Something in me broke today. I am not sure what to do with it.
Reading that Trump had decided to kill the so-called “Dreamers” act cut me hard.
My image of the America we lived in has taken a hit the past year or so anyway. I have always seen our country as a place where people actually cared about us. Where what bound us together truly was far stronger than what separated us. While I was perfectly aware of the many flaws and fractures in our country, I looked at our history since Franklin Roosevelt as an erratic but continuing growing together. A growing understanding and acceptance and core belief that people mattered. All people.
I believed we were constantly becoming better as a people, as a nation. That, even when we struggled with it, we knew in our moral core that race and economic status or even more recently, sexuality was not what measured us as a people. That our humanity was valued simply because we were. My read of our history of the past sixty years is that when we as a nation, worked to raise our own and open opportunities and care for each other, we also grew financially. (See Clinton and Obama, and even to some extent, Reagan), and when we built our society around providing for the rich and leaving the lower and middle classes to struggle on their own, we failed financially (see Bush #2).
I believe in history and I believed that was one of the lessons of history, and that we as a nation understood it.
I also believed, Pollyanna-like, that we were a moral nation. That people mattered. For my Christian brethren, I believed part of our moral compass was again, that people mattered. That stuff in the bible, and there is a LOT of it, about caring for each other, the example of Jesus loving all sorts of sinners, flawed people and even enemies actually mattered. That we had come, for the most part to a place where even if it was hard for us, the national psyche wanted us to become a place of opportunity for all, and a place where our mixing bowl of races and nationalities was celebrated for the miracle it was.
This belief began to be challenged with the election of Mr Trump. His lack of concern for the people he has repeatedly worked to disenfranchise has chipped away at that belief. Still, something in me believed our nation would stand up for poorer people, for the struggling. But of course, that has not happened. Many Republicans I once admired even as I disliked their politics have just gone along.
But this is not about Trump or Republicans. This is about my own struggle, and some looking deep inside.
You see, I never thought of myself as a champion of poor, or as anyone who really cared deeply about such things. I grew up in my nice middle-class white life and lived in my nice middle-class world, believing theoretically in caring for others. I never complained about the money we as a nation spent on helping the struggling. I knew the systems were imperfect. I knew our government alone would never cure poverty. But the fact that we continually tried. That we continually refined our attempts. That slowly, oh so slowly, we were becoming a nation that truly believed in being “better” and kinder.
I am not sure when that began to change. Maybe part of it was a two year period that I was unemployed. I worked hard to make it despite the slow dwindling of a lifetime of savings. I was perhaps, not very wise as I continued to pay my bills, keep my kids insured, pay alimony, get my first child ready to go to college. But in the end, before I began to get work again on the freelance basis I work on now, my once safe cushion disappeared completely.
I came to understand the fear that brings. The choices being poor cause you to make. More than understand it in some theoretical way, I came to feel it, right to my bone. But that was only the beginning.
I live in a part of Vermont that has a fair number of truly rich people, and a fairly large number of people struggling financially. There just are not enough jobs here. People work 2-3 jobs to make ends meet, and they do it with no benefits, often no insurance, always living on the edge, hanging on, once car breakdown, one serious injury away from disaster and being homeless. These are good people, hard working people hanging on by a thread.
A few years ago, I started as a part time pastor at a pair of tiny churches. And I have come to know the kinds of trauma that people are surrounded by. The rising drug issue is not some theoretical issue to me. I’ve seen families broken, marriages torn asunder, kids abandoned. I’ve seen people who suffered abuse of all kinds as kids struggling without help to survive. Not theoretical people, real people. People I know and love and care about. A far larger percentage of the people around me than I ever realized.
Without help, none of these people make it. They have no safety net. They have nothing. They get no treatment. Even with the programs and such that we have in place, they are on the edge. It is a struggle. Some never make it.
But some do. They take that help and run with it. They get jobs. They get medical and psychological help. They learn to become good parents. They rise. Welfare reform, particularly during the Clinton years, has removed the large scale abuse of the system that was once there. Today, most who get help are just barely making it. But they are making it. They have a chance.
I keep coming back to the thought that these are real people. They are not numbers or statistics. They are my neighbors, They are everyone’s neighbors. I don’t know exactly when I came to understand that, but it’s crept up on me. And I had faith that we as a nation believed it. That we understood how much of the fabric of who we are comes from wave after wave of immigration, and people having a chance to rise. That we had fought to become a place where people mattered. Ordinary people.
I know that feeling has increased over the past three years. I have met a wonderful woman, fallen in love and married her. And she works with the struggling. More than me, she sees it first hand. And vicariously, I have seen it too. More understanding on top of my own experience.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t have a solution to any of this. But I had a belief that as a nation, we had spent sixty years moving towards a place that was better, that we were always moving towards creating systems and helps to do more than make the rich richer. This was one of my absolute, bred to the bone, beliefs. I saw it in Roosevelt’s work in the depression that brought jobs and social security and other programs to the nation. I saw in the civil rights movement through the Kennedy and Johnson years. I saw it in the more recent struggles of the LGBT community.
Struggle? Yes, always struggle. But also, always a movement towards inclusiveness. Always a movement towards acceptance. Always.
When the Dreamer Act came out, I understood why many people might be upset. But I also knew these young people were real people. They were born here or brought here very very young. They were raised here. America is all they know. They are Americans. They did not break a law. But now, they face being sent back to a place they don’t know, having their whole world ripped out from under them. And the Dreamers Act recognized the humanity of that. It saw them as people. It reclaimed the notion that we are a kinder country. That we still thought people, ordinary people mattered. That at some level, as the bible would say, we really are our brother’s keeper.
I’ve spent the past 8 months watching protections being ripped asunder. Obamacare, for all its flaws, has allowed a lot of us to have insurance. Not just the poor, but those of us who don’t have a corporate safety net. Programs for education and health and jobs and housing are being chipped away at or quietly killed. I’ve watched in dismay, my core belief crying out “Surely we don’t mean to do this. Surely we don’t want to throw all these people away!”
I was wrong of course. That is just what we are doing. I just would not admit it to myself. I couldn’t. It was too much to bear. And so I watched our president and our leaders simply abandon what I had thought was at the heart of who were as a country. Not just the programs, but the attitudes that racism an, name calling and hate is OK. The ignoring of it all. The serpents and demons that we had shamed into their hidey holes are feted and allowed to run wild again.
And yet, I held to my belief that we were better than that. That the majority would rise up and browbeat our leaders into reclaiming what I saw as the greatness of our nation.
But today, with the announcement of Trump’s intention to kill the Dreamers Act, and his cynical trial balloon way of doing it, despite all assurances he gave to those young people that they would be all right, something in me snapped. I realize that my core belief is simply, not true. It’s not that all Americans are OK with this abandonment of taking care of each other, but in fact, most are. There is no uprising enough to make legislators stand against this. There are not enough legislators with the same core belief that people deserve a chance, that people are people, not statistics. They are tied more to ideologies (most of them failed) and cash machines from large companies to actually stand for real people.
I don’t know any illegal immigrants. Or at least I don’t know that I know any. As close as I come is seeing them in the fields, or reading about them in the newspaper. Today, for instance, as I drove to the diner for breakfast, I saw a group of 8-10 in a local field, harvesting vegetables. At the edge of the field were several kids, playing happily together. Big smiles. Cute kids. And all I could think about is they could soon be sent away, through no fault of their own.
Not long ago, the woman I love and I went to Hyde Park, Franklin Roosevelt’s home. There is a museum there, and in the museum has a room dedicated to Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms”. It was a declaration of what he felt America should be about. The four freedoms are….
Freedom of speech and expression – for everyone, everywhere in the world.
Freedom of worship, no matter our faith
Freedom from want
Freedom from fear.
I remember reading this in high school. It has stuck with me all my life. It has been my image of what America was, or at least what we aspired to. And I’ve tried to ignore the fact that somewhere, somehow, slowly but surely, we are becoming something else. Something less caring. Something more angry. Less inclusive. Less loving. The change has been happening, surely, I just could not admit it. It was too terrible for me to think.
But today, my denial fell away. We are not that country that believes in the four freedoms any longer. SOme of us are, but a majority seems perfectly willing to continue to walk away from those beliefs, perfectly happy letting our leaders cut them away one by one. We have, I suddenly realized, forgotten who we are.
I don’t know what to do with that. I don’t know how to fight it. If I can fight it. I feel lost in my own country. And I am sad and angry and frustrated. But mostly, I feel lost.
Thanks for listening, Please refrain from browbeating my politics. This really isn’t about politics. It’s about loss. Have mercy on the beaten up, including me.
Be well, Travel wisely,