America: Broken & Breaking – Part 1

America is broken and breaking. And, as the wisdom goes, unless we look straight at what’s broken, consider it, reflect on it, admit it, and strategize about it, we cannot change it. This reflection, and the few that will follow it, are not optimistic. Why? Because it is not time for optimism, It is time for honesty. This series will reflect on three crises in American life today: A War on Intelligence, Selfishness and Fear of Refugees, and White Fear and Race. As my regular readers know, I am not an expert on much. I am a poet and teacher. Yet, I hope these reflections might help some of us to think through these profound challenges facing us all.

A War on Intelligence: Covid

We are in the midst of a war on intelligence. Some call it a war on expertise. We have people with little education making pronouncements about Covid-19, masking, and public health. People who know little about disease, its spread, or mitigation strategies, are regularly preaching their opinions and doing a great deal of damage. As has been widely reported, Facebook, and other social media platforms, are rife with dishonesties about Covid. I, personally, have reported an anti-masking group on Facebook seven times. This group posts clear misinformation about masking and yet Facebook has done nothing to remove it. Nothing.

For some reason, Americans, in growing numbers, do not believe experts. The fact that someone has studied a subject for decades, does not seem to matter much to some people. Rather, many Americans, with only a high school education, offer and rely on their own opinions about medical topics, when their opinions are really based on nothing. People seem to forget that the university system is based on knowledge and information that is considered, challenged, peer-reviewed. I’m not suggesting that we swallow wholesale anything that comes from a university professor, but I don’t tell my doctor how to diagnose my illnesses. My degrees are in English and Divinity. I should note that my doctor doesn’t tell me how to write poems either, or how to teach American Literature.

Are Americans distrustful of experts or are Americans overly trustful of their own opinions? Or both? Are we now unable to admit with honesty and humility what we don’t know? We seem to have lost this ability and it is costing lives. As of today, November 14, 2021, Covid has killed 5, 098,456 people around the world. In the U. S. Covid has killed 762,973 people. Many of these deaths, hundreds of thousands of these deaths, especially in the U.S., were unnecessary. They happened because we had a president and his administration who downplayed and lied about the danger of this disease. Since his departure, we have endured months of lies about vaccines and masks, all of which has cost lives. All because people refuse to believe experts. Some people are convinced they “know better” than those who have studied diseases for years. This war on intelligence has already killed too many people and it shows no sign of slowing down.

Selfishness: Americans’ Fear of Refugees

American culture is a selfish culture. I’ve written in this space before that none of us chose our birthplace. We did not choose or earn being born in the United States. We could just as easily have been born in Yemen, Uganda, or Honduras. Yet, many Americans act as though they have the right to live here and deny basic freedoms and dignity to others born elsewhere. Many want a “wall” whether real or metaphorical, between us and the rest of the world. Today, refugees are moving all over the world, crossing the Mediterranean from Africa to Europe, working their way from the Middle East toward the European Union, walking from South America to North America. People flee war, violence, poverty, and climate disasters. Yet Americans continue to act like we, somehow, deserve to be here. And others, do not.

The basis of this selfishness is fear. Many people think the world is a zero-sum game. Many think that if others come into the U.S. and get some degree of dignity, we, who are here now, will somehow have less. This idea is ignorant, uncreative, and immoral. Everyone has a right to a life of dignity, free of violence and poverty. We have to work to create the conditions where this can happen for more people. Closing “our” borders and railing against migrants, without understanding their plight, is pure selfishness.

As regular readers of this space know, I try to advocate in small ways for the LGBTQ refugees in Kakuma Refugee Camp, Block 13. These vulnerable people have left their home countries because of intense violence aimed at them for their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. They languish in Block 13, under violence from other refugees and from the security forces charged with protecting them. These people suffer because of who they are. But I cannot overstate the indifference I find in trying to advocate for them. Most American politicians do not care about people who cannot vote for them. Most Americans generally, do not care about people across the world. We have become small. That is what selfishness does. It reduces us all.

White Fear and Race: Education, Policing, and Voting Rights

Two weeks ago, there were elections in Virigina, one of the U.S. states bordering Washington, D.C. The man who won election as governor there, won because he repeatedly used a racist lie to rally white people and to play on their fears. He opened nearly every political rally of his campaign announcing that “On day one…” of his governorship, he would ban “critical race theory” from Virginia’s schools. The fact is, that critical race theory is not taught in any Virginia schools. It is a topic only, and rarely, taught in American graduate schools, law schools in particular. What this term has come to mean is that many white Americans do not want details about slavery, discrimination, and racial violence taught in their schools. They do not want their white children to have to face these realities as part of American history. This candidate knew that anger would translate into votes and he used it, fanned it, and won because of it. What does this mean?

This means that many white people want to believe that American history is a bedtime story. That it is a nice, get-along, all is ok- kind of history. Anyone who can read knows this is not true. But many white people cannot accept the truth of America’s racist history and they do not want their children to learn any of it in school. This is twisted and dishonest.

Some of the same dynamics at work in this “education” debate are also at work in discussions about American policing and voting rights. American police departments rarely have civilian oversight, they use lethal violence far too often, usually against people of color. But police reform is elusive. Because people fear crime, a fear that has been exaggerated by police unions and politicians, and because many people live in segregated neighborhoods where they grow up fearing others, the idea of profoundly changing how police behave frightens many people. Yet, we keep seeing Black and Brown people killed at dramatic rates by police.

The crisis around voting rights might be the most dangerous longterm problem in America today. More than twenty states have enacted laws recently that make it harder for poor people and people of color to vote. These laws reduce the number of drop boxes for ballots, they reduce the time for early voting. In some states, laws are now in place that allow a partisan state legislature to decide an election outcome regardless of votes. All of this has happened in the last couple of years in response to a problem that does not exist. The Republican Party continues to assert, without evidence, that voter fraud is a problem in America. There is no evidence to support this, but nonetheless, because people do not read or do not trust experts, this dishonesty flourishes. The former president, of course, has made this lie a litmus test for anyone in his party hoping to get elected. Politicians who know this is dangerous to our democracy are either silent or unable to garner the votes to safeguard our elections. America will pay for this, in both the short and long term.

Sadly, there is a racial component to this problem too. America is quickly becoming a majority/minority country and this terrifies many white people. When people of color vote in big numbers, one party wins and the other party now does everything it can to keep people of color from voting. It also does what it can, in some states, to allow its people to overturn election results it does not like. This is a crisis.

We Need More Than Hope

Yes, we need to be hopeful so as not to fall into despair. But we need more than hope. We need strategies to see, name, and change these crises America faces. As the saying goes, “Hope is not a strategy.” I wish this were a happier post, a more hopeful post. But the fact is that America is broken and the breaking continues. More damage can and will be done if we do not see, name, and change these realities in our culture. As a teacher, I see these realities in my classroom everyday. I work to address them through literature and writing. But we all need to do more.

The photograph above is in the public domain.

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Poet & Teacher. Author of four books of poetry: Raising King (2020) Ache (2017) Gospel of Dust (2013) Meeting Bone Man (2012)

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