I spent this afternoon walking through the National Museum of American History, surrounded by objects that have gained historical significance through being in the right place at the right time. I found myself looking more at the placards that highlighted the importance of the objects in the displays: clothing that was representative of a time long passed, weapons that were used in the continuous cycle of war that America has, for better but mostly worse, been engaged in.
I decided to sit down in a room with a video that focused on the lives of those who were in the wars. The initial reason for my trip down to DC was to attend my Grandfather’s funeral. My Grandfather, a Colonel, passed last year and was given full honors at Arlington. A band, the Twenty One Gun salute, and a caisson driven by horses to his final resting place where my grandmother’s ashes waited for him. The gravity of this ceremony was in no way lost on me, or any who attended. I could not hold back the tears through the whole ceremony, and when Taps started playing, the significance of the experience of “The Greatest Generation” only furthered my belief that America, flawed like any human construction, still holds a certain significance in the world, and as an important turning point in history. The question is, where do we go next?
I traced the wars, their causes and effects from when this country started. The American Revolution was seminal, and necessary, to advance the cause of freedom for America. Subsequent wars and acts of aggression and expansion were mostly not. What stood out to me was how the placards completely ignored the central reasons and problems behind these wars. What really irked me was how the placards on the role of the President highlighted the “necessity” of political privilege, stating:
In George Washington, they chose an individual who scorned political parties, calling them “potent
engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the
people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government.”
They had hoped that Washington’s successors would emulate his example. They were wrong. The system
they created encouraged, if not demanded, a rise of political parties to articulate and broker differences,
and required successful Presidents to be effective party leaders.
If I’m not mistaken, the whole point of the Constitutional system was to give as little influence to politicization of the three branches of government. The word, President, comes from the word preside; we don’t refer to that executive as the Controller. This sort of blind acceptance to the inevitability of political privilege is problematic not only because it is the exact thing that enables it, but also because it distracts from the fact that, no matter which side is engaged in the process, it always screws over the people of America.
The GOP is right to highlight the abuses of the Obama Administration, just as the Democrats were right to highlight the abuses of the Bush Administration. I doubt at the end of sixteen years of massive intervention in every sector of our life will we come to a stalemate where we say: You know what? The past sixteen years have really sucked for us. They have been great for politics, but really not so great for our citizens who have died in the wars, for the economic devastation that political privilege enabled, and for the destruction of general decency when dealing with social issues.
In politics, it is always about us versus them. The challenge for me, and more specifically, the challenge for all of us, is to change that dynamic to not entail Red vs. Blue, but those in power vs. those who don’t. Our soldiers are dying senselessly, we are bombing countries without seeing the terrible effects here at home. The poor have their savings inflated away by the Federal Reserve. The well connected can use their access to political privilege for both personal and financial gain.
In thinking back on my Grandfather’s conception of America, this isn’t the America he was fighting for. It was an America who retained a common set of beliefs and principles. It was an America that fought when something at home was at stake. It was an America where hard work was valued, and where the common decency we had towards one another wasn’t supposed to be battled by fear mongering political mouth pieces. My grandfather would have been disgusted at institutionalized forms of discrimination, from the internment of Japanese citizens to the racially unfair actions of the Drug War. My grandfather wanted an America that wouldn’t end up like Germany, Japan, or Italy during WWII. He served under the first African American General, Benjamin O. Davis, honorably and with great respect, realizing that the color of a man’s skin, or their religion, or any other characteristic, is irrelevant when you are both aligned around the freedom to live your life in a country that values it. In our constant societal need for State approval, we have lost this. For the sacrifices my Grandfather made, I only hope we can change the conversation to something more productive than whitewashing the sins of the past as necessary. In America, there should be no other within our own citizenry; there’s only us. Let’s respect each other, and not let institutions dictate the rights and privileges of all of us.