America’s Fourth Revolution

As a child, I listened endlessly to Paul Robeson’s deep and sonorous tones as he sang the Ballad for Americans, celebrating the American dream of equality, justice, and opportunity.  The American promise came as close as anything to a spiritual ideal for me.  By the time I was in high school, I was enchanted with history classes.  In college, I majored in American history and literature, and I followed that with five years of graduate study.  I’d like to share some of what I learned.

We have had not one but three revolutions in American history in the march towards greater social, economic, and political justice. Each time, the purpose has been to redress a particular injustice and to move us further on the path of an inclusive democracy.   Each revolution has completed the unfulfilled promises of the one before.  These revolutions have been hard fought; they have required sacrifice.  But believing what we do as a people—government “of the people, by the people, and for the people”—there has been no alternative, no possibility of little changes—band aids—here and there.  I believe that there is a need for a fourth revolution.

Our national history begins with the Revolution of 1776.  As Robeson sings:

In seventy-six the sky was red

Thunder rumbling over head

Bad King George couldn’t sleep in his bed

And on that stormy morn, Old Uncle Sam was born.

We were born in rebellion from monarchy and arbitrary power.  We created a democratic form of government in order to immensely broaden the base of power, and we instituted the rule of law.  By replacing powerful men with the rule of law, we guaranteed that no one could decide our fate without our consent.  The first American revolution represents one of the great achievements in world history, setting the standard for others and setting a standard that we would have to live up to, ourselves.

There were limitations, though.  Historians have long noted that the Revolution allowed the property-owning classes to establish their dominion.  The Constitution that they wrote did not include Black slaves, poor non-land owning whites, women, and a host of others.  To gain the allegiance of the Southern states, it created an Electoral College and assigned equal Senate votes to agrarian states with far smaller populations than states with urban centers..  These and many other Constitutional “deals” were set as a great wall against the rule of the “unwashed” majority.  The Revolution was a monumental  l event but there was work to be done to achieve a more robust democracy.

1860 brought the second revolution.  At its heart, it was fought to free the slaves.  Robeson intones:

Old Abe Lincoln was thin and long,

His heart was high and his faith was strong.

But he hated oppression, he hated wrong,

And he went down to his grave to free the slave.

Many historians, believe that the Revolution of 1776 could only have  been completed with the Emancipation Proclamation.  Other historians noted that the party of Lincoln also broke the monopoly on power held by the original property-owning class and quickened the economic freedom represented by free-market capitalism that has defined our economy ever since.  In doing so, the Northern Republicans wanted also to put an end to the medieval dominance of the Southern aristocracy.

Again, these were great achievements that left much to be done.  The South quickly undermined the Fourteenth Amendment and, as if by slight of hand, transformed slavery into Jim Crow.  The laws of emancipation were on the books, but not the practice.  The agrarian states still held inordinate power at a time when European immigrants began to overflow the Eastern cities, and nativist politics did its best to keep them in their place.  What’s more, the increased vigor of “free” markets led to a form of monopoly capitalism, in which the few again found a way to rule the majority.  Robber barons  like Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, and Carnegie and bankers like Jim Fisk and Jay Gould were the new monarchs of American society.

The third revolution, catalyzed first by the Progressive moment, led by Woodrow Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt, and then by the Great Depression of 1928, culminated in FDR’s New Deal.  The masses had begun to rise against the free market “profiteers,” and to demand that government serve their end, to serve the needs of workers and small farmers, and of immigrants, of Catholics and Jews, not just White, Anglo Saxon, Protestants.  If America was to be of and by the people, it could also be for the people.  That meant more and better jobs, Social Security to protect aging citizens, rules that guaranteed working men and women an equal say at the bargaining table, among many other agencies and laws to even the playing field.

Like the first two revolutions, the third left much undone: Advancing he civil rights of Black people and women, not to mention those of gay and lesbian people, whose time would come sixty years later, and the right to health care for the old and the poor.  In many ways, the third revolution only realized its promise during the age of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Lyndon Johnson.  The period of the 1960’s and 1970’s could easily be considered a fourth revolution, with the sustained reform efforts of the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the Great Society and the War on Poverty ushering in a hybrid form of government that combined social welfare with free market incentives.  For most of a century, the United States became the most prosperous nation the world had ever known.

Still, much needed and needs to be done.  There are many millions of Americans still in need of civil rights and economic access: people of color in particular but also poor and disenfranchised White people; everyone who is down and out or, like many home owners and college students, one step from foreclosure or dropping out.

What’s more, the freedoms wrought by the three revolutions are in jeopardy.  Once again, a plutocracy, consisting of enormously wealthy people and corporations, and the “public servants” who do their bidding, threatens the American dream.  Nativist ideologies threaten our efforts to be one people.  The US President-elect  insists on his own security guard (army?), more reminiscent of dictatorships than democratically elected government.  New cabinet members threaten to roll back civil rights to the days of Jim Crow, to dismantle economic regulations that give working people a fair share of power and health care systems that protect the vulnerable.

Let me be more direct:  The incoming regime threatens the most basic rights and hopes that have taken three revolutions to build:  liberty, democratic governance, inclusion of all, and a safety net for the vulnerable.  It should seem clear to anyone who has followed and loved the American dream that we need a fourth (but nonviolent) revolution.

We need to abandon the timid rhetoric of reform and the inadequate solutions of the liberals.  They may now be our Tories.  We need to build an agenda and a rhetoric that speaks to and unites all who are threatened by the “conservative” and the Trump regressions and repressions.  We need to abandon the rhetoric of small tribes: Whites, Blacks, and Latinos, gay, lesbian, and “trans,” southern and northern, city and country.  We need an agenda that brings together the great, great majority of Americans to rebuild the American democracy.  We must fight the new property classes.  We must resist a Trump monarchy.  We must fight “bad King George” all over again.

I know that my rhetoric will sound naïve and idealistic to many, but so does any deeply held creed.  And I hope that I am more worked up than I need to be.  But I think not, and I do know that there is no revolution that succeeds without fighting hard and dreaming big.  Let me end by returning to The Ballad for Americans.  The chorus, America’s working people, asks: Who is this stranger and where is he going?  Robeson then responds for me and, I hope for many of you:

Our country’s strong, our country’s young,

And her greatest songs are still unsung.

From her plains and mountains we have sprung,

To keep the faith with those who went before. 

We nobodies who are anybody believe it.

We anybodies who are everybody have no doubts.

Our song of hope is here again. 

Strong as the people who made it.

For I have always believed it, and I believe it now,

And now you know who I am.

Who are you?

America! America!

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The Devil Incarnate; the Devil in Us

I have sometimes been accused of having intemperate political views.  With this in mind, I generally try to moderate my passions and to adopt a reasonable tone of voice.  But I identify so closely with America and its values that the possibility of a Trump presidency has strained my resolve. I am heartsick about Trump’s momentum in the presidential race. He is insufferable and dangerous.  I’m frightened and angry, and not just at him or at “those people” who favor him, but also at myself and at all of the liberal and Progressive people who are so appalled yet have allowed this to happen.  So, in this essay, I need to let it rip.  Here goes.

Donald Trump is, without doubt, the Devil incarnate.  He tempts and taunts, seduces and destroys.  He seeks out good people and bad.  But, and this is my main point, he is not an isolated phenomena, crawling out of the dark swamps of con artists and circus performers.  He only succeeds because of the fertile ground within us.  If we look honestly, Trump, holds a mirror up to the worst in ourselves.

First, he reflects our culture’s retreat into self centeredness.  All those gurus, psychologists, and marketing mavens telling us that we, each one of us, is the most important person in the world.  We need to take care of number one.  And, even if we have an altruistic impulse, it won’t be effective, it won’t be authentic, if we don’t take care of ourselves first.  A culture of encouraged narcissism if I ever saw one.  We have swallowed too much of the encouragement.

How do we know that we’re number one.  The polls tell us.  Twitter and Facebook tell us through Notifications and Likes.  People tell us that we’re “awesome.”  Really?  I’ve been good, effective, kind at times but I doubt I’ve often been awesome.  Most tellingly, parents tell their children that they are number one.  They watch and comment on their every move, photograph and film every event, virtually eulogize their children when they graduate from grade school.  Those speeches about the accomplishments of young children are bizarre.

The laser-like focus of parents doesn’t stop there.  They help with term papers and exams.  Sometimes this “support” goes on right up through graduate school.  Food is provided at a distance.  I have heard numbers of university professors talk about parental calls to argue grades.  “This will ruin my child’s life…”  How else could they guarantee that their children get the right start, the competitive edge in life.  How else could they avoid unnecessary pain.  Is there necessary pain in growing up?  I think so but it doesn’t seem to be part of the contemporary agenda. Helicopter parents are there on cell phones at a moment’s notice, trying to help their children avoid an anxious moment.  They guide, criticize, assist.  Everything their children do matters to them.  Everything positive and negative tells their children just how important they are.  Attention tells the story.  No man I have ever observed craves attention more than Donald Trump.  Yet there may be more like him on the way.

Since the children are so important, it is vital that they don’t make mistakes.  If their grades aren’t up to snuff, it must be the teacher’s fault.  If they get hurt, it must be someone else’s fault.  If the perpetrator isn’t obvious, parents and children, together, will find someone to blame.  Taking responsibility for flaws and faults is no part of their Trumpian agenda.

In contemporary society, certainly in contemporary politics, we refuse to admit our mistakes or accept losses.  When confronted, we begin with denial and misdirection.  If that doesn’t work, we attack the critic or we sue the sources of our pain.  We sue those who actually hurt us, and those who might.  For justice sake?  I don’t think so.  To get even, yes; but that’s not justice; it’s vengeance.  To line our pockets.  Sure.  You can earn a good living by suing people.  To intimidate, of course.  Trump’s love affair with litigation and bullying grows right from the ground of our litigious culture.  We have created a litigious society that has more people covering their rear ends than standing courageously for what they believe.

We sue and blame so we don’t have to deal with pain.  Pain is not supposed to be part of the equation for important people.  And when we see pain in others, it makes us uneasy.  To relieve our uneasiness, we blame or isolate them.  We blame victims.  We blame disabled people.  We blame “losers.”  We pump ourselves up by putting others down: immigrants, people of color, the disabled.  This approach seems to be reaching a crescendo in contemporary culture.

We have other ways to pump ourselves up, too.  We build larger and larger houses, wear more fashionable clothes, spend inconceivable amounts on hair “treatments.”  Can you even imagine what Trump pays to keep his hair looking like a horizontal yellow facsimile of his obscene towers.  This is the new gilded age, garish and full of self aggrandizement.  It is very much like the turn of the nineteenth century, when the Vanderbilts and Jay Gould fashioned castles in homage to their egos.  How has it gotten lost that Trump Tower, Trump Airlines, Trump whatever is just a hilarious and exaggerated caricature of the mcmansions  and malls that now fill the American suburbs.

We are narcissists, loving or trying to love our own image and trying to stay young forever.  We are social, national narcissists.  The social form of narcissism is nativism and racism.  These bigoted extensions of self love are just kissing cousins to America First, American exceptionalism, and making America Great Again.  Never mind that democratic ideals, practically applied, are what really make us great.  Give us a good carpet bombing or a Gucci bag to make us feel strong and beautiful.

Trump believes that sensational gestures, Hollywood come to politics, are what makes the difference in our political life, and we reward him by paying avid attention.  All of us.  Those who love him and those who hate him.  This is nothing but free marketing for him.  It’s a betrayal of American democratic ideals for us.  But we have grown accustomed to sensationalism.  We need it the way others need drugs.  We need our fix of Fox-generated drama.  We thrill with identification or humiliation to the angry crowd screaming to put Hillary in jail or even to kill her.  The media are ecstatic and we are their prey—or their mates.

We have lost the sense of what is real and what is not.   We have learned to watch carnage on TV, as if it is a video game.  We play video games that aren’t very different than the drones that bomb far away villages.  We are numb.  We have lost our sense of agency.  We are so consumed by our own lives that we want someone else to do it for us.  If that means a dictator, so be it.  He’ll be our dictator, like our Jedi.  There are many times when Donald Trump sounds almost exactly like Benito Mussolini.  Some alert journalists have pointed this out but it has not awakened us.  I suspect the image arouses many of his fans.

The Devil, with all of his excitement, has lulled us to sleep.  We are numb to his lies, numb to his reversals, numb to his bigotry, numb to his ignorance, numb to his immaturity and name calling, numb to the vile way he treats people.  We are almost literally in a trance.  Why are we so numb?  Because, the Devil is us.  We don’t want to hear that we are flawed, angry, bigoted, and self-centered.  And I mean all of us, not just the conservative right.

We the people of the United States need to wake up, cast off the Devil’s potions, accept responsibility for what is wrong, begin to redress those wrongs, and thrill to the opportunity to do so.  If we don’t, the Devil within us will win.

 

 

 

 

Personally, I am heartsick about Trump’s momentum in the presidential race. He is insufferable and dangerous.  I would hate to end my life with him as president.  That would feel like a defeat to all that I have stood for in my life: kindness and compassion; equality and pluralism; democracy and collaboration.   I am now seventy four years old;  and I dread entering old age and dying, while a narcissistic, cold-hearted bully and liar is the representative our once-proud nation.