What “America First” means in reality
by Eric Martin
Staff Professional Adult
In light of the recent election of Donald Trump, I was happy to receive a message from Evan Badowska, the dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences here at Fordham, urging us to keep before us the concerns of “the poor, the marginalized, the fearful, the dispossessed, and the disenfranchised.” I think she is right to point our attention this way, and in the spirit of the call from Jesus to worry about the plank in our own eye, I also hope Fordham examines its own role in creating a culture in which Trump could become president.
Central to Trump’s appeal to many citizens is his refrain, “America first.” This mentality fails any basic moral standard and directly contradicts the central teachings of scripture. But what are we to make of Fordham’s decision to award the deputy national security adviser for counterterrorism and current director of the CIA, John Brennan, a Doctorate in Humane Letters? Brennan is deeply complicit in the edifice that held illegally detained Muslims and tortured them without trial, and has publicly defended the use of such methods in the name of the defense of Americans. He has also helped run the extra-judicial drone assassination program that has killed hundreds of children, among others. I was of course not surprised when some of my students at Fordham argued that Trump is right to call for the murder of children places like Yemen and Pakistan, because Fordham gave someone who helps do so an award with the word “humane” in it. How can we denounce Trump’s rhetoric against Muslims, his disregard for international law, his call to resume torture and the expansion of Guantanamo, or his rabid American exceptionalism while we celebrate John Brennan?
I am reminded of a moment on campus in the spring of 2015 when Fordham Against Torture protested against the decision to honor Brennan and called for President McShane and the board of trustees to revoke his degree – which they have since done with Bill Cosby’s degree. Two members of the board came to speak with us and in a somewhat dismissive tone rejected our concern about torture with the reply, “Jesus never said anything about torture.” After asking us why we weren’t concerned about the safety of Americans, one of us replied that in the spirit of the gospels, “we are concerned with everyone, especially the brutalized and vulnerable.” They simply doubled down on their concern for Americans, revealing tragically familiar kind of tribalism.
If this is how those who run our university understand the gospels, the Jesuit tradition, basic human dignity, and the validity of exalting America at the expense of the rest of the world, we need to admit our complicity in creating the culture that has embraced what Trump stands for. We could also talk about the names of war criminals like Richard Nixon and Harry Truman that are enshrined on the steps in front of Keating Hall. If we would like to dismiss Trump’s idea, filled with racist overtones, to build a wall to keep Mexicans out of America, we should discuss what it means for Fordham to erect gates all around campus which keep the mostly black and Hispanic population in the area sealed off, effectively separating its students from the realities on the other. We could likewise ask why a campus that professes to have roots in the man who commanded his followers to “love your enemies” has an ROTC program, and how that contributes to an “American first” culture.
Ignatius of Loyola wanted Jesuits to engage in the examen twice a day. Its last step is to look toward tomorrow. It would be good for Fordham to engage in a communal examen if we want there to be the kind of tomorrow that includes all people. I am grateful for Eva Badowski’s words, and I hope that students, but also those who run Fordham, live them.
Lastly, someone looking to understand Fordham’s culture might also ask who Fordham does not celebrate. Last April, the Jesuit Daniel Berrigan died on campus. He led a life of peacemaking dedicated to the poor, the bombed, the scared, the imprisoned, and the oppressed, serving years in jail for doing so. He struggled to join the Freedom Riders, marched in Selma during the civil rights movement, and helped lead efforts to end the killing of more than two million Vietnamese people by the US military. Though he taught classes here and was part of the Fordham community, our university has neglected to acknowledge Berrigan as “humane.” The contrast between Brennan and Berrigan could hardly be starker. If we would like to create a world in which it’s easier to be good, as Dorothy Day called for, we should consider it closely.