Proud

Why I Don’t Feel Proud of America


1. HOW DO THEY SLEEP AT NIGHT?

I hear Tom Petty playing in the other room, where Mani’s taking a late-afternoon shower. We just went out for lattes and errands and a little walk down to Sunset Farm, where the bees and butterflies are having a field day, quite literally. We passed a few people walking their dogs, clearly enjoying the spectacular fall beauty of blue sky and October perfection.

And yet, the perfection is pierced by knowing that we are so broken. Relationships are frayed and resilience frazzled even as our resolve to resist becomes fiercer and more urgent by the hour. It feels impossible to maintain equilibrium when the supposedly elected leader of our country shows, over and over, his true colors — colors he never even bothered to conceal in the first place and that not only didn’t keep him from office, helped him get into it.

Comedians, artists, writers, educators — so many people doing more than our elected officials to push for change that is so long overdue as to feel hopeless. An entire party in the pockets of lobbyists. How do they sleep at night? How?

“Running down a dream…” comes a voice that has accompanied many of us for decades.

But whatever the dream once was, it was never everyone’s. And our insistence on self-interest and insane individualism has come at quite the cost.

What does it mean not to give up in times like these? It means not giving up. There’s nothing metaphorical or oblique about it. It means living the fuck out of life, and realizing that your voice really, really matters — especially if you’ve been one to sit this round out, watch from the sidelines, keep the peace that isn’t peace at all but privilege in action.

I am ashamed of this country.

Even writing this feels ranty and useless, but here I am. Sigh.

2. “BE PROUD”

I shared the above on Facebook yesterday. A friend who commented encouraged me not to be ashamed of our country. “Be proud,” they wrote. “It’s our time to make it better,” this person suggested. “We’ve come a long way in a short time. Think about it.”

The following was my personal response, which I’m sharing here after this person and I talked on the phone today for an hour. This is how we do this work, by being willing to invite and enter into honest, if difficult, conversations with friends and family members.

3. LETTER TO A FRIEND

My dear friend,

I love you, too, and I have thought about it. I always feel super supported by you in terms of my writing, so thank you for that. And I’ve been sitting with your comment about not being ashamed of our country. I’m curious where that’s coming from. My fear is that by focusing on pride and progress, we are turning a blind eye to what’s devastatingly wrong with our country.

The suggestion that I “think about it” and focus on feeling proud of our country and on our “progress” is really hard to swallow. I don’t want to just throw words around like “white privilege” or “mansplaining” because I think those just shut people down rather than encouraging any kind of dialogue. And I’m not invested in being right, but I really hope you will consider why this kind of response is problematic from the perspective of just about anyone who is directly affected by misogyny, racism, anti-poverty, antisemitism, homophobia and transphobia, and the myth of American superiority on which we were raised — all of which have been totally elevated and normalized by the Trump presidency but have existed as deep currents throughout American history.

Yes, there has been social and economic progress. But you don’t have to look hard or far to see the cracks in this perspective. It’s a distinctly white perspective, and one that rests on tremendous privilege.

What is it about the idea that I am ashamed of our country that makes you want to suggest otherwise? Even many of our veterans have expressed shame. This is not what they fought for. There is nothing un-patriotic about this expression of despair and disgust; if anything, it’s me putting *more* skin in the game and saying NO, I will not stand by while our government systematically destroys people of color, incites violence against women and Muslims, and treats people living in poverty like criminals.

I just drafted the following on my blog but haven’t decided yet whether I’ll publish it. Honestly, I wanted to connect with you one-on-one because I do love you and I care deeply about our relationship. These are the kinds of conversations that our “progress” depend on — people like me and you talking openly and being willing to be uncomfortable as well as to face our own places of internalized privilege and blinders. We have a responsibility to do this, and I really appreciate you reading this and hearing it an invitation to consider a different perspective — one that frankly doesn’t leave a lot of room for feeling proud of America at the moment.

This IS how we will have any chance “to make it better.” It’s not easy but it’s our turn to do this work.

Love,

Jena

4. WHY I DON’T FEEL PROUD

So, coming back to the question of being proud, here’s a sampling of why I find that is so problematic.

I won’t be proud when there have been 521 mass shootings in 477 days — with NO action from our government to seriously address the problem of gun control and an off-the-rails distortion of second-amendment rights. Our “founding fathers” would not have been able to imagine the likes of more than 500 people being injured by a single shooter.

I won’t be proud when 53% of white women voted for a narcissistic sociopath man who boasts about pussy-grabbing, incites violence against people of color, has zero empathy for human suffering, calls conscientious objectors “sons of bitches,” offers “warmest condolences” to victims of a mass shooting, and tells Puerto Ricans theirs isn’t a real disaster while 3.4 million Americans are facing life-and-death conditions.

I won’t be proud when “individual incidents of racism, misogyny, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, anti-Semitism, and anti-immigrant sentiment” have risen exponentially since the 2016 presidential elections alone.

I won’t be proud when women’s bodies are more heavily regulated by law than the purchase and use of guns — including guns designed for warfare.

When congress votes to cut off federal funding that affects “9 million children and pregnant women in low-income households.”

I won’t be proud when “African Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites

When acquittals and dropped charges are the norm for white police officers who shoot and kill African-Americans — and African-Americans are three times as likely to be treated with excessive force by police.

When the Secretary of Education of the United States of America makes changes to sexual misconduct guidelines at colleges and universities that will protect rapists rather than believe victims.

When the middle class is vanishing out from under us and, according to MIT economist Peter Temin, “this dual-economy has a ‘racist’ undertone.”

When Latinx women earn a full 45% less than white men — and Native women aren’t even represented on the chart of wage comparisons.

When 21 transgender people have been murdered in 2017 alone.

The suggestion that we should be proud of our country at this moment is so problematic and upsetting. To insist that we focus on “progress” implies an ability to look right through reality.  As my friend and fellow writer Emily Nichols Grossi wrote yesterday, “We, the US, are in the direst of straits.”

To say we should be proud, to insist that we focus on progress rather than really looking hard at ourselves and the systems that continue to protect the most privileged and punish the most vulnerable, is short-sighted and insulting. I want nothing more than to find a way to say this that will open minds and hearts rather than cause defensiveness, but that part is out of my control.

I absolutely believe in using our voices, and recognize that there are many ways to do this. But this goes beyond being “a good person.” It is imperative — IMPERATIVE — that those of us who have lived our entire lives in relative ease — with few to no road blocks to “progress” due to the color of our skin — stop defending a country that shows every sign of moving in the wrong direction.

There are millions of Americans with their hearts in the right place. But it’s way past time to confront the reality that there are also millions of Americans who tacitly and overtly endorse ignorance, hatred, and violence every single day.

Proud

Atonement and Action


I just ate a bowl of chicken noodle soup.

In Puerto Rico, millions of people are facing not only devastating conditions, but genocide.

Our president is an evil man. Worse than evil. Less than a man.

The rabbi’s sermon this morning stirred my soul. He spoke to our “rich and haunted” history as a people, and the need to watch for Jewish “erasure.” He also paired this with a powerful and much-needed message to our congregation, in the context of white supremacy and who is its target today: He noted that there is a big difference between bring triggered and being threatened.

As Jews in America, we are not under threat, not in the way that African-Americans are every day. Our great-grandparents came to this country to escape pogroms and worse. They came and built better lives — on land “soaked with the blood of Africans.” Of slaves. Of native people obliterated to make room for our future. These are sins for which we need to be atoning through action for the rest of our lives — whether it was “our” people or not who committed these acts. As people who have benefited in this country, we are — in the words of the rabbi — also perpetrators of oppression.

I’m so thankful for this kind of leadership and eloquence on a subject the Jewish community must grapple with and act on. And while today we prayed, while today we atoned for our inevitable shortcomings as individuals and as a community, tomorrow, he said pointedly, “we march.” It is not an either/or but a both/and; our activism is borne of both a deep identification with oppression, as well as an acute awareness that we are not, currently, an oppressed people. Nobody every pulled over a Jew, saw the name Schwartz or Rosenberg on their license, and shot them dead. It’s crass but it bears saying.

I was grateful for his strong stance. There was nothing neutral about his sermon; he acknowledged both the complexity and simplicity of our role as Jews in white supremacist culture. And later, woven seamlessly into the end of the morning service, came unflinching words about the humanitarian crisis that’s growing by the day in Puerto Rico, where millions of fellow U.S. citizens are facing life-and-death conditions.

Fasting, the rabbi pointed out, does not help us concentrate on our prayers. On the contrary, it heightens our embodied awareness that to be hungry makes it difficult to concentrate on just about anything other than the hunger. This is the texture of Yom Kippur.

There are two equally potent aspects to Jewish tradition. One is to cultivate ritual and sacred refuge, sources of prayer and peace where we can turn for solace during challenging times. Thank goodness for this, for without spaces in which we can restore our inner equilibrium, we risk burnout, self-righteousness, and a loss of connection to the source of our actions. But the other aspect of who we are as a people is also crucial: To pray with our feet, in the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel. To take to the proverbial and literal streets to work tirelessly for social justice — for racial justice, for an end to poverty and hunger, for environmental repair.

There were opportunities to stand on the bimah during the Torah and Haftarah readings, one for those who wished for a blessing, to shore up practices that support inner scaffolding, the second for those seeking fortification for action. An important point here is that according to this rabbi, when faced with the question of which of these branches defines our tradition, the answer is “yes.”

Isaiah’s lesson is that fasting alone is not enough, unless there is a moral and ethical foundation to the ritual behavior. {Source: My Jewish Learning}

As Jews, we hold the epigenetic memory of genocide, expulsion, and trauma. It’s what first woke me to my own Jewish identity as a teenager; dreams of being ripped apart from family, of running through the forest, of hidden identity and of being led into gas chambers haunted my dreams as a senior in high school when I dove into the beginnings of learning my own history for the first time.

Some people will always hate Jews. This is irrefutable.  But as Jews, we are also no longer victims. In fact, we have thrived in this country in ways that are disproportionate to our numbers — a source of both pride and shame. Without forgetting who we are, it’s critical that we also recognize that our whiteness is not separate from the relative prosperity and privileges we’ve come to enjoy, even as there are still plenty who will hold our success up as reason for more hatred.

After services, Mani and I came home and took a rest. I slept for three hours, dreams informed by hunger and the kind of clarity borne of sustained prayer. As the Book of Life closes and the year 5778 commences, I pray that my work in this world be driven by the desire for all people to be free. I pray for humility and inspiration that allow me to be of continued service, holding spaces for others to dive into their own histories and roles as fellow humans to each other on this beautiful, broken planet. I pray that my fellow Jews grapple with the complexity of our moral obligation, while not getting theoretical about things that are urgently tangible.

Also, I plan to ask Rabbi Weiner for a written copy of his Yom Kippur sermon, to read again, to study, and to share.

G’mar chatima tova. May you be sealed in the Book of LIfe. 

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