I spent quite a bit of time on the deep problems we have as a culture. They are the source of a lot of the hate and fear that we have of each other. This is not a nice state for any society, nor is this sustainable. In time our current condition can lead to a hot civil war. But we still have time to turn away from that fate, and indeed this is what Joe Biden wants to do. However, we cannot leave the necessary work to just the president-elect, and the rest of us need to do some of the necessary work,
We also have good aspects of American culture, and those could be the basis to rebuild civil society. So while things look dark at the moment, as many Donald Trump fans continue to trust the plan and talk a little revolution, there are points of light all over the culture. We need to encourage civil, peaceful, conversations that will lead to a more equitable society. It is the key to lowering the temperature since a lot of the distress involves a lot of people who were left behind by the economy of the last two generations. This cooperation across the culture is also in the American DNA, but it is suppressed by both media narratives and a resurgent right-wing. The current pandemic could also serve as a basis to building community as we all support each other, This is one reason I suspect the right-wing rejected science and Donald Trump rejected the kind of leadership he is not capable of enacting.
Let’s explore these good things in the culture because we need to encourage the green sprouts coming out of the gentle earth. We need to understand that not all that ails us can be seen as purely negative or purely positive. There are many shades of gray and even opposing views of the world.
A Progressive Religious Tradition
The fundamentalist religious right has been ascendant for many years and has become a symbol of religion in the United States. It is one reason younger people are repelled by religion, However, there is a progressive religious tradition that embraces both a deep sense of community and scientific knowledge. The fundamentalist far-right religious tradition is at its core toxic. It denies the polity and, in the Christian tradition, developed the prosperity gospel. However, the progressive liberal practices embrace principles of cooperation and acceptance of all in a deep way. They also seize concepts of social equity and social justice. Many of these traditions also do not see a conflict between a life of deep faith and scientific truth. For most of these traditions climate change is real, and we need to protect the earth because it is the ultimate creation and it was entrusted to us.
Whether it is Conservative and Reform Judaism, or the Universalist Church, or Jesuits, many of these traditions also acknowledge the preservation of life and the dignity of human life. This is why many of these traditions have had no issue in holding services over zoom during the pandemic. Full disclosure I am a member of a conservative temple, and services have been held over zoom since almost the beginning. I am hardly that observant, to be honest, but this is how the temple has done its necessary work.
As I pointed out in a recent piece, compare this with the fundamentalist right, which refuses the pandemic’s reality and continues to defy health orders. They are showing neither grace nor leadership. In the process, people are dying, but in my view, the collection plate is all that matters. This same fundamentalist right is driving many Americans away from any faith or at least organized religion. Their actions are shameful, and they are leaving a lot of people adrift. Nor is this limited to the Christian right. The same process is also happening with Orthodox Judaism or at least some flavors of it.
If you believe in a god, or you need a sense of belonging, consider any of this left of center progressive temples and churches. They are engaged in a religious project that is very different from their counterparts on the far right. They also have embraced a human project of tolerance and doing the most for the least among us. One of these missions is the revival of the Poor People campaign that goes all the way to Martin Luther King, which is essential for rebuilding an American economy that includes all of us, not just a few. These are some of the green shoots in communities of faith that could lead to a better society. Another full disclosure is in order. I do not find any organized religion essential for civil society. I belong to a temple because it is part of a community and family. But I understand for many Americans that even as we become more secular, faith is a shelter in the storm. Suffice it to say, you can join a community of faith that matches your life project.
We have elements of civil society that remain strong albeit fractured. These include the many non-governmental organizations that work to feed the hungry, clothe the unclothed, and do other necessary work. Some of these are faith-based, but not all. They include many charities that work on getting resources to people who need them. Right at the moment, food banks are growing in need that is beyond all their collected resources. I urge you if you can afford it, to make a monthly donation to your local food bank. It will help your neighbors in need immensely. Some of the people who need food may even be those you would never suspect, and many are now going to food banks who never had in the past. If you prefer to donate food, here is a convenient list of what is best,
There are other places where civil society is springing some green hoots. As much as social media has its issues, and they are manifold, it still allows people to talk to each other. At times people use it to raise funds for a good cause, which builds up civil society. These days it is also letting people keep in contact with each other. There are many reasons why social media needs reforms, among them the fact that it is used to spread conspiracy theories. However. It has the potential to do some good. Use it in this way, and avoid the poison that circulates in it,
Because of the pandemic, people are developing a newfound appreciation for teachers and the teaching profession. Now if this translates into better pay that will be a win for all. Why? It is one of a few fields that require half a decade of education, at least, for lousy pay. None goes into education to get rich, but selling plasma to keep the lights on should not be part of the deal either. Moreover, while many Americans love the cult of ignorance that persists, there are shoots of renewed respect for expertise and normalcy. Both have to be nourished and encouraged.
Those who refuse to join the rest of the nation in thanking scientists for the vaccine deserve to be shut down in the public square. They must be made into a tiny minority, as the rest of the nation moves on towards respect for expertise and better education. The pandemic is good practice for the climate emergency, and it already is an all hands on deck moment.
This brings me to the Anti Vaxxer movement, which is already out en-force on social media. They are screaming the usual uninformed dribble they like to deploy. Chiefly, they are screaming do your research, while linking to places like natural news, which is a dead give away to QAnon. The place has gone down that path over the last four years.
Empathy for the Other
As I wrote the other day, we still have large numbers of Americans that love this present cult of ignorance. A large number of Americans, 75 million or so, voted for Donald Trump. While a larger group, 82 million, voted for Joe Biden, this does not mean we are out of the woods. There is a large number of people who accept anti-intellectualism, distrust elites, and celebrate ignorance. Many of them do not believe that Biden is the president-elect. They cannot accept that Trump lost the presidency, and he does not help with his refusal to concede. He keeps pushing this idea that he won, and it’s been stolen from him. His base is sure that he will do something, including declaring martial law and refusing to leave.
In spite of the fact that all this is ridiculous, people believe it. It is also extremely dangerous. Now, let me make this crystal clear. Trump fans and most of the far-right have no empathy for the rest of the country. Republicans feel entitled to power, from a minority position, at any cost. Even if this is democracy itself. It is hard to have any empathy for people who want to kill you, or who desire (and some may very well go there) to pick up arms and go to war against the rest of the nation. However, if we are to heal as a nation we all need to take a deep breath and realize why people are doing this. It is critical that we call people out on social media because they count on no pushback, but we also need to understand why this is happening.
If we do not, we will not leave this very toxic moment and will end up in a shooting civil war. This is my fear. So there must be ways to stop this. For that to happen we all need to do a few things. The first is to call the merchants of hate out and at the very least they need to face social isolation from the rest of normal society. We know precisely who they are, and they have been at this for decades. Newt Gingrich comes to mind. The former speaker is at this time pushing conspiracies and peddling the idea that the election was stolen on Twitter. He is also speaking of how China is controlling Joe Biden and how the elites want to come after real Americans, which is code for the far-right which is mostly white. He is part of the same educated elite he is critical of. He was part of the political elite of the nation, but that is not stopping him. He will not stop until his party controls all, and the other side is destroyed. When he claims this is what Democrats want, he is projecting his own desires.
So are the majority of the Republicans in Congress. The people who follow them are watching them for cues, and every one of them is exploiting their fears and desires. Whether it is for money, in the case of the president, or raw power as Gingrich and Congressional leaders are, is beside the point. However, those who follow them must have our empathy for they are victims in a pretty dysfunctional politics. They are the marks. My empathy stops though with the Proud Boys and other white supremacy groups. They intend to kill me, and while we may be able to make progress with individuals, the groups are dangerous. This work will need to be done by law enforcement.
It is important to understand why people are angry. A large percentage of the nation lives in a parallel world. We need to wrap our heads as to why. We need to reach across and allay the fears of most of these people. Some will not be reached, and a few already reject the American democratic system. But not all will. There are a few that will never join the rest of us in reality, but to the majority, we need to reach them. In rescuing them, we protect ourselves.
The End of American Mythology
This is a critical point. Many Americans, especially from groups such as people of color, first people;s and immigrant groups, are aware that the United States has an ugly history. We need to study this history and no longer hide from it. We also need to get away from American exceptionalism, which is an opening for Western Chauvinism. Our democracy is under threat because of this toxic nationalism, among other reasons. The United States came out of the Civil War and into westward expansion with a powerful idea for a colonizing project. We were exceptional. This concept has not left the United States, even after the age of American expansion has come to an end. The western frontier is still part of modern-day myth-making. . It is at the heart of the American century, and still remains as a reason for being. This is at the heart of our internal belief system, even if it is no longer actionable in foreign affairs.
There are many things that make the United States special. Don’t get me wrong. It is the earliest modern-day democracy and has a remarkable history of a peaceful transfer of power. However, this also allows Americans to practice self-delusion and ignore parts of our history that are far more pedestrian and include genocide. This is at the heart of the fight the far-right has with the 1619 project. They hate the idea that the country has to come to terms with some ugly history. This is not the history we generally speaking acknowledge because it destroys the fiction of exceptionalism in an instant.
As a society, we will need to do a lot of work to grapple with this very uncomfortable history. We have an example of a society that embraced terrible history and taught it to their youth. This is Germany, which is not trying to deny the Holocaust, or what led to it. Yes, their far-right also denies it, but as a matter of national policy, it’s not. Like all nations, we have good elements of our history, things we should encourage in the culture. But we also have horrific events embedded in our collective story. Whether this is slavery, genocide, or colonial conquest, all of them need to be confronted and embraced. If we are to learn from these and make white supremacy all but acceptable in polite society. There are lessons for all of us to learn in these stories of oppression. Moreover, a lot of our current issues go back to this history.
In order to become a far better version of ourselves, confronting this history is needed. This is already happening. The New York Times ran that 1619 project and many schools started to adopt it. We need to do more, and we need to start now. One good example is the story of Thanksgiving. It is a heartwarming little story of people coming together and helping each other. That is worth preserving. What is usually missing is what happened twenty years later. Or for that matter what we did to first peoples over the next few centuries. Or the fact that they are still marginalized people. Indeed, during the 19th century, a good Indian was a dead Indian. This is not a line in a Hollywood movie. This was a true sentiment. We committed genocide, and unlike the German people, we continue to hide our heads in the sand about that. Which incidentally is all but exceptional. What Germans did, or were forced to by the Western Powers, is exceptional. Confronting and embracing genocides is well outside of the norm.
Removing the statues to the losing side of the civil war is also a good step. In that sense we are exceptional. Celebrating the losing side of a civil war is usually not done. Nor is embracing the lost cause as if it had any valid grievance, or flying the flag of the losing side proudly. The lost cause needs to be banished from the United States. However, that will not happen until we confront slavery and the history of lynchings in the south. We have started to do it, and while this “may go too far” by also confronting the less than stellar history of some of our founding fathers, this is what mature nations do. Thomas Jefferson was a very complex man. He wrote lofty words that we should strive to live to, but he was a slave owner and had children with one of his slaves. He was indeed a product of the age in which he lived, and embracing that is what mature nations do,
None of this will be easy, I guarantee resistance to this necessary work. It is not enough to take the statues down, or to a museum. In the end, it will make us a better nation. However, expect resistance from a right committed to American mythology and an ideal past that never was.