THE AMERICA I BELIEVE IN (With A Little Help From My Friends)
In typing class the first sentence I learned to make on the piece of paper in the machine was: “Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country.” Or, if you held the heavy shift key down:
“NOW IS THE TIME FOR ALL GOOD MEN TO COME TO THE AID OF THEIR COUNTRY!”
Impressive! A miracle American machine!
But did I know or care when or why or by whom that sentence was written and what it meant? No.
In my parochial (in all senses) high school (otherwise a swell place taught by smart nuns from the “old country” of Arrland), the purpose here was to make sure when we graduated we could get a job or at least prove we knew enough English to ring up a sale and make change at the local Kresge’s or Gulf Oil station.
Sister Antonia had a thimble on her thumb. If you goofed on this basic assignment, she rapped you on the top of the head sharply. Did that make us white boys in the South woke? No, we laughed. Did we know why we were learning typing? No. Why it was part of our seemingly predetermined destiny? No. America was just a place where we lived. Nothing to do with us. Not our fault. All blessings and miseries came from mom and dad–Catholic, Democrat, Southern, blue collar, edge of poverty, but with blind hope to rise–and to rise the kids–a dysfunctional family (alcohol/codependence/mixed- blessing relatives/tryannical grandma and kindly grandpa). And the determinative factor–we were white.
In my 85th year, that typed sentence has finally penetrated my thick skull. “Their country?” My country. Our country. Too many of us have taken it for granted–I know I have depended on our democracy to stay healthy without my direct input or oversight–but now we see it has rotted underneath and is slowly dissolving–sinking–though some still struggle mightily to keep us above the stink of the swamp trying to suck us down. Did we think the country would run itself? We benightedly followed the Citizens United Guide to the edge of self-destruction. Then the alarm clock rang, and we have awakened to an emergency.
It’s a movie we’ve seen before–with breadlines, unemployment, forced bankruptcy, eviction, useless and tragic death–it’s not a screwball comedy in which guy gets gal and Santa arrives through softly falling snow and Jimmy Stewart works everything out. Instead, it’s a serial sci-fi saga of pandemic, tsunamis, floods, fires, enormous death–of people, of land, all our future–drought, unbreathable air and nonexistent drinking water–starring no-name road warriors who kill for sport–actual footage, not CGI. Babies first, torn from mama’s breast. The reality show runner – a sad, severely mentally and spiritually damaged carnival clown- that we, the people, have allowed to sit behind a desk that comically says Resolute in the oval office of the president of our country. Jocose, no?
What do we do now? Back to basics.
“All men are created equal.”
Thomas Jefferson. 1776.
What does that mean? What has it ever meant? By the time I was five or six I could see that that sentence (if I knew what a sentence was) was patently untrue. The white woman who walked seven miles in the morning to our little house on the north side of Fort Smith, Arkansas, to take care of us–a household of, by then, three young chirren (as she called us) was she–as was flung cruelly at my mother by one of my inadvertent and ignorant aunts- -“white trash? She wasn’t “equal”–she was, first of all, irredeemably poor, disgracefully uneducated, and female in a male-dominated society which demanded she (in her low class), should properly have nothing, and that Black people could only have less than nothing, and had to stay in their shanty shacks forever and shut the fuck up when a white man spoke to them, and that the little gods of the town would always be the bankers, the po-lice, and the white preachers of the perverted gospel of the Je-Zus Christ of hell, not heaven.
Somehow I knew all this. It soaked in by osmosis through the brain-stunning humidity of the Southern air that we swam through. But–like so much of life–it leached out before I could even realize it was gone, or, God forbid, think it had anything to do with me.
Her name was Channing, but we called her Channy. Her bosom was ample and down to her waist. Her lap and her kindness were, to a little boy, gigantic. Her cooking atrocious. Her accent a kind of soft, slurred sing-song, Southern sound that, as a boy, I loved to hear–it arose out of the mud of the creeks and the stink of the swamp and the absence of all things I now call “culture.” She made us “porched eggs” for breakfast after my parents were gone to dreary jobs which paid pittances and were run by unforgiving bosses who were themselves afraid to death of failing and ending up at the “pore farm” four miles south of town next to the TB sanatorium. The gates of hell. Channy cleaned negligently, made beds by pulling the covers up and walking away, but she taught me how to tie my shoes. Endlessly. As a left-handed little boy, I could not get the higher math of that task. And one day after school, she took us upstairs to a tiny bedroom looking out over the alley beyond the barn and chicken coop, locked the door, and made us get down on the floor because her crazy drunk consort was in the yard waving a gun and yelling to the house and cursing her and vowing to ‘kill yore ass when you come home.” We kids thought that this terror, reminiscent of a scene from Faulklner, a great adventure and even scary fun.
Then Channy made us sugar and margarine sandwiches on white bread. Yum! When mom and pop got back, Channy walked seven miles home in the early winter dark.
So, what does “All men are created equal” even mean? Those few who possibly believed that phrase back in the Founders days, knew how conditional and precarious the idea was. Thomas Paine, in The Rights Of Man, knew that the kind of government some of us were willing to die to get was the most ancient in principle of all governments that ever existed. But, as we see now– tyranny and the sword can easily suspend the exercise of the rights of man–it’s shocking, shocking, I tell you!–to discover that our rights must continually–daily–be reasserted, reinvented, made new. The old slave way was hereditary power, the slaves had no say and were discouraged from thinking. The new way, democracy is entirely representative. It’s on us to choose good, honest men and women to represent us–over and over. It’s a bit much, isn’t it?
The founding of the United States of America changed the world for the better. A miserable, bitter and bloody war was made by only 30% of the population at the time, it was bitterly opposed by 30%, and was won in spite of 40% “undecided,” or, “don’t bother me,” or “not my problem” folks.
240 plus years later the United States of America has become the most powerful nation on earth. For now. Not for our superb military power. For our ideas. The mainspring of our existence and influence is Liberty. Equality for all. Government of the people, by the people and for the people (except for the Black ones–slaves–who were only three-fifths human–it took 89 years to scrub that stain from the documents–a hundred and thirty-three for the men to add the other 51% of the population- the women—and the jury is still out, it seems, on the right of the first, actual inhabitants of this land to live here, as long as they shut up and go where we allow them to go, and do as they’re told. And these stains–like blood on the carpet–return, again and again and again, to seep through and haunt us as in a Poe story.
Of course, in representational government it all gets fixed. Right? The great thing about America is that the words of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution give all Americans–and the whole world–the confidence that, in one amazing place on earth, the rule of law is supreme and there is always redress for any and all of the inevitable problems in making all of this work. Right?
Who has failed us? The flawed men and women we elect and forget until they pester us for money to get elected again? No. It’s us. Not only us, but mainly us. We, the people, have failed our country by general inattention to and ignorance of the way government works. We can maybe be forgiven that we forgot civics because most of us were never taught it. It was not a required course (except for people wanting to become citizens–all of whom know more than any average American).
We have been told what is needed, we have been exhorted and begged. And still, way less than 50% of us vote in any election–and in crucial “down ballot” dogcatcher and school board, sheriff, mayor and city council contests, we show up in very low numbers.
Our brains are soggy. We’ve been swamped by money and ideology. The pushme-pullyou of the two main forces at work in our country. Not Democrat/Republican, not liberal/conservative–these terms don’t fit the moment anymore–I prefer to think of us as Progressives and Regressives.
Progressives are the number one main force. They look forward to the future and imagine an inclusive country, a country engaged with the whole world, a country believing in science AND Spirit, not one or the other. They were the first occupiers of the New World that we call the Founders. They invented the America that De Toqueville judged to be the most astounding experiment in the history of human (political) life. The place that Thomas Paine loved with the hope of a martyr for its transfiguration into the eternal essence of the human Spirit, hungry for liberty, equality and brotherhood. He was the guy who pissed off Washington when he would not stop urging America to do better. He demanded more from America. He was politically inexpedient to our beloved George, and he also drank. The crazy writer-uncle. Stop inviting him to the celebration. Our common sense took a hit right then and there, and birthed the second main force–the Regressives.
Regressives look backward. They like to think previous accomplishments and traditions by ancestors are sacrosanct–even though the ancestors made specific provision that their ideas could–and would–need amendment as science and technology advanced and human life improved and changed. Regressives call themselves “originalists,” and appeal to the human need for security as the greatest good, and they fight for stasis. But, change- impermanence- is an inconvenient fact. We are evolution’s children. Change or die.
The conflict in 2020 is between these two distinct groups. Those who are willing to see life as it is–and those who wish to see life as they imagine it was. The weight of history is with the more adaptable group–Progressives. Humans have adapted in many ways and stayed alive for eons. Life which has not been able to adapt, is no longer existing. But the conflict is not just about survival–it’s also how humanity defines itself in relation to a deep longing for Spirit (or God).
Is there anything to believe in? Are you happy? Is this truly the life you dreamed of when you were five or six or eighteen climbing into the limo wearing the corsage and hoping?
Many, many of you wonder and dream, as I do, if it could be possible to remake our country into the equal place. But now, our system of governing ourselves is very close to imploding if enough of you crazy guys and gals gunned up out there think that an armed revolution by you will turn this country back to–what?–I’d like to know your dream. It can’t be just resistance. I think it’s connected to what I said above–we want our country to be what was promised.
We can’t kill our way into a better country. We can’t loll our way into a Republic. We have to agree together how we can go forward to a different dream.
We have not lacked for warnings. We have not lacked for magnificent examples of American common sense:
“When you see wrong or inequality, speak out. Because this is your country. Make it. Protect it. Pass it on.”
Thurgood Marshall. 1965.
“America did not invent human rights. Human rights invented America.”
Jimmy Carter. 1975.
“Organize, agitate, educate! This must be our war cry.”
Susan B. Anthony. 1900.
“Our country, our civilization, is formed upon the belief that God has planted in a man something that makes him use his privileges for the best. That with all his imperfections and all his weaknesses, there is still in him some Divine spark, which makes him reach upward, and upward, for something higher, something higher and something better than he has ever known before. And he will use it for the best.”
Clarence Darrow. 1910-25
“’Human rights are more important than property rights’. Lincoln said that–and Lincoln also said that capital must also be protected. I am for a Square Deal for everyone. We will throw out all the old rules of the past and work practically and with compromise to make dishonesty and public corruption impossible. The Republican party must return to being sane, constructive and radical–if it does not–I have no place in it.”
Theodore Roosevelt. 1908-1919.
“The search for a better life by despoiling the earth’s resources has now taken a form which the planet cannot sustain.”
Margaret Mead. 1970.
“I don’t know if you see all these problems that face America–the priorities, the tinderboxes–poverty, filth, education, disease, isolationism, narrow nationalism, protectionism, partisanship, corruption. I don’t know if you see all these lions or not. But I hope you do. And I hope that the Lord thinks they’re lions, too.”
Lyndon Johnson. 1965-68.
“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
Abraham Lincoln. 1863.
So, who are we now? Are we a nation in decline–with our governing philosophy in tatters, our people left behind by the onrush of technology at a blinding speed that can’t be coped with or managed in a humane way, our roads and bridges, our manners and human dignity crumbling, our young people fighting endless wars and working at dead-end jobs that don’t pay enough to live? And our old people unable to retire–to rest after a lifetime of work–or to keep themselves healthy–or even afford to die?
Or are we the nation that has saved the world, that has led the way–not only in the ability to wage war, but in the power to wage peace–to forgive our debtors, to lift up entire nations, to teach democracy and to practice it at home?
Are we still capable of generosity of Spirit? Do we still have the know-how to work through the greatest challenge to the human race yet–the human race itself, out of control–capitalism out of control, nationalism and jingoism out of control–greed rampant, and the survival of the planet in doubt?
I believe the answer to all of this is–YES! Yes and yes and yes and yes and yes. That’s the good news. The better news is that it has come down to us. To me and to all of you. You. Me. We are the answer.
This time, we cannot–we must not–let our friends down. Those folks quoted above who believed in us–in posterity–and gave their lives so that we would–like my mother said to me when I was failing–have a chance. ”You’ve got to have a chance, Larry! ” Just a chance.
I have loved my country with the passion of a romantic teenager and been disappointed. I have loved it as a bitter adult blaming my country. I have loved it as you might love your aging dog–always there, don’t have to pay any attention to old Bob or Lucky or Mush–then suddenly they’re sick–and gone! Gone! And you’re mad about it to cover your too-late sorrow. Now I love my country as an old man–with a mature love that says, I need you because I love you. Now I own up to a deep recognition that all that’s wrong, all that disappointed and embittered me and allowed me to turn my face from you– my country–all that is my doing and my responsibility. Maybe you’re like me, neighbor.
We have broken it–it’s ours–we must fix it.
“The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. defender of our nation. 1968.
We are one week out from starting a new reach for a more perfect union–or, from a setback that may finally loose the mystic bonds of memory and leave us with– what? Truly, what is an American without a dream of a government of the people, by the people, and for the people? Nothing.
Go and vote. Vote for Unity, for peace within our nation. Vote for inclusion. Vote for the real strength that never fails–Vote for Love. Abandon hate, all ye who enter America, the Beautiful.
We must swell the chorus of the Union. We must become the Better Angels Of Our Nature.
Abe is counting on us. Don’t let him down, or mom and pop who sacrificed so much, or every mentor and teacher, and wives, husbands, and children who have only each other to cling to in what’s coming. We’ve got to straighten up and fly right.
I have already voted. This time, I voted for Channy, who deserves the best of me.
America, America, God shed His grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!
Palm Springs, Ca. 26 October, 2020–one week out from our one Chance!