Islands of the Future in the Sea of the Past
I argued in a column last year that progressives love their country fully as much as conservatives. Both love a country that doesn’t exist now. Conservatives love a country that they think existed at some time in the past (perhaps the 1950s?). That’s why Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again!” resonated.
Progressives love a country that never was but could be, a country that actually provides “freedom and justice for all.” We love our country enough to demand that it live by its ideals.
What does that mean, and how do we get there? Fundamentally, in a society that has historically privileged White males, we need to envision an America where every person, including White males, has the same rights and the same opportunities.
It wouldn’t be a society where racial minorities are on average much poorer than whites, where the majority of the country has for decades suffered a stagnant or declining standard of living while a tiny minority grows ever richer and more powerful, where most people have good reason to worry about paying their medical bills, where Black men are at risk every day of violent death at the hands of police, where men still think it’s okay to aggress upon or discriminate against women, where gays and trans-sexual people are routinely and legally discriminated against, where we daily worsen the looming environmental catastrophe that we have caused.
We can create islands within the larger society where we can move toward the ideals of equal rights and opportunities for all. Though we can’t change everything, we can change some things.
We are adrift in a sea of the past: these long-standing failings engulf us, threaten to sink us. How can we find safe harbor?
It is tempting to imagine that progressives might gain the kind of overwhelming electoral mandate that would enable them to enact a comprehensive program to redeem our country from its past failings, but the results this year are a bracing dose of reality. The political system is likely to continue being divided against itself, unable to sustain any comprehensive program.
Instead, we should think in terms of changing what we can, where we can. We can create islands within the larger society where we can move toward the ideals of equal rights and opportunities for all. Though we can’t change everything, we can change some things.
Let us imagine making our neighborhoods, our home communities places where every person can expect—really expect—respect, no matter whether they be White or Black, old or young, gay or straight, rich or poor, no matter how much or how little education they have. Let us envision a community where everyone can go about their daily business without fear of violence, either from criminals or from police.
Suppose we had a community where those who have more see a responsibility to look out for those who have less. Suppose we simply would not tolerate hunger, or homelessness. Imagine that each of us would take it as our responsibility to give succor to the unfortunate.
Envision a community where all of us understand our sacred obligation to care for our natural environment, and to do what we must to reverse the horrific damage that humans have done in the last two centuries.
If we think about all these visions on a national or global level, the obstacles are almost impossible to overcome. We cannot drain the sea of the past at a single stroke.
We progressives can make our communities islands of the future. Fundamentally, we can do it by treating one another as human beings, as ends rather than means. In the words of the theologian Martin Buber, we can do it by treating one another as “thou,” and not as “it.”
Like the Netherlanders confronting the Zuider Zee, we can make a start. Build dikes and start pumping. Islands will appear. They will eventually come together. We will have solid ground. That is our future.