Friday, January 12, 2018

Finding Our Humanity

In case you missed it—though I can’t imagine how you would!—Donald Trump said this yesterday:

“Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” People focused on the profanity, but that wasn’t the obscene part of the quote. It began with this: “What do we want Haitians here for? Why do we want all these people from Africa here?” It ended with this: “We should have people from places like Norway.”

We do not need to consider the subtext; in this comment it is plainly the text. (This morning, Trump’s claiming he didn’t swear, but acknowledged he did use “tough language,” which is to say he confirmed the worst part.)

By coincidence, I was reading this morning about Obama’s appearance on David Letterman’s new show and, as always, he was gracious and generous. He refused to take a shot at Trump. The juxtaposition of these two events made me think. When Obama was elected, this is the way he conducted himself. In order to stoke their sense of outrage, adversaries had to turn to comments like he made after Trayvon Martin was killed (when Obama said, uncontroversially, that if he’d had a son, he’d look like Trayvon). Obama never gave people the ammunition to indict him as a racially divisive figure. It highlighted the obvious truth: people unhinged by Obama were offended by *who we was*, not what he did.

The obverse of this is those same people’s attitudes toward Trump. No matter what he does or says, his base acquits him. And for the same reason: they continue to support him no matter what he does, because of who he is.

Our country is in a raw, poisonous place because so often we essentialize our adversaries. We dehumanize them. This is clear with Trump and his “shithole” tirade. In fact, his whole political movement has been built on the venom he exhibits for those outside his tribe. (It’s so disorienting to live in a country where the president directly targets large swaths of the citizenry of his own country.) But Trump is just the gasoline on the fire.

As we enter 2018, I’m increasingly aware of that tendency in my own mind. I succumbed to it too often in 2017. I too often spent my time hate-reading the news to feed my anger. But that has two baleful consequences: I poison myself and feel terrible, and I succumb to Trump’s worldview of dehumanization.

It is hard to try to stop the cycle before it begins, but I’m going to spend more time trying. The way we as a country—and as human beings—pull out of this nosedive is by filling our mind with kindness and generosity rather than hate and extending those feelings outward.

I am trying to use this latest outrage by Trump as a way to remind myself of all the people in those countries, the human beings, and how most of them are wonderful, positive people—even those living in difficult circumstances. I’m thinking of our wonderful, messy country, populated by the children of immigrants who came to escape difficult circumstances in earlier generations.
We have to find a way to connect to our shared humanity. It is the most radical antidote to this situation we find ourselves in.

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