Better Angels, or Bitter Fruit?…

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What we do next will determine who wins the battle at the heart of American history…

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Newly-elected Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock, from Sunday sermon following Wednesday’s attack on Capitol: 

“Just as we were trying to put on our celebration shoes, the ugly side of our story, our great and grand American story, began to emerge”…

“We saw the crude, the angry, the disrespectful, and the violent break their way into the people’s house — some carrying Confederate flags, signs and symbols of an old world order passing away”…

“The question this day is, will you stand on the side of righteousness, justice and truth, or will you give in to the ugly demons of our nature?”

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In his book, “Inventing Equality: Reconstructing the Constitution after the Civil War,” historian Michael Bellesiles writes:

American history can be seen as a battle to reconcile the large gap between our stated ideals and the reality of our republic… It is a story of resistance to the anti-democratic forces fearful of change, and of courageous individuals who will not abandon the fight for human equality.

On one day last week, Wednesday, January 6th, we witnessed both of those forces — in the morning, a brilliant, joyous victory for those working steadily toward greater equality, and then, just hours later, a brutal, horrifying counterattack by those fighting to turn them back —  burn as bright, and as hot, as any time in living memory. 

On Wednesday morning, the nation awoke to some truly breathtaking news: the son of a woman who picked cotton to put food on her family’s table, and raised her son to one day preach from Dr. King’s pulpit in Atlanta, and a 33-year old Jewish man who once worked for Representative John Lewis, were elected to represent the state of Georgia in the US Senate.  Their victory was the product of years of hard work by progressives in Georgia, and around the country, and it had powerful national implications, shifting control of the US Senate to Democrats as President-Elect Joe Biden prepares to take office.

Celebrations of the historic victory in Georgia were short-lived, though, as by early afternoon a gathering storm sparked and thundered in Washington, DC.  As Democrats and Republicans debated Biden’s election victory in a joint session of Congress, outside in the streets, just down Pennsylvania Avenue, President Trump was feeding thousands of his most ardent supporters a steady diet of lies, grievance, and conspiracy theories, exhorting them to march on the Capitol building and demand that Congress overturn last November’s election results.  What followed is something none who saw it will ever forget.  Thousands of American citizens, whipped into a frenzy by years of outrageous propaganda, laid siege to the Capitol, attacked the woefully unprepared — and disturbingly passive — Capitol Police, and occupied the seat of one of our country’s three branches of government, leaving five dead in their wake and swearing to return with even greater violence if their champion is not handed a second term. 

On Parler, the suddenly popular alternative to Twitter for the conspiracy theory wing of the far right, talk of a second civil war was rampant.  “The Left wants to destroy America. We want to preserve it and MAGA! Who wants civil war again???,” wrote one enthusiastic commenter.  “Yes we want civil war!! The dems chose not to play by any rules then why should we?!,” wrote another.

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On one day last week, American history was made — two steps forward for its better angels and the project of a truly multiracial democracy promised by its founders, one step back for the dark vision of a nation born under a poisonous cloud of white supremacy that its founders could not find the fortitude to forsake.  And we are left to pick up the pieces and try to make sense of it all.

Second Civil War?  Or just one more battle in the ongoing, 250-year civil war for the heart of America?

Many of the rioters who laid siege to the Capitol last week proudly carried the battle flag of the Confederacy.  They did so knowing exactly what it stood for, their actions a powerful demonstration of what Emory University Professor (and longtime CIW ally) Carol Anderson has termed “White Rage”.  Speaking with NBC News about the particular forces driving last week’s explosion, Professor Anderson said:

What we are seeing is vintage white rage… The lie of voter fraud says that ‘we are being victimized by those people in the city who are trying to steal our democracy.’  When they’re storming Congress, they’re seeing themselves as the victim because that’s the narrative that’s been crafted for them.

Indeed, what happened last week in our nation’s capital is not the glorious “second Civil War” imagined in the fever dreams of its protagonists, but just the latest eruption of an alternately hot-and-cold war that has boiled just beneath the surface of this country since its birth 250 years ago.  It is a war between the two clashing visions of democracy at the heart of our nation’s political culture, one founded on the revolutionary concept “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” the other on the equally American, but violently opposed, concept of white supremacy.  Nowhere is this juxtaposition laid out more clearly than in the Confederacy’s “Cornerstone Speech” by the seditionists’ own Vice President, Alexander Stephens, who proclaimed on the birth of what he and his compatriots believed was to be a new nation:

The prevailing ideas entertained by [Jefferson] and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature, that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away…  Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong.  They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races.  This was an error.  It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the ‘storm came and the wind blew’.  Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea: its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not the equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.

The battle between these two fundamentally opposed ideas has ebbed and flowed since the launch of the American experiment, the yin and yang of our national political life.  But while the divisions it has engendered have never been fully resolved — and have provided fertile ground for countless American demagogues, ranging from hardcore racists to opportunists and grifters, to amass followings and advance their interests down through the years — it is important to remember that those divisions have never fully succeeded in preventing the forces of progress from advancing their cause, either.  Despite the toxic brew of ignorance and bigotry that perpetually poisons our body politic, powerful voices demanding the realization of our founders’ promise of a truly multi-racial democracy have never been silenced, and concrete progress toward their goal — expanding and reinforcing fundamental human rights, not just for Black Americans but for all who have been excluded and marginalized by the forces of oppression — has continued to trace its arc across our history.

“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?”

As we struggle to make sense of Wednesday’s events and to chart our way forward through the piles of broken glass and shattered illusions in their aftermath, it seems especially important to note this particular feature of American history: In the ongoing construction of our national narrative, those who have fought for the preservation of white supremacy are ultimately remembered as failures, their cause deemed fundamentally anti-American, while those who have fought to expand our rights — to close the “gap between our stated ideals and the reality of our republic” — are celebrated as brave heroes, the embodiment of our country’s highest principles. 

Examples of this phenomenon abound.  At the same time that Alexander Stephens was declaring the “great physical, philosophical, and moral truth” upon which the short-lived Confederacy of southern states was founded, another ultimately more powerful voice was arguing the case for progress.  Frederick Douglass’ 4th of July speech, delivered  in Rochester, New York, in 1852, was a scorching deconstruction of the country’s brutal hypocrisy:

What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless… The existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretense, and your Christianity as a lie. It destroys your moral power abroad; it corrupts your politicians at home…

But despite the righteous bitterness of his critique, Douglass closed on a hopeful note:

… Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery. ‘The arm of the Lord is not shortened,’ and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope… drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions…

History, of course, not only proved Douglass right, with the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments in his lifetime but raised him up among the pantheon of true American heroes, while consigning Stephens to oblivion and his cause to the nation’s annals of failure and shame.

We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt”…

One hundred years later, as the eternal battle between the two mutually exclusive founding principles of our country continued to fester and boil, Martin Luther King Jr. returned to the theme of the gap between the promise of an inclusive democracy and the continuing reality of oppression, in his speech on the Washington Mall, just a short walk from the Capitol building that was the scene of unchecked rage and violence last week:

… In a sense we have come to our Nation’s Capital to cash a check. When the architects of our great republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.

This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given its colored people a bad check, a check that has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’

But he too, like Douglass before him, found reason to hope:

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and security of justice.

Of course, Dr. King lived to see the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965 before his life was tragically cut short by a white supremacist’s bullet, but his figure stands today in a massive marble statue on the grounds of that same Mall, counted forever among the exclusive number of American heroes celebrated there, while his adversaries at the time — men like Bull Connor, Lester Maddox, and George Wallace — are reviled for their failed “populist” appeals to hate and division.  

“Full citizenship rights are the bare minimum one should expect from the government. Yet, for two-thirds of our history, full citizenship was denied to those who built this country from theory to life.”

And, today, fifty years later, in the state of Georgia, another powerful voice for progress is making itself heard in this uniquely American struggle between expectations and reality, hope and hatred, equality and oppression.  In her book, “Our Time Is Now: Power, Purpose, and the Fight for a Fair America,” Stacey Abrams, perhaps the single most important force behind the remarkable remaking of Georgia’s political landscape, wrote:

Full citizenship rights are the bare minimum one should expect from the government. Yet, for two-thirds of our history, full citizenship was denied to those who built this country from theory to life. African slaves and Chinese workers and Native American environmentalists and Latino gauchos and Irish farmers—and half the population: women. Over the course of our history, these men and women, these patriots and defenders of liberty, have been denied the most profound currency of citizenship: power. Because, let’s be honest, that is the core of this fight. The right to be seen, the right to be heard, the right to direct the course of history are markers of power. In the United States, democracy makes politics one of the key levers to exercising power. So, it should shock none of us that the struggle for dominion over our nation’s future and who will participate is simply a battle for American power.

Stacey Abrams’ story remains to be told, but if the trajectory she is tracing today continues along its current arc, she too will be added to the list of those who, against powerful and often violent opposition, refused to “abandon the fight for human equality” and made our country stronger for it. Meanwhile, those who today oppose her efforts to expand and protect full citizenship rights, and stubbornly carry instead the banner of a long lost cause will, inevitably, find themselves, from the very highest office in the land to the very lowest internet chat room, relegated to the swelling dustbin of American history, no matter how violently they resist their fate.

Toward a more perfect union…

And so, despite the sadness and anger of the current moment — despite the unshakable feeling that we have been here before and we will, inevitably, be here again — there is still reason to hope for those who are committed to the vision of multi-racial democracy, just as there was in 1852 in Rochester, New York, in 1963 in Washington, DC, and in 2021 in Georgia, just hours before the flimsy security barricades surrounding the Capitol were breached and the latest national nightmare began to unfold on live television.  But hope is useless without action. 

Yes, the president must go.  He must resign or be removed, whether by his cabinet or by the Congress, because to allow him to serve out his term without official consequence would send exactly the wrong message to him, to his party, to future presidents, and to the world.  The sheer volume and audacity of his past transgressions have numbed the country to his crimes, but this past week he crossed a line that our system of checks and balances should have rendered impossible.  Our democratic institutions must re-establish control, or risk losing that control for years to come. 

And, yes, those Senators and Representatives who aided and abetted the heinous crimes against our democracy last week by amplifying the president’s lies and goading his misinformed and misguided followers into violent action — despite knowing full well that what they were saying was not true — must also face censure.  They, like the president, have gotten away with playing with fire for years, abusing their positions of public trust to prod known domestic terrorists into action.  Now that those sparks finally coalesced into flames, they too must be held accountable for the arson done in response to their words.

Those immediate consequences are necessary and just.  But we must look beyond the immediate horizon if we hope to quell this current eruption of the nation’s eternal battle for its conflicted soul.

In an excellent article in The Atlantic titled, “The Capitol Riot Was an Attack on Multiracial Democracy: True Democracy in America is a Young, Fragile Experiment that Must Be Defended If It Is to Endure,” Adam Serwer wrote:

The chaotic scene in Washington was familiar to American history but foreign to many living Americans—an armed mob seeking to nullify an election in the name of freedom and democracy. The violence was a predictable consequence of the president’s talent for manipulating dark currents of American politics he does not fully comprehend. What transpired yesterday was not simply an assault on democracy. It was an attack on multiracial democracy, which is younger than most members of the Senate.

He goes on to recount the story of the violent insurrection by a white mob in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1898 that “shattered a thriving middle-class Black community, killing dozens and overthrowing the city government,” as both an example of previous violent attacks aimed at overturning the results of fair and free elections, and as evidence that true multi-racial democracy remains a “young, fragile experiment” in this country. But here the author, too, finds hope to temper his despair:

But this is not 1898. The night before the mob descended on Capitol Hill, Georgia, the state that saw the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan, elected its first Black U.S. senator, Raphael Warnock—the pastor of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Ebenezer Baptist Church. Another Democrat, Jon Ossoff, will be the first Jewish senator from the state that saw the lynching of another Jewish man, Leo Frank, in 1915. Racial reaction is a powerful, elemental force in American politics; it has also perhaps never been weaker than it is today. The goons who stormed the Capitol yesterday are a pathetic echo of the southern “Redeemers.”

Yet the lessons of Wilmington still linger. We are no better, no wiser, no braver than our ancestors, but we have the benefit of their experience. The true threat to multiracial democracy in America is not that its enemies are invincible. It is that, even knowing what is at stake, the nation’s leaders will not rise to defend it.

Wilmington was an inspiration. The attack on the Capitol must not be allowed to become one.

In other words, we must not let the events of Wednesday afternoon overshadow those of Wednesday morning.  Indeed, the way forward goes through Georgia.  Not Georgia the state, but Georgia the creative, hard-fought victory that overcame concerted efforts to suppress the vote with tireless organizing to achieve unprecedented levels of participation in last week’s run-off election.  That precious victory is not just proof that the forces of white supremacy are on the defensive and growing weaker, it provides a blueprint for how to defend and expand progress toward an ever more inclusive democracy in the future.

The organizers in Georgia worked for nearly a decade to achieve their unprecedented results, eschewing short-term thinking and focusing instead on long-haul, grassroots efforts to change the political narrative there and mobilize long-dormant voters. That same commitment, long-term vision, and grassroots communication strategy must motivate efforts by those fighting for greater equality across the nation in the years ahead.

It will not be easy.  The truth itself is under attack.  But the latest chapter in this country’s “story of resistance to the anti-democratic forces fearful of change, and of courageous individuals who will not abandon the fight for human equality,” remains to be written, and now, more than ever before in our country’s history, we hold the pen.