I’m writing this for June 6, the anniversary of D Day. Last fall we were on the D Day beaches and at the American cemetery. I had not known what to expect. The 75th anniversary year was important; a year ago today there had been a large remembrance event attended by world leaders and broadcast world wide. Americans and Brits came in small groups to pay homage all summer long; there were 186 of us in our group, four were Brits, the rest Americans. It was an emotionally wrenching day. The books I had read, movies I had seen, and stories I had heard from those of my parents’ generation, had created in my mind an almost romantic image of what happened that day. Walking the rows of grave markers, reading the list of the unrecovered dead, and seeing the remnants of military emplacements left intact as monuments to slaughter, stripped away any romantic notion.
Seventy six years ago today began the slow, brutal process of liberating Western Europe from the grasp of fascist dictatorship. Out of the war that had engulfed the entire world, the United States emerged as the singular leader of Western democracy and industrial might, a generous benefactor to allies and former enemies alike.
It’s been a rocky seventy-six years for America. We’ve endured more wars and armed conflicts that never should have happened, and an internal struggle, sometimes violent, to live up to the promise of a more perfect union in which all persons could say they were equal citizens with equal rights and opportunity. Economic growth, technological progress, and world wide respect made the American Dream an achievable hope for many, and a longed after hope for many more. So today, and our upcoming Fourth of July celebration of independence and democracy, should be a time of joyful celebration, but it isn’t.
We’ve been racked by the unexpected political success of right wing libertarian distaste for liberal democracy, and more particularly, the election of a president intent on authoritarian rule combined with narcissistic ineptitude never before seen, or imagined. Backed by a core of committed believers, he appears to have set the nation sliding toward the very fascism the D Day dead gave their lives to defeat. That it could happen here, of all places, has dismayed and frightened the entire democratic world, and emboldened other wielders of authoritarian rule. Curiously, he has the support of libertarians who adhere to an ideology of autonomous individualism having little use for government in any form, and is especially distrustful of anything to which the label of socialism can be attached.
Nevertheless, there are significant differences between Europe of the 1930s and the United States of today. We have a free press, however battered, that refuses to knuckle under. We have institutions of thought and opinion leadership who cannot be controlled by would be autocrats. We have a federal system of government that distributes authority among fifty states and thousands of local governments, with constitutional restrictions preventing them from surrendering to centralized national rule, and the political intent to keep it that way. It’s been our strength and weakness. The Constitution reserves all rights of governance to the states, except those specifically given to the federal government. It’s built, in a sense, a fence around the possibility of national totalitarian rule. On the other hand, states’ rights has enabled them to limit the individual rights and freedoms of large portions of their populations. It’s also made it difficult to use the federal government to address problems and issues having no respect for state and local boundaries.
The nature of the modern world has inexorably moved the balance of power toward the federal government, making it possible for it to act on social, economic and infrastructure problems having local impact. Libertarians, fearing the loss of too much autonomy, seem to have opted for a form of oligarchical authoritarianism that promises to guarantee their individualistic values. How that makes sense is beyond me, except that it promises there will be no government support for social welfare, which they see as a good thing.
However wobbly at the moment, the Constitution has stood the test of 200 years of challenge, including a bloody civil war. Giving it new energy is a nation wide awakening to how close we have come to giving it all up. Amidst a global pandemic that has forced physical distancing and the shut down of community life, the killing of one black man, George Floyd, ignited a new flame. There have been many extra legal and indefensible killings of black men and women, and each of them has ignited local revulsion and protest, mostly in the black community, and white tut-tuts lasting until the end of the news cycle. For the most part, the white community has been sympathetic but passive. There was something about watching the near live streaming of a slow, painful, murder of a black man at the hands of white police officer in a progressive northern city that triggered something not even mass school shootings have done. The predictable revulsion, outrage and protests included the white community. Not in one city, but in many cities large and small in all fifty states. Not in America only, but in Europe and elsewhere where systemic racism has been long entrenched.
It’s not George Floyd per se that has aroused the white community. His death was the catalyst that illuminated the reality of systemic racism long hidden and denied. His death shed new light on the recent deaths of two others: Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, gunned down while jogging; and Breona Taylor in Kentucky, gunned down in an unwarranted raid on her home. They had sparked local protests, momentary media attention, and complacent white sympathy, but videos of the events were not made public as was the coverage of George Floyd’s death. With his death, their deaths gained new meaning and new attention. Forming a strange trinity, they’ve become icons representing the same thing happening to others without consequence for hundreds of years. They’ve added greater illumination to the reality of systemic racism that has infected our country, yet could be tolerated as long as it didn’t interrupt the tranquility of the status quo.
It has awakened, at least for now, the attention of the white community in what is hoped to be a new way, and a new commitment to dismantle the systemic elements of racism.
The president’s response had, I think, an unexpected consequence. He was already under fire for mismanagement of the COVID pandemic. He treated the killings as if they were unimportant interruptions to other, more important matters. He reacted to the growing wave of protests, and the destructive rioting that accompanied some of them, as threats to be quashed by overwhelming military force. He threatened to usurp state authority to deal with them. He violently appropriated religious symbols of morality for his own use by his own authority, assuming for himself the place of divinity.
The door that had been opened by the deaths of Mr. Floyd, Mr. Arbery, and Ms. Taylor, was opened wider to reveal the true nature of his dictatorial ambitions, his cowardice, his affection for white supremacy, and the depth of his ineptitude. Thank goodness for his ineptitude.
He, as much as the deaths of Floyd, Arbery and Taylor, may have awakened the nation to rise and defeat the threat of fascism before another D Day is needed. There is hope.