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Television turns on…

Many of us see the past nostalgically.  We remember a time when children went to play outside, when we ate meals without cell phones, when a father could, on a single income, own a house and raise a family, when we were closer to Mayberry than Gilead, and when our lives seemed simpler.  When our former President says, “Make America Great Again” many of us look to those days longingly.  Why can’t life be like that again?

This, however, is, like most memories, an incomplete picture of the past.  When Andy Griffith was on television, women couldn’t have their own checking accounts, and the man who was Trump’s Presidential predecessor couldn’t sit down and order lunch at many places in The South.  When a single income would raise a family, that family could be made up only of a man and a woman of a single race and preferably religion who were married by a church.  When we ate meals without cell phones, before there were video games to keep children glued to their televisions, those who learned differently, who saw the world differently, were shuffled into basement classrooms for kids who were difficult to teach without any sort of support.  What we now call Special Education didn’t exist in any meaningful form.  (It didn’t really begin until 1975 with Public Law 94-142.)

If you mean we need to look back farther than our lifetimes, then you’re looking at times when women couldn’t vote, or Black people were slaves, or we were slaughtering the only indigenous Americans on the continent.  While I admire Jefferson, even he only freed 10 of his more than 500 slaves. 

America has never been “great.”  It has always been a work in progress.  At our best moments, we move toward the greatness that our founders envisioned.  Even they knew slavery was wrong, but they couldn’t put it in our Declaration of Independence because it would never have gotten the support it needed with that paragraph in the document.  (Supposedly, Jefferson didn’t want to cut that paragraph, but I haven’t found sufficient evidence to prove it conclusively, so I am reporting only my belief.  I could be wrong.) 

There are certainly aspects that were better.  I discussed some of those above.  Aaron Sorkin discussed others in the opening of the first episode of The Newsroom.  Yes, if you’re a regular listener to Fred’s Front Porch Podcast, you’ve heard this before, but I love it, so you’ll have to deal with it again.  I recognize the speaker, Will McAvoy, is a flawed character who is being somewhat offensive to young people here, and the statistics he quotes are outdated, but both the writing and the general message are brilliant.

And you—sorority girl—yeah—just in case you accidentally wander into a voting booth one day, there are some things you should know, and one of them is that there is absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world. We’re seventh in literacy, twenty-seventh in math, twenty-second in science, forty-ninth in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, third in median household income, number four in labor force, and number four in exports. We lead the world in only three categories: number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real, and defense spending, where we spend more than the next twenty-six countries combined, twenty-five of whom are allies. Now, none of this is the fault of a 20-year-old college student, but you, nonetheless, are without a doubt, a member of the WORST-period-GENERATION-period-EVER-period, so when you ask what makes us the greatest country in the world, I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about?! Yosemite?!!!

We sure used to be. We stood up for what was right! We fought for moral reasons, we passed and struck down laws for moral reasons. We waged wars on poverty, not poor people. We sacrificed, we cared about our neighbors, we put our money where our mouths were, and we never beat our chest.

We built great big things, made ungodly technological advances, explored the universe, cured diseases, and cultivated the world’s greatest artists and the world’s greatest economy. We reached for the stars, and we acted like men. We aspired to intelligence; we didn’t belittle it; it didn’t make us feel inferior. We didn’t identify ourselves by who we voted for in the last election, and we didn’t scare so easy.  We were able to be all these things and do all these things because we were informed. By great men, men who were revered. The first step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one—America is not the greatest country in the world anymore.  Enough?

— Aaron Sorkin, “We Just Decided To” Episode 1 of The Newsroom, 2012

To date, America has never been about all of us.  We have always, as a country, systematically excluded people.  When “We The People” truly means everyone we will have made good on The Promise of America.  We still have a long way to go. 

This is an optimistic way to view us, and I’m an optimist.  I’m also a realist, however.  It’s impossible to ignore the fact that when we’re trying to “Make America Great Again,” what we’re really doing is trying to make it a country designed exclusively for wealthy straight white males, while everyone who doesn’t fit into all those categories is seen as a servant to those who do.  We could include Christian in these requirements as well, but this article is already too long, and that case makes itself.  More than 80% of Congress identifies as Christian.  There are, to my knowledge, no members of Congress who openly say they are Atheists.  (I do, by the way, but I’m not running for office.  That fact, alone, would be disqualifying.)

Television switches channels…

Are you poor?  You need to work harder.  Your memories of a single income of 40 hours a week being sufficient not just to rent a house, but to own one, and at least one car (and often two), and feed, clothe, and get the necessary medical attention and education for three children?  Yeah, that’s just a myth.  Everyone needs to work at least 60 hours a week and have a couple of roommates if they want to survive.  If you go to college to try to increase your earning capacity, we’re going to charge you higher interest rates than most credit cards do, and even declaring bankruptcy won’t let you rid yourself of that debt unless you can prove undue hardship, (which, itself, is an undue hardship).  You’ll spend most of your life paying off this debt.  And you should.  You borrowed it; you have to pay it back.  Stop asking for a free ride! 

Is your sexuality different?  Fine, but you’re not allowed to talk about it and put it in our faces because that’s just gross.  No one wants to know about it.  The love that once dared not speak its name now marches obnoxiously down our streets, and you really have to stop doing that.  There’s obviously something wrong with you because you’re not like me, and we don’t want you anywhere near us.  Get some help if you want to join society.  We only have room for straight people.  It’s in The Bible… Well, sort of anyway, if you read it the right way.  If The Bible says it’s a sin, your opinion doesn’t count.  If I think The Bible says it’s a sin, your opinion especially doesn’t count.  I’m straight, and you’re not, so I’m right and you’re wrong.  That’s all there is to it.

You’re not White?  Fine, but quit your whining.  We’ve given you all the rights everyone else has, so shut up about it now.  Quit kneeling at football games just because someone who is not White was injured by some police officers.  If you don’t want to get hurt, just comply and we’ll let the courts settle it for you.  (Of course, if you’re our previous President, you don’t have to comply with subpoenas because you’re too important for law enforcement to have any control over you… but you little people need to do what you’re told!)  Our courts are fair and just and right.  If you’re convicted, you’re obviously a bad person, and you deserve to be in prison for not being properly subservient to we White People who gave you everything.  Don’t expect to be paid for your unskilled labor.  If all you can do is be a farm worker, you don’t deserve as much as a CEO.  The CEO worked hard and took all the risks.  What did you do?  You just showed up and expected us to take care of you.  Stop being so entitled. 

You’re not male?  Well, you get to vote now, so you should shut up, too.  If you’re a woman, it’s not our fault that you’re too emotional, too weak to stand up for yourself, and you walk around wearing sexy clothes.  What do you expect when you dress like a slut?  Men are men, and we’re going to act like it.  It’s time for you to learn your place, earn your keep, and recognize your inherent inferiority.  This is a Man’s World, and you’re lucky we let you be a part of it.  You should be thanking us, not complaining about your stupid rights. 

Television switches channels…

First, White people didn’t give rights to anyone.  They’re not ours to give.  They exist for all people, and somehow wealthy straight White males have convinced vast numbers of people that only wealthy straight White males deserve them.  Let’s stop believing that immediately please.

America is made up of much more than wealthy straight white males.  The overwhelming majority of us are not wealthy, even those who fit the rest of the categories.  Our Income Inequality has reached a point worse than any time in history.  Princeton University did a study.

Their findings show that wealth is very concentrated: The top 1% holds nearly as much wealth as the bottom 90%…

When we talk about minimum wage as being something only for high school students who don’t really need to make much money because they’re living with their parents, we are entirely misstating the reality of the situation.  First of all, many families need the child’s income if they’re going to make it.  No one is raising a family on a single income, or even two incomes anymore, unless they have a high paying job, and those are harder to find all the time. 

Second, it’s worth noting that many young people are living on their own now because they have been rejected by their families, because they were escaping abuse, or for any number of other reasons.  They need to earn a living. 

Finally, if you don’t think those who flip burgers, or who serve coffee, or wait on you at a restaurant deserve to earn enough to live a decent life (regardless of their age), then we need to eliminate those jobs and give the folks who once provided those services jobs that do pay enough for them, at the absolute minimum, to survive independently.  There may have been a time when Wally and Beaver worked just for a little extra cash, but for many people, those times are long gone.  If you want to Make America Great Again, you could restore to us an economy without such vast Income Inequality.

Not Straight?  More than 7 % of Americans do not call themselves straight anymore. 

The percentage of U.S. adults who self-identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or something other than heterosexual has increased to a new high of 7.1%, which is double the percentage from 2012, when Gallup first measured it.

You don’t get to write off the rights of more than 20 million people simply because they are different from you.  There’s nothing remotely moral in that, and the position is indefensible.  You certainly don’t have to like anyone you don’t want to, but you don’t get to deny them the same rights you have. 

Not White?  Nearly a quarter of the population, according to the census is now not White.  If there are more than 4 people at a public place where no one is wearing white hoods or swastikas, statistically, at least one of them will be Non-White.  You’re throwing out the rights of more than 80 million Americans.  Again, skin color tells us precisely nothing about who these people may be.  They could be wonderful or horrible, or anything in between, but they exist, they have the right to exist, and they need to be treated as their behavior deserves, not as a function of the amount of melanin in their skin.  We are better or worse than other people based on our behaviors above all else.

Not Male?  According to the latest Census, 50.4% of Americans are female.  5% are transgender or non-binary.  I hate to tell you, males, but we are, in fact, not the majority.  To decide that we are going to deny rights to most of the population is the definition of tyranny.  Do you really want to be a tyrant?  I don’t.  I have a better idea.  How about if we allow everyone to participate in the American dream?

The Idea of America is, in fact, great.  We were supposed to be A Melting Pot.  People of all groups would be welcomed here with open arms, and we would embrace and grow from our diversity.  Emma Lazarus told us this in 1883, and it’s right there at our Eastern Gate:

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Emma Lazarus
November 2, 1883

Statue of Liberty seen from the Circle Line ferry, Manhattan, New York

This is America’s Promise.  We have made progress, to be sure.  We have ended slavery.  We’ve stopped the outright massacre of the indigenous peoples.  We’ve recognized that, at least in some cases, Love is Love.  Women have infinitely more choices than they did 200 years ago.  Good for us. 

But we have a long, long way to go.  America has its own huddled masses yearning to breathe free. 

We certainly do not welcome refugees anymore.  A significant portion of our country wants to build walls to keep them out. 

Women, on average, earn more than 20% less than men do. 

We deny rights to the LGBTQIA+ community as a matter of course.

“No federal law prevents a person from being fired or refused a job on the basis of sexual orientation. The nation’s largest employer – the U.S. military – openly discriminates against gays and lesbians. Mothers and fathers lose child custody simply because they are gay or lesbian, and gay people are denied the right to marry.”

There may not be much we can do individually, but we can all do a little to lift our own lamps. 

For example…

  • Stop calling people “Illegals.”  It’s not, to my knowledge, against any law to have been born somewhere that is not America, and if it is, the law is wrong.  We hold people responsible for their choices, not the places where they were born.  This one little change can signal to others, silently and unobtrusively, that you recognize that human beings have a right to exist.  When that attitude is commonly held, our immigration laws will change for the better.

  • Be kind to your servers, to the folks at fast-food places, to cashiers at the grocery store.  Be nice to the folks who deliver your groceries.  Say something nice.  Even “Thank you” is a perfectly good beginning.  It costs you nothing, and it might make their day sufficiently better that they have enough in their Love Tank to spread a little more kindness, and if they do it for the right person, you never know what Good could happen.  Let’s take that chance, shall we?

  • Stop cheering for the bullies.  When you hear someone attacking people who are different, you don’t have to get in their face and call them out.  Simply withholding your approval sends a message just as powerful. 

August Landmesser was a worker at the Blohm+Voss shipyard in HamburgGermany.  He became known as the possible identity of a man appearing in a 1936 photograph, conspicuously refusing to perform the Nazi salute with the other workers.  Landmesser had run afoul of the Nazi Party over his unlawful relationship with Irma Eckler, a Jewish woman. Later he was imprisoned, and eventually drafted into penal military service, where he was killed in action.

By Unknown author –, Public Domain,

We may not be the greatest country in the world, but we can keep moving in that direction.  Let’s all reach for the stars that so proudly adorn our flag.  Let’s recognize our achievements and our challenges, and then let’s all move, in our own ways, closer to ma king good on a promise that’s more than a quarter of a millennium old.  I’ve made my little contribution.  Now you make yours.  Pick one of the three I suggested, or, better yet, find your own.  Be authentic.  That’s how we make progress. 

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

Margaret Mead

And, yes… I love you.