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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