The value of a person does not depend upon where she was born. A person’s genesis should not determine our judgment about his character.
Consider the case of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who testified in the impeachment hearing. Vindman came to the U.S. from the Soviet Union as a 3-year old. Some pundits questioned Vindman’s loyalty, suggesting his heritage gives him a special “affinity” for Ukraine.
This is an example of the “genetic fallacy”— a weak argument that deceptively changes the subject by focusing on the irrelevant question of where someone (or something) originated. A classic example says that Volkswagens are bad cars because the company was founded by the Nazis.
This flawed logic is typical of racism and ethnocentrism. Atrocities have been committed because of this fallacy. The internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War provides an example. Genetic suspicion is dangerous and can become genocidal.
The fundamental truth is that the origin of something has very little to do with its current value. Good ideas can come from stupid people. Evil people can come from good families. War heroes can lie. And bums can tell the truth.
So while Vindman’s defenders have argued that his testimony must be true because the colonel is a decorated soldier, even that biographical detail is a distraction. What matters is whether his testimony actually coheres with the facts.
Of course, origin stories are interesting. We are fascinated by background and biography. Things become more interesting when we unearth their roots. But good judgment looks beyond these roots to the fruits of justice, honor, dignity, and truth.
Consider as another example the pagan origins of our holiday traditions. Halloween developed out of the Celtic harvest festival of Samhain. The cornucopia of Thanksgiving is a symbol taken from ancient harvest feasts. Christmas has roots in ancient solstice celebrations. But it would be silly to reject these holidays because of their mixed origin.
Most things — and most people — have mixed heritage. Except for the original native Americans, most of us have tangled roots that extend beyond this continent. John Muir was born in Scotland. Arnold Schwarzenegger was born in Austria. Melania Trump was born in Slovenia.
Thomas Paine provides a fascinating example. Paine’s writings helped inspire the American revolution. Paine was born in England. He came to America in 1774. By 1776, he avidly argued in support of the revolution. Paine was likely the first person to use the phrase “the United States of America” to describe the fledgling country.
Paine served the United States throughout the revolutionary period. He was rewarded with property in New York. He took an oath of citizenship. Paine eventually traveled to Europe, where he got swept up in the French Revolution. Questions were raised about his citizenship status. Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe helped Paine return to the U.S. But his citizenship was challenged in New York and he was denied the right to vote.
Americans have long struggled with questions of patriotism, belonging, and citizenship. After the Civil War, former slaves became citizens. Since 1868, the 14th Amendment has granted citizenship to anyone born in the United States. President Trump has called this “ridiculous.” He has threatened to abolish birthright citizenship.
There are difficult questions here. Who is more American: someone who was merely born here or someone who chose to come here and voluntarily took an oath of citizenship? Who should we trust more: someone who volunteered to serve this country in war or someone who dodged the draft?
To answer those questions requires careful and critical thought. But humans have always been baffled by bad arguments. And these days, in particular, the airwaves are flooded with fallacies.
Paine once said that to argue with an irrational person is like trying to give medicine to a dead man. If we are to survive the present crisis, we must work to revive rationality. We need a crash course in critical thinking. As Paine explained in a pamphlet called “Common Sense,” we need to avoid dazzling deceit and learn to listen to “the simple voice of nature and reason.” Reason tells us that what matters is what we stand for and not where we came from.