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.

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The perils of America’s missionary narrative

If the world is falling apart as so many people fear, how did this begin?  That’s the subject of Steven Kinzer’s excellent article this Sunday, August 7, 2016: “Don’t Blame the Masses if the World Isn’t Unified.”  He lays the blame primarily on our misinterpretation of the Soviet collapse.  “It was a Soviet failure, but we interpreted it as an epochal American victory.”

According to Kinzer, this led to further misinterpretations and poor judgment.  We believed that we were the sole international super power and built a foreign policy based on this idea and the need to sustain it.  The belief then pitted us against China, Russia, Iran, and anyone else who defied us.  We believed that we could build a world economic order—“Globalization” and free market economies—that would give sustained structure and credence to our triumph.  And to preserve that world order, we attacked Iraq, taking down a cruel dictator and protecting our oil interests, putting an exclamation point on our new position astride the world.

One of the reasons that this narrative of American ascendance took hold was because it isn’t new, and from here on in, I will be extending and reshaping Kinzer’s argument.  From the time of the Monroe Doctrine and Manifest Destiny in the early nineteenth century, the American narrative has marked us as special, the standard bearer of democratic and Christian values.  Our special place then entitled, and sometimes mandated, us to spread the word.  It undergirded, for example, our push across the American continent.  So powerful was this narrative, that it managed to hide or exclude conflicting evidence, such as the enslavement of millions of Africans, the destruction of Native American nations, and the undermining of many Latin American governments that did not align with our ideas—and our economic interests.

The narrative of American exceptionalism continued into the twentieth century, with the nationalistic Spanish American War and the colonization of other nations, among others, Puerto Rico and the Philippines.  Even the most progressive of our politicians, Teddy Roosevelt, joined in with gusto.  The narrative then began to reach its current power with the experience of the World Wars, particularly the second war in which our American army and the American way defeated European fascism and the decadence that we always had seen in the “old world.”  We were the new world.  We interpreted our strength not just as strength but as proof that our values and culture were superior.  We no longer had to just trumpet our values.  We could insist on them.  What followed was economic and cultural dominance, symbolized by the spread of the English language and U.S. movies and music.

The one sticking point was the Soviet Union, whose armies also laid equal claim to defeating Hitler and, along with us, developed nuclear arms.  Ever since the Russian Revolution in 1917, we have been anxious that Communism could undermine what Alexis de Toqueville termed “the great American experiment.” This has led to repressive, sometimes violent reactions, like the “Great Red Scare” of 1919, and the McCarthy period of the 1950’s.  To combat the Soviet threat, we built the NATO pact, which created a European barrier to the American shores.

So it is no surprise that we reacted with joy to the American triumph in the Cold War and against the Communist threat, but, as Kinzer suggests, the American narrative of exceptionalism was so powerful that it led to a failure in logic.  Since we had been fighting Communism, we must have caused its demise. That is the conclusion that enshrined Ronald Regan as a national hero.

Let me lay out the logic of this theme.  By building and sustaining a democratic government, we are the anointed ones.  That is our origin story, our Garden of Eden.  It combines the religious rebellion of the Puritans and the democratic rebellion of the colonies.  That, then, gives us the right to establish our hegemony over other peoples.

Power then becomes addictive, an end in itself.  This has been the fate of virtually all empires. They all say that they expand for two reasons: to spread their culture and values and to defend the homeland.  Think of Rome and England.  Russia, too, for that matter, no matter how much we disagree with what they were selling.  For all empires, those outside the inner circle, are heathens, sometimes primitives.  The narrative paints them that way and builds the picture of lawless tribes trying to tear down the shining empire.  Thus the hordes attacked Rome, the Indian natives rose up against Britain, and, according to Donald Trump, among others, the Mexicans and Muslims threaten to bring down the great American civilization.

With the strength of the narrative of American exceptionalism married to the overweaning power of the United States armed forces and the need to tame the heathens, Bush’s assault on Saddam Hussein is understandable.  The attack on Iraq, according to Kinzer then led to a cascading series of events that have, in turn, led to the feeling that the world is falling apart.  The argument goes this way: the Iraq war led to war, starvation, desperation, and the growth of terrorism.  These events led to the migrations of millions of people and refugee crises.  The refugees, in turn, destabilized Europe and hinted at the dissolution of the European Union.

There seems to be no end to the vicious cycle created, as Kinzer says, by our misinterpretation of the Soviet collapse and by what I think is better framed as the out-of-control narrative of American exceptionalism—not the misinterpretation of a single event.

We badly need a new narrative, one that does not emphasize one way of life over another, one nation over all others.  But the universalistic narratives of the modern world—those of the League of Nations, the United Nations or the European Union have not seemed up to the task. The American notion of the Melting Pot, implying that all Americans should eventually be transformed – in essence — into White, Anglo Saxon Protestants, has similarly fallen by the wayside. Thank God.  In all cases, tribalism (sometimes expressed as Identity politics) seems stronger.  This is what makes the current world so dangerous.

I have personally struggled with this question for my entire adult life.  I feel inspired when listening to songs that bring all of us together, songs like “We are the World” and “Ballad for Americans.”  I am a universalist at heart.  But I certainly don’t know how to make that happen while accounting sufficiently for the need for belonging and protection that the tribal impulse seems to fill.  We desperately need a widespread and deep dialogue on how to blend the two.  We need a new, more collaborative, communal narrative to absorb and reconfigure all of the discordant and messy facts of our lives together…one that also leaves out all forms of exceptionalism –  religious, nationalistic, racial, and cultural.