The 2020 Presidential Election was an emotional roller-coaster for all. Whether you were like me — an onlooker from thousands of miles away and in a different timezone, watching states like Georgia and Wisconsin flip in real time — or like my Cardinal-affiliated, America-based friends and colleagues who were likely losing sleep, it was a nerve wracking spectacle that tested everyone’s mental fortitude.
The likes of John King and Steve Kornacki — of CNN and MSNBC respectively — worked their magic on electoral maps and wooed the watching world with their workrate and accuracy under pressure. The warnings prior to Election Day about red and blue mirages clearly proved to be futile, as Twitter went into meltdown with every twist and turn in the frantic race.
Then came Saturday, Nov. 7 — four days after Election Day kicked off — when time seemingly stood still. I recall frantically doom-scrolling before deciding to check out CNN’s live coverage. Within moments, there was an incoming projection call and the camera panned onto Wolf Blitzer: Joseph R. Biden Jr. was projected to be the 46th president of the United States, as the electoral votes from Pennsylvania were projected to go in his favor and push him over the 270 mark. I couldn’t have timed it better.
At that moment, there was liftoff.
Social media went ablaze and before long, people all over the world took to the streets in celebration in cities like Boston and Los Angeles, in Biden’s and Harris’ ancestral towns in Ireland and India respectively and of course, Madison, Wis., as well.
President-elect Biden’s Twitter account shared a poignant video moments after the race was called, which — combined with the gravity of that moment in time — gave me goosebumps. As time passed though, I found myself reflecting on the video and the song — “America the Beautiful” — sung by Ray Charles in the background.
I thought to myself, “America the Beautiful? Is it really?”
Looking back at the video, I realized that while an “America for all” message meshed well with the words from “America the Beautiful” to create a striking video, the messages diverged completely when viewed from an objective standpoint.
“America the Beautiful” cannot be an America for all.
As a foreigner, my perception of America is not built on patriotic songs and celebrations, but on comparative study and real stories instead. As a student in high school, the American constitution was touted as groundbreaking and one of a handful of existing constitutions at the time that inspired the formation of the constitution of post-British India. As a consumer of media, I have seen countless real stories of people achieving what they call the “American Dream.” From restaurateurs and street food vendors tirelessly putting their soul on a plate, to students like myself and professionals facilitating an exchange of skills and ideas, to those whose grandparents or great-grandparents arrived in the U.S. seeking new opportunities as immigrants themselves.
The Native population simply cannot be forgotten either. As someone born in a country that — to this day — grapples with the effects of colonialism, I can recognize that the damage done by colonizers is irreversible. Yet the efforts made by the existing population to preserve identity and even flourish is nothing short of astounding. The same goes for all who have fought valiantly against oppression on account of their identities and continue to do so.
Modern America is like a jigsaw puzzle, with each and every person in — or affiliated with — America forming a piece.
I have written extensively in the past about just how incredible I find the rights and protections afforded to all people on American soil and now, I have elucidated the real stories I cherish as well. America, as a concept, truly is beautiful.
However, reality begs to differ. While these pieces to the puzzle exist, they remain jumbled, as not every piece in the puzzle lines up to form the beautiful image of America that Ray Charles sings of, or that Katharine Lee Bates originally wrote of.
This can be seen in the murky history of America. The systemic genocide of indigenous people, the violent response to the marches from Selma to Montgomery, the Tuskegee study, the Dotbusters in New Jersey are just some wildly scattered examples from a heavy past.
There exist more recent examples too. The Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 where there certainly were not “very fine people on both sides” is just one example that sticks out like a sore thumb.
The truth is, there exists — unfortunately — a significant population that squirms at the idea of unity in diversity, something Google search trends appear to confirm. There exists a camp that believes in the superiority of their own identity over others, questioning the right to a free and safe life for those that identify differently: Some pieces of the puzzle simply do not fit well to form an inclusive, United States of America.
This has become further evident in 2020. While significant strides have been made out of the U.S.’s murky history, a lot of the divides that were silently taking shape over and before the last four years have been exposed emphatically this year. The struggles of the pandemic have been universal, but none have been more spectacular than in America. The thousands of cars lining up to collect food in Dallas, Texas, and the countless people unemployed or dead due to the pandemic while the Senate declared recess for Thanksgiving exemplifies a class divide — a major cause of the issues that plague the population today and inhibit the puzzle from taking shape.
The several instances of police brutality this year, the fact that someone arrested and charged with murder could post bail and escape actions without consequence — all the while others without blood on their hands have had to pay with their blood — makes you forget that there even exists a pretty picture, the kind that the Biden campaign’s video promises.
Meanwhile, the incumbent President — who by definition is supposed to be the most fervent defender of the constitution — had his appointee hold back transitional funds and information from the President-elect’s transition team longer than necessary, while himself refusing to concede and continually racking up failed lawsuits, essentially ripping up what he had sworn to protect. When the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) declared the election the most secure in American history, the incumbent fired the head of the DHS agency that made the claim, continuing to dismiss the will of the people whilst still getting support from the majority in his party. This is alarming for most onlookers, yet for a significant proportion of people, this seems like the right course of action.
There now exists an entire fragment of the country — a significant portion of about 74 million Trump voters — that have been brainwashed into believing in an alternative reality, where the incumbent is victorious or at least that President-elect Biden did not win fair and square, despite the lack of evidence surrounding voter fraud. When even Fox News starts slowly distancing itself from some of the claims made by the incumbent’s campaign team, it seems like time for alarm bells to ring. Yet this portion of the population seeks further misinformation, shifting out of the political spectrum altogether and into the realm of dangerous fiction, all of which trickles down from the very top.
Quite frankly, this fragment of the nation — white supremacists and the wildly misinformed — holds back the jigsaw puzzle from being pieced together as it should. I can say this because when I look at India, my country of birth, I see divisions on the lines of caste and religion that have pre-dated the nation’s inception and been amplified in recent years, holding back the nation in a similar fashion. While the metrics of identity, unity and progress vary from country to country, these deep divisions are a warning sign.
However, all is certainly not lost. As I had mentioned earlier, the pieces still exist. This election signaled the wish for change. The Biden-Harris ticket won the most votes in American election history, beating the record set by the Obama-Biden ticket in 2008. It is clear that the majority — the actual majority — want to see the jigsaw puzzle pieced together.
The process will not be easy and a new president will not fix much. Rebuilding America will require smart and consistent work, such as Stacey Abrams’ grassroots work to fight fear mongering and voter suppression. grassroots political action. This will also require free speech to have consequences.
The freedom of expression is a beautiful thing which must be protected at all costs, but even a proponent of free expression cannot allow unfettered expression. According to John Stuart Mill’s harm principle, "The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others." By this token, it is imperative to curtail the spread of baseless misinformation that masquerades as free speech, since it causes direct harm to society — even endangering certain lives.
Major platforms like Twitter — not beholden to the First Amendment — have been performing admirably in this regard but must do even more. Unverified information should be called out as such and its spread halted. Repeat offenders should be banned from such platforms, regardless of who they may be. This won’t entirely eliminate misinformation or even transform everybody’s views, but can help prevent naive people from falling to the dark side. Google’s response to its autocomplete algorithm once questioning the Holocaust is another great approach, where a misinformed search is responded to with a link to verified information. With enough exposure to verified truth in place of vitriolic misinformation, there can be change.
The only way the puzzle can be pieced together is if disruptive pieces are cast aside. This does not mean eliminating them from society entirely — especially for those that are merely misinformed and are not a direct threat to society. This is their country, as much as it is yours. Rather, it’s a matter of facing the reality that there can’t be a wholly tolerant society. A tolerant society cannot tolerate intolerance, according to the paradox of tolerance. The best that can be done is giving them one avenue of spotlight — that of satire. They must be called out without being afforded credibility.
Maybe as an international student in the U.S., one might argue that this is none of my business; but, being a student is more than just getting a degree. It is about giving back to the community that gives you an education you’re proud of, while you can. It is about standing up for what you believe in. In my final piece as an Opinion editor at The Daily Cardinal, I try doing just that and write in hope of progress towards a pieced together puzzle.
As I finish up this piece, I guess I can return to my question.
“America the Beautiful?” Not quite, but it sure can be.
Anupras is a sophomore studying Computer Science. Do you think this puzzle can be pieced together? Send all comments to firstname.lastname@example.org