I was born in 1966 so never witnessed the turmoil of that turbulent decade. But having read countless book on it, and spoke to those were active members creating the turmoil, I know that many thought America was finished. Police brutality, massive demonstrations, racial strife, an unbridgeable political divide – all set against the backdrop of Vietnam, America’s most unpopular war – led many to believe the country was toast. But America bounced back and would go on to five of its most prosperous decades ever.
But here we are again, with much of the same unrest, only this time you add in a once-in-a-century pandemic that has already killed 125,000 Americans collapsed our economy. One can be forgiven for being depressed about America, especially walking around a once-vibrant world capital like New York City.
The teeming streets are today largely deserted. The office buildings empty glass shells. Only the parks and the river walks seem full, which is actually a good omen. But walk further and you’ll see the boarded up storefronts that remain from the looting and possible future violence. People walk away from each other on the streets, suspicious that each one carries the pathogen that might kill them.
And whereas TV used to be an escape, turn it on today and get ready to pop some Prozac. Trump and the democrats are killing each other. And whereas that’s only metaphorical, innocent black citizens are literally dying at the hands of the police who, for the most part are heroes, but contain enough bad apples that a racially-charged murder seems to have become a nearly monthly American abomination. With all this set against a level of personal loss and tragedy that the country has rarely seen in so short a space of time – I personally lost my father just a month ago – is there reason to hope? Can American come back from the brink?
We all know the answer to that question. America will of course rebound. With perhaps the sole exception of Israel, it is the most resilient nation on earth with the most durable citizens.
But the path to recovery involves first diagnosing the problems.
Our ailment is not one of politics but values. Not one of a social divide not but one of principles. Not caused by an infectious disease but rather a manifestation of a disease of the soul.
Americans were never united by politics. Go back to the times of Washington and Jefferson, Hamilton and Burr, and you will see Federalists and Republicans that so detested each other that they sometimes shot each other (we in Jersey know this best because Hamilton fell in Weehawken at Burr’s bullet). Andrew Jackson was as loathed by his political enemies in his time as is Trump in his. Lincoln was called a “gorilla” and “baboon” by the Northern press and, of course, no divide in America at our time is anywhere near as serious as the Civil War.
But America healed from all that based on time-honored American values with which right and left, conservative and liberal and non-aligned all agreed.
The first was that America is founded on the principle that all men are created equal, which is why the abomination of slavery could not continue and hundreds of thousands of Americans died to make that truism a reality.
It follows therefore that those who rebelled against the United States and fought in the Confederacy do not deserve to be honored. There are imperfections and then there are unforgivable flaws. Joining a rebellion against the United States, and one fought to keep people in chains, is unforgivable. You may be a great general like Robert E. Lee, impeccable in your personal life and perhaps even personally opposed to the institution of slavery, yet it makes no difference. There should be no statue honoring in the country against which you had taken up arms.
I was astonished to see, when I first visited Richmond with my kids, Monument Ave. with all the statues to the Confederate generals. Whatever anyone thought of states’ rights, what did that have to do with starting a war that took hundreds of thousands of lives, and then get, literally, put on a pedestal for it?
The statues to Confederate heroes should come down, but not the way it’s being done now. Because the second principle of the American Republic is law and order. We are not the French Revolution which was characterized primarily by mob rule. Crowds don’t pull down statues. Legislatures vote on them – as Mississippi has now done to remove the Confederate battle flag from its state flag – and then action is taken. And you don’t destroy the statues. They are part of our history and legacy, for good and for bad. You put them in a museum, intact, and have the museum explain the sometimes ugly history of our country and how people who fought for slavery were often lionized even after they lost.
Is that embarrassing? Yes. But a willingness to accept human flaws, imperfections, and limitations, sometimes horrible ones, is an honest truth that the United States has always accepted and forms our third core value.
European kings always portrayed themselves as ruling by divine right. Their portraits, painted by official court artists, always showed them in glorious perfection, holding an orb as masters of the world. They lived in 100-room palaces, in an exalted station above the puny people.
Not so America which called its leader President, rather than majesty, put him in a Georgian mansion that looked like any fancy house of a well-to-do citizen, and made that magistrate go before the people every four years to receive a new mandate or be thrown out. American legend is built on highly imperfect people who strove to create a more perfect union.
And those are the statues that should remain. Those who acknowledged their flaws and limitations while espousing the core virtues of the Republic. Thomas Jefferson owned slaves while still writing that he shudders for his country when he thinks that God is just and that God’s justice against slavery cannot be held long. He also gave us our founding document which every demonstration against racism invokes today, that all men are created equal and have inalienable rights. Abraham Lincoln thought of encouraging blacks to move back to Africa to Liberia. But he paid with his life to free them. Ulysses Grant had a drinking problem and he once even barred Jewish merchants from selling to the US army at Vicksburg. But he shredded the Confederacy, apologized for the incident with the Jews, and wrote a memoir where here his glaring and imperfect humanity was on display for all to see.
Why would we destroy monuments to great men who had serious flaws and who built our nation? Are we really going to pull down a statue of Lincoln – paid for by freed slaves – with a young slave boy kneeling before him in Richmond, where the slave thanked him for his freedom and Lincoln famously told him to kneel before none but God?
Are we going to vilify Teddy Roosevelt who, for all his limitations, spoke out powerfully about human liberty throughout his career and saved so much of America for conservation from those who would destroy or pollute it?
Which leads to our final American value. Forgiveness, and a willingness to the good in each other, our fellow citizens, something we need a lot more of today if we are not only to survive but flourish.