On American Exceptionalism

What if we said that on paper and on principle, America is exceptional, but in practice, we have a little more work to do?

The sparring that has been going on since Russian president Vladimir Putin questioned the concept of “American exceptionalism” has caused this writer some deep thought. Certainly, it is good to be an American, and to live in America, but that doesn’t mean that one cannot and will not look at the areas where our ideals and our praxis contradict each other.

The contradiction between ideal and praxis was created even as our founding documents were created. The phrase “all men are created equal” was certainly an idea which, if meant, would have created an exceptional nation because nations in general were more apt to create and thrive on societies in which all people were not, in fact, equal. The very idea that we would want to be a nation where that reality would not be our model …made us exceptional.

But from the beginning there was a problem. All men were NOT created equal, the Founding Fathers decided. Equality was relegated to white, male landowners. Everyone else was …well, not so equal after all.

As time went on, in spite of our being a democracy, meaning to this writer at least, that the words of the Founding Fathers should at least be our guiding principle, it was clear that we were not a democracy in the way those words suggested. In fact, there began to be a real struggle between “virtual democracy” and “virulent demagoguery,” according to Chip Berlet and the late Margaret Quigley.  The diversity that democracy would presumably have supported began to be feared and despised, even as more and more different ethnic groups populated our country.  Pat Buchanan, not all that long ago, wrote, “The burning issue here has almost nothing to do with economics and almost everything to do with race and ethnicity. If British subjects, fleeing a depression, were pouring into this country through Canada, there would be few alarms. The central objection to the present flood of illegals is they are not English-speaking white people from Western Europe; they are Spanish-speaking brown and black people from Mexico, Latin America and the Caribbean. (“The Theocratic Right” in Eyes Right , edited by Chip Berlet, p. 38) Buchanan is also to have said, “The world hails democracy in principle; in practice, most men believe there are things higher in the order of value – among them, tribe and nation, family and faith.” (p. 38) Berlet notes in his essay that “with white racial nationalism, democracy was seriously challenged. With its anti-elitist, egalitarian assumptions, democracy did not appeal to the reactionary rightists of the 1920s, who insisted that the U.S. was not a democracy but a representative republic.”  Many Americans on the Right, asserts Berlet, “exhibit a deep disdain for democracy.”

If Berlet’s assertions are true, how, then, can a nation which espouses to be a democracy but within which there is a sizeable group of people with a disdain for the very things democracy is supposed to be about, be…exceptional?

Perhaps it is this disdain for democracy that is guiding the Congress to do things like cutting $40 billion from the food stamp program, apparently not caring that the numbers of hungry people in this nation are growing daily?  How are we an exceptional when we have the highest rate of incarceration in the world? We, the United States, lock up more people per capita than anybody in the world, including the two most totalitarian states in the world, Russia and China, according to Bill Kleiber, of Restorative Justice Ministries of America.  We have five percent of the population in the world, according to Rebecca Robertson, ACLU, Texas, “but we have 25 percent of the incarcerated population of the world.”

We have heard of the growing chasm between the rich and poor here.  That sort of chasm is not supposed to be extant in a democracy, is it? If “all men are created equal,” then somewhere, something is wrong, right?

Many Americans feel that with growing diversity here, they are being marginalized. Sara Diamond writes in “The Christian Right Seeks Dominion,” that “evangelical Christians …feel they are being persecuted by secular society.” Well, when one feels persecuted, one fights back, and that truth begs one to wonder if what we see going on in Congress is part of that fighting back, a fierce determination to stop all this dribble about this nation being a democracy and to pull it back to its roots of being …just like other nations which make no bones about not being “democratic.”

Frederick Clarkson writes in his essay “Christian Reconstructionalism” that there are a fair number of people who are involved in strategically trying to make America less “democratic” and more “theocratic,” a nation which will live by “Biblical principles” where the inequality of people is a staple. He quotes a Rev.  Joseph Morecraft, who believes in Reconstructionism, as saying democracy “is mob rule,” and that the purpose of civil government is to “terrorize evil-doers…The purpose of government,” according to Morecraft, is to “protect the church of Jesus Christ.” (p. 76, Eyes Right)

It seems that we agree on one thing: that government should protect – but the issue, the divide, seems to be agreement on who or what should be protected. It seems to this writer that government should protect its people, its citizens. Government should  find ways to help empower people, not keep them under the government’s thumb. That feels like government “of the people, by the people and for the people,” as our beloved President Abraham Lincoln said in his Gettysburg address. But the issue is that for some, that is democratic dribble.  For some, the purpose of government is to protect the church of Jesus Christ – which to them is a church which supports and defends inequality – in the name of religion.

Americans, it seems, are a little ambiguous when it comes to their agreeing whether or not America is exceptional. A Pew Research survey taken in 2011 had 48 percent of Americans questioned saying that America was exceptional and 42 percent saying…um, not so much. The poll also indicated a significant difference in the way younger and older Americans responded. According to an article on CNN.com, “The poll indicated a wide generational divide, with 65% of those 65 and older saying the U.S was the world’s greatest country. But that number dropped to 50% for those 35-64 and to 34% for people 18-34. There was also a partisan divide, with 63% of Republicans saying the U.S. was the greatest country in the world. That number dropped to 46% among Democrats and 41% among independent.”  (http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2013/09/12/polls-is-america-exceptional/?iref=allsearch)

At the end of the day, we will all define “exceptionalism” by our own set of standards, values and beliefs. This writer struggles with the notion of America being exceptional when there are so many people living in poverty, hungry, without health care…and us having a Congress which apparently does not realize that or care about it.  The values this writer ascribes to just don’t seem to gel with values where the quest for profit trumps the needs of human beings. This writer is deeply disturbed about the rate of incarceration, the fact that many children are hungry and can only get fair to good nutrition at school. This writer is saddened that public education is in many places under attack, and that prisons for profit are being in record numbers, with empty beds waiting for tenants, while it is getting more and more expensive for students to go to college, or for some students, in college, to stay there, because of cuts made in funding for Parent Student Loans and the reduction of Pell grant awards.

The ideal of democracy is good on paper. If we practiced it, we would indeed be exceptional. Unfortunately, for this writer, the fact that for too many of us, “democracy” means more the ability to partake in capitalism than it does to care for people who are suffering.

Democracy should be “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” It doesn’t feel like that’s the kind of nation we live in.

A candid observation …


“American Exceptionalism” Questioned

, U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania.
, U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I listened to Rick Santorum today bow out of the GOP race to capture the nomination for president of the United States, and was uncomfortable.

His speech was eloquent and sensitive to many wonderful Americans who helped make his campaign special for him. He spoke with genuine tenderness and love for “ordinary Americans” who had sacrificed much to work for his success.

But as he lapsed into speaking of America and what it stands for, speaking of “American exceptionalism” and the ideals of liberty and freedom on which this country was built, I began to be uncomfortable…because it is apparent to me that when Conservatives talk about “liberty” and “equality” for all, they don’t really mean “for all.”

Santorum mentioned Abraham Lincoln as the harbinger of the ideal of freedom, and I found myself wondering if Santorum realized, or knew, that Lincoln only issued the Emancipation Proclamation to save the Union, and that he in no way thought “negroes,” as black people were called then, were equal to whites, or should ever be considered to be so.

I thought about how Santorum, and indeed, many to most Conservatives, make little to no effort to appeal to African-Americans. I do not think I have ever heard a Republican speak out against discrimination in housing and employment; I have not heard any Conservative talk about plans to increase funds for public schools in urban areas, and I know I have never heard any Conservative talk about the problem of police brutality and the injustice that black, brown and poor people consistently endure at the hands of law enforcement.

Santorum’s early campaign statements showed that he believes that African-Americans are “getting other people’s’ money,” and he wanted to help them (us) stop doing that.

Actually, it was by listening to some of Santorum’s statements during his campaign that I really began to understand the Conservative beef about taxes. I picked up a real resentment amongst Conservatives that “their” tax dollars are going to help people who are lazy and who will not help themselves.

As he talked about how America built itself up from its bootstraps today, he failed to mention that it was by the blood, sweat and tears of slaves that America’s economy grew. African-Americans, denied freedom in these United States, went willingly into America’s wars to help garner freedom for other people in other countries, and when said wars were over, they found they were still “unfree” here at home. Returning African-American veterans still couldn’t get loans to buy homes, they still couldn’t depend on funds being sent to their neighborhoods so their children could get a decent education. They were still second-class citizens.

This is a nation that overtly supported racism and segregation – through its laws and policies – and still supports it, though more covertly. This is a nation where far too many people still believe that this is a “white man’s country,” and they do what they can do, legally, to keep it that way.

So, as Mr. Santorum talked about “American exceptionalism,” I cringed. I cringed because I know that the writers of the U.S. Constitution had no desire for there to be “liberty and justice for all;” they did not believe that everyone was or should be equal. They believed in democratic capitalism, which, it seems, demands that there be “haves” and “have nots.”  The fittest survive and thrive; that’s the nature of the beast.

I am not sad to see Mr. Santorum drop out of the race. I feel for him as a father with a sick child, but as an American who might have been president of this nation, I cannot feel bad. Any person who is president has to have the chutzpah to stand up for everybody, to demand the rights of everyone, and to look out for everyone. This is, after all, a pluralistic nation,”many people” living as “American.”

I never felt Mr. Santorum bought into that idea. I felt like his privilege had blinded him and made him just one more arrogant white man, seeking office, who didn’t care about “the least of these” if they happened to be the wrong color or ethnicity.

I could be wrong, but it was my own…candid observation.


Making it In Spite of and Not Because Of

Lincoln Submitting the Emancipation Proclamati...
Lincoln Submitting the Emancipation Proclamation to His Cabinet (Photo credit: Marion Doss)

Martin Luther King wrote in 1964 that although President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil War had been won for the Union, “there was not a just peace. Equality had never arrived.”

And still, equality hasn’t.

King, in his introduction to Why We Can’t Wait wrote that “Negroes were with George Washington at Valley Forge…the first American to shed blood in the revolution which freed his country was a black man named Crispus Attucks.”  King wrote that one of the team who designed the capital of this nation was a black man, Benjamin Banneker…”

“Wherever there was hard work, dirty work, dangerous work – in the mines, on the docks, in the blistering foundries – Negroes had done more than their share…”

And still, no justice, and little respect.

There can be little doubt, as we watch the goings on in the Trayvon Martin case, that the struggle for African-Americans to get justice in this country is still not over. In this particular case, race is not the only issue; Florida’s “stand your ground” law is equally culpable in having created the mess with which the Martin family is facing. Yet, there is a seething rage among blacks and an uncomfortable acknowledgement among whites that if the shooter had been black, and the victim white, the story unfolding would be vastly different.

I have long come to understand that blacks have made the gains we have in this country not because this is America but in spite of the fact that this is America. The presence of structural and institutional racism, even in the absence of stark and obvious racism, has made every step African-Americans have taken very difficult, and yet, African-Americans have pressed on. We have used the United States Constitution even though that document was never meant to secure or guarantee our freedoms or even our right to be here.

The parents of Trayvon Martin are to be commended, because they are standing on their constitutional rights and are demanding justice.  Interestingly, even when the United States Supreme Court has made rulings that should have made life easier and more just for African-Americans, there has been concerted effort to delay honoring the high court’s ruling; after Brown vs. Board of Education, many white school districts closed their schools rather than integrate.

Yet, African-Americans pressed on for justice, just as Trayvon’s parents are pressing on.

It would be such a relief if these types of struggles were over. It would be such a relief if race didn’t still have a seat front and center in so much of American life, but it does, and we refuse to acknowledge her presence and her power in our society.

Kudos to Trayvon Martin’s parents, who refuse to give up. When everyone takes off their hoodies, I only hope that they don’t abandon their determination to make sure race-based injustice doesn’t continue to be a staple of American life. It is so past time for our story to change.

A candid observation …

Racism is as American as Apple Pie

Something hit me the other day.

Racism is as American as is apple pie.

That “apple pie” phrase has always had power when it has come to describing what America is about, hasn’t it? Baseball is American. Hot dogs are American. Democracy is American …and racism is American.

Our racism bubbles under everything we do, under everything we say and under everywhere we go.  From the beginning, racism was an American issue.  Brilliant men who wrote the United States Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, owned slaves while espousing liberty. Some of them owned slaves themselves.

Even when some of our heroes, like Abraham Lincoln, did heroic things addressing the issue of slavery, many of them still carried racist values, believing that white people were inherently superior to black people and that not even emancipation from slavery meant that one believed blacks were or could ever be equal with or to whites.

America, it seems, was intent on having a “master race,” even before Germany. America’s beliefs as concerned keeping the white race pure was so powerful that it “caught the fascination of Adolph Hitler and the Nazi movement,” writes Edwin Black in his War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race.”  Of course, the eugenics movement did not just target black people; anyone who was considered “inferior” stood the chance of being targeted from removal from American society. Thus, Black writes, one could be black, but also “Jews, Mexicans, Native Americans, epileptics, alcoholics, the mentally ill…and anyone else who did not resemble the blonde and blue-eyed Nordic ideal”  could be targeted.

But our racism, our peculiar and unique chasm between whites and blacks, is so distinctly American. Our racism is bubbling now, as it always does, as the nation reels from the report of the tragic shooting of Trayvon Martin, but it has always bubbled. I cringe at the subtle and not-so-subtle racist jabs at President and Mrs. Obama. They have been there from the time the president took office. Mean-spirited jabs are called “jokes,” with those who are saying or spreading those things vehemently denying they are racist.

The racist belief that all black people, or too many black people, are lazy, continues to feed a society, too many of whom believe the hype, and causing otherwise intelligent people, like Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich, to say the most insulting things about black people and the (lack of a) work ethic of black people.

Racism keeps urban schools in the state they are in, with school boards, politicians, and individuals alike finding reasons not to provide adequate funding for public schools that are not fit for human habitation, for needed books and computers. The prevailing thought, points out Jonathan

Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth President of th...
Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth President of the United States. Latviešu: Abrahams Linkolns, sešpadsmitais ASV prezidents. Српски / Srpski: Абрахам Линколн, шеснаести председник Сједињених Америчких Држава. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

in his Savage Inequalities is that poor (primarily black) children cannot learn, so there is no need to throw money into building better schools for them or paying a little more for better teachers for them.

Racism allows injustice against African-Americans, especially African-American males, to continue to exist, with the same  politicians and individuals who do not want to “throw money” into building better schools for poor black children thinking nothing of throwing literally hundreds of thousands of dollars into building bigger and better prisons – for profit.

Racism has been behind the “war on drugs” as author Michelle Alexander points out in The New Jim Crow, making it commonplace to arrest and incarcerate black and brown people for addiction to crack cocaine, while virtually ignoring the explosion of prescription drug abuse by wealthy white people.

Racism bubbles beneath us; it is like an infected, festering sore. While overt discrimination is for the most part gone, the covert discrimination, the belief that black people are “objects” to be dealt with and ignored, still exists. In the Trayvon Martin case, accused shooter George Zimmerman reportedly said, “they” always “get away with it.” The “they” would mean young, black men, one might suppose. Zimmerman said young Trayvon looked “suspicious.” The fact is, for many white people, no matter how an African-American is dressed, he looks suspicious.

So, yes, we have some wonderful things that are “as American as apple pie: hot dogs, football, democracy and Superman, the NFL, the Superbowl, the World Series.” Those things make us smile.

But racism has its own place in the list of all things American. And from the look and feel  of things, it’s not likely to lose its place in line any time soon.

A candid observation…

What to Do with African-Americans?

While the country girds up for this 2012 presidential election, I found myself last night thinking of how far America has to go when it comes to her African-American citizens.

I was in a roomful of people, primarily African-American. At issue was a discussion of changes that will take place in their neighborhood. A housing development is slated to be demolished, and residents are being relocated. There was some anger, some cynicism, and some resentment. For me, though, there was sadness.

America is always trying to figure out what to do with “them,” African-Americans. That “them” includes me.

I said to the person sitting next to me, “Why is it that it’s always African-Americans who are displaced?”  Interstate highways have traditionally been run through African-American neighborhoods. When gentrification becomes a standard in a city, again, African-Americans, primarily, but also anyone who is unlucky to live in the path of urban renewal districts, get relocated.

It doesn’t feel right.

There was a huge effort by the people handling the community forum to comfort and encourage the residents, but I could tell it wasn’t really “taking.” “What is the plan you have for our neighborhood?” asked one woman. “Where are you locating us? Where are the people who have already been relocated?” asked another.

I found myself getting sadder and sadder, and also wondering what I’d feel like if I were about to be relocated, God only knows where. What would I feel like if the only home I’d ever known was going to be demolished? There is a connection people have between their homes and their neighborhoods, and their very selves. When that is disturbed, people lose an important anchor, and all of us need anchors that we can depend on, no matter what.

One woman stood up and invited all of the people in that room – about 200 or so – to visit her neighborhood, to see that it was and is a good neighborhood, and so are its residents, those who remain. There was pain in her voice. As she talked, she held her little girl,who looked at her with the widest eyes, as if waiting to see the sign that her mommy needed to be comforted.

It seems that “we,” African-Americans, are always the negotiable portion of any deal. It’s OK to go to our neighborhoods, it’s OK to uproot us…and as the wheels of progress turn, it seems that, far too often, America is wondering what to do with “us.”

This apparent inability to appreciate African-Americans and to wonder what to do with “them” (us)  unless they (we) are helping to build this economy has a history to it; our beloved President Abraham Lincoln wondered if, after the Civil War, we might be willing to be shipped back to Africa.

After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, there was “the question” again: what do we do with “them,” the poor African-Americans who have lost everything?

It feels like we’re still regarded as chattel,and it doesn’t feel good.

At the end of the day, the people in this neighborhood in my city will be “moved,” and the planned development will go on as planned. The planners promise to include those in the neighborhood as they actually do make the plan and put it into place. That’s nice. That’s good and right…but last night I didn’t feel any spirit of gratitude in that room.

The little girl whose mother spoke clung to her mother’s hand as they left the meeting, and as I watched them, I found myself whispering to myself, “Hold on, little girl, and grow up to know your worth and your power.” I wondered why I whispered that, and I guess it’s because I feel that still, way too many of “them” (us) don’t know our worth and power. And so we continue to be moved, shuffled, escorted out of the way of the American dream.

It’s as though our dreams don’t matter, and it feels like we as a people have bought into that ethos. If we don’t dream, the let-down won’t hurt so bad.

The heck with that. We need to dream more, and dream with audacity and tenacity, so that in the future, the planners-that-be won’t be able to move us as easily as they have in the past.

Enough is enough.

A candid observation …