“No man is an island, entire of itself. Each is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” Metaphysical poet John Donne penned these famous lines 400 years ago. In the centuries since, we have had intermittent congress with their import, but in the main we have, as another great poet, T. S. Eliot, wrote, “had the experience but missed the meaning.”
The Great Depression, combined with the dismal experience of World War I, produced an America in the 1930s that was isolationist to its very bones. The spirit of St. Louis was not a kind and welcoming tide in May of 1939, when nearly a thousand Jews fleeing the Holocaust circled the U.S. coast for days, waiting in vain to be granted sanctuary. No such welcome mat was laid down, and they were turned away. More than 250 of these passengers died in Europe. Would that this were an isolated incident, rather than an incident of isolationism. It still haunts.
Fast forward to 2021, when we witness a nightly spectacle of desperate Haitians flown back to an unknown homeland, another island whose lost we refuse to find. After 20 years of intercession in the mountainous quicksand of an Afghanistan that time and again swallows up all who enter, we turn our backs on one of the simplest verities: “You break it, you’ve bought it,” the eloquent wisdom posted by a Miami gift shop in 1952. If it works for china and glass, it seems to this humble scrivener that it ought suffice for great nations as well. Et tu, Joe?
The abandonment of women and girls who grew under our protection to attend school, to hold jobs, to tiptoe into the 21st century from the medieval paternalism of the Taliban, is all the crueler than had we never set our angry boots upon that riven sand.
It was one thing for a pandering narcissist to whip his supporters into a frenzy of America uber alles; it is quite another for a senatorial veteran and two-term veep with progressive leanings, an incumbent who should know better, to follow his predecessor’s path into a soulless new isolationism.
For an otherwise caring man who campaigned under the umbrella of a return to the soul of America, the failure of this president to buy what we broke and leave the women of Afghanistan only when a fundamental set of human rights was guaranteed blows past the crossroads of disappointment. It surrenders to a slippery slope down which the only way to preserve and protect our once-shining city on a hill is to pull up the drawbridge across the moat and to abandon those outside to their fates.
I understand the urge. We can’t boil the seas. Our first obligation is to citizens abiding under stars and stripes and not to the world at large. Would that it were that easy. In such a simplistic universe, let’s imagine Putin unfettered by NATO, Kim Jung Un wolfing down noodles in Seoul, Taipei alongside Hong Kong in forgotten freedoms, begging crumbs from Beijing. You get the point. The oceans that bracket this great land are no longer an insurmountable moat. Missiles have stood minutes from our shores since the Cold War. Iran will spawn another nuclear physicist for every one Israel takes out with remote-controlled machine guns. We let them wash our laundry with implausible deniability. Who’s next in our retreat to the castle keep? Who can trust us now?
There is a path between the nation-building Scylla of being the world’s policeman and the America-centric Charybdis of shunting everyone else to last with a bullet. We need not repeat the disaster of the Cuban embargo with the tragedy of Afghanistan abandoned. That nation, if we can even call it that, is in ruins.
Having gifted its governance to the Taliban, there is yet a moment to wave a carrot of dollar diplomacy in place of a broken arrow. If we do not owe this to the young women and girls of Afghanistan who came of age with a fragile, starter set of rights and realities, how are the daughters of America to believe there is muscle behind our own belated march to gender equality? Tell that to the mothers-to-be of Texas, where tyranny wears a cloak of righteousness, a pot aboil with an unholy mix of church and state.
It didn’t start with this president, but if the better angels of our nature are only angels in America, then our wings are made of hollow bones that will not stand the strain. “The world is too much with us,” wrote William Wordsworth, “We lay waste our powers.” We are not first, we are but one step ahead in a line traversing time, aching for a future that can still be better writ.