To be clear, I’m including myself in this. It probably looks hilarious to see this in the feed a few blocks away from the “Why I’m Angry” repost I shared back in January. I have thought these things before, but I know I’ve been bad about keeping things in perspective and realizing that things are not as bad as I might think.
The thing is, even at its worst, America’s really a pretty good place.
No, I’m serious. Admittedly I’m a lot calmer about things these days, but it’s not that everything has suddenly become perfect since January. Far from it. There’s stuff directly on the horizon, like the Equality Act and Biden’s pending review of the Title IX doctrine, that are deeply troubling. And I’m far from blind to the fact that immigrants are still locked up in camps and apparently Portland has decided 2021 is too boring again.
The point is not that everything was dystopian under Trump and now is utopian under Biden. The point is that under either, America is–and has been–a decent place to live, by any standard.
Yes, people said “Is this some sort of banana republic” when they saw the Jan 6 riots. Nov-Jan was a low point so far as politicians underminding institutions goes. One long race to the bottom of politicians claiming flimsy narratives that their own lawyers wouldn’t dare to advance in actual court, all for the sake of filling the coffers of PAC’s that never produced results. High-ranking members of the party I used to admire calling for martial law, or for people to be shot. It was bad.
But let’s be real. Post-election America held and is holding because of principled people and institutions. Not nearly as many of either as I would have liked–but you had principled people like Van Langevelde who firmly and clearly refused to play the GOP’s legally dubious game. You had any number of Trump administration officials and lawyers putting their foot down and saying “no more,” all the way up to Trump’s own AG and VP. For a crisis of democracy, America dealt with its own megolomaniacal charismatic figure pretty well.
Okay, it’s not fair to contrast it with Myanmar, where the military has taken over, or China or Russia. These countries have been terrible for a long time now and aren’t going to change overnight. Even Turkey, though it’s certainly gone downhill recently, has been sketchy for a while. It’s not fair to compare them with a nation that, as late as the 2000’s, was indisputably the leader of the free world. But say, compared the the relatively modernized Hungary, where the legislature granted limitless emergency powers to its dictatorial PM. Or Poland, which recently neutralized its own justice system. France recently backed down from a law that would have made it illegal to film police officers (in fairness, that was in response to officers being doxxed). None of these measures were even ever suggested in the wildest tweets.
2020 has been a mess. But take COVID. While Trump constantly and consistently fumbled messaging, leaving many people in denial that the virus even existed, other countries did worse. I’m not just talking Tanzania which is only now admitting that it has a COVID problem. I’m talking Sweden, where health government officials at the highest level deliberately tried to hide the true extent of the problem and basically abandoned their elderly population (again, lets not even talk about Russia and China). Or Germany, where despite their good start with testing, they’re falling behind on vaccinations. Hungary, despite it’s dictator-worshipping moves, has a per-capita death rate far above the US’s. Even in the early days of the pandemic, Spain held a cultural festival even while Italy was going into extreme lockdown. England toyed with a “herd immunity” approach which would have killed millions of people. America no longer has the highest per-capita death rate among developed countries (though it helps that we’re a lot less densely populated than Belgium and Italy). And we’re doing well with vaccinations.
What about racism? America’s problems with race are more documented, but then America has a higher percentage of diverse populations to begin with. France, the posterboy for diversity and possessor of the largest Muslim population in Europe, is working on an “anti-separatism” bill that will extend government powers to shut down places of worship and online forums, particularly of Muslim communities (several members suggested banning Muslim veils.) Germany is going through a Neo-Nazi resurgence. Soccer players recently walked off the field after a Romanian umpire used a racial slur (In 2019, a Brazilian player was penalized for responding to slurs with a gesture and kicking the ball into the stands.) In the Ukraine, black natives are treated as foreigners. Belgium still celebrates King Leopold, who makes Confederate slaveholders look like amateurs. The EU has a bill banning discrimination on the basis of race, sex, etc–and it has been blocked for the past 12 years. Numerous analyses point out that Europe actually has a pretty bad problem with racism–it just doesn’t attract a lot of attention. Other distinctions get even finer–Koreans in Japan are treated very badly. Korea doesn’t even have laws against racial discrimination, and in fact has plenty of its own problems.
I feel like I should have a paragraph devoted to conservative reasons why Europe is worse, but I feel most conservatives are agreed on this already. Most know of Denmark’s genocide of Down’s Syndrome children, though I imagine fewer know of Israel’s “Wrongful Life” suits, where people can sue doctors for not telling their parents to abort them, meaning that doctors will often at least mention abortion at the smallest indication of anything being wrong. The incident of Alfie Evans, the terminally ill boy who the UK forbade from seeking treatment in Italy, drew a bit of attention from the right. So conservatives know that in comparison to other countries, America’s not so bad.
Conservatives, though, have a different mindset. Conservatives seem to think that in comparison to other times, America is currently just at the absolute worst it’s ever been. We’re days from Armageddon, to hear some talk about it. (Of course, they said that in 2008, and 2012, and 2016 also) Full of sin and violence and free speech violations.
And it’s just not true. I mean yes, America’s got sin, like any place, and certainly there are cases about what free speech means and where–as there have always been. Since Lincoln.
You want censorship and degradation of free speech? Lincoln shut down newspapers in favor of Confederates. Suppression of protestors? Woman suffragettes were jailed–civil rights protestors were flat-out killed. The pandemic and governmental control? The 1900’s already had mandatory vaccinations–against smallpox, and the Supreme Court said the state had a right to do it.. Twitter may have made Cancel Culture more ubiqitous, faster, and more savage, but let’s not forget the time Alice in Wonderland was banned for supposedly glorifying drug culture with its hookah-smoking caterpillar. (And, lest we think this be a left-only issue, let us also remember the Dixie Chicks) Gun rights, for those who care about such things, are more expansive and better protected than ever.
What about strictly in Christian terms? The Institute for Family Studies published a report that noted that abortions are down, divorce is down, children in stable families are up. Violent crime, actually, is down. Violence in schools is actually at something of a low point. In an article about engaging with paranoid “haters” of his, David French points out that school choice and homeschooling is bigger than ever (and Ooooh is the pandemic going to do a number on that. I was dead wrong on the schools) Religious liberty? SCOTUS has decided the last 15 cases regarding religious liberty in favor of religious liberty. In most cases it wasn’t even a partisan split.
Here’s what is true. Violence in schools may be lower, but there is a special horror in the planned mass murder of shootings that goes beyond random stabbings. Divorce may be down, but that may simply be because fewer people are getting married. Certainly church attendance is down, and the fact that 15 cases were even brought before SCOTUS about religious liberty implies that while the law may be on Christian’s side, the people are not.
Thing is, none of these are really political problems, nor can they be solved with political moves. And they’re all of them manageable problems–nothing that the church has not faced before. Russell Moore in his book Onward points out that the early church dealt with a more hostile world, a looser sexual ethic, a more corrupt governance with fewer liberties. In an interview about his book, Moore says: “Too many Christians read about political and cultural change and then panic. They think the culture is being taken away from them and respond in either apocalyptic hopelessness or outrage. This attitude misunderstands the Gospel of Christ, which was first preached in a culture extremely hostile to Jesus and the church.”
Former FBI Director James Comey wrote a piece back in 2018. I can’t find it now, but it was about reminding people of the 1960’s. The 1960’s saw people caught in a horrific war, knowing of a constant standoff that any day might end life on the planet. A president was shot by an agitator, than the agitator was shot. Then the president’s brother. Protestors were gassed, hosed, beaten. Federal agents were killed and their bodies found in swamps. 2020 was bad, but America has been through worse.There is, as Ecclesiastes puts it, “Nothing new under the sun.”
Matthew Yglesias, a prominent progressive, wrote a piece recently which argued that liberals had a curious aversion to admitting that things were not so bad–that things were actually improving, in some areas. I don’t know that there’s actual shunning of Christians who claim the world is not so terrible, though clearly some are condemned for being too “cozy” with worldly things. There’s a strong mindset, on both sides, that false doomsaying is laudable, even necessary, to “rally the troops.” When I posted on Yglesias’ article, a progressive acquaintance argued that focusing on good things can make you complacent. A commenter on a conservative political article said something similar. “Things could be worse’ doesn’t rally the troops.”
But this misses the point. John Milton says, in the Aeropagiticia “Though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously, by licensing and prohibiting, to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?”
At some point, troops need to know that they’re fighting for something good. They need to know that they’ve made progress. And honestly, if your mindset is that you need to lie to soldiers to get them to fight, you have a pretty poor opinion of troops. “Complacency” may be dangerous, but there is a difference between complacency and calm, and between passion and hysteria.
Conservatives, we have an unquestioning domination of the Supreme Court and an edge in the legislature that keeps the Democrats in fear of a filibuster. The world is not going to end. Progressives, corporations on their own are looking for solutions to climate change, and America is in many ways doing a lot better on social issues like racism and sexism than most of the European countries people point to.
America has many problems, in its past and in its present, on its left and on its right. Ignoring them is no better than exaggerating them. Other nations have a leg up on America in other ways–and even if they did not, our guiding principle is not “better than others” but “actually good.” The Jan 6th riots should be a wakeup call that there is nothing inherently better about America or Americans–that vigilance and accountability are needed to keep us on the right path (I do think that the inherent rebelliousness and independence of Americans make dictators and abuses more difficult, but certainly not impossible). America should continue to examine itself and seek to improve itself in regards to racism, police reform, religious freedom, and abortion policy.
But also, take a breath everybody. We’re not doing so bad.