Trump and Learning from My Crises

This is not about my personal crises. It’s about the national crises I’ve witnessed in my seventy and three-quarters years as a human being and an American. Or maybe it’s all personal. Let’s see. And lets also see what perspective these crises give us today.

Soon after my fourth birthday, North Korea invaded South Korea, and then the United Nations sent troops (most of them American) to push back the invasion. I could see the worry on my parents’ faces, largely because my brother (15 years older than me) would be drafted. He did go, and returned unharmed, but I never understood what we were fighting for.

The bigger crisis of the 1950’s, one I felt in the fear around me and the bullying I saw on our new television, was McCarthyism. In my Philadelphia neighborhood of row houses filled with three generations of Jews who understood persecution, Senator Joseph McCarthy and his lists of American Communist traitors scared us more than the war in Korea. The working-class adults I knew merely whispered about McCarthy in their homes, but some more prominent Americans, like newscaster Walter Cronkite and Army lawyer Joseph Welch stood up to McCarthy, and he shriveled into history.

And then came the 1960’s. My cohort had been taught throughout the 1950’s and early ’60’s that the United States stood for what was good. We fought only just, legal wars and only when we had to. We believed that all were entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But by the middle of the decade, our government was sending troops halfway around the world to kill and be killed in a war that was neither declared by Congress nor authorized by the United Nations. Our leaders justified the war based on the domino theory: If we let one tiny nation in Southeast Asia dcecide to “go Communist,” the others would follow. So much for self-determination.

north-vietnamese-shot-in-headAnd on our televisions, we saw African-American men, women and children beaten and killed for wanting to vote, eat in restaurants, use clean facilities, and have equal access to education.

Many in my cohort felt betrayed, lied to, and we tuned in, turned on, and dropped out. Yet we never became so numb that we forgot about the Cuban missile crisis, the assassinations of Medgar Evers, James Reeb, John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, and those four students at Kent State. We were sickened further by the riots in the urban ghettos and the police response to them and to the Black Panther movement and the Chicago demonstrators.

The 1960’s also brought social change: women’s liberation, loosening of sexual norms, a wider acceptance of marijuana and psychedelics, and a clash of the generations. The photo above, in our daily papers and in video on our nightly TV news programs, shows a South Vietnamese officer performing a sidewalk execution on a Viet Cong prisoner. On the other hand, censors cut the video below, a Harry Belafonte medley set to newsreel footage, from the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.

It was a tough time to be living through one’s teenage and young adult years. Two of my friends from the counterculture neighborhood of Philadelphia, where I lived in the mid-’60’s, are now serving life sentences for different first-degree murders. Another, my cousin, pleaded guilty to two counts of fourth-degree murder and later hung himself in his jail cell. A close friend lost her life in a stabbing as she tried to do her part in the civil right movement.

So let’s move on to the 1970’s. As surprising as it was to learn that a pompous President had commissioned a cheap burglary for petty reasons and then covered up his involvement, Watergate was minor in contrast to the McCarthyism of the ’50’s and the general turmoil of the ’60’s. In retrospect, what Gerald Ford called a “long national nightmare” was more like a badly told joke.

What followed Watergate was a period that deceptively felt free of major crises. Of course, we fought more undeclared wars, but they are a crisis only for those whose lives are lost or shattered, and we had professionalized our armed services. We had economic upheavals, but they are a crisis only for those who lose their jobs or their savings, and the rest of us tend not to care. We covered the earth with more concrete and asphalt, dumped more waste into the air and water, and released enough carbon dioxide to begin changing the climate, but too few noticed.

Deregulation, along with pubic apathy, chipped away at many of the financial and administrative advances of the 1960’s, and that decade’s social upheavals still simmered below the surface. September 11, 2001, brought us briefly together, and then things fell apart.

To make a long story a little shorter, increased polarization led to the election of a narcissistic psychopath, a so-called President. And that brings us to the current crisis, which at first I thought I could endure with Buddhist equanimity. But the first few days of the Trump Administration led me more toward Engaged Buddhism, which calls on us to blend meditation and mindfulness with social action.

As I look back on our past crises, I realize two things:

  • Despite everything the United States has been through since my birth, this seems worse.
  • It seems worse because it has led me to reexamine what it means to be an American.

I had thought that most of my fellow citizens agreed on the core values of inclusion and mutual respect…that most of us welcomed our diversity. Maybe I was misled by the idealism of the 1960’s. Maybe our nation is still paying the price for never having come to terms with our genocide against Native Americans, with our enslavement of Africans, with our sexist and hierarchical roots.

In his op-ed article Who Are We?, conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat opened my eyes to a competing view of America based on a “settler culture, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant, that demand(s) assimilation to its norms.” Douthat was not advocating for that culture to prevail but instead suggesting that progressives need to understand and leave room for that part of our nation’s history as we forge a new American narrative.

That doesn’t change my commitment to an inclusive nation, but it does help me see why the way forward has become so much harder than I realized it would be.

— Mel Pine (Urgyen Jigme)

Copyright 2017 © Mel Harkrader Pine

5 Comments Add yours

  1. I read the Op-Ed and I also found it a bit disturbing. I was born in 1965 so I don’t really remember the 60s, just a few snapshot memories here and there.

    While I feel the same way you do about being an American, now, I remember having to learn to value diversity. It didn’t come naturally, at least not to me. I learned from parents, teachers, and peers. I made mistakes in learning and was allowed to; I wasn’t shamed or ostracized or shut down when I made an ignorant or even racist comment. Instead, I was patiently taught differently.

    I am wondering if this sort of learning to value diversity in schools has been lost, or, for many people, was never really there to start with. I went to school in a middle class suburb that had a university nearby. Maybe an environment that enables children to grow up learning to value diversity is and always has been limited to more liberal areas.

    I’m less pessimistic than Douthat, however, about the ability to include the older narratives of American history in a more modern, updated, inclusive narrative. I believe we can co-exist. Demographically, I should be a Republican. I’m an upper-middle-class cis straight white woman with English and German ancestry, on the English side going back to some DAR ladies, Ivy League educated, married for 20 years to my first husband, who is the father of our two children. I was also a Sunday School teacher and Girl Scout Leader. I was raised Protestant and I’m still a fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder. I play the violin and my favorite composers are the dead white European males Bach, Brahms, and Beethoven.

    But even with all that, I don’t feel excluded by the new diverse America. I feel like there’s plenty of room for me too. My black friends don’t blame me for slavery, my Jewish friends don’t blame me for the Holocaust, and I don’t blame myself. When they talk about these wrongs, and what’s needed to right them, I don’t take it personally. Why should I? I feel like we are all in this together and we have to move forward, not backward.

    I think the David Frum Atlantic article, “What Effective Protest Could Look Like” offers some food for thought about a way forward. The suggestions that I found particularly resonant were things having to do with reclaiming symbols of America for non-right-wing-extremists. Fly the flag, say the pledge of allegiance (I’d leave the McCarthy-appeasement “under God” out of the pledge, but that’s a quibble), honor and highlight sympathetic members of the military and law enforcement. I think that the Democratic Convention got it mostly right. They were sunny, optimistic, patriotic. They had the Khans and William Barber speaking. I think if the election had been held right after the conventions there would have been a different outcome.

    It angers me that right-wing yahoos have co-opted basic American symbols like the flag and the pledge, and that they think they have some special connection to the police and the military. We should take all that back. I don’t even think it would be that hard. Most of us Democrats, Greens, and Independents are patriots and love our country.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. melhpine says:

      Thanks for your thoughts, Karen. As always, I appreciate them. I can’t see what this would look like, but I have this feeling that the way for any culture to survive and be healthy is to have pride in itself, warts and all. Maybe this is too idealist, but I wonder of there’s a way to acknowledge and accept the warts as a communal part of us. I didn’t enslave anyone. In fact, my maternal grandmother was a sort of slave as a child in Eastern Europe. But the nation I call my own was founded on slavery and the rights only of landholding males. We need to raise that up from footnote status.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I’m not sure I agree about “founded on slavery.” I don’t really know what that even means. I think saying something like “the US economy could not have existed the way it was without slavery” or “the unacknowledged forced labor of enslaved African people helped build many American institutions,” gets at some specific ideas, but “founded on slavery” is too vague and too negative. It leaves out all the good things about this country and the contributions of non-slaves to its founding.

    I’m not sure where I want to go with this idea, but I think there might be a spiritual way forward to “acknowledge and accept the warts as a communal part of us.” Christianity talks about original sin and a fallen world. I don’t personally feel much kinship with those ideas, but I do feel resonance with the ideas of yin and yang, creation and destruction, cycles, the Force, Jung’s shadow–all traditions that have in common the interplay between dark and light forces at work in the universe and within all of us. No nation, including America, is exempt from this conflict, and from having a dark side. But also, no nation or people is exceptional or special–not especially good, not especially evil. Anyone can be the shining city on the hill, or the totalitarian nightmare, depending on which wolf they feed.

    I suppose that gets me into trouble, being on the record as against “American exceptionalism,” but I think American exceptionalism is a bad idea that deserves to be put away. I don’t think any country, any nation on earth, could ethically or responsibly wield the power that the US has taken.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. melhpine says:

    Judaism has a communal confession once a year on Yom Kippur. “We have….” I’ve been thinking about that lately. I agree with you on “American exceptionalism,” but I do think that slavery was one of the biggest political as well as economic forces that guided the formation of the Union.

    Liked by 1 person

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