LAS VEGAS — Wednesday was a good day for America. That seems counterintuitive, but considering the serious threat to our system of living posed by Donald Trump and his most rabid supporters, if the worst his flock can manage is to storm Capitol Hill with a loose herd of frantic know-nothings and leave the halls of Congress in shambles, then I say it was a good day.
I was practically giddy watching the videos, and why shouldn’t I be? Here we had a mob incited by our very own “Law and Order” President, sporting Make America Great Again caps and waving “Thin Blue Line” flags as they attacked cops and looted the Capitol building.
Had the rioters been people of color, it would’ve been much worse for them specifically and for people of color nationwide. We’d be reading about the dozen or so shot and killed, dozens more injured or maimed, maybe two hundred jailed, and people of color across the country would be barricaded inside their homes right now, peeking through the blinds, awaiting reprisal from the local white knights.
Instead, a horde of senseless swine, in full Trumpist regalia, tried physically tearing down their government before the watchful eyes of the world—demonstrating, finally, that White Supremacy is a fairy tale, and that at least some MAGAmen and MAGAwomen don’t actually want to “make America great again.”
The mainstream media outlets describe Wednesday’s attack on Congress as unprecedented, and for the most part they’re right. In 1954, though, as most Puerto Ricans will tell you, Lolita Lebrón and three other members of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party fired 30 rounds from the visitors’ balcony in the House of Representatives, in a stunt meant to draw publicity to the colonial condition of Puerto Rico. The House was debating Mexico and immigration —even back then— when Lolita stood up and cried, “¡Viva Puerto Rico libre!” unfurling Puerto Rico’s true flag, not the colonial one most people recognize.
Five members of Congress were shot, one in the chest, mostly by Rafael Cancel Miranda —the only one later sent to Alcatraz— but they all recovered from their wounds. And as the cops carried Lolita out, she said she hadn’t gone there to kill anybody: “I came to die for Puerto Rico!”
Most moral people agree that colonialism is bad, whether or not they agree with what Lolita did. And most also agree that Donald Trump definitely lost the 2020 presidential election fair and square, so not only was Wednesday’s mob wrong for their little insurrection, they were wrong in their reasons for it.
Five people are dead after Bloody Wednesday. One of the dead, a 35-year-old Air Force veteran from Maryland named Ashli Babbitt, was climbing through a broken window in one of the doors leading to the House chamber, where some members of Congress were hiding, when Capitol Police shot her down. Fifty-year-old Benjamin Phillips, from Pennsylvania, died of a heart attack.
The loss of even a single human life is a tragedy, but forgive me if I never shed a tear for Ms. Babbitt, Mr. Phillips, or the others who lost their lives while attacking democracy. Plus, and maybe because I’m young, Black, and Latino, but I’ve never expected to storm any building by force and leave fully intact, much less a government building. It’s a suicide mission, as Lolita realized. And if Trump’s gang didn’t think they were in any danger when they broke into the Capitol Building, that they might even lose their lives, then they underestimated the resolve of their fellow Americans to defend the institutions of democracy.
I stopped following news updates just as men dressed as Vikings were rifling through desk drawers in the House chamber. I’m reading Livy, and Wednesday just happened to be Book V, the first sack of Rome by a barbarian army. The Roman senators were pissing in their togas as they sought shelter on the Capitoline Hill—it seems history does rhyme, after all.
The Romans finally got the Gauls to leave by paying them a thousand pounds of gold. The whole thing shattered Rome’s confidence, and everybody was talking about just abandoning the city even after the Gauls were gone. What’s the point? they were saying. It’s over. But Camillus, their best general and statesman, convinced them Rome was still worth rebuilding and fighting for. So they stayed, rebuilt, and the rest is history.
Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska must have felt like Camillus when, after the Senate reconvened on Wednesday, he tried pulling the nation together.
He stood there, nervously twisting the wedding band on his ring finger
“Colleagues, today has been ugly. When I came to the floor this morning, I planned to talk about the lesson of 1801… and I wanted to celebrate the glories of the peaceful transition of power across our nation’s history. It feels a little naïve now to talk about ways that American civics might be something that could unite us in bringing us back together.”
From what I’ve heard and read, a lot of people on the left thought his speech was very naïve, “tone-deaf,” etc., but when I watched it later, and listened to what he was saying, I couldn’t help but agree:
“I don’t think we want to tell the Americans that come after us that this republic is broken, that this is just a banana republic, that our institutions can’t be trusted.”
“I don’t think we want that. We don’t want that in this body, we don’t want that in our home towns.”
“I don’t think we want to tell our kids that America’s best days are behind us because it’s not true.”
“That’s not who we are. America isn’t Hatfield’s and McCoy’s blood feud forever. America is a union. There’s a lot that’s broken in this country but not anything that’s so big that the American people can’t rebuild it. That freedom and community and entrepreneurial effort and that neighborhoods can’t rebuild. Nothing that’s broken is so big that we can’t fix it.”
I for one tend to think America’s best days are behind it, because, first, a nation’s moment in the sun is fleeting, maybe a hundred years —if it’s lucky— and second, I see the seeds of civilizational collapse sprouting all around: a crumbling education system, increasing tribalism and partisanship, a growing culture of consumerism and decadence, an economic system based on mass exploitation and stretched to the limit. Such symptoms have plagued other civilizations, and where they do, those people’s days are numbered.
But not always. A few were able to pull themselves from the brink of oblivion and etch their names in history. The Persian king Xerxes burned Athens to the ground, but then the Greeks whooped the Persians, rebuilt, and entered their golden age, with Pericles, Socrates, Euripides and them. Rome also rebuilt, whooped Carthage, and then, over 300 years after they sacked Rome, Julius Caesar whooped the Gauls—and the Romans still had plenty of good days ahead of them.
America, of course, has come back twice: once after the Civil War, and then again after the Great Depression. In fact, adversity seems to make America stronger.
I don’t remember if it was Jürgen Klinsmann, the German former coach of the U.S. men’s soccer team, or Jill Ellis, the English-American former coach of the U.S. women’s soccer team, who said that the special thing about American athletes is that, no matter how far they’re down, Americans always think they’re going to win. Chalk it up to that good old American hubris, notorious the world over. Still, hubris, as it turns out, goes a long way.
“You are what you think you are,” Tyson likes to say. Tyson’s old coach and mentor, Cuz D’Amato, tried to convince him that he, Mike Tyson, was actually Achilles reborn, the reincarnation of Alexander the Great, Caesar, and Napoleon, and made the boy from Brownsville study them all. Now, after becoming the youngest heavyweight champion in boxing history and a living legend, Mike tells the people who come to him seeking wisdom, in between puffs of the latest strain from Tyson Ranch: “If you keep telling yourself you’re great, and you’re obsessed with being great, and all you do is eat, sleep and breathe greatness, you’ll be great.”
Obviously a lot of hard work and luck also goes into being great, something Tyson won’t deny. But what he means is: Whatever our lot in life, if we approach it with focus, determination and all of our effort —with the purpose of being great— then we will achieve greatness in whatever we do.
Hubris is what made the Romans great; they were just so full of themselves. They believed their little backwater settlement on seven hills was destined for greatness, and so they conducted themselves that way, building a society geared for greatness. They were always pushing their walls way beyond the inhabited parts of Rome, assuming their city would outgrow those boundaries in no time. And every time they got whooped on the battlefield, they simply sent more legions—having sworn victory to their gods, and on their city and their families, quitting was never an option.
A lot of Americans jeered at Sen. Sasse’s “not who we are” remark. It’s easy to believe that America is no better than what happened on Wednesday, or its imperialistic wars, its colonialism, its consumer culture, its racist past and present, its history of slavery and genocide. A nation is what it does, on one hand, but a nation is also what it could be.
The same is true for each and every one of us. A human being is valued not merely for what he or she is, but also for the tremendous potential of a human life itself. That’s why the death penalty still feels wrong, even when it feels right. What a waste, we say.
And since a nation is essentially a collection of human beings, then their collective potential, the potential of the nation itself, is that many times greater. America is the collective potential of its people and its institutions—its government, its values, and its traditions, including its self-confidence. America defeated Hitler and went to the moon because it thought it could, believing enough to overshadow the mountain of doubt.
If Americans believe America is hopeless, then America is hopeless. If we believe our racist stain cannot be washed but by blood, then nothing less than blood will wash us clean. If we all agree that America is over, then let’s not wait for any fat lady and just roll the credits already.
But I’m with Sasse on this one: America is losing itself, but it isn’t lost yet. And in order to save America, and guide it toward becoming what we need it to become, we, as Americans, must behave and treat each other in a way that makes us equal to greatness.
“You can’t do big things like that if you hate your neighbors,” Sen. Sasse said on Wednesday. “You can’t do big things together as Americans if you think other Americans are the enemy.”
Or as someone else said on the eve of a civil war: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
Americans have long recognized that their greatest threats lie within; that if the house ever collapses, it won’t be due to a strong wind, but an inner rot. The only thing that can destroy America is the American people themselves.
So we really do need to shovel our neighbors’ driveways, or something like it, not to change our neighbors’ hearts, but to strengthen our own. Each of us needs to be the change we seek in society, though it’s much easier said than done, especially when everything constantly pushes us to take the low road. The low road is the easier of the two —way easier— and as the Bible tells us, the low road is jam-packed.
It’s hard as hell to be good, to be gentle, forgiving, and not jealous, greedy, or self-centered. It takes a Herculean effort not to slap the taste out of some bigot’s mouth. But we must do for the bigots what they seem incapable of doing for others: we must pity them, as lost, and soul-sick. And just as you don’t treat a patient by slapping him, or teach a kid the ABC’s by shoving your boot up his rear-end, we’re not going to spread love and understanding with bared teeth and backhands.
A great nation requires great citizens, and “in a democracy,” goes a famous quote, “the people get the government they deserve.”
But I’m not preaching here. I’m just saying what’s what, and what needs to be done if we’re serious about perfecting this union of ours.
The fault,” as Brutus was told, “is not in our stars.” Many Americans may believe the writing is already on the wall, that America is nosediving to destruction. I intend to do my part to see that it isn’t—I think I have been, but I intend to do more and more. Whether other Americans do their part, is up to them.
But the fate of America hangs on it.