Warning: This is a political rant that apparently needs to be expressed before I can go on with my life.
I've been going through an extended period of sadness and anxiety.....no work, no energy, nothing to say. The cloud raining upon me is definitely political in nature, but I have been having a hard time articulating just where the essential problem lies and wondering why I don't get over it. Finally, I recognized the feelings as grief. I am mourning the loss of the idea of America I have always loved.
I was taught all the standard patriotic stuff in my standard public school education....all the symbols and the rah-rah and George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and Paul Revere. I swallowed it hook, line and sinker. Although time and study have added many layers of nuance to my understanding, I still feel great pride and reverence for the essential ideas contained in the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution. I especially appreciate the underlying assumption that raised this democratic experiment up out of the burbling swamp of history.... the idea that all men are created equal. (As a child of the fifties and sixties I had never a moment's doubt that "all men" meant everyone, even me.) The burgeoning of this idea through the course of Western thought and history has been traced by many, but its practical appearance in the foundational documents of the new United States was and is a gift to the world. It was profound leap of spirit that I hold dear.
This belief in the essential equality of all human beings has been touted for two hundred years and has become part of the patriotic wallpaper, but it was and is revolutionary. If every human has equal value any hierarchical stratification built into society (like hereditary titles or slavery) makes no sense. It breaks down and negates the divisions that our instinct for tribalism will always construct. I see a lot of our history through the lens of our tribal urges. I think tribalism is hard-wired in us. Helpless babies are born into families and the structure of clan and tribe arises organically from that. We can't help wanting to join with the people we see as "us", for protection, appreciation and guidance in our lives. Drawing together with our group against "them" has informed human interaction since our earliest days. We rely on our groups for our identity and project our fears and unacceptable feelings onto outsiders. Tribalism stands for safety and certainty. It is manageable, predictable and closed. The presence of "others" helps form the boundaries of "us" so equality between tribes is usually denied, especially if we feel threatened. We tend to vilify or de-legitimize "them", ever more vociferously as the perceived threat intensifies. Tribalism informs all aspects of culture from religion to politics to sports to warfare. It is instinctive, which I think makes everyone a little bit racist and xenophobic somewhere inside.
The thing about humans though, is that they are not slaves to their instincts. While the biological tendency towards tribalism can never be extinguished (my opinion), we can become aware of its influence and choose to loosen and expand our idea of who constitutes "us". The American statement of the equality of all demands the recognition of every human being as belonging to our tribe (at least in the sense of having needs and dreams that correspond our own and the right to pursue them) and through the two hundred years of our history we have worked to bring that recognition into our common life. Our history shows an uneven but unmistakable trend toward more inclusion and acceptance of difference in the name of human rights. There have been many wholly predictable set-backs and failures. Every influx of "new" ethnic or religious groups has set off tribal resistance and animosity, so we almost never live up to our ideal in the short term. The presence of slavery from the very beginning has especially overshadowed our country and its tentacles of fear, greed, anger and ingrained inequality still permeate our society. Irish people, Italians, Poles, Scandinavians, Chinese, Japanese, Mexicans....and of course, Jews, whose ability to maintain their cohesive tribe through centuries of wandering has made them perennial scapegoats ....and Native Americans who had to be denied equality in order to be pushed aside.... have experienced the resistance of "us" versus "them". It is the over-arching ideals of our founding documents that make the space that allows immigrants and minority groups to establish themselves over time as true Americans. They do this admirably, enriching our businesses, our churches, our foods, our music, adding immeasurably to our cultural and genetic vibrancy. This eventual inclusiveness in my mind is the only ground on which to claim American exceptionalism.
Furthermore, I don't think equality versus tribalism is just a question of reason over instinct. I think the powerful draw of group identity produces its own antidote. The rigid boundaries of "us" almost always trigger the need to escape and rebel because they become too restrictive. Human intellect and the human spirit seek new experience and I think this is instinctive too. It is necessary for the expansion of consciousness for which we are always seeking and that makes us who we are. Curiosity, awe and the increase of understanding are complimentary attitudes that open us up to new possibilities and unusual responses to the problems of our existence. They are as essential for our long-term survival as the safety of the tribe. Equality allows everyone to walk through that open door and America has been the place where people come to do it. It has long stood for opportunity, creativity and human endeavor and that has made me very proud to be an American.
So, now the tribal urge has taken us over again and the equality of all is disregarded. Every day new attacks upon the American Idea are launched and the fragile structure of rule and tradition that upholds it is further dismantled. The people in power have stated their destructive aims unambiguously and have deliberately fanned the flames of tribal fear. They wish to "bring everything crashing down". They have no loyalty to the Constitution or the ideals stated in the Declaration of Independence. Can it be that our divisions are so strong that we are ready to follow them and abandon what we have professed to believe for so long? Will we cease to be American in this most essential way?
My heart is breaking.