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WASHINGTON — The celebration of American independence is supposed to be a unifying national ritual. But we are a country with profound differences over the meaning of nationhood itself.

People in more typical countries — such as Belgium, Japan or Russia — are attached primarily to a unique piece of earth, a unique language, a unique culture and (perhaps) a unique ethnicity.

Their celebration of nationhood is the celebration of particularity. One may become a naturalized citizen of such a country, but it is less clear what it means to become Belgian, Japanese or Russian. If possible, it would require immersion in national distinctiveness.

Michael Gerson mug

Michael Gerson

This is how the current American president appears to view his native land.

President Trump’s Fourth of July remarks did make reference to the abstract promises of the Declaration of Independence, but he mainly praised his nation as a place and a power.

Like in his inaugural address, Trump presented America as a strong country, but not a country with a special historical role that grows out of certain moral commitments.

He talked about the nation’s military victories, but not much about the nation’s character. He seems to love America because it is his country and a powerful country, but not because it is a country with a calling.

Contrast this with the national story told by Ronald Reagan or Franklin D. Roosevelt or John F. Kennedy or George W. Bush. American ideas — while growing out of a specific culture — are transcendent and universal.

Though military power is essential, the nation advances on the strength of democratic hopes. It wins a global competition of ideals because it accords most closely with the durable dreams of humanity for liberty and justice.

This differing emphasis has dramatic implications.

If America is primarily a normal nation, united by a common culture, then it is diluted by outsiders and weakened by diversity. In this circumstance, cultural differences lead inexorably to conflict and disunity. A nation defined primarily by culture or ethnicity is a fortress to be defended.

But if America somehow embodies the best and highest of human aspirations — separate from culture and ethnicity — then there is hope of mutual progress.

“America has never been united by blood or birth or soil,” said George W. Bush in his first inaugural address. “We are bound by ideals that move us beyond our backgrounds, lift us above our interests and teach us what it means to be citizens. Every child must be taught these principles. Every citizen must uphold them. And every immigrant, by embracing these ideals, makes our country more, not less, American.”

In this view, immigrants are not a contagion. By embracing national aspirations they actually strengthen our national identity.

These contrasting attitudes make a large political difference in a country that is (by U.S. Census Bureau estimates) approximately 14% foreign-born. This constitutes about 44 million people.

If this historically large number of migrants is seen as a problem — bringing crime, threatening national security and changing the nature of our country — then it makes sense to cut immigration (both legal and illegal), end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, slash refugee admissions and build a wall across a continent.

And if our main source of national unity is cultural, then the composition of America’s foreign-born population would matter greatly.

According to Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., Trump expressed disdain for immigrants from countries such as Haiti and said, “We should have more people from places like Norway.” It is difficult to separate such statements from their racial context. In this view, a national culture largely shaped by white European migrants is better carried forward by white European migrants.

This conception of nationhood can descend quickly into dehumanization.

If Hispanic migrants are defined as a threat to national security and national identity, then it becomes easier to separate crying children from their parents. It becomes easier to store migrants in overcrowded, unhealthy conditions. And it becomes easier — following the tragic drowning of a father and daughter trying to cross the Rio Grande — to blame migrants for their own desperation.

A broader definition of American identity does not require the decriminalization of all border crossings, or the abolition of the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

It does require the construction of a humane asylum system that treats oppressed and frightened people with respect. It forbids the dehumanization or cruel treatment of migrants under any circumstance.

And it embodies the generosity of spirit on which American greatness depends.

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Michael Gerson’s email address is michaelgerson@washpost.com.

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(39) comments

Cassandra2

One of America's greatest achievements was it's development of airports a century before the invention of the airplane.

Redwall

FAKE NEWS. An article about a Trump speech that contains not a singe quote from that speech. Mr. Gerson hears only what he wants to hear. What trash.

PhysicsIsFun

As a Republican, you are certainly well acquainted with trash.

oldhomey

And as he demonstrates in a 10:31pm post in which he cannot dispute a single point made by Mr. Gerson, Red is a man who hears only what he wants to hear.

DMoney

Illegal immigrants. People who are technically criminals the moment they step across the border. I have no empathy, sympathy, compassion for people who break the law as their first action in this country. For all those who come and stay legally, welcome. We're glad you're here.

oldhomey

Thank you, D, for proving the point I was trying to make in my 3:16pm post. You da man.

DMoney

If your point was that I and people with similar views are not blindly compassionate for people who break the law and enter illegally--you're welcome.

oldhomey

How about people who, according to international convention have every right to flee imminent physical danger in their home countries and apply for asylum at the borders of other nations? You don't have to be blind to be compassionate. You just have to have a human, beating heart, D. Here is some information that might clarify this for you: States have been granting protection to individuals and groups fleeing persecution for centuries; however, the modern refugee regime is largely the product of the second half of the twentieth century. Like international human rights law, modern refugee law has its origins in the aftermath of World War II as well as the refugee crises of the interwar years that preceded it. Article 14(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which was adopted in 1948, guarantees the right to seek and enjoy asylum in other countries. Subsequent regional human rights instruments have elaborated on this right, guaranteeing the “right to seek and be granted asylum in a foreign territory, in accordance with the legislation of the state and international conventions.” American Convention on Human Rights, art. 22(7); African [Banjul] Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, art. 12(3). The controlling international convention on refugee law is the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (1951 Convention) and its 1967 Optional Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees (1967 Optional Protocol). The 1951 Convention establishes the definition of a refugee as well as the principle of non-refoulement and the rights afforded to those granted refugee status. Although the 1951 Convention definition remains the dominant definition, regional human rights treaties have since modified the definition of a refugee in response to displacement crises not covered by the 1951 Convention. The 1951 Convention does not define how States parties are to determine whether an individual meets the definition of a refugee. Instead, the establishment of asylum proceedings and refugee status determinations are left to each State party to develop. This has resulted in disparities among different States as governments craft asylum laws based on their different resources, national security concerns, and histories with forced migration movements. Despite differences at the national and regional levels, the overarching goal of the modern refugee regime is to provide protection to individuals forced to flee their homes because their countries are unwilling or unable to protect them.

DMoney

Asylum seekers? Fine. But only those who's requests are accepted, which have always been the minority of cases, even well before Trump came along. That's because most requests are bogus, unsubstantiated. The alternative to the due process that you and most liberals seek are simply opening the floor gates. No thanks.

oldhomey

D, for somebody who has it all over all of the rest of us when it comes to geopolitics. you seem to have a blind spot about how people seeking political asylum are to be treated. Are you suggesting that there is a way of simply eyeballing those who come to the border and knowing instantaneously who is there because they have been terroized and violated in their home contries, and those who are simply trying to get into our country to pick crops, steal jobs or murder and rape decent, law-abiding Americans? You should join ICE and give them a hand.

martian2

wrong again D. when immigrants step into this country seeking asylum they are doing so legally. that is the law, something maybe you shouldn't comment on.

DMoney

Read the wording about international asylum laws.

Cassandra2

Please enlighten us with a legitimate, factual source regarding your incorrect interpretation of international asylum laws, D-Bag.

DMoney

Same one oldhomey used but failed to accurately reference, Cbag. I trust you find it credible enough as it is coming from a fellow liberal. The point is, the laws don't simply say "come on in, here's a driver's license and discounted higher education". There are many, many many rules. So many that most asylum seekers are not permitted. Follow the gosh darn rules. If you don't, zero sympathy from me.

martian2

"You may apply for asylum in the United States regardless of your country of origin or your current immigration status. " Here read it yourself D. I am not afraid to direct you to the sources i use for find out the truth. https://www.uscis.gov/humanitarian/refugees-asylum

DMoney

The problem isn't with legal refugees and asylum seekers. People that follow the rules as defined in the source you provided aren't the problem. The vast majority of those coming haven't followed these rules, and are therefore here illegally.

oldhomey

You will have to do better than that, D. It is right in front of you. Please show how I "failed to accurately reference" the material that I took the time to look up and bring to the table here. You stated an unsubstantiated opinion prior to that, now you are going to use what I cited to support your opinion. Show us how it supports you.

oldhomey

D? I repeat, do not tell us that the information supports your position, show us how that information supports your position. I do not see it doing so.

oldhomey

Ah, yes. This is another string that is about to age out and disappear, and D can breathe easy because he once again has ducked when he could not sustain his position.

PhysicsIsFun

Those kids can just suffer the consequences. How dare they try to survive. You are a real lovely person.

DMoney

No, the kids whose parents are accepted in LEGALLY, come on in. You aren't suggesting we let every single kid (and their families) in no questions asked, darn the rules.... are you?

martian2

what no counter to my 7:10 post regarding legality of asylum seekers. The moment they step across the border seeking asylum they are within their legal rights. And I offer a direct link to the laws there D. You offer wacky and bizarre arguments about we all want to have open borders with no rules. Very typical of you, when cornered you go to the extreme and offer no proof of what you say ever. Its just google it yourself. A chickens way of propping up an argument.

DMoney

You provided the definitive source, but must not have actually read it. I did read it. There is a complex process to do before arriving. Most (80%) do not complete this process. Therefore when they arrive, they are illegal. If you are suggesting that the process isn't important or is too restrictive, then you are promoting open borders and lawlessness.

martian2

wrong again D. While their cases are pending for refuge status, and that may take awhile, they are here legally. They are not criminals. It is a complex and arduous task to prove asylum because of our arcane laws. But none the less they are here legally.

DMoney

I am completely right. You can't just show up hoping to start the refugee/asylum seekers process. If you cross the border and are apprehended, and you do not have the proper documents and cases filed (not approved, but filed) you are 100% illegal and have no right to be here. Read it carefully.

oldhomey

D, you have the document in front of you, presumably on line, one that you can easily cut and past the relevant extracts that would support what you are saying. Strangely, you just say you know what is in there and the rest of us do not, but you don't bother to give us the extracts that support you. Why is that?

oldhomey

D? I repeat, do not tell us that the information supports your position, show us how that information supports your position. I do not see it doing so.

DMoney

Read the definition of asylum. See that refugee status must apply for asylum to apply. See the rules for registering to become refugee. I'm not going to think for people. There's a path to clarity--follow it.

DMoney

You guys would be in the 80% refused, at this rate.

oldhomey

D? Are you so unsure of how to interpret what you are reading that you cannot simply cut and paste these definitions and rules that would prove your point? I want you to point out your data word for word, not you opining on what you think you read. You are, I realize, an expert on all things geopolitical the likes of which we have not seen before on these boards, but you have to be specific, or some of us -- excuse me, crank -- "I" find it hard to believe what you are saying.

oldhomey

I agree, martian. For all the blind Trump supporters, I offer this following paragraph from the column, perfectly describing their position. It should ring true especially for D: "He [Trump] talked about the nation’s military victories, but not much about the nation’s character. He seems to love America because it is his country and a powerful country, but not because it is a country with a calling."

martian2

Gerson does it again. A perfect column well written, well thought out, best one of the year so far! this one paragraph spells it out perfectly. When some think America is all about looking out for yourself, getting yours before anyone else, that only rugged individualism is the only thing that counts, this paragraph counters with higher ideals and hopes. "“America has never been united by blood or birth or soil,” said George W. Bush in his first inaugural address. “We are bound by ideals that move us beyond our backgrounds, lift us above our interests and teach us what it means to be citizens. Every child must be taught these principles. Every citizen must uphold them. And every immigrant, by embracing these ideals, makes our country more, not less, American." Yes lets hope the children are learning these principles.

new2Lax

And yet the left see’s Socialism as the answer. Socialism has none of these ideals, not one.

PhysicsIsFun

Given this attitude one assumes you eschew programs such as Social Security, Medicare, fire and police protection, the post office, public roads, etc.

johnnybragatti

exlaxtoo will never have to utilize the Emergency room at a local hospital either. He has no clue what socialism is, only what iheart tells him it is. If talk radio says it?, it"s gospel. That"s the life, of the non-schooled, never made it very far in life and angry with the Dems , because of it. No other reason.

Rick Czeczok

Gosh it's against the president and you agree. Shocking..... Get over it Hillbilly lost and the democratic party is collapsing as we speak. And people like you did it, congratulations you stupid socialists. Keep up the great work we can,t loose with you on our side. My guess would be Trump will win and the congress will go back to all republican control. Then I know you will all move to Canada, thank God.....

Cassandra2

Still waiting for the great unmasking, Comrade Zerocock. I DARE YOU to tell the world who you claim to know I am. You won't because you can't. Either you are a total chickenshiit or just a liar. Which is it?

PhysicsIsFun

RickyBoy gives us another example of the mouth breathers who still support trump, the worst president ever.

Cassandra2

Precisely. There is NO low that Trump can stoop to that the Russian trolls and anti-democratic forces will not fail to defend.

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