Monday, November 07, 2016

Reflections on an Election Day Eve

It has been a long, grueling Presidential campaign.  I often think of how much worse it is for the candidates who are running than for those of us in the bleachers watching.  This time, though, I gotta say that it's been pretty hard on us in the stands, too.  And tomorrow it's all over.  Tomorrow the voting will take place, and while there will still be absentee ballots to count it's usually been clear enough by the end of election day to declare one of the candidates the winner.  Not always, but usually.  Perhaps we'll know by the end of the day how this long, grueling Presidential campaign will end.

Except, of course, most people know that what we've been through for the past 596 days isn't going to simply stop and go away once the results have been tallied.  I'm not thinking so much about the possibility of  one of the candidates refusing to accept those results and declaring the election fraudulent and the winner, illegitimate.  That might happen, of course, and there may well be suits and counter suits to go through before a final decision can be certified.  But that's not what I'm thinking about.

There is a divide, a rift in our nation that has perhaps never before been so vividly clear.  It's easy to portray either side in cartoonish caricature.  "We" think "they" are ignorant, racist, misogynistic, xenophobic bigots who can't even recognize their own self-interest when it's being threatened before their very eyes.  "They" think "we" are overly privileged fools who don't have any real understanding of how the world works and who are more concerned with being "politically correct" than about remaining true to bedrock American values.  Each "side" thinks the other is blatantly lying about nearly everything they say, and that their supporters are so blinded by ideology that they can't see it.

I recently wrote a piece about an essay I'd read, titled, "How Half of America Lost Its F**king Mind."  It's author, a man named David Wong who self identifies as having grown up in "Trump Country," opened my eyes to a different understanding of who "they" are and what motivates their support of Donald Trump.  Some, he notes, are what the caricatures are drawn from, but not all.  He helped me to see these people not as stick figures or straw men, but as real people who's politics grow out of real pain, real fear, and real frustration. 

The bitter ugliness that has characterized so much of this "election cycle" will not fade into a chorus of Kumbaya on November 9th.  Very real fears and pains have been exposed, like a raw nerve, and will not be so simply salved.  In fact, they may very well be exacerbated -- the loss of Donald Trump to Hilary Clinton could well be seen, for instance, as just one more proof that the system really is "rigged" against them.  That's why I say that this won't be over when the results have been tallied.  There is a lot to be healed in this country -- wounds both generations old and newly formed.

I have hope, though.  The experiment that is the United States of America is still young.  Make no mistake, it is an experiment -- what we've been trying to do here has never been done in quite this way before.  And while 240 years may seem like a pretty long time, it's worth noting that this past Rosh Hashanah celebrated the start of the year 5,777 for the Jewish people, and Chinese culture can trace back nearly 8,000 years.  By comparison, the U.S. is barely even a toddler.

I think often about the foundations on which this experiment was built.  One aspect, of course, was a brutal sense of colonial entitlement.  The people who had lived on this continent for over 10,000 years were consciously and intentionally exterminated, their lands stolen.  This "new" nation was literally built by the blood and the sweat, first, of Africans stolen from their homes and reduced to a chattel existence and, then, by wave after wave of minority immigrant.  The toxin of white supremacy (and, to be more precise -- white,cis-male, heterosexual, property owning, educated supremacy) has permeated the fabric of this nation since its "founding."

At the same time, though, there has been an antidote to that toxin -- a vision of freedom and equality that even those who espoused it did not fully understand.  In 1969 the band Steppenwolf personified this vision in their song "Monster," a song that is still extremely relevant.

I like the idea of that vision, that spirit, as being alive.  Martin Luther King, Jr. gave us another metaphor.  He referred to the stirring words about equality Jefferson had written in the Declaration of Independence as a "promissory note" that had now come due.  I've always liked that, too.  Jefferson may well have consciously intended to exclude from his "all men" anyone other than white, cis-male, landholders, but he was, to speak poetically for a moment, not writing on his own but channeling a larger vision, one which we have continued to grow into during our mere 240 year history.  The rancor of this election has laid bare how far we have yet to go, should anyone have not known it.  But although the road may be stony and hard, I do believe that we are treading it still.

Whenever I want -- or need to --  be in a patriotic mood, I turn almost immediately to the rendition of the song "America the Beautiful" that Ray Charles recorded on, Message from the People.   Charles had resisted recording the song for many years, but finally did so on this album.  I came across a fascinating paper (essay?  sermon?) titled, "The Soul of America:  Ray Charles Sings 'America the Beautiful,'" in which David Clyde Jones, Professor Emeritus of Theology and Ethics and Covenant Theological Seminary puts a rich context for Charles' decision.  It's worth reading.  In the liner notes to Message from the People, Charles commented, "I tried to describe the things that were out of tune in America ... I was saying, "Listen.  You need to clean up your shit, America ... but I still love you."

Maybe that's where my hope is rooted.  For all the shit, there is a lot to love.  Whatever the outcome of the election, I intend to play Ray's rendition of this patriotic song, to remind myself that there's a lot to love.  And then I'll remind myself that love is rooted in understanding, and I will strive to really understand those whose convictions have been so contrary to my own.  And I will pray that we continue living into that dream, that vision, that spirit.

Pax tecum,


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