Our Better Angels

When I walked into my kitchen this morning, a disembodied computer voice roused itself and said to me:

“Good morning, Kyle. Today is Barack Obama’s last day as President of the United States. He is the 44th president and the first African American elected to that office. Thank you, Mr. President.”

I felt at once sad and grateful, angry, nauseated, and infected by despair. “Yes, thank you and thank you,” I thought, “but my God what have we done?”

I am sad and grateful for the end of Obama’s tenure; obviously, the other emotions pertain to what follows tomorrow.

The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

The Obama presidency wasn’t perfect but it was honorable. I have been proud to have voted for him and impressed by his poise and acumen, though there were legitimate reasons for the Occupy movement, the unrest in Ferguson and the hopelessness of Flint. Those reasons predate the Obama years. Sometimes I wished there was a bit more he could do, beyond speaking in sage tones to our better angels. Still for the most part I felt proud to be an American and fly my flag. Effective tomorrow, I’m not proud anymore. I’m cautiously hopeful but apprehensive. And my flag has been carefully folded and stored in a closet, to await a brighter day.

The country has changed a lot in the last 8 years; at least, its faces have changed. The face I’ve most often seen since 2008 was hopeful, happier, more free. Our culture made progress in acceptance and inclusion of marginalized groups of ourselves. But social change seems always to be a pendulum, swinging out and back, and the back-swing this time has been brutal. Especially for those of us who want to leave a more loving, safer world for those who are most vulnerable.

When I say we have more than one face, I’m reminded of the song Poor Edward by Tom Waits. It’s about a man who has another face on the back of his head, which cannot be removed.

The face could laugh and cry
It was his devil twin
And at night she spoke to him
Things heard only in hell

I understand there were legitimate reasons for the rise – the insurgency – of the Tea Party and the racist backlash against the temerity of electing a man of color to the highest office. They’re just not good reasons; they’re absurd reasons. They testify to the fact that the Flat Earth Society still has members all around the globe, and the KKK is still recruiting new members too.

Hearing the infernal whispers of our backwards face has led me to the realization that I don’t want to be an American anymore; not the way I was in October. And before you comment with something asinine like, “Well then get out. My Murika, love it our leave it, commie!” be forewarned, gentle reader: I’m going to delicately suggest that you shove that up your ass sideways, because you absolutely don’t understand what I’m saying.

I’ve always looked at belonging to the human family as a matter of ever larger and more distant sets: Family and Church first, then friends, neighbors, town, state, nation. Then certainly this nation – my nation – first before all others. I once thought the lines on maps had meaning but I don’t anymore. I am essentially a human being – a member of the tribe of all humans and all life on Earth. By accident, I was born in the United States.

I love my country because I love the people in it. A country is people. I will live and die here, pay my taxes, pray for our leaders and our people who serve in our defense. But there is nothing about another American that makes him more kinsman to me than a Mexican, Canadian, Australian, or African. I’ve had enough of nationalism, which is not patriotism, not kind, not Christian. 

This is what I’ve learned from watching Barack Obama lead a nation in which many of his fellow leaders and citizens treated him with hateful disdain because of his race; in which the worst insult too many idiots could imagine was to pretend his religion was wrong. These words, justice, honor, faith, and truth do not mean what the Trumpers of America think they mean.

Therefore, when the actions of the country conflict with the fundamental rights and dignity of any humans anywhere, within our borders or beyond, then those actions conflict with me. Any policies which put us fundamentally at odds with our fellow man must be subject to the strictest scrutiny, just as any religion which separates us from other people is certainly faith misplaced.

It is a truism that almost any sect, cult, or religion will legislate its creed into law if it acquires the political power to do so.
– Robert A. Heinlein

Now in Washington DC, it is January 20, 2017. Thank you, Mr. Obama, and your wife and family, for your service and sacrifice offered with surpassing poise and manifest in good faith. God bless and save America.

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