A Proud Moment For America?
This summer, to commemorate the 70th anniversary of VJ Day and the end of World War II, the local newspaper published a nice flashback piece, describing the spontaneous celebration and outpouring of joy as hundreds of people descended upon the Capitol Square here in Madison, Wisconsin.
The war was finally over. The soldiers would come home, take off their uniforms and resume the lives they had left behind in order to serve what they considered to be the greater good. They’d won the war. They had defeated Fascism and Totalitarianism.
For all, it was a proud moment, a moment where all those assembled at the Capital were proud to be Americans.
My relationship with this country is different. I’m not sure if I’ve ever felt proud to be an American. Of course, my reality is different. I didn’t live through World War II. Instead, my America was Vietnam and Watergate. Secret wars in Latin America. Military adventurism and wars fought over oil.
Maybe I had one proud-to-be-an-American moment. Late one night in July, 1969, I watched Neil Armstrong take those first steps on the Moon. However, I was all of seven years old. I can’t remember if I thought of this great event in nationalistic terms. And let us remember that when Armstrong famously said, “This is one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind,” he transcended nationalism.
All of this said, I do have to say that this nation had a pretty good week early this summer.
On Monday, June 22, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley called for the removal of the Confederate flag from the grounds of the South Carolina state capitol. In so doing, Haley did a complete 180 from her position of a year ago where she was adamant about the flag remaining in place. Granted, it took the racist murder of nine African Americans at a Charleston church to sway Haley, but let’s give credit where credit is due. It took courage for Haley to take that stance, especially with prominent racists standing steadfast in opposition.
And then on Friday, June 26, the United States Supreme Court made marriage equality the law of the land. No longer would the civil right of marriage be the exclusive domain of one man and one woman.
Oh, and on top of that, the day before, the Supreme Court upheld a key provision of the Affordable Care Act, pretty much ending the major legal challenges to President Obama’s signature and legacy policy.
Again, by the end of that week, I was not running and jumping around, feeling proud to be an American, but I have to say that it was a pretty good week for all of us.
I do firmly believe that the arc of history bends toward justice (or as Martin Luther King, Jr. actually said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”)
If I did not believe this, I don’t know how I could keep going. I have to believe that history arcs toward justice, that we as a people, as a civilization, are evolving toward a better and more just place.
The night Scott Walker won the recall election, I said this to a despondent crowd. I believed it; I had to believe it.
I think of how much the world has changed in my half century on this planet. There’s lots of little things that are better. Lots of big things too.
And yet, there’s things that haven’t changed, as well as things that have gotten worse over the years.
And yet again, we can have a week like we did early this summer, a week that shows just what is possible, just what can be, what can change.
And let us be ever mindful of the fact that these three events did not happen because a governor, a president and nine robed men and women waved magic wands. Nothing would have happened but for the hard work and dedication of large numbers of ordinary people coming together to do extraordinary things.
And yet, when we go forward, we somehow manage to go backwards.
Case in point, from the Nation & World page in the local newspaper, July 31, 2015:
Flags laid at King’s Church. “Police worked Thursday to identify two white males who were caught on a surveillance camera laying Confederate battle flags neatly on the ground near the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s church.”
Man stabs six at Jerusalem gay pride parade.
In addition, following Haley’s proclamation, several churches were set on fire. In at least some cases, arson was suspected.
We move forward three steps, but then backward two steps. Sometimes, it’s two steps forward, three steps backward.
We elect our first African American president. A good portion of the nation goes insane.
The Confederate battle flag is removed from the South Carolina capitol grounds where it had stood in opposition to the Civil Rights Movement. Unarmed African Americans still are murdered by white police officers.
As Newton tells us in his Third Law of Motion, for every action there is a reaction, equal and opposite.
Atavistic forces will react to positive change. We must accept this as a given, and thus we must not ever let our guard down. When something good happens, we have to fight to maintain that level of advancement. Short term pushback may result in a step backward, but hopefully not further than we were before.
We had a historic week recently. We need to continue our hard work to maintain these positive changes in order to evolve as we should and as we were meant to be.
I am reminded of the scene from Kill Bill: Vol. 1. In her quest for revenge, Uma Thurman confronts Lucy Liu, but first must slice and dice her way through Liu’s army of bodyguards. After dispatching a small cadre, the two face off, but then there is the roar of dozens of motorcycles, the majority of Liu’s private army.
“You didn't think it would be that easy, did you?” Liu says to Thurman.
Thurman replies, “Yeah, for a second, I kinda did.”
The arc of history does in fact bend toward justice. However, we must be ever-vigilant and understand that the process is never easy. The path forward may be fraught with peril. We may lose battles along the way, but we must always keep our eyes on the prize, and we must know that a better world is not only possible, it is inevitable.