Is America eternal?
Today I’m enjoying a day off from work. Last year today was known as Columbus Day. This year, at least in my part of blue California, it’s Indigenous Peoples Day. Nothing is forever.
Nothing is forever. That has always been forefront in my mind since I was a child. As a child I had a well-developed sense of mortality and the transitory nature of life. This was mostly because from an early age I’ve been a history buff, and history, foremost, is a catalog of death. The death of people, the death of ideologies, the death of empires.
The American Empire has been unique in world history. It is, by and large, not a territorial empire. (Although tell that to those indigenous Americans we commemorate today whose land was expropriated by white settlers and the US Army.) Since 1945, when the Empire asserted itself in earnest, it has been an empire of ideas, of culture, of military projection. It’s an empire with bases, but no colonies. It is an empire whose chief weapon is that of ideology and mass culture. The values of liberal democracy are at least given lip service to by the majority of the world’s nation-states. American pop culture has permeated every corner of the globe. The American empire exists because no other nation has wanted to take on the burdens of global leadership. The Soviet empire collapsed precisely because it was an empire in the mold of empires before it: territorial, obsessed with maintaining colonies and satellites. China, despite its power, has always been leery of extending itself beyond its borders. (Although its Belt and Road Initiative is an indication that it may be sloughing off that reticence.)
The liberal project—of democracy, of free markets, of free ideas and free culture—has been the clarion call of the Empire. (I know, many would dispute that, but I’m speaking of the larger picture. The coups d’etat supported by the United States are the subject of another essay, or several.) But what happens when a large portion of the Empire’s citizens no longer believe in that project?
That’s what we’re seeing today. Its latest irruption has been l’affaire Kavanaugh. The fault lines between liberal and reactionary America were slashed open, bleeding and pulsating and red, by the struggle over his nomination and confirmation. We see the questioning of the Empire’s values in Hungary and Poland and Italy. We see the blowback against the Empire in Russia and China. We see the rejection of those values in Kentucky and Texas, or at least in parts of them.
When you’re a child, you expect certain things to be eternal. You expect your parents to always be there. You expect that your life as it is then will continue, for you cannot foresee any other modus. And you expect that the country into which you were born will be unchanging, a lodestar around which you orbit.
Parents die. Your life evolves. And nations are not eternal.
I return to China. Of all the world’s polities, China’s is the oldest. Compared to it, America is a child. And yet China, eternal as it seems, is a recent construction. It has gone through countless phases of integration and disintegration. This is China, version 15.0. The China of Xi Jinping is not the China of Lao Tzu. It is not even the China of Mao Zedong.
Empires rise. They have a florescence of decades or centuries. And then they fade. They may, like China, arise again, like a phoenix. Or they may, like Britain, reorganize into a lesser state. (And remember, one hundred years ago Ireland was part of Britain. In a few years, depending on Brexit, Scotland may no longer be a part of it.)
America was born fractured. The divisions were there from its genesis. Urban vs. rural. Liberal vs. conservative. Religious vs. secular. Slave vs. free. Those fissures led to the Civil War. And the Civil War didn’t resolve those fissures, so much as paper them over. The Civil War never ended. Reconstruction was scuppered because those in the North really didn’t care about the former slaves in the South, and money was to be made. It’s no secret that Hitler looked to Jim Crow as a model for his treatment of Jews. America is both a shining city on a hill, and a pool of brackish water. And those who live in the brackish water are letting out their primal screams.
We as a nation had a fantasy that we were reborn from the fires of the 1960s. That all the divisions which separated us were resolved. That lie in part led to where we are now. Oh, as in Yugoslavia, certain words and phrases weren’t acceptable in polite society. But the animus was always there. After Brown v. Board of Education, the forces of reaction worked in the dark, building their power from the bottom up. They saw the courts as the thing to take over, as the locus of power to co-opt. And now, seemingly, they have attained their apotheosis. Brett Kavanaugh is reactionary America’s Godman. He is what they have been building towards. The buffoon Trump was just a means to an end. Capturing the court which gave it a bloody nose in 1954 has been its raison d’etre.
And while reactionary America has had its eyes on the prize, liberal America has been engaged in self-flagellation and internecine strife. If the purists of the 2000 election had turned away from Ralph Nader, today’s Supreme Court would have had a liberal majority. Brett Kavanaugh would have been known only for his work on Ken Starr’s Star Chamber. While reactionary America embraced a thrice-married, vulgar game show host as its vessel, liberal America has a vocal minority which places litmus tests on anyone purporting to be on its side.
Things are bleak. I won’t sugarcoat it. But, what I am in my marrow is a child of immigrants. And what we immigrants and children of immigrants have is a wellspring of hope. We came to this country seeking a better future. We buy into the promise of America, however tarnished it is. My parents didn’t graduate high school. Their sons are professionals. We are not the entitled children who demand free college and will sulk if not immediately given it. We’ve worked for everything we have. We know that progress is fitful and imperfect. But, even so, it is attainable.
And that is the spirit which is animating the resistance to those who wish to institute a real-life Gilead. Yes, 53% of white women voted for Donald Trump. But I won’t belabor the point. The work is to peel off as many of them as we can. The work is to vote like black women, who are the frontline warriors in maintaining a Republic worth living in. The work is to be in the trenches day in and day out. The work is to confront those who wish to discard us with bravery and honor.
As a writer, I don’t often know where I will end when I begin a piece. I didn’t know where I would end today. But I know now.
America is not eternal. Even the universe will die out. But it will endure. Not because it is perfect. It has never been perfect. But because it, first among nations in our modern world, was born of the idea that a free people can govern itself and evolve. It was born in the idea that liberty is the paramount virtue of any community. In its history it has often, all too often, betrayed these ideals. But the ideals remain. The ideals are what animate those who adhere to them. They are the motive forces which energize any move towards progress.
We are a young people. But we are always renewed by those who believe in the promise. We are a people tempered by experience who still hold on to that hope which is the cornerstone of this Republic. Time and again, those who wish to hold us back, who wish to repress us, have been on the losing end of history. That will, again, be their fate.
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