Requiem: Is This America?

Homeless man in Trump shirt by Justin copy

As I’ve written before, the usual tone of this blog is one of sputtering outrage.

I don’t apologize for that. These pages are aimed squarely at the choir, a communal primal scream of reassurance that we’re not crazy, a humble attempt to connect with like minds, to catalog the madness, and—I hope, in some small way—to contribute to the resistance, if that’s not too laughable.

Also: just to vent.

In other words, I am embracing everything that the Internet is criticized for, shouting into the echo chamber-wise. I’ll own that.

But the opposition is known to read this blog on occasion, and when they do, that underlying anger really strikes them, or so I gather from some of the comments I’ve received. (Spoiler alert: they don’t approve.) To me, of course, it is not “anger” at all, except in the righteous sense….what my Buddhist friends call “wrath.” But I can see how it comes across.

Recently someone even had the temerity to say I was long-winded. Can you imagine? Working on my 25,000 word rebuttal now.

So in this Christmas season, I want to take a more reserved stance for a change. (Don’t get used to it.)


I am angry, but I am also filled with sorrow.

Sorrow over a travel ban based on religious belief, no matter how gymnastically its defenders in the courts and media say it isn’t (though not the administration itself, which gleefully announces its      bigotry)….

Sorrow that we are forcibly taking small children from their mothers and fathers, lying about the rules that allegedly “demand” that we do so, housing these children in cages, denying them human contact, and disappearing them into a bureaucratic black hole from which they may never be reunited with their parents….

Sorrow that one such seven-year-old child died of dehydration and exhaustion in the custody of the US government. I’ve heard all the excuses the administration and its supporters have made for that. But there is no excuse for that….

Sorrow (and my stomach turning) at the sight of US law enforcement agents firing CS gas across the border at indigent, barefoot children, and at the demonization of refugee families fleeing violence and anarchy for which the US bears significant blame in the first place, and at blaming these desperate, ragged people for their own plight and their own suffering….

Sorrow at the vilification of immigrants legal and otherwise full stop, a process grounded in nothing but mindless hate, and a betrayal of the most basic principles this country claims to stand for…..

Sorrow at the obliteration of anything resembling a coherent foreign policy, and as result, the incalculable damage to American security; at the wanton smashing of diplomatic relationships carefuly cultivated over more than seventy years; at the abdication of American leadership, at the abandonment of loyal allies, and at the toadying to dictatorships and police states and the encouragement of despots….

Within that, sorrow at the toleration—and tacit endorsement—of the brutal murder of a journalist, and not just one, in the larger picture. Sorrow at the transformation of the United States into a satellite state of the Russian Federation and the gobsmacking, overt subservience toward its leader….

Sorrow at the absolute celebration of Dickensian greed, the con game perpetrated on the good people of this country, the shameless implementation of a Robin Hood-in-reverse economic policy that mortgages the future of our children and grandchildren for the enrichment of an already obscenely rich few….

Sorrow at the wanton despoiling of our air and water in exchange for mere pieces of silver, and the ostrich-like denial of settled science in order to squeeze out those short term profits, even if it means the destruction of the very planet itself….

Sorrow at the inexplicable elevation of this godawful family—stinking like a fish from the head down—to the very pinnacle of public life, and at the endless Mummers Parade of criminals, grifters, gangsters, and swine they have brought with them and installed in positions of power as public “servants,” very often with the unabashed intention of destroying the very agencies they command. The steady exodus of these same cretins in disgrace—and sometimes in shackles—one after another, speaks to the kind of people this administration attracts….

Sorrow at the underhanded subversion of democracy, a campaign that, as George Packer points out, is perhaps the most dangerous threat of all in that it obliterates our fundamental means of remedying all these other problems….

Sorrow at the steady drumbeat of attacks on the rule of law, on a free press, and on free speech in general. Sorrow at the destruction of truth and objective reality itself as common metrics, and the endorsement of shameless deceit and hypocrisy as the new normal….

Sorrow at the divisiveness roiling our nation, though I continue to reject the wildly disingenuous false equivalence that “both sides are equally to blame.” (Fine people on both sides, you know.) In other words, sorrow at the resurgence of racism, misogyny, bigotry, and xenophobia, and at how eagerly so many of our countrymen have thrilled to this appeal to the basest and most vile human instincts. In so doing they have revealed the ugliest possible face of our country, one that we all wanted to pretend wasn’t there—the racists and bigots included—but that has reared its head with a vengeance, giving the lie to our self-flattering delusions of collective enlightenment.

I say “our” because we as Americans are all culpable. We cannot slough responsibility off on our government, which after all, is supposed to represent the will of the people, even if it pointedly does not at the moment. But even that does not absolve us. These episodes are a permanent stain on the United States of America and on all of us as citizens thereof.

So when I see all this, all I can ask myself is:

Is this America?

There is certainly a dark, Zinn-ish view of our history that betrays no surprise over what we are experiencing, and I concur that it did not spring fully formed like Athena from Zeus’s forehead.

That is precisely what alarms me.

Because, as many wise observers have noted, this poisonous excuse for a president and the havoc he has wreaked is merely a symptom of a deep sickness, not its cause.


I guess I didn’t do a very good job of being calm and reasonable. In these times, it’s frankly beyond me.

That was particularly so in this incredible week—yet another one—that saw a stunningly reckless foreign policy decision that caused the Secretary of Defense to resign, the acting Attorney General defy his own ethics office regarding his duty to recuse himself in the Mueller probe, and a government shutdown loom purely because of a presidential temper tantrum over the mythical border wall.

And the coming weeks and months don’t promise a respite or a reversal. Very much the contrary.

In keeping with the motto “steal from the best,” I’ve stolen the title of this essay from an episode of Eyes on the Prize, Henry Hampton’s seminal documentary series about the US civil rights movement, titled “Mississippi: Is This America?,” directed by Orlando Bagwell. (Special thanks to series producer Jon Else, at whose knee I learned my trade.)

It’s a fitting burglary, in light of Mississippi’s recent election to the US Senate of crypto-segregationist Cindy Hyde Smith (not even so crypto, really), an election that saw a rich New York businessman come to the Deep South and cackle about her black opponent—Mike Espy—to a cheering, jeering, nearly all-white crowd, asking, “How does he fit in in Mississippi?”

It’s also fitting in general to reach back to the civil rights movement at a time when the backlash to that movement is alive and well and indeed reached a new apotheosis. At the same time, the movement provides inspiration and hope that the proverbial arc of history does indeed bend toward justice……but only when people are willing to fight and struggle and sometimes even put their lives on the line.

That episode of Eyes on the Prize in turn drew its title from a speech by legendary activist Fannie Lou Hamer at the 1964 Democratic Convention, which she concluded with these words:

Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?

Her question continues to echo to this day.


The black church, of course, played a huge role in the civil rights movement, and as I write this—at Christmastime—the specter of religious faith hangs over the present moment. I long ago gave up the Christianity in which I was raised, but its ritual and ceremony and mythology are still with me, especially this time of year. Tim Minchin, the most cutting atheist of them all (now that Hitchens is gone), said it best about Christmas:

And yes, I have all of the usual objections to consumerism
To the commercialization of an ancient religion
To the Westernization of a dead Palestinian
Press-ganged into selling Playstations and beer
But I still really like it

I know that many of those on the other side—Trump supporters, that is—are far more literal and devout in their religiosity than me (as incongruent as I find that with support for Trump). But apostate though I am, I am still moved by the sheer poetry of words like these:

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

It’s all myth, but it’s still beautiful, flooding my hippocampus and taking me back to my childhood. I suspect I am not alone in that. It breaks my heart—especially right now.

Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all. These days, best wishes for the new year are more than just an anodyne phrase. Let us endeavor to make 2019 truly a brighter tomorrow.


Photo, taken on the streets of NYC, by Justin Schein

Special thanks to Nancy Kates for educating me on the origin of this essay’s title


5 thoughts on “Requiem: Is This America?

  1. Keep up the angry pointed comments. The sharper the better. With the new year and new congressional balance, not to mention the presentation of the Mueller probe, everyone in our choir is waiting for a catalytic conversion of the politics of the day. Praying isn’t enough.


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