A reflection on the Fourth of July
July 4, 2019
When I was a student in Avery County High School—I was probably a sophomore—I read Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. I had seen the movie. It may have been one of those things in which they broke it up into episodes which lasted a week. But, I do not really think that I understood a lot of what was going on.
I read it because I had ancestors who fought for the Confederacy. And I wanted to try to make sense of what that might have meant. As an aside, I have said elsewhere that I studied history to try to understand my family—and theology to try to understand myself. While I have made great progress in both those endeavors, I still have a long way to go.
Interestingly enough, I read the book, originally, because I thought it was pro-South. That impression was based on a very superficial viewing of the movie. I quickly discovered, though, that the novel was far more complex than I had imagined—and far more honest than the movie was able to be at the time. I guess it has been fifty years since I read it. I imagine that if I had the time to read it now, I would view it through far different lenses! And, I can not help but wonder how Margaret Mitchell would tell the story if she was writing the novel today?
The one lasting memory, though, was that of disbelief. I wondered, even then, how was it possible that the Southern Planter class—the aristocrats–had no idea what was coming—that the war would literally bring to a dramatic and quite surprising end, their very way of life. They were clueless! I seem to remember too that the only Southern person who had some notion of “reality” was Ashley Wilkes. He spoke about the gotterdammerung—the “fall of the Gods.” And for him, that was as good a metaphor as any. I guess I had a sort of love/hate relationship with Rhett. I started out really disliking him—but by the time the book ended, I had a much better appreciation for him!
In college at ASU, I had the opportunity to take a fascinating class called “The Road to Hitler.” Again, I encountered the surprise that those in the latter days of the Weimar Republic seemed completely unaware where things were headed. They foolishly thought that so much progress had been made that it would be impossible for the “rule of law” to be overturned. They failed to recognize the threat that Hitler posed until it was too late. More recent scholarship, though, has pointed out how very popular Hitler was with a huge section of the population. And really, that had to be the case, otherwise he would never have been able to manipulate the system as he did. Cabaret also gave an amazing insight into what the glory days of Weimar were like.
While living in California, in 2004-2006, I came to an interesting realization. The U.S. that I had known and which I just assumed would continue “as is” was changing in ways that I did not like and did not understand. When I thought more about it, I came to realize that ever since the birth of the “Moral Majority” and the advent of Reaganomics, the country had begun to divide and to become polarized. Now I did not remember the late 60’s—I was born in 63. But I did remember people in my family were affected by Vietnam.
And when I saw the reality of Guiliani’s administration in NYC—cracking down on diversity, attacking the homeless, the increase in subtle (and not so subtle) violence against People of Color (mostly Black) and migrants—and the LGBTQIA community, I realized that the city was beginning to feel like a “police state.” 9/11 had a way of hiding this reality, because the city “united.” This made it even more difficult to address the problems without being accused of being “unpatriotic” or “anti-American.” I am sorry to say that, at that time, I did not have any Muslim friends. I can only imagine how terrible that time must have been for them! I do remember the reality of living in a Dominican Republican neighborhood and beginning to hear the words “La Migra” for the first time. I was well aware of the impact and virtual terror the phrase imparted.
Today, I have the real sense that we are in the “dying stage” of the U.S. Empire. I feel that our “reign” as a “superpower” is coming to an end. It seems to me that a majority from my native Southern Mountain culture has become so frightened by this—and by the prospect that they are quickly becoming a minority—that they had made the conscious decision to accept whatever means are necessary to either slow-down the inevitable. Or, they have a dream of “turning back the clock” to the way things were. That is not going to happen. Those days are “gone with the wind.” That “boat has already sailed” and I am not just “Whistlin’ Dixie.”
If we are at the final stage of our own Weimar Republic—and I honestly think we may be—all that is needed is a catalyst—a “Reichstag fire.” If that happens, the Republic—weak and “hog-tied” as it is—will be overthrown. Either a dictatorship, or an actual Empire will be the result. If that happens, the concentration camps on the border–for largely innocent and harmless people fleeing from intolerable situations which our own policies have helped to create—will become the norm. Except now, they will be expanded and will be filled with political prisoners and “deviants.” As a gay man, I know, all too well, the history of the pink triangle.
When I have shared these fears, some have thought that I might be alarmist—or unduly pessimistic. I honestly pray that they are right. But more and more, things are happening which frighten me. The rhetoric against Latinos, and the concentration camps for migrant children; the rise in police violence towards Black People; the violence towards the LGBTQIA persons—and especially Trans persons of color: these things frighten me!
I was attacked on a subway in NYC by a young man saying homophobic things to me in August 2017. I was knocked unconscious, had a black eye, and required ten stitches in my mouth. No one came to my aid during the attack, or afterwards. So, I know firsthand that violence is simmering just below the surface. I will not be surprised to see blackshirts or brownshirts or “redshirts and hats” prowling the streets and looking for people to “control” “intimidate” and “put in their place.”
We are at a moment of decision and crisis as a country. I honestly have no idea how things will go. But, based on my reading of history, I do not expect the best. Will we return to the McCarthy area with the compilation of lists? That would certainly appear to me to be the “writing on the wall.”
I had the blessing of attending a presentation by the amazing historian and thinker Martin Dubberman (famous for his history of the LGBTQIA movement in NYC prior to and after Stonewall). He said in his remarks something like, “I am no longer a progressive. I have now become a revolutionary.” I hope that I am not misquoting him. In any case, he seemed to have given up hope that the present system could be repaired. He had come to the conclusion that the “system” was so broken that it needed to be discarded and something new created. I can understand why he would say that.
Is there hope? The Episcopal Church gives me hope. Our Presiding Bishop has talked about a return to essentials—about becoming a “Beloved Community,” the “Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement.” I am on board with that. Honestly, it is the only thing which has offered much hope at all. If that transformation, rebirth, and reformation are allowed to take place it will prove to be a very painful process. Many will be unwilling or unable to go all the way. But, the result will be well worth the price to be paid. We are making progress on that journey. But, for it to come to fruition, it seems that political stability will be needed. Otherwise, we may well plant seeds which may only sprout “after the deluge.”
I do believe that God is in control. Yet, God is not a magician and chooses to work through us–and through our decisions and actions. May we choose wisely, act justly, and “with the help of God,” truly live out our Baptismal Covenant. In that case, we will realize that even though “old things” have passed away, the “new things” which God has prepared for us are even better than we could have hoped for or even imagine.