We talk about the past in our country… a lot. We reminisce about the good old days, we ruminate on how we used to be, we long to make ourselves like we were. Our feet are firmly cemented in the past. As a student of history, I understand the importance of knowing from whence we came, and, more importantly, being aware of whose perspective is reflected in our knowledge of the past. But, as a Progressive, I see real danger in drowning ourselves in the quicksand of misplaced sentimentality.
This has most insidiously manifested itself in the oh-so-patriotic campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again”. That statement relies on some assumptions that do not hold up well to scrutiny. The obvious mistaken assumption is that America was ever great.
There is a valid argument to be made about the Enlightenment thinking that informed the white males who drafted the Constitution of the United States, and how it signaled an important milestone in governmental and social evolution. However, those same enlightened white males also excluded women, ignored indigenous nations, and codified the brutish and ethically barbaric practice of slavery. So, how great, exactly, was America for these groups of marginalized people? Oh, you say, but America changed and learned. Yes, I suppose, slowly, painfully, violently, and reluctantly, white males loosened their grip on exclusive power. But, of course, it historically has required a lot of killing and oppression to make any progress at all, and we are still experiencing the overwhelming effects of those morally reprehensible views and choices today. Well, there’s money to be made in making people work for nothing, keeping the majority of people from voting, and stealing natural resources from the people who already lived here, so… CAPITALISM!
We saved the world from Hitler! Um… no. Many young American men lost their lives opposing a destructive, hateful demagogue, and while their sacrifice contributed to the effort, the involvement of the US was not the decisive factor. The USSR sacrificed FAR more lives and had more direct effect on destroying the Third Reich than anyone else, and they did it with little material help from any other country. The staggering suffering and loss of life suffered by the people of the USSR, especially Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus, is almost incomprehensible – 26.6 million dead. Almost an entire generation destroyed. Had Hitler not stupidly wasted his resources and military on the Eastern Front, there would have been little the US could have done to prevent Hitler from conquering all of Europe eventually. But, Japan, right? Well, there is considerable evidence that the mere threat of the USSR invading the Japanese home islands, and the ease with which the Red Army obliterated Japanese forces in one week in Manchuria played a much bigger role in the surrender than even the atomic decimation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and that an actual US invasion was neither imminent nor necessary, despite the often repeated stories otherwise. As for those atomic bombs, we are still the only country to use a nuclear device as a weapon. We did it twice. Against civilians. Not exactly a sign of greatness. Well, there’s money to be made in dropping bombs on people, so… CAPITALISM!
Industry! We were the manufacturing giants of the world! Yes, this is true. After World War II, the United States was the only major country to survive with its manufacturing capabilities intact. So, what did we do with this? We created, for the first and only time in our history, a vibrant and economically secure middle class, and finally started to live up to the American myth that had been created around rugged independence and prosperity. With one major caveat… you had to be white. Really. Oh, there were non-whites who found their way into the middle class, but they were most certainly not living any kind of dream. And it was not just the South that relegated non-whites to the status of second class citizenry, just in case any Northern self-righteousness crept into your consciousness. Then, a mere thirty years later, we pulled the rug out from under everybody who made the engine of industry run. Even white people. Now, once again, it’s a crime to be poor. Literally. Well, there’s money to be made locking up poor people, so… CAPITALISM!
But we were a super-power. Ah, yes. We possessed far more death-dealing devices than any country on earth ever has in history. We had the capability of ending life on earth several times over. Fortunately, we have not given our quite ill-mannered and intrusive military-industrial shadow government the political or “moral” opportunity to use them, as they not surprisingly would have liked to many times. If we don’t use them, then they don;t need to be replaced with more, so peaceful foreign policy is bad for business. Well, there’s money to be made in killing or threatening to kill people in other countries, so… CAPITALISM!
Living in America’s past does not bode well for any kind of future.
The truth is that we are still Neanderthals more concerned with the short brutishness of our own self-centered existence and demise rather than highly evolved beings with the experience to comprehend how deeply everything we do matters to everything else on this little blue dot in the great expanse. We are far more concerned with honoring and respecting the dead rather than honoring and respecting the living. We gaze longingly at the past, suspended flawlessly and completely inaccurately in amber, while our fellow humans and our planet suffer horribly around us. We weep over yesterday instead of preparing for tomorrow. We condemn ourselves to stupidity, suspicion, superstition and strife instead of freeing our minds and souls with knowledge, understanding, vision, and peace.
We need to look forward. Progress. Change. Adapt. Evolve. Live.