Sunday, January 22, 2017

Too much to lose

I shared my daughter Mallory’s blog earlier - so many resonating thoughts echoing around in my head and heart these past days…

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Foremost among them the notion shared with my daughter that I will neither mourn nor live in fear as a result of the election now culminated in the recent inauguration.  I simply cannot, life is too short.  And saying this, I in no way diminish very legitimate concerns, even fears of good friends, friends I spoke to the day after the election and again on Friday who are lesbian, trans, or otherwise marginalized… 

O, let America be America again--
The land that never has been yet--
And yet must be--the land where every man is free.
The land that's mine--the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's,

But my daughter also spoke about seeing the worst in America.  I don’t – and I do see these things.  I don’t see them as a uniquely American problem.  Americans may – to me that is the problem with some of the interpretations of American Exceptionalism – they are borne out of willful ignorance. 

Yet I'm the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That's made America the land it has become.
O, I'm the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home--
For I'm the one who left dark Ireland's shore,
And Poland's plain, and England's grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa's strand I came
To build a "homeland of the free."

I’m a strange brew perhaps.  I write this sitting in a business class seat flying to work in eastern Europe.  When I look around the airport lounge in which I find momentary peace while waiting to board the next flight to somewhere, I see white privilege demonstrated perfectly.  I’m both at ease and yet uncomfortable with it.  My early years were on a farm and we didn’t have much – I miss some of that, but I still know what it means to have enough.  I’m Australian, soon hopefully do hold dual citizenship, but I’ve been fortunate to have traveled to work on every continent, visiting some of the world’s greatest cities, and some of the poorer villages.  We’ve probably messed our children up along the way and that’s OK - the older one in particular has a gypsy spirit like mine and has already traveled extensively on her own.  Maybe this gives me the luxury of seeing things a little differently… maybe it explains her perspective.

Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

A couple of days ago I went back to a piece by Harry Belafonte published in the NY Times the eve of the election.  It worked around themes in a well-known (and yet maybe not) poem by Langston Hughes, “Let America Be America Again”.  If you’re wondering where some of the verse strewn through this was from, wonder no more.  Belafonte contrasts the America that was at the time Hughes, a gay black man, wrote this poem in the 1930’s and now.  And he recognizes that the hard fought gains in basic rights and equality won for so many are both a huge step forward, but yet still there is much to be done.  For the truth is that the dreams laid out in the American Constitution are just that.  As President Obama pointed out in his farewell address, they are not self-executing.  They as history has proven require a lot of work to make the dream into a reality, but more importantly, they are also I would add, not self-sustaining.

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed--
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

Maybe here is a subtle difference between my perspective and that of my daughter.  Belafonte refers often to what “old men know”.  I’ll grant him at 90 this to be wisdom… for me at 50ish, I’ll call it experience.  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, an adoptee of the American experiment like myself, but without the advantages in this country of being white or male, wrote shortly after the election:

America has always been aspirational to me. Even when I chafed at its hypocrisies, it somehow always seemed sure, a nation that knew what it was doing, refreshingly free of that anything-can-happen existential uncertainty so familiar to developing nations.”

I think my daughter struggles with those hypocrisies.  Maybe I have enough experience to know we will always struggle with them… but struggle we must.  I wrote to a group of people the day after the election

From a cold and rainy New York, a new day has dawned...  As I drove for four hours along the lakes from Cleveland to Rochester to get here in time for breakfast with my daughter and the team, it occurred to me that contrary to some of the commentary on the radio, we are not waking up to a different America - it is pretty much what it is - an amazing experiment that keeps evolving.  A giant American flag flying in breezy early morning light just off the interstate near Erie looked pretty much as sure of itself as ever.

Here's the thing… whatever the reasons people voted for President Trump, and I don’t believe as some of my friends that this automatically makes them bad people… whatever their reasons and motivations, those people were here when Obama was elected in 2008 and again in 2012.  Some of them voted for Obama!!!  Their motivations may have changed, but what I worry about is not that they are not in pursuit of the great American Dream, but that they think it was in the past.  That is the core of Trump’s message “Make America Great Again”- a corruption perhaps of Langston’s poem?

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain--
All, all the stretch of these great green states--
And make America again!

I’m not down on America.  You don’t have to be perfect or great to do great things, you just have to decide to do what appears to be right and then act.  Hopefully you get it right some, maybe most of the time.  America not in isolation has a proud history of doing great things.  But I don’t want to go back to the past either.  There are better things ahead… Winning voting rights for all, ending Jim Crow, achieving full rights for women, and letting people of all genders and sexual orientations stand in the light as equals, all pointed out by Belafonte are not done deals, not even close.  These things are for now enshrined in our law (more or less), but not necessarily enshrined in how we live.  There is a huge difference here and one I found many people here in the USA who questioned my going to South Africa for a project just after Mandela was released but before the full transition from apartheid could not grasp – apartheid (oh of course we never called it that) was no longer legal in the United States in 1990, but that didn’t mean it was not still happening.

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek--
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I like President Obama’s explanation of American exceptionalism, not that is is necessarily unique.

So that's what we mean when we say America is exceptional. Not that our nation has been flawless from the start, but that we have shown the capacity to change, and make life better for those who follow.

So I will not… We cannot sit idly by and not only watch these hard fought gains recede, in fact we must stand and be willing to fight if necessary not just to preserve what has been won, but to advance it.  And “We” to me as I study American civics in preparation to adopt citizenship of this country is incredibly important, and the reason I will neither mourn nor live in fear.  Citizenship comes with benefits and responsibilities.  And if “We the people” matters a damn, then the “certain unalienable Rights” spoken of in the Declaration of Independence and spelled out in the Constitution are still worth fighting for.  I didn’t finish this on the flight but in a lounge in Munich airport where I “awoke” to incredible pictures of assemblies not only in the United States, but all over the world where people stood up and said just this.  It warmed my soul and was both tremendously encouraging and inspiring.  President Trump was correct in his inaugural speech to say “What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people.”  There is work to be done…

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath--
America will be!

You can find most of my references at the following links: