Amer­ica still more than sum of its griev­ances

The Times-Tribune - - Op-ed - BY MICHAEL GERSON MICHAEL GERSON writes for The Wash­ing­ton Post. michael­ger­son@wash­

WASH­ING­TON — Who is left to de­fend the sim­ple, of­ten ad­mirable, some­times dis­ap­point­ing, Amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence?

Our pol­i­tics seems deeply di­vided between those who think the coun­try is go­ing to hell in a hand­cart and those who be­lieve the coun­try is go­ing to hell in a hand­bas­ket.

Some of the tenured class that sets the in­tel­lec­tual tone of the left con­cluded long ago that Amer­ica was built by op­pres­sion, is sus­tained by white priv­i­lege and re­quires the cleans­ing pu­rity of so­cial rev­o­lu­tion (how­ever that is de­fined). In this story, cap­i­tal­ism ac­cu­mu­lates in­equities that will even­tu­ally lead the rich to eat the poor. The Amer­i­can Dream is an ex­ploita­tive myth. Change will only come through a coali­tion of the ag­grieved. And those who are not per­ma­nently en­raged are not pay­ing proper at­ten­tion.

But, at least on the pop­ulist right, the so­cial cri­tique is ev­ery bit as harsh. In this story, Amer­ica has fallen in a bone­less heap from a great height. It is un­rec­og­niz­able to peo­ple — mostly white peo­ple — who re­gard mid-20th-cen­tury Amer­ica as a so­cial and eco­nomic ideal. The coun­try has been fun­da­men­tally al­tered by mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism and po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness. It has been ru­ined by secularism and moral rel­a­tivism. Amer­ica, says the Rev. Franklin Gra­ham, is “on the verge of to­tal moral and spir­i­tual col­lapse.” And those who are not per­ma­nently of­fended are not pay­ing proper at­ten­tion.

A poll taken last year found that 72 per­cent of Don­ald Trump sup­port­ers be­lieve Amer­i­can so­ci­ety and its way of life have changed for the worse since the 1950s. And the most pes­simistic and dis­con­tented lot of all was white, evan­gel­i­cal Protes­tants. Al­most three-quar­ters be­lieved the last 70 years to be a pe­riod of so­cial de­cline.

Those of us who re­mem­ber pol­i­tics in the Rea­gan era have a men­tal habit of re­gard­ing con­ser­vatism as more op­ti­mistic about the Amer­i­can ex­per­i­ment and lib­er­al­ism as more dis­con­tented. But rep­re­sen­ta­tives of both ide­olo­gies — in their most po­tent and con­fi­dent ver­sions — are now mak­ing fun­da­men­tal cri­tiques of Amer­i­can so­ci­ety. They are united in their be­lief that Amer­ica is dom­i­nated by cor­rupt, self-serv­ing elites. They are united in their call for rad­i­cal rather than in­cre­men­tal change. While dis­agree­ing deeply about the cause, they see Amer­ica as ca­reen­ing off course. Lit­tle won­der that Amer­i­cans con­sis­tently say their coun­try is on the wrong track by a mar­gin of more than 2-to-1. Dis­gruntle­ment is our na­tion’s com­mon ground.

What group be­lieves that Amer­i­can so­ci­ety has got­ten bet­ter since the 1950s? About 60 per­cent of African-Amer­i­cans and His­pan­ics. On a mo­ment’s re­flec­tion, this makes per­fect sense. Com­pared with 70 years ago —when much of the coun­try was legally seg­re­gated — daily life has im­proved for racial and eth­nic mi­nori­ties. As it has for gays and women seek­ing po­si­tions of so­cial and eco­nomic lead­er­ship.

Many con­ser­va­tives have failed to ap­pre­ci­ate the mixed le­gacy of moder­nity. In re­cent decades, Amer­ica has seen de­clin­ing com­mu­nity and fam­ily co­he­sion and what for­mer U.S. Sur­geon Gen­eral Vivek H. Murthy calls “a lone­li­ness epi­demic.” “We live in the most tech­no­log­i­cally con­nected age in the his­tory of civ­i­liza­tion,” he says, “yet rates of lone­li­ness have dou­bled since the 1980s.”

But the flip side of in­di­vid­u­al­ism is greater so­cial free­dom. Who would not pre­fer to be in a racially mixed mar­riage to­day com­pared with 70 years ago? Or to have bira­cial chil­dren? When con­ser­va­tives ex­press un­re­served nos­tal­gia for the 1950s, they are also ex­press­ing a damn­ing tol­er­ance for op­pres­sion. It does ap­pear like a long­ing for lost priv­i­lege.

The al­ter­na­tive to dis­dain for Amer­i­can so­ci­ety on the left and right is not to san­i­tize our coun­try’s his­tory or excuse its man­i­fold fail­ures. It is to do what re­form­ing pa­tri­ots from Abra­ham Lin­coln to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. have done: to el­e­vate and praise Amer­i­can ideals while coura­geously ap­ply­ing them to our so­cial in­con­sis­ten­cies and hypocrisies.

“What greater form of pa­tri­o­tism is there,” asked Pres­i­dent Obama in his ad­mirable 2015 Selma speech, “than the be­lief that Amer­ica is not yet fin­ished, that we are strong enough to be self-crit­i­cal, that each suc­ces­sive gen­er­a­tion can look upon our im­per­fec­tions and de­cide that it is in our power to re­make this na­tion to more closely align with our high­est ideals?”

And this might be matched with a spirit of grat­i­tude — for a coun­try ca­pa­ble of shame and change, and bet­ter than its griev­ances.


Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.