There Are Two Americas—
One I love and One I Despise.
One is the America of Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson—the one in the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution and the Gettysburg Address—the one with the blessings of liberty for our posterity.
The other America is also found in those early, noble statements of our purpose. It is the one that recognized slavery, counting each of its victims as three-fifths of a person. It is the one that denied the vote to natives unless they were taxed, of course not taxing them while they were being murdered, stripped of their land, and later imprisoned on reservations.
Both Americas are still with us. The second is in the headlines every day, and in the underreported stories lurking on page twenty of daily papers, or on private Internet sites. It is the America that relishes fear, and then breeding and living in fear, abandons its own Constitutional guarantees of human rights. It is the America that enriches huge insurance companies, drug companies, and health care providers, while accessible health care slips away from most of its citizens. It is the America that continues to insist that it can pay its assembly-line workers and grocery checkers more in a month than many of the world's people will earn in a lifetime, while it fails to save those poor from starvation and genocide. It is the America that pays far more for its mammoth vehicles than most of the world pays for land and dwellings for entire extended families. It is the America that endangers future generations worldwide by fighting global warming initiatives, as it endangers its own future generations by failing to educate them, and mounting mammoth debt they'll have to pay. It is the America that still has not restored vast numbers of the descendants of slaves and natives to the bare essentials of human dignity, and to the general welfare purposed in the first words of the Constitution.
Today, finding examples of the first America, the one of freedom and promise, seems difficult. The examples are plenty, but many are small and isolated. They're seldom worthy of headlines—truly not worthy of headlines—because they impact us far less than the bigotry, greed and corruption that do fill the headlines. Most of the examples of freedom and promise are individual stories of people who labor for others, and fight for justice. Far too seldom are they the official business of our governments, businesses and institutions. Those stories are even rare in our churches, many of which seem more concerned with political power or theological doctrine than with freedom and justice.
Like many of us, I have both Americas deep within me. In my case, I had ancestors who fought in the revolution that made the Constitution possible. I also had relatives who wore the Union army's blue uniform to fight Indians in Dakota Territory, and ancestors who died defending the right of Southerners to own slaves.
My father was a good man, and a brilliant thinker. He loved me, and I loved him. He taught me about the guarantees of our Constitution. He taught me about justice, honor and integrity. He was exceedingly proud of his service in both World Wars. But he was also a bigot. He grew to adulthood before World War I, in a small Missouri town that didn't allow Black people to live there—or even to spend the night. He had pejorative names for all ethnic groups, and assessed the quality of a man first by the whiteness of his skin. In fairness to Dad, he changed a great deal near the end of his life, becoming far more tolerant. In the seventies, he voted for the La Raza Unida candidate for Governor, hoping that party would achieve the threshold vote percentage necessary to qualify it as a permanent party under state law. He did that because he had come to believe that Latino people needed a voice in government. It was his own idea; no one talked him into it.
I grew up with all of that, and had to sort out the two men I had become—the principled patriot, and the angry bigot. By my mid-twenties, I had a pretty firm grasp on which of me was true. I'd found that my bigotry was indefensible, and my principles were indispensable. One doesn't just wake up different one morning. I first had to be willing to be changed, and to believe that I wanted to change. I had to stay awake, and be willing to recognize the beliefs within myself that I no longer wanted to believe. And I had to speak and act differently. I had to be willing to challenge what I didn't like—in myself first, then around me. It took time, but as with many things, the willingness was the greater part of the victory.
I believe that's what America must do now. We have to face the two nations we have always been, and decide which is true. We have to line up the principles by which we can live, with honor and integrity, and dedicate ourselves to them. We must be vigilant, not against real or imagined foreign enemies, but against our own cowardice and hatred. We must be willing to be different.
In the Vietnam sixties, as war protests filled our streets and our newspapers, a popular bumper sticker said, " America—Love It or Leave It." My response was, " America—Change It or Lose It." We are back there. Those who question our nation's actions are again labeled as unpatriotic at best—traitors at worst.
Well, I do question our actions, and I am a patriot. I weep for the erosion of our rights, especially our first and fourth amendment rights. I challenge the folly of invading countries that aren't fighting us. I cringe at the decay of our math and science education. I deplore that we abandon stem cell research for pseudo-religious reasons. I am appalled that half of our Black and Hispanic youth reach adulthood with virtually no education. I detest the deterioration of our health care system. I'm ashamed that we build more and more prisons, to fill them with our Black and Hispanic youth, and that we do nothing to help them rebuild their lives. And this is only a portion of my list. There is much more.
As I write, I can almost hear the voices who would call me a traitor, questioning my loyalties and my motives. I can see their shaking fists, and the fire in their eyes. And I ask, "Why?" What are they fighting for? They're not fighting for the America I was taught to love. They're not fighting for tolerance, freedom and justice. They seem to be fighting either to tear us apart, or simply for their own wealth and power. They seem to disdain our institutions and our principles.
It's time to fight them. I don't think it's a fight of fists, knives and guns. I think it's a fight of principles. And what are the principles? How about these?
- A new birth of freedom
- Government of the people, by the people and for the people
- The making of a more perfect union
- The general welfare
- The blessings of liberty
- That all of us are created equal
Suppose we were to test our every belief and our every action against that list. What would this nation look like? I think it would be very different. I think we must test ourselves and each other in just that way. That's the fight before us.
Earlier, I suggested that we must act now. You might ask, "Why the urgency?" After all, if this selfishness and intolerance has been with us since before we were a nation. If, indeed, we built this nation while blighted by that injustice, why do we need to change now—why today?
I think we've been playing a kind of Russian roulette with our being as a free nation. But we don't know how many chambers are in the cylinder, or how many rounds are in the chambers. We've been pulling the trigger for a long time now—230 years. We've kinda lost count how many clicks we've heard. When we squeeze the trigger that next time, will we hear another click? Or will the explosion be the last sound we ever hear?
How many times can we ignore or abandon our principles before this great experiment in democracy falls—and can't get up? I don't think these freedoms, this liberty and justice, this domestic tranquility are guaranteed to us. I think they only survive when we nurture them. And I think we've been nurturing them poorly. I don't like our odds if we continue to pull the trigger. I think it's time to quit experimenting with the erosion of our rights, the abandonment of our liberties, and the wasting of our vital resources.
Someday, there won't be two Americas; there'll be only one. Will it be the one I love, or the one I despise?
It's time to assert that we really do believe in our self-declared democratic principles. It's time we call each other to account, and insist that we all live by those principles— every day, in all that we do. It's time we quit tolerating corrupt leaders—just because they seem to be on our side. It's time we quit protecting our own rights with a greater vigor than we employ in protecting our neighbors' rights. It's time we live by our words.
If we fail in this, our day in the sun may be nearing its twilight.