My Faith in the American Dream
My grandparents were immigrants.
They came from Italy with nothing. This country welcomed them at Ellis Island with the kind of open arms that would be unheard of today. Lady Liberty smiled down on them. America was still proud Lady Liberty was a gift from France--we liked being respected in the world.
Once here, my grandparents worked hard to achieve the American Dream.
Then the Great Depression came.
They were hungry, but proud. When my great uncle changed his last name from 'Marcanio' to 'Marc' so that he could find work, the family never spoke to him again.
They ate frogs, and squirrels, and dug up wild mushrooms to survive. My great grandmother had two miscarriages.
My grandfather's family suffered so much from cold that his brother tried to steal coal from a passing train. He was killed in the attempt.
The family never got over the shame of the stealing, or the death of the boy.
They did, however, survive the Great Depression because of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal.
The government employed them and helped them survive. And once they were on their feet again, they never forgot it. So deeply imbedded was the obligation, that both my grandfathers enlisted in the military during World War II, even though one of them had not yet become a naturalized citizen and was an only son. He was asked to go back to Italy, and fight Italians. He did so, without hesitation, because he believed himself to be an American; he believed in the righteousness of a government that took care of its people and fought fascism abroad.
After the war, they lived their American Dream.
My father was born and my grandfather named him after the brother who had been killed stealing coal. My grandfather knew that he had built an America in which his son would never have to steal coal.
In fact, my father went to college. Both of my parents did; they became professionals, and answered John F. Kennedy's call to national service too. And I was raised into their American dream, believing that it was possible for anyone.
You see, the New Deal was literally that--a new social contract between the people and the government, no less revolutionary than the Magna Carta. In essence, the New Deal was a promise that the government would take care of the people in exchange for the people giving back money and service to the government. This was a sacred promise--and the Greatest Generation believed in it. They paid into the system to support the elderly and the poor with the expectation that future generations would support them.
They built the infrastructure that made this country great. They built roads, they built power-plants, they put up telephone wires, they cleared forests, they planted forests, and they built cities and schools. They built the most prosperous economy in the history of mankind. There's not a dime that you or I have earned our whole lives long that was not built upon their blood, sweat, and tears--and if we kept our promise, there would not be a dime our children earned that they did not owe, in part, to us.
That was the sacred compact of the New Deal.
One month ago today, my country rejected and broke this promise.
My Faith in Constitutional Protections
I was never the normal sort of child. My parents took me to many cities around the world, but the one I loved best was Washington DC. As a Catholic, I had felt spiritual exhilaration in Rome when I saw St. Peter's tomb, The Pieta, and the Pope. But I got that same feeling when I visited our nation's capitol.
I was only thirteen when cherry blossoms swirled around me and I looked up in the Temple of Jefferson to see the words, "I Have Sworn Upon the Altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man."
I was moved to tears.
I was never the same.
You see, my religion was authoritative. It was beautiful and encompassing, but it was passed down from God. Passed down from the Pope. But democracy was participatory.
The Founding Fathers had invited me, personally, to join them on a most sacred mission: to form a more perfect union.
God had given me a mind, and the blessings to be in this country, and a family, and all the tools I would need for this project, including the free will to build a just society. There was never any conflict in this for me. I was to render unto Caesar the things which were Caesar's, and unto God the things that were God's.
I believed in secularism. I believed that the Constitution would preserve it, and every other liberty that the Founding Fathers had enshrined. And it was not partisanship. I thought I might be Republican because I grew up loving Jefferson _and_ Adams, Hamilton, Lincoln, Justice Earl Warren, Justice Brennan, Justice Blackmun, and Justice Stevens. (It wouldn't be until later that I realized the Republican Party of today rejected most of the men from their party that I idolized.)
Politics interested me less than law, because I thought both parties believed in the same basic principles. I did not really believe that a majority of Americans thought we had too many rights. I didn't believe that the Bill of Rights could somehow become controversial. I didn't believe that an American President would ever show the Constitution such contempt and be rewarded for it.
One month ago today, I was proven wrong about all of these things.
My Faith in the American Character
A friend of mine once knocked a cluster of grapes out of my hand. I had been about to eat them, but she ranted to me about how I was hurting the migrant farm workers in California. I thought she was deranged. She took away my Coke too, because of aparteid in South Africa.
Her name was Coriander. She'd grown up on a commune. We would have screaming matches over whether or not the Founding Fathers were evil, oppressive men hell-bent on enshrining discrimination into the nation, or whether they were visionaries, striving to emancipate the world a little at a time.
Coriander believed that most Americans were greedy, selfish, uninformed prisoners of corporatism. By way of example she would point out all the times in our history where we had gone wrong.
I believed that Americans were the most charitable, service-oriented, literate, freedom-loving people in the world. By way of example I would point out all of the times in our history where we had turned away from our worst instincts and corrected our wrongs. A civil war was fought, at least in part, to correct one of them.
Where we had done evil things abroad, I felt that it was the doing of small-minded men in government, or desperate men in government, even well-meaning men in government, but that these acts did not have the consent of the populous.
Coriander had planted her seeds of doubt, but we ended on bad terms. I thought she hated America, and I resented it. My faith that Americans were not willing imperialists was too strong to admit her world view.
My faith that Americans believed in International Law was even stronger--heck, we all but invented it.
It was our Justice Jackson who changed the world's notion of the Just War. It was our idea to create the United Nations. It was our First Lady, Eleanor who lent her genius to creating a world in which war would be rarer. America was a signatory to the Geneva Convention and I believed that we honored it more than any other nation did.
In fact, I thought our poor soldiers were often put at greater risk because we followed the rules of war, and our enemies did not.
The thing about faith, when it is as fervent as mine, is that it trumps all facts to the contrary. My faith withstood everything that came before it.
Until the election.
One month ago today, these beliefs came up against the facts. Now I fear that a mass murderer named Osama bin Ladin understands the dark side of my countrymen far better than I ever did.
This election was different than any other in my lifetime. This was not an election about ideas for American policy. It was about the idea of America herself. I was sure, election day was going to be the best day of my life, that I would end up on my knees thanking God for confirming my faith in my nation.
Instead, I ended up on my knees in tears, with a mouthful of ashes. Now I feel like a stranger in a strange land.
My Faith in My Future
I never thought I would lead a life with less opportunity to prosper than my parents had. I never thought I would live in an economy where net jobs were lost four years in a row for the first time in seventy years and under an Orwellian government who called this tragedy a robust economy.
I never thought my tax dollars would protect companies who ship American manufacturing infrastructure and sensitive intelligence employment overseas to make a buck.
I never thought my own government would reward disloyalty and promote the humanity of the corporation while denigrating the humanity of our citizenry.
I never thought our media would become a propaganda machine--I remember the days when reporters asked real questions and Presidents quaked. I remember when Presidents held press conferences. I remember when the media held government accountable. I had faith in them.
Even when Al Gore's Presidency was stripped from him in one of the most poorly reasoned legal decisions of Supreme Court history, my faith persevered. I was angry, but I never doubted that this wrong would be righted.
I had faith that this President Bush, this accident of history, would go down in the history books as an aberration.
I had so much faith that I began to plan to bring a child into the world. In the days before the election, when I wasn't working hard on the campaign, I was working on our house. My husband and I were nesting. We were preparing for a family that I now fear we will never have.
As of one month ago, I have no faith that I could bring my child into a better world than the one I was born into. How would a child of mine bear up under the deficits being piled on his generation before he is even born? Will my child, one day, need to steal coal to stay warm?
But most importantly, I have no faith that I could now be a good parent. How could I look my child in the eye and convey to him or her, the faith that my parents gave to me? Children know when you're lying.
I don't want to teach my child that people are not naturally good and that we are citizens of the most dangerous nation on earth. I don't want to look at my child and tell him or her that we may not really live in a free and fair Democracy.
The Personal Toll
All of this is indulgent narcissism.
There are real people suffering in this world, and my personal anguish is nothing next to theirs.
After all, I'm a privileged white woman. I live in a blue state and I'm unlikely to get disappeared by the Department of Justice, or to starve to death, or to fall prey to all the ills that have come from Mr. Bush and his Administration. I'm not likely to need an abortion. We don't plan around social security.
And yet, it is deeply personal, because it is a crisis of faith.
It runs so deep that I feel personal betrayal that my father voted for George Bush. His one vote wouldn't have mattered, he would say. He voted in New York. But I feel like a little girl whose father won't listen to her when she tells him someone hurt her.
I get out of bed. I go out with friends. I work. I live my life. I love my husband. I find much to be grateful for about my life every single day.
Life goes on, there is more work to do, and I hope two months time will bring me more wisdom than one month did.
Perhaps too, the unusual and infinite tenderness I feel towards John Kerry since his concession speech may fade over time as well. I love him far more now than I did the day I voted for him. I can't explain it. But for now, he represents an image of profound personal loss, he represents the work I did, the dreams I had. He is the personification, by happenstance, of all that I valued. I am sure that is part of some post-traumatic stress syndrome too.
So, I am not yet over the election yet.
I fear I never will be.
There is a very dark hollow core in my heart where faith once was. I don't know who I am without it.
I feel like a priest who wakes up an atheist. When no one is listening, I ask myself how much of my life have I wasted? I fear the siren's call of a life in which government is simply that distasteful thing that sometimes appears on the evening news.
"Oh, I never vote," the girl who delivered my mail said to me. I looked at her aghast. Will I look at her, next time, with envy?
A month ago, I said it felt as if someone had died.
I think it might have been a part of me.