Friday, September 11, 2020

"National Unity" is Neither

I remember 9/11 vividly.  Most of the people in my congregation evinced no real concern with it.  They were old (as I am now).  They were in Texas.  The WTC was in New York City.

They got over it.

It was the NYC centered media that began calling Rudy Giuliani "America's Mayor" (much as they would later say Chris Christie was the man to beat in the Presidential race).  Nobody I knew thought of Giuliani that way, or was that concerned with what he had to say about 9/11 and the twin towers.

My father said people were so outraged by Pearl Harbor he tried to sign up.  He was 15.  Everybody wanted to go.  On the other hand, despite living in Texas, no one he knew was impressed with FDR.  He was born just before the Great Depression started.  He grew up with it.  But he heard his elders telling jokes about WPA ("We Piddle Around") and about the CCC worker who broke his arm because the termites ate the shovel handle out from under his elbow.  Stuff like that.  I look at what CCC and WPA did for workers, for writers, for artists:  the state park near my home town was built by CCC workers.  The high school in the town "next door" was obviously of WPA construction.  It still stands.  I have two WPA guides, one for Texas, one for NYC, reprinted decades later but treasure troves of information and pure inspiration for what government can do for people (we need art, we need writers, we need reasons to explore our own land).  I think of FDR's "New Deal" as a great success.

My father didn't.

And the unity of WWII, when everybody looked up to John Wayne?  Soldiers returning from that war despised his films, because he made it look like he won the war single-handedly (and look at him in "The Longest Day."  He's an old man trying to play a young war hero.  It's embarrassing.)  Watch "The Best Years of Our Lives," as it puts the lie to the immediate post-war era when all the men came home and took up the jobs they had left as if nothing had happened.  It even includes a character who says the war was fought for the wrong reasons and against the wrong people.

Common grief? I grew up learning the Civil War was about state's rights, not slavery (what's the difference, really?).  I grew up in a culture still hurting from the wounds inflicted on it by Reconstruction.  I grew up learning that "Northerners" (an ill-defined line) were "Yankees," and that wasn't a compliment or just a label.  Decades later I learned about some of those wounds from Reconstruction, and I understood why the anger lingers.  Culture does that.  It remembers.  Historians liked to say Grant and Lee healed the nation.  Balderdash.  The resentment simmered, far from the places were "great men" gathered to speak and do "great things."  It always does.  The racism of the pre-Civil War country is the racism of today.  We didn't even all grieve the death of Dr. King.  We certainly didn't all grieve the deaths of the Freedom Riders and the men and women killed just trying to bear witness to equal justice for all; nor of Emmett Till, or the young girls who died in the church fire.

I love the idea of "common grief," of an event that "unifies" the nation.  I've just never seen it. Even Pearl Harbor didn't unify the nation.  Ask George Takei.  He remembers the internment camps.

Common grief is extremely uncommon.  'National unity' is the view from 30,000 feet, and usually down on a very narrow, very specific, area.  As I've said, large sections of the country are burning; but they aren't on the west coast, so who notices?  Whole towns were destroyed by Laura, but who even mentions Lake Charles anymore?

I think we're fairly unified on this question of the pandemic.  And certainly there is a lot of grief.  But grief is not unifying; and numbers as large as almost 200,000 dead are simply too big to grasp.  We have keep being told how bad it is, lest we lost our grip on the calamity and let it all go abstract and flaccid.  And soon even that won't be enough.  If we do turn Trump out of the White House, it won't be due to a sudden spasm of anger or grief (grief is enervating, not motivating.  In fiction it creates Batman; in reality, it breaks us in half.); it will be due to disgust and determination.  I saw a Biden ad tonight that appealed to that:  to the needs of the nation and not of the one occupant of the Oval Office; and to disgust with what he does, and a need to be cleansed of it.  That's not an appeal to grief, either.

We don't need grieving:  we need a moment of national moral clarity.  We had that at the peak of the BLM movement.  No surprise it has faded now.  Even Dr. King barely ever got that far.  We can build on that, and use it to improve the future.  But we won't do it in a unified fashion, everyone feeling the same thing together at one moment.  We pretend we have that every year, on December 25th.  We don't even have it then, but it's a national cultural illusion that we do.  And we practice that every year.

What are the odds we're going to improve on that one, especially without a culture commitment to believing in it even when most of us don't?

1 comment:

  1. This post reminded me of the days when the Dallas Cowboys were America's Team and that I used to live in Houston from 1970 to 1974 when my dad was a full professor at UH. We arrived in August 1970 and bought a house in a 'burb' halfway between Houston and Galveston. The day we moved in my folks broke the news to the six of us kids that my mom had cancer and would be having major surgery in a week at Houston Methodist. She survived the surgery and spent most of my senior year in high school undergoing radiation treatments and chemotherapy. All of her hair fell out and she wore wigs for the next twenty-nine years. My mom hired a cleaning lady, Florence, who came in once a week for a half day to scrub the kitchen and bathroom floors and vacuum the wall-to-wall carpet of our five bedroom house, after which she'd have lunch with my mom. Florence was very deferential, but did enjoy talking about her son, Champ, who was in junior high school and played fullback on the Pearland football team. Didn't realize until about ten years ago on a Google search that Champ eventually went on to play linebacker for SMU where he made 32 tackles in one game against Ohio State and a few years later played outside linebacker in three NFC Championship games for the Cowboys. I read your post this morning and did another Google search. I was saddened to learn that Champ Dickerson passed on a year ago at age 61 from a fall he suffered in his home. He got shuffled off to Buffalo shortly after his teammates on America's Team elected him as their players union representative. His obituary quoted his claim to have made much better money as a truck driver than he ever did playing pro football and that he played for his love of the game.