A lot of people I really love and care about and who have positively impacted my life are Jewish. Every time I think about the Holocaust (which is a lot these days) I am sickened because I think about what my life would be like if Hitler’s genocidal campaign hadn’t been stopped. The reality is, though, that regardless of how my life has been touched by Jews, this isn’t about me. Jews are human beings. The atrocities of the Holocaust should be sickening because of what they signify. That when we begin to point at others and decry their differences as a social disease, when we lay all of our culture’s failure on an entire ethnic group, when we revel in our ignorance at the intricacies of the human experience, and when we dismiss the voices of those who we do not understand we stop seeing them as people. When we stop seeing people as people, we devalue human life. When we devalue human life, the human mind goes to a place where starving human beings to death, torturing them in scientific experiments, working them until they are too weak to go further, or crowding them into a gas chamber full of carbon dioxide is acceptable.
Any society, any culture, and nation upon which atrocities such as these are built can lay no claim to the title “great.”
Hannah Arendt, a German Jew and philosopher who survived a Nazi death camp and fled to America wrote that evil does not succeed in its destruction because most humans are evil. Rather, evil reigns because ordinary people do not think about the implications of their actions. They just do as they are told, head down, consequences be damned. The result in 1945 was the death of millions of Jews. Decades later, inspired by Arendt, Stanley Milgram, in his ethically dubious obedience study found that most people listen to authority and obey without questioning the moral or ethical implications of their actions. In the 1930s and 40s, the German nation ignored their moral compass and allowed their government to slaughter their friends, neighbors, and fellow Germans. They were hoping to regain the “greatness” they once had, and in consequence of their refusal to see the evil around them they and their children and grandchildren will, for the rest of the foreseeable future, bear the burden of the horrors of the Holocaust. And they do feel that burden and the shame which accompanies it.
The lesson of the Holocaust is clear: A nation which puts itself first will stop at nothing, not even genocide, to get its way.
Mr. Trump has promised that from now on it is “America First.” Yet when has America ever not put itself first? It is the nation it is today because of the crimes it has committed against the Native people of North America and because of the sweat and strength of African and Latino backs. It is a nation which vaporized innocent Japanese with the first atomic bomb. It is a complex nation built upon a foundation of greed and deceit. It has always been a nation which puts itself first, which insists upon its ideals, and which proudly calls itself “the greatest nation in the world.”
And the so-called greatest nation in the world just inaugurated a president who surrounds himself with people who think people who aren’t white like them should be eradicated from the face of the earth. With people who think LGBTQ+ individuals are sick, twisted, and perverted. Who believe women, when they aren’t in the kitchen, should be careful of appearing the slut lest they tempt their betters to grab them by the pussy. Who scoff at the notion that the poor deserve an education. Who actually belief spending money on a wall is more important than replacing lead pipes in a city without running water. Not only do they belief these evil things, they are proud their evil.
We stand on the brink of moral and ethical death as an American people. Our president openly incites violence against people of color and foreign birth, especially those of the Muslim faith and Arab ethnicity. On this day which should be spent in reflection of the price we pay when we dehumanize others, he has signed executive orders restricting immigration from Muslim-majority nations. Why? Because his administration, like his campaign, is bankrolled and run by white supremacists who want to make America great again by making it white again. Capitalizing on the fear of the American public of another 9/11, breeding distrust of the media and opposition, and enacting Federal policy which censors the free exchange of Federally-funded research, Mr. Trump is conditioning the American people to stop thinking, to trust authority, and to blindly obey.
And when we do blindly obey, when we dehumanize those who aren’t like us, and when we refuse to resist tyranny, history and science are clear: the result is death.
When America puts itself first, death always is the outcome. The death of Natives. The death of innocent victims of war, both civilians in hostile land and America’s young who bravely enter the slaughter of war. The death of innocent people of color who “were on the wrong side of the tracks” or who “should have obeyed the officer.” The death by suicide of hundreds of thousands of LGBTQ+ children, teens, and adults who could not take the victimization any longer. The slow and painful death of a woman who attempted abortion in the bathroom with a coat hanger. The death of innocent Syrian children to whom we refuse to give shelter.
But when America puts others first, new life is always the outcome. We are the nation which inspired the world with the radical notion that all people are created equal and deserve to determine their own destinies. We are the nation which has welcomed the poor, tired, and huddled masses of the world with the hope of a new life and opportunity in safety and freedom. We are the nation which has consistently given more to charitable causes and the nation who often leads the call to action in a humanitarian crisis.
We are a nation which can use our power and privilege to make our world a better place for every person in it. Or we can be a nation which continues to put itself first.
And for my part I don’t desire to live in an America that is great if it is not first an America that is good.