What America Do We Want Back?

I want to talk today about competing visions for America’s future and to do that I have to talk about some recent words broadcast by President Trump. I try to avoid overtly political subjects in my preaching, but there are some times when public events have such a clear religious dimension that a preacher can’t ignore them altogether if he wants to do what the congregation called him to do. In Unitarian Universalism our first principle is to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of all people.

When, in July, Donald Trump tweeted that the Squad of Four, four progressive freshmen Congresswomen each of whom was a person of color, should “go back where they came from,” this principle was clearly implicated. It is one thing for him to oppose the policies espoused by these four women, for him to hold them up to the public with scare words like socialism, but it is quite another when suggested they “go back where they came from.” The subtext of that remark was that these women were not real Americans, they were “them” and not “us.”

It didn’t seem to faze the President that three of the four were born in the United States and the fourth is a naturalized American Citizen. Mr. Trump himself is in one of his family lines, only a first-generation American, since his mother was born in Scotland. Two out of three of his wives are foreign-born. So his attack on these four Congresswomen for their foreignness seems nonsensical.

Except that it makes perfect sense as a message to what Mr. Trump conceives of as his base. Some of this may be seen in his choice of words. He said the places the Congresswomen came from were “totally broken and crime infested.” He used the same term, “infested” a week later when talking about Baltimore in the course of an attack on Rep. Elijah Cummings, who as head of a House Committee is investigating some of the personnel turnover at the White House.

This use of “infested” dehumanizes the actors in the political drama, turning them into vermin. This is not new. In the 1980s, Republican politicians began mispronouncing the name of the Democratic party, calling it the Democrat party. That was to subtly suggest “rats” were somehow associated with it. In the 2000 election, the Bush campaign ran an attack ad against a proposal for health care of the Gore campaign, and the voice-over said that under Gore’s proposal, who your doctor would be would be decided by bureaucrats. That last word appeared on the screen, but superimposed over it for 1/5 of a second was the word Rats in much larger type. Though psychologists are divided as to whether such subliminal advertising has any effect, there was a public furor, and the Bush campaign pulled the ad.

Mr. Trump’s rhetoric seems to revive this old subliminal persuasion. In using terms like “invasion” and “infestation,” he is speaking to the disgust reactions of certain of his hearers. Brain scientists know that our disgust instincts occupy a place in our brains below the level of conscious thought.

My own reaction was dismay that this level had been reached in our political discourse. In response to the President’s tweet, a friend of mine posted a little meme on Facebook which I liked so, giving her credit, I reposted it as my own: “I’m an American. And frankly, I, too, would like to go back to my country.”

These few little words apparently resonated with some. 216 of my Facebook friends liked it, 23 commented on it and 200 shared it with other people.

What I meant was that I wanted to get back to the country in which racism, fear of foreigners and white supremacy were wrong, and that the occupant of the highest office in the land did not go about trying to make human beings the subject of disgust. For make no mistake about it, these words have consequences.

We may never be able to prove conclusively that the shooter who drove from Allen TX to El Paso and killed 22 people was influenced by President Trump’s rhetoric, but the manifesto he posted online just before his horrific act says he was trying to stop an “invasion” of Mexicans. That’s only the most visible consequence. I believe there are plenty of people caught in the immigration system suffering profoundly because of the President’s words.

But you all probably recognize the irony of me, a liberal, saying that I want my country back. For the idea of “taking back our country” has been a staple theme of right-wing politics in this country for decades. What I said in a comment under my statement about wanting my country back was this:

“Obviously the country I want to get back to is not one where women were suppressed and blacks knew their place and you didn't ever encounter the foreign-born. The country I want to get back to is the one engaged in seriously making the dream of equality and freedom into reality.” And then I quoted the end of the Langston Hughes poem I read a moment ago:

“O, yes,

I say it plain,

America never was America to me,

And yet I swear this oath—

America will be!”

The American cultural divide seems to get wider every day. It’s about many things, but one of the most basic things it’s about is the vision of the country that we want. For the right, the yearning is for a mythical past where market forces determined who won or lost and everyone was free to make as much money as their natural talents allowed. The work was done by honest, native-born Americans.

For the left it’s much more complicated. This week marks an important milestone in American history, for it was four hundred years ago that the first Africans arrived on these shores, in Virginia. They were already enslaved when they set foot on land, and their descendants were enslaved for more than two centuries after.

The New York Times is running a history series called the 1619 project to mark this event and a very perceptive essay written by staff writer Nikole Hannah-Jones and published Wednesday captured its significance. The essay was titled “Our democracy’s ideals were false when they were written; black Americans have fought to make them true.”

Think about that for a moment. False when they were written. Blacks have fought to make them true.

For example, in July of 1776, as Jefferson composed his inspiring words in the Declaration of Independence,

“a teenage boy who would enjoy none of those rights and liberties waited nearby to serve at his master’s beck and call. His name was Robert Hemings, and he was the half brother of Jefferson’s wife, born to Martha Jefferson’s father and a woman he owned. It was common for white enslavers to keep their half-black children in slavery. Jefferson had chosen Hemings, from among about 130 enslaved people that worked on the forced-labor camp he called Monticello, to accompany him to Philadelphia and ensure his every comfort as he drafted the text making the case for a new democratic republic based on the individual rights of men.”

American slavery was a unique institution, different from any other slavery in history. Hanna Jones notes that enslavement was heritable, meaning that children of slaves were automatically slaves. This gave slaveholders every economic incentive to impregnate their female slaves.

“As the abolitionist William Goodell wrote in 1853, “If any thing founded on falsehood might be called a science, we might add the system of American slavery to the list of the strict sciences.”

Founded on falsehood. Treating a person as a property doesn’t make her one, but if everybody in the society buys into the false notion that these humans are property, their treatment will be the same as if they were.

The Founding Fathers were acutely aware of the hypocrisy of their position, claiming freedom from Great Britain but refusing to grant freedom to their own slaves. After the Revolution succeeded, they could no longer cast any blame on Britain for its continuation. In this situation, the institution of slavery gave birth to the idea of racial inferiority in a way that Hannah-Jones describes well:

“With independence, the founding fathers could no longer blame slavery on Britain. The sin became this nation’s own, and so, too, the need to cleanse it. The shameful paradox of continuing chattel slavery in a nation founded on individual freedom, scholars today assert, led to a hardening of the racial caste system. This ideology, reinforced not just by laws but by racist science and literature, maintained that black people were subhuman, a belief that allowed white Americans to live with their betrayal. By the early 1800s, ... white Americans, whether they engaged in slavery or not, ‘had a considerable psychological as well as economic investment in the doctrine of black inferiority.’”

For most of the nineteenth century, the nation wrestled with the morality of slavery as well as the political question of whether slavery would be expanded to new states as they were admitted. As this struggle was being waged, the notion of black inferiority sank deeper and deeper into the American mind.

This culminated in the Dred Scott decision in 1857, which enshrined white supremacy in law. As Hanna Jones describes it, it was a “ruling that black people, whether enslaved or free, came from a “slave” race. This made them inferior to white people and, therefore, incompatible with American democracy. Democracy was for citizens, and the ‘Negro race,’ the court ruled, was ‘a separate class of persons,’ which the founders had ‘not regarded as a portion of the people or citizens of the Government’ and had ‘no rights which a white man was bound to respect.’”

The Dred Scott decision was virtually the opening salvo of the Civil War. That war was fought over slavery, not states rights, and for all the death and suffering it produced, the legal result of it was three constitutional amendments: the Thirteenth made slavery illegal, the Fourteenth made everyone a citizen had guaranteed them, as against both state and federal governments, both equal protection of the laws and due process of law. The Fifteenth guaranteed the right to vote. Of course, these voting rights did not yet include women.

When these constitutional amendments were enacted, the struggle by blacks and on behalf of basic freedoms had won the day for the time being. They were doing as much as they could to make the false premises on which the nation was founded true. In some sense, the nation was like a bridal couple renewing its vows after years of infidelity. However, the progressive forces, as I said last week, were sold out by the compromise of 1876, which ended Reconstruction and put whites back into seats of power in politics and the economy. Worse, the theory of racial inferiority, which had evolved to justify slavery, outlasted the demise of slavery by a century and a half, and is still going strong in American culture. Witness the recent Presidential tweets.

The point of the New York Times essay is that in the entire American landscape, it is the African Americans who have most consistently and most fervently believed in the core values that this country says it was founded on. And following World War II, in which black troops fought alongside white ones to defeat the Axis powers, the struggle for basic freedoms was rekindled. But Blacks did not just struggle for their own liberation, but for the liberation of other marginalized groups. So the Civil Rights Movement spawned the feminist movement, spawned La Raza, spawned the Stonewall movement and the disability rights movement.

What country do I want back? I want one which is trying to make true its ideals: conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all are created equal. We are not there yet, and we are hindered by our own delusions of racial superiority and inferiority which were sandblasted into the American soul in another era but are stubbornly hard to uproot. I want the America back which is a work in process. I want to be proud of our achievements, acknowledge frankly the harm we have done to others in pursuing our goals, and work across the barriers of geography, race, class, and political system to make a more just, safe, peaceful and prosperous world.

How can any of us who share that vision of America sustain it against the rhetoric which will be thrown against it? We know from the level of discourse in use already that the appeals to the disgust instinct will do nothing but escalate. How do we counter that, how do we convince people that immigrants aren’t invaders, that brown and black and yellow and red and white people who live in cities do not infest them but actually live side by side in general harmony? Do we appeal to what Lincoln called the better angels of their nature?

I believe, as Phil Ochs wrote, that America

“is a land full of power and glory

Beauty that words cannot recall;

[That] her power ... rest[s] on the strength of her freedom

Her glory ... rest[s] on us all.”

But that

“... she's only as rich as the poorest of her poor

Only as free as the padlocked prison door

Only as strong as our love for this land

Only as tall as we stand.”

The country I want to go back to was the lynchpin of the economic, political and, yes, moral order in the world. It certainly was not perfect and some of the ways it maintained its influence were not admirable. But it was a better world, a safer world.

With our allies in Europe, Australia, Japan and South Korea, America upheld a credible system of moral order to rein in the aggressions of wayward states like Iran, North Korea, Russia and China, partly through military force but mainly through economic sanctions and trade. The sanctions worked so well on Vladimir Putin and his oligarch buddies that they interfered in our elections to get relief from them.

In one sense, the raw racism of President Trump’s tweets is a distraction from the real story of this administration, the squandering of America’s leadership position in the world. For the manufactured daily grievances and outrages of the fans of Fox News and Brietbart do not actually add up to a coherent policy. This is reflected in the high turnover rate in the administration. There are few people who know what they are doing who are willing to serve in such a chaotic effort.

So there you have the competing Americas we want to go back to. The America of rugged Ayn Rand individualism on the right, where each polar bear sits on his own ice floe rapidly melting in the warming ocean, gathers his assault weapons around him and directs a stream of invective to all the other polar bears; this to some is a great emotional release. On the left, we have an America founded on stated beliefs which were grossly untrue and hypocritical when adopted and whose national purpose has been and will be to breathe life into these tenets, coming to terms transparently with the sins of the past. Oh, and worrying about climate change while continuing to drive our gas guzzlers.

Is there any common ground here? I leave the question to you, and conclude with Langston Hughes:

“Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,

The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,

We, the people, must redeem

The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.

The mountains and the endless plain—

All, all the stretch of these great green states—

And make America again!”


Reading: “Let America Be America Again”

Langston Hughes - 1902-1967

Let America be America again.

Let it be the dream it used to be.

Let it be the pioneer on the plain

Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—

Let it be that great strong land of love

Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme

That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty

Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,

But opportunity is real, and life is free,

Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There's never been equality for me,

Nor freedom in this "homeland of the free.")

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?

And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,

I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars.

I am the red man driven from the land,

I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—

And finding only the same old stupid plan

Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,

Tangled in that ancient endless chain

Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!

Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!

Of work the men! Of take the pay!

Of owning everything for one's own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.

I am the worker sold to the machine.

I am the Negro, servant to you all.

I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—

Hungry yet today despite the dream.

Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!

I am the man who never got ahead,

The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I'm the one who dreamt our basic dream

In the Old World while still a serf of kings,

Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,

That even yet its mighty daring sings

In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned

That's made America the land it has become.

O, I'm the man who sailed those early seas

In search of what I meant to be my home—

For I'm the one who left dark Ireland's shore,

And Poland's plain, and England's grassy lea,

And torn from Black Africa's strand I came

To build a "homeland of the free."

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?

Surely not me? The millions on relief today?

The millions shot down when we strike?

The millions who have nothing for our pay?

For all the dreams we've dreamed

And all the songs we've sung

And all the hopes we've held

And all the flags we've hung,

The millions who have nothing for our pay—

Except the dream that's almost dead today.

O, let America be America again—

The land that never has been yet—

And yet must be—the land where every man is free.

The land that's mine—the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME—

Who made America,

Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,

Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,

Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—

The steel of freedom does not stain.

From those who live like leeches on the people's lives,

We must take back our land again,


O, yes,

I say it plain,

America never was America to me,

And yet I swear this oath—

America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,

The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,

We, the people, must redeem

The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.

The mountains and the endless plain—

All, all the stretch of these great green states—

And make America again!

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