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Jim McDermottJuly 03, 2018

This 4th of July, we need to focus less on our independence and more on our neighbors.

Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash

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.

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JR Cosgrove
5 years 7 months ago

Does this mean we should export the system that made us prosperous. The disconnect is that the United States has a system that produced incredible prosperity while the Catholic countries of Latin America have produced violence and poverty. Maybe the Jesuits and bishops should be looking at what the Catholic Church has done and try to undo it. The American Dream is what should be imported in Latin America not a wholesale move here. The Church has some massive soul searching.

5 years 7 months ago

Did you take time to read the article?

JR Cosgrove
5 years 7 months ago

Yes. The article was on "disconnect" and nearly every article written on the immigration issue on this site is a massive disconnect. I wanted to focus on this irony and the actual disconnect is the Jesuits from the causes of the border/migration problem.

J. Calpezzo
5 years 7 months ago

You've done well. You are disconnected.

JR Cosgrove
5 years 7 months ago

Thank you, I hope I am connected to the reality of the crisis. The Jesuits don’t seem to be and may be part of the problem. They don't seem to care about the people and are only making political points.

Gail Sockwell-Thompson
5 years 7 months ago

The U.S. had a major role in creating the poverty and violence in Central America. To pretend otherwise is to be truly disconnected. The chickens are coming home to roost.

JR Cosgrove
5 years 7 months ago

Yes, the United States, was involved in Central America. But they did not create the poverty. The poverty existed long before they came. They took advantage of the dysfunctional system but they did not create it. The system existed hundreds of years before they came. It was common everywhere the Spanish colonized. Similar systems existed everywhere in the world till the 1800's except something changed in the English and Dutch worlds. Why was Philadelphia one of the most vibrant cities in the world less than 70 years after founding? How could the Pennsylvania area absorb 80,000 Germans and become prosperous? The answer is freedom and land ownership by the common person. Neither existed in the rest of the world and still doesn't in most areas.

5 years 7 months ago

Those who live in the darkness of the soul will never see the light of Christ

karen oconnell
5 years 7 months ago

.....and??? your point being??? what?

karen oconnell
5 years 7 months ago

i would really suggest that Cosgrove become much more familiar with american history... and roads to prosperity than s/he seems to be at this point. Latin America..the Mid East etc have been used for centuries by Western Europe and ultimately America. we have used them...destroyed them and now--- we wonder why they don't trust us...want to destroy us etc. History is rampant with the victimization of all those who are not an intrinsic part of white..christian... europe and america. read history...read history. !!!! i am sure that the bishops in latin america being at least in the beginning- chatals of wester europe, victimized latin america.etc. nothing will really change until the US and Western Europe finds the balls and / or charity to acknowldege the violence...the rape....of Latlin American people and goods. nothing will change until those ''mortal sins'' are confessed, acknowledged and revised.

JR Cosgrove
5 years 7 months ago

I read history all the time but especially economic history. Some good sources to evaluate the differences between US and Latin America. Niall Ferguson's "Civilization", Deirdre Mccloskey's Bourgeois Dignity, Jonah Goldberg's "Suicide of the West", Hernando de Soto's "Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West" and Jerry Muller's course on Capitalism. The two most vibrant cities economically in the mid 1700's in the world were London and Philadelphia. Why? Nothing to do with exploitation. It has to do with freedom and innovation.

Sue Harvey
5 years 7 months ago

We have more forms of connection competing for our attention today than ever. However many don’t know their next door neighbor. Isolation, loneliness results. I read this as asking us all to look outside ourselves for our own sake. To enlarge our worlds.

Randal Agostini
5 years 7 months ago

It would be nice if Mr.McDermott took the time to ask the First Lady why she wore a particular garment, rather than take the usual dig.
The biblical story that he was probably looking for is found in Matthew 22:12-14, which would be more in line with the Constitution that refers to a Country - America, defined within legal borders.
With respect to our neighbors - it would be a fair statement that America and Americans are probably the most generous people in the world. America has never been a colonizer but a nation always willing to put it's men and treasure in harms way for the benefit of others.
There are valid reasons why people from all over the world want to come to America. Most want to come legally, but there will always be those who want to break the rules.

Stanley Kopacz
5 years 7 months ago

When we sent men like Kermit Roosevelt to Iran with our treasure to remove democratically elected Mossadegh and replace him with the Shah, we benefitted British oil companies. When we killed 200, 000 Filipinos seeking what we had, independence, who was that benefitting? I love American ideals and when they're occasionally practiced. Regarding obeying rules, try driving the speed limit sometime. Everybody and their grandmother will pass you.

Michael Basile
5 years 7 months ago

I think there's something valid to the concept of "center/periphery" introduced by Latin American political critics like Baran, Sweezy, Frank, and many others nigh fifty years ago. Basically their take as I understand it is that fledgling nation state resources of the Third World, especially in our hemisphere, were to be exploited by more developed states of the north. Examples of this are United Fruit in Central America, Anaconda Copper in Chile, and other multi-national, privately-owned but government-backed entities. Their purpose was to extract raw materials as "efficiently" as could be managed to be sent to industrial centers of the north for processing, mostly under the watchful eyes of dictatorial regimes. Now this international model is done and all but gone in this hemisphere. China and India, plus a few other Asian "economic miracle powehouses" do a lot of that and sell finished products back to us. Gone though the hemispheric extraction structural ties may be today, their national remnants remain in situ as economic and political formations, both legitimate and illegitimate. While the U.S. no longer sends its marines, or even CIA agents cum agents provocateurs to safeguard private American interests, it doesn't have to. Their offspring, mostly home-grown native, remain in the form of paramilitaries, displaced campesinos, underemployed, gangs, cartel workers, and so on. Some of high rank even owe their training to our very own Ft. Benning School of the Americas. As US. policy, we never meant for them to morph like they have in conditions that developed in subsequent years and decades. It is the legacy of corrupt state actors in the context of weak and underdeveloped state apparatuses that remain ill-suited to serve their peoples. This is especially rampant in Central America, but seen in Venezuela, Colombia, Bolivia, and so on in less severe form.
So the border crisis is, at least in part, of our own making. And now we don't know what to do about it with the possible exception of building a wall to stave off the displaced, dispossessed, and desperate.

JR Cosgrove
5 years 7 months ago

You are missing a fundamental point. How could the United States be able to exhibit control over several Spanish speaking parts of Latin America when they existed over a hundred years or more before English speaking North America. With all the natural wealth of Latin America, long established universities and culture it was no match for the United States. Why? Its culture and systems were inferior for promoting prosperity and they are still that same way today.

Stuart Meisenzahl
5 years 7 months ago

Father Mc Dermott
You have composed an article whose purpose is the soft sell of its final paragraph: accept the Central American people waiting on or illegally crossing our border since they only want what we stand for..
There are approximately 42 Million people in Central America.
With the exception of Costa Rica these Central American States are economic failures in meeting the needs of their people.
On either side of Central America sit Venezuela which is rapidly collapsing under the weight of its Socialist Dream and Mexico which has just turned even more leftist in an effort to rescue itself from the policies of its center left.

Since neither Mexico or Venezuela are capable or interested in assisting Central America just what percentage of the Central American population do you believe the United States should accept as refugees or asylum seekers?
If the United States were to accept 10 Million, do you have any doubt that another 10Million would immediately follow?

I have no argument with your right or the Editors right to urge the moral treatment of those seeking entry into the country.
Nor do I think you or the Editors are responsible for recommending specific policies for these purposes. But if you are going to set out a moral injunction , then I do believe you have an obligation to at least define the gross parameters of that injunction.

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