observations and opinion
To love America on November 5, 2016 is to feel the grief of dispossession, of exile from the place you have believed in your whole life.
The story of Israel – of the Jews – is one of exile and then, after much torment and wandering, a return to the Promised Land. The agony of their exile is told in the Old Testament, most touchingly in the simple words of Psalm 137:1
By the waters of Babylon, we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.
That sense of loss afflicts anyone, whenever they are torn away from something they love. They pine for what was lost and, in their grief, pray some day to return.
For people of almost every faith and origin, there was another Promised Land: America. Huge and imperfect, America offered people two things: the freedom to be who they are, and the chance to become someone else. For those who didn’t go there, it was simply a beacon.
Although fractured and flawed, America was bound together by its civic religion – respect for the Constitution and the founders. Through civil war and civil unrest, it wanted to become – and became – a more perfect union.
It saw sovereignty in one place: the people. It created a union dedicated to the notion that those people should govern themselves, through a state and laws recognizing the human dignity of each soul. The people recognized the instability and injustice of raw power, and so reined it in: every round of reform, violent or civil, has been a process of the lucky and strong, recognizing the justice of ceding some ground to those who have need of it. Imperfect as it was, America was the last, best hope of man.
And when the world fell into disarray and terror, America stepped forward to stop it. Not one person alive can fairly deny that the United States was the essential nation – the savior of civilization. In the Second World War, it crushed fascism; in the Cold War, it wore down and broke the communist empire. It was messy and as imperfect as America itself, but it was better than the alternative.
That is all very romantic, it is true. But romance is one of the truths of America. It cannot possibly deliver the peace, prosperity and justice every human heart yearns for. But it promises to, and it leaves open the possibility of making those promises come true, slowly or all at once. Like falling in love, it is terribly real when it is real and it is terribly real, when it is not.
We know that for all its virtues and glorious feats, America has never purged its sin, even in civil war. The racism of the slave era has never really gone away. The bitter defeat of the Slaveocracy in 1865 has never quite been accepted, never mind celebrated, in the South. The enfranchisement of women and their more recent elevation to fuller citizenship is seen, by some, as the theft of their life chances. The arrival and success of new people – many of them brown – has rubbed the old wounds raw.
America was cowardly in the face of those who begrudged progress. It let that infection fester. Most unfortunately, powerful forces – political ones – harnessed media and used this sense of grievance to cook up a potent stew of rage and disappointment. A new creed of self pity, sour and implacable, has taken hold broadly across the land. Politicians and the wealthy have milked it to reverse progress, to solidify their own power. The fetishization of guns in America is a perfect example of how the constitution has been bent, both to enrich the powerful but also to atomize and terrorize the people. Fear has crept into the guts of America, and not by accident.
Today, November 5th 2016, America stares into the abyss. Half its people have pledged their faith to an anti-constitutional strong man. Half its politicians are in his thrall, or quake in fear of his wrath. Those with the most to lose in this terrible new America – women, blacks, Hispanics, the LGBTQ, the young, the educated – look on in disbelief at what their countrymen seem poised to do on Tuesday – Election Day.
Come Tuesday night, there may be a new order in America, or more accurately, the beginnings of a new disorder. America and the world may soon see if Mr. Trump meant anything threatened to do. It is a strange day when your prayer is that the next President was a liar the whole time.
Whether the tyrant climbs to power or not, the tyranny of American ugliness seems now stronger and more fearsome than the country’s promise. For the first time, for some of us, we wonder if America has the character and resolve to overcome its own frailties. We wonder whether its ignorance and evil, have frozen into something too hard for hope to bust through. If winter has come and will not surrender to spring.
America may or may not have met its fascist overlord, but much of America wants that overlord. Respect for science, art, civility, secularism and constitutionalism – the essence of the Founders’ faith and the institutions they created to settle peace and justice upon the land – ebbs. Instead, a bullying cruelty rises up like bile in the throat. Cretins rule, because gerrymandering has secured state houses and Congress for the bought and paid for slaves of money. Voting rights are stripped away, “legally.” It is a terrible time and it will still be, even if Hillary Clinton somehow survives the onslaught and becomes President.
Not for the first time, we see America’s virtue tested. But when before, did we think it might fail that test?
Three hundred million people or more call America home. Around the world, people look to it for its example of constitutional democracy and personal liberty. At home or abroad, countless are grateful to it, simply for the hope America inspires. But on this strange, sad Saturday it feels as if we are being exiled – herded away, new refugees from hope. Pushed away by foolish, feckless and selfish men, we wander along the banks of the Babylon.
Shall we lay down and weep, for Zion?