Our leaders want to denuclearize North Korea at the same time that they want to scrap the deal that denuclearizes Iran. They want to spend billions of dollars on our military while claiming we cannot afford to maintain programs like food assistance, Medicaid, and environmental protection. These contradictions belie the truth: the goals are not world peace and shared prosperity, but warmongering for the profit of a few.
We are born, thrown into this ongoing world, receiving it as-is. There can be no other way. We are subjects; we are subjected to it. And it is good. The world is good because it exists, because we exist, because it gave birth to us, and our existence is our basic standard of goodness. We depend on the world existing the way that it does and so, for the most part, we do not question the way of the world. For most of us, if we are born into a world with slavery, we accept slavery, whether we are a slave or free. If we are born into a world of exploitation, we accept exploitation, whether we exploit, are exploited, or benefit from exploitation.
But human nature is not only to accept the world as it is because we must; it is also to question and to dream. We do sometimes ask why some part of the world could not be different and we dream of a better way, a better world — better for us, for our in-group. Such questioning and dreaming leads us to invent technologies whereby we change the world and ourselves.
For each new generation, the prior generations’ inventions already exist and therefore we always receive a changed world. And because the changed world is the only world we know, we do not question the changes most of the time. It occurs to us as simply the way the world is, the way it ought to be.
But what if the prior generations’ changes are problematic? What if they changed the world in ways that made it worse for us? What if we are not born into the in-group for whom the changes made a better world, or what if the changes intended to make the world better created new problems that must be addressed, new costs that must be paid not by those who invented the new ways but we who received them through no fault of our own?
Then, for the most part, we passively accept and suffer, because that is the greater part of our nature. But, in accordance with that lesser part of our nature, we sometimes invent new changes to compensate for the old ones. Of course, there is no guarantee that our new changes will not be problematic, too, causing even more problems for ourselves or future generations. So what are we to do?
We must be deliberate. We must make a concerted effort to question the way of the world we have received and to dream up new ways. And before we try to remake the world anew we must consider the consequences with care. We must understand our history, our science, our society, ourselves. We must invent not to forget the past but to redeem it. We must invent not to escape our nature but to become ourselves.
Immigration restrictionists argue from the premise that “America has a right to exist” or that “Americans have a right to a country.” The purported reasoning is that a territory which does not police who is allowed to enter its borders is not a sovereign nation at all.
But why not? So long as the people entering the territory do not try to usurp its governing authority, how does adding more people through immigration undermine the existence of the country any more than citizens having babies? Restrictionists argue that unauthorized immigration defies the “rule of law,” but laws are broken all the time. Why aren’t the restrictionists crying about our right to a country in response to illegal opioid trade, sexual assault, and unjustified police shootings? Perhaps because what restrictionists really mean when they say Americans have a right to a country is that white Americans have a right to a white country; the real problem is that most unauthorized immigrants, at least in the restrictionists’ imagination, are not white, whereas most perpetrators of the above-mentioned other crimes are. From this perspective, unauthorized immigrants are trying to usurp the governing authority of (white) America by adding more non-white people to our culture and non-white potential voters to our electorate.
And why couldn’t a country exercise its sovereign authority and decide not to police entry through its borders very strictly? Governing authorities must continuously choose which laws to prioritize for enforcement based on a variety of factors, including the relative dangers associated with failing to enforce them or the relative culpability of people breaking them. Alternatively, why couldn’t we decide not to restrict entry at all? Why does sovereignty require excluding people? Couldn’t we decide that our country is so great that we can accept everyone?
Lastly, does America have a right to exist? What gives Americans a right to a country? That we invaded, tricked, killed, enslaved, conquered our way to establishing this one? Didn’t Native Americans have a right to their nations? Didn’t they have a right to exist? If so, and if we are the ones who decimated them, does that undermine the legitimacy of our country? Speaking of the right to exist, don’t the unauthorized immigrants fleeing from violence, persecution, poverty, and oppression have such a right? Isn’t their right to exist more urgent, more vital, more real than white America’s?
Advocates for particular issues, e.g., environmental protection, reproductive autonomy, equal access for people with disabilities, are often criticized or dismissed for the narrowness of their focus. The dynamic is succinctly captured in the retort to Black Lives Matter that all lives matter. But this retort is not a counterargument; it is unwittingly stating the premise of the advocate’s argument. Advocates must declare that Black Lives Matter because the pattern of disproportionate police violence against African Americans belies the fact that not all lives are valued equally in our society.
What such advocacy is really about, on the ulterior level, is not just what a particular “interest group” wants for itself, but what we all want for ourselves. Disability rights advocates do not want special treatment; they want everyone to have the opportunity for full inclusion in society. Reproductive rights advocates do not clamor for “women’s issues” but for freedom from exploitation of their bodies. Environmentalists do not value plants and animals over humans; they strive to protect the environmental conditions on which we all depend for our flourishing. In all of these cases, the ultimate standard is not what is good for the environment, women, people with disabilities, or African Americans, but what is good for human beings.
I had just started my senior year of high school on September 11, 2001. I was in keyboarding class that morning, doing typing exercises when the teacher rolled a TV on a black cart to the front of the room and turned on the news. We watched footage of the planes crashing into the towers, the plumes of smoke, the buildings’ collapse.
I didn’t know what to feel. I worried about my family members in New York City. Beyond that I was too stunned to form coherent thoughts about what had happened or what would happen next. I was jarred by the image of the broken skyline. I had recently visited the World Trade Center; in an architectural phase, I had walked up to a corner of one tower until I could reach out and touch it, then looked all the way up to the top and nearly fell over in a wave of awe-inspired vertigo.
Later on September 11, as we continued watching the news in each class period, I was surprised to learn that the United States had enemies in the Middle East who would attack us. I had grown up believing the US was beloved by most everyone around the world, exceptional in its standard of living, its freedoms, its maintenance of peace and order throughout the world. I remember feeling vindicated in this belief by a chain email arriving in my family’s shared inbox soon after the attack, written by a Canadian who praised how much good America did for the world and asked the world to give back to America now.
But the picture soon began to appear not so simple. When people attached little American flags to their cars and lawns in an outpouring of patriotic solidarity, or lamented the destruction of the Twin Towers as if they had appreciated the architecture, my keen adolescent sense for detecting hypocrisy and conformity left me with a feeling of revulsion.
On September 12th, in global history class, I was appalled by the unanimous opinion in a classroom full of Catholics and libertarians, all supposedly peace-loving, that we should respond by nuking Afghanistan, or wherever the terrorists came from. I was accustomed to holding some intellectual sway over my peers, usually able to listen to competing points and then articulate a way of harmonizing apparent disagreements into a consensus view. But this day I was the lone dissenter pleading with my peers that we should not rush into destruction, that instead we should deliberate over the causes of the attack and the most enlightened way to respond. I had not yet even learned how the US had been meddling in foreign countries for decades to spread capitalist hegemony. I just thought that violence was not the answer, for it would lead to more and more violence.
It was disconcerting to see George W. Bush, who had otherwise seemed doltish, take on the demeanor and eloquence of a statesman. Soon thereafter came the PATRIOT Act, which seemed an obvious mistake, too: giving into fear, giving up liberty for security. Hadn’t the Founding Fathers warned against that?
These were signs that something was wrong with my understanding of America. I would go on, in college courses on US history, critical theory, and Middle Eastern studies and in watching the war against terror lead to an unrelated war against Iraq and the pillaging of its oil, to learn what these signs were pointing to: we Americans are not innocent; we are expropriators of Earth’s nature and culture, exporters of capitalist exploitation, the bloody edge of modern imperialism. We had occupied this role for a long time and the 9/11 attack was exploited to justify and intensify it.
Violence guaranteed more violence, as I knew it would even at seventeen years old. Wars multiplied. Al Qaeda swelled and begat ISIS, which led to the Syrian refugee crisis and Brexit. Islamophobia, surveillance, scaremongering continued and deepened, bringing us Breitbart, the alt-right, Trump, and populist calls for the border wall and the Muslim registry. Now we are confronted with the self-generated terrors of a resurgent KKK and white supremacism and nuclear tensions with North Korea, Iran, Russia. The cycle of violence has brought us not full circle but into a downward spiral: we are ruled by people who, like terrorists, rely upon fomenting fear and violence for their power.
Where does it end?