American Elegy

From a Google Image Search – Billings Gazette

Sometimes it feels like there are huge clouds gathering above the US and although those clouds don’t affect our lives every day, when they do, they zap us and we feel the events that the clouds symbolize in very visceral ways, as body blows, as deep sorrows that could weigh down all our days if we let them. There was the day JFK was assassinated (shock) and the day Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated (disbelief) and then Bobby Kennedy (why is this happening). There were the fire hoses, the dogs, the mirrored glasses as the civil rights struggle played out on our TVs (anger). There were the students killed at Kent State (is this America) and the day John Lennon was murdered (loss). There was the day I was watching the Today show when the first plane hit one of the World Trade Towers and then a second plane hit the twin tower next to it. (Shock, disbelief, despair) Even the bravery of the passengers aboard the plane that crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania was a test of courage that we hope never to have to personally face. (sobs) The day the Challenger fell from the sky killing everyone onboard. (Pow) The day of the Columbine shootings (Bam), the day that 26 children, teachers and staff were killed at Sandy Hook when we heard that the children were only 5 and 6-years-old (Oh no). 

Then, there was the day unsuspecting Black people went to a Bible Study group at their church, probably as familiar and comfortable as their living rooms, and Dylan Roof sat among them and then killed them in cold blood (oh my soul). After that we had so many mass shootings that we now have to ask the internet to list them for us. (Not again? Not again? Not again?) There was Katrina (we are all alone) and tornadoes (my life lies splintered on the ground) and fires (apocalyptic). We have had to watch the police kill young black men and women for minor offenses when fear or prejudice or both allowed an arrest to escalate into a murder (pray for us now in the hour of our need). The world outside of the US had some spectacular tragedies like tsunamis in Bali and Fukushima, Japan (primal), that gave me that same feeling of being punched in the gut and unsettled in my days. Millions are dead from a pandemic. Measuring mega-losses as personal setbacks puts me off center, until absorbed by whatever part of our psyche absorbs these blows. These mega-losses put us all off center and leave us with the sense that America has become a dystopian space, and the rest of the world is either there before us, or on the way.

We came out of World War II exhausted, empowered, and elated. We were winners. Surely, after watching Hitler and Stalin, the whole world must be convinced that democracy is better than any other system of government. But Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, Iraq, Desert Storm, Afghanistan, and several smaller interventions have left us feeling weaker and far less pumped. Finding out that the world saw us as pushy and imperialistic, as occupiers and as clueless was an enormous blow to the American ego. We were less surprised that other nations liked capitalism better than democracy since many of these nations had no tradition of democracy. In fact, we are worried that these nations might have made us question our own democracy.

Oddly enough, birth control pills sent American men into a tizzy and Roe v Wade tipped them over the edge. Women saw this as progress and freedom; men saw this as moral slippage, or perhaps the end of male dominance. What would a world where men were not dominant be like? They decided that was a world they didn’t want, and they redoubled efforts to keep men in control of America. This very brief sketch of history brings us almost to where we are right now. It’s as if we had the optimism of youth until the body blows that followed World War II and then we went into therapy and discovered we are having an “Adult Adjustment Reaction.”

But capitalism was still working, even if it wasn’t exactly the industrialism we had become accustomed to. There were a few setbacks; however, for the most part, economic progress was steady and trended upwards. But the middle class was starting to feel the pinch of fewer factory jobs and we saw the beginnings of the anger of displaced workers whose jobs did not support the lifestyle they had expected. Entrepreneurship and the technology sector were the newest ways to thrive if you had the disposition, the skills, or the training but not everyone did. We felt that the world was ending but perhaps it was just forcing us to change.

Now America is like a post adolescent who can’t find her/his identity and longs to just rip-off the past; who can’t separate from the parental generation. But we have the sins of our youth to deal with. We never got over 1865. We cannot wrap our minds around not being successful at everything we try. We cannot accept that changes are already here that have shifted our equation for the American economy from ‘ever upward’ to ‘sustainability’. We suddenly seem surprised to learn that everyone in America isn’t white, or Christian. Perhaps this is the feeling you get when the world starts to feel too crowded, when there doesn’t seem to be enough of everything to be open and generous. Our long pandemic is making this worse. With everything about American society feeling like it is in flux, adding more people who won’t be able to support themselves for a while seems scary. We are irate about “illegal immigrants” even though we can’t possibly deport them all as they are firmly imbedded in American life. 

We are being asked to examine the roots of our continuing racism, and Black Americans are demanding that we finally deal with them as the valuable citizens they are, that we stop ghettoizing them and accept them as equals, and perhaps replace the generational wealth we have stolen from them. It’s a tough sell in an economy that already feels tight, but it is the right thing to do. We know it, but many Americans will not accept it. 

Some Americans, very educated Americans, feel that the demand for “political correctness” is America’s worst problem. This is part of our identity dilemma. Are we still a melting pot? Or must we fight to be a White Christian nation? Should we agree to demands students make for respecting their need to be addressed correctly according to their identities, or should we describe these young people as rude and impossible to please. Clearly with several different groups demanding individual considerations of their feelings it can get quite confusing for a group of men who are used to rapt attention from those they address. It’s fairly easy to understand why older academics object to all this seemingly incomprehensible behavior and just want to exert top-down authority. Knowing that the most extreme demands will get toned down with time and the vicissitudes of life, doesn’t soothe many feelings while the heat is on.

A conversation that began on Linkedin over the Christmas weekend and spilled into weekdays was about “self-sovereignty.” The post was from a man who said he had several passports, could live anywhere, and could keep his money in safe havens to avoid paying taxes in America. (Mine, that’s mine) (Didn’t he learn to share in pre-K?) Commentors suggested that other nations may require payments resembling taxes and dual citizenship would not necessarily get him out of paying taxes in America. It’s unclear how living abroad qualifies as “self-sovereignty” since you are depending on the existing governmental order of another country which you do not govern.  Actually, “self-sovereignty” seems to be all about hoarding money and not letting your money pay for any deadbeats. Obviously if you are trying to escape climate change or cultural transitions, there is no safe place on earth to run to. Climate change may make money obsolete and change stock market offerings beyond recognition, especially if all money becomes digital. Whatever happens to make life on earth sustainable, it is clear that greed, that collecting wealth and making sure no one but you can touch your wealth, is a trend that is still a passionately felt “right” of many Americans. 

We had an insurrection. There have been rebellions, demonstrations that turned violent, but never an attack of this size on the seat of our government. Did that represent the low point for America? Will we move uphill from here? Did this release the pressure that has been building in America? It doesn’t seem so. We let a man who should never have led our nation into our most powerful space, and now that he has had a taste of that kind of power he doesn’t want to let it go.

This is where our road divides as in the Robert Frost poem. There is a danger that we could go down the road of authoritarianism. Even though the only happy person in a dictatorship is the dictator (who may not be happy either) we might choose to give up our republic for absolutism. The other road leads to mitigation of factors affecting climate change and rising sea levels and we are not sure where that road leads. Will we still have rapid economic progress, or will we have to accept a more languorous pace of living? Will the earth try to save itself by spawning disasters (like COVID, like storms, like fires, like floods) that bring the population down to sustainable levels?

It will require every bit of ingenuity and flexibility humans can muster to build a sustainable future on this planet, but will we ever have everyone on board? If this is not a cooperative human endeavor, it is hard to imagine that we can make such a huge transition gracefully. Despite all of this it is possible to imagine that we save our democracy/republic and build a sustainable future because when humans are called on to bring their best, at the last moment they often effect outcomes that seem inspired. 

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