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Monday, July 9, 2018

Can we try again, America?

American literature is not just fiction, poetry, and drama.   It includes all the recording of events and rhetorical exchanges of the founding and development of our country.  It is a unique national literature because it not only recorded the thrust and details of the founding of the United States, but it played a major role in defining and enabling the quest for freedom, equality, and justice.  I have had the privilege of teaching American literature from the early pre-colonial journals of exploration to the poetry of minorities and women in our time pushing to realize full equality and the fiction that satirizes the ignorance and bigotry that blemishes American life.  The force of American life has been to confront the failures of democracy and to work and struggle to correct them.

All four of my grandparents were emigrants from Sweden.  Two of them died before I was born, my father's father died when I was very young, but my mother's mother, who became an invalid after breaking her hip, lived in my family household for 16 years until she died at the age of 98.  She is the only grandparent with which I could talk as I grew up.

There was a strange bit of folklore that floated around some of my aunts and uncles that my grandmother's family descended from royalty.  My grandmother and her sisters emigrated to America as single women, while their brothers stayed in Sweden. Her sisters settled in Minneapolis where they married successful businessmen.  My grandmother was abandoned on the frontier with her eight children who survived infancy.  The family story was how my mother and her seven brothers collaborated to help the family survive on the frontier.  My cousins and I asked my grandmother about the "old country" and if it was true that we were descended from royalty.  (Relatives who checked the genealogy found it not to be true.)  She avoided talking much about the old country and brushed off questions about royalty by saying in her heavy Swedish accent "that's the kind of thing we left Sweden to get away from."  My grandmother found the story of her impoverished struggle on the frontier of far more importance than any memories and connections with Sweden.

I found the reason for her preference of her American story by reading the novel "The Emigrants" by Vilhelm Moberg and seeing its film version.  I used the film as an introduction to the American Literature survey because it provides such a relevant context to the story of America and what motivated its immigrants.  The Sweden my grandmother and her sisters left operated in the feudal tradition.  It offered nothing but a life of serfdom for them.  Their family tried to lure them back with offers of money, but to my grandmother life as a poor person in America was preferable to life under masters in the old country.  That is why she told stories of sending her sons out along the railroad tracks to scrabble for coal that had fallen off the locomotives so they could heat the house and eschewed stories about life in the old world.  She told a story congruent with the narratives in much of American literature.

The American story is one of confronting its moral failures. A lingering failure involves what white immigrants did to Native America.  There have always been people in America who favor depravity over decency.  Slavery was accommodated in the Constitution, but a strong constituency understood the wrongness of it.  Even though he owned slaves, Jefferson warned of the moral decay it threatened to the country.  The country went to war over it, and the side represented by America's greatest president won, and his great intelligence and his monumental words guided the nation through a civil war and its Jim Crow aftermath.  The spirit of Lincoln prevailed throughout the civil rights era, which addressed racial, gender, and religious discrimination.  His actions and words continue to inform and inspire.  His speeches are a part of America's story.   But they have not provided much solace or comfort to Native America.

The nation's struggle to make the principles expressed in its founding manifest in the life of its people is a story of setbacks, but an ineluctable quest for freedom, equality, and justice for all.  

Then came Trump.  Trump is the representative and manifestation of everything that Lincoln worked against.  Lincoln worked to unite the nation under the principles of American democracy, but Trump derides and destroys those principles, and has divided the nation.  That division is along the racial lines of the Civil War.  The latest polls show that 49 percent of Americans recognize Trump's racist mindset.

Trump has defined what divides America.  And what divides America is not political beliefs on how the country should be run.  What divides America is basic moral beliefs.  Support for Trump is an overt avowal of greed, malice, dishonesty, fraud, and cruelty as the preferred traits of American character.  Not a word that comes out of Trump or his administration can be believed or trusted, unless it is a word of insult, abuse, or malice.  Those are traits with which people of decency and aspiration for good cannot reconcile.

There are those who think the revilement of Trump voters will cause a surge of support for him.  They do not understand that submission to their values is a reversal of the democratic progress and the acceptance of degeneration as a condition of life.  Even the conservatives who reject Trump as a legitimate leader are beginning to suggest that mere demonstration against him and verbal protest are not enough.  Stronger measures are needed which could well bring down the country.

Those who truly believe in liberty, equality, and justice may have to regroup and find different circumstances and different places to practice the principles of democracy that they strive for.   Those principles are too valuable and essential to allow to fall into decay by the corruption that Trump and his disciples have injected into America.

The ideas and processes are well recorded and explained in our literature.  We have the stuff with which to try again.

1 comment:

Porter Lansing said...

"Support for Trump is an overt avowal of greed, malice, dishonesty, fraud, and cruelty as the preferred traits of American character. Verbal protests are not enough. Stronger measures are needed which could well bring down the country." ~ perfect

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States