eye on always improving the general welfare, built and maintained by everyone. There is no us and them here, no sense of accepted winners and losers.
No, here in the founding document of the United States, the dream is of a society, what Martin Luther King Jr. would one day call “the beloved community,” where all are not only allowed but enabled to flourish.
There are few stories in the New Testament that seem as relevant to the current moment in the United States as the Good Samaritan, the one who stops to help the man beaten by thieves and left along the side of the road. For Jesus that impulse to stop and help defines what it means to be neighbor.
But in its opening sentence the U.S. Constitution goes much further. To live the American Dream is not only to choose to help others when they are in need, but to embrace that we need others to build that more perfect society we long for. It is to acknowledge not our own desire but others’ needs, not our rights but others’ wisdom, not our individual positions but our common, ongoing work.
But in these days when we gather as communities to cheer parades, enjoy picnics and sit under the stars while brilliant lights explode in their midst, the promise of the American Dream lies all around us. Every year our hopes may remain imperfectly realized, but we see they are not foolish.
The Dream lives as well in the stories of the children in detention the First Lady visited. They and their families came to the United States inspired by its vision of an evermore perfect Union, and seeking for themselves the Dream outlined in the Constitution: a place of justice, peace and safety for all.