IT DOESN'T FEEL LIKE AMERICA, ANYMORE

   In 1995, a large area of forest near West Milan, New Hampshire, was cut down. There wasn't anything particularly new or noteworthy about it. It's logging country, and trees get cut down regularly. It was significant for us, personally, because it was the first major cutting done near our land since the 1940s. It wasn't our trees that were cut, but it was our milieu - the forests where we walked, followed the vegetation through the seasons, and watched the wildlife. They were the woods that served as the buffer between us and the outside world. The cutting was inevitable, but it was still a shock.

   Our neighbor had done a little cutting on his land a year or two earlier. It was messy at the time, but when it was over, it was over. This new assault was different. These loggers pushed a gigantic roadway across the land, obliterating old landmarks on the way, leaving a scar that would last for many years longer than we'll be around, and making it very clear that the road's sole purpose was to gain one-time access to cut everything, and to get quickly out again. When I first saw what they were doing, my reaction was visceral. I wrote in my journal that day, "I don’t think I’ll go up there again until it is over." And later: "It sure doesn't feel like Dummer Hill!"

    The way I felt about the logging assault on Dummer Hill is much like what I'm feeling lately about our country. It just doesn't feel like America, anymore. I don't kid myself about what we've been in the past. We've done some horrible wrongs, some not correctable or forgivable.  We've never lived up to our professed belief that everyone has the right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Throughout the 19th, 20th and now 21st centuries, we've struggled with problems we brought with us from the "birth" of our nation. We have been far from perfect, and far from great.

   Even so, in my lifetime (78 years now), I've always felt that, despite our failings, we were a nation of people who really believed in an American Dream. The idea that everyone could have equal standing in our national community - that everyone would be free to enjoy all the benefits of being American, and that we could help spread those benefits to the rest of the world - has always been appealing to us. In fits and starts - sometimes with long intervals in between - we have made progress. It took 100 years, but we finally abolished slavery in the United States. (We're still working on the after-effects of that national travesty.) Women are no longer merely the property of men (although we still have a long way to go to equality).  Barriers related to sexual identity have been (partially) removed. We've made strides in protecting worker safety, in reaching toward adequate pay for work  done, in assuring fair housing practices, and controlling unsafe medicines  and medical practices. We've had the foresight to put controls on the use of our natural resources, and have made an attempt at national preservation of important environments. We've accomplished all this in the face of individual and group prejudices that any people should be ashamed of. We've been able to do these things because, as a community, we've recognized that if good manners or indifference are the best we can muster, they are far better than the alternatives.

We have had no right to be complacent, but I think - up until the present, anyway - we could be "proud to be Americans."

     Today, I don't feel that pride, and I think I'm right not to feel it.  About a decade ago, We (1) gave up all pretense of being a "united" country. The legislators coming into power, even if only 51 out of 100 voters supported them, declared a mandate, leaving the other half of the population without representation. Winning, not governing, became the goal. Much more attention was given to undoing the work of predecessors, than to making things better for the country. Then, those in power united around a new Administration with no political, diplomatic, or leadership understanding or skills. The new mandate (decided by less than 50 percent of the voting public) was to complete the dismantling, not only of the work of those who came immediately before, but of all the checks and balances that have made us a Nation striving to include everyone. With ham-handedness that would have once seemed impossible in the United States, "we" are backing out of treaties, insulting our best foreign allies, and taking unilateral actions that could endanger the entire World. From a widely-agreed-on position of World Leader, more and more nations are revising their opinion of us to Buffoon and Bully. And they see us as a dangerous bully, capable of taking quick and drastic action to any perceived threat to our vanity.

   Most importantly, we seem to have given ourselves permission to act on the worst characteristics of ourselves. All of our semi-buried hates and fears about people who are not exactly like us are coming to the surface. We no longer feel the need to respect anyone's opinions, preferences, or needs that don't coincide with our own. We're allowing ourselves to be besieged by what were  previously just latent anxieties, and anxious fears that somebody else might be depriving us of something. Every day, we hear the message that we are "bringing the country together" and "making America great, again." But watch for the wink and the nod, and the real message becomes clear.

   In the 1990s, Sarah Vowell and her sister Amy took a car trip along the "Trail of Tears," to learn more about their Cherokee ancestry (2). As the forced march of the Cherokees from Georgia to Oklahoma - what amounted to a Government-planned and approved attempt at ethnic cleansing - became more real to her, Sarah found herself both incredibly sad and increasingly angry. How could she, she asked, have feelings of hate for the country that she loves so much? She said she felt like the battered wife, who still tries to find good in the marriage: "Yes, he knocks me around a lot, but he sure can dance." In our worst moments as a country, we've always been able to remember The Dance: the times that we've risen above ourselves and accomplished magnificent things. But it feels to me as if The Dance has ended, and that leaves us with only the "knocking around."

   Sadly, most of my once semi-united American neighbors don't seem to realize that the music has stopped playing. Can we  Dance again as a Nation, or are we destined to be a country of brutal "husbands" and battered "families?" What if we wait too long to bring back the music? What happens if - this time -  we have really forgotten how to dance?

 *  *  *

(1) I say "we" because our legislators are not the product of immaculate conception; "we" (at least, enough of "us") voted them into office. Presumably - but probably not really - they are doing what "we" (the ones who elected them) want them to do. "We" deserve the credit or the blame.

 (2) "Trail of Tears," Episode 107 of This American Life, aired 3 July 1998. You can probably still find it on the National Public Radio website. It is worth listening to.


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