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There is a moment in each day now when I imagine the decimation of my country. I grew up with the idea that America represented ethics and values that I could get behind. I didn’t always agree with politicians or administrations, but I respected that it was an honorable thing to serve this country. My eyes watered hearing The Star-Spangled Banner and America the Beautiful. I put my hand on my heart and believed that there was something of which we could be proud.
When I was in high school, I went to state speech contest with a fiery “The Loss of American Patriotism: Where Are the Voters?” I spent hours listening to the comedian, Rich Little, do presidential impressions. I loved learning about government and American history, reading the biographies of the men and women who shaped this country.
I joined the US Army near the end of the Cold War, became a Russian linguist and served four years of active duty and another four on reserve duty, retraining as a Combat Radio Operator in preparation for the first Gulf War. I love my country. I feel fortunate for having been born here. I love that there are so many opportunities to learn and that our diversity brings a richness of culture.
My patriotism matured, though. I read about slavery and bigotry and the resistance to equal rights. I read about My Lai and the Tuskegee experiment. I read about Watergate and watched the Iran Contra and Thomas-Hill hearings. I payed attention to the corruption, the sexual scandals, the misappropriation of funding, and the misjudgments that cost military men and women their lives.
Maturity required that I pay attention, that I vote, that I believe the foundations of government to be well-reasoned and guided by the rule of law. It required a degree of cynicism while maintaining the belief that no misdeed would go unpunished. It required me to support my community, follow the laws, and contribute where I could.
These days, my patriotism falters. I don’t know where we’re going to end up. I view my fellow citizens with suspicion, appalled that so many have willingly embraced incivility as the norm. Disgusted that so many have the I got mine, you can just suffer mentality. I’m astonished at the number of people who are comfortable deriding education and science. And so incredibly saddened by how quickly hate rises when beckoned by someone who has never served anyone but himself.
Common good is no longer part of the conversation. Who is our military fighting for? Defense contractors and antiquities thieves and soon, it will be minerals. Maybe it was always like that and I was too immature to see how easily people in power waste the lives of those who aren’t. Our system is awash in tainted lucre, crusty old men, and greedy shareholders.
The conservative class is polluted by religious fundamentalism, photogenic faces with acidic, twisted morals. Lying has become de rigeur and shamelessness, a casual smirk worn with defiance. Winning at the expense of fellow Americans. Trading in an empathetic sense of right and wrong for showmanship.
Liberals are being bogged down by the attention-seeking behavior of the deliberately ignorant. Unfortunately, they’ve been thrown so far off balance and are spending so much time compensating, that the message is lost. They don’t need new bumper stickers. They need to step outside a cycle of reactivity. They need imagination and originality.
I don’t feel at home here, a country I was born in and raised to love. Now there’s this rise of white nationalism, a soupy crockpot of crackpots and conspiracy theorists, all blaming someone else for their lot in life. All the religiosity is scary and the anti-intellectualism reminds me of other regimes that went after intellectuals, scientists, journalists, readers. Me, with my secular humanism and library card – I’ll end up on a list. My inability to be attractive enough to seduce or wealthy enough to bribe anyone – unable to get in the right line, check the right boxes.
Apocalyptic views are often roundly mocked. But we’re watching bedrock institutions having the legs knocked out from under them, while being undermined, and ridiculed by a man who is wily, but not intelligent. We’re watching our President begin to strip away the rights of our fellow citizens in order to cater to his minority of supporters and to distract us from his other nefarious undertakings. Our leaders used to be people who recognized that the higher duty was to country and not themselves. We used to want people who were smarter, more talented, better read, better educated, and more well-rounded in their American experience than we ourselves were.
Now we have a bully who has been pampered and flattered from cradle to grave, who has turned national discourse into a manipulated reality show dialogue. The Ugly American in all its stomach-turning glory. Meanwhile, every dictator on the planet has bellied up to the bar to have a missile measuring contest. It’s good times for them. The rogue’s gallery of murderers – Putin, Duterte, Erdogan, Kim Jong Un, all happy to see that America is now completely unmoored from even a pretense of moral leadership.
And what can I do? I vote, I follow the rules, I donate to causes I support, I volunteer, I call my representatives. I work to understand the issues. I try to see different perspectives. All from my little house in a midwestern working class suburb where life, at the moment, appears unchanged.
A Muslim family moved in across from our neighbors, who are religious home schoolers. Down the street, one neighbor finally took down their Trump/Pence sign. We still keep up our “We Choose Love” sign, a faint reminder of idealism in the recent past. Will this diverse neighborhood survive or will we come to blows? Will we need hidden rooms and underground railroads and forged identity papers?
There are too many dominoes coming down all at once, too many lies to keep track of, and too many morally-destitute people with the power to be destructive at the helm. Threats from without are being matched by threats from within. We can only protest and resist our captors for so long. Without money or power, we’re just left to negotiate for bathroom breaks – after our gender is checked. This is what a small percentage of our fellow citizens wish for us and there is simply no denying the sheer malevolence of it.
This is about as pessimistic as I get about things and it’s not a place where I plan to stay. Lest you think I’m giving up, giving in, or content to sit in apathy, the events of the last weekend and the national dialogue surrounding them have given me pause. It all requires more thoughtfulness and wisdom than I am capable of at the moment.