I am 65 years old. I remember the day, November 22, 1963, that Lee Harvey Oswald shot President John Kennedy. I remember, two days later, watching on black-and-white television as Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald. I remember my father asking: “What’s this country coming to?”
Fifty three years later, a bi-polar answer appears imminent.
On November 9, 2016, Donald Trump fired a bullet into the heart of the American psyche and of democracy itself. Half of us watched in stunned disbelief as he won enough electoral votes to become the 45th president of the United States. The other half, the people who provided the gunpowder, will dance with self-righteous joy as their savior begins making “America great again” when he takes office on January 20, 2017.
For some (myself included) his election to power is a tragedy. For others it’s a hallelujah moment. It’s pointless to rehash the details because so much has been—and will be—written about that already. Rather, Donald Trump has compelled in me an examination of conscience about the United States and its presumed greatness within the context of my upbringing and understanding of the world.
I am a third-generation American—with German heritage on my father’s side and Scottish and Polish on my mother’s. My parents raised me with the implicit understanding that the United States of America is the greatest country in the world. It alway has been and ever shall be, world without end, amen. I was born just six years after the end of World War II. My father didn’t go to war—he wasn’t old enough—but he did enlist when of age, first in the Air Force, then in the Army. When I was 21, he retired (in a ceremony at the Pentagon, no less) as a Lieutenant Colonel. Growing up in the classroom of the military family reinforced my education in patriotism.
An early memory is of watching on television, with my mother, the opening-day parade of the Olympics. She took the opportunity for a lesson in patriotism and American exceptionalism. She prompted me to notice that when each team passed the reviewing stand, the flag bearer would lower the staff, bringing it parallel to the ground. “Dipping the flag” was a sign of respect to the dignitaries of the host country sitting in the stands. “Now watch,” she said as our team approached the stands, Stars and Stripes held high. Team USA walked right by the stand without giving the flag so much as a twitch. “Our flag dips for no one,” my mother said. I suppose I felt proud. I think that was the point. But I didn’t, and don’t, understand the need for such blatant arrogance.
Encompassing my childhood were the specter of nuclear war with the Soviet Union, the fear of being overrun by Communists, and the massive effort to beat the USSR to the moon. Also in the mix were the baby boom (I’m in there somewhere) and the rapid rise of the middle class, supported by spectacular industrial and technological advances. There was no doubt that America was the most powerful country in the world in all respects. We manufactured the best products, built the best roads and buildings, excelled in everything. We had very recently conquered Hitler, liberated Europe, and blew Japan to smithereens.
We are Number One! We are the Best! And, with implied importance, we are good—so very, very good—meaning our moral superiority in the world is unquestionable.
At age 14, in 1965 and just 20 years after the war with Germany and Japan, my father’s duty to country took him and his family to Europe. We landed in Paris on a sunny day in late August or early September, just before I would start ninth grade. I have no way of knowing how different my life would be today had I not lived those three years in Europe, first in France then in Germany. But I do know that what I saw and experienced there was awe-inspiring: the rich cultures, the industry, the buildings, the history, the art. National pride was palpable, especially in France. From then on my impressionable mind understood that greatness was relative.
I returned from Europe in 1968, in time to begin my senior year at Robert E. Lee High School in Springfield, VA, just outside Washington, DC’s beltway. I returned to a country in the midst of upheaval, a country different from the one I had left. In January of ’68 the Tet Offensive had escalated the war in Vietnam, and scenes of killing and destruction played out daily on the 6:00 news. On April 4, Martin Luther King, and on June 5, Robert Kennedy, were murdered. In August came the Democratic National Convention in Chicago and its attendant protests, riots, and police brutality. There were the Yippies, the SDS, the Weather Underground, the Black Panthers and the Hard Hats. Soon came Kent State (with “four dead in O-hi-o”) and Watergate and so much more. It was an era of turmoil and tension and anger and hatred throughout the country, especially between those who supported the war in Vietnam and those who were against it. For the record I was against it, although I did not engage in any kind of serious protest.
Then came the Pentagon Papers, a Top Secret study of US involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967. The Papers (7,000 pages in 47 volumes). In 1971 Daniel Ellsberg leaked the papers to the New York Times. A major revelation was that the government had lied to the people and to Congress about what was happening in Southeast Asia and our reason for being there in the first place. It exposed a secret history in contradiction to the public one. Ellsberg was a hero to some, a traitor to others. Edward Snowden is in the same place.
If Ellsberg—and much later Snowden—proved that the government lies to the people, George W. Bush, with his invasion of Iraq under false pretenses, proved that the people don’t mind being lied to. It all depends on whose lies “we the people” choose to believe. Truth is not the point. Rather, we accept as truth only what we want to believe. All else is false, regardless of fact.
The election cycle of 2016 could be a case study of this phenomenon, with the constant proliferation of fake news, hoaxes, innuendo as fact, and outright lies emanating from Donald Trump, his campaign, and right-wing propaganda mills—enough to get him elected by the believers.
We know from history that some very thoughtful and intelligent men wrote the documents upon which the United States was founded. They intended a country that would distinguish itself among all others for the values contained in those documents. Yet, then, there was only potential for greatness. We also know from history how the machinery that built our country was fueled by genocide, theft, broken treaties, slavery, deception, repression, and all manner of violent oppression—much of which continues—at home and abroad.
I grew up with the doctrine of “might makes right.” But that bully’s refrain has little to do with greatness, unless all one cares about is wielding power in the upper hand while crushing enemies underfoot. I understand how projecting strength and power on the world stage is vitally important, but so too are many other qualities. They include respect, kindness, compassion, integrity, honesty, generosity (we are a generous country, to be sure), fairness, justice, judgment, virtue, and an astute, clear-eyed understanding of our world. This is wisdom. The opposite of wisdom is ignorance and delusion.
If we insist the United States is the greatest country in the world, shouldn’t we also insist that we examine, monitor, and maintain those human and humane qualities that could make us so? To exclude them makes it impossible for us to be, as Ronald Reagan put it, that “shining city on the hill.” We cannot be that country unless we the people embody those bright qualities. If we the people can’t embody those qualities, we certainly can’t expect our leaders to. And if we choose leaders who are dishonest, deceitful, hateful, mean-spirited, obnoxious, ignorant, selfish, self-promoting, and utterly lacking in wisdom, then we cannot expect to be the greatest country in the world—even if we can bomb everyone else into oblivion and force them to our will. All we can do is brag about being what we are not.
Much like the guy we just elected.