Day 42: Determined on Equality

Underneath all the other issues of election 2020, is this essential choice: Will the US continue to advance toward becoming a fully equal society, or will its citizens turn from that, imagining that a nation of white privilege will mean happier times? To an unusual degree, this presidential contest boils down to whether the nation will resist change or realize its destiny as a place where people of all complexions can coexist, enjoy full equality, and thrive.

Our politics is unusually nasty because the nation is moving with some determination toward this goal. The election of the first black president, Barack Obama, was a 21st-century “fire bell” to white America. In response, whites who imagine themselves to be “patriots” have dusted off their rebel regalia and clustered around the monuments valorizing “the Lost Cause.” They have puffed up with pride, hearing president Trump call them “fine people.”

In the view of these “fine people,” much of what is wrong with the US has to do with the Democrats and their incomprehensible loyalty to the cause of black equality. Trump supporters can’t accept that Obama won office (twice!) on the basis of his merits. There must have been some trick, some fraud involved.

Trump is incapable of leading a nation experiencing a new birth of interracial solidarity. A majority of the US has grown accustomed to integration. Equality is the norm in our neighborhoods, workplaces, domiciles, universities, public institutions, regiments, and playing fields. Smart phones have shattered our innocence, making the reality of police brutality against blacks impossible to tolerate, ignore, or deny. Even as people of color fall ill and die of COVID disproportionately, Trump’s White House sees in their sad plight only political gain. He would rebrand as “terrorists” and “enemies” Americans who protest peacefully for equality.

Time and again, the prospect of black equality has triggered crises in our political system. When the black race stands to gain, presidential elections tend to get tumultuous, and federalism itself threatens to break under the strain. Slavery was perpetuated for decades because white Americans could not imagine coexisting with a free black population. Even radical Republicans of Abraham Lincoln’s generation balked at the idea that white and black people were equally capable of freedom, equally suited to being citizens of a republic, even as Republicans were certain that black slavery was wrong.

After the Civil War, blacks languished as an oppressed and segregated population, despite new Constitutional amendments supposedly securing their full civil rights. It was “nothing but freedom,” and in the more than one-hundred-and-fifty years since, Americans have struggled with all that becoming a truly fair and tolerant society involves. We’re getting closer!

The United States is getting nearer to accomplishing a rare feat, becoming a nation that is not tribal but abides by a color-blind code of equality. In the context of this determined movement, Trump’s reelection would be aberrant indeed.

Image: from this source.

Will #MeToo Be The Senate’s Waterloo?

Something decisive will occur in the Senate this week.  Not just a nomination hearing, but a political drama crystallizing in the minds of Americans the nature of a political party, and an institution.

In a hearing set for Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee will consider whether Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh is a person of respectable character.  They will hear from a California psychology professor, Christine Blasey-Ford, who has come out of nowhere with a believable claim that in 1982 Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when she was 15.  Kavanaugh denies it.  Despite the perturbation the allegations are causing, Senate Republicans are intent on shielding the nominee.  Determined to treat whatever is disclosed in tomorrow’s hearing as irrelevant to his confirmation, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell anticipates that, after hearing from the two parties in a non-judicial setting, the committee will vote on the confirmation the very next day.

On the way to that vote, America will see how its leaders behave.  How do senators treat a woman whose personal story threatens the plans of President Trump and the Republican Party?  How considerate are they in sorting out this very unsavory #MeToo story, which the recent openness of women in discussing sexual assault is empowering?  To what extent have senators reckoned with the implications of sexual equality, or how badly are they out of step with the times?

President Trump and the Republican leadership in Congress have dug in their heels, exploiting their every institutional advantage in an effort to mute a damning social narrative and push Kavanaugh through.  Trump’s White House has become Kavanaugh’s sanctuary.  He has been holed up there like a wanted man, arming himself with the latest in dis-ingenuity.  Kavanaugh’s proxies have spread out on the news circuit, broadcasting doe-eyed astonishment that anyone could fail to see Judge Kavanaugh as squeaky-clean.  Meanwhile, Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), chair of the judiciary committee, has announced that an outside interlocutor, Rachel Mitchell, a sex-crimes prosecutor from Arizona, will spare Republicans members the embarrassment of figuring out how to talk with Dr. Ford.  A brilliant fix for a hearing where the goal is to avoid hearing anything she says.

Ultimately—and this is what the president and Senate don’t seem to get—, Dr. Ford’s challenge to Kavanaugh’s confirmation isn’t about legalities.  It’s about whether Kavanaugh is acceptable to society.   It’s about whether Brett Kavanaugh, who is rumored to have put his hand over a girl’s mouth while attempting to overpower her, is a socially respectable being.  Is he a gentleman?  Today, American society is ostracizing harassers of women because their behavior is anathema to equality.  The buzz surrounding Kavanaugh is alarmingly loud.

Over the centuries, the Senate has often exemplified dignity.  It has upheld courtesy as an ideal, as a source of inner order, as the secret of its prestige.  Tomorrow, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee will be called on to receive “an inconvenient rememberer” courteously.  Yet, as #MeToo comes knocking, a blinkered and insensitive Senate cowers.

RELATED ARTICLES:
Caitlin Flanagan, “I Believe Her,” The Atlantic.
Caitlin Flanagan, “The Abandoned World of 1982,” The Altantic.

The Thinking Cap

Toward El Morro, © 2017 Susan Barsy

My father’s death a month ago overshadowed the calendar: overshadowed politics, Christmas, the work on my desk.  Though long-expected, his dying was startling and awe-inspiring, as awful and absorbing as seeing a ship sink or a comet flicker out.  Will the final disappearance of someone so constant and strong bring on other mysterious changes, too?

Writing about it feels strange: words, like shovels, make his demise and burial more definite, undeniable.  Besides, when I write, I put on my ‘thinking cap,’ which amounts to a return to habit, the resumption of a normal routine.  I doubt my father would have it any other way.  The deaths of his parents were followed by silence, their funerals unadorned with eulogies, the family sitting together at home after a noisy funeral luncheon, each mourner quietly nursing a whiskey.  The next day it was back to work, with nary a tear or outward trace of loss.

This much tribute, though, must be paid: without my father I would not have the intellect I have today.  Not only was he the model of a thoughtful and curious being, but he encouraged these attributes in his children and respected our gifts.  He was happy to have daughters with musical or mathematical abilities, who had political opinions, or were good at problem-solving.  Not surprisingly in high school I was a math nerd, a National Merit Scholar along with 5 boys and my friend Wendy.  In college, when my literary interests flourished, I found gifts like Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature and Edmund Wilson’s collected letters under the Christmas tree–reads that defined my earliest intellectual goals.

In a way that my formal education did not, my father stood for an active engagement with society.  He was someone who understood every physical feature of a landscape: its plants, institutions, machinery, and buildings.  Besides being a businessman and industrialist, he was a worshipper and a forward-looking inquirer.  He looked out.  He was interested in our futures, in the direction of society.  He traveled widely for work, bringing back gifts and stories; otherwise he remained in motion, always busy with projects that would bring new beauty or marvels home.  His view of us and of other people was profoundly egalitarian and mercifully free of social-science thinking.  Despite his practical, scientific bent, my father’s worldview left plenty of room for the ideal and the miraculous.

I’m fortunate to have had such a wonderful father.  He left me an heiress of sorts.  Some such is my song as I put my thinking cap on.

Image: ‘Toward El Morro,’
© 2017 Susan Barsy