U.S.

Black Lives Matter, a Presidential Election, the Green Grocer, and Us

A protestor holds up a Black Lives Matter sign in front of the White House, June 22, 2020. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
How about preserving the best of America?

Nineteen years ago, I was in New York City on that September 11. The darkness that descended that day and the hope that rose from it is an indelible part of everyone who lived through the attacks and, of course, especially for those who lost family or friends that day. But there is an added level of personal impact for those of us in the Northeast, and especially New York, where the vast majority were murdered.

This year I find myself thinking about that spirit and remembering that evil from the pits of hell hated — hates — us, the United States of America. They went after innocent Americans. What is that about? That’s a meditation we all need to have right now. Who are we? What is the best of us? And what’s worth fighting for?

Coronavirus could be a grace that helps us remember our gifts and live with renewed priorities and gratitude and zeal for life. Instead, we see a country in flames in more ways than one. Let it serve as a warning. Where is our good stewardship? What’s worth protecting and fighting for?

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness seem a decent start. Life, faith, family, freedom. Without these things, we are lost. And as we look around, aren’t we seeing that play out? We’re losing our sense of these things. The most important job in the country isn’t the presidency. It’s the often-hidden work of mothers and fathers in homes, trying their best to live and teach virtue. Anything else is a lie, and so many of our efforts and resources need to be ordered toward them, and toward the women who are valiantly doing it alone, because they chose life and perseverance even when they were abandoned or betrayed — or whatever happened to leave them without the sacred bond of marriage.

I recently made it to some old haunts on Capitol Hill in D.C. and noticed all the lawn signs. They are mostly variations of Black Lives Matter. And they absolutely do. But what does that mean, practically speaking? Is it this “virtue signaling” business, or does it represent a reordering that is now underway?

Although I’m not a fan of cancellations, I saw it as a step in the right direction when Planned Parenthood in New York City took the name of Margaret Sanger off its building. If this is the first step toward confronting Planned Parenthood’s eugenicist roots, we might be getting somewhere in acknowledging all the unborn black lives that have been eliminated by abortion and the misery it has inflicted on the lives of so many black women.

I stopped in a friend’s most excellent library there and found myself reading from Vaclav Havel’s 1978 essay, “The Power of the Powerless.” These words jumped out at me, because they seem to be describing scenes from 2020:

If the greengrocer had been instructed to display the slogan, “I am afraid and therefore unquestionably obedient,” he would not be nearly as indifferent to its semantics, even though the statement would reflect the truth. The greengrocer would be embarrassed and ashamed to put such an unequivocal statement of his own degradation in the shop window, and quite naturally so, for he is a human being and thus has a sense of his own dignity. To overcome this complication, his expression of loyalty must take the form of a sign which, at least on its textual surface, indicates a level of disinterested conviction. It must allow the greengrocer to say, “What’s wrong with the workers of the world uniting?” Thus the sign helps the greengrocer to conceal from himself the low foundations of his obedience, at the same time concealing the low foundations of power. It hides them behind the façade of something high. And that something is ideology.

About ideology, he wrote:

Ideology, in creating a bridge of excused between the system and the individual, spans the abyss between the aims of the system and the aims of life. It pretends that the requirements of system derive from the requirements of life. It is a world of appearances trying to pass for reality.

Havel’s words ring all too true. What have we done to ourselves? There is a contagion in our land. It’s on the left and the right. We are falling into ideology. People are looking for meaning in politics and thereby making it about so much more than it ever should be — politics as religion, as meaning. Instead of a cross around a neck, you see the conventionally approved slogan. Joe Biden and Donald Trump have become idols. Rather than admit that yet again we are making a lesser-of-two-evils choice in our national election, we see so many making idols out of candidates and parties. We are losing a pure love of democracy and instead adhering to understood mandates about ideas. As we move toward a national election, we ought to be remembering what’s right in America and raising a generation that will cherish what is left of the best.

This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universals Newspaper Enterprise Association.

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