American dreams and dust
At the end of April 1803, the freshly minted United States sealed the deal on the Louisiana purchase, practically doubling its land mass. Within this former French territory laws and cultural traditions from the Francosphere predominated, though this was not seen as so much an issue for the civil servants in Washington. Indeed, soon enough, this territory would become embroiled in the evolving acrimony over slavery and Indian rights.
What Americans today possibly fail to appreciate is the tapestry nature of the US’s nation building. Be it through blood or gold Florida, the French colonies, Mexican territories, Alaska, Hawaii, and the many first nation tribes were brought into the Union from sea to shining sea. The French and Russians were easy to co-opt, needing the gold during times of national crisis, while all the others suffered under the boots of American soldiers as American Exceptionalism drove west. Most of the citizens of these territories had any say in the matter, and found themselves at the mercy of white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant men who saw more gold and profit in their endeavours.
Fast forward to the Spanish-American war, and various Banana Wars in Latin America, and the notion of an American Imperialism was fleshed out at the end of the 19th Century, with Teddy Roosevelt at its helm. Americans, those rich and educated enough to fully exploit and engage in the political and economic process, found themselves at the beginning of century that would be defined as ‘the American Century’, where the exceptionalism that drove their ancestors west in blood and iron drove them forward to forge their idealised notion of freedom.
Yet the American tapestry, melting pot, remained. Simply conquering and purchasing does not erase identities, just as freeing slaves does not a community create. It took energy and effort on those communities part to forge their own identity, yet every time they rose up to gain a modicum of power they were struck down through the courts, the ballot box, and the bully pulpit of the White House. The irony is that the ever-contracting circles of those who can fully engage and exploit the processes has left many white, Anglo-Saxon protestants in the cold, excluded by the very forces they and their ancestors helped to enact.
This exceptionalism, framed as the American Dream and the freedom the US constitution offers, withers on the vine because it yokes systemic inequality to the idea that if only you work hard enough you will succeed. Poverty, in money, in thought, in health, in opportunity, are the harvest that is being reaped, not by the disposed and outliers, but by anyone unlucky enough to get caught out as each chair gets pulled away.
It is easy to blame Donald Trump, the Republican Party, Billionaires, the poor themselves. Indeed, there is a significant portion of the blame that should be placed at Trump, the GoP, and Billionaires feet; but societally there is this aura of pulling yourself up by the bootstraps, of systemically we can lift up ourselves if only we have the gumption to do it. Where you fall on the political spectrum invariably invites comments and observations to this, but the bare fact is that by contracting the access to opportunity, healthcare, access to justice, and mentoring the US further tears apart what made its fabric so strong.
The idea of out of many one, and that all men are created equal sits squarely at the heart of the US Constitution, ideals that even in their birth were restricted to a narrow elite. It took protests, battles, a Civil War, two World Wars, Vietnam, and yet more protests to shape the nature of the current rights in the US. All the way back to Andrew Jackson and the framers of the Constitution there has been a tension in the desire to grant and protect rights. Who is worthy, and who gets the whip hand and lead shot. Protests are part of the American tapestry, and raise the common consciousness enough to enact change, both the Constitution and to the framing of how the nation sees itself.
It is the practical application of rights that matter, not just the letter of the law or Constitution. Without equity in the application of rights society will continue to contract those who rights and the rule of law benefit. It matters who is arrested, who is profiled, who is left to their own devices. Put any neighbourhood under the microscope and crime invariably goes up as parking tickets, speeding violations, jay walking, littering, dog fouling and any number of minor crimes go from overlooked to being registered. The American tapestry invariably leads to some neighbourhoods gain certain reputations, yet tighten the screws enough, and any neighbourhood could.
Yet, as access to all the net benefits of society flow into ever narrowing channels, at what point do you say enough is enough? When Puerto Rico is devastated and ignored? When neighbourhood kids are shot and killed by Police for merely walking home? When your doctor over prescribes opioids to your neighbours, spiking overdoses and deaths? Or when your child’s school is attacked by isolated teenagers with semi-automatic weapons? How about when celebrities pay to gin the college application system? Or when a Presidential candidate talks of sexually assaulting women? When?
Inequality is not just a race issues, or class issue, or gender issue. It cuts across all lines. The very fabric of the US is built on the blood of iniquity, paid for with gold dug out of Sioux hills, and paved over with iron forged by immigrants toiling away for bottom dollar. Iniquity is more than being bankrupted over medical expenses, or ripped off by for-profit universities, or being forced to go out to work during a pandemic because you are too poor to not afford to. It reaches deep down into each citizen every time those with privilege bend the rules to suit themselves, and co-opt the communal spirit that blazes across America to suit their own ends.
When California, New-Mexico, Arizona, Texas, Alaska, Hawaii et al were brought into the union a one size fits all Constitution was rendered from on high, for good and bad. Today, it is up to all Americans to not just embrace the tapestry of communities and cultures, but to find empowerment in this difference. The right to free speech is fundamental because it allows all citizens to speak out, to lift themselves above the concerted blocking by those who benefit. The right to protest is paramount, because if the system fails to provide equity, then citizens must have a release valve that is not murderous in intent. An unequal yoke is bad for all parties, and if the system is failing, then citizens must find ways of making it work for all, not just the few.
In this fractious period of July 2020 it is easy to point to where inequalities lies, and prognosticate about the future. What is clear is that the American tapestry is fraying at an ever increasing rate, and if citizens want to halt and roll back these processes there must be a vision of what that future could be that lifts up the many, not the few. Americans have every right to be as equal as their neighbours, and if there is any shred left to the American Dream then it will be a collective effort to enable all to have it, else it will be for a small minority and dust for the rest.