I went to public schools. Every morning at Putnam School, grades K-8, I stood up, placed my hand over my heart, felt the crisp stiffness of the shirt my mother had ironed with truly world class skill the night before, and along with about 20 other kids from East Cambridge, faced the flag and recited the Pledge of Allegiance. My school was built on the site of Fort Putnam named for Revolutionary War hero, General Israel Putnam. Bunker Hill was close by. Whenever we drove through Harvard Square in my father’s mint green Oldsmobile Delmont 88 and followed the road as it slowly looped around Cambridge Common, I would always look for the tree under which George Washington took command of his troops. I grew up close to the history of this country’s founding. I grew up loving to learn about it. I grew up believing in its founding principles.
I understand it’s not 100% pure. Since my Thom McCann dress loafers walked up and down the creaky, dusty, wide wooden main staircase of Putnam, I’ve learned life and people are complicated. But I still believe, on the whole, my country is a force for good in the world. We don’t run from the world’s dangers, we face them. When those dangers disrupt lives, we offer help. We’re the country everyone wants to come to, for good reason. All are welcome and valued here. There’s no better place to raise your family, to find peace, safety, and prosperity.
But now I’m sitting here, less than two days after the election trying to understand how America could make the choice it did. In the past, we’d make our choice, and in the broad strokes between right and wrong, you could count on us to come down on the side of what’s right.
Not this time.
This time, America did not choose what is right. Some of my family, friends, and work colleagues made this choice. I am struggling with how to understand it, and how to respond to it. These are people I know to be good and decent. But I see no goodness or decency in their choice.
This country just elected a man who, on specifics, was often loud but seldom clear. But on fundamental principles, he was consistently both very loud and very clear. On these principles, there is no mistaking what a choice for him means.
This is a choice, not for religious freedom, but for religious persecution. Because you practice a religion different from mine, you will have fewer rights. Because of your religion, we will identify you as someone likely to cause us harm. Our laws will protect you less, because this will protect me more.
This is a choice to torture our enemies. To kill their families. To commit war crimes in the name of America.
This is a choice to limit a free press and free speech. A candidate for president “boycotts” a debate and denies Pulitzer Prize-winning media outlets access because of the “not very nice” things the outlets asked or reported and we didn’t recognize it as a threat to our republic. Instead, we willingly accepted limits, imposed by those in power, on our requirement to be well-informed citizens. Many even cheered the limits on the media. Despite his blunt language, we forgot Jefferson’s warning- “if a nation expects to be ignorant and free it expects what never was and never will be”.
For women, women’s equality, and women’s rights, the choice is particularly hard to understand. The Access Hollywood video grabbed headlines, but it was only one sign. His casually crude dismissal of women was breathtaking (to call it disrespect would imply a working knowledge of the concept of respect). The behavior on the video is no aberration. While the video “reveals” the true character of the man, it is only a more powerful, concentrated dose than the ridiculous number of smaller, less potent, but more consistently revealing clips from the Howard Stern Show, daytime TV, or radio sound bites available for anyone to watch. Yet America chose not to reject, but to elevate, to its highest elected office, the man for whom this behavior is a proud, defining character trait of an adult lifetime. I cannot process this.
There are so many more examples. His campaign manager – the guy he put in charge – is the Chairman of Breitbart, the voice of the alt right, the loosely defined, internet-fueled group that rejects conservatism in favor of an ideology that condemns multi-culturalism and immigration, and has stark ties to white supremacy, anti-Semitism, and homophobia. This is not your go-to-guy if you’re concerned with building a team with the wisdom, compassion, and leadership to speak to our country’s deeply difficult issues of racial and social justice. But then, the man America elected is the person who, not long ago, decided the best outlet for his civic energies was to lead the birther movement.
So, here we are. This is the person America chose. If we got to know the guy through normal circumstances, we wouldn’t invite him to our home for dinner.
What’s the right choice now?
The script provided by our republic calls us to keep it intact with the peaceful transfer of power. To accept this man as my president and give him every opportunity to succeed. I hear and am moved by this call. I have no wish to be another angry citizen, unburdened by fact, denouncing the other side.
But, another part of the script calls us to keep the republic intact. Period.
What’s the right choice when the president-elect so clearly violates the basic principles of the republic? Doesn’t giving that person every opportunity to succeed contribute to the republic’s demise? Alarms are already being sounded that this is how fascism takes hold. I will not be part of that handhold, an apathetic citizen, standing by, sleepily secure in my relatively safe (for now) corner of the country.
To repeat the question. What’s the right choice for America now?
January 20th is a couple of months away, but it’s not too early to be much more actively vigilant about the potential consequences of Tuesday’s election. Actually, I hope it’s not too late.
We can also choose to consciously, deliberately, and respectfully, re-build our civic engagement. The demonization of compromise and ridicule of opposing ideas is poison. Politics is, by design, not a winner take all process. There is no virtue in diminishing the different judgments of others. There is no justice when only one voice is allowed to matter. Our founders recognized this, and rejected it as tyranny. Today, when our radio and TV hosts, our friends and family, and especially our elected leaders reject compromise and ridicule opposing ideas, we must recognize it and label it as the same tyranny. And just as our founders did, we must reject it and do the hard work of building and operating a thriving republic.
For me, I’ll watch the new administration as closely as I know how.
I’ll talk with the friends, family, and colleagues who made this choice. I’ll listen to their reasons and try to understand what they see and why they don’t see the risks. I’ll work hard to make the risks as vivid and clear to them as they are to me. I’ll collaborate to find ways we can move to a better understanding of each other and move the country to a better place than the one we’re in currently.
In essence, America’s next choice is the same as our first. We’re back to fighting tyranny. Whether we find it in our government or in ourselves. If we want this country to once more come down on the side of right, it’s the only choice we have.