Our Cruel Republic

Our Cruel Republic
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"America, in and of itself, has been an affirmation. But I think that we've fallen short a lot, because there is no way that we can have anyone in office that is not an extension of our own belief system.” – Viola Davis

It has always been particularly difficult for me to scrounge up optimism whenever a new year arrives. I like a party, sure. But the resolutions, the sudden urge to hit the gym, the sweeping under the rug of last year’s misfortunes – all ring false to me. It’s a religious ritual, really, and one that has always left a bad taste in my mouth. I make a resolution when I wake up in the morning to be kind, generous and productive. I usually hit one out of three on any given day.

Perhaps my ability to live in optimistic denial has decreased with life experience. Over the past two months, I have slowly accepted the knowledge that I have not been born into some model republic, despite its obvious racist and sexist flaws. America was always, during my lifetime, getting better. Just last year, there was a shared group of principles that I thought we had all agreed upon. I have been fed this sort of rhetoric from grade school, and I’m sure it will pop up again in Obama’s Farewell Address today. He is perhaps the truest believer in it. I find his optimism now cloying and disturbingly out-of-place, which is perhaps how Republicans have always felt about him.

What I have learned in the past two months, the more that I think about it, is that the American people’s capacity for cruelty and malice is far greater than I had realized. This partially speaks, of course, to my own insulation, my white maleness. The bubbles have been burst. But we are a cruel people, in a way now that we have not been for many decades. Perhaps we are crueler than other countries that have had to make amends once defeated on the field of battle. Our continual victory, even in defeat, insulated by our geography and wealth, allows America to go on unexamined.

Economics, we can rationalize, is the reason that slavery lasted for as long as it did – even as the British Empire moved to abolish it decades before. Yet Russia gave women the right to vote before we did. It took us two centuries longer to decriminalize homosexuality than Europe did under Napoleon (do we have to include Little Britain in that group anymore?). Hidden Figures, even in its Hollywood treatment, shows the daily cruelties of Jim Crow.

Why, then, have we mythologized ourselves in such a way as being uniquely fit to lead this world? It is a very comforting thought to put us, alone, to sleep at night. It allows us to co-sign on a host of atrocities – from drone strikes of weddings to a failure to strike against the murderous tyrant of Syria.

When I think of a motto for my country in 2017, it’s not “E Pluribus Unum” from 1789 or “In God We Trust” from 1956. Instead it’s Malcolm X, 1964, “By Any Means Necessary.” With the era of Trump upon us – even the word “trump,” meaning “to get the better of” – few phrases are better than X’s in summarizing our national mood.

It may seem wrong to mix a figure of white nationalism with the words of black liberation. But the entire American project, post-Trump, must be viewed and re-viewed in Malcolm X’s terms. By any means necessary, our government kept another people in chains and created an ideology of states rights’ to justify it. By any means necessary, we deny and continue to deny black and brown people the right to vote in order to preserve white majoritarian rule. By any means necessary, we strike with impunity at any corner of the globe in order to decrease the odds of a hypothetical attack on our own shores. By any means necessary, we have decided that our national greatness depends not on the helping of others, not on the fulfillment of the promise written on the Statue of Liberty, but instead rests within our worst impulses, our abiding self-interest, our innate cruelty.

Whatever you think of our president-elect – and he is, as Viola Davis said a few days ago, ours – he has undoubtedly turned vice into virtue. Service and sacrifice are for chumps. Greed and cruelty against those with less power are his governing principles. And only a great national capacity for and tolerance of cruelty could have permitted such a man to rise and lead us.

The solution is not to “go high,” as the Obamas, for all of their good intentions, have professed. “High” implies a distance, a step above, even condescension. The solution, instead, is to practice the opposite of cruelty. To be kind to one another. Why are our resolutions so often about how we look in the mirror? We must resolve not to better ourselves for our selves alone, but instead to change for the betterment of others.

When Trump speaks, we must do neither what he says nor what he does. As the poet Magdalena Gomez writes,

Here we are. 2017. Who will we be?

The speaker. The silent.

The generous. The miserly.

The rebellious. The compliant.

The warrior. The sheep.

Awake. Asleep.

Who will sit out the ovations to tyrants?

Who will dare shout to disturb homilies of hate?

Who will risk loneliness

when crowds gather to cheer for the unjust war?

Will this be the year of ME or the year of We?

It must not be another year of self-interest and navel-gazing. We must improve as a people, by any means necessary.

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