Op-ed: For what are we thankful?

  • By Bob Franken
  • Tuesday, November 22, 2016 7:50pm
  • Opinion

How ludicrous is it that we observe the holiday commemorating the success of America’s early immigrants in the same year that we elect as president a man who expresses such hatred for the millions who have snuck into this country seeking opportunity or a chance to live, which was denied them back home? Obviously, I’m not the only one to point out how far we’ve come as a nation and, sadly, how far back we’re going. Others will join me in pointing out that if Donald Trump had led the tribes of Native Americans, they would have been nativist, they’d have been hard at work building a wall around the shores of Massachusetts, forming a deportation force and even using the Mayflower to send the Pilgrims “back where they came from.” Instead we ended up abusing those who welcomed us.

I’m jumping around in history a bit, but the poem on the Statue of Liberty might have read: “Take your ‘huddled masses yearning to be free,’ and return them to where they can only yearn to survive.”

That’s not just a message, it’s the way the new administration plans to operate. Trump’s relentless appeal to xenophobia helped get him elected. In other words, millions of Americans wish to treat outsiders viciously. So it’s perversely understandable that he doesn’t seem to be mellowing one bit. He’s placing as the government’s main enforcer of the harsh policies Jeff Sessions, a man who, as a senator, has espoused a stringently anti-immigrant approach. Now he will be in a position to enforce his odious vision. If his boss decides to muster up law-enforcement battalions to force out those who have built a life here illegally, Attorney General Sessions will be only too happy to oblige.

Of course, most of us don’t remember why we have this four-day weekend off. We even call it “Turkey Day,” since it has become a celebration of gluttony — along with football, perhaps. It’s Black Friday eve, or if the corporation is really greedy, the same Thursday night, even before the food is digested, when the Yuletide excess so important to their bottom line begins.

Back to U.S. history, Donald Trump is showing an obvious ignorance of it, and not just disdain for the immigrants’ tradition. He clearly needs a refresher course about the Constitution’s guarantees of free expression. So it was that Vice President-elect Mike Pence decided to head for Broadway and take in the musical “Hamilton.” Pence was greeted not just by a mix of cheers and boos, but he also got a pointed lecture. Brandon Victor Dixon, who plays Aaron Burr, went out of character at show’s end to address Pence, who has championed an anti-gay-rights agenda. Dixon pleaded with him to change his ways to support a “diverse group of men and women of different colors, creeds and orientations.” As he was speaking, Pence left. Trump wouldn’t let it go. As usual, he jumped onto Twitter and complained about the cast being “rude.” Then he issued a demand: “Apologize!”

Here’s the thing, Mr. President-elect: In the United States, the chief executive doesn’t get to issue such ultimatums. You need to know that. Your bud Vladimir Putin can stifle free speech, but you cannot, even if you fantasize about wielding such power.

Look no further than the very same Alexander Hamilton, who called freedom of the press “inviolable.” Actually, Hamilton was describing all the First Amendment free-speech rights, although he didn’t think they needed to be spelled out in a separate Bill of Rights, because the original Constitution didn’t constrain them.

Had he known you, 227 years later, he might well have found that it was indeed necessary to spell it all out. By the way, need I remind you that Hamilton himself was an immigrant? We used to celebrate the outsiders who built our nation; it was what Thanksgiving was about. Your election shows that it is now a holiday that has become, well, hollow.

Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.

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