Would the United States be better off if mothers were guaranteed paid maternity leave of five months? Or better if workers had at least a month of paid vacation every year? Or if workers had more say in the policies and operations of the companies for which they work? Or maybe if school lunches were actually not only nutritious but also sophisticated and tasty? How about no death penalty? How about prisons that are not designed to punish so much as to simply deny freedom of movement and association to convicted criminals for a fixed amount of time and to help them during that time to build new lives when they are released?
These and other provocative questions are raised in Michael Moore’s new film, “Where to Invade Next.” The film is a sort of political travelogue around Europe, with a side trip to Tunisia, exposing policies and practices in those places that Moore posits would be good ideas for the United States of America. He even claims most of the good ideas originated in the United States, raising the question of why we are not using them now.
This is a spiritual question for me (although probably Michael Moore would not use that language). Or as others might say, it is a matter of values.
Part of the answer, as I see it, is revealed in a segment of the film where Moore contrasts the dogged insistence of Germans to learn from the horrors of their past–to expose the national involvement in the Holocaust, to remind each other in very public ways of how they rejected humanistic ideals and accepted, even celebrated, ugliness and monstrosity. Germany does not stop telling the stories of victims and its complicity in the evil.
Moore draws a sharp contrast between that behavior and the denial that pervades U.S. culture and politics around our racist, white supremacist past and our national white-privileged present. Moore shares graphic pictures and videos of police beating black suspects and inmates today and their counterparts in harsh pictures of lynching in the past. Have we made any progress?
Well, yes, of course, laws are more fair, and the equality promised by the Declaration of Independence and the constitution and fought over during the Civil War is closer to realization than it was one hundred years ago. But legislatures still pass laws whose effect, and I think intent, is to reduce voting by proportionally disadvantaged portions of the citizenry, and we are locking up Black men at an alarming rate (and we can’t blame this on higher rates of drug use in the Black community than among those who call ourselves white, because the reverse is true). As Michelle Alexander has written, this “incarceration while black” is the new Jim Crow.
To be sure, the countries Moore visited (‘invaded,” he says, in an attempt to connect our militarism with our lack of social progress, a subject for another blog) are not perfect. They have problems, too. But they are doing things to improve the life of their citizens, and they are doing this through the social contract, through the governments they institute, as our framers instituted our nation “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”
As I read these soaring words, these noble objectives, I hear the stark, deeply disturbing, contrast with the political rhetoric awash among us today. The framers approached the national question, “Who are we called to be?” with hope, with generous spirits, with an awareness of divine providence and abundance. Too many of our leaders, and would-be leaders, today approach the same question with stinginess, with an underlying mentality of scarcity, with deep fear expressed in angry words of division and derision toward those who disagree.
Our national soul is at stake in this election season. We need to find it and claim it, really claim it for the first time since the early days of the new nation and perhaps the Civil War.
The fundamental question remains, will we, as Dr. King said in 1963 and as Lincoln said 100 years earlier in different words with similar import, will “this nation . . . rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed . . . . ?”
Or will we continue to stumble over the ugliness of our past, denying the roots of our present-day tragedies, pretending that murder and mayhem, poverty and power-less-ness among whole segments of our people are simply the fault of a few bad actors and some weak, lazy individuals and even groups of people out to take advantage of kindness, care, and just treatment under law?
It’s confession time, my fellow Americans, my fellow “we are white” Americans. Black activists, artists, and others keep giving us yet another chance to clean up our act, keep marching and protesting and educating, and still too many of us look away. And the politicians who never even mention “race,” let alone racism, white privilege or white supremacy, are lying to us. They may be lies of omission not commission, but at some point not speaking a hard truth means you are complicit in the ongoing power of that truth.
Denial of a real problem is dangerous to your mental health. That is just as true for our nation as for individuals.
We need to go into analysis, as a nation, to name, face, hold up, and root out our demons. Michael Moore has given us a mirror to look into, a way to ask some questions of ourselves and our leaders. As a first step, I urge you to see the film.
And if you have not yet begun a conversation about our national disease in your family, at your workplace, your spiritual home, your neighborhood, or not yet participated in such a conversation, I urge you to start (or continue) that conversation now.
It’s redemption time, folks, and each of us has a role to play.