I do not believe in a fate that will fall on us no matter what we do. I do believe in a fate that will fall on us if we do nothing.
-- Ronald Reagan, President of the United States, First Inaugural Address, 1981
Are we doomed?
Are we doomed as a country?
Are we doomed as a people, we Americans?
It’s happened elsewhere. Societies too big to manage, nations fractured by conflict and politics and chaos, civil society torn apart by madness and religion, diversity become irreconcilable differences and populations grown more dissimilar than they are alike, national bankruptcy, unquenchable rage, anger, distrust, malfeasance, until it all just … falls apart.
History is littered with the yellowed bones of failed nation states and dead empires.
History is chock-a-block with countries that put a gun to their own head and pulled the trigger.
Is that us?
Since November, and particularly since Charlottesville, I've gotten thousands of messages asking the same question: Are we doomed?
Is America done for?
Are we next?
If my email is any indicator, many Americans seem to think so.
A lot of people outside of America believe it.
It certainly seems as if we’re on the cusp and it could go either way.
But then, isn’t that how it always is?
America, we’re always on the brink.
Balanced on one foot, arms wind-milling, teetering over chaos with alligators snapping below.
We’ve been through this before.
And it’s been far worse.
Oh, you want to know when it’s been worse than it is right now?
When I said that a few days back, it’s been worse, on Facebook, a number of readers called me on it.
When was it worse?
When? Well, I suppose that depends on your point of view.
Better, worse, it’s about perspective. For example: I regularly speak to people of a generation who think the 1950s were just about as damned near perfect as it’s possible for a nation to get.
And they were, perfect.
So long as you were a member of the newly minted, post-war middle class with a well-paying job in one of America’s new industries, and if you weren’t too particular about civil rights or a woman’s place in society or drafted to fight in Korea or suspected of being a godless commie or one of them believers in evolution, well, yeah, things were pretty good. But for people not in that demographic, if, say, you were a black man in The South of that time, well, maybe things weren’t so great, especially when the KKK was putting a noose around your neck. For a lot of older Americans, nothing will ever be as good as the 1950s. But maybe, for some Americans, maybe that time was worse than now.
Maybe that decade was much worse.
It depends on your perspective often enough.
As a nation, as a fractious people, we've been through worse and survived.
Hell, the ink was barely dry on the Constitution when George Washington himself had to send in federal forces to put down armed rebellion. A few years after that, our former masters in London invaded the United States and burned the White House to the ground. The Civil War didn’t just break out suddenly one day without warning, you know. There were decades of tension and acrimony between two utterly incompatible ideologies. If you think Congress is broken now you should study what it was like in the years leading up to that war. And there were decades of tension and acrimony after the Civil War as well. Jim Crow. Separate but not so equal. Lynching. The Ku Klux Klan.
Then there was the Great Depression and then World War II. The Bomb. The Red Scare.
I mentioned those people who grew up in the 50s and how much certain of them idolize that time. Me? I grew up in the 1960s and 70s, the streets were full of riot, drugs, crime, chaos. War in Vietnam and at home. Civil Rights. Woman’s Rights. Equal Rights. George Wallace. Martin Luther King. Malcom X. Bobby Kennedy. Charlie Manson. Love Canal. Segregation. Bussing. The Man. The Establishment. Tune in, turn on, drop acid. Some days it seemed the whole goddamned world was on fire. Everything just kept getting shittier and shittier. Every day it was some goddamned thing.
Then came the Energy Crisis and the Great Malaise and one recession after another and … well, here we are.
And to me? From my perspective? Things don’t seem nearly as bad now as they could be. Because I’ve seen it worse – or at least it seems that way to me.
History is often damned painful to live through.
And it can always – always – get worse.
Advancement is never without cost, without pain and rage and blood.
But we've been through worse and rebounded better than before. Stronger. Smarter. More compassionate. More equal. Closer to the ideal of a better nation. What came out of the war and riot and chaos of my youth was a better society, a better nation, better for a lot of people in a lot of ways.
But again, “better” is often a matter of perspective.
And it’s always easier to go backwards instead of forward.
It is far easier to destroy than it is to build, to create, to innovate, to dream.
Depression is always easier than optimism. I can think of a hundred ways life is worse now than in my youth. I have to work to think of ways that it is better. But it is better, I believe that.
How and when, if, we emerge from this dark time depends on a lot of things and there are no guarantees.
However, I would point out that while it's easy to focus on the hate and rage and ugliness that fills our feeds every single day of late, what you might be missing is the overwhelming push-back from common Americans.
It’s easy to focus on the terrible, harder to see the good.
But, armed Nazis, Klansmen, Confederates – all the worst, most horrible ideologies humankind has ever come up with, combined together – marched on Charlottesville to defend a monument to racism and sedition. And hundreds of thousands of Americans showed up to tear it down. Pushed the haters back. Faced the Nazis down. The Klan, the Nazis, the Confederates, they came with guns and clubs and they killed one of us. And still they were routed, sent fleeing like the cowards they are. Sent fleeing in defeat, same as they always have been.
Right now they are being found and arrested and they will be held up for the world to see what they are.
Right now, cities across the nation are tearing down these monuments, removing them from town squares and public campuses and banishing them to museums or battlefields or dusty storehouses where they belong.
Forty white supremacists showed up in Boston for a rally. Forty thousand Americans showed up to shout them down.
In San Francisco, the haters were sent packing before they even got started.
That wasn't the government in Boston, in San Francisco, in Charlottesville, that was Americans who did that. That was common Americans, black and white, gay and straight, right and left, who stood up, filled the streets, and pushed back the haters who would burn down civilization.
It’s easy to fall into depression.
And as anyone who suffers from depression can tell you, it’s damned hard – damned hard – to claw your way out.
History is often painful to live through.
As it is right now.
It pains me to say this (you have no idea how much), but the Bern-It-All-Down crowd might very well get their wish.
Perhaps, once again, it has finally become so bad that those of reason and good will on both sides might at last find common ground and get off their asses and do something to make things better.
It has become so bad, as it always does, that those who love America more than they love their ideology and own selfish interests might once again come together to face down a common enemy and stand together against the fall of night.
Civilization advances in fits and starts. Three steps forward, two to the side, two back, and forward again.
History doesn’t flow smoothly forward, it lurches like a drunkard.
History is very often painful to live through.
And this, this right here, is what I warned you about last year. This is what a lot of us warned America about.
If you can't bring yourself to vote because you demand a purity of your principles, because the deck is stacked against you, because the system is corrupt, because the choices are distasteful, because you’re not given the perfect candidate, well, what you get is ... this.
Chaos. Riot. War. Ruin. Rage. Disaster. Two steps sideways and four back.
History doesn’t care about the gains you’ve made. The tide will erase your sandcastle as if it never was and wipe the beach clean to start over.
Unless you take action to protect it.
Unless you care enough, unless you’re pragmatic enough, to do something about it.
Hashtagging your social media posts with #resistance isn't organization. It isn't a plan. It isn't a movement. It's not advancing civilization. Just as slapping a $2 made-in-China magnet on the back of your giant gas-guzzling SUV isn’t actually supporting your troops or doing anything to prevent war in oil rich Middle Eastern countries.
The selfish, self-aggrandizing, self-involved, morally bankrupt conspiracy theory that passes for much of American ideology nowadays should be easy to rally against.
This lunatic in the White House, the barking ninnies who make up congress, the toothless ignorant Nazis, the impotent illiterate beer-bellied Klan, the endlessly defeated inbred Confederates, these people, well, we outnumber them a thousand to one. Ten thousand to one.
They should be easy to beat.
But they never are.
They never are.
Victory is never easy and never permanent.
And it’s three drunken steps forward, two to the side, two back. One painful staggering step at a time. And so, here we are. Life, civilization, adulthood is often a choice between less-than-perfect options. Sometimes you have to choose the best option, even if it's not what you want, even if it's not perfect. Because that's just how life is.
That's how adults have to face the world.
History is very often nothing more than choices between less than perfect options because the universe just doesn’t give a good goddamn what you want.
The streets are today full of liberals and progressives and rational conservatives. But it's going to take more than pink pussy hats and shouting down Nazis on our streets. It’s going to take more than pulling down statues. Those are great starts and well, well worth doing. But Americans of good conscience must get organized. Must rally. Must stand together. Must stop the endless pedantry. Must find common ground.
And more than anything, we must get over this childish demand for perfect leaders and grow the hell up.
Creationists don't build starships.
And modern conservativism has been eaten alive by the Creationists.
But guess what? Liberals don't build starships either.
No, instead they spend all their time and effort arguing about the advisability of sending humans to other worlds when we haven't even fixed (insert endless list of causes) and they never actually get around to building the damned ship.
You know who builds starships? People who believe, that’s who. Those who believe in the future, those who work every damned day to advance civilization, those who stand steadfast against the fall of night. Once upon a time, those people were Americans.
And they can be again.
If we are to build that better future, if we are to claim the stars for our own, instead of falling back into the dustbin of history next to Rome and the Soviet Union, well, then we’re going to have to get organized and do something.
We have to do more than just protest.
We have to do more than pedantically complain and correct each other and engage in endlessly recursive social justice oneupmanship.
We have to organize.
We have to build a coherent vision, one that appeals to all Americans, not just left or right.
Folks, if you can't get it together, if you can’t dream big enough, to beat the sorry shitshow in office right now, well, you'd best just give up. Just give up. Knuckle under. Stand on the side of the street and raise your arm to the fucking Nazis.
It's damned depressing.
It can be damned depressing.
It’s easy to believe we are doomed.
It is. You'd like to think we've advanced beyond this. But civilization is never a steady progression. It's always two steps forward and three back and two sideways and one ahead and stagger to the left and to the right and do it again.
The fight to advance is never over.
The struggle to move civilization forward is never over. Never. That is our biggest failing. Far too often those of conscience achieve some victory, civil rights, economic reform, democracy, social safety systems, something, and then they think it's fixed. They’ve won. So they fire up a fatty and declare victory and go back to watching the game.
But it never ends.
It. NEVER. Ends.
I hear progressives say all of the time, I'm tired of having to keep fighting this battle. We fought this battle for (insert whatever cause is important to you here, civil rights, abortion, gay marriage), we won, now we gotta do it all over again and I’m tired, man, I’m tired.
Well, shit, folks, I'm tired of fighting gravity, but there really isn't an alternative if you want to stay upright.
Are we doomed?
Are we doomed as a country?
Are we doomed as a people, we Americans?
I don’t think so.
Down there in Texas, it’s pretty damned bad right now. But – but – Americans of good conscience, Americans of will, Americans who believe in each other and in a better nation and a better future, have all come together to save each other. Americans have rallied from across the nation to Texas and no one gives a damn who’s left or right, who’s gay or straight, who’s black or white. What matters is each other. What matters is civilization. What matters is pushing back the tide.
That’s America, right there.
That’s why I believe we can change our fate, save our country, build a better future. Because of those Americans.
We’ve been here before. It’s been worse before. And even if we stand together now and once again push back the fall of night, bad news, folks, we’re gonna be right back here again at some date in the future. But we don’t have to join Rome or the Soviet Union, we can push back, we’ve done it before. We can save this nation if we want to. We can emerge from this dark time better, wiser, stronger. We can make this world a better place for all. We can. We will. But sooner or later, we – or our children – will be right back here again.
Because that’s how history works.
And it’s painful.
And it’s hard.
And it’s perilous and uncertain and it just never ends.
It’s about perspective.
It’s about how you face it: on your feet or on your knees.
But if you want a better nation, well, Citizen, you have to keep fighting.
And it's really that simple.
So let's get to it.
Note: A short version of this essay was originally posted to my Facebook page. // Jim