Warning: This is long. It may be inappropriate for this community (perhaps best reserved for a personal diary). And it is off the cuff, so there are likely to be spelling and grammatical errors.
It's hard to know where to begin.
It all has something to do with the Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman case, which I've watched with interest.
I had the experience of growing up in the U.S. with a kind of cultural schizophrenia, a mixed-race kid in a predominantly white, conservative state—a kid that grew, strangely, from being non-white when I was young into apparent whiteness as I reached adulthood, as matter of the way that my appearance changed over time. Somehow genetics turned me from one of "them" into one of "us" by the time I'd become a grown man—so long as I remember to shave and do my hair in a certain way. Most of the time, none of the strangers around me suspect that I'm anything but a red-blooded (i.e. WASP) American these days.
But I haven't forgotten being beaten mercilessly by a mob of dozens of children on my first day of kindergarten, or being threatened by the parents of other children over the years, or being threatened by their guns, or being called those names, being given those jobs at scout camp or on my first job as a kid—the ones that are dirtier, or riskier, or more demeaning.
When I broke down and fell out of the public school system as a result of the abuse I'd suffered, those that committed it, and the parents and officials that had comitted it right along with them stayed within it.
A significant part of my youth and of my self-identity, then and now, is bound up with the experience of race in America, an experience interwoven with questions of class, ideology, culture, and the problems of integrity and hypocrisy.
My mother was and is someone caught between realities. A bleach-white protestant girl of European stock, she has been a staunch American patriot my entire life. This was, is, and always has been—so far as she is concerned—the land of opportunity, a place blessed in unique ways, the now proverbial shining city on a hill.
As a fiscal conservative, she has always voted Republican since she first had the chance to vote. But she also married someone from a radically different background and chose to produce mixed-race children. She also embraced feminism. She also worked to serve the poor and to engage in community activism on behalf of the disadvantaged and disenfranchised.
As a young child, I spent time in polling places watching her work as a volunteer. We carried food provided by social programs to the needy. We planted trees, collected garbage, went on recycling drives. We built solar systems, composted, gardened, shopped locally, saved and sent goods and money to aid organizations at home and abroad.
I grew up hearing about the greatness of America. That it was the only working "melting pot" society of its diversity on earth. That anyone in America could be anything. That it had the greatest middle class, the most sensible social safety net, the most stable form of democratic governance, the most peaceful and human-rights-centered geopolitical orientation of all nations on earth. That in America, immigrants of different races and backgrounds could be thrown together, with little or nothing to their name, meeting at the kind of higher education institutions that are available only to a privileged few around the globe, and could go on to build upwardly mobile, middle class, politically active lives with little fear, working together, despite their different origins, to build a better world not just for Americans but for those outside America's borders. That only in America was this not only possible, but encouraged.
I grew up hearing that America's time of trouble had passed; that once, it, too, had been like other nations—violent, troubled, rent by racial and economic trouble and factionalization, unsure of its role on the world stage and insecure about a knife's-edge balancing of rights, laws, needs, protections, and so on. Yes, America had seen troubles like other nations: slavery, racism, civil war, political instability, government surveillance, international diplomatic disrepute, poverty, rights abuses, economic disparity, weakness, and near-collapse, a sharply divided polity, violent crime, the oppression of women, and so on.
But so far as my mother was concerned, by the time I was born in the 1970s, these classic social problems had been solved—and America was the country, the first and only by her reckoning, in history, that had solved them. By the time I was old enough to be on the receiving end of political socialization from my parents during the 1980s, we were in the Reagan years, and by my mother's reckoning, the perfect society had been achieved. We were in it. Progress was inevitable; a divine telos had carried America to the top of the hill and caused it to shine, and that divine telos would ensure that America would lead the rest of the world to rise with it—by example and by goodness and by generosity. And, as a family, so far as she was concerned, we were a part of that example and goodness and generosity, as it was our duty, as citizens, to be.
By the time I was a teenager, a rift had emerged between myself and my parents—in particular my mother—a political rift that has worsened, rather than healed over the years.
I never had the same experience of America that they did. I never experienced it as the land of opportunity. I experienced it as a land of beatings and of hate, from a very young age, and as I got older, went to an urban high school, eventually left the school system, then went to an urban university, I experienced it as a land distinctly lacking in opportunity or respect for human potential and dignity, one in which I always felt as though my choices were limited as a matter of principle, based on who I had been on the day that I was born, as though I was struggling to keep pace with what my parents' lives had been at my age in the face of profound societal and cultural resistance.
My parents' deep faith in and love for America stirred resentment in me and may have contributed to what has always for me been a deep struggle—the struggle to know how I feel about the country of my native birth to parents that did not have the experiences in it that I have. This disparity has in turn been a painful fact in my family; in some ways I was eventually cast in the role of ungrateful and spoiled America-hater by my parents, who could never understand where I was coming from.
But I've never known the America that they knew. By the time my political awareness and memories begin, this is the land of Reagan. After that we've had Bush, then Clinton, then Bush again, and now Obama. I know this is a political blog, but I won't bother with the policy and history discussions here. We all know the score when it comes to the political, economic, social, diplomatic, scientific, cultural, and other trajectories of this nation from the beginning of the Reagan years to the present.
Every one of the achievements upon which my mother's love of this country was founded—from racial blindness to universal upward mobility to economic and political stability to a strong commitment to public welfare to diplomatic judiciousness and humility to an unwavering commitment to and leadership regarding basic human rights—is a strange and foreign claim to me. I've not seen progress on these things over my lifetime.
I've seen other commenters saying similar things here tonight—that the Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman case is some kind of watershed moment in their relationship to American society, a straw capable of breaking even the strongest camel's back.
In my case, there is a similar kind of regrettable catharsis going on. The verdict has caused me to reflect on my political self and values, and on the relationship that I've had with my parents over the years as colored by my relationship to America.
I'm four decades old, give or take, and my entire experience of life in this country has been one of backsliding in relation to every description of America that I grew up with—from my parents, from the textbooks, from the media.
My experience with America has been that, with every passing month, year, and decade, we are always a little bit less than we were just a short time ago. We fail each time to live up to the description that we give of ourselves. Each time, we confront our failure, admit to ourselves that we aren't quite as far along as we though we were, and adjust the description accordingly—only to fall short of our self-understanding once again over the days that follow.
My exprience with America has been one of forty years of backsliding—of conceding new lows, trying to come to terms with them, then finding out once again that we must concede yet more new lows.
It has been my experience and the experience of many, I suspect in my generation, both at the national and social levels and at the individual life-trajectory level.
Over and over, we have been forced to qualify and recalibrate our own personal understandings of American mythology and ideology in hopes of correcting cognitive and empirical dissonance. It has always been, and has remained, hard work of an exhasting kind, fraught work in the context of our public lives and personal relationships.
In a way, the Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman case, when placed into juxtaposition with the other things going on just now in America along all axes—economic mismanagement, the dismantling of the social safety net, historic wealth and status disparity, the undermining of the universality of law, the destruction of the equal status of women, the destruction of our geopolitical and diplomatic identity and essence, and of course the utter absurdity of our political system—has created a unique cathartic opening.
If there is one element of the national mythology above all others that was given to me as settled history, as a clock that could never be unwound or turned back, it was the progress made on race.
Yes, there was still work to be done, but we used to have slavery. We used to have Jim Crow. Whites used to lynch blacks with impunity. Beloved national figures whose initials we all recognize and whose speeches we saw over and over again in school gave their lives to carry us across a critical threshold. Whatever else goes wrong with America or remains unsolved in America, that great injustice had been solved once and for all.
Amidst the backsliding that has occurred over the course of my life, as other achievements fell, one by one, into the dustbin of history, the end of blatant racial stratification came to be the last brick standing, the one that marked the beginning of redemption on the calendar, the arrival of some sort of messiah.
Even if it seemed that we could backslide and were backsliding, the fact that whites couldn't just kill blacks with impunity any longer, just because, was evidence that progress happens, that history does not run in reverse, that somehow it could be argued that things do get better, even if the "arc of the moral universe is long," and irregular, at that.
Only now we know: whites can in fact just kill blacks with impunity once again now, with no particular reason or explanation for the circumstances or the act. Just because—that is why it happened, goes the narrative now. Quirk of fate, or the combination of the intrinsic unlawfulness and dangerousness of blacks in juxtaposition to those inscrutable quirks of fate that accumulate, like raindrops, on any particular afternoon, like the one on which Trayvon Martin decided to step out and buy a small assortment of the junk food that we like to pretend is a mortal sin but, when faced with actual mortal sins, we realize to be trifling and childish and inconsequential.
With the Trayvon Martin case, history has finally, clearly—for me, at least—been shown to be "running in reverse." Now, at some deeper level, I am relieved of the tension that I previously felt in relating to the country of my birth, and the doubts that I felt when discussing it with my parents.
After Trayvon, I no longer have to contend with the nameless messiah, the strange telos of American triumph, that arrived sometime in the midst of the twentieth century, before I was born, and that promised that American progress was—in the end—a given, and that it was ours as mere mortals to be patient in waiting for it and to do our part to bring it about.
That messiah was a false one; that redemption has been unredeemed.
I don't have, in other words, to embrace some deeper meaning or some hidden telos or some essential-if-often-obscured national identity that lies beyond the beatings and hate that I received as a kid, or the struggle to make ends meet and maintain a middle class identity for myself and my family even as I've watched friends and family in other countries—with jealousy—achieve the same things with far less effort and integrity, simply as a matter of policy and social circumstances.
If there is a messiah in this story, Trayvon Martin may be he—with all due apologies to and reverence for the life that was taken—his life. Caught in a hail of unspeakable injustice and irony, Trayvon has unwillingly given his blood to relieve many of the rest of us of the ideological and social inner conflict that has torn and colored our lives. With Trayvon's death, the simply real rises again, undead, from its burial in memory, in everyday time, in ideological contortions.
Suddenly, we see clearly—and it is morally acceptable that we do so. We are free make pronouncement of what we see, unbound from any responsibility to act as "patriots" or to make weak justifications that relate somehow to inter-state disparities of one kind or another, or national redemptions that have previously occurred, whose already-sacrificed leaders would be somehow sullied and lessened if we were to begin to doubt America now, "after all the progress we've made."
By seeing and naming what stands, naked and living in front of us, we do not somehow reinjure those that "gave their lives for this country," nor do we demean ourselves on their account.
For me at least, Trayvon's case makes it okay to call it as I see it, openly, for the first time without guilt or inner conflict.
And what I see is a declining society descending not merely into political, economic, diplomatic, administrative, or legal wreckage, but in fact into moral and ethical wreckage, on every front, with those members of the public most concerned about morals and ethics—in a common twist of irony—on the vanguard of its long destruction, and its gradual realization that no further redemption is to come—that the arrival of the messiah is neither history nor prophecy, in our case, but serial black comedy—and that we have been attending to this messiah already as its desciples every time we watch "Arrested Development," visit the ballot box, pay our taxes, eat a Twinkie, or hang a flag out on the Fourth of July—for surely these are all essentially the same thing in the America that we have.
And here I quote Donald Rumsfeld, with amendments and apologies. You live your life and make your life choices in the America you have, not the America you wish you had.
It's time to admit to ourselves the nature of the America we have.