Friday, November 4, 2016

America is Dying

I'm not usually given to clickbait titles, but I'll plead guilty on this one. Now I get to explain what I mean by "America" and what I mean by "dying".

What I want to say doesn't dovetail well - or much at all - with most of what we're hearing from the political campaigns and their supporters. Each campaign has an interest in spinning narratives of various kinds of decline, stories that include heroes and villains and moral conclusions. What I want to say isn't related to any of that because I don't think that who wins next week's Presidential election is nearly as important as other things.

That's right: there are things more important than whether Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton becomes President in 2017.

A lot of rhetoric in political campaigns invokes the "future of our country", but that's almost never what they actually talk about. What they really talk about is the future occupant of the Oval Office, which is not at all the same thing. Presidents are important, yes, but they are not the most important thing.

What is? We are.

By "we", I mean everybody - the entire collection of the American body politic. This includes everybody living within our borders - citizens and non-citizens, "legals" and "illegals", black, white, brown, yellow, male, female, old, young, gay straight, cis, trans. Everybody.

This is what "America" is. Just as "the church" is not a building, it is a collection of people united in the Body of Christ, so a nation is not a set of borders and institutions. The government is not the nation, any more than the narthex or the nave is the church. We are the nation. All of us together.*

A nation, as a collective entity, has a life measurably separate from (but also composed of) the lives of its individual members. Just as a congregation, or a school, or a team, or a business, has a life and a culture and a set of ideas of its own even as individual members come and go, so a nation has a collective life and existence. That life changes over time with the changing of its members, just as our own bodies change over time as cells are created and replaced, as some die off and others are brought in.

The life of a nation, like that of a school or a team or a church, can be healthier or sicker. It may be growing or shrinking, getting better or getting worse. Indeed, given that we live in a dynamic universe things are changing all the time - some for the better, some for the worse, in much the same way that our own physical health is constantly changing.

The idea of a nation "dying" rests on some understanding of the nation as having "health". The health of "America" relies fundamentally on our ability to function cooperatively together in a society. That doesn't mean that we have to always agree - indeed, disagreement is healthy too, because it helps us to identify problems and pushes us to improve. But fundamentally, our health as a nation relies on our ability to work together, to get along, and to contribute to the greater good of the whole even as we are also contributing to our own welfare and those around us.

There has never been a time in American history when our nation was "perfectly healthy". Stories of a past in which everything was "great" are selective readings that ignore the parts of the nation that weren't healthy - the suppression of blacks, the discrimination against Eastern Europeans or Irish, the social subjugation of women, economic discrimination against immigrants, etc. We have always been in a state of less-than-perfect health, but we have mostly also tried to make it better.

So when I say that America as a nation is dying, what I mean fundamentally is that this ability to cooperate together, to see ourselves as engaged in a common endeavor even when we disagree and argue, is rapidly being eroded. I don't have a good barometer of how much we have lost and how much remains, but the trend line is clear. Unchanged, these trends will ultimately kill the nation of "America" and leave us with something very different.

This death is all around us these days. The Presidential campaign is partly a cause, but also partly a symptom. A politics that calls for jailing or assassinating political opponents, that promises to use the supposedly-blind instruments of justice for avowedly partisan political ends, that looks at those on the other side and sees only deplorable, irredeemable people - all of this erodes a very notion that we even have a nation. That we are a nation. E pluribus unum has become E pluribus pluribus.

I want very much for the presidential election to be over, not because I think that its ending - whatever the outcome - will make these problems go away but because the fact of the election itself is getting in the way of the most important work - rebuilding our nation's health. The rebuilding is not primarily economic - things could be better economically, but they could also be (and have been) much worse. Nor is it tied to any particular issue or set of policies. All of these are just individual pieces, and none of them will matter if we don't get the whole put back together.

Our health as a nation is not dependent on government getting policies right. It is dependent on us getting our relationships right.

The really difficult work ahead of us is to remind ourselves that E pluribus unum is a foundational principle, a central value on which we all agree. It is to remind ourselves that there are things on which we all agree, that we are all Americans together and that this togetherness matters. And most importantly, we have to not simply be reminded of these things. We have to live our lives as if they were true.

The task that I am setting for myself, for this week and next week and all the weeks after that, is this: treat everyone I run into as a neighbor. Assume in every interaction that I and the person I am dealing with are part of the same community, that we have far more in common than what divides us, and that the most important thing I can do is engage my fellow Americans with respect, dignity, and love. If enough of us do the same, our nation can be healed - not to perfection, but towards a good, working order.

But if the bile and filth and darkness of this past year overwhelm these efforts, things will get worse for all of us. Problems will multiply, suffering will increase. And we will have only ourselves - not our government, not our politicians, not this or that political party - to blame.

Walt Kelly's wisdom remains true: We have met the enemy, and he is us.

* I recognize that this claim is disputed by some, who see "America" as a nation primarily composed of one ethnic or religious group (usually, Christian Whites). Such people are quick to resort to the rhetoric of "war", because for them they see non-whites as invaders and aliens who really ought to be somewhere else. This is a fundamental disagreement; if you believe that "America" is a nation for one ethnic or religious group in particular, none of the rest of this will make any sense to you.

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