Optimism in a Fearful America

I believe in America.

In the face of a President who shuts out the tired, the poor, the wretched refuse of the teeming shore, I believe America will one day reopen its golden doors. That it will welcome the strivers who have been the wellspring of the nation’s wealth and might since the Mayflower.

In an America led by a President who waffles on defending allies, abrogates non-binding treaties of global cooperation, stokes acrimony in regional conflicts, still I believe America will someday again be the pillar leaned upon by nations who cherish human liberty and dignity.

To see the President dispose of the man investigating him for wrongdoing. To endure the President’s mocking viciousness and moral vacuousness: the frothy rage and scatter shot rants and insults against adversaries, mostly imaginary. To withstand a President who propagates false rumors of voter fraud, who denigrates justices of the peace, who bars immigrants on the basis of religion and national origin, who casts doubt on the utility of the freedom of the press. It sinks the nation, mires its values in a bog of reprehensible hypocrisy.

Yet, still I believe that America will rise from the muck and reclaim the hill from which it has so often been a moral beacon, will again live up to the ideals for which its founders pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor.

I believe in America because it has defended its ideals against overwhelming odds. Our challenges today are worrisome, but in the scales of history they only faintly register. At Valley Forge, skeletons of men slept exposed to frost in the shadow of a military juggernaut. Washington weathered the slights of Congress and the attempted mutinies of his generals, and the patriots of the nation trained and fought better and organized better and nursed better, and won. Lincoln, faced with endless abuse, afraid to fire his timid generals, with nowhere else to turn fell to his knees begging God, and never gave up on the fearless Union soldiers determined to save the nation even as they fell by the thousands, and they ultimately won, and held the union together that this nation might live. I believe because Teddy Roosevelt could ensure the nation lived up to ideals in the face of burgeoning corporate power. I believe because Susan B. Anthony could lead half the nation to their equal standing in the face of relentless slander and shaming from the powerful. I believe because Martin Luther King’s fearlessness in the face of nooses and firebombs resonated with the millions who stood alongside him mirroring his heroism. Countless times, Americans have stared down more powerful internal and external forces, and as a result the nation better achieved its own ideals. Americans have long been a people unfazed by the mystique of power. They are not frightened by menaces of destruction nor of dungeons to themselves. They believe that right makes might, not the reverse.

This is not to argue for complacency. Vigilance against self-destruction must never cease. America has trampled its ideals in the past. The President pushed through harsh anti-immigration policies including thwarting a path to citizenship for immigrants and ordering the deportation of non-citizens on the basis of national origin. That President was John Adams, George Washington’s successor, who signed the Alien and Sedition acts in the 1790’s. In the 1830’s, a mob partly inspired by the press censorship efforts of President Andrew Jackson murdered publisher Elijah Lovejoy for his abolitionist political views.  In the 1920’s, President Coolidge and Congress overwhelmingly passed legislation shutting the nation’s doors to almost every nation asserting that Catholics and Jews “arrive sick and starving and therefore less capable of contributing to the American economy [and] culture.”

In a speech as a young man, Lincoln warned that the destruction of our democracy will come not from “some transatlantic military giant,” but “we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.” The election of a pandering populist in 2016 was a step towards the destruction of our ideals and our nation.

But I believe in America because despite these xenophobic seizures, despite American history being far from an effortless march of driven immigrants and their descendants towards full realization of Bill of Rights’ freedoms, the progress is still undeniable. The bigotry of the 1790’s and the 1920’s, for example, were both reversed.

And the descendants of immigrants honored the ideals of the nation enough to keep the doors open to my family. When I was a child, my father showed me a photograph from 1935: “There is your grandmother with all her cousins and aunts and uncles when she went back to Poland to visit them.” Then he added, “All of them were gone less than ten years later.”

“What happened?”

“The Nazis killed them. Only your grandmother and her immediate family came to America in time.”

Before that, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the other side of my family fled the murder and pogroms of the Russian Pale to come to a nation they knew not. They, the sick and starving the wretched refuse, came with nothing. But America lifted its lamp beside its golden door.

And not just accepted them, but offered them the right to thrive. As a boy, my grandfather helped his father shovel snow in New York City’s public parks for a dollar a day during the Depression to make ends meet. By the time my grandfather died nine decades later, not only had he defended the nation in the Pacific in World War II, but he had enjoyed longevity almost twice that of anyone in his family before him, was the patriarch of eight college-educated grandchildren, the owner of a Queens house and a Miami Beach condo, and a philanthropist to disabled children. He rose as far as his great talents could take him. And he died rich and safe and fearless in contrast to his relatives who remained in Europe: terrified, helpless, stripped naked, and gassed.

Without this country, I would never have had my turn on earth. Many times over. But the patriots of this nation ensured that it lived so that I, too, and hundreds of millions of others, might live because of it. So I believe in America because I will not turn my back on the courageous millions who came before me and fought and died and lived for this country to be what it is.

To say I love my country is like to say I love my wife. A pithy word, but far too brief to encapsulate the enormous magnitude of the gratitude and affection that infuses every day I have the privilege of being married to my wife or a citizen of this country. My love of America has swelled inside me throughout my life, no matter the insults outsiders hurl against it nor any pigheadedness we ourselves practice. As a boy, I felt it trembling inside me when I walked the grass of the Concord battlefield and thanked God for all that transpired since that first shot. I felt it when I first read Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, and I feel it every time I recite it to myself or my children. The love strikes me on a hundred small daily actions: seeing the flag on my postage stamp, Washington’s face looking at mine from the dollar bill, riding a subway packed with cooperative people whose ancestors came from every rival corner of the globe, reading a newspaper editorial page knowing it was printed free of government interference, signing my name to a contract knowing the laws of my country protect my rights. I have internalized the nation’s history. Its shortcoming, my shortcomings. Its successes, my successes. My country right or wrong, if right to be kept right, if wrong to be set right.

I believe in America because its ideals have helped usher in an epoch where free people wield immense power. Nations seeking their ruler’s glory and the dominance of others are weaker today than perhaps any other time in human history. Today, more than half the world’s people live in a nation subject to the will of its people. Only 75 years ago, just before America emerged as a global power, only one in ten people lived in a democracy. Today, whatever military or economic yardstick one wishes to apply—aircraft carriers or defense budgets or GDP or liquid markets—the United States is the preeminent global power. America has a military presence in more than 6 in 10 countries on earth.

So while the current President closes borders and rails against lurking threats across the world, America’s and other democracies’ strength is far in excess of almost any moment in history. While security should never be taken granted, to fear the loss of American power to some insidious internal element is to lose all perspective on relative strength. An American is far more likely to win the lottery than be killed in a terrorist attack. And such attacks, while upsetting and indeed terrifying, are far from a deep-seated threat to the republic unless our reaction to them creates self-inflicted wounds. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.

I believe in America because the best of it is what persists. A few weeks ago, I visited Washington DC, and I had the pleasure of glimpsing the Washington monument and Lincoln memorial. There in heart of the teeming eponymous city that Washington never lived in nor asked for, rose the proud stone obelisk to him. Tribute to a man who won the longest odds war America ever fought, who at every turn was willing to abdicate power if the people willed it, who set the precedent for rotating leadership to help safeguard America from demagoguery, who left us with legacy of good laws under a free government. Across the reflecting pool is the temple to the man born in a log cabin, who thirsted for knowledge, who from a young age protected his fellow man from violence even when it was unpopular, who bore the burden of saving a nation that three generations had built, who was tasked with holding together an impossible coalition, and who never gave up, and who excised the moral wound of the nation while winning the war.

The stones that mark the memories of the nation’s great stewards will weather the passing seasons, the comings and goings of mankind, while the current leaders who fill the nation’s capital shall pass and return to the earth—flashes of ephemeral flesh and bones and vanity. The monuments’ stones were laid one atop the other, careful piece by piece, across decades: the Washington monument took 52 years from conception to completion, the Lincoln Memorial 55. Such persistence derives from private citizens and elected leaders believing in the values those leaders fought for. The two monuments embody the ideals and character the American people choose to preserve.

I believe in America because I am also fully prepared to be wrong. Not about America. As long as I get to live I will always be grateful for America. But I’m prepared to be wrong about President Trump. That even though low moral character throughout most of a person’s life means it very likely will persist for the remainder, that history surprises us, that all people are capable of change. That the President will rise to the moment and the responsibility in front of him.  He sits where Washington sat, and so perhaps remembering that he will act as Washington would act.

When the New York Times opines that the new Republican administration has a “blindness and a stolidity without parallel in the history of intelligent statesmanship,” I take pause. Because they didn’t write that in the spring of 2017. They wrote that in the spring of 1861 about Abraham Lincoln.

When the Chicago Times states that “The cheek of every American must tingle with shame at the flat and dishwatery utterances of [the President]” and the Times of London writes “the sallies of that poor President [are] ludicrous.” And they are talking about Lincoln and his Gettysburg address, I am reminded that the judgments and dismissals of the present are poor indicators of how history will render it.

The nation’s opposing political media outlets may be a struggle of all against all that has effervesced into infuriated, mutually deafening shouts. But still I believe that most Americans will rise above simple denunciations of the other. Throughout my life, I have seen first-hand that no ideological opinion (political, religious, or otherwise) holds a monopoly on kindness and integrity and wisdom and character.

I believe in America, the nation that always turns and renews itself.

That nation is now nearly 250 years-old. It is far from a newborn or a petulant youth. And I believe the question about America’s age is this: is America the retiree easing into an enjoyment of privileges bequeathed it from efforts past, making little effort to keep fighting for that which it has given so much to advance; or, is it a young adult struggling with being grown, wobbling under the responsibilities of being asked to lead at home and abroad, nervous and uncertain as to how to wield its immense powers?

In grappling with why the nation, my nation, would freely elect a man whose beliefs are so at odds with our ideals, I have come to see last year’s election as the nation trying to flee from its responsibilities, terrified of all it is being asked to do and to give of itself when riddled with its own insecurities and debts, convinced it cannot provide for others when it feels it can barely manage its own infighting and economic transformation. In such a situation, it is unsurprising that in their hour of fear so many would turn to a leader who speaks to their fears.

All people lose their way, lose their step, their confidence, stumble and lash out, forget what makes them great, harm others, harm themselves. Such stumbling, such fears, form an enduring part of the sweep of history since rare is the age when all feel effortlessly happy and believe the world they’ll leave to their children is relentlessly improving.

But the mark and miracle of the free country is that in the face of such setbacks it can right itself. A nation founded on ideals can always replenish itself from the fountain of its moral imagination. So long as patriotic hearts still swell to the chorus of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and “of the people, by the people, for the people,” the country can remain true to the dreams of its youth. For centuries, America’s leaders and citizens have left behind the remarkable example of their courage. It falls to us to hear the echoes of that legacy and to pay it forward, to perfect the vision of the Founders, to defend our beliefs, our loves, our sacred ideals. In the end, we the people are the ones who choose what endures.

6 Replies to “Optimism in a Fearful America”

  1. “Without this country, I would never have had my turn on earth. Many times over. But the patriots of this nation ensured that it lived so that I, too, and hundreds of millions of others, might live because of it. So I believe in America because I will not turn my back on the courageous millions who came before me and fought and died and lived for this country to be what it is.”

  2. You make some very powerful observations but I do not subscribe to your wholesale dismissal of trump’s presidential capabilities.
    American democracy has a habit of eventually reaching the best possible outcome for it’s people but do not forget that those very same people elected Trump.

  3. Except that a majority of Americans didn’t vote for Trump and it was only because of our Electoral College system that he got elected.

  4. I enjoyed your optimism, however, since it was written in 2017 and we have had 2 more years of Trump since, I have no delusions that he will improve. He’s over 70 and set in his ways. (Perhaps more than a little senile as well.) It seems he does the most damage where he has the most power – in foreign policy. (That was what i most feared when he was elected – a very ignorant, impulsive man in control of the world’s most powerful military.) However, since the Republican Party has been so willing to abandon almost all of its so called principles to support him, I worry that the institutions of justice will be unable to hold him to account. The environment and the government infrastructure may recover when he eventually leaves, but I worry about permanent damage to the Justice Department and our political support of the rule of law. He has created a numbness to abuse of power that didn’t exist in Nixon’s time. When Nixon’s abuses were revealed, even Republicans were appalled and disgusted. Today Trump’s much worse abuses of power and obstruction of justice, treasonous cooperation with our adversaries, and profit taking from his office have gotten a collective shrug of “so what?” Or worse, political allies try to deny the obviously true evidence revealed by Trump’s own words. He seems to be setting us back to the days of Andrew Jackson. Will it take us another almost 2 hundred years to crawl back to a day when we might once again respect and cherish the rule of law and realize that compromise is the only way to govern?

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