I find it very difficult these days not to be in a lather from the moment I wake up. I sometimes think of Weehawken, where I live, as one of those small shires in Middle Earth suddenly blackened by the stain oozing outward from Washington D.C. (with minor shadows added from Trenton while Chris Christie still roams the governmental grounds). Weehawkenites have sensed all along that something out there was not right, was not well, but this week, with the coming-passage of the Republican mangle called tax overhaul, the illness has crossed our boundaries, soon to punish us and our fellow New Yorkers for not being of the evil lord’s clan.
But there is always more to lather the lather. Religious choice being used to undo equality. Gun-toting in all fifty states. Absolving Israel of its colonialism by moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. Countdown clocks on the NYC subway system that aren’t correct. The vulnerable minced: DACA, children’s health insurance, immigrants ICE’d and families destroyed. The coming patriarchal backlash to #MeToo and a zombie white supremacy still upright married to a zombie racism that seems ineradicable.
I understand why Trump’s MAGA call rang brightly inside so many skulls. I don’t know if my parents voted for Trump, but they clearly have in their heads an “again” that they would love to see re-enacted in a modern age that has turned strange and dangerous for them (call it “strangerous”), and so do millions of others, who would like the return of the old power structures and comforting vocabularies of virtue and exclusive social membership.
On the other hand, it’s not as if the United States hasn’t achieved greatness in the past, if by greatness we mean something like building a mass industrial society on our rickety democratic infrastructure that did improve lives across many measures and did not implode (too much). That did happen, and while, rightly, we should point out the suffering that this national enterprise caused and still causes, it is still an achievement of great significance and should not be abandoned, either rhetorically or actually.
It is also important to hold onto the fact that the current corporatist anarchy of our politics is not the only politics this country has ever known. Plenty of voices have described different measures of “great,” and plenty of movements have tried to turn those words into actions and institutions, sometimes even succeeding: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and whatever is left of the “safety net” as well as local and regional experiments to test out “quality of life” arguments about the proper mix of markets, science, and communal living.
For me, the current Trumpian definition of “great” is pinched and greed-worn. I read a piece about the fact that, today, black mothers are three times as likely as white mothers to die from complications of child birth; in New York City, the ratio is 12 to 1. The probable cause? “The discrimination that black women experience in the rest of their lives — the double whammy of race and gender — that may ultimately be the most significant factor in poor maternal outcomes.” The moment of death for these women begins long before they’re giving birth. It begins in the wear and tear on the body of living in a racist society, and that begins at their own births.
Why is solving a situation where “black expectant and new mothers in the U.S. die at about the same rate as women in countries such as Mexico and Uzbekistan” not part of our “great”? Why are we not great in every measure that any civilized society would consider crucial to being civilized, like the measures included in the Human Development Index? Why does Norway best us every year? Why are we not inventing and deploying more revolutionary technologies? Why do we have to tremble as we ride our highways and cross our bridges?
Today, “great again” means the soothing of spirits wounded by a toxic nostalgia, and if our politics continues to use that as its lodestar, we will never be able to reconfigure ourselves, which means that black mothers will die, children will suffer from preventable diseases, and our economic lives will be premised on the lie of “trickle-down economics” and the mythical rationality of a mythical marketplace.
I don’t know how we get to a “great” that is certifiably great. Perhaps all we can do at the present moment is fasten our seatbelts for the bumpy ride, do what we can to keep the dark stain at bay, and hope that the democracy train doesn’t shake itself to flinders before it gets into the station.