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.