state of the state

Don't get me wrong, I loved Jerry Brown's State of the State speech. But it's just not true that California has had "a spirit of adventure and openness that has welcomed - since the Gold Rush of 1848 - one wave of immigration after another." It's true that California has had many waves of immigration--but it's also been home to multiple anti-immigrant movements, including brutal attacks on Chinese immigrants in the nineteenth century, embracing internment camps for Japanese-Americans in the mid-twentieth, and the anti-immigrant policies of California's Republican Party in the early 1990s.

If there's one thing that frustrates me in leftist rhetoric as much as right-wing rhetoric, it's the frequent historical revisionism about what America is and has been. We've always been at war with each other about what America is supposed to become. There has never been one unified vision of the United States. It stuns me when people pull out these "We have always been [insert noble sentiment here]" statements.

And that said, even in times of the unkindest politics, there have always been dissenters; always people who called on their fellow Americans to rise to more love and less hate; always people who believed in a pluralistic and small "d" democratic America where all were welcomed. It's too simple to say, for instance, that white supremacy has been the sole definition of American society; if it has been a prominent and constant political theme, it has also always been met with opposition and resistance.

To say "America has always been" or "California has always been" is almost always the lead-in to an intellectually lazy assertion that one's own ideal of America is the truest or longest-dominant strain of American politics or thinking. If the current situation reminds us of anything, it's that there is never one America, and has never been one America, and probably never will be. However, it is possible for a kinder version of America to prevail over its opponents. And that should be our goal; not the restoration of some golden age of unity which never existed.


Popular Posts