The polar icecaps are melting even faster than predicted. Smoke from the California wildfires has smudged the skies above New England. Hundreds of migrant children remain imprisoned indefinitely for the crime of having parents who didn’t want them to starve or be murdered. White middle class American citizens are murdering members of their own families, and whomever else is nearby, so frequently that it feels as routine as last night’s sports scores. It’s possible to spend all day naming the bizarre emergencies that afflict our country and the world, and still leave most unmentioned.
This reminds me of the first time I really understood that I was going to inherit the failures of my elders, and that their failures were legion.
I turned thirteen in April of 1971. One week after my birthday the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the constitutionality of busing students of color to predominantly white schools. The aim was to create conditions whereby students would receive equal educational opportunities in spite of where they lived, regardless of their race. The decision and subsequent rulings caused bitter confrontations across the country, and to this day the desired effect has not come close to being achieved. In fact our public education system is arguably more segregated by race and economic inequality now, than it was then.
The Supreme Court’s decision in the cause of desegregation was fatally flawed, but highly principled, and it was unanimous, which, given the torrent of opposition and political cowardice that followed, makes the effort and its’ aftermath extraordinarily sad.
On the cultural front at that time, America was also divided, but the results were glorious. Defiance, passion, shock and idealism turned Rock & Roll into much more than something to dance to.
In June of 1971 Frank Sinatra retired and Aretha Franklin released ‘Aretha Franklin Live at the Fillmore West’. The Supreme Court reversed Muhammad Ali’s conviction for refusing to be drafted, which added to increasingly passionate nationwide opposition to the war in Vietnam, and Sly and the Family Stone’s song, ‘Family Affair'(from their album ‘Love & Haight’) was a number one hit for 5 weeks. Marvin Gaye released ‘What’s Going On’, Led Zeppelin IV was the #1 album, Janis Joplin’s album ‘Pearl’ was released after her sudden death by overdose. James Brown, who three years earlier had, almost single handedly prevented the city of Boston from becoming a war zone by proceeding with a scheduled concert in Boston Garden the night after Martin Luther King’s assassination, released ‘Sex Machine’ which became an instant runaway hit. It’s very hard to name any artist of today with anything like the kind of range, popularity and importance that those artists and their peers gave to the world.
But, it is worth noting that June of 1971 is also the month that Tupac Shakur was born.
In the summer of 1969 my mother, who died last year at the age of 91, hand made a sticker and put it on the back window of her car. It was an American flag, and under it she wrote the following: ‘Stop the War, Honor the Flag’. I remember how it slowly dawned on me why she had to make that sticker herself. It was because those two sentiments would not have appeared together on any manufactured bumper sticker she might have purchased.
I believe that as a nation we are at least as divided now as we were then, but it doesn’t feel to me like that division is reflected nearly as adamantly in our popular culture.
To me and a lot of members of my generation, the response to this era of Trump, especially in popular music and film, sucks. I’m aware that the definition of a hit record has changed, and corporate control of major artists make those artists leery of becoming the face/voice of anything ‘controversial’, but those are neither good reasons nor good excuses. Even if you’re a big star, if there’s a constitutional emergency going on, you don’t stand in a doorway while the house falls down around you.
Or do you?
I submit that our culture today is in danger of becoming as corrupt as our politics, and my generation bears most of blame. Somewhere along the line as we got older we started saying ‘been there, done that’, not just about LSD and the sexual revolution, but also about civil rights, gender equality, and opposition to reckless and un-winnable wars. It’s our fault that there’s still an electoral college, and that young black men are being marched into prison as if the subjugation of black bodies is some kind of national imperative. I was thrilled by Barack Obama’s Presidency, but I was not nearly dismayed enough by the brazen ugliness of the white backlash that has followed.
Meanwhile there’s a growing number of young people who’ve seen enough, and have begun to take on the NRA, environmental degradation, immigrant rights, and racism. They’re putting their bodies on the line. The least us so-called grown ups can do is show up.
Because if we don’t our nation could soon become even more like the terrible land Robert Olmstead describes in this passage from his astonishing post civil war novel entitled, ‘Savage Country’…
…”That night Michael thought how the American war was not the end of something but the beginning of learning how to kill more easily, learning that however destructive, however much destruction they did, they were capable of even more. The world would be a warring place. The nations would form and they would take everything they could. The new world would be the old world, only worse. The regimes of wealth, the blood drinkers, the men who glory in their shame — they would determine who had the right to live free. If people would not be used, they would be murdered.”
The ‘Men who glory in their shame’ are seizing and wielding terrible power all over the world these days, and instead of expressing outrage or dismay, our president seems envious. His preoccupation with Vladimir Putin, which evidently began back when Trump was a B-list celebrity with a lot of messy financial ‘exposure’, is unlike anything that’s happened between the two nuclear superpowers since the dawn of the atomic age. Which makes Trump’s sudden unequivocal declaration of support for Venezuelan politician Juan Guaidó, which is actually the right thing to do, seem like some kind of nefarious bait and switch.
For the first time the balance of power isn’t a zero sum game. The Russians appear to have something so explosive on Trump, that the United States President is afraid to confront them, and might just be doing their bidding.
To what do we owe this terrible state of affairs? The one word that seems most apt is ‘corruption’. The election that led to Trump’s presidency was so drenched in corporate and so-called ‘dark’ money, that – besides Trump – not a single major candidate, with the exception of Bernie Sanders, dared to say anything that might annoy their benefactors. I am not saying that Bernie Sanders would have made a better president than either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, but… actually yes I am saying that. What I am not saying is that Senator Sanders would be a good president. It’s possible that his administration would be almost as divisive and paralyzed as Trump’s, but it would be far less corrupt than Trump or Clinton, and that’s not nothing.
A very large measure of the blame for all this ugliness belongs to my generation. Those of us born in the 1950’s, especially us privileged white people, should have seen this coming, and fought harder to protect our children and grandchildren from the erosion of democratic institutions that Trump and his cabal of felons have exploited. Instead we devoted ourselves to making money, and then taking advantage of our already privileged positions to make even more. When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez calls for a 70% tax rate on the ultra rich, she’s doing what young and idealistic legislators did in the 1930’s. They succeeded in imposing that same tax rate on the Robber Barons who, in the ’20’s, made themselves filthy rich on the backs of blue collar and immigrant labor, and then blew up the economy, leading to the Great Depression. Today’s billionaire class make the robber barons look like paupers, and far too many of the so called 1% don’t pay any taxes at all. Donald Trump, who isn’t even in the same league as the hundreds of actual billionaires with US passports, is a perfect example of corporate welfare. For him and his ilk bankruptcy is a kind of spa day, wherein a few things get moved around, bad debt gets ‘forgiven’, offshore accounts are dipped into, and another bad idea gets an IPO.
These dismal failures could soon become the financial legacy of my generation. I have a feeling that a heartfelt apology isn’t going to be enough, and that in the time we have left, those of us who want our grandchildren to be thriving fifty years from now, need to join with the young and angry generation of progressives, and do what we can to leave them a better world.
The time is ripe. Trump is more vulnerable in this moment than he’s ever been. Those who are dismayed by the prospect of impeachment do have some good points, but this administration’s wholesale incompetence presents a clear and present danger to the republic as a whole, and there is no one, even among the dozens of Trump’s minions who have already been indicted and or convicted, who appears to be nearly as guilty of High Crimes and Misdemeanors as he is.
If Mike Pence ends up as a caretaker President for a few months, how much damage can he do that Trump wouldn’t be doing himself if he remains in office?
That’s not a rhetorical question. I hope that the answer is it can’t be as bad as what Trump is capable of, but given how dangerously weird both men are, it might be a toss up. However, I don’t think that Trump could bear the process. I believe if it came to impeachment, he would do what Nixon did, and fly away in a helicopter, thus proving his guilt, and fatally impugning the political reputation of just about everyone in his administration.
Meanwhile what Nancy Pelosi just did should be very heartening to those of us who want to see Trump defeated sooner rather than later. The fact that it hasn’t gotten the amount of press that it warrants is probably a blessing, given how prone to self-congratulations our members of congress are, but it is no small thing that Ms. Pelosi was able to compel Donald Trump to both reopen the government, and go back on his signature campaign fetish, a wall along our southern border.
I am starting to feel slightly less fatalistic. The House of Representatives is firmly under the control of a Democratic majority, and the newest members of that body have quickly established that they are neither shy, nor naive. More republicans than ever are at least asking themselves if Donald Trump is worth the trouble, and some are openly opposing him. So there is still some democracy left in Washington.
But he’s still the Commander in Chief, and the people closest to him are, unsurprisingly, closest to him in personality as well; John Bolton and Stephen Miller being two of the worst.
I’m not good at praying, because whenever I do I am usually motivated by either fear or guilt. Which is sort of like trying to go for a swim with an anchor, and another anchor. But I do manage a semblance of un-conflicted hope, and even faith, when I pray for Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller. Any person who would take on a task like the one that Robert Mueller carries, is, I have to believe, of particular interest to God. It seems to me that God must have a special care for that kind of man.
So, when I pray for Mueller it doesn’t feel like begging, nor does it feel pious. It feels like praying for justice. It feels like praying for truth. It feels like an expression of not just hope, but progress. Rather than idealizing the individual, a prayer for Robert Mueller and people like him, feels like a prayer for civilization, for fairness, and equal representation. It feels like an expression of a kind of worldly idealism; that accepts the need for prosecuting elected officials, no matter how much power they wield, because to do anything less is a sin, and Donald Trump is our national sin.
So, let’s all pray, for justice.