If we Americans are nothing more than hopelessly addicted consumers who think of ourselves as an exceptional people with special entitlements; if we see ourselves as god’s morally superior chosen people; if we are selfish and greedy beyond redemption—then we are complicit in all of the horrible crimes that government commits in our name.
The United States has a violent history of atrocity and exploitation that began with the arrival of Christopher Columbus on the shores of North America in 1492. It extends all the way to the present and is guided by the same poisoned ideology—Manifest Destiny.
Those who know history understand that we have never come to grips with the horrible past which has led us to the appalling present. We take great pains to suppress a ghastly history of murder and mayhem in order to convince ourselves that we are not the people who exterminated and enslaved the indigenous people of North America; that we were not the practitioners of racism and chattel slavery questing for treasure on the backs of the oppressed or the murderers of striking workers seeking a living wage and decent working conditions.
Americans need to believe that those events and their effects are safely buried in the past, thereby absolving us from culpability for them in the present; but they will not stay buried and they will pursue us to our graves if we do not acknowledge them and comprehend their implications.
Likewise, we suppress our responsibility in unleashing the plague of global warming on the world and we call it a natural cycle so that we do not have to change our ways. Under the unbearable pressure of inconvenient truths, we ignore them in hopes that they will go away rather than fester and multiply. But if that is who we are and if we are incapable of coming to terms with the repulsive past there is no hope for us. Our fate is already cast and a terrible price will have to be paid by billions of people and countless other species. We will reap as we have sown and misery and death will be our just reward.
If that is indeed the case, then everything that follows this paragraph may be an exercise in futility; albeit it a necessary one.
Despite the considerable evidence that suggests we are collectively—like our ancestors also practitioners of Manifest Destiny, history has disgorged some notable exceptions to the idea of American exceptionalism and entitlement. The people who actively opposed injustice throughout American history and offered fierce resistance are a light in the gathering darkness—a beacon of hope to those living in the present and an inspiration to those who will follow us in the future. Most of them were ordinary people who differed from us only in their willingness to resist the injustice and tyranny of their time.
We have only to follow their example to avoid being ship wrecked in a history that endlessly repeats itself. There may be a way out of hell but it will be wrought with difficulty and characterized by individual and collective struggle. The willingness of enough people to engage in that struggle will determine the outcome and define the future.
From thousands of indigenous uprisings against colonial occupation, to Shay’s rebellion and continuing through heroic acts of revolutionary unionism and the courageous peace activists of today’s Code Pink, America has produced a continuous line of revolutionary thinkers and organizers intent on fundamentally restructuring society, including the redistribution of wealth and power.
America is a nation that has always been divided by socio-economic class with the rich and powerful holding the keys to political empire and advancing the agenda of the moneyed gentry over those of everyone else. Yet we persist in calling our republic a democracy—which suggests that we have no idea what a real democracy should look like.
There has always been strong opposition to the tyranny of unjust government and to the prevailing institutions of oppression and inequality. And where there is resistance to evil, no matter how small or seemingly impotent, there is hope. Resistance, apart from being an act of defiance to illegitimate authority, is also an act of faith akin to planting a seed that has enormous potential to change the world.
Resistance creates hope and hope in turn fuels further resistance. Resistance and hope give birth to a faith that believes that just outcomes are possible through struggle and opposition.
Without resistance there is no hope and no possibility of the transformative change that is so desperately needed. No matter how seemingly futile the gesture of resistance—hope is its byproduct. Hope is born of struggle and defiance to unjust authority. It is born of a rebelliousness that refuses to tolerate the intolerable and moves to oppose it. While it is theoretically possible that people can exist without hope, they cannot flourish and become fully human in its absence.
Where hope is abandoned, fear immediately rushes in to fill the vacuum and tyranny quickly ensues. Lacking hope, we are simply biding our time, stealing from the future and waiting for the end to play out. We are passive spectators on the deck of the Titanic awaiting our fate, whistling in the dark and trying to convince ourselves that these menacing waters are safely navigable through blind reckoning and indifference when in fact, they are not.
The great conservationist Aldo Leopold wisely observed: “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” That is also the penalty of having a social conscience. Cultivating a social conscience can be exasperating and it can adversely affect one’s health. But the failure to cultivate a social conscience approaches what Dr. Martin Luther King called, “Spiritual Death.” There are rarely easy ways out of the moral morasses we create. Opposition and struggle are the way but they exact costs that too few are willing to pay. That is why injustice is passed from one generation to the next and injustice so often prevails over justice. Our core beliefs should be non-negotiable. Either we stand by them or we are deluding ourselves.
The situation is exacerbated when our fellow citizens fail to grasp the gravity of the crises and even contribute to the injustice, either deliberately or through unintended ignorance of the important issues. In such times the reward of struggle appears small and the temptation to quit is great. As the flag wavers and prevaricators hold sway and ignorance and darkness, it seems, becomes all pervasive and hope seems like a utopian dream as dim as the long lost sunlight of a nuclear winter.