America: A Progressive Elegy

During my recent trip to Berlin, I was struck by how seriously the Germans have taken their own descent into hell during the Nazi period.  Their Holocaust Memorial, with its maze of huge, gray granite blocks is a deeply moving testament to a tragedy they take responsibility for.  It is set right near the Brandenburg  Gate, the symbolic center of the city.  It is unavoidable. The brass “stumble stones” scattered throughout the city, mark thousands of homes where “murdered” Jews had lived and, with each name chiseled into the brass, personalize and publicize Nazi atrocities.  German law outlaws hate speech and Nazism, in any form.

Where, I wondered, is the American equivalent?  A memorial marking the centuries in which we embraced slavery and, subsequently, institutionalized racism?  How do we mark our own soul searching? Where is a memorial to the Native American tribes that we virtually destroyed in our imperialistic quest for more and more territory—what we called our Manifest Destiny?

I’ve had a lifelong romance with America, with its democratic ideals and its welcome to the oppressed peoples of the world.  Even when we faltered, I thought, we were on the way to redemption.  Slavery was followed by emancipation.  When the poor could not find jobs and earn decent wages, we empowered their unions and created programs that set them to work.  When our nativist and isolationist bent threatened to dominate, leaders like FDR found ways to turn our attention outwards to help win the war against Nazi Germany.  In other words, our failures were exceptions, soon to be remedied.

Recently, I’ve seen how naive I’ve been, looking through the lens of one who has prospered in this land, and giving too little weight to the experience of those who haven’t.  The emergence of the Republican Tea Party joined to the corrosive greed and bigotry of the Trump presidency, may have pushed me over the edge.  I now see current trends as deeply rooted in the American tradition. What I had seen as exceptions now seem as foundational as the American ideals I have cherished.

I am not alone in my reconsideration.  For decades now, historians have been unearthing uncomfortable truths and rewriting our narrative.  The differences are far too many and complex to list here but let me name just four areas of contention.  First, slavery was integral to the formation of our “perfect union.” During the Constitutional Convention, Northern states were ‘forced’ to accept slavery as the price of Southern participation.  When I was young, my history books insisted that Reconstruction failed because those terrible carpet baggers tried to impose their greedy capitalist way on the suffering South.  But we did not learn about the KKK terrorists who threatened Blacks and Whites who wanted to actually institutionalize emancipation.  How about now? There are over 2,300,000 Americans in prisons today, a large percentage of them men of color.  Racism has marked our culture from beginning to end.

Here’s a second area where the narrative has changed.  We were told that America was a land of immigrants, a melting pot.  But we were not supposed to form a stew with many ingredients; instead we were supposed to melt and melt until we all became the same: White Anglo Saxon Protestants.  As the signs noted, “No Irish need apply,” at least until they learned to be Americans.  No Southern Europeans, either. Their skin was too dark and they were said to smell of garlic.  We prefer blond, blue-eyed, clean-smelling folks from Northern Europe, the same people Trump prefers today.  And certainly this country has wanted to limit the number of Jews.  During the early years of the Nazi reign, we turned Jews away, turned back boatloads when their only alternative was almost certain death in concentration camps.  The people of the heartland—think of how we use that word—have always wanted their wall.

The third myth concerns our view of the Us as the land of opportunity, the land of unlimited social mobility.  After all, isn’t that why those “huddled masses” have clamored towards our shores.  Maybe this was once so but statistical studies tell us that now “there is considerably more mobility in most other developed economies…This cornerstone of US identity — that if you put in hard work, a better future awaited — long separated the US from other countries in the American imagination. But in practice, that idea is increasingly evading the country’s young people.”   In fact, the richest 1% of Americans owns almost half of our wealth, and they are holding on to it.

The fourth myth, sometimes called “American exceptionalism,” proclaims the United States as a democratic model that nations throughout the world should emulate.  Yet the increasing concentration of American wealth, fed by tax policies and hidden, thanks to the recent Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, has led to a concentration of political power.  We have become a plutocracy, where a few wealthy men exercise inordinate power over government policy.  In this plutocracy, the meaning of one man, one vote, is losing its meaning.  And indeed, this is not as new as you might think.  Our Founding Fathers never intended a majoritarian democracy.  They trusted landowners and White men and built political structures like the Electoral College to guard against the “tyranny of the majority.”  They empowered the real Americans—rural and White—by giving them the Senate.  How else do we justify Wyoming, population 573,000, having the same vote as California, population 39,000,000?

I could go on to explain how our country was built to share power only so much but, in the little space I have left, I want to offer a few thoughts about what we can and should do about it.  I have three recommendations.

First, we need to do some soul searching and acknowledge the inherent problems of our democracy, such that the Freedom Caucus, the Alt Right, and Trump, are not exceptions.  They are as American as Progressives are.  In other words, we must remove our veil and begin our reforms from an honest, realistic perspective.  We need to cleanse our mind and spirit in order to build a more just and equal American future.

Second, like Germany, we need to fashion and initiative a process of peace, reconciliation, and reparation.  Once we have searched our own souls, we need to talk honestly, directly with the people we have injured or their descendants and find out how they would build a better world.  I find it humiliating that the Germans could look inside, admit their guilt, and try to build a society where anti-Semitism cannot rise again, while America has undergone no such process for slavery.  As so many great and eloquent African Americans have already insisted, we need to own up to the racism in all of us.  We need to ban hate speech in all of its forms.  And like Germany, which has paid reparations to Israel, we should seriously consider reparation to the descendants of slaves—enough to give them real economic momentum in our society.  To heal our society, we can’t afford not to.

Third, we must rebuild, not tear down, the institutions and laws that guarantee all people have equal access to the educational, economic, and cultural wealth of our nation.  This might start by dismantling barriers, such as:  1) the Electoral College; 2) the practice of gerrymandering; 3) the restrictions on voting.  And it might proceed by reintroducing a much fuller guarantee of voting rights, fair progressive taxation, guaranteed by a government that is actually by, for, and of the people.

Call these suggestions idealistic, pie in the sky, aspirational.  But it looks to me like Trump and his Republican enablers are willing to sacrifice democratic ‘niceties’ in the service of ideological ends, and to avenge their base’s humiliation at the hands of the “elites.”. And it looks to me that they may win if we don’t directly and strongly engage this battle now.

Singling Out Israel

I recently read an article in Salon about divestment in companies that do business with Israel, especially companies that have direct dealings with the Settlements (“We have a right to engage in non-violent action: Christian leaders refuse to be silenced in struggle for Palestinian rights,” July 4, 2016).  I share the author’s admiration for people who protest human rights abuse.  I admire those who stand up to bullies, as they suggest that Andrew Cuomo, who opposes the boycotting of Israeli companies, may be.  And I stand with the author against Israel’s oppressive behavior towards Palestinians.

According to the Reverend David Gaewski, head of the United Churches of Christ, “… we have a right to engage in non-violent action to bring about change, including using economic leverage. All people and organizations have that right, and it is a right we must defend.” So far so good.  Then Gaewski demands that Cuomo “stop denying our rights. Rescind your executive order now!” The article’s author, David Polumbo-Liu, then adds the Babtists, Methodists, and UUA’s to his list of righteous protestors.

Here is the essence of his argument:  “The act of refusing to be complicit with injustice, of breaking one’s ties to an oppressive regime, is what these religious organizations, and people of faith, are undertaking.  And they are part of a much larger coalition of intellectuals, artists, writers, activists, trade unions, and organizations worldwide, appalled by the unfettered violence of the Occupation.”

I support the right to protest, but I would be far happier if we spread the blame, worldwide.  I am not happy to see Israel singled out when abuse is so widespread.

Here’s a deal: let’s boycott companies from or that profit in China.  Their human rights record isn’t so good.  How about Russia, who, under Putin, has returned the Asian Bear to its good old ways.  Let’s boycott companies that profit in Venezuela and Argentina, which hasn’t exactly come clean about the thousands of “disappeared.”  Let’s not be stingy with our outrage.  What about Zimbabwe, and the many African dictatorships, some of whom have been waging genocidal wars.  Then there are all those Middle Eastern countries whose people seemed to breaking free during the “Arab Spring” but rapidly reverted to tyrannical regimes or to brutal, clannish warfare.

Even these lists aren’t fair unless we include the United States of America.  For 150 years we have undermined South American countries whose political ideologies did not fit with our own or who threatened  American corporations, like American Fruit and Coca Cola.  We sell more arms, wreaking more destruction than any nation on earth.  We use drones to assassinate “enemies,” a practice clearly at odds with the Geneva Conventions on human rights.  Not to mention the “collateral damage” that arises when we send missiles into crowds.  We attacked Iraq based on false, trumped up information and killed many thousands during our ballyhooed days of “shock and awe.”  How about the Vietnam War, where we bombed and burned millions of civilians in an ill-conceived war.  I could go on but you get the idea.  The United States, sometimes “policeman to the world,” is the furthest thing from innocent when it comes to human rights abuse.  Are we boycotting United States’ goods?

If we are to condemn human rights abuse, then we need to broaden our canvas.  We need to extend the blame outward and we need to find solutions that are broader than blaming, then punishing one, small nation.

This raises a key question: Why is it so easy for Americans and Europeans to focus on Israel?  One possible answer seems clear to me.  There is a long history of anti-Semitism in Europe, and as Donald Trump’s recent Tweet showing Hillary Clinton awash with money next to a Star of David, makes clear, anti-Semitism, fueled by KKK style White Supremacy and, perhaps, by populist animosity towards Wall Street, is alive and well in the United States.  It may simply be easy, even gratifying to fall into the deep rut in the road of blame that leads towards the Jews.  Personally, I have never focused that much on anti-Semitism.  I have often thought that people who saw it around every corner were excessive and paranoid.  But I am beginning to change my mind.

The convergence of the American Left and the religious groups noted by Polumbo-Liu signal a tendency in Western nations that frightens me.  Those who single out Israel from the long list of human rights abusers are guilty of fanning the flames of anti-Semitism.  We know that for millennia those flames do not need too much encouragement.  Israel is taken as a symbol of Jews throughout the world, who are then painted with the same brush.

A friend pointed out to me, it’s not the French who are anti-Semitic; it is the Islamic immigrants.  I don’t agree with her.  I’d say anti-Semitism is quite alive among both groups.  As it is  in Eastern Europe and beyond.  It’s not hard to understand the need for Muslims to lash out at the West.  In the Middle East, they have suffered greatly at the hands of European colonialists, almost all of whom are Christians, not Jews, who were also disempowered during those colonial centuries.

I think that Westerners now suffer from a combination of fear, born of Al Queda and ISIS terrorism, and guilt.  Those of us who are thoughtful know that we have helped create the conditions of Middle Eastern unrest—much of it in the service of the fossil fuel industries.  I think that Westerners feel confused and frightened by the Middle Eastern conflagrations and threats.  They don’t know where even to stand.  Who are we more against, Syria or ISIS.  Should we trust Saudi Arabia or Egypt?  And supply them with arms?  What about the vast migrations of Middle Easterners into Europe.  They arouse compassion, pity, fear, and someone to blame, much as the Mexican migration has served for Americans.  I think we have so many, mixed feelings about these dispossessed that we need a straight forward emotion.  Why not direct it at Israel.

Here’s another hypothesis: Israel almost seems like home to the American religious groups.  They feel some ownership.  It is, after all, the birthplace of Christianity.  I am guessing that American Christians feel impotent and betrayed that this most Western of countries is behaving like so many other Middle Eastern nations.

Since Israel is so public, so transparent compared to other nations, and so blatant in its West Bank incursions, why not vent their outrage there.  I am coming to believe that anti-Israel protest serves as a kind of safety valve to vent and to relieve Americans and Europeans of their own confusion.  With such a long and trustworthy tradition of blaming the Jews, Israel has become a convenient target.

I want to reiterate that I despise the near apartheid quality of the Israeli state and its current leadership.  I am not defending it.  But I do worry that the attack on Israel builds and focuses many older passions that are, themselves, signs of oppression and brutality. And I am angry that the focus of international opprobrium has found such a ready target.