Make America Great Again

Recently America reclaimed its preference of having a rich white man as the president, and this time he is an outspoken millionaire business man turned reality TV star who unabashedly encourages bigotry, racism, sexism, and myriad other isms and things that can potentially lead to oppression, violence, and the glorification of hatred as a viable option for change.  People who did not vote for Mr. Trump feel everything from blindsided to sorrowful to angry to depressed to resigned to hopeless.  People who did vote for him [likely] feel everything from elated to vindicated to satisfied to safe to, I daresay,  confused.  I imagine that people everywhere, no matter how they voted, or even if they didn’t vote, feel the enormity of what has been brought to the surface in the last few days.  Mr. Trump got as far as he did in the election because he feeds into all of the insecurities that a large portion of Americans have, from unemployment to national security to big government.  He feeds the fears, and fear, when fed, grows without bounds.  Unprocessed fear allows people to act in ways they wouldn’t normally act, and brings out the parts that usually stay in the shadows.  And when you can invite someone who has been afraid into feeling safe and righteous instead, even if it means inciting violence and rage, and even if they don’t agree with some (or most) of what you stand for, often times, you win their loyalty. 

I read a nonfiction book about the holocaust not long ago, about a Polish woman, the wife of the zookeeper in Warsaw.  She and her husband hid persecuted Jews in their home as the war progressed, as well as amidst the ruins of the zoo outbuildings after the city was bombed and occupied by the Germans.  She wrote of the everydayness of life, even while such despair and hatred and violence underlaid every hour of every day.  She wrote about doing what she could to help and feeling like it was never enough in the face of such atrocity.  She wrote about the German soldiers and how they looked so young, and about how some would joke with her son and smile at her as they walked to their posts, some even handing her flowers now and then.   The events that came along with World War II illustrate how ordinary people have the capacity to willingly follow a misguided man on a mission that destroys life in ways that are hard to acknowledge. I’m not saying that Mr. Trump is the next Hitler or that we are on the way to into something as horrifying as what went down in the 1940s.  But I bet the German population during WWII was made up of, by and large, nice people.  I’m almost 100% German.  But the holocaust still happened.

In the mid 90s, when I was 13 and 14, I went with a church group to the Pine Ridge Indian reservation, a seven hour drive from my childhood home in eastern South Dakota.  I suppose it was your fairly run of the mill “mission trip”: We spent mornings facilitating a day camp with local children and afternoons doing work projects. In addition to playing games, sharing meals and doing crafts with the local children, some days we drove them back to their homes in our big white church van. Pine Ridge is one of the more poverty stricken reservations in the United States, and this fact was glaringly apparent to my 13 year old self as we dropped off the kids after the days’ session. One afternoon we spent a little more time just driving around one of the neighborhoods in Pine Ridge proper, and I remember feeling a wash of guilt, incredulity that I had so much when these people were born into so little, and amazement that so many people were living in such conditions. South Dakota doesn’t have mild winters, especially not on the western prairie where Pine Ridge is located. So many people were without adequate housing.

That afternoon I remember feeling disgusted that we, rich white Americans, were invading the personal space of people who our forefathers had stolen from and oppressed. I remember feeling like the story I was living was based on something that didn’t feel right — a story that was failing these beautiful people. My 13 year old mind didn’t really know what to do with these thoughts, but looking back now, I can identify that trip, and more specifically, that drive around a neighborhood, as the experience that invited me to start to question what was really going on in the world. I remember thinking, in school years later, “of course there’s a lot of alcoholism on the reservations. I would be alcoholic too if someone had swooped in, claimed my people’s sacred hills, carved huge statues of their leaders into them and pushed my family to the edge of society. Who wouldn’t want to escape the pain that comes from that?”

Now, in 2016, indigenous peoples from all over are gathered in North Dakota to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline, a project that is, as I type these words, destroying sacred sites and continuing the pattern of oppression of native people.  Police in riot gear make arrests and harm peaceful protesters.  They are “doing their job” and following orders.  Some have laid down their badges, but most have not: they have families for which to provide, or they believe they are on the right side.  In North Dakota, the state of the Bakken Oil fields, pipelines mean money, and money often means doing what one has to do to get what feels like enough.  Elders and youth and members of the press are charged with felonies and trespassing on lands where their ancestors are buried, and horses and people are shot with rubber bullets.  The cycle of oppression continues, even though we know what we know.  The Lakota and Dakota people didn’t choose to live where they live now, and indigenous people have been oppressed for hundreds of years all over this continent. Big oil and excessive energy consumption continues to pillage the earth, leaving scars and destruction that hurt the poorest of the poor who don’t get the modern benefits of all that electricity and cheap gas.

Wounded Knee happened.  Climate change is happening.

The list could go on. Japanese internment camps happened, too.  On US soil.   Slavery was the norm until 1833, and today racism is still very much alive and well.  Women were granted the right to vote in 1920, but even today see discrimination from lower pay to harassment to double standards.  GLBTQ folks, those with disabilities, the elderly, even people who don’t fit the current standard of “attractive”…all of these people are constantly given the message that they aren’t good enough or that something is wrong with them. We like to think that we can “make America great again” (no matter what our political leanings) but when we give history a good look, it’s hard to identify when America has actually been great.  America is a country built by slaves on stolen land.  It’s afforded many of the privileged, myself included, wonderful freedoms that folks in many other countries don’t have – there is no denying that.  American has been a welcoming place for millions of people. But we have a long way to go to make America great. (we can just leave off the ‘again’ part)  When we elect an indigenous person as president, cease the extraction of fossil fuels, refuse to go to war, stop building huge houses and driving recreational Hummers…when we can accept that those in poverty are just as valuable as those steeped in wealth …maybe then we will be getting there.

So now, as the country simmers in a stew of division, grief, and hatred masked as “change”, we need to remember.  We need to acknowledge what we as humans are capable of, even when we think we are doing the right thing.  We need to remember where we came from and what we want to leave behind. We need to put ourselves in the position of the other, and imagine what it’s like to be in someone else’s life situation.  Even those of us who condemn much of what Donald Trump’s campaign stands for (and the issues that have been highlighted as a result) need to look past the hate and into why people are so afraid in the first place.

The land base of America?  Now that’s great.  Fabulous.  Worthy of our tireless work to ensure action is taken to lessen human impact on the earth.  American culture?  Not so much.   There are good aspects, of course: people have found refuge here, safety here, prospered here, loved here and been loved here.  But I don’t know that, with the marginalization of so many groups, we could call it ‘great’, past or present. But the good news is that nothing is written in stone, and even if it was,  stone can be smoothed or different words can be illuminated. Elie Wiesel once wrote, “I speak from experience that even in darkness, it is possible to create light and encourage compassion. There it is: I still believe in man in spite of man.”

If Elie Wiesel can still believe humanity is good, well.  There might be hope for us yet.

But it’s important to acknowledge and dig into what got us here. It’s important not to forget the parts of our story that we sometimes want to.  And if we can be kind to people along the way, we are on the right road into a story that will serve us all better in the long run.

Charles Eisenstein writes:

As we enter a period of intensifying disorder, it is important to introduce a different kind of force to animate the structures that might appear after the old ones crumble. I would call it love if it weren’t for the risk of triggering your New Age bullshit detector, and besides, how does one practically bring love into the world in the realm of politics? So let’s start with empathy. Politically, empathy is akin to solidarity, born of the understanding that we are all in this together. In what together? For starters, we are in the uncertainty together.

We are exiting an old story that explained to us the way of the world and our place in it. Some may cling to it all the more desperately as it dissolves, looking perhaps to Donald Trump to restore it, but their savior has not the power to bring back the dead. Neither would Clinton have been able to preserve America as we’d known it for too much longer. We as a society are entering a space between stories, in which everything that had seemed so real, true, right, and permanent comes into doubt.

We are entering a space between stories. After various retrograde versions of a new story rise and fall and we enter a period of true unknowing, an authentic next story will emerge. What would it take for it to embody love, compassion, and interbeing? I see its lineaments in those marginal structures and practices that we call holistic, alternative, regenerative, and restorative. All of them source from empathy, the result of the compassionate inquiry: What is it like to be you?

So, next time there’s a chance to engage with someone who might be considered ‘the enemy’, let us all step into their story just for a moment and really imagine: What is it like to be you?


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