Pretend This is a Country You Would Want to Live In
Before I start on what you’ll surely see as a gushing, naïve paean to America, let me say up front that I know how awful we’ve been. I know the terrible things we’ve done — or rather what they’ve done — from the years before that lofty group of privileged white men stewed over the wording in our constitution, wondering how they could keep power and still make a stab at suggesting equality, to right now, a few months after Trump’s insurrectionists raced up the Capitol steps to attack the same government we’ve depended on for more than two centuries — those same steps where Joe Biden stood and swore to become the kind of president 45 presidents before him have never quite managed to pull off.
We’ve been at this long enough to watch the taking of that pledge with a healthy dose of skepticism. In fact, skepticism is the order of the day now. We’re not allowed to praise our United States without also acknowledging that as a country we’ve been pretty shitty and maybe aren’t worth saving.
I don’t need to recount every abuse perpetrated by a government sworn to protect each and every one of us. For every two steps forward we’ve taken at least one step back. And that one step back has caused irreparable harm to millions of Americans.
We’re not allowed to praise our United States without also acknowledging that as a country we’ve been pretty shitty and maybe aren’t worth saving.
But I’ve lived in this country for more than eight decades — loving it, worrying about it, disappointed in it, furious at it — so I’ve got a serious stake in it. I’m not giving up on it now.
I was born near the end of the Great Depression to parents struggling to live in an America where a laborer and a house maid could survive and raise a family. When the United States entered World War II my father, a Canadian who had come to Detroit to find work, became a naturalized citizen in order to work on an assembly line in a car factory refitted and renamed The Tank Arsenal.
Everything changed during that war. The entire country was on a mission to rid the world of oppression and tyranny, and all but the most pessimistic understood that sacrifices had to be made. The poorest of the poor saved newspapers and tin cans and made do with Victory Gardens and government surplus. The richest of the rich were shamed into giving up their need for luxury, at least temporarily, in order to contribute to our common needs.
We were still struggling to get out of a depression so great we gave it capital letters. Many of us had lost everything. Entire families were living together, scrabbling together, barely putting food on our tables, and now our government was asking us to turn over our young sons — those sons we needed at home — and send them overseas to rescue foreign people we would never see, would never know, and would never speak the same language.
But , while the war was terrible and our human losses were devastating, it did the one thing we needed to save us: it put the people left behind back to work. We retooled our factories and gave every able adult the chance to help the war effort (including, for the first time, women). We had a purpose, but, more important, we were earning money again. Without a doubt, it brought us out of the Great Depression.
When the war was over, in 1945, our factories went back to manufacturing American goods. We prospered. We unionized. We built a strong and vibrant middle class. We had new cars and televisions and tens of thousands of factory workers had camps and cottages in the mountains or in the woods or at the shore.
We prospered throughout the fifties and into the sixties and seventies, all but ignoring the plights of the millions who weren’t so lucky, who hadn’t been able to jump on the bandwagon, who were held down by poverty and discrimination, with no visible way out.
We northerners had an inkling of the discrimination in the South, but, until Life Magazine began publishing accounts of systemic Jim Crow abuses, accompanied by black and white photos of ‘Whites Only’ signs and lunch counter sit-ins and white crowds celebrating scores of gruesome lynchings, we couldn’t even imagine the kind of day-to-day torment black citizens — ‘negroes’ then — had been forced to endure.
Slavery was terrible, but distant and amorphous to those of us in the north. We studied it in textbooks designed to look on the captivity and torture of humans for toil and profit as that ‘mistake’ from the past we’d long since resolved. We learned nothing in the forties and fifties about black scientists or educators or heroes. The closest we came was in the life of George Washington Carver, who did marvelous things with peanuts.
I’m ashamed to admit I was far into my adulthood before I found out about Japanese internment camps on U.S soil.
America as I knew it, growing up in my sheltered white lower middle class life, didn’t exist for millions of others who couldn’t share the public relations version of hot dogs, apple pie, and a chicken in every pot. During the turmoil of the early 1960s the truth I should have known in my heart finally hit me in the gut, and it stung that so much of what I had taken as historical truth was a fiction built specifically to keep us loyal to a country that, for too many, didn’t exist.
The Civil Rights movement seemed to be the game-changer, but the Jim Crow South wasn’t going to give up without a fight. The disappearance of burning crosses, separate drinking fountains, back-of-the-bus seating, and jelly bean jars at voting precincts only scratched the surface. The racists and bigots went underground and racism and bigotry ebbed and flowed, raising its ugly head, screeching ever louder when Donald Trump used his lies about Barack Obama’s birthright to build a cult following, allowing him to rise to the presidency by giving the racist and bigots permission to normalize their bizarre, self-serving notions that black and brown people are the greatest threats to America.
The horror that was the Aids epidemic in the 1980s brought attention to the discrimination against gays and forced a dialogue too long hidden. Now, in the 21st Century, millions of us have become a community advocating for LGBTQ rights as human rights. The haters are still around but the good news is they’re losing this battle.
The last few decades have thrown us into a place where millions of our citizens have been duped into believing they can settle for nothing less than a complete overthrow of our 244-year-old government. They’ve been led to believe the hogwash about Big Brother and the threats of Communism or Socialism without giving a thought to Donald Trump’s favored alternative — authoritarianism.
For four years it was a one-man band and from the beginning that one man was deeply flawed. I don’t have to recount what happened. Trump never should have become president and he never should have had the support he had, both from the GOP and from the American press.
But we’re past that now. Now we have to regroup and rebuild, and our greatest obstacle is our inability to change the hearts and minds of millions of people still devoted to a wannabe dictator, still dedicated to the overthrow of a government they’ve been pumped to see as their enemy.
The years ahead will be fraught with disappointment and disillusion. There will be those times when we’ll wonder what the hell our leaders are thinking. How can they not see what we see? But it’ll be different this time. This time the majority of us will be on the lookout for any move even slightly resembling treachery, sedition, or insurrection. And we’ll know it when we see it.
We’ll work to make it easier, not harder, for people to vote. We’ll demand that the peoples’ problems take precedence over the privileged few, and we’ll insist the privileged few must share in the sacrifices by, at the very least, agreeing to end loopholes and pay their damn taxes.
We’ll do it because enough of us will have finally figured out that we really are a government of, by, and for the people. We’re the decision-makers. Our power is in our vote. Everyone we put in a leadership role is there to work for us. None of them would be there without the permission of a majority of voters.
But too many Americans still don’t vote. And too many voters see their votes as jokes or ‘gotcha’ moments. Writing in ‘Madonna’ or ‘Donald Duck’ is madness when the stakes are so high.
There are countries all over the world where citizens don’t have the right to choose the leaders holding their lives at bay. Their elections are shams from the start, with every voter knowing in advance who is going to win. I don’t want to live in those countries. This is the country I want to live in.
I love this country, not in spite of the people but because of the people. I don’t just wish it was better, I work at it. In my case, I use my voice and hope I’m heard, but if I stopped at only working to make it better for me and mine, I would be missing the miracle that is America.
Can we do better? Of course we can, but only if the people who care about this country get involved.
What if we stopped complaining and looked around to see who’s really in charge here ? It’s us. Our government is up to us. Our leadership is up to us. We’re not forced to accept any of this. The elections of 2018 and 2020 should tell us we have the power and we know how to use it.
What if we all pledged to witness, to speak out, to advocate for the working class, for the disadvantaged, and for the real victims, not for those whose only loss is power?
What if we all saw our citizenship as an honor, as an obligation, as a superpower?
What if we took responsibility for the direction America is heading and refused to accept anything less than one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all?
Democracy is a work in progress. It’s fragile. It requires participation. We can’t sit back and wait for others to make it happen. We can’t sit back and watch it die. We know that now. By allowing Donald Trump and his henchmen to run roughshod over the entire country for four senseless, useless years we came as close to losing our democracy as we’ve ever come.
It didn’t happen, mainly because we wouldn’t let it happen. Millions of Americans opposed to the Trump pattern of reckless authoritarianism came out to vote in record numbers. More Americans voted in the 2020 election — two-thirds of the voting eligible population — than in any other in 120 years. And because we got out the vote, the Democrats won the presidency and both houses of Congress.
Our votes mattered. Now our actions matter. This is our moment and we don’t dare squander it. We don’t have to be who we were, and we won’t be if only we can stop beating ourselves up over what we’ve done and move, instead, toward what we can do to change it.
Ramona Grigg’s political blog, Ramona’s Voices, ran for 12 years, from Obama to Biden. She is a long-time columnist, feature writer, and essayist leaning Liberal, for the people, against fascism, sedition, insurrection, and other signs of national stupidity.