This column is not late. Instead, think of it as considered slowly.
To write about our nation on its birthday, and the state of that nation as it is today, right this very minute, made us want to duck the whole thing.
We’re not the oldest citizen in the land. Nonetheless, we have memories, happy ones, of being a people proud, farsighted, daring. A nation willing to take chances to help others as well as ourselves live better lives. Willing to reconstruct battle-zones that eventually became viable and important nations and trade partners.
Reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, whether at twelve in camp, or singing the national anthem at football games – even sometimes way back in the forties and fifties just staring at the test pattern on our first television sets (let alone the thrill of watching the Moon Landing in ’69 in grainy black-and-white) – mixed abstraction with accomplishment and brought proud tears. To be an American meant for so many years to be a GOOD GUY.
Millions before and after us understood. We were trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent. Our motto – Be Prepared – meant something. We made three promises: duty to God and Country; duty to Other People; and duty to self.
What do we face now? Greed, lies, perjury, violence, racism (granted it was there earlier, too), immorality, anger, hate, disappointment, failure, tension, war.
We are not naïve enough to believe these wondrous qualities erupted only in the past couple of years. But once they were unleashed at the top of the governmental strata – the only successful evidence that “trickle down” might actually work – the oil slicks at cabinet and Congressional levels did NOT kill all life below. Rather, as we know, the human mechanisms on the bottom swam upwards to meet and mingle with the detritus floating above, in effect covering the continent.
A beautiful woman we know of certain years bought a house a few years ago down south to be closer to her family. Meeting her one recent afternoon at the hardware store, we were not only surprised (and pleased) at her return, but horrified at her reasons. It wasn’t only her own family she couldn’t talk with. It was also that family’s entire cast of supporting characters: friends, in-laws, landowners, hardware store owners down south. She would have been speechless had she not been so angry. Her comprehensible fury would have – had she not fled – turned her into a termagant unwilling to see goodness or reason in any of them.
We had heard, and read, of intra-family breakdowns because of politics. That story goes back more than a hundred and fifty years. That it is alive today – witness monuments guarded, flags raised, idioms rejuvenated – testifies to the witless and nearly psychotic air we breathe and (thanks to the newly empowered EPA) the water we drink, the slag in our streams, the drilling for riches regardless of whatever harm may come to people who live and try to survive despite their crumbling environments.
Insofar as a large part of the structure of our government today is missing in action – not just bureaucratically but in Congress, as well – there are no brakes on any one person’s viciousness. From the top to the middle (that’s as far as this administration wants to go), citizens have been given license to imitate their leaders’ attitudes and language and gestures.
As for the press on which we have depended for as long as the Republic existed, it too has been caught in the maelstrom of incivility, lies, fake news. This alas is what they cover 24 hours each day. This is what they have to cover. And in doing so, too often they’ve been infected with the same viruses. Bruit their honesty and truth-telling as they will, their readers and listeners shrink in their granting of approval and belief. For every ambitious, hungry, untutored talk-show host there now exists an ambitious, hungry, untutored would-be pundit. Face to face these exist, and the noise they make together drowns out what we have long been accustomed to hearing, thinking about, deciding.
Worse than all this – in our mind – is that the puzzlements that now face the average citizen include features never before elevated to such status or recognition or even possibility: treason, for one. And not just incidentally, which most of us all have acceded to over the years, the making of power, the construction of wrap-around power and money. The threat not only of economic debasement but of quote legal action unquote for disagreement and demonstrations of resistance. Ethics as a science and as a practice has nearly disappeared.
Where once we as a nation lead confidently towards peace, understanding, human rights, we now waffle. And that indecision has affected our allies around the world. Their respect and reverence for the US of A has down-sized not only our influence, but also our future value to the rest of the globe. We still – in the persons of dedicated idealists – work beyond endurance to make a difference in health and education and standards of living. (True enough, we are also still selling weaponry at a phenomenal clip.)
What we see before us, in Washington, London, Khartoum, Malaysia, Brazil, is a melting down of American strength, goodness, effectiveness. Our leaders tell us the world is no longer laughing at us. Our leaders know, and have learned and want to learn, nothing.
Which is why the Fourth of July has become so painful.
So what can we do?
This may sound inconsequential but what we have to do is remember who we were, what we were, what we sought and achieved, and work like hell to get back to that Eden before the Fall.