With the Independence Day holiday upon us, we will undoubtedly see numerous columns about patriotism, the cost of freedom and the like. It reminds me of an incident from over 40 years ago on a beach in El Salvador through which I saw a different view of America, courtesy of a Salvadoran college student.
It was Semana Santa, Easter week and a group of us, Peace Corps volunteers had gathered at the beach where we were sitting in the sand with the gentle surf lapping at our toes. There were five of us, from Missouri, Kansas, New York, Connecticut, and California and without anyone saying a word, five sets of hands began digging, constructing a sand castle. One of the fellows worked at the national university in the capital city of San Salvador and he had brought a couple of his university students with him. As one of them watched us, he spoke up.
“This is something I do not understand about Americans. No one said, ‘let us build a sand castle’ and yet each of you knew immediately what the others were doing and joined in. My country is much smaller than yours, only 160 miles one end to the other. I come from the capital, a little over 100 miles from here but if I sat down and began to dig in the sand, these local fishermen would not know what I was doing and certainly would not come to join me. How do you do that?”
That gave each of us something to think about for several moments before we could formulate an answer to such an intriguing question. After much discussion, we decided it was a combination of America’s public education system—we all grew up reading about Dick and Jane and Spot, Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys—and television programs, from Howdy Doody to Romper Room to Mighty Mouse, The Lone Ranger, and Leave It To Beaver. No matter what part of the country we grew up in, that was our childhood and it gave us a number of common denominators.
It was an answer we could all agree on and one that seemed to satisfy the student who posed the original question. He went on to share with us that although he and his countrymen lived much closer to each other geographically, they did not share the same educational advantages—many of the poorer fishermen had little or no formal schooling and certainly didn’t have access to television as children. At that time in the 1970s, I lived in that fishing village. There were only three known televisions in the entire town and one of them was in a well-known combination bar and brothel!
It is food for thought in terms of what has united us and continues to make America work as a country. There are more countries in the world that struggle with the issues that have long plagued tiny El Salvador, divergent populations with educational levels that cover the entire spectrum and/or with different cultures and languages, such as indigenous populations, dialects vs. a dominant national language. Likewise, there are only a handful of countries with the geographical span and physical resources that have blessed America and still, we have managed to hold it all together for over 200 years.
The question now as we face an uncertain political future and an increasingly bitter campaign, is how do we continue to do so? The answer is to watch and listen carefully. What exactly are these two campaigns actually marketing? We may not be in love with either of the major candidates but in listening to the campaigns, I hear one in particular marketing hate, just one step down from a now infamous campaign in Europe in the 1930s. Back then, the man at the center of that firestorm, concentrated on one particular ethnic group, blaming much of their country’s financial troubles on the businesses, the men involved and their entire families. Today, Donald Trump is blaming various groups—ethnic, religious, and racial—for America’s problems as well as women in general. He may be spreading the blame around, but his promotional strategy is still the same as Adolf Hitler’s. Do we really want to put someone in the White House who blames everyone else, particularly entire ethnic, religious or gender groups, for the problems we face? History has shown us the results of campaigns built on hate, from Herod to Hitler, and they have always brought nothing but misery and heartbreak for all.