The End Of The Idea Of America

Montesquieu defined political liberty as the "tranquility of spirit which comes from the opinion each one has of his security."

Sounds like a fair description, one I've been calling the "settled life." I know life is far from settled for many Americans, but what we've always known in our bones is that the system, however flawed, which created our rights and "settled life" would continue after every election. Since the end of the Civil War no one has had to fear a military coup, or theocratic takeover, or the rise of a demagogic dictator. Until now.

Now is different, because the idea of America, that which is contained in the first two paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and especially within the Bill of Rights, has held firm in the hearts and minds of Americans of all colors and creeds, nationality and sexual identity. David Frum, in his essay in The Atlantic entitled "The Conservative Case for Voting for Clinton," reminds us

Incredibly, a country that--through wars and depression--so magnificently resisted the authoritarian temptations of the mid-20th century has half-yielded to a more farcical version of that same threat without any of the same excuse. The hungry and houseless Americans of the Great Depression sustained a constitutional republic. How shameful that the Americans of today--so vastly better off in so many ways, despite their undoubted problems--have done so much less well.

That is a very powerful statement. Today America is the world's hyperpower. We are not buffeted between supranational ideologies fighting for supremacy, ideologies which rarely found an excuse to resist turning to violence against their own people on a massive scale. We survived the worst global economic collapse since 1929 relatively intact, thanks to a new president, who happened to be African American, and who saved the banks and the American auto industry. The job market has been growing steadily since 2009, and incomes are finally growing, too, along with grassroots efforts to increase the minimum wage. This has all been accomplished with a non-violent transfer of power and with little violence related to economic deprivation.

And yet nearly half the country is enraged and feels humiliated. We were almost invaded by European and Asian empires in the 40s, but Americans willingly went to war to defend freedom and democracy. Today they're prepared to discard it with the recycling.

What is going on? I read an interesting op-ed yesterday by Barton Swaim, entitled, "Donald Trump Tries to Kill Political Correctness, and Ends Up Saving It." Swaim believes the motivating and uniting factor driving Trump support is hatred of political correctness.

Swaim defines political correctness as:

the prohibition of common expressions and habits on the grounds that someone in our pluralistic society may be offended by them. It reduces political life to an array of signs and symbols deemed good or bad according to their tendency either to include or exclude aggrieved or marginalized people from common life.

I'll cut to the chase - Swaim thinks pc is "a blight and menace," reducing all of life to intersectionalities and identity politics. Even worse, when people want to engage on the issue of racism, for example, they can't speak freely because there are too many IEDs buried in the ground and they will end up being called a bigot. So, basically, everyone is enraged because the marginalized of America have taken control of their lives and imprisoned them in mental re-education camps, preventing civil and honest discussion of controversial issues. It's a classic Catch-22 situation, with an ever-changing code arranged to trap those foolish enough to venture forward, but then who get called out for not even trying. Unfair. Unsportsmanlike conduct. And the pc then dance in the end zone.

Three issues which are at the top of the political correctness scorecard are race relations, marriage equality, and trans rights. Swaim believes people feel delegitimated by the center-left on these issues, even though "Americans take all sorts of reasonable and conflicting views on all three of these topics, but all three are subjects on which, depending on the nature of their views, many feel a keen reluctance to speak candidly."

I can speak somewhat authoritatively on all three topics. Swaim is, simply, full of it. The Movement for Black Lives was driven by the Ferguson riots, caused by the killing of a black man captured on video. Every week there is another recording of a similar incident, leading any reasonable person, liberal or conservative, to infer that such extra-judicial killings have been occurring in like manner for years, if not centuries. It's just that now we have cameras.

What belief can one possibly have about these killings other than they are horrendous and must be stopped? What rational opinion could one have that would lead to an accusation "of bigotry and backwardness"? There are no easy answers to resolving the problem, but no decent American can simply shrug and say, without bias, that these are justified killings and we should turn a blind eye.

On marriage equality, we often debated within the community the value of calling our opponents bigots. I, for one, was never comfortable with that, and the movement leadership shied away from it, because people who opposed marriage equality, in contrast to those who believe all gay people should burn in hell, may have reasonable reasons to be uncomfortable. Now it is the law, and in this country, you are obligated to obey the law or pay the consequences. You don't have to like the law, you certainly needn't get "gay married," nor need you associate with married gay couples. But in a civil society you must treat everyone with respect. There is nothing pc about that.

Finally, on the issue of gender identity, I am fully aware that many Americans don't have a clue, because they've never been exposed to the study of biology and human sexuality or met a trans person. I get that, and I do not take people's discomfort personally. I don't believe misgendering is a crime, and I'm a staunch opponent of victim culture with cries of indignation about every microaggression.

So, I take those uncomfortable instances as a teaching moment, and I engage. Discrimination in many spheres of life is illegal, and, again, you must abide by the law. You don't have to like it, and there will be instances were specific situations need to be thrashed out, but in a civil society you must treat others civilly, or you indeed deserve to be called backward or a bigot.

In these instances, all we have are marginalized communities fighting to be part of the fabric of society, to live freely with dignity, just like everyone else. We can go back before the Declaration and find multiple iterations of the Golden Rule. Abide by that, and no one will call you a bigot.

Swaim, though he seems to be very uncomfortable with these three communities, comes to two valuable conclusions. The first, that by taking a rigid stance of political incorrectness, Trump makes political correctness easily the lesser of two evils. Second, that, like the trap into which the Bernie Bros have fallen, cultural change comes from the bottom up, not the top down.

I sense that Swaim is most annoyed by the way the law has changed, and the way marginalized individuals have taken that opportunity to move into the mainstream. That mainstream is more diverse than ever, and people like him fear those changes and long for the 50s. Being buffeted by so much change in the past decade - black power, gay and trans rights - they descend into paranoia, and lash out against those with whom they rarely come into contact. For with how many black people do the Trump supporters, most of who are outside urban areas, come into contact? Gay couples? Trans persons? Mexicans? Muslims? You're afraid of the 1 million plus trans persons in this country, none of whose path you might ever cross? But when your leader paints a hellscape of an America being overrun by such people, rather than look out the door and decide to believe your own eyes, you believe the rhetoric.

Clearly, to me, we've failed to teach our children the true meaning of America - of patriotism to the ideals of the Declaration and the Constitution, the necessity of abiding by the law even when you would prefer the law be otherwise, and, more importantly, accepting the fact that there are Americans who do not look and act like you, or believe as you do or value that which you do.

Tonight was Game Seven of the World Series. There were Cubs fans and Indians fans, yet they managed to coexist and will continue to do so. Men who care about their sports are quite able to analyze and understand them in as profound a manner as NASA engineers understand rocket science. Given that, they should take some time to study their political system before they toss it into the trash, and then wake up one day to discover they've lost their rights as well. Our system is precious, and we can't afford to lose our minds.

Frum closes with:

This November, however, I am voting not to advance my wish-list on taxes, entitlements, regulation, and judicial appointments. I am voting to defend Americans' profoundest shared commitment: a commitment to norms and rules that today protect my rights under a president I don't favor, and that will tomorrow do the same service for you.

Vote the wrong way in November, and those norms and rules will shudder and shake in a way unequaled since the Union won the Civil War.

This is the age of "illiberal democracy," as Fareed Zakaria calls it, and across the world we've seen formally elected leaders corrode democratic systems from within. Surely the American system of government is more robust than the Turkish or Hungarian or Polish or Malaysian or Italian systems. But that is not automatically true. It is true because of the active vigilance of freedom-loving citizens who put country first, party second. Not in many decades has that vigilance been required as it is required now.
Your hand may hesitate to put a mark beside the name, Hillary Clinton. You're not doing it for her. The vote you cast is for the republic and the Constitution.

This is our generation's existential crisis, no less dangerous than the attack on Pearl Harbor or the German Declaration of War. We can do the right thing on Tuesday, if we haven't already, and then wake up to begin the work of ensuring we are never in such a perilous state again. For our children and grandchildren.