We Cannot perfect the world But We Also Cannot Stop Trying

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.

 

 

Advertisements

Reclaiming Patriotism

A couple of weeks ago, my nephew, Noah, swam with his Amherst team in a meet at MIT.  Just before the swimming began, they played the national anthem.  We all rose to sing.  While most of us could hardly be heard, my seven year old grandson sang with gusto and great sincerity.  It felt like an old fashioned patriotism, the kind I had been raised in; and I couldn’t restrain myself from holding him to me.

It has been a long time since people like me, progressives, could claim the patriotic mantle.  During the sixties, we rejected the America that could rain napalm on the Vietnamese and club the people who marched on Selma to gain their American rights.  We still believed that we were the true patriots, true to American ideals, but Republicans seized on the criticism as disloyalty.  Since that time—about fifty years, now, the Republicans have laid claim to patriotism.  But I believe deeply in America and its ideals.  So do my friends and my Progressive cohort.  It’s time that we reclaimed the patriotic mantle.

The current era is fraught with apocalyptic imagery.  The Alt Right prophesizes the ‘end of days,’ brought on by the weakness and decadence of  Western democracies.  Progressives see the nearness of authoritarian, even totalitarian government, brought on by the gradual destruction of democratic institutions and by the greed of the One Percent.  Alternatively, progressives see the coming of international chaos, precipitated by a narcissistic child-president who can’t control his impulses.

The imagery brings to mind the flood that destroyed the ancient world.  According to the Sumerian Gilgamesh myth, the Book of Genesis in the Jewish Bible, the Koran, and the texts of other religious traditions, God punishes his people when they abandon his teachings and turn to evil ways.  At first, God sends his prophets to warn the people—and I am sure that many contemporary commentators consider themselves to be, in essence, modern-day prophets.  When the people fail or refuse to listen, then God abandons small measures, modest reforms, and, instead, destroys the world as it is known.  It seems that God has decided that his original plans for humankind were failures.  Best to begin anew.

Throughout history many apocalyptic thinkers, Steven Bannon among them, have argued that destruction must precede new beginnings.  To prepare for the flood, God instructs Noah to build an Ark and to populate it with the very diverse seeds of a new beginning.  The instruction explicitly calls for diversity—many animals, two by two—and not a single species.  Not horses alone.  Not lions or sheep alone.  Not White Anglo Saxon Protestants or Northern Europeans alone.  There is no divine plan for a master race.

Having arrived at such a consequential moment in the twenty-first century, we might wonder how to populate the American Ark.  With diversity, of course.  Biologists tell us that the health of living creatures depends on bio-diversity.  American history tells us that the mix of immigrants groups – one after another – has strengthened our country immeasurably.  It is this DNA that has made the culture and economy of our nation so robust.

But, just as Noah was meant to rebuild a world to reflect God’s values, I think that the most important cargo that the modern Ark can carry is our democratic traditions.  By that I mean our ideals and objectives—and the tradition of striving towards those ideals even more than any particular articulation of those ideals in policy or law.  I like the way that Langston Hughes expresses a similar thought:

O, let America be America again—The land that never has been yet—And yet must be—the land where every man is free.

Much as the ancient gods demanded that their people live to the ideals they had set down—the covenant between God and man—so we must demand that Americans strive to fulfill the covenant of justice, equality, and opportunity that form the foundation of our nation.   Progressives, not twentieth century Republicans, are the true carriers of American patriotism.  Here I include Jeffersonian and Lincoln Republicans, who, by any current assessment would be considered Democratic Progressives.  I mean Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party and FDR’s New Deal Democrats, Truman’s Fair Deal, Kennedy’s New Frontier, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, and the better angels of more recent Democrats.  All of them understood their mission to be the realization of the American dream.

Much as they may wave the flag, twenty and twenty-first century Republicans vote against the expanded rights of American citizens.  They support tax and other economic systems that favor the wealthy and limit the ability of working people to collectively fight for their rights through unions. Republicans have stood steadily against affordable and universal health care, against the implementation of a “one person, one vote” principle, and against spending for greater educational opportunity in poor communities.

Republican patriotism has generally focused on (costly) military defense: keeping us safe against Communists, Muslims, Asians, and others who are different.  We see this in Nixon’s defense spending and Red-baiting, in Reagan’s Star Wars system, in the manufactured Iraqi war of the Bush-Cheney presidency, and in Trump’s belief that the USA must win at the expense of the rest of the world.  All of these presidents were willing to sacrifice our internal goals of justice and opportunity on the alter of  protectionism and military dominance.

For almost a century now, Republicans have conflated patriotism with nationalism.  They do not feel a sense of belonging in a multi-cultural society.  At heart, they are nationalists, not patriots.  Nationalism emphasizes the state and what both Hitler and generations of Russian Czars  might call the “volk,” an almost mystical invocation of a single ethnic group.  It is this invocation that lays just below the surface of the current—and traditional—nativism that has often pervaded Republican politics.  Trump and Bannon, like Putin, Hitler, and Mussolini, are nationalists.  They could care less about democracy.  In fact, where democracy or any other set of values conflicts with their nationalistic ideals and goals, it must be sacrificed.

To the extent that Trump is interested in ideas, he seems to feed from the Steve Bannon trough.  It turns out that Bannon’s philosophical foundations begin with men Baron Guilio Evola, the Italian philosopher who preferred Nazism to Italian Fascism, which he thought too tame.  As we know, Nazism fetishized the great Nordic race, that tall, solid, blond “volk” and  contrasting it with the Jewish “race.”  This may be an extreme comparison, but it’s not too big a stretch to see its parallel in Trump and Bannon’s nativist scapegoating of Muslims and Mexicans.   The Trump-Bannon ideology is the antithesis, the perversion, of the patriotic ideal in  America.  If realized, it will be the Flood—not a response to the Flood but the Flood, itself.

Through American history, Progressives have carried the banner and the burden of America’s patriotic ideals.  Since the turn of the twentieth century, Progressives have introduced legislation to optimize voting rights for all citizens, including women, African Americans, and other people of color. They have fought for gay and lesbian rights, the rights of the disabled, the rights of all to find good jobs that pay living wages, the right to organize against the might of corporations, and the rights of immigrants to both take advantage of our largesse and to enrich our nation.  This dedication to seeking the greatest good for the greatest number is what I consider the blood and guts of American patriotism.

The Progressive tradition is not so much attached to any specific way to frame these rights.  Conditions keep changing, generation to generation, and laws have to adapt with those changes.  Unlike the Scalia-led Originalists, who seem to think that the founders had formulated one set of ideas for all time and for all people, the Progressive tradition is built on the idea of adaptation to social and economic conditions and to the advances of science.

The American Ark is built on the tradition of democratic ideals, built for a diverse and evolving people.  Our sense of belonging is not so much to abstract ideas of constitutionality or to a single ethnic group or to military strength.  Rather, we come together to struggle, year after year, towards the practice, not just the idea, but the practice of justice for all.