America’s mean streak

The Statue of Liberty famously beckons “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”, certainly one of the kindest welcoming messages any country has employed. And yet, I’ve been wondering why America can be so mean.

I’m not saying American’s are meaner than other people, but I am saying that I’ve grown up with the expectation of American kindness and when our mean streak shows, it both shocks and depresses me. Admittedly, as I’ve aged my expectations have lowered; I’m less disappointed because I’m less attached to outcomes, but psychologically this is a double-edged sword. I still believe humans are endowed with and capable of great kindness, but I’m less inclined to expect it.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said he chose love because “hate is too great a burden to bear,” and I admire those sentiments. That said, such comments often veer into purely sentimental, aspirational thoughts few of us can fully mobilize in everyday life. In that way, as individuals, we are constantly confronted with our own contradictions if we allow ourselves space to reflect upon them.

Refugees and people in need – the tired poor and huddled masses – are streaming into Europe from the war-torn Middle East. Their arrival has forced European countries to adapt and provide a safe haven for people who have lost everything but their lives. In Denmark, where crime rates have dropped over the past decade, vacant prisons are being re-purposed as bedrooms and living quarters for refugees; cell doors now open both ways and common areas are used for recreation. It’s literally the transformation of a place of pain into a refuge of kindness.

Yet here in America, our government rarely acts this way. To the contrary, America is embroiled in yet another of its periodic episodes of anti-refugee fever. Irish, Haitian, European Jews, Cuban, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Mexican, Guatemalan…the list goes on; these and other refugees in American history have encountered both our welcome and our mean streak. Ultimately, it’s the welcome that has mattered most; in time cultural diversity has been a boost to our nation, not a loss. And yet the punitive mean streak still erupts and the banner of bigotry and fear unfurled; looking back at all the contributions refugees have made, indulging our mean streak is a terrible waste.

I’ve not yet answered my own question, though, what is behind America’s mean streak? I’ve known some individuals who act mean, but not many. Admittedly, I choose not to spend my time around mean people. I find, however, that when one-on-one and given enough time, most people manage to get along, and even show each other kindness. So part of the answer I seek appears to be an emergent quality of groups; meanness is primarily a team activity.

Broadly speaking, American’s are members of either of two teams, The Haves and The Have-nots. The Haves want to keep what they’ve got, and the Have-nots want to fill their needs. The Haves fear loss; fear triggers a sense-of-survival and as a team The Haves develop self-protective plans and strategies. When it comes to today’s refugees, the plans include extreme vetting, deportations and incarceration. Our natural inclination – kindness towards the suffering huddled masses – gets buried by the effects of fear.

And thus the answer to my question: Despite its great abundance, power, generosity, and acts of individual kindness, America’s mean streak emerges from fear.

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