Monday, June 01, 2020

The American Experiment: A Blip in Time or a Country for the Ages

By Eric Segall

Forty-three years ago I was walking around Cambridge University on a breezy summer day. My buddy and I were working in a mail room in Brighton between freshman and sophomore years of college and decided to hitchhike, yes hitchhike, to Cambridge for an annual music festival.  The groups were mostly British except for the headliner, a new American folk/pop star named Don McLean.

As we strolled around the campus, we came upon a student dormitory that was built in the 13th century. I don't remember the date with 100% certainty but I think it was 1268. Bill and I looked at each other. We were shocked and amused by this. Students were learning and teachers were teaching on this spot more than 500 years before the United States of America was born. Five-hundred years. In 1977, our own country was just a tad over 200 years old, and England had been around much more than twice as long as that.

Skip ahead to last Friday. I was taking my morning walk and listening, as I always do, to the Dan Le Batard show on ESPN. For those who don't know, this radio show is part sports, part sports satire, and part social commentary, with its serious moments. On this day, Dan Le Batard began his show as follows: "A CNN was reporter was arrested at what is feeling less and less like America. Boy I miss my country." I think many people, definitely myself included, feel this way too, but what exactly does it mean?

America has made it through many moments when I'm sure the people living at the time thought the country might not survive. Less than 100 years after he Constitution was ratified, brother and sister fought against brother and sister in a Civil War that killed almost 500,000 Americans. It is poignantly relevant to remember that the War was fought because roughly half of Americans wanted to keep chattel slavery as a way of life.

Seventy-years later, the Great Depression brought economic misery and hardship to millions of Americans who did not know if the country would come out the other side. Of course, with the newly reorganized National Government, and then the economic necessities of WWII, we made it through.

Only 50 years ago, our cities were burning, leaders, white and black, were assassinated, and America's youth were rebelling like never before. JFK, RFK, MLK, and Malcolm X were all murdered within a period of six years. The President who was elected on a rough law & order campaign had to resign the Presidency for violating the law and not keeping the order. No wonder a former actor turned politician who was great at reading lines used the phase "Morning in America" to advocate for a new beginning.

And so it went with various twists and turns but even when a Presidential election came down to one state, and the Supreme Court handed the Office to George W. Bush, most Americans, even the losers, just shrugged, and then came together after 9/11.

Americans are proud of saying we have the oldest written Constitution in the world. That sound bite is only true because of the word "written," as England has a much older Constitution and as far as I know appears to be still around. But forget Constitutions. Other countries and world powers survived much, much longer than ours has as of this date. The Roman Empire lasted 500 years. The Venetian Empire in Italy lasted 1100 years. You get the idea.

Whether or not Trump is a terrible bump in the road or an existential threat may well be beside the point. Our country as a general matter is bitterly divided into numerous camps. There are millions of liberals/progressives, moderates, and conservatives all with different hopes and aspirations. Abortion, gun control, religious liberty, and the rights of the LGBTQ community are all divisive problems sparking major disagreements among our pluralistic community.

A larger problem is that our national government is set up in a way to greatly heighten these tensions. To many, the idea that Wyoming and California have equal power in the Senate is absurd while others feel strongly that all the states need to retain their independent sovereignty and the not-one-person-one-vote but one-state-two-senators requirement is an essential aspect of that sovereignty as is the fact that we don't elect the President through a direct national vote even though he is supposed to represent all the people. These aspects of the federal government help reinforce the great divides that caused the Civil War. I live in Atlanta, Georgia a blue city surrounded by a sea of red. This urban/rural dynamic is of course repeated from coast to coast and even in the great middle.

Donald Trump has brought a match to our fires of discontent. But is he a cause or a symptom? I'd like to bring two possible  perspectives to that question.

First, we should all be modest about America's longevity. When seen through a middle-eastern, Asian, or British lens, we are so far just a blip in time. The world was around long before us and, absent a nuclear war, devastating climate change, or pandemic that ends the world, it will be around long after us. We are emphatically not the center of civilization in any meaningful sense.

Second, and more importantly, when Dan Le Batard says he misses his country, he would be the first to admit, I think, that he is speaking from a privileged perspective (though he is a first generation Cuban-American).  At our beginning, race was our most difficult issue as was true in 1860 and again in 1960. As I write this post, there are riots across the country because yet again the police have killed a black man for no reason. Our criminal justice system with its coercive plea bargaining and racially biased prosecutions is filling our prisons with people of color at rates no civilized country should tolerate. And Donald Trump's calling cards, from his crazy wall, to his racist immigration policies, to his deals with evangelicals, are all grounded in whiteness, in making America White again through the euphemism of  the word "Great."

The thing is, making America white again is an illusion and a misnomer because America has always been white. From slave owners to segregationists to the boards of our largest corporations, the American dream has been largely a white one. Until we figure that out, once and for all, our country will never be secure, and our malapportioned Senate, the Electoral College, and computer generated racially gerrymandered congressional districts make true change on racial issues difficult if not impossible.

If we survive Donald Trump, we may well need to come together as a country to solve these issues. That will be a formidable task when it comes to race. Abortion, guns, and religious liberty/LGBTQ rights are difficult and important questions but I think we can survive them. Race, I am not so sure, when roughly one-third of our country see people of color as others, not full beneficiaries of the American dream.

I think back to 1977 and sitting on a blanket in Cambridge, England, a little past midnight next to a bunch of strangers all listening to the song everyone had been waiting for. The irony of Don McLean singing American Pie to thousands of  British loyalists was not lost on my 19 year-old-self. Today, I think about our country and the mess we are in and truly don't know whether November 8, 2016 was the “day” our Country died. Worse, I'm not even sure it was ever alive. What I do know, is that if we want to be a country for the ages and not a blip in time, we must come together over race. And soon.

2 comments:

Joe said...

Apt post.

http://www.dorfonlaw.org/2014/03/the-day-constitution-lived-guest-post.html

It's good to be humble. Anyway, it lives on.

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