Tag Archives: Donald Trump

America, an Ideal

[Originally published January 17, 2017 on Facebook]

It was quiet and serene at 6:45, as I stood on the stoop this morning, a Meadowbrook Farms milk truck backing up, the tree branches black against a sky that brightened from navy to cyan over a period of ten minutes. I had been reading a biography of Wilson, and I started musing on America and what it means.

“America…is not a piece of the surface of the Earth. America is not merely a body of towns. America is an idea, America is an ideal, America is a vision,” Wilson said while running for Governor of New Jersey–his first attempt at political office.

As I stood on the stoop, a thin, middle-aged man crossed to my side of the street, pulling a wire cart. Last night was garbage night in Albany, and the man bent from one pile to another, retrieving cans. As he passed he looked in my direction and nodded to me, humbly. I nodded back. I return cans, too. I considered that this man was simply more entrepreneurial than me, when it comes to can-collecting.

The buildings I could see were all in good shape, made of stone and brick, leftover from the 1870s and 80s. I thought of the phrase “make America great again” and considered that it is not the apartments and towers or trees or stoops that are or are not “great”–it is the people who live in the structures, and the systems we put in place for the purpose of increasing our “greatness.”

A garbage truck passed, its side reading “Republic Waste.” Republic is the name of the trash company, obviously, but it was also ironic to see “Republic” and “Waste” so close to one another after thinking about Wilson’s statement of America as an ideal, and all the recent talk about making America “great again,” whatever that means.

The One-Way sign on the corner is chipping and bent, like it’s been hit by a hundred garbage trucks over the years, but nobody thinks to replace it. The intersection of the sidewalk is spray-painted with red letters and arrows from a utility company, though the work has been finished for months, because nobody thinks its necessary to compel utility companies to clean up their spray paint (though we have a graffiti Task Force in case someone puts spray paint on a wall). The sidewalk up and down the street sports accumulations of leaves, black plastic bags, and white plastic cup lids, because no one has swept their sidewalk, because even if they did, the leaves would blow back in front of their houses again because their neighbors didn’t sweep, and the street sweeper hasn’t been down my street in 3 weeks (though The City has given out tickets on the cars that didn’t move because the street-sweeper was supposed to have come). The One-Way sign, the utility graffiti, the leaves and trash, the exploitative tickets without compensatory benefit–these are the signifiers of society being not “great.”

“I feel like everything is like a sham–” (I’m paraphrasing my friend Jess) “–like nothing is built to last or…like you go into a building and its new and from far away it looks impressive, but then you look at the moulding and it doesn’t line up, the paint job is bad–its like we all do 90% of the work on stuff and never do the finishing work.” She was talking about the deck that her father built years ago, which looked great, but he never stained it, so now it’s full of splinters. But she was talking about a trend not just in the built landscape, but in the social landscape.

I continue to feel that the biggest problem with our time in history is the alienation of individuals from the rest of society. All of our other problems basically branch from that main issue, because we could solve most of our problems if we recognized our mutual interests within a community, and used our resources productively.

When I think of a time when America was “great,” I think what people are probably referring to is an idealized version of the 1950s, in a small town, if you were caucasian and Christian. The national economy was operating at near full-employment, there was access to credit, new mechanical gadgets were continually appearing to lessen the toils of life, more people had leisure-time than ever before in history, etc. But none of that gets at why the period seems like it must have been “great.”

What’s missing from the dry statistics is a description of the spirit of the times. What we picture are block parties, backyard barbecues, drive-ins, malt-shops, bake sales, baseball games, rotary club meetings, Church picnics, family picnics, weddings at small community venues–things that involve friends and families–wholesome social structures of which individuals identify as members–which through continual meetings continually reinforce the idea that I–as an individual–am part of larger groups, and those groups are part of a larger society–and it is all possible because we live in a republic.

Immediately, many people will point out, “but that spirit of the times was only great if you were caucasian and Christian, etc. For a lot of people it didn’t apply. Therefore it was a myth.” But between the last two sentences is a lapse of logic–it wasn’t a “myth” for the majority–that’s why people who used to be a majority latched onto the phrase “Make America Great Again” during the last election. Instead of declaring that an inclusive, progressive society is impossible, we ought to seek to make the spirit apply to more people, so that there are fewer who are left out. That is America as “an ideal.” It needs to be a hybrid of conservative and progressive principles.

The flaw in the Republican platform of the last election is that it chose a wall–the great symbol of division–as a symbol for how the party plans to bring about the ideal of an inclusive society. That was a great mistake, which reminds of Harry S Truman’s statement at a dinner of the Federal Bar Association in 1950: “We are not going to turn the United States into a right-wing totalitarian country in order to deal with a left-wing totalitarian threat.” A republic cannot exist if it is to be composed of cloistered individuals cowering behind symbolic walls, everyone suspicious of one another, cynical about their own government. A republic must be based on citizen’s mutual self-interest and self help. The Party diminishes republicanism by the same proportion as it diminishes mutual self-interest and self-help. By cultivating divisions in society it encourages segments of the population to depend on the government for their elevation over other segments. It is superlatively ironic that the party that calls itself Republican and champions small government stimulates the conversation that erodes both of those things.

Our politics are like a revolving wheel, turning over cyclically. The people are the actual units that revolve, tied to the wheel. We started at the center, generations ago, but the arguments and philosophies have become more extreme, turning the wheel faster, and causing our people to fly outward, so that we feel connected to society no longer by some great gravitational force, but through a little string of geography: we just happen to live here, next to other people, all under the same government–rather than as fellows who are part of the same society.

In April of 2015 I went out on my stoop, and my neighbor, an old man, was sweeping the sidewalk in front of his stoop. I had planned to smoke a cigarette, but instead I went back inside and returned with a broom, and began to sweep the sidewalk in front of my apartment. “Hello,” the old man introduced himself, “I’m Robert. Do you own this building?”

“Oh no, I just moved in here,” I said.

“Oh, well, its nice of you to sweep, then.”

“Well I saw you doing it and figured it looked pleasant enough that I might as well give it a try!”

I think that is the great challenge of our times, which we should not expect politicians to accomplish: how do we get our neighbors to proverbially sweep? Will we go out and join them? Will that encourage other people to pitch in, because they know that if they sweep just then, they won’t have our leaves blow onto their sidewalk, because we’re sweeping, too? And when the sidewalk is clean, will we finally sit there and realize we are all neighbors, and have the same interest, and demand together that the city send the street-sweeper and fix the One-Way sign, and force the utility company to come back and clean up its graffiti? If we could manage that in all the little patches of earth that make up the towns and cities of America, we’d be much closer to our “ideal.”

Let Us Move Forward in a Mindful Fashion

[Originally posted November 9th, 2016 on Facebook]

One lesson we can draw from this election cycle is that neither party really knew what it was doing. The Republicans tried to run the usual candidates and lost in the primary. The Democrats railroaded Sanders and got the machine’s candidate to the general election, and lost. One uptick to this election may be a realization by those whose careers are aligned with either party must accept that without popular support, they will not win elections.

I suspect that neither party will realize it. They will continue to try to seem relevant by telling people that they represent them, even while this election shows that elected representatives–almost all of whom are either Democrat or Republican–are out of step with the needs of the American People.

No matter who was elected last night, it was hardly a triumph for either camp to proclaim that they “won” by getting their unpopular candidate into office. It seems trite for Republicans to gloat, as it would have been for Democrats, had Clinton been elected.

The fact is that everybody, whether black, white, straight, gay, male or female, feels unrepresented by a government which calls itself a democratic republic, but is run by representatives whose primary allegiance rests with parties which are run through contributions from gigantic corporations who do not feel, or worry, or die. Our public policy is not inhuman, but ahuman–it is based on the input of inorganic entities rather than human beings. No wonder people feel isolated and persecuted. Let us realize that we share this isolation  in common. Let us realize that because we share this isolation, we are more similarly situated than we are different.

Think of how many hours the volunteers from both parties spent on this election, because they really believed that something should change in our culture. I imagine that that “something” that people think should change is a loss of a sense of community which would make us feel connected, respected, and successful. Now imagine that instead of spending all of those hours volunteering for their candidates, people spent their time baking their new neighbor a cake, proposing a community-betterment project to their village government, helping their elderly neighbor rake her yard, or even just attending a school play or football game or joining a book club or social group.

It is very easy to wake up, tune out, go to work, return home, and tune out some more. I feel emphatically that social disconnection is the prime epidemic of our generation, which contributes to many of our public and personal crises. If I were to ask you to choose, “Either you can have $1 trillion, and any commodity you wish, pools, helicopters–but you must live in 20-square miles, and no one else can come–you can never talk to or see another person again; or you can continue your life as it is now,” which would you choose? I’ve never met anyone that says they would take the trillion dollars with the caveat. It means that people value interpersonal connections more than a fortune. It means a fortune is not enough–we must have the company and respect of other people. So why do we spend such precious little time meeting new people? Why don’t we join groups? Why do we avoid talking to people we’ve never met? Why do we write-off the 1/2 of the country that voted for the other candidate as insane, as though they cannot possibly be feeling the same sense of isolation and disenfranchisement that we feel?

It is easy to get discouraged, but I have to say, I don’t feel like life is so bad. It’s not like I’m rich. I drive a 12 year old car; I spend about 35 hours a week serving people and scraping refried beans off their plate although I have a Masters Degree. But I leave the house and see Bill walking his dog talking to Tom; I go to the bar and see folks I’ve known for years who ask me how I’m doing; I’ve met a dozen new people in the last month from attending City Council and Neighborhood Association meetings. I get up and listen to classical music, write for a while, practice piano, dust, clean my dishes, nap, walk to work, see people–I feel connected, and that makes me feel like I’m thriving. It’s not about money. It’s about the connections. That’s why we call the strangest types of people anti-social.

I propose that we forget about expecting any help from the national or state government, and focus on improving our personal lives and local neighborhoods. I say it is a new permutation of an old-fashioned kind of spiteful American protest: say to yourself “I’m going to do it myself” and then do it. Meet your neighbors and consider that you are forming a new political unit. Demand of your local legislature that they sponsor parades, block parties, and festivals to bring families and small businesses together. Do something about that building that is an eyesore that makes the block feel depressed. Put a new coat of paint on your house. Sweep your sidewalk. Listen to beautiful music with the lights off. Call an old friend. Visit a small town. Make it a point to buy from a local business even if it is a little more expensive than a box store. Go to your neighborhood bar. Go to a meeting of the historical society, or conservancy, or a local government meeting. All of these are political acts, and they will make you feel connected in a way that no party’s grand policy can make you feel connected.

Own your life,  cultivate it,  beautify it, enrich it with texture and meaning. If we all do this, our public dialogue would be much more productive. But even if other people don’t seem to take this advice, and the public dialogue continues to degrade, forget about it! Quarantine it away like a viral disease and forget about it. Form your own group of people that make you feel positive and do something good, together.