A mournful July 4th: have my ancestors’ dreams been squandered? 5

As we near the 230th “birthday” of the United States, or at least of the colonial resistance, I have been reflecting on whether I am proud of my country or ashamed of the direction it has taken these last several years. The United States of 2006 is not my image of a nation that I have lived in for a half century. Rather, USA-2006’s image merges with other, less palatable images of totalitarian countries and theocratic societies, both real and fictional. Today’s USA seem remote from the picture of the democratic, pluralistic nation the 18th century colonists worked so hard to create.

About a quarter of my ancestors were among those colonists, immigrants from the British Isles seeking freedom from a nation that was oppressive socially, economically and theologically. Biographical information about those ancestors are now lost in the dim mists of time, but from the available data I can paint a rough sketch of their motivations for risking a dangerous transatlantic voyage.

Undoubtedly they were mostly farmers. Some were whalers. Others sailors and fishermen. One branch consisted of Baptists, the other Quakers. We can assume that they came to the American colonies (Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Long Island and western New Jersey) as (using modern terminology) economic and religious refugees. They came looking for the freedom to earn a decent living, free from excessive taxation and competition from those of higher station. They also wanted the freedom to worship as they wished, free from the State Church and the decades-long governmental oppression of the non-conformist churches.

I know for sure that several ancestors, including my great-great-great-grandfather and two of his brothers, served in the Revolutionary New Jersey state militia. One ancestor died on a British prisoner-of-war ship in New York Harbor. Ancestors who were ship captains smuggled for the resistance and raided British war ships (pirates, they were, arrh!). They were rewarded for their service with land grants in the Northwest Ordinance, money and perhaps more importantly a nation dedicated to preserving the same values they sought when they crossed the Atlantic.

What would these ancestors think of the United States now? For all the vaunted mythos of the Horatio Alger, rages-to-riches American dream, it is painfully obvious that the people in charge of this nation are very well off, and getting richer with each day, while the yeoman farmers, merchants and other members of the middle class are getting poorer. Rather than a society stratified by hereditary title and place, we have a society stratified by hereditary fortune and connections. Some manage to break through the socioeconomic obstacles, but most cannot.

USA-2006 does not have a State Church, but there is a noisy, scarily influential minority of “Christians” who would like to create one. Our own president may be one of them, and if not, he is surrounded by aides, confidantes and political supporters who are. These so-called “Christians” want us to believe that the pluralistic nation our ancestors helped create 230 years ago was in fact a “Christian nation,” with laws and a Constitution based on Biblical principles. This noisy minority of misguided souls tries to push its distorted history of the colonial period on the unsuspecting public, to justify jamming Christian prayers, monuments to the Ten Commandments, oppressive right wing, Christo-centric legislation on the majority of Americans who would prefer the more laissez-faire attitude pioneered by the colony of Pennsylvania and supposedly enshrined in the First Amendment.

The other three-quarters of my ancestors were more recent immigrants, Swedes fleeing (yes!) a economically, socially and theologically oppressive environment. The Sweden of the 1800s was not the enlightened social democracy we have today. Like 18th century Britain, Sweden then was nearly a feudal society, with a State Church and little arable land to support a burgeoning population. Some of my Swedish ancestors were craftsmen, cobblers, carpenters and seamstresses, while others wanted to farm on fertile soil. Crossing the Atlantic then was easier than for the 18th century immigrants, but still very expensive. They landed here with no English skills and little formal education, but still literate and willing to work hard.

What would these people think now of USA-2006? Those in power, and rightwing rabblerousers, want us to distrust all immigrants, especially those who are dark-skinned. Rather than welcoming the “tired, hungry and poor yearning to be free,” USA-2006 employs the National Guard and self-appointed militias to patrol its southern and northern borders. Legislators talk of erecting a wall to keep out illegal aliens (or to keep us in). Newcomers are fingerprinted and tagged, like cattle, on their initial entry to the country. And God forbid they should be Muslim, dress “strangely,” or speak no or little English. They might be terrorists, or perhaps even more shameful, illegal aliens!

In school, we learned about a nation, perhaps idealized or perhaps just a patriotic fiction, that had leaders who sustained the ideals of the colonists and the revolutionaries of 1776. They swore to uphold the Constitution. They led us ruefully into war, to protect our shores and our nation, and led us back out. They eliminated slavery. Gave former slaves and women the vote. Created an economic safety net for the elderly and the poor. Stitched together a pluralistic, one-of-a-kind nation, the “leader of the free world,” a beacon of liberty symbolized by that statue in New York Harbor. Our leaders told the truth, exposed and punished corruption in the government, and above all worked to ensure the future of the country irrespective of their own personal agendae.

Sure, it’s a fiction. Leaders back then were dishonest, corrupt and occasionally skalliwags. They were imperfect, supporting slavery and the subjugation of women, blacks, reds, yellows and the poor. My study of U.S. history, while by no means exhaustive, has turned up no president with a deliberate agenda to rewrite or reinterpret the Constitution to concentrate power in the White House. Presidents, even the controversial FDR, played by the book. They did not try to throw it out and write a new one. There was no sycophantic, complacent Fourth Estate letting them get away with crooked elections, sleazy backroom deals and dirty tricks. There was a balance of power that everyone, presidents included, accepted, understood and in some ways worshipped. Where is that balance now?

The United States of 2006 is, sadly, not my United States. As a middle class, middle aged WASP, I feel as disaffected and isolated as perhaps my darker, poorer, non-Christian fellow citizens feel. I want a democracy that values all of its citizens and their faiths, regardless of their personal wealth and social standing. I want a president, a Congress and news media that shares my image of the United States that attracted millions of immigrants to its shores, the image encapsulated in the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men (sic) are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. –That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

I can only hope that the elections of 2006 and 2008 will bring that “new Government,” of, for and by my United States.

Cross-posted on The Daily Kos.

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5 thoughts on “A mournful July 4th: have my ancestors’ dreams been squandered?

  1. Reply Dave Eaton Jul 6,2006 3:31 pm

    One thing that makes me feel good, Mr. Dogg, is realizing how much vitality and spirit still drives regular folks in this country, of all colors and creeds. Some may build walls and post guards, but there is something here that people want, and it is deeply ingrained in us to help them get it. Suspicion and fear are natural instincts, to be sure- but our ideals can still elevate us past them.

    I’ll cop to being as unhappy with the political situation as you, sir. However, the voices I encounter via the web, and in the community, remind me that the tremendous desire to do things, good, productive and helpful won’t be capped. We’ll never bend to theocracy, or tyrrany. The fact that people like you and me get so riled when the danger to our White, middle-classed selves is still remote tells me that we have not entirely sold out the dreams our anscestors held dear.

    The philosopher Jon Stewart recently said that the extremists control politics because moderate, regular folks have shit to do. Indeed. It is just dawning on a lot of us that some of the shit we have to do is keep track of politics, filthy and unrewarding as the subject is. And if the political winds do not shift, I will not give up. I will continue to try to live right, and do good, and contend for what I think is right. To let political defeat become personal defeat is a choice I will not make. Even if the America I want to live in becomes a remnant, an underground of egalitarian and democratic principles, I will not relinquish that dream. So I will continue to celebrate the 4th, in love with the ideal, critical of the reality, and committed to bringing the two together, if it takes forever.

  2. Reply wheatdogg Jul 6,2006 9:55 pm

    Thanks for the positive thoughts, Dave. I agree with you that we must be vigilant, and though politics is not one of my favorite activities either, we must get involved in the midterm elections this November. It’s time for Anne Northup, and the other Bushites, to leave office. They are sending us down a road to ruin.

  3. Reply Dave Eaton Jul 7,2006 12:57 pm

    Indeed. To the ramparts in the fall. It pained me to see a person of such deep values struggle with something like you did in this post. I feel compelled often lately to preach a little to my progressive sisters and brothers.

    I am just old enough to remember the late 60s. If that era had a major failing, it was trying to thow the baby of America as an ideal out with the political and cultural detritus that needed removal.

    One thing that I fear in progressives is that when they respond negatively to the flag waving and ‘patriotism’ of the right, they forget, or worse, revile what is a great and hopeful experiment in the USA. A work in progress, no doubt, but one that can become more sane, that will support and nurture voices of dissent and critique, generally by the actions of progressives.

    A progression that is not finished, but dammit, deserves some acknowledgement from progressives. It is different than it once was. We now openly worry about subconscious racism- a problem, no doubt, but miles ahead of black people having the dogs turned on them. The suffering is not ended, but it cannot be wrong to assess and see that our direction is right. Not to wallow in self-righteousness, but rather, to not muzzle the ox as it plows. Feedback is good. Progressives can be a little too ascetic.

    I am not ashamed of my country. I am ashamed of my government, and puzzled and annoyed at those of my fellow citizens who have been misled or bought in deliberately to some of the shennanigans the current powerful have pulled.

    So I am loathe to cede symbols like the 4th, the flag and constitution and patriotism to the weirdos. The flag isn’t just a piece of cloth- it is the corporal symbol of the battered enlightenment ideals that a bunch of rich patricians somehow had the grace and good sense to embody in a set of institutions that allowed these enlightenment values to extend, first to all white men, then slowly to women and minorities, with the diffusion process still continuing, sometimes against strident opposition. It makes an awful soundbite, but it is what it means to me, and as such, I cannot let it go.

    I also remember how close the political race was last time, and the time before that. It makes me wonder how many were scared into making decisions that they thought better of later. How many people swayed against their better judgement based on a lack of coherence (not logic, not sanity, just coherence) on one side?

    And I think it needs saying that I do not want progressives to continue an unhealthy morph into what they fight against- I do not want an Al Gore to merely scare people about the state of the environment, as a GWB would about terrorists, no matter how grim. No matter how late, or how vital the call to action.

    I want a Kennedyesque leader who commits to developing alternative fuels and transportation and carbon sequestration methods before the middle of the next decade. Not because it is easy, but because it is hard. You remember. That’s what progressives need- not nannys, not braying finger-pointers, not food or smoke or CO2 or trans-fat police- but leaders who see the future as something we have to build, not to fear.

    It may be naive to believe in progress, but the alternative is to lose heart, and I desperately fear that this is what my side has done. So we should revive the notion of progress, being mindful this time that the blade has two edges.

    I have heard enough of how evil the guys in power are. It’s true, but I can’t continue to listen. Instead, I think we need to plan, and build, and lead. For you and me and people like us to do any good at this, I think we have to keep in mind the ideals we have. Taking out the trash is just a part of getting the house in order.

  4. Reply wheatdogg Jul 7,2006 2:42 pm

    For me, the sad thing is that I see no Kennedyesque leader on the horizon. Gore is far-sighted and concerned, but he’s a little short in the charisma department. Both of us want statesmen, Dave, not politicos. Most of the chumps — on either side of the aisle — out there right now look only as far as the next election or next political/financial windfall. Witness the continual denial about the future of Social Security, our dependence on oil (foreign or otherwise), the trade imbalance with China, and the creeping influence of religious organizations on politics and law. To face these looming problems requires someone with intelligence, focus and courage to wrestle with them.

    Obviously, Bush is not the man for that job. McCain and Lieberman, whom I once admired, have sold out to the other side. H. Clinton might be able to pull it off, but her health care initiative back when flopped big time. Gore is good, but his appeal is limited among the non-left, non-environmentalist voters.

    I’m afraid that it will have to get a lot worse before it gets better, like the situation that Hoover and the GOP faced in the ’30s and FDR inherited. The fact that North Korea has made the current administration look completely foolish and unprepared may swing the voters away from the GOP ore effectively than anything we progressives can say or do.

  5. Reply Dave Eaton Jul 7,2006 3:43 pm

    Although he would fault us for the use of the term progressive, I like the tone (if not all the arguments) in Peter Beinart’s writing lately. I think his work is more aspirational than descriptive at the moment; like you, I don’t see any statesmen yet, but I think that progressives have not been demanding enough of leaders for statesmen to emerge.

    While I follow the emergence of the netroots with interest, I part company with the Kossacks and DUers who seem only to want to win and to humiliate the opposition. That said, I think that the lowering of barriers to communication will do more good than harm. True, there will be a convenient way for both sides to anonymously fling feces at one another. But the opportunity to plan and organize and imagine collectively is one that I am excited about.

    I hope that disaster isn’t the catalyst necessary for change, though it has been in the past.

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