Nineteen Eighty-nine was a miserable year to start teaching political science. I mean, between Tiananmen Square, the Fall of the Wall and the revolutions that swept Eastern Europe it was almost impossible to stay on syllabus. (And, yes, we of the professoriate are such a myopically focused breed that staying on syllabus, come hell or high collapse of communism, is our greatest goal in life. Except, of course, that we almost never manage to accomplish that simple task….). Most of my students these days were not even alive when the wall fell. When I first started teaching I asked myself “How do I explain a political world to students who weren’t around for Nixon?”. Now they weren’t around for Reagan—or the Soviet Union and the Cold War. Listening to all the celebrations and reminiscences of the Cold War and its end in the media the past week or two has come with a sense of nostalgia, therefore, for people of my generation. Oddly enough, of all the history and factoids about the wall discussed on CNN and NPR one in particular–one particularly relevant, I feel, for someone living in San Diego on the nation’s southern border—was the real, immediate human toll the wall claimed.
Historians estimate between one hundred and two hundred people died ttrying to go over the Wall in its twenty-eight years, one hundred to two hundred people who gave their lives from a chance at freedom, at liberty and at a better life, plain and simple. Over the last fifteen years, meanwhile, estimates of the number of people who have died attempting to cross over from Mexico into the United States range from two thousand to six thousand. That is a death rate ten times greater than the Berlin Wall’s—twenty times greater in a yearly average of mortality.
And what did those two to six thousand people die for? A chance for greater freedom, greater liberty and at a better life, plain and simple.
In the scheme of human history the United States stands out as the one place that thousands of people have died trying to get into. That is the greatest distinction between this society and all the despotisms and tyrannies that have dominated so much of mankind for so long. The day people stop dying to come here is the day American Exceptionalism dies as well. Which is something all of us should keep in mind whenever America’s attention drifts back from healthcare, war and recession to more prosaic matters of hundreds of people dying each year on our own border, our reverse Berlin Wall.
In my more neofascist moments I ask myself, if we really want to build a lean, mean American fighting machine that can take on the world, who do we want living here? A bunch of whining faux patriots screaming that since they were born here by random genetic luck they actually deserve the blessings of liberty more than anyone else who wasn’t born here, even if they themselves have done nothing of note nor paid no sacrifice of value to get those blessings? People like most of those beer-bellied, baseball cap wearing faux Patriot Minutemen sitting on beaten up old lawn chairs beside beaten up old RVs scanning the border for illegal aliens while chugging Coors. (Side note: when I see people camping outside of nuclear power plants in protests for weeks on edge or sitting by the border of binoculars, I’ve got to ask: Don’t these clowns have jobs and responsibilities?”. But I digress.)
Orrrrr, if you want a strong, exceptional America would you rather have a citizenship composed of people who were willing to cross hundreds of miles of scalding desert or hundreds of miles of shark-infested waters on driftwood rafts, risking body and soul to do so? Forget “Send me your tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to be free.” The real motto of this country for three centuries has been “Send me your risk takers, your courageous, your dreamers willing to lay it on the line for a better life.”
So how about this: let’s take everyone in America when they turn eighteen and drop them ninety miles off Florida or smack dab in the middle of the California desert and, if they make it to shore or to LA alive , we meet them, shake their hands and say “Welcome to America, Citizen.” Or at least the Minutemen. (Now THAT would be a great reality show: “Survivor: American Citizenship Edition.”)
Or at least let us acknowledge that those two to six thousand people who’ve died on our southern borders are every bit as much a testament to and martyrs for the same concepts of hope and freedom as those brave souls who perished going over that hideous wall.