Tag Archives: American greatness

Can We Define “Great”?

One of the consequences of the fragmented media environment fostered by the Internet has been the development of alternate realities. Americans increasingly get our “news” from sources carefully chosen to confirm our pre-existing biases.

Nowhere is this more apparent than with the divisions over Donald Trump and his slogan  “Make America Great Again.”

It’s true, as many historians have pointed out, that the people with whom this slogan resonates tend to have a somewhat selective understanding of America’s history–one that omits the nation’s frequent deviation from its cherished principles. But inaccurate/incomplete history isn’t really the problem. The problem is with their definition of “greatness,” which tends to correspond with straight white male Christian dominance.

My own bias is for the vision of American greatness described by soccer star Megan Rapinoe in a recent article in the Guardian.

The US women’s soccer co-captain Megan Rapinoe has delivered an uncompromising message to Donald Trump, amid ongoing controversy over a possible visit to the White House by the World Cup champions.

Asked by CNN’s Anderson Cooper what she would like to say to the American leader, Rapinoe said: “Your message is excluding people. You’re excluding me, you’re excluding people that look like me, you’re excluding people of colour, you’re excluding Americans that maybe support you.”

Rapinoe has been outspoken about LGBT rights as well as racial and gender equality. After the US won the World Cup for a record fourth time on Sunday, Rapinoe called for progress on equal pay for the male and female teams.

In a previous interview with CNN, Rapinoe had said that, should the U.S. team win, they would not go to the “fucking” White House. In the Guardian, she expressed regret for her language, but not for her sentiment.

“I would not go, and every teammate that I’ve talked to explicitly about it would not go,” she said.

“I don’t think anyone on the team has any interest in lending the platform that we’ve worked so hard to build, and the things that we fight for, and the way that we live our life … I don’t think that we want that to be co-opted or corrupted by this administration,” Rapinoe told Cooper.

She added that allowing the White House to “put us on display” didn’t “make sense for us at all”, adding: “There are so many other people that I would rather talk to and have meaningful conversations that could really affect change in Washington than going to the White House.”

The sports star added the US needed to have a “reckoning” with the implications of Trump’s Make America Great Again slogan. “You’re harking back to an era that was not great for everyone – it might have been great for a few people, and maybe America is great for a few people right now, but it’s not great for enough Americans in this world.”

Rapinoe’s definition of greatness–a definition with which I concur–is inclusion.

 A great society is one that values all its citizens, a society that rewards people based upon their behavior rather than their identity–a society that encourages and celebrates everyone’s participation and contribution.

Unfortunately, a  growing segment of the Internet is fostering a fear of “replacement” in insecure whites.That fear is based upon a definition of “greatness” that frantically opposes inclusion; “greatness” is a country where “people who look like me” are in control. As the linked article reports,

The far right has set off a vicious circle of disinformation by filling the information and communication gap on topics such as demographic change with emotive, speculative and hysterical content instead of facts.

The next election will be a choice between those who define American greatness as inclusion and civic equality and those who believe that “great” means an America that privileges straight white Christians.

 

 

Edging Toward Civil War?

A few days ago, I shared one of the essay questions from my Law and Policy final exam. The question required students to consider the very different–actually opposed–beliefs about what constitutes American “greatness.”

A number of students chose to respond to that question, and although virtually all of their essays were thoughtful, several of them were depressing. As I noted yesterday, at least a couple suggested that we might be heading toward civil war–that Americans’ approaches to the legitimacy and purpose of government are so incommensurate that common ground is simply unattainable.

Nearly all of them blamed social media for many of our inconsistent realities.

As I said yesterday, I would love to dismiss their observations and concerns as overblown, but stories like the one yesterday and this one–which I referenced a few days ago– are becoming more common and more worrisome.

A small group of white nationalists stormed a bookstore in Washington, D.C., to protest an event for a book on racial politics and how it’s impacting lower- and middle-class white Americans.

The group stormed the Politics and Prose bookstore on Saturday afternoon, interrupting a scheduled talk by Jonathan Metzl, a professor of sociology and psychiatry at Vanderbilt University who released his book “Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment Is Killing America’s Heartland” this spring.

Videos filmed by those in attendance showed the group standing in a line before the audience chanting, “This land is our land.” At least one man was yelling white nationalist propaganda into a megaphone while people in the bookstore booed him.

The man identified the group as “identitarians,” a far-right white nationalist group which is linked to Identity Evropa, which the Southern Poverty Law Center lists as an extremist group.

This exhibition of racial and religious animus took place on the very same day that a 19-year-old white supremacist fired on worshippers in a synagogue in Poway, California.
Before he mounted the attack, the shooter had  gone online and posted an eight-page manifesto, in which he boasted about his “European ancestry” and expressed hatred of Jewish people.

Metzl told NBC Washington that before the protest broke out he was speaking to a man who had helped Metzl’s father and grandfather flee Nazi Austria.

“Not five minutes before, I had acknowledged him and said this is how great America can be when it is bold and generous,” Metzl recalled to NBC.

He told the Post that the incident was “very symbolic for me.”

Actually, the incident should be symbolic for all of us.

The man who had helped Metzl’s father and grandfather escape the Nazis represents what many of us–certainly, the people who occupy my own “bubble”–think of as American greatness: generosity of spirit, a willingness to use our own good fortune to assist others, an instinctive impulse to protect people who are weaker or who are being marginalized.

We see America as an idea and citizenship as a diverse polity’s common devotion to that idea.

The “very fine” people who rioted in Charlottesville, who shot up the synagogue in California, who demonstrated in that bookstore and who cheer anti-immigrant slogans at Trump rallies cluster around a very different version of American greatness.

In their morally impoverished reality, only white Christians can be Americans, and only when straight white Christian males are dominant can America be great.

My students are right about one thing: those worldviews are impossible to bridge. They do not lend themselves to compromise. And thanks to Donald Trump and his constant appeals to the basest among us, we are confronted daily with evidence that many more Americans than I ever would have guessed share a significant amounts of  “identitarian” beliefs.

And a hell of a lot of them are armed.

 

The Next Generation

Let me begin with an academic caveat/truism: anecdotes are not data. I know that.

I will nevertheless repeat what I have often said: I would turn this country over to my students in a heartbeat. If my graduate students are at all representative of their generation, they are admirable–inclusive, thoughtful and respectful of evidence.

We have just concluded the spring semester. I give my Law and Public Affairs class a take-home final with three essay questions, from which they are to choose one. Depending upon the question, I’m looking for essays that reflect understanding of the course content and an ability to apply it, recognition of the constraints imposed on policymakers by the Constitution and the rule of law, and a willingness to address the complexities of the conflicts currently bedeviling the policy process.

One of the essay questions on this semester’s final was the following:

Donald Trump’s campaign slogan was “Make America Great Again.” Without addressing the personal characteristics of either candidate in the 2016 election, and without opining whether America was or was not greater in the past, explain the very different views of American greatness suggested by the elections in 2016 and 2018. Do you think these very opposed views of our national character can be reconciled? Why or why not? If not, what do you believe will be the consequence?

Several students chose to respond to that question. I’d like to share parts of one of those responses, not just because it is well-written, but because I think it reflects views that are  widely-held by members of the student’s generation.

The very actors who helped cause the subprime mortgage crisis and subsequent economic downturn have again found a way to capitalize. Ironically, this time it’s on the distrust and anxieties that came out of the Great Recession, where so many lost their jobs or homes or health and have yet to regain any of it, despite this administration’s boasts of a bull market and rising GDP. “If we could just go back,” they argue (back to when or where exactly, no one knows), the answers to our problems must be found in the past. Whereas Donald Trump wants to “Make American Great Again,” Pete Buttigieg tells us “There is no honest politics that revolves around the word ‘again.’” After spending a lot of time thinking about what Buttigieg means by this, I keep coming back to the fundamental question of greatness: What constitutes it in the first place?

What we see today are two different views of greatness. The first sets its sights primarily on economic gain and American sameness, an image less of America but of Americana – one designed mostly by the mid-20th century rise in the advertising, media, and entertainment industries. It’s a place where complexity is reduced to palatable one-liners, a place that can be experienced on a postcard or a Route 66 tour bus. The other view of American greatness, as promulgated by Buttigieg and a host of other progressive voices, is rooted in a very different kind of principle, one I would argue is more realistic about the complexity of our society and the problems we face, but one that’s also hopeful about how American can become greater. This version of American greatness is grounded in the principle that the ways in which we are different from one another are also the ways in which we can be better together. It’s the notion that we can take the very best ideas from each corner of American society and weave those together to create a system that works for everyone. These two versions of greatness might face opposite directions, but their stake is the same: Who gets included in the realization of the Great American Ideal? More importantly, who gets left behind when change comes?

I think these paragraphs do a wonderful job of describing dramatically different visions of American “greatness,” and the very divergent paths the country may choose. My student has cast her vote, concluding that

Making American greater starts by figuring out how to make it work for everyone.

I fervently hope that it will be people like this student who take America into the future.

Another Unequal New Year?

This is the last day of 2016, a year that most definitely will not be missed. It’s hard to know whether people of good will can make 2017 any better.

The United States will begin the new year by ushering in a President who promises to “make America great again.” Unfortunately, with every utterance and tweet, it becomes more obvious that his definition of “greatness” is an autocratic wet dream unconnected to either the common good or reality.

As discouraging as it may be to admit, the truth is that a significant percentage of the American public is equally delusional, especially when it comes to accurate assessments of the extent of current inequality, and America’s past economic “greatness.”

A 2015 article in Scientific American took a look at both myth and reality. It was titled “American Inequality: It’s Much Worse Than You Think,” and subtitled, “The great divide between our beliefs, our ideals, and reality.”

The average American believes that the richest fifth own 59% of the wealth and that the bottom 40% own 9%. The reality is strikingly different. The top 20% of US households own more than 84% of the wealth, and the bottom 40% combine for a paltry 0.3%. The Walton family, for example, has more wealth than 42% of American families combined.

Remember this infographic video that went viral several months ago? According to the article, it has been watched more than 16 million times.  I was one of those who was shocked by the distribution of wealth it showed, and I actually follow these matters fairly closely.

The great virtue of the Scientific American article, however, was not in schooling readers about the present chasm between the rich and the rest; it was in puncturing our ahistorical and fanciful belief that in America, success is an artifact of effort and hard work, that anyone willing to invest the necessary grit and determination can “make it,” and that American meritocracy means that entrepreneurial workers are not doomed to remain in whatever poverty or class they are born to.

It’s a lovely belief. The brutal reality, however, is very different.

In a study published early in 2015,

researchers found Americans overestimate the amount of upward social mobility that exists in society. They asked some 3,000 people to guess the chance that someone born to a family in the poorest 20% ends up as an adult in the richer quintiles. Sure enough, people think that moving up is significantly more likely than it is in reality. Interestingly, poorer and politically conservative participants thought that there is more mobility than richer and liberal participants…. We may not want to believe it, but the United States is now the most unequal of all Western nations. To make matters worse, America has considerably less social mobility than Canada and Europe.

This belief in American economic mobility doesn’t simply ignore the immense importance of family wealth and social connections, access to educational equality, and a wide range of discriminatory obstacles and structural social barriers.

Our stubborn belief in an American economic mobility that doesn’t exist creates an unwarranted optimism—an optimism that, ironically, is more prevalent among those at the bottom of the income distribution. And because we are optimistic—because we see opportunities that aren’t really there—we don’t get serious about correcting the social and financial structures that keep poor people poor.

The people who agreed with Trump that America was “great” at some indeterminate point in the past but is no longer so blessed seem to fall into two not mutually exclusive categories: those who resent the advancements of women, people of color and immigrants (America was great when “they” knew their place); and those who believe the mythology of a “lost” American mobility.

What would be great would be to make 2017 the year we began to restore content to our belief in American mobility and civic equality. A girl can dream….

Happy New Year.

 

 

 

 

 

Remember the American Dream?

Watching Donald Trump trash immigrants and refer none-too-obliquely to people who are less fortunate as “losers”—all while wearing a hat emblazoned with the slogan “Make America Great Again”– is depressing me. The fact that he is currently leading the GOP pack deepens that depression considerably.

Let’s deconstruct the notion of American “greatness.” Contrary to Trump’s (and others’) dog whistles, to the extent that the country’s greatness was real, it wasn’t because those who ran the show were white Christians of European origin. It was because we offered people who had very little a chance to improve their condition.

When I was growing up, the accepted description of America was “land of opportunity.” It was commonly believed that the American Dream could be attained by anyone willing to work hard; social mobility was the name of the game.

Cynics will point out—accurately—that the promise often exceeded the reality, but there was and is value in the widespread belief that personal responsibility and hard work could pay off, if not for yourself, at least for your children.

Knowing that poverty isn’t necessarily permanent is hugely important in a capitalist system. Inequalities may be inevitable, but they need not be paralyzing, they need not engender the sorts of simmering resentments that lead to social unrest, if they are seen as temporary and (fairly or unfairly) a reflection of the effort and entrepreneurship of the individual rather than an inevitable aspect of the system.

We are beginning to see what happens when belief in the possibility of social mobility declines, when it becomes all-too-apparent that no matter how talented, diligent and industrious they may be, Americans can no longer work themselves into the middle class.

Thanks to short-sighted and mean-spirited public policies, such social mobility as previously characterized our economic system is largely a thing of the past.

In a column written a couple of years ago, Gail Collins put it bluntly:

“We have no bigger crisis as a nation than the class barrier. We’re near the bottom of the industrialized world when it comes to upward mobility. A child born to poor parents has a pathetic chance of growing up to be anything but poor. This isn’t the way things were supposed to be in the United States. But here we are.”

Social scientists have documented the characteristics of stable democracies–the attitudes and institutions that keep societies from erupting, that strengthen the social fabric rather than shred it. A perception that the government “plays fair” and a belief in opportunity for advancement–a belief that effort and diligence will be rewarded–are among them.

When poor people lose hope–when the belief in the possibility of bettering their condition disappears, and they face the fact that social mobility is rapidly becoming a myth and the American Dream is out of reach–they become people with nothing to lose.

And that’s dangerous.

Bernie Sanders is drawing huge crowds, because he is talking about inequality and fundamental fairness, and offering specific policy proposals to address systemic issues.

The Donald is drawing sizable crowds by pandering to the resentments of people who have been unable to realize their own American dreams–by telling them that their problems aren’t due to systemic inequities, but to nefarious “others” (immigrants, minorities, women).

Neither of them is likely to be the next President, but they are stark representations of the choice America faces, of the fork in our national road. We can choose nativism, civic unrest and continued decline, or we can do the hard but necessary work of restoring the social contract, repairing the social safety net and breathing new life into the American Dream.