Saturday, November 3, 2018

The Common Ground

There is no point in seeking common ground, or so I hear said these days, by those who despair of our public discourse.   The assumption, in those statements, is that seeking common ground is what weak and mealy-souled people do.  You can't possibly find common ground with *them,* they say, from a heart of disturbed rage.  It is possible that this is so, although it has not always been.

Have we, as a people, reached the point where what once made America worthy and universal is now something worthy of disputation?  Where even the most essential things are now seen as something we won't accept?

I will offer you, American, a sample piece of common ground.   There are many emblems and symbols that mark our greatness as a republic, and this is one of them. It's a poem.  I love this poem, because it's speaks to the heart of our difference and goodness as a nation.  It is a proud poem.
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,With conquering limbs astride from land to land;Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall standA mighty woman with a torch, whose flameIs the imprisoned lightning, and her nameMother of Exiles. From her beacon-handGlows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes commandThe air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries sheWith silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
There.  You've read it.  Of course, you should know it already.  It's "The New Colossus," by Emma Lazarus.  It's the poem inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty.  It represents, as does that statue, our national spirit, the best angel of our life together.  A nation of welcome.  A "shining city on a hill," as a president I cast my very first vote against once so clearly put it.

But how does it sound?   Does it seem politically charged to you?  Am I being "divisive" by quoting it right now? 

The answer is, now, of course.  Yes it does feel divisive.  I feel it, too.  These words read politically right now in American history, as an indictment of one political party's current anti-immigrant agenda.  And yes, I know, you're not anti-immigrant.  You just want them to follow the rules.  Rules which, at the same time, you want changed to reduce the flow of immigration, because they're taking jobs from real Americans.  So you're not anti immigrant.  You just oppose immigration in every way, unless it's "the best people."  Meaning, not hard working souls seeking freedom and escape from oppression.  Just rich people, who already have power and freedom of movement.

This poem is written against your way of thinking.  Which is why it may prick a little.

In fact, it may sting so much that you might even be fiercely Googling Emma Lazarus, trying to find reasons why she and her political agenda are suspect and unAmerican.

It would satisfying to do so, no doubt, to punch back against the thing that challenges you.

But then do not ask, or expect, me to seek common ground with you as an American, because that's not the common ground.

Here.  Let's try something else.  It's not a familiar text, although it is one that every American citizen needs to have read all the way through at least once.  At a bare minimum, we should know the beginning of it, which establishes the fundamental principles of our lives together in this Republic.  So.  Here it is:
All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
This is not a regulation, a rule, or a policy.  This is, of course, section one of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States.  It is the fundamental governing document of our great Republic.  

Perhaps you do not like it.  Or perhaps, from current context and your position on immigration, you'd like to be rid of it.  The political process for fixing immigration is too hard, you might say, and it's too easy for people to claim citizenship.  We need to change that!

There is a long history of such thinking, from people eager to preserve America for themselves, and to keep out the undesirables, the Wops (Criminals! Gangsters! Violent and Dangerous!) and the Micks (Illiterates! Drunks! So Violent! My Ancestors!) and so many others.  I know you cannot possibly be such a person.  My gracious, of course not.  But still, you have been made to fear, and fear does not think.

There is a process, of course.  The Founders, in their wisdom, put one into the Constitution itself:
The Congress, whenever two thirds of both houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose amendments to this Constitution, or, on the application of the legislatures of two thirds of the several states, shall call a convention for proposing amendments, which, in either case, shall be valid to all intents and purposes, as part of this Constitution, when ratified by the legislatures of three fourths of the several states, or by conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other mode of ratification may be proposed by the Congress; provided that no amendment which may be made prior to the year one thousand eight hundred and eight shall in any manner affect the first and fourth clauses in the ninth section of the first article; and that no state, without its consent, shall be deprived of its equal suffrage in the Senate.
This is article Five of the Constitution of the United States of America, which lays out how that gets done.  But that's too slow, you might say.  We need someone to cut through all of that and do what needs to be done!

And there, perhaps we do have a problem. 

If you view the Statue of Liberty as unAmerican, and you reject the Constitution as a means of mutual governance, then how can I, as a proud and patriotic American, be expected to find ground with you?

Is that my doing?  Have I made that choice, by honoring and abiding by the Constitution and holding the great symbols of liberty dear?

Can we stand on common ground as Americans?  I can answer that question for myself, with certainty.   Yes.  The common ground remains.

It is where I have chosen to stand.  I will not move from it.