Contemplating America's original sin

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, November 15, 2016, 8:30 PM | comments: 0

Living next door to Walt Disney World for more than three years, you can imagine that I've seen The American Adventure at Epcot more than a few dozen times. I've always enjoyed it, for a show performed by audio-animatronic robots, because it's relatively honest about how ugly and triumphant American history has been. I wouldn't expect that for an attraction intended to entertain, but the balance is stark in a way that is very flag-waving but encourages humility as well (something sorely lacking when it comes to American patriotism). Robo-Mark Twain quotes John Steinbeck near the end:

"We now face the danger, which in the past has been the most destructive to the humans: Success, plenty, comfort and ever-increasing leisure. No dynamic people has ever survived these dangers."

I'm no Steinbeck, but I might revise that to say it's the expectation of success, plenty and comfort that is the real danger, but either way, it makes a good point. Earlier in the show, they take on slavery, persecution of Native Americans and war head-on, and they kind of footnote the suffragist movement with Robo-Susan B. Anthony. But it's the slavery and civil war challenge that gets the most time, as Robo-Twain says to Robo-Ben Franklin:

Yes sir, Dr. Franklin, you founding fathers gave us a pretty good start, don't ya know. We still had some things to learn the hard way. It seems a whole bunch of folks found out "We the people" didn't yet mean all the people. Folks like Frederick Douglas.

Yes, racism is a deeply rooted problem in our history, that goes back to the founding fathers themselves, most of whom owned slaves. (Sidebar: This is another challenge in modern patriotism, where people consider the founding fathers infallible. The reality is that they knew they were not, and that's why they framed our founding documents to allow for change.) Racism is something that many consider to be America's "original sin," which I recently learned is also the name of a book about exactly this legacy (haven't read it).

Racism has been with us a long time, and frankly, bigotry of all kinds has been an ugly thing that we can't seem to shake. There are any number of reasons why I perceived that we were at least mostly over it by now. Perhaps it was electing a black president. Maybe it was working in technology, which isn't entirely unlike working in the United Nations in terms of diversity. Or maybe it was having attended my first wedding between two dudes (the best I've been to period, outside of my own). This year, it became clear that we have so much more work to do.

As you might expect, this is relevant to the election of Donald Trump as president. His populist campaign was surprisingly racist. That's not some subjective assessment based on my politics, either. The things he said were blatantly racist, xenophobic or misogynistic. There isn't a lot of room for interpretation on that. A lot of people will respond to this with, "But Hillary..." arguments, largely based on innuendo, but even if everything you argue about her were true, none of it was racist. Again, I believe that can be objectively agreed upon.

There are a lot of legitimate reasons that the white middle class, and particularly blue collar workers, have to be angry. The economy has changed dramatically, and the composition of the work available for this workforce has also changed. However, directing this anger toward people of color, or people of non-Christian religions, is not warranted or intellectually valid. But that's exactly what Trump chose to do. Sometimes it was blatant, other times it was more subtle, but his message was clear: The people not like you are ruining America. If you do not believe this to be the case, look carefully at the human composition of his rallies and the RNC itself. These did not reflect the racial and socioeconomic mix of our nation.

This brings us to the aftermath of the election. Only 50% of eligible voters actually adhered to their responsibility, and of those, less than half voted for Trump (keeping in mind that he did not win the popular vote). That means that fewer than one in four eligible Americans actually voted for Trump. That's unfortunate in so many ways. Regardless, the end result is that there are a whole lot of people who feel that they no longer have a voice, and that the nation is now led by a racist.

The bigger implication is that the people who are genuinely racist now feel empowered. This was a segment of the population that was largely marginalized, or so I thought. In fact, they were relatively quiet before the election (which would account for the extraordinary polling errors), but they aren't quiet now. While I certainly don't think that everyone that voted for Trump is a racist, it's really hard to understand how they don't see this empowerment, or the general disconnect about how electing a man that, by his own actions, is racist, misogynist and xenophobic, empowers a wider group of people who feel that way. Are these things really a moral gray area? I certainly don't think so. There's a great moral disconnect here, because assuming that the "worst" implication and risk of a Clinton presidency, assuming she could get congressional cooperation, is that you would have more background checks to obtain guns, more health care options and even lower cost higher education (a long shot at best), I would invite you to compare that to what's at stake for minorities in a Trump presidency: the actual right to participate in society. There is no comparison or moral equivalency.

If you're having a hard time understanding why the outrage is so visceral this election, think about America's original sin. "We the people," after two centuries and then some, still doesn't mean all of the people. We can have differing opinions about fiscal, foreign and domestic policy, but the one thing we simply can't accept, collectively, is the idea that some people are worth more than others. You can't expect any minority to take a back seat to the majority, especially for reasons related to their ethnicity, race, religion or sexual orientation. That's as Unamerican as it gets. Our history may struggle with this, but despite many setbacks, it's clear that the only just and moral outcome is equality.

If any good has come of this, it's that there is a renewed sense of urgency around the need to preserve and defend civil rights. As I said, there will always be opposing views around fiscal, domestic and foreign policy, and that's to be expected. However, fostering a dislike and hatred for people that are different is not acceptable, and it is not American. It must not be rationalized by suggesting that tolerance is an acceptable response to racism. This issue does not have a moral equivalency to other matters of policy.

Look out for each other. Race, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation... these vary greatly, but they all compose "we the people."


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