America is like an alcoholic family, in which no one is really saying what’s going on, the children are registering all the unprocessed realities but don’t know what to do with them, and anyone who speaks up and tells the truth is likely to be severely punished.
We can’t send the country to rehab, but we can at least try to be honest with ourselves about what’s happening. And that is no small deal. As more and more Americans bring to consciousness the unconscious shadows of our national identity, the country will begin to heal.
A lot of it is stuff we’ve all heard, but still it’s worth going over to make sure our thinking is aligned with what’s true.
In 1776, 56 men signed the Declaration of Independence, and the document was an extraordinary statement of human possibility. It was a gigantic step forward for the human race not only politically but also spiritually. For it posited the notion - what would have been considered until then a preposterous perspective - that God created all men equal.
It went on to say not only that God created all men equal, but that He had endowed all men with the “unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The very idea of human equality had never before been codified in the founding documents of any nation on earth.
Centuries of nations ruled by the notion of the “divine right of Kings” was overthrown by a bunch of young radicals in the American colonies. All the men who signed the document were risking their lives by doing so, for if the British won the war then they would be hanged as traitors against the King of England.
That was the beginning … and yet there was a glitch. A quite terrible glitch. For of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, 41 of them were slaveowners. Slaves had first been brought to the American colonies in 1619, and slavery would not be abolished as an institution until 1865. Even then, it was still legally allowed within a prison system that took full advantage of the loophole to enslave African American men. And the 13th Amendment, passed in 1865, was followed by another hundred years of institutionalized slavery against Blacks in America.
What all of that means then, is that from the very beginning of our country we have embodied a terrible split between the highest aspirations of humanity on one hand, and our lowest, meanest impulses on the other. Our national ideals are highly enlightened, whereas in every generation since the days of our founding we have lived out an often violent struggle between those who would stand, sacrifice and even die for those ideals, and those who would transgress against them.
Would our commitment to equality mean only white people, but not Black? Only Caucasians, but not Native Americans? Only men, but not women? Only Christians, but not Jews, Hindus, Muslims and others? Only straight and cisgender people, but not LGBTQ? And the list goes on. Today, it also means - as much as it has at any time in our history - only the rich, but not the poor?
While the struggle has been embodied by every generation, over time we have tended to self-correct. Slavery was met by Abolition, institutionalized oppression of women was met by the Women’s Suffragette Movement, and segregation in the American South was met by the civil rights movement. Our legacy as Americans includes some horrible forms of oppression - from slavery to the genocide of Native Americans - but it also includes tremendous movements to push back and to ultimately defeat even the worst forms of tyranny. We have as much to be proud of in our past, as to be ashamed of.
But the most important thing, is that it’s our turn now. Today’s oppression is not encapsulated in specific institutionalized identities such as slavery or segregation or the lack of women’s suffrage. Those could be compared to operable tumors that could be surgically removed. Rather, it is more like a cancer that has metastasized and is wrapped around healthy organs, sucking from them their very life force. The new American aristocracy is the same in principle as it has always been - in the words of Thomas Jefferson, “It is the general tendency of the rich to prey upon the poor” - yet it has morphed into something new: the economic tyranny of a shadowy, predatory form of capitalism that has injected itself into every fiber of American life. Worst of all - with the obscene and unlimited flow of dark money in our politics - it now holds our government hostage, turning all three branches of government from our last defense against capitalist overreach into the very handmaiden of our corporate overlords.
American capitalism has gone off the rails, its most predatory form like a soulless force now lording over us. Our food, water and air are filled with toxins …so that stockholders can get rich. Our planet is being destroyed … so that stockholders can get rich. Millions lack health care… so that stockholders can get rich. We fight wars around the world… so that stockholders can get rich. Millions work for starvation wages and unions are busted … so that stockholders can get rich. And the list goes on. There seems to be no end in sight to the corporate tyranny that now plagues us.
Will we be the first generation to wimp out on pushing back the forces that would damage our lives and limit our future? I believe not. I know how bad things look right now, but hope is a moral imperative and cynicism is just an excuse for not helping. Having run for office myself, I’ve seen up close the goodness and intelligence of the American people. The more we understand, and the more we’re willing to stand on what we know, the more power we will have to overcome.
Abolition emerged from the early Evangelicals in New Hampshire. Many of the leaders of the Women Suffragette movement were Quakers. And Dr. King was a Baptist preacher. Throughout our history, we have found the power to override even the most oppressive forces through political activism that was fueled by spiritual fortitude. The marriage of the two is emerging once again. I can feel it in my bones.