Bob Franken: Shaky American principles

Yes, I know. How many times have we been told “We are a nation of immigrants”? The welcome, after all, is right there in the Statue of Liberty:

“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.”

And in fact, millions of people have sought refuge and thrived here, including my parents. But the tradition gets obliterated in all the angry debate about those who try to breach our borders ... even the children we see today, trying to escape the “tempest” in their own countries. Arguably, the welcome for “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” has its limits — practical ones and, frankly, bigoted ones.

To some degree, the grand promise has been lip service for a long time. Once the colonists and succeeding generations had settled in and expanded, they started being downright hostile to those who decided to come along later. Italians, Irish, Germans and Asians all have had to run the gantlet of vicious prejudice once they arrived. Boatloads of Jews were simply turned away by anti-Semitism as they tried to flee the horrors of the Holocaust. Now it’s many Muslims who experience religious hatred. Back in the day, the Quakers were ostracized.

Of course, Africans were welcomed ... as they were unloaded from their slave ships. All in all, it’s easy to understand the vicious reaction to those who pursue a life today in the United States. It’s nothing new.

And it’s not unique. We are finding it harder and harder to live up to our stated ideals. “Equal Justice Under Law,” the words chiseled over the entrance of the Supreme Court, are mocked in courthouses throughout the country. We take it as a given that those who can afford it get a much easier ride through our justice system than those of lesser means. Even as the laws are created, the wealthy special interests hire expensive lobbyists to make sure they’re not bound by the same rules as those who have no paid-for voice. And it’s getting worse. As for the enforcement of the laws, the stories of police using excessive force, particularly against the poor and those who have the audacity to protest the status quo, are routine. “Due process” for far too many is just a platitude.

The middle class, which all politicians blithely describe as the backbone of our society, is withering away. The unions that protected worker rights have been steamrolled by executives who benefit financially if their employees just scrape by. Every day, economic inequality widens. Even everyone’s precious right to vote is undermined, not just by the obstacles put up by dilatory rules, but by the shameless distortions in the barrage of campaign ads, sponsored by those who want to buy the elections. Not that we’re all that informed anymore. Most media have forfeited their responsibility to aggressively challenge government and our other ruling institutions. Instead, we’ve opted for sensational, cheap-shot reporting because it’s, well, cheaper.

Equal opportunity? Another platitude. So many of the nation’s public-education systems are in shambles. Those who could exercise their clout to force improvements instead pull their children out and place them in expensive private schools, where they are walled off from the riffraff.

We have a wonderful foundation in the Constitution with its promise to “secure the Blessings of Liberty.” It established a system that was supposed to “promote the general welfare,” not the selective welfare.

It’s part of the history we’re taught to revere. We are designed to be a haven for those seeking freedom and, if not prosperity, at least a safe existence. Perhaps that was a false promise — too much to deliver. Maybe at some point we’ll just admit that we can’t pull it off and symbolically say to the Founding Fathers, “Nice try.”

Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.

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