I happened to notice that the flag that adorns our front porch is getting a bit faded, and that got me thinking about Old Glory and the hand wringing that is so current in our beloved homeland, the USA.
I am one of those who happen to believe that our nation is exceptional, and I am convinced that the inherent goodness of our people and the soundness of our country’s constitutional principles will get us through our current difficulties as they always have. I hope that doesn’t make me one of the “deplorables.” Or one of those mushy-headed liberals.
When you have lived for a while — and that I have — you often have a better grip than most on current events because you see how little is new in life. I am always a little surprised at how the pundits get so overwrought over the “polarization” of our people. As if it were it were Armageddon. Where have they been all these years?
Either they are pretending or they are truly ignorant and should go back to school. They may not have been around during World War II or the McCarthy era, but surely they experienced the ’60s upheavals and the Vietnam War period. If not, didn’t they at least study some history or read some books?
Start with Joe McCarthy. When I was 14 or so, I recall standing in a Sears Roebuck store in front of a bank of the new, rapidly spreading marvels called television sets. In front of me was a couple watching the McCarthy hearings and roundly cursing the senator as he repeatedly yelled “Point of Order” to his fellow senators. I never did figure out what he meant, but I got the impression that Mr. and Mrs. Average were capable of some very strong emotions when it came to political figures. They hated the old fraud.
McCarthy was a charlatan who feasted on the legitimate fear of Communist infiltration of the U.S. Government. I say “legitimate” because we have learned since then that indeed there were Communist spies at work in our government, traitors working to establish here the Soviet way of life. Unfortunately, people like Sen. McCarthy obscured the truth with their fear and smear tactics. My point, however, is that you could reach out and touch the hate and hysteria spewing forth from both the Right and the Right.
The ’50s — what a time to come of age. As editor of my college newspaper I received a notice from the Postmaster General that a piece of mail that the government had deemed “subversive” was being held for me at the post office. All I had to do was go there and sign for it. Hmmm. I may have been young (20 or 21), but I was no fool. I did not show up to add my name to the list of subversives interested in Communist literature.
After experiencing the McCarthy Era, I find it hard to take seriously the weeping and wailing over the current state of public discourse in America. Since that time we are more free than ever to speak our minds, privately, publicly, quietly, or at the top of our lungs (increasingly the popular choice).
I was at a writers conference a year or so ago when the unexpected death of Justice Anthony Scalia was announced, and the hundreds of wannabe authors went wild with applause. The hatred for the fallen jurist was palpable. I had to ask myself: was this representative of the intellectual class these days? To his credit, the gentleman who announced the news seemed embarrassed.
Oh, for the good old days. But were they so different?
I recall “The Way We Were,” starring Robert Redford and Barbra Streisand. Hippie-to-be wife Streisand is shocked when Redford and his upper crust friends cheer the sudden death of FDR. I found the scene entirely credible in light of the Right’s hatred of Roosevelt’s agenda for ending the Great Depression.
The Right nowadays loves to describe the Occupy Wall Street protestors and the Shoutdown Crowd as “snowflakes.” By that they mean spoiled kids (some over 40) who cannot stand the robust discussion that democracy requires. They shout down speeches by conservative speakers on our college campuses, those bastions of free speech. (Fortunately, some liberal writers like Leonard Pitts condemn that brainless behavior, e.g., the Ann Coulter ban).
A new low certainly. The center will not hold. We are going down.
But wait a minute. Doesn’t anyone recall the ’60s? The violence, the talk of revolution, the bombings, the Weathermen. True, the endless talk about the coming of The Revolution emanated mostly from the empty heads of college students who were convinced they knew it all. But, tragically, a few put some of their blather into action and killed people, as in the bombing of a laboratory at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
One scene that I have never gotten over involves a flag — a Viet Cong flag. In Washington for a march seeking the end of the Vietnam War in the early 1970s, I watched in horror as young protestors followed that flag — and this at a time when our boys were dying over there. I cringe at the memory. Polarization? This was a time when returning American soldiers were spit upon and derided as “baby killers.”
If you want to go back further, go, but you will find no Golden Age. Back about the time I was born there was this guy named Hitler persecuting Jews in Europe and meanwhile looking East and West lusting after more land for his superior Aryan Race. The weak-kneed leaders of free Europe licked his boots and told themselves and their citizens that a little appeasement of Nazi Germany would solve the issues. Pretty soon they were groveling before their new masters, who spoke German.
Meanwhile, as the Nazi threat stared our nation in the face, with Hitler about to take over virtually all of Europe, our U.S. Congress passed the draft law by one vote. Lots of people were indifferent to the Nazi threat, and more than a few loved watching the Germans humiliate the English.
Souring the air we breathe these days is a not very subtle disdain or even outright contempt for immigrants, that particular odor coming from the Right. Yes, Illegal intruders on the shores of our nation should be stopped and sent back; that’s just common sense.
But common sense also dictates that we welcome and assimilate legal immigrants, recognizing that they have always been the lifeblood of our diverse nation. But today I spot a real contempt and suspicion directed at newcomers, legal or not. Sadly, that kind of thinking is not new. Anti-immigrant emotions were common in the last century. After all, we were a nation of transplanted Englishmen, Protestant, light-skinned, and all speaking the King’s English. The newcomers were too often Mediterranean or Slavic, often darker skinned, and too damned Catholic.
Fortunately, they assimilated into the broader American culture, learned English, worked hard, and practiced religious tolerance despite suffering widespread prejudice themselves.
And the present immigration debacle is just one of the issues causing our body politic to gasp for air these days. Time and space do not allow me to address here the horrors of slavery and Jim Crowism in our history, nor the other kinds of bigotry — religious, racial, and economic — that that we face even today. It is not my intention to single out the Left or Right but rather to remind myself and my fellow Americans that we’ve been through periods like this before—and far worse—and have always survived.
So, as I look at the Stars and Stripes out our front door, I make plans to run up a fresh flag, with the colors more striking, the reds a deeper red, the whites blazing brighter, and the blues more vivid than ever. That kind of new life is so typical of America. We are always rising again.
Happy Fourth of July.