There are times when problems resist our attempt to resolve them, when they seem too big and too embedded in our cultural fabric to be extirpated. For those of us imbued with a need to make things better, failing to “heal the world” comes as a terrible blow. This is a time when I am wrestling with that failure.
I have been so upset with our national politics that I’m unable to do more than glance at the daily headlines. Pessimism is gaining a foothold. For the last two years, I have avidly—no, voraciously—followed the news, waiting for Mueller or someone else to take down Trump, believing that eventually the electorate won’t stand for it. At least the Democrats, I say to myself, can take back the House and curb his evil powers.
Now I fear that I have underestimated Trump, just like I did during the primaries and the general election. He fights back. He’s dirty and mean and amoral, and he often wins. The possibility of a Republican victory in the House elections is so depressing that I can’t even read about the Mueller investigation that has sustained my hope. Worse, I fear that even working at the grassroots level and donating money—playing the long game—will be futile. Evil could firmly take root.
As I fall into what I hope is a premature grief, I have begun to tell myself stories. Chiefly that my family will weather the storm. Our privilege will see us through, even as health care and the entire safety net for the poor is being destroyed, even as racism grows more blatant, even as our values are trampled.
But these thoughts are shameful and I begin looking for ways to pull myself out of this nightmarish vision. I am looking for a lifeline. I search for ways to escape the sense of passivity and hopelessness that have begun to crush my spirit. Above all, I need an attitude change, a way to see the world in a more optimistic or, at least, a more energetic way.
There’s always the old saw: “This too shall pass,” as most evil does. Periods of growth and exuberance often follow periods of crisis and degradation. We only have to look at the enormous prosperity and creativity in the West that followed the defeat of Nazism and Stalinism. This image, this precedent, provides some comfort. But only a little because it leaves the future vague and so far beyond our control. Much the same can be said of the American experience, where corporate greed and great disparities of wealth have led to a backlash. The Gilded Age, for example, gave way to the Progressive Era; the New Deal fell to FDR’s New Deal.
But I don’t see any great and charismatic reformers on the horizon. Even my knowledge of these specific cycles or growth, depression, and growth again seem too far off and reinforce my passivity. History is not destiny; and we can’t be sure of that better world will follow a disaster. And hope is not faith. It does not speak directly to action; leaving the future to fate is too passive to provide real comfort.
What else can I focus on? Is it possible, through an act of will, to remind myself of the America I have loved all my life? This is an America dedicated to a set of ideas: the natural, inborn rights of human beings; the sovereignty of the people (not kings, not titans of industry); and political equality—the “truths” that we find “self evident.” These are ideals to live by and to fight for. They begin to stir my blood again.
In our comfort and security we forget that the colonists put their lives on the line to enshrine these ideals at the center of our laws and our culture. We forget that the “founding fathers” weren’t just a group of philosophers, hiding out in Philadelphia. They were revolutionaries who would have been hung if Britain had won the war (a point that is made crystal clear in the inspirational play, Hamilton). Might there come a time when we will have to do the same? That’s a frightening prospect and one I hope is never necessary—but it does begin to shake me out of my passivity.
I’m not naïve and, even as I look to American ideals, I know that we have not always lived up to them. Huge numbers of our ‘citizens’ have been excluded from its benefits. The racism beneath the Euro-American treatment of people of color has been long standing, and while there have been ebbs and flows in its virulence, though we have made progress since the days of slavery, racism has persisted from the beginning. African Americans and Native Americans have been enslaved, thrashed, banished, and deprecated across our 300 year history. Immigrants who do not have the good fortune of being Northern European and Protestant—the Irish of the 19th century, the Jews and Catholics, Italians and Latinxs of the 20th and 21st—have been resisted, rejected, and treated with contempt. If you read the history of the 1840’s, when James Polk was President, then look at Donald Trump’s antics, you’ll find that attitudes towards Mexicans remain relatively unchanged.
Jill Lepore has just published a brilliant book, These Truths, that covers the sweep of American history; she places racism at its center. It isn’t just a part of American history, she says. “It defines us.” Our traditional history books tell us about the noble battle against ‘bad King George,’ but she shows us that there is a different revolution that preceded the 1776 events that we celebrate. Slaves and Native Americans mounted continuous revolts against European dominance, arguing just as the Founding Fathers did, “By what right do they rule us?”
This second revolution did not end in 1776. The fight for the freedom of “the other” has ebbed and flowed, and continues to this day. We know of this struggle through reports of the Nat Turner “rebellion of 1831; the Civil War, 1860-1865; the founding and spread of the Ku Klux Klan during the days of the Reconstruction and again during the 1920s; and the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s. We recognize the struggle through the rise and fall of nativism in the 1840’s, 1900’s, 1920’s, and, of course the current Trump-fueled present. As a Jew, I especially knew it when America, even as it fought Nazi Germany, refused entry to many of my devastated people preceding and in the midst of the war..
In general the struggle is between those who define America in terms of blood or the ethnic superiority of White Anglo Saxons and those who see national identity as dedication to a set of ideas and ideals. The former parallels European nationalistic movements such as Fascism and Nazism. The latter is unique to the United States, Canada and, to be honest, other spinoffs of the British Empire.
Now my blood is boiling. My passivity is falling away. I can see that the battle between these two world views is long standing and continuous. But here’s the important point: only a dreamer would think that the struggle will end. The power and continuity of the struggle spells a simple lesson for me: We, who believe in the ideals of democracy, must be ready to fight forever. We won’t “win,” per se. But we can and must hold off the forces of base nationalism, and we can give the edge to democratic ideas. In this sense, our loyalty and our energies must be dedicated to the fight.
There is famous Rabbinic injunction that applies here: “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.” I’ve come all the way back to this.