Deplorable, American and redeemable
Colin Powell’s leaked emails caused a fuss this week for stating the obvious about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. He’s a “national disgrace” who buoys “racist” plots, Mr. Powell wrote, and everything she “touches, she kind of screws up with hubris.”
If history is a guide, Mr. Trump likely did something 10 minutes ago to reinforce Mr. Powell’s characterization. But Ms. Clinton’s latest haughty infraction came a week ago, when, speaking at a fundraiser, she put half of Mr. Trump’s supporters — millions of people — into what she calls a “basket of deplorables” made up of “the racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, you name it.”
Unsurprisingly, political pundits gleefully seized upon this statement, which, aside from being somewhat true and largely ridiculous (why, on earth, a “basket”?), has also spawned a cottage industry of campaign keepsakes: It’s now emblazoned, and for sale, on T-shirts, mugs, bumper stickers, posters, and, I’m sure somewhere, an actual basket.
But this is not the statement Ms. Clinton made that day that should trouble you, especially when put into the context of what she said afterward: that the other “basket” is full of disenfranchised folks who feel let down and left out by their government. “Those are people we have to understand and empathize with,” she said.
No, the disturbing part was when she said such deplorables “are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America.”
I beg to differ — on each claim. Let’s start with the latter.
The image of America as an opportunityand idea-rich country that always cele- brates difference of opinion, culture and appearance may be the ideal, but it has rarely been the reality anywhere but on certain college campuses during certain brief moments in time. And everybody but us seems to know it.
Results released this summer from a Pew Research Center survey of 16 countries including the U.S. show that while Americans like to think of ourselves as tolerant (65 percent of us say we are), most other countries surveyed — arguably the more objective observers — say we aren’t. The outsiders (which include Canada, four Asia Pacific nations and 10 European countries) do see us as optimistic and hardworking (and so do we), but the majority also consider us to be arrogant, and a good many see us as greedy and violent to boot — perhaps even deplorable.
So, while the country has indeed been great for some people some of the time, it’s never been great for all of us (see: black Americans); nor have we been great for it. And in the current cartoon version of America in which we’re living — where people are arguing over whether black lives matter and a racist-boosting reality show star could inherit the White House from its first black commander in chief — it seems likely we won’t reach “darn good,” much less “great,” any time soon.
So yes, “the racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic” may be deplorable, but they are also staunchly part of the American landscape. Dismissing them is either a naive or elitist response, falsely suggesting you can deny a problem into non-existence (although, to be fair, this tactic seems to have worked for the Clintons more times than it should have; see: sex scandal, email scandal, Whitewater scandal, pay-for-play scandal and so on).
And, whether we like to admit it or not, those Americans should be considered redeemable — or at least we, as good liberals, have to embrace, and work toward, the possibility, even for David Duke. Otherwise, we’re hypocrites, picking and choosing our causes based on something other than shared humanity. If Democrats are too moral to send a death row inmate to the chair, or a juvenile murderer to life in prison, or to allow a criminal record to get in the way of a job interview because “people can change,” then they can’t, as a party, write off millions because there’s a Confederate flag hanging in the family truck next to the gun rack.
The American optimism that 74 percent of us believe in won’t stand for it, and the past has time and again belied it.
Last week was the 62nd birthday of Ruby Bridges, who, as a 6-year-old African American child, was put in the terrifying position of being the first to desegregate and all-white southern school — on her own.
The first-grader marched into William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans each day past angry, violent mobs of whites to an empty classroom, because all the other kids had been pulled out by their parents. And each day, she stopped and prayed for those grown-ups acting like rabid animals: “Please God, try to forgive these people, because even if they say those bad things, they don’t know what they’re doing.”
Even she, a small, brave child, thought her tormentors could be redeemed. And eventually — through education, experience and empathy — some of them were.