People deserve to be treated as human beings. We seemed to have forgotten that point in America, as we fail to live up to our ideals as a country and as our myths fail us again and again.
Perhaps we need new stories…after we reject the old ones. We’ll have to work hard to get there.
As always, this Weekly Reader features links to recent books and articles that grabbed my interest or tickled my fancy.
After seeing the images of border patrol agents on horseback whipping Haitian refugees seeking asylum in the United States, columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr. wrote in the Miami Herald that we were traumatized by those pictures.
“That’s because they contain so much more than what’s in them, so much more than horse-mounted U.S. Border Patrol agents at the Rio Grande in Texas, running down and flogging would-be Haitian immigrants. No, those pictures contain George Floyd and forced removal from ancestral land, contain internment camps and the Pettus Bridge, contain every time the state, in its awful power, came down like a hammer on the head of the tired and poor yearning to breathe free.“
“It is a sad fact that we seem to have lost the thread where America is concerned. Indeed, outside the easy patriotism of Lee Greenwood’s song and the ignorant xenophobia of those who think what America really needs is to be made “great again,” there is real concern about the sustainability of this experiment. America, we once liked to say, is the only nation founded upon an ideal.
“But an ideal, like any living thing, must be nourished in order to survive. Ours has become severely malnourished, having been fed on empty calories of jingoism and myth, a sepia fable of virtues many of us love to trumpet — liberty! justice! for all! — without really trying to live.“
Writing in The Guardian, Nesrine Malik notes that Political gestures can be inspiring. But let’s not mistake them for victory. In reference to the first year anniversary of the Black Lives Matter protests and to the recent uproar over Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez going to the Met ball wearing a dress emblazoned with the slogan “Tax the Rich,” Malik writes,
“Tax the Rich. I had a chilling flash-forward to a line of Tax the Rich merchandise trotted out by rich influencers. Or maybe rendered in jewellery, much like the VOTE necklace, as popularised by Michelle Obama (£310 RRP). On the way to the mainstream that Ocasio-Cortez wanted to reach through the Met ball, there is a giant cultural and commercial net: one that catches everything and turns as much of it as it can into a cheap (but still overpriced) product. Audre Lorde famously said: ‘The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.’ But the rest of the quote, less often cited, warns us that it will often look, at first, like winning. ‘They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.’”
No, it takes much more than symbols and gestures, no matter how well intentioned. It takes hard work to bring about social justice.
“Any ground won here is illusory. The expansion of the online space overemphasises the impact and reach of virtual discourse, and so one could easily mistake the fact we are having these conversations at all for a sort of victory in itself. But if these arguments don’t translate to winning some power in the real world, they are all heat and no light.
For a democracy to work, for good and popular ideas such as racial equality or taxing the rich to become mainstream in meaningful ways, people can’t just be exposed to information that is presented to them as correct. They need to be converted, to see the way such policies or facts relate to their own lives. A campaign I think about often is the one that paved the way for Ireland’s historic gay marriage referendum in 2015. What may have seemed like a dramatic or even inevitable liberalisation of a socially conservative country was in fact the fruit of years of grassroots work. One of the most successful tools of the campaign was the ‘Ring your granny‘ effort, where young people lobbied their grandparents, mostly in rural areas, to vote yes. The motion passed with two-thirds of the vote.“
Democracy is never permanent, and the work to keep it never ends. Which is why it is worth doing, if we want to create a new thread, a new story, about America.
More to come…