In 1850, America was consumed with the question of slavery. The awkward Missouri Compromise and similar plans created a perilous national balancing act, attempting to both condemn and retain slavery at the same time.
These were also the waning days of the tall ships, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow chose this metaphor to represent the nation in his poem, The Building of the Ship. Initially, it painted a dire outcome for the slavery struggle; but at the last minute, he replaced it with more hopeful words…
Sail on, O Ship of State!
Sail on, O UNION, strong and great!
Humanity with all its fears,
With all the hopes of future years,
Is hanging breathless on thy fate!
When he read it, Abraham Lincoln was moved to tears. To him, the burden of slavery was crushing: how do you steer a nation torn by racial incarceration in a way that it can still represent a beacon of equality for the rest of the world?
Today, the current “captain” of our ship doesn’t care.
Four years ago, current UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson quipped that he wouldn’t visit some parts of New York City for fear of meeting Donald Trump. How times have changed.
Trump applauded Johnson’s recent election to Prime Minister, describing him as “a good man”, and adding, “he’s a different kind of guy, but they say I’m a different kind of guy, too.” Indeed.
What they have in common is a track record of using race as a catapult to national prominence. As Foreign Minister, Johnson had claimed the queen, “has come to love the Commonwealth, partly because it supplies her with regular crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies.” He added, “Orientals…have larger brains and higher IQ scores. Blacks are at the other pole.”
Trump and Johnson are brothers in harms. Considering Trump’s previously proposed Muslim ban, his beloved border wall and all the recent racist tweets, the bond between the two is clear. Defining who to hate is a time-tested terror.
Trump is now conducting a domestic twitter war with the Squad, four minority female members of Congress who he’s instructed to “go back” to the, “…totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” (Omitting the fact that three of the four were born in America.)
But now he’s moved this specific battle overseas. Two of the four were part of a Congressional delegation scheduled to visit Israel—until Trump took to Twitter. He claimed allowing Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib to enter Israel, “…would show great weakness (by) Israel. They hate Israel and all Jewish people…they are a disgrace!”
The equally corrupt Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dutifully heeded his master’s voice and barred them from his country. This action was far more craven than Johnson’s words. Israel was founded on the history of a people subjected to degradation as “the other” (not to mention countless acts of violence and the horrors of the Holocaust). To surrender to Trump’s exported racism is not just a calculated moment of dishonor for Israel, it’s a repudiation of the values of free will and freedom from discrimination on which that nation was supposedly founded. Shame.
Trump’s racism is often described as a method to energize his base--as if it needed any more prodding. But it’s also a sly means to capture the news narrative within American media. The more talk about his racism, the less attention paid to health care, climate change or gun violence. And yes, in writing this piece, in my own small way I’m playing his game, too.
But his actions now threaten further destabilization not just across America, but over the entire developed world. As such, his deeds suggest that maybe Longfellow would have been right to keep his original closing for The Building of the Ship, which predicted a much darker future for the good ship Union:
But where, oh where,
Shall end this form so rare?
Wrecked upon some treacherous rock,
Rotting in some loathsome dock?
Such the end must be at length
Of all this loveliness and strength!
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