America is such a young country: It's only a few hundred years old, and no one who has been here for only a few generations is without an immigrant connection. So, from the outside — from a place like Europe — the idea that Americans are not connected to immigration and our immigrant pasts seems like we are denying ourselves. We sound very self-hating about the very notion of immigration, but we're actually just confusing racism with a desire to fix the immigration system.
I see that all the time: Things that are being said about immigration and the ideals of immigration are basically just being used as a thinly veiled form of racism. It's so blatant. The president himself actually said he doesn't mind people coming from countries like Norway — white people; it's the people from "shithole countries" he doesn't want. It seems almost pedantic and obsolete to actually have to talk about the fact that it's racism.
The contributions of all immigrants has been so derided by our present administration, so I felt that I needed to celebrate immigration rather than have it openly derided. Also, I wanted to try to make people stand back and just see the anti-immigration propaganda that they were being fed, and understand instead how this country is what it is because of immigration. That was the genesis of my cabaret show (now an Audible book) "Legal Immigrant."
The whole point of the show was to tell my experience from my perspective as immigrant, but also to show that I'm feeling these negative things about being an immigrant and I'm a white man of privilege; I can't imagine what it must be like for people of color or Muslims. I don't know the exact percentage, but I would say that, the day I became an American, at least 75 percent of the other people being sworn in with me were people of color.
So I wanted to try and make people stand back from this vehemence and have some fun while analyzing what was going on. I don't want to be didactic, though: I understand that there are problems with the immigration system; I understand there's a massive refugee problem in the world. But I will not condone racism or bigotry as part of that debate.
That doesn't mean I'm not open to dialogue. I like when people engage, that's why I do theater. I don't want to just be behind a screen; I actually enjoy the fact that I can hear how people are reacting to me. And I've been heckled doing the show — from both sides. I want to hear what people have to say and I totally engage with some people. A couple of times it got quite rowdy, but that's why I wanted to do these cabarets. They're good ways to get people to engage and be provoked, and to maybe change their minds ... or at least consider other options. And, at the end of the show, I make everyone in the audience sing "The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow," so I'm obviously someone who likes bringing people together, even though I also like provoking them.
There's a thing in this country right now: Any dissent against the president or any disagreement with his views is seen as a red flag and people immediately respond in an aggressive way. People are just screaming at one another right now; it makes it very difficult to engage. And so, aside from trying to celebrate immigration, I'm trying to get people to also stand back and try to not let the tropes of this awful rhetoric blind us to what is actually going on.
This government is trying to brainwash its citizens into believing that the very thing that has made America what it is and has made America great — immigration — is a negative thing. That is complete doublespeak. The idea that if you're pro-immigrant, you're anti-America, and if you're anti-immigration, you are pro-America is completely wrong. That's not just my opinion; if you stand back from it and look at the history of this country, you can't deny that is the truth.
I really do believe that people have lost the power of analysis in this country because of the duality of the political system: Politics in this country is a team sport. I also think that, with people like Betsy DeVos running the Education Department, it's going to take a long time before we have a generation who can regain the powers of analysis. It's all a multilayered effort to dumb us down, in order to be able to brainwash us and feed us propaganda. We need to stand up and take heed before it's too late.
As told to THINK editor Megan Carpentier, edited and condensed for clarity.