Tuesday, September 18, 2018

American Values Under the Microscope

Hardly a day goes by without someone advocating our return to traditional American values. But just what are they? Are they the values of the Declaration of Independence (“All men are created equal”), or the Constitution’s acceptance of slavery coupled to a formula equating Afro-Americans to but two-thirds of a white man? 

Do our historical values include the willingness of a vast segment of our citizenry to go to war to defend their ownership of another human and to treat that person as property without any rights or feelings? That they believed slavery was divinely ordained? And, after they lost the battle to retain bondage as a permitted way of life, do our values include devotion to laws to eternalize the second class citizenry of former slaves and others who came to our shores as free men but whose skin tone was darker than white folks? 

Do our values include the near annihilation of indigenous Americans and their near perpetual subjugation on reservations? 

Do our American values include our historic prejudice against most immigrant groups, from the Irish to the Chinese to the Southern Italian, the Eastern European, the Jewish, the Hispanic? Did you know that while we encouraged Chinese immigration to build the transcontinental railroad and other infrastructure projects, legal immigrants from China could not become naturalized U.S. citizens until 1943?

Were you aware that concurrent with Russian pogroms against Jews in the 1880s, white Americans ransacked Chinatowns across the country and killed their residents? At the same time, Southerners threw out Reconstruction, the Ku Klux Klan grew and Jim Crow laws became widespread in the states of the Confederacy. 

It seems white Americans, regardless of era, are endlessly mandating and legislating rules and regulations to protect their supremacy even as demographics works against them. To keep their hold on the levers of power, white America—now mostly those who are conservative Republicans—preach fear. 

“Fear is powerful,” former president Barack Obama has said. “Telling people that somebody’s out to get you, or somebody took your job, or somebody has it out for you, or is going to change you, or your community, or your way of life—that’s an old story and it has shown itself to be powerful in societies all around the world. It is a deliberate, systematic effort to tap into that part of our brain that carries fear in it.”

Before you jump to the conclusion that fear-mongering is exclusively a Republican tactic, recall that John F. Kennedy ran on fear of a missile gap versus the Soviet Union; Lyndon Baines Johnson made voters fear a nuclear holocaust if Barry Goldwater became president. It is instructive to note, however, that Richard Nixon’s law and order platform and George H. W. Bush’s Willie Horton election campaign ad played on racial fears.  

To Charles Blow of The New York Times, fear drives conservative thought and action. It is not a fear of loss of physical security. Rather, it is fear of loss of power. 

A little history: Woodrow Wilson is lauded for his leadership on the world stage, for his 14 Points program for peace after the Great War, including the creation of the League of Nations,  which ultimately America did not join (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fourteen_Points).

But Wilson, a Southerner born and bred, brought to the White House racist beliefs. He removed blacks from civil service jobs. The military was segregated. And, despite his advocacy of democracy with its inherent foundation of free speech, Wilson stifled dissent to his conduct of America’s involvement in the war in Europe. 

With the compliance of a Democratic controlled Congress, Wilson attacked his detractors through the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918. The laws made it illegal to “willfully utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of the Government of the United States.” Nearly 1,000 people were convicted of violating the law which the Supreme Court upheld as constitutional (https://www.thirteen.org/wnet/supremecourt/capitalism/sources_document1.html).

Under a president who has declared the press “an enemy of the people,” and a Republican Congress that has abdicated its constitutional responsibility to act as a check and balance to executive excess, imagine the potential for similar authoritarian action, especially after a Republican majority is confirmed on the Supreme Court. 

In his eulogy of Senator John McCain, his long time friend and former Senate colleague Joe Lieberman said our founding values were freedom, human rights, opportunity, democracy and equal justice under the law.

To former vice president Joe Biden our values entail “inclusivity, tolerance, diversity, respect for the rule of law, freedom of speech, freedom of the press” (https://nyti.ms/2eZFNZ1). 

Lieberman and Biden’s recitations are values we should strive for but in many instances have failed to achieve, not just in the distant past but in the last 50 years as well. We continue to deny human rights and opportunity to all; voting rights have been restricted; intolerance is endemic; respect for the rule of law has been undermined; freedom of the press has been challenged; diversity is portrayed as anti-American.

Two hundred years ago for many our values included the idea that it was permitted, even biblically sanctioned, that slavery was an acceptable practice. A hundred years ago it was accepted that women were not appropriately competent to be entrusted with the right to vote. Until 1913 with the ratification of the 17th Amendment, the choice of U.S. senators was kept out of the hands of the public at large. Senators were chosen by state legislatures. There are some politicians today, mostly Republicans given their dominance of state legislatures through gerrymandered elections, who would like to go back to that system by rescinding the 17th Amendment. So much for their dedication to democracy!

American values are an evolving concept. Every so often they are assaulted, as they were under McCarthyism. Only through education can we hope to instill in each and every American a knowledge of where we came from and what we have attained and how far we still have to travel to reach the ideals Lieberman and Biden illuminated.