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 leasts, 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

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.

The Right to Protest

Dear friends,

I don’t know if you follow sports enough to catch the uproar over Colin Kaepernick’s protest against police brutality.  Kaepernick is a football quarterback playing for the San Francisco Forty Niners.  He’s not great but he generates attention because he began his career so quickly and dramatically.  He’s young and earnest and a little impulsive –like  many young people.

During the playing of the National Anthem, Kaepernick continued to kneel while his teammates stood at attention.  He did so quietly, with little fanfare.  To me, this gesture did not seem very confrontational but the press made a big deal of it..  Gradually, others have either followed his example or tried other ways to stand for the rights of young Black men, like linking arms or raising their right fists the way that Tommy Smith did in the 1968 Olympics.  Stephen Ross, the billionaire owner of the Miami Dolphins, among an increasing group of people across American, have joined in common cause with the protesters.

But the general reaction to Kkaepernick’s protest has been negative.  Throughout the country, innumerable politicians, business owners and countless others have offered their often heated objections to Kaepernick’s gesture. The public conversation has not focused on police brutality or equal rights.  It has focused, instead, on Kaepernick’s right to protest versus the “disrespect” he has shown to a patriotic American ritual, the National Anthem.  The challenge to his right has been stunning to me, considering all of the abusive, massively disrespectful behavior we see in local, state, and national politics.  Compare Kaepernick’s behavior to Trump and the outrageous, fact-free Birther challenge to Barak Obama’s presidential legitimacy.  And this is but one sign of disrespect to the dignity of our highest office.  Why should Kaepernick be held to a different standard than the politicians.  In fact, his “protest” was relatively respectful.

On the other hand, the objections that have filled sports pages of newspapers, have, paradoxically, added great fuel to athletes’ desire to protest.  There seems to be a little movement building.  For better or worse, athletes are in the limelight and have some power to influence their fans.  Since so many of these athletes are people of color and have managed to ‘rise’ in one of the arenas most open to them, why shouldn’t they be able to use their success in the service of their values?  Business people certainly do.

New York Times columnist David Brooks addressed this issue in his September 16th column.  I found the article smug and misguided and wrote a Letter to the Editor in response.  Given the substantial response that Brooks’ article received, there seems little likelihood that mine will be published.  So I decided to send it to you in the form of a mini-blog post.  This version is slightly changed just in case The Times does publish it. I hope you like it.

———————————————————-

David Brooks’ invocation of American civic religion, “The Uses of Patriotism,” runs much too close to the 1960’s condemnation of Vietnam War protesters.  “Love it or leave it” was the sanctimonious and divisive cry.  Why can’t we love it and protest when our country does not live to its values?  The right to protest is baked into the American tradition and the American Constitution, which guarantees the freedom of assembly, association, and speech.  The Boston Tea Party, a disrespectful protest of British taxation, helped precipitate the Revolutionary War.   In my view, we honor our nation by continuing practices that led to its formation and that guarantee the values on which it stands.

Brooks, himself, notes that “Every significant American reform movement was shaped by” self-criticism.  Protest is self-criticism in protean form.  Should we not have protested slavery when it was sanctioned by the Founding Fathers and enshrined in the Constitution?  How about the absence of women’s suffrage and discriminatory housing practices that have made it hard for every group of immigrants, from the Irish to the Latinos, to buy their own homes?  Almost all of America’s great social and economic achievements have come on the back of protest.

Every protest is met with resistance and disdain, as though they don’t fit in polite society.  I have written, myself, in favor of a more dignified and restrained presidential politics. (https://barrydym.wordpress.com/2016/08/26/a-call-for-a-more-dignified-and-restrained-presidential-politics/); and I find the current lying, name-calling, and bullying vile.  But, Brooks wants to sanitize protest too much.  He should know that self-criticism is inevitably messy and upsetting; and it does call into question the culture and values of the ruling classes.  In fact, protest, by its nature, arises outside of the halls of power.  It is the means taken by people who lack the institutional power to enact change through formal governmental channels.  In Thursday’s column, Brooks stands with those ruling classes and against the very tradition at whose shrine he asks us to worship.

We must stand with the original Tea Partiers, with the Abolitionists and the Suffragettes, with Martin Luther King, Jr., and his call for nonviolent protest, and with all who seek to highlight the need for changes in law and public behavior—even when they are irreverent.  Irreverence towards one set of “values”—standing for the National Anthem—often signals reverence for another set.  In this case, the more hallowed statement of values comes in both the right of free speech and in equal protection under the law, as it is assured by the 14th Amendment.  I believe that we should be proud of young people who speak up in this way.