10 August 2010

"Situation Hopeless, But Not Serious"

Anyone remember the movie by that name? It was a dark comedy about two GIs captured by civilians and held prisoner in a private home in Germany during the war. The premise was that the jailor did not release them after the war, in fact not even telling them the war was over. Thus the title.

The title is cute because we sometimes say a situation is 'serious but not hopeless.' That describes my sense of the nation precisely. Over the last few weeks I have observed more and more disturbing things in our society:

- anger toward 'illegal immigrants' that is like that visited on Chinese workers in the 19th century.
- anti Islamism very like the vitriol directed at Roman Catholics in the same period.
- nullification efforts toward health reform like those in the slave holding south.

If you see a pattern here, as do I, you see a potential return to pre- Civil War America, and see that as serious and deeply wrong. Aat the moment, given the atmosphere, I am not very optimistic. Chances are things will get worse long before they get better. Worse, there is no guarantee they will get better.

In all honesty, we could truly find ourselves back in the 1820's with its financial panics, class conflicts, regional factions, and political gridlock. (See, I told you there was a pattern!) Not until the 1860s did it end, and then only through a terrible and destructive civil war. Yes, it could happen here again.

But I am not hopeless. Because I know history, I am not its prisoner. At its center, America is a place of hope - hope for individual liberty, social justice, and national virtue. We veer from our essential hope when we focus on one at the expense of the others.

Right now, we are enthralled with individual liberty, I think to excess. Modern conservatism is propelled by the attractive purity of perfect personal freedom. Ironically, the counter culture of the 1960s was a liberal movement focused on individualism too, and so many a young rocker is now a conservative, like Ted Nugent for example.

But America is more than that, and we all know it. That's why my liberal friends are mounting the ramparts for social justice, with as much conviction of its primacy as the conservative commitment to individualism. And like them they, or at least some of them, see this as a a binary conflict - for me to be right you must be wrong. That's why we need the third part, national virtue.

This is what gives me hope amid the storm. History teaches me that when America acted nobly it was at its best. And it has done do. The Marshall Plan was one such moment. The Peace Corps was another. Land Grant Colleges, the GI Bill, Brown vs Board of Education, all of these were moments when America did the right thing because it was the right thing. These things were for something more than personal profit or social engineering. This is my America.

Long long ago, the writer of the book of Hebrews encouraged the infant Christian community by writing about Abraham and Moses and others who lived by faith even when the reward of that faith never came. Turning to those living then, the writer essentially told them to have hope even if their own hopes do not come true. The author then exhorted them to continue saying, "compassed about as we are by such a cloud of witnesses, let us run the race that is before us."

Hope is believing in and living for the goodness of the cause, in goodness itself, not in one's reward for being good.

Thus I am hopeful because America is worth believing in even when it is not living up its its hope. I am no summer soldier, no sunshine patriot, as Thomas Paine put it. The words of the Declaration will not let me, nor the preamble to the Constitution, nor the words of Webster, Lincoln, Emma Lazarus, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King. They make me hope even now, perhaps especially now.

Enough preachingm though. Time for dinner.

1 comment:

Francesca Amari said...

Thank you Fred. I so appreciate your comments and perspective!!