Look Down, America: What are We Becoming?

In case anyone missed the memo or otherwise chose to ignore it, there’s a hell of a lot that’s wrong in America right now. Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not one of those people who stands back with a cold, critical eye and says “well yes, America is the new Rome, clearly it must fall.” Those people are pretty annoying, honestly. For one thing, America isn’t an empire, and two, the world is a pretty different place now, with globalization and what not. But the minutiae of that weird, cynical argument isn’t the point of this post. America is not Rome, bound to fall no matter what, or whatever it is those people say. But we are failing our own people. There is a level of horrific selfishness rampant in a country that claims it exists to serve the will of the people.

For starters, last week I read about the NYPD’s decision to create what’s called a “Strategic Response Group” as part of the NYPD’s anti-terrorism unit, in part, they said, to handle protestors They’re outfitting a unit with different skills and riot gear to handle terrorist attacks like the one in Paris, and in response to all of the protests these past few months in response to the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and several other young black men and women. Because you know, lumping the two together clearly makes sense. Initially it sounded as if the officers handling protests would be armed with machine guns, though Police Commissioner Bratton backpedaled from that, saying he’d been misunderstood, and that no, they wouldn’t be carrying machine guns at protests. Except then an NYPD spokesman said the same, but also noted that they would have access to them either on their person or in their cars. So not confusing at all.

An anti-terrorism unit. And I’m not seeing a lot of media coverage about it.

Apparently terrorists and protestors are one in the same now in New York City. Because no matter what the specifics of the new units are, the police commissioner mentioned terrorists and protestors in the same sentence. Speaking as someone who went to one of the protests in DC, I can safely say that I am not a terrorist and did not see any around me. Just as a note.

As I read that article, fuming as I sat at my desk with my lunch forgotten next to me, I realized the precipice America stands on right now, looking over and deciding whether or not to jump, feet sliding over the edge of the cliff. New Yorkers, the residents of Ferguson, people all over the country have been crying out for police reform, begging them to please stop taking the lives of unarmed black men and women. Asking for some changes, for better policing for their communities that doesn’t end in violence and profiling and abuse, and yet what they’re met with is new units with more weapons and completely ignoring the shouts of the people they’re supposed to protect and serve.

Apparently they’re asking too much. Nothing’s happening, shout the grand juries and the Republicans and apparently the NYPD police unions. Why are you complaining?

BE.QUIET.

We will make you.

Don’t protest about anything, don’t write about it don’t talk about it, don’t think about it, everything is just FINE, America is SWELL, we are a PERFECT BASTION of justice and everything is clearly Obama’s fault anyway, right?

Right?

Seeing those articles and reading that news, thinking of the protests this summer in Ferguson filled with tear gas and guns and out of control police, led my thoughts to a production of Les Mis that also took place this summer in Dallas. No doubt driven by current events, the director, while keeping all the lyrics the same for obvious reasons, set the scene in what was definitely meant to resemble modern day America. There were police in riot gear with machine guns, there were foreclosure signs, protest banners with “fair wages 4 everyone” printed on them, prisoners in orange jumpsuits. I didn’t get to see the production myself, but I read enough reviews, listened to enough of the music, and saw enough of the pictures to know just how incredibly powerful it was and what a message it sent.

America, this is what you’re becoming. This is where you are. This is an America where 7-year-old girls get accidentally shot and killed in SWAT raids and the officer responsible is not CHARGED. An America where big banks can foreclose on countless families who can’t pay their mortgages because of the financial crisis, while the government was busy bailing out the banks and companies that caused it in the first place instead of looking toward its own people who needed help. This is an America with one of the largest prison populations in the world in a time where crime is actually on the decline.

This is an America where the peoples’ voices lose power with every passing moment.

The question now is are we going to stand for it?

Do not be fooled into thinking this is some story in a far-away land and a far-away time that you can walk away from. It’s not. There’s a reason this book is considered one of the most influential social justice novels ever written and why every incarnation holds its own kind of undeniable power. There’s a reason why some adaptations cut out or glossed over the part of the story about the revolution, which waters down the entire point of the novel.

Because it’s dangerous.

Dangerous to the powerful, to the status-quo.

Stand up against your oppressors. You matter. You have a voice.

I did not know the kind of compassion I was capable of until I picked up Les Mis. I also did not know the anger that rested within when I realized just how much work we still have to do in contemporary society. In America itself. That so many of the problems still exist. It is better, but it is not, under any circumstance, done. In a lot of ways under the current climate, we are backsliding furiously. That book created a feeling in me that if I didn’t do something I was simply going to burst into pieces from the inside. When I say this book and its musical incarnation literally changed the face and direction of my life, that’s the absolute truth. It changed the way I saw everything. It took my slow political changes from early college on, grabbed them by the hand, and ran off with me in the complete opposite direction of the sort of things I’d grown up with in my small, conservative middle Georgia town, part of which I’d questioned silently to myself but wasn’t sure how to voice. I picked up books on old revolutions and new, underlining the quotes from controversial historical figures and I fell a little in love with Abigail Adams and Thomas Paine. And lately, Jean-Paul Marat.

(Don’t even say Tom Paine is your mascot, Tea Partiers. Thomas Paine was a radical liberal, and you have no argument stand on. The things he says are radical now, so you can imagine how it sounded then.)

The Times that Try Men’s Souls, indeed.

When I look at America, I think of Inspector Javert and his exchange with Valjean at the beginning of the show when Valjean is released on parole, a scene that holds all kinds of poignancy when put into modern day America. Javert calls him a thief, and Valjean insists all he stole was a loaf of bread, which is true. But the following to me, is the most important part of the exchange:

My sister’s child was close to death, and we were starving.

You will starve again, unless you learn the meaning of the law.

In Javert’s mind, Valjean won’t starve if he only follows the law. Except the only way for Valjean not to starve was to break it because sometimes the law is wrong and good things don’t just fall into your lap if you’re a law-abiding citizen. So then he was punished, and the cycle began. Five years for stealing, then many more years added because he tried to escape. Almost twenty years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread. It’s extreme, but it’s not ridiculously far off from our own harsh, archaic, prison sentences inflicted now for very small offenses. We punish, punish, punish instead of trying to rehabilitate or look at the horrific injustices of our criminal justice system.

How much differently do we treat our poor? How often do we ignore the fact that an inexcusable amount of children live in poverty? It should be none. People discuss “lowering poverty” and that “inevitably” there will always be poverty. But that’s the thing: it doesn’t have to be that way. Why would we insist on that cynical point of view when we could be doing something about it instead? God, look at all the money in this country and you’re telling me we have to let people go without food and shelter? Because clearly, the Walton family deserves that $140 billion way more than other people deserve basic human dignity.

How many times do people fight against raising the minimum wage because they claim it will “ruin” the economy when really what they mean is that they think people don’t deserve it? We leave people in poverty with no way out and then yell at them for not getting themselves out. We call them lazy. We tell them to go to school and get a better job without giving them access to education. We destroy the safety net, cutting it out from under people’s feet even as they’re standing in it, like when Congress recently cut 93 million dollars from the WIC program to pass a budget, a program which helps provide food assistance to low-income women and young children. Because clearly, we needed to build that new fighter jet.

Who are we, exactly, when we throw our poor, our hungry, our disabled, any of our neediest members to the dogs? What am I even saying? The dogs would treat them better. We blame them for their situations when those same situations could knock at any of our doors, when the gap between rich and poor grows wider every day. We think we’ve achieved equality, and that if you’re not doing well there’s an easy way out. Work harder. Pray. Empty phrases to people who work two jobs and 80 hour weeks and still struggle with keeping food on their table because we are rigging the system that is meant to give everyone an equal chance. Newsflash: it doesn’t. I’m going to put a, dare I say it, radical idea out there: literally every person on this planet deserves to have their basic needs met, the end. Period. No one should have to struggle for food or clothing or shelter. In my mind, no one should have to struggle for education, because an educated populace is more open-minded and willing to help its own, I’d hope.

We shun our homeless and walk past them on the streets saying that they’ll only use the money to buy drugs or alcohol when really most of them just want something to eat. A warm shower. A place to sleep. But hey, they look scary or dirty or crazy so who wants to help them? Some of the most horrible people in this country work on Wall Street or behind the desks of big corporations or the halls of Congress and we let them get away with murder because they clean up nicely in a well-tailored suit. We pile them with tax breaks and corporate subsidies but when people ask for help with basic necessities, no, that’s too much. We let some athletes get away with domestic abuse and rape because they smile big and win a game and make money. We assume the police officer cannot be guilty simply because he is a police officer.

Don’t forget to blame the victim, America.

He was a thug.

She was a slut.

They cheat the system so they don’t have to work.

Stop being poor.

Support our troops bumper stickers are a dime a dozen, yet what support is there for homeless, disabled veterans that roam our streets because they’ve got nowhere else to go? These men and women who made immense sacrifices and saw things they can’t ever forget? And we abandon them. How many people vote for the representatives in Congress who do nothing to help them? Too many. How many of those same people go see American Sniper and say “why yes, THIS is a true American hero. The real-life Chris Kyle called the Iraqui people savages and made false claims about sniping 30 looters from a rooftop after Hurricane Katrina, but he is a hero and you will not question it, do you hear me? Never. His story is the story of every veteran ever and you can either like it or go live somewhere else.” Support our troops, but forget those veterans living with PTSD that don’t get movies made about them starring Bradley Cooper. Chris Kyle’s story is one among so, so many, and it can’t be the only narrative we hear. People denounce anyone who dares question America’s endless “war on terror” or the fact that we never found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and yet somehow, many Americans still think we did. That sometimes by having this cycle we arm our future enemies. I keep hearing that we’re “protecting” people with this war, and yet we shove our own citizens to the ground and ignore their cries for help. What are we protecting, exactly? You will never hear me say that groups like ISIS aren’t utterly horrific because they are, but we cannot ignore our own domestic problems because groups like them exist. What happens after this endless cycle of war ends and we come home to find everything we thought we were fighting for crumbled and the war-mongering weapons billionaires laughing off into the sunset and dropping 100 dollar bills on their way?

(For another veteran’s look at American Sniper and the Iraq war, check out this article)

Even the different generations can’t get along because the older ones want to blame millennials’ lack of jobs on technology and selfies and getting trophies for participation when we were young.

WHO GAVE US THE TROPHIES?

Baby Boomers constantly lecture my generation with the famed words, well when I was your age…

I don’t CARE, baby boomers, I don’t. You grew up during the Great Prosperity and then handed us the worst economy since the great depression. I was reading the other day that a student would have to work 48 hours a week just to pay for the average year’s tuition out of pocket and that’s not including room and board and living. And that’s just undergrad. Don’t even talk about grad school. It’s flat out just not the same as it was.

DO BETTER you shout.

HOW? How can we do better when you won’t retire and how can we do better when wages are stagnating even when we do land a job? When we land a job but benefits are too much to ask? When have to go into debt to afford an education at all, and then you wonder why we aren’t buying houses and having kids? Yet if we didn’t get that education at all and ended up working a minimum wage job, then you’d yell at us even still.

We have people in this country who think it should be okay to spread deadly disease by not vaccinating their children because of “personal liberty” and politicians are defending them. Because freedom for freedom’s sake that accomplishes nothing is so helpful to a society.

We finally get some kind of better healthcare law legislated, get it working, and now on March 4th there is a case going before the Supreme Court that could strip 8 million people of their subsidies and possibly cause 10,000 premature deaths a year from people being uncovered. A case full of quackery and lies and hateful deceit. All because people have some kind of ridiculous, irrational hatred of Obama and a law that helps everyone.

Is this the kind of selfishness we are proud of? Where is our spirit of compassion and kindness and our desire to make sure everyone is taken care of? Claims of liberty and equality are useless when they aren’t enacted. We have the framework but we need the will.

I can make fun of Fox News all I want, but the scariest part is that people actually listen to them. This is the result.

We are better than this. I have to believe we can do better and be better. I believe most Americans are good-hearted and so many things have gotten in the way of that manifesting itself. Fear. Misunderstanding. Tradition. Lies. Money in politics. Paranoia. The 24 hour cable news cycle. Stop distorting the ideals we were founded on and adhere to them instead. Stop shouting down people who are fighting for their rights and look back to see where you will stand in history’s eyes if you keep doing that. There are so many good people in this country whose voices get drowned out, people protesting and writing and volunteering at shelters of all kinds and donating food and money and an absolute endless list of ways people try to better the lives of others around them. But we cannot depend on the good will and incredible work of individuals forever. It is one very important piece, but we also need legislative change. We need a look at our national conscience and we need to demand more. We must take care of our own. We must want to take care of our own. And that includes people who aren’t like you. It includes people of every race, religion, gender, socioeconomic class, sexuality, or belief system. Every one of those people is an American, whether they fit your own personal definition or not. They all deserve those things we claim to hold so dear: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The most well-intentioned people are frantically putting band-aids over a gushing wound while others stand by the wound smiling and insisting nothing’s wrong while it bleeds out. How selfish, some say, voices filled with inevitable condescension, that wound’s not so bad. Stop complaining.

It’s not going to work anymore.

Stand up, America, and look down at your very own suffering around you, or otherwise let everything we say we believe in slip through our fingers.

Look down and see the beggars at your feet, the people cry out in Les Mis. Look down, and show some mercy if you can.

I don’t want my homeland to be a place where people shrug their shoulders in the face of starving children and homeless people and poverty and blame the issues on bad parenting or laziness or bad financial decisions rather than on a country controlled by a group of rich, powerful, selfish people. We cannot listen to them anymore, and we cannot be fooled into voting against our own interests. In the interests of those around us so we might all be safe, warm and well-fed at night.

I believe in us. But we need to take a step back and ask ourselves, what have we become? And what are we going to do about it?

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