I originally wrote this essay in September, soon after Charlottesville, and I’m now revisiting it following the most recent examples of what I refer to as “The Daily Disbelief.” If I had written this today, maybe I would have jumped off with the examples of Trump calling Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas” in front of a portrait of Andrew Jackson while addressing two Navajo war heroes. Does it matter which completely offensive statement, atrocious act of oppression or hate crime spawned my thinking? Not really. It is all just more evidence that we are living in a nightmare, with a racist, misogynist narcissist at the helm, and if we don’t wake up soon, it might be too late. I apologize upfront for the length, but it was like a snowball.
When I first heard about the rally in Charlottesville, I admit I was torn on the topic of removing historic statues. Growing up in Pennsylvania with strong public school history teachers and traveling the mid-Atlantic states with a mother who has a passion for Civil War history, I have visited the battlefields and heard the tragic human stories. Many young men were fulfilling their duty, not sure exactly what they were fighting for, and there were abolitionists in the South as well as racists in the North. Many Northern politicians had Southern sympathies, including the Governor of New York in the 1830s, William L. Marcy, who actively aided in the capture of free black men in Northern states and their return to Southern plantations or jails. He later became Secretary of State and Secretary of War during the Mexican-American War, a war in which both Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant served with distinction on the same side of the battlefield. Revisionist history that paints Northerners as good and Southerners as evil is oversimplifying our nation’s history, and erasing elements made me uncomfortable at first. Then again, this was the first time I was grappling with this question of statues and legacies, and that is part of the problem. We should always be questioning.
This internal statue conflict was quickly resolved. What I initially lamented as a disregard for the complexity of history and a call for better education of all Americans around civil rights quickly became a wakeup call as I watched the actual marchers and saw what our country has become, or what it has always been beneath the surface and has now bubbled over. These were not high school history teachers and university professors marching around the statue, wielding VHS copies of the 1990 Ken Burns Civil War documentary and urging all Americans to watch it and develop a deeper understanding of the greatest conflict and bloodiest war ever fought on our soil.
This was hate and racism. I read one article as I was trying to process the events and my own feelings, and it mentioned that if Robert E. Lee had been seated, signing his surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, it would be different. The statue in question was created to honor slavery and oppress a group of people, and the rallying crowd is evidence that white supremacists and Neo-Nazis, not the professors and historians, are the ones hell-bent on defending it. And so, I was convinced. This is not a defense of history at all. This is our country at its worst, revealing all that is wrong with our history and our values, a cultural history that many of us have ignored for decades, even centuries. We now are being called upon to wake up from this nightmare and create change. It is time to question our values, call the American Dream what it is, and amend our past toward a better future.
We are a young country. This hits me often as a bicentennial baby. In discussing history with my students and my children, I realize how quickly things can change to make the recent past seem like long ago. Children should grapple with the concept of long ago; adults, on the other hand, should have a knowledge of history to see that much of what we study as American History is a not-so-distant past. My grandmother is 97 years old. She was born in the US, of German descent. She has been alive for about 40% of our 241 years as a country. If I live to my hundredth birthday, my life will span one-third of our nation’s life under the Constitution. Things have changed dramatically since the winter Washington spent at Valley Forge, where I grew up throwing Frisbees, having picnics and exploring cabins.
Time moves quickly and we make progress, but only if we accept our mistakes and amend for them. Right now, we are toddlers stuck in the American Nightmare, built on the promise of an impossible American Dream. We’ve been acting like toddlers for a while, and it is only now, with a narcissistic, infantile leader, that some of our greatest immaturities have been revealed. As a country, we have enabled a culture of self-centered, unapologetic, irresponsible behavior, and we lost sight of our civic duty, moral conviction and promised freedom.
When Trump was elected and I had a panic attack, the first I’ve ever experienced where the source of the anxiety was out of my control and could not be fixed by my own actions, my husband tried to reassure me. We got out of bed the next morning (I didn’t have to wake up, because I’d never been asleep), and he checked the markets. “It’s going to be okay,” he said. “The markets haven’t reacted, and maybe he won’t be as bad as we think.” As bad as we thought was nowhere near as bad as it has become. I was so embarrassed — humiliated — to be an American, a Pennsylvanian and a woman on that day. Rich and I discussed how we, as a country, do some things very well. Despite the problems with our education system, we are still a key leader in innovation, technology, science, the arts and other fields. We had this discussion months before Spring 2017 when I had a better understanding of how our “innovative leaders” in Silicon Valley are running their companies, with a culture of sexual harassment and gender inequity that deeply angers and frightens me. I won’t even start on what Hollywood has been up to this fall. These are our best and our brightest? These selfish, arrogant, insecure men who are so fearful of strong, capable women that they refuse to accept a woman’s value without degradation? Sure, we do some things well; it is just in the arena of morality that we keep screwing up.
One issue is that morality isn’t central to this American Dream. It is all about materialism and accumulating more and more. We love stuff, and we have built a culture on large homes, consumerism and having more than our parents, our neighbors and some imaginary family called the Joneses. The problem with this ideal is that it is self-centered and unfulfilling, and it is one of the most child-like flaws on which our society is based. Little kids collect things and fight with their friends because they haven’t learned to share. Turns out neither have we. The concept of “the good of the group” went out the window a long time ago, along with empathy, a word that our President has probably never spoken and surely could not define. One of my favorite of all the cleverly-designed political t-shirts that pop up on my Facebook feed is one that says, “Equal rights for others does not mean fewer rights for you. It’s not pie.” In many aspects of life, Americans are looking for a bigger piece of the pie, not realizing if we created more opportunities for everyone, there would be more pie to go around.
How are we supposed to learn to share and put our community first if we aren’t taught? That’s a good question. A small but meaningful portion of our high school education, the subject formerly known as Civics, was removed from our curriculum a few decades ago. In high school, students used to learn about civic responsibility, from the importance of casting a vote to standing up for what is right. Now that is probably an elective, or part of an AP history class that only students who go to top schools in affluent communities have the choice to take. Civics needs to become part of the fabric of our lives, from the choices we make each day to the people we elect and the ways we help those in need. With Mother Nature seeking revenge on our current administration and lawmakers using every opportunity to strip people of their rights and freedoms, we will have a lot of opportunities to put civic responsibility back into the hands of all Americans. It is time to share our toys, do good for our communities and develop some conviction.
Conviction, like compassion, is also something people develop as they mature. Young children are developing a sense of right and wrong, and with adolescence comes further exploration of morals and a strengthening of values. By adulthood, people still learn and grow, but they should have a solid foundation and be able to stand up for what they believe in, unless they have never had to take a stand. Enter the wavering, wishy-washy, fence-walking “Fiscal Conservative and Social Liberal” who makes up much of my peer group. These are educated people who have good intentions, and that blurred line worked well during the Clinton era, Bush, and especially Obama. It was easy for these open-minded people to accept and even adore our first black president and want lower taxes for themselves at the same time. I would argue it was never a convincing position. At its core, it goes back to selfishness. As someone who lived in Canada for a while and has experienced a more egalitarian form of social services, I find the logic to be very transparent: “I hope my fellow Americans have a good life. I believe in equal opportunity, education and healthcare for everyone. I certainly don’t want anyone’s civil rights or human rights to be jeopardized. But I don’t want to pay for it, through my taxes or otherwise.” Surely, somewhere in the argument is a feeling that these millions of people who need social services must have bootstraps, and that pulling themselves up by them and overcoming obstacles is part of the realization of the American Dream. But it doesn’t work that way. When you are a rape victim and the law protects your rapist and not you, when you have a life-threatening illness and no healthcare, or you are a soldier returning from war and suffering from PTSD, bootstraps simply are not enough. For children living in poverty with inadequate education, there are no bootstraps to be found. That’s where the FCSL’s must make a decision — are you voting based on fiscal or social issues, and what motivates you in your core? Your personal gain or a sense of moral responsibility? Adults should have conviction, and sometimes this means compromising and prioritizing.
The other thing we should recognize about bootstraps is that when you oppress groups of people for centuries, it is harder for them to overcome obstacles. Like children, we are good at playing pretend but have a very hard time apologizing. We pretend we believe in equality, but when we do something wrong — like establish our entire country on the destruction of one race and the enslavement of another — we find it very hard to apologize. If we truly wanted to repent for our nation’s sins, we would start over with a blank slate of equality, but we don’t. We change some laws and create others. We give people rights to vote and equality on paper but create a judicial system that continues to oppress black people, we continue to steal natural resources from Native Americans, and we have reproductive laws and labor laws that ensure that most women will never have the opportunities that their male counterparts do. That’s not apologizing and changing our behavior going forward; that is systemic oppression. It is time to use our words and call it by name.
In early November, we saw some progress in local and regional elections. The results indicate that we are waking up, and that we can create change. It was an overwhelming sense of relief for many of us. In my own neck of the woods in Westchester County, NY, we voted out a County Executive, Rob Astorino. Astorino has no problem providing space for and profiting from a gun show where vendors sell Nazi paraphernalia. I won’t even begin to discuss our country’s childlike obsession with weapons and how our lies about the impact of that are part of this nightmare, too. Let’s just talk about the hate literature. At an Astorino town hall I attended last winter, an audience member asked him about the Nazi book sale. He answered that it is not a problem to have the books and pamphlets there because they are protected as free speech and it is no different than housing them at any public library.
Following this town hall and the statue debate, I am happy to explain the difference to Mr. Astorino and to other people who think there is no difference between the statues in parks and the statues being moved to museums. Museums and libraries are places to house artifacts from world cultures and from the past to be used as learning tools. They are places where critical thinking happens, and they have a responsibility to keep artifacts from history, even from the darkest historical events. They help us educate future generations in all aspects of humanity, including the horrific moments, with the intention of building a more informed world. Nazi propaganda at a gun show, much like statues in a park to honor the Confederacy, are fuel for hate and symbols of oppression. It took me about two days, from Saturday to Monday of the Charlottesville weekend, to bid farewell to the statues. I had always found the Nazi materials being sold in a room with high-power weapons to be deeply troubling. It is concerning that a lifelong politician like Astorino or a powerful man like our President can’t understand the distinction. Most likely they do understand it, but stating it and standing up for what is right might alienate their base supporters. Because their base is a bunch of racist white supremacists. While they are careful not to state it outright, they are, too.
And so here we are, a country full of two groups: well-intentioned but misguided children trying to build a better world based on watered-down values, and immature children who are perfectly content perpetuating the American nightmare out of bigotry or selfish goals. Now we are being led by an administration who divides us and brings out the worst in our country. If there is a silver lining, it is that everything is now on the table and we see the difference between our American Dream and a more well-rounded society where humanity and progress co-mingle. Soon, our country will be 250 years old, and it is time to grow up and reconcile our past to build a better future. If you want to see a country with a growth mindset where you cannot march with tiki torches beneath the statue of a racist and oppressive leader, visit Germany. Here in the U.S. we sell Mein Kampf to Neo-Nazis at gun shows, even in “blue states.” We have spent centuries developing double standards, voting systems, legal systems, cover-ups and “alternative facts” that have turned our darkest histories into our current reality. Goodbye, American Dream. We are awake now.