I enjoy reading Daily Kos from time to time, in spite of its tendency to devolve into internecine warfare (particularly during primary season). What drew me to the site in 2008, and what keeps me coming back in 2017, is that it provides a platform for ordinary people to publish honest, personal, and heartfelt stories about politics and liberalism. (Much like this humble blog, I might add.) They represent a welcome contrast from “elite journalism” (which, to be fair, should also have a place in your weekly reading list).
Anyway, one such ordinary man, Henry Rosen, wrote a post about how Trump voters were no longer welcome in his home, and subsequently penned a thoughtful response to the comments he received on the original post. The response was entitled, “To Michelle Obama: for the first time in my adult life I am ASHAMED of my country.”
The title was a take on Michelle Obama’s somewhat famous quote, uttered during the 2008 Democratic primary, that “For the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback.” In the spirit of that remarkably silly election cycle, Republicans feigned outrage and affected sanctimony, with Cindy McCain replying, “I have and always will be proud of my country.” Michelle Obama was even forced to walk back her remarks a few days later, saying that she’s always loved her country.
In 2016, of course, the roles were reversed. The Republicans ran on “Make America Great Again”, and the Democrats tried to use the Cindy McCain response: “America never stopped being great.”
I never found that rebuttal terribly compelling, either from the perspective of politics or from the perspective of truth. Politically, it sounds like you’re ignoring the people for whom America is not great, many of whom live in the hollowed out Rust Belt states that swung the election to Trump. And, politics aside, who truly believes that America has always been great? Are we talking about the America responsible for the 3/5ths compromise, the Trail of Tears, slavery, the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Japanese Internment camps, Jim Crow, the Vietnam War, the War in Iraq, and the response to Hurricane Katrina? That America?
I think Michelle Obama was right the first time. And the reason that right-wing talk show hosts were outraged is that America has always been good to people like them: well-to-do, propertied, white males. Even white liberals are susceptible to this lack of perspective or empathy. Rosen makes this point beautifully in his essay, saying
Personally, I realized that the African-American experience was profoundly different than my privileged upbringing, and that there likely had been a persistent sense for Michelle of not being part of the larger national body. However, I never fully embraced or understood her remark. Until now, that is.
It is because of that profound difference that black people have been responsible for some of the most clear-eyed takes on American history and politics. One that sprung to my mind is Jeremiah Wright, Michelle Obama and President Obama’s former pastor. Wright was at the center of the biggest controversy during Obama’s campaign, over the remarks that he made about America in some of his sermons. Here’s what he had to say about governments, and in particular the American government:
Governments fail. The government in this text comprised of Caesar, Cornelius, Pontus Pilot – Pontius Pilate – the Roman government failed. The British government used to rule from east to west. The British government had a Union Jack. She colonized Kenya, Guyana, Nigeria, Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and Hong Kong. Her navies ruled the seven seas all the way down to the tip of Argentina in the Falklands, but the British failed. The Russian government failed. The Japanese government failed. The German government failed. And the United States of America government, when it came to treating her citizens of Indian descent fairly, she failed. She put them on reservations. When it came to treating her citizens of Japanese descent fairly, she failed. She put them in internment prison camps. When it came to treating her citizens of African descent fairly, America failed. She put them in chains. The government put them in slave quarters, put them on auction blocks, put them in cotton fields, put them in inferior schools, put them in substandard housing, put them in scientific experiments, put them in the lowest paying jobs, put them outside the equal protection of the law, kept them out of their racist bastions of higher education and locked them into position of hopelessness and helplessness. The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law, and then wants us to sing “God Bless America.” No, no, no. Not “God Bless America”; God Damn America! That’s in the Bible, for killing innocent people. God Damn America for treating her citizen as less than human. God Damn America as long as she keeps trying to act like she is God and she is supreme!
The United States government has failed the vast majority of her citizens of African descent. Think about this, think about this. For every 1 Oprah, a billionaire, you got five million Blacks who are out of work. For every 1 Colin Powell, a millionaire, you got ten million Blacks who cannot read. For every 1 “Condeskeeza” Rice, you got one million in prison. For every 1 Tiger Woods, who needs to get beat at the Masters with his cat-blazing hips, playing on a course that discriminates against women; God has this way of bringing you short when you get too big for your cat-blazing britches. For every 1 Tiger Woods, we got ten thousand Black kids who will never see a golf course. The United States government has failed the vast majority of her citizens of African descent.
Sure, some of the rhetoric is overwrought, and some of the statistics are wrong. I’ll admit that “God Damn America” sounds bad out of context (and, as a consequence, it was played on repeat by the media during March 2008). But Wright’s main conclusion, that “The United States government has failed the vast majority of her citizens of African descent”, could not be truer.
I think about all of this in the context of Trump’s executive order to ban Muslims from 7 countries, the most deplorable thing he did in a week full of them. I think about how America is failing yet again, about how this event only confirms Michelle Obama’s original sentiments. I also have various scattered thoughts, about the hypocrisy of banning people from Somalia but not Saudi Arabia, the utter ineptness of the execution of the order, the damaging effect it will have on business and academia, and the fact that Republicans like Paul Ryan and Mike Pence, who opposed a Muslim ban a year ago, are now supporting it.
But each of these thoughts fail to capture how angry I am over this (which is why, once again, I marched today). This executive order strands travelers indefinitely. It tears apart families. It targets people who have followed the rules. It breaks the most carefully conceived plans. It destroys people’s lives. We have needlessly angered millions of people who weren’t angry at us already. And we have driven some who already were angry to finally act on their feelings.
I’m reminded of the other infamous sermon that Reverend Wright gave, shortly after 9/11. The whole thing is fascinating, and I’d encourage you to read it. The sermon focuses on II Kings (or, as Trump would say, “Two Kings”), and talks about the violence that resulted after the fall of Jerusalem. I can’t do the whole thing justice, but focus on this section:
Every public service I have heard about so far in the wake of the American tragedy has had in its prayers and in its preachments sympathy and compassion for those who were killed and for their families, and God’s guidance upon this elected president (and our war machine) as they do what they do, and what they “gotta do.” Paybacks. There’s a move in Ps. 137 from thoughts of paying tithes to thoughts of paying back. A move, if you will, from worship to war. A move from the worship of the God of creation, to war against those whom God created.
And I want you to notice very carefully the next move. One of the reasons this Psalm is rarely read in its entirety, because it is a move that spotlights the insanity of the cycle of violence and the cycle of hatred. Look at verse 9. Look at verse 9. “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rocks!” The people of faith: “By the rivers of Babylon. How shall we sing the Lord’s song? If I forget thee…” The people of faith have moved from the hatred of armed enemies – those soldiers who captured the king, those soldiers who slaughtered his son and put his eyes out, the soldiers who sacked the city, burned their towns, burned the temple, burned the tower – they had moved from the hatred for armed enemies to the hatred of unarmed innocents. The babies. The babies. “Blessed are they who dash your babies brains against a rock.” And that, my beloved, is a dangerous place to be. Yet. That is where the people of faith are in 551 BC and that is where far too many people of faith are in 2001 AD. We have moved from the hatred of armed enemies to the hatred of unarmed innocents. We want revenge. We want paybacks. And we don’t care who gets hurt in the process.
This is what Trump’s executive order does. It “moves the hatred for armed enemies to the hatred of unarmed innocents.” It doesn’t “care who gets hurt in the process.” But that only furthers the “cycle of violence and the cycle of hatred”. Reverend Wright used this psalm to argue that the violence visited upon the U.S. in 9/11 was almost karmic, that it was the result of our violence, in the Middle East and other areas, for the past several decades. He referred to it as our “chickens coming home to roost” (a phrase likely inspired by Malcolm X). After Trump’s executive order, I have a feeling we’re going to see a lot more chickens in the coming years.