Over the last few weeks, my faith in the the American experiment finally crumbled.
It was a long time coming.
Any student of history can easily look up the vast quantities of heinous shit that our country has perpetrated in the past. Any student of politics can tell you how perilous and tenuous our democratic system really is. Any student of morals can point to the various and sundry ways that American culture is toxic. Anyone with a knowledge of healthcare can tell you that our nation’s system is backward. Any serious economist knows our blind worship of unfettered capitalism is dangerous. Any student of warfare can point to the various tactical and strategic errors America has made over the past thirty years. Anyone even passingly familiar with the concept of race relations knows that America is now and always has been a culture with deep roots in racism and xenophobia. And any world traveler looks with pity and some degree of disturbed awe at America’s fantastic ability to cover all of our problems up with a quick fanfare of the Star Spangled Banner and the rhetoric of heroism we trot out at every possible occasion.
And then layer on the fact that our nation somehow elected Donald Trump, possibly the worst qualified individual to gain the presidency in the past hundred and fifty years, and who, as numerous former members of his own staff including General Mattis have attested, works at every opportunity to divide the country and twist us for his own goals while dismantling our democratic culture brick by brick.
So no, I wasn’t in great shape in terms of my views of my country even before the past few months of botched pandemic responses, conspiracy theories, and near-misses at new wars.
Jesus fucking Christ, somehow the murder George Floyd and subsequent police brutality managed to top all of that.
I have lost track of the various atrocities our own police forces have committed in just the past two weeks. Completely lost track. Oh, certain events swim to the top of my mind when I think about it, don’t get me wrong.
The violent and unlawful clearing of Lafayette Park so Trump could have a photo op holding a Bible in front of a church, when the church’s own priest was gassed and pushed out of the way so that he could do so.
The knockdown of an elderly man by riot police in Buffalo, resulting in his subsequent hospitalization. He bled from his head on the ground, hands twitching, as officers wandered by.
The assaults on journalists. Oh, so many assaults on journalists. A lady lost an eye, camera men are routinely attacked, media are forcibly shoved and battered away from filming abuse.
The Denver police pelting a car with tear gas, while a man screams that his pregnant wife is inside and begs them to stop.
And so many, many Black people arrested, shot, beaten, and gassed just for existing at a protest and exercising their 1st Amendment rights.
But honestly it all blurs together now. And all that was left for me was the final disillusionment; the final realization that there are no institutions immune from the malaise sweeping our nation, no controls left, no real guarantee of anyone’s rights, no public officials who can ride to the rescue, no recourse, no further lies we can tell to shield us from ourselves.
And I am ashamed to be an American.
I mentioned this to my wife tonight. Laid it all out. And she looked at me with the most curious expression on her face and said, with slow and deliberate words… “Yes. But that’s every country, sometimes.”
And that one shook me because, of course, she’s right. She usually is. Every country that has ever existed or will ever exist goes through its times of turmoil, its moments of peril, its periods of gross hypocrisy and ludicrous failure. Every country that exists today has problems, serious problems, systemic problems, that it seems unable to cope with. Every country has its moments of terrible action. Because, of course, all nations are peopled by people and that’s what people DO. From time to time.
But people also build up good systems. People also fight for equality and truth. People also demand justice. People also work for a better world. Everything that we lost is so painful because we lost it. Some of us never had it as much as others. But damn it, we were getting better, slowly and painfully.
We are in a crisis point for our nation. There’s simply no two ways about it. In my usual activity on this site I write an ongoing blog called the Modern Survival Guide, and I can safely say, in the vernacular of that series, that this is a survival moment. What we do in this moment will define our nation, and our lives, for decades.
There are only a couple of options.
We either demand accountability from those who are sworn to our service as officers of the peace and officials of government, or we don’t.
The first path will take us down a huge debate, touching many aspects of our nation and our lives. It will be uncomfortable, but it will purge us as fire cauterizes a wound. The second path will further enable the authoritarian, reactionary elements of our society and we will lose everything else. Maybe not today, or tomorrow, or the day after that, but we will be on a path which will be increasingly hard to turn from.
We MUST demand accountability. We MUST demand the rule of law. We MUST demand responsibility from those who would claim the status of “civil servant.”
And we MUST do this NOW.
Democracy is not about passivity in the face of violence and injustice. Democracy is not about the shielding of those in authority, or the wielding of unlimited power by those with the biggest sticks. Democracy is about making sure that government is legitimate, lawful, and responsive.
If we’ve learned anything, anything at all, from the past three years, it’s that our democracy is a reflection of our culture. Our institutions do not save us, or at least cannot save us for long, not on their own. Our laws are malleable, and bend to the will of the powerful. Our norms of governance are shredded at the slightest provocation. These are all separate and serious problems, badly in need of their own solutions, but right now we can do something about the culture, because from the culture flows everything else.
We MUST rebuild our democratic culture. Because it is in a sad state of disrepair. And all it takes to do so is for those of us who care to make that care manifest. We outnumber the haters. We outnumber the corrupt. We outnumber the shitty cops. We outnumber the authoritarian psychos. The good people always outnumber the bastards. We just sometimes forget it.
And so my advice is simple: act. Act however you can. And act now.
Go to protests. Wear your mask, but go to protests and show support for the rule of law and the ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all people, all races, and especially for Black people in this moment. Go to protests and remind people that the lives of our countrymen matter. The whiter you are, the safer you are, so white people, go to protests.
Contribute to legal funds. The protesters are racking up a staggering number of complaints against the police forces, many of them justified. But filing a complaint and being able to pay for a lawsuit are very different things, and our “justice” system favors the rich and the cops. Add to the resources of the wronged.
Speak up! Do not let the reactionaries and so-called defenders of law and order have the final say. Engage across all media platforms. Challenge your peers. Do not stand for what-aboutism or gaslighting. Do not stand for authoritarian ideals. This is a war of ideas, first and foremost, and your weapons are your words. Use them.
Document, document, document. You have a smartphone, so use it. Samsung and Apple didn’t spend billions developing multi-megapixel cameras for nothing. If you see some shit going down, record it and provide the footage to the victim. Stream it and provide it to the media, with the victim’s permission. Show the world what is happening and contribute to the evidence pile.
Help people with medical bills. There are a ton of Go Fund Me pages popping up to aid protesters who caught a bad case of angry cop. Medical care is ruinous in this country. Help people get through it.
Call your local officials. Let your town council, your mayor, your police chief know that you expect them to honor their vows and that you expect accountability. No officer should ever hide their badge, because no officer should ever do anything for which they might need to shield their identity, and if they do, they’re no longer a peace officer and they no longer deserve the badge.
Shame the bastards. We’re past the stage of polite respect for the identities of those who would abuse the foundations of our nation. Put their names out there.
Call your representatives. Let your Congressmen know that you support accountability in law enforcement. Let your Congressmen know that Black Lives Matter. Let your Congressmen know that they must act when law enforcement fails so spectacularly, abuses their sacred trust, and hides their badges to avoid responsibility. Drop them emails. Leave them notes on social media. Be heard.
AND FOR GOD’S SAKE, VOTE! Vote the bastards out. Vote the good people in, and defend their seats. Vote like your lives depend on it, because they do.
Our democracy isn’t dead. Our ideals aren’t dead. They can’t die. They are immortal concepts of truth, justice, and liberty. America is not the shining city on the hill, not anymore, and indeed it’s hard to say we ever were. But for so much of our history we were better. Better overall. Better than most other places. Better for most of us, and actively working towards being better for all. Maybe “better” is the best we can ever do. But then, perfection is ever the enemy of good.
We must rebuild our nation’s ideals. Come what may, we must rebuild. Though are hearts are heavy, and our memories filled with horror, we must rebuild.
Our democracy isn’t dead. We will not let it die. We cannot let it die, not and live with ourselves. So rebuild it. Brick by brick. The mortar is blood and the pain of treachery, the bricks are our sweat and tears and agony as we watch what has become of our once-great nation. So be it. Brick by brick by brick. We are not done. We are not dead. We have all the resolve and strength of will we will ever need, or ever feel.
I have no more faith in America-That-Was. That faith was shattered by the panicked reactions of powerful men, the ignorant bluster of fallen gods, the brutality of those who are sworn to peace. America-That-Was is gone.
But I have hope in America-That-Can-Be.