Saturday, July 4, 2020


It is July the Fourth, 2020, the 244th birthday of the United States of America. Usually, Independence Day is a time of pleasant summer living, no-care-in-the-world bar-be-ques, fireworks, parades, that sort of thing. Not so much this year. We Americans are in a time of great turmoil. Throughout the land there is fear, sorrow, and anxiety. There is also faith and hope.

Today, America is straining under layer upon layer of crises, at least four that I can identify. First is the public health emergency created by the coronavirus. COVID-19 is spreading through the nation at an alarming and accelerating rate. Every day seems to bring new records of cases and deaths. Meanwhile, virtually nothing is being done to stop the plague. There is no national plan of action. Indeed, the Trump administration is in denial of a problem. States and localities go back and forth on policies to no effect. The country is at the mercy of an incredibly tiny organism. This pandemic will only get worse as the year goes along. We are having a big surge now in the summer. We can expect a much bigger spike in the fall. There will be no vaccine for at least the next six months, if at all. Hundreds of thousands of Americans will die of the virus before the end of the year. All of this is highly distressing.

Next, is the economic crisis. Millions of American have lost their jobs in the last few months. The unemployment rate now stands at 11.5%, four times the normal rate. Thousands of businesses have closed, many permanently. Food banks are straining to provide provisions. Government unemployment benefits expire at the end of this month for most recipients. The outlook for the American economy is uncertain at best, and disastrous at worst. Economists are telling us to prepare for a long and slow recovery.

On top of that we have a political crisis. The president is acting beyond the norms of the accepted behavior for his office. He is defiant of the established constitutional order. He has challenged virtually all the institutions of government. His administration is incompetent at handling the problems facing the country. He is clearly unpopular. Unless matters change dramatically in the near future, President Trump and the Republicans face a landslide defeat in the November elections. However, the latest fear circulating is that Trump and his acolytes will try to nullify the election, on trumped up excuses, and retain power. If this happens, it will create the greatest political crisis since the Civil War, a century and a half ago. Everyone knows, even his friends, that Trump is unpredictable. Indeed, the country has been in turmoil for the three and a half years of his presidency. There is more to come.

Then, on top of that, we have the mass demonstrations in the streets. For weeks now, countless thousands of Americans have marched in the streets of every big city, and many small ones, demanding an end to racism in America. In some cases, these have led to clashes with the police and to acts of criminal violence. Police departments have come under heavy criticism. Symbols of our racist past, as Confederate monuments, statues, and flag, have been banished across the south, and even beyond. 

So, we have four great crises at hand: a plague, economic disruption, political turmoil, and mass social unrest. Any one of them would have been a challenge. All four together may seem overwhelming.

Looking back at history, we can see that times of great turmoil were often also times of great progress, as if the old is destroyed and a new emerges from the ruins. Extreme negative and extreme positive often go hand in hand. For instance, the Black Death hit Europe in 1347. In the next few decades, a third of the population of Europe died. It was the worst public health catastrophe in history. People commonly believed it was the apocalypse, the end of the world. Yet, out of that ruin came the Fifteenth Century Renaissance, the most energetic and creative period in western civilization in a thousand years. The Renaissance was in many ways the birthplace of modern history. This revival would not have been possible without a clearing away of so much of medieval culture that came with the Black Death.

How about the American Civil War? Terribly destructive---600,000 Americans killed, thousands more maimed for life, property destruction beyond measure. Yet it gave us a tremendous burst of human rights, namely the end of slavery in the country. Four million human beings were released from bondage. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteen Amendments made giant strides in American democracy. Would any of that happened without the Civil War? Highly doubtful; and certainly not at that time.

What about the French Revolution? The best of times and the worst of times would fit the bill. The Revolution saw countless violent crowd, or mob, actions. It also saw government-led "Reign of Terror." At least 50,000 people were killed, many by grisly means. Heads rolled, literally. Yet, beyond the rush of death, there developed the first democratic republic in Europe. It established the ideals of liberty and equality that gradually became embedded in western culture in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. The Revolution produced a long list of reforms that transformed modern history (as abolition of slavery and equality for women). Thus, out of the violent destruction of the Old Regime, came the new world of the common man, and woman.

Think too about the Great Depression and the Second World War, 1933-1945. The Depression brought untold economic decline and misery, the War unparalleled death and destruction. Yet, out of the Depression came the principle that the government is responsible for the economic welfare of the people. Out of the War came the great victory of democracy over totalitarianism. The War also started the ball rolling on the end of racial segregation.

Thus, history is replete with examples in which times of great turmoil were also times of great progress. In the vernacular, you have to break eggs to make an omelette. We can expect the same now, even though it may be hard to imagine today what all will come out of our present crises. As far as the virus goes, it seems to me it has brought the American people together as we have not been united since the end of the Cold War thirty years ago. The virus has made us realize we Americans are all in the same boat, we are one people confronting a common deadly enemy. I suspect this is at least part of the reason why we are having such large and effective mass street demonstrations for racial justice.

The economic crisis has also brought a certain unity. Democrats and Republicans in Congress came together, a great rarity, to pass legislation bringing trillions of dollars of financial relief to businesses and workers. This affirms the Depression-era principle that it is the responsibility of the government to provide for the economic welfare of the people. 

The political crisis created by the Trump presidency has forced Americans to reassess what we want in a government and in a president as well as what we want in a society. Most Americans have repudiated Trump's narcissistic disregard of the Constitution and the norms of the presidency. I suspect this has been a motivational factor in the vast street demonstrations of late. The people are rejecting Trump's politics of division. Indeed, a sea-change is now going on in our national understandings about race, something we have been loath to deal with in the past. I expect this came out of reaction to the virus and to Trump.

Today, let us take stock and recognize our present national situation for what it is. This is a dark hour in America and in the world. Let us not try to pretend otherwise. There is plenty of frightening danger all around us. Our country is in trouble. Nevertheless, accepting reality for what it is does not require despair. We Americans have been through a lot. Over the years, we got a lot wrong, a lot---slavery, Indian ethnic cleansing, internment of Japanese-Americans, just to name the most obvious. But, we have also gotten a lot right, and we have a record of trying to make right what we did wrong, even if it is slow in coming. That is what we are doing now with racism.

So, my point of the day is that regardless of how bad the present crisis is, history tells us there will be some positive good coming out of it. I think we can see some already and I believe we will see more and more. As bad as things get, and they will get worse in the next few months, the moral of the story is, do not despair. Look for the new growth that will sprout in the ashes of the fire.

The founding fathers took a big chance two and a half centuries ago. They created a unique experiment, a nation built on the ideals that common people could govern themselves, to the benefit of both the individual and the common good. They did not know if their experiment would work. Well, it has worked. It has worked for 244 years and it is still going strong today despite the enormous threats and dangers of the hour. It worked because the mechanisms built in for progress worked. The founders did not create a perfect country, far from it. But, they did create a system that had the potential for self-improvement. They had the faith that people could make a better world for themselves and their fellow human beings. And so, America is an evolving experiment, ever moving toward a more fair, just, and free society. This is the legacy of July 4, 1776. That is reason enough to celebrate today.