Wednesday, February 1, 2017

What does it means to be an American? - Note for a discussion, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United"

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Thursday, February 2, 2017

by LEON HADAR, Business Times of Singapore


PRESIDENT Donald Trump's executive order to temporarily ban entry into the United States of citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries and refugees from around the world has produced an eruption of furious responses across the country.

A massive wave of protests has erupted in airport terminals and in New York, Boston, San Francisco and other major American cities, including tens of thousands of people who amassed outside the gates of the White House.

At the same time, major newspapers, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, have harshly criticised the order by Mr Trump that barred entry to refugees from anywhere in the world for 120 days and from Syria indefinitely, and blocked any visitors from seven designated countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

And there were also the swift reactions from lawmakers on Capitol Hill, from Democrats and some Republicans, as well as from the corporate world, Hollywood and academia, that ranged from lukewarm to furious.

There are clearly many layers to the debate over the White House's decision, which critics described as a full-scale ban on the entry of Muslim immigrants and refugees into the US, while the White House insists that it was a "temporary ban" or a "moratorium". "This isn't a Muslim ban," the president said in a statement issued over the weekend.

There was the political component to the debate. White House political aides stressed that Mr Trump promised during his election campaign to employ methods he described as "extreme vetting" in processing the applications of immigrants and refugees from "countries of concern" that were identified as having a terrorist organisation with a significant presence in the area, or were deemed "safe havens" for terrorists.

As the White House sees it, the main reasons that Mr Trump won the race to the White House are these and other pledges he made during the campaign to keep the country secure and safe from the kind of Muslim terrorists who attacked and killed innocent civilians in place such as San Bernardino, California, and Orlando, Florida, not to mention the horrific terrorist atrocities in Paris, Nice and Brussels. He also said that he would need time "to find out what was going on" with respect to the threat posed by immigrants and refugees from Muslim countries. So the fact that he is keeping his campaign promises to protect America shouldn't surprise anyone.

From the perspective of the president and his supporters, the opposition to the executive order, including the protests, has been driven mostly by political considerations, and is part of an effort by Democrats and their anti-Trump allies, who have yet to recover from their traumatic election loss, to torpedo the new administration's policy agenda.


There were also legal aspects to the ongoing debate, including questions over the exact limits of the scope of Mr Trump's executive order and whether it was constitutional. Federal judges in New York and Virginia issued orders to temporarily halt the travel ban, and acting Attorney-General Sally Yates instructed Justice Department attorneys not to defend in court the executive order signed by the president. In response, the president fired her for refusing to enforce his order and nominated another acting attorney-general.

And then there was criticism by Washington insiders and pundits of what was seen as a harsh executive order that was issued without consulting Congress and the appropriate government agencies, and without taking into consideration the adverse legal, bureaucratic and humanitarian ramifications.

Mr Trump is clearly in his constitutional right to issue executive orders, the kind that his predecessor in office did numerous times. He is also correct that the ban on migration from the seven countries in the greater Middle East and the suspension of refugee admission were only temporary moves. His advisers also explained that they decided to take swift action over the executive order as they were worried that advance notification to Congress and the government agencies would have created opportunities for opponents to torpedo the plan.

And the move shouldn't be regarded as a "Muslim ban", since travellers from Indonesia, the most populous Muslim nation, as well as India, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, wouldn't be prohibited from entering the US.

Ironically, critics note that if the ban was driven by concerns over the threat of terrorism, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan should have been included in the list, considering that the major terrorist attacks in the US since September 2001 were perpetrated by Saudis and Pakistanis, and not Syrians or Iranians.

That Mr Trump's executive order ended up rousing such political fury has less to do with the long-term effectiveness of his action or the question whether it is constitutional or not.

In a way, the angry passions stirred by President Trump's executive order as well as by his earlier restatement of his plan to build a border wall with Mexico, reflect the political-cultural divisions among Americans over national identity, that were so central to the entire presidential election campaign.

This is a debate over what the late political philosopher Samuel Huntington, described under the heading, "Who Are We" or what it means to be an American today - a debate that has also been taking place in Britain, France, and other western European countries.

The Trumpists believe that the process of globalisation, and in particular, the large flows of legal and illegal immigration, especially from non-Western countries, has diluted the traditional Anglo-American foundations of the nation's identity. Illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central America are penetrating the broken southern country and are "invading" the country while refusing to learn English and assimilate in American society. Phone any government agency or business in America today, and you'll get the following message: "Do you want to speak English or Spanish?"


Similarly, the anger and fear that America and Europe are being overwhelmed by some immigrants from Muslim countries, who don't share Western values and who are determined to murder civilians and wreak havoc across the country that has welcomed them as new citizens, helped to drive the nationalist fervour that won President Trump the support of around half of American voters and delivered the presidency to him.

These Americans resent the liberal and educated political and business elites in the large urban centres who seem to dismiss their fears over Muslim immigrants as "Islamophobia" and who mock the idea of building a wall on the southern border and who instead welcome Muslim refugees into the country and want to legalise the status of Mexican "illegals".

The other side, the anti-Trumpists, see it all very differently. Democratic politicians and their constituents in New York, Boston, Los Angeles and San Francisco, and their allies in the media and academia, subscribe to an idea of a post-nationalist world and to a vision of America as a multicultural society that welcomes in more new immigrants that would transform the old Anglo identity into a more cosmopolitan one.

When it comes to the debate over the executive order, President Trump is seen intent on destroying what the protesters believe is a central tenet of their American identity: Opening the doors of the country to refugees fleeing civil wars and economic deprivations. And they believe that the president, in this context, seems to be targeting a specific religious community, Muslims, and that that is very un-American, as it runs contrary to the principles of separation of religion and state.

What is troubling about this debate is that it hasn't taken the form of a civilised political dialogue that could in theory lead to a consensus on what it means to be an American. You have two political tribes, each residing in its own separate bubbles, demonising each other and who are unprepared to compromise on their respective core existential values. And it seems that one of these two tribes may not be ready to accept Donald Trump as their legitimate president anytime soon.

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