Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Remembering America

While traveling recently by train through a New England countryside, I was reminded of a time when life moved at a more moderate pace; when every small town in America had a distinctive character, with genteel houses and front porches dating to colonial times, main streets lined with banners of American flags and lemonade stands. It harkens back to Saturday Evening Post covers by Norman Rockwell, portraying an idealized slice of American life that satisfied our longing for a quieter, simpler time.

For those of us who grew up in places like Phillipsburg and Moorestown and Hightstown, small to moderate-sized towns in New Jersey that are replicated in thousands of towns across America, these images and memories remain with us long after we become ensnared in busy, pressure-filled lives in the city, where life is more stimulating, the food more exotic, the people more diverse; where the arts flourish and everything is available for a price.

Certain memories of our youth remain with us even as we age and the decades blend together. I remember fondly walking several blocks uphill on Parry Drive as a young boy to peruse the books at the Moorestown Public Library and then wander into Woolworth’s on Main Street; frequenting the bagel and hoagie shops with my high school friends on Tuesday afternoons in Hightstown, and congregating with friends by the duck pond near my house in East Windsor. In college, I occasionally strayed from Wittenberg University’s bucolic campus to see a movie or frequent the bars in downtown Springfield, Ohio, an old industrial town that appeared then more substantial than it does now. These images were reinforced in the many small towns I passed through when I delivered grocery supplies throughout New England in the three summers I lived in Massachusetts during college.

In looking back, our memories suggest more innocent times, when as children we played outside on summer nights after dark, knowing that home was within shouting distance, and the moonlight and poetic dance of lightning bugs would lead us safely to the front porches and unlocked screen doors of our houses. But remembrances of our childhood are ultimately overcome by the reality of adulthood. The intervening years add weariness and wisdom born of the disappointments of unrealized dreams.

The passage of time also imposes a sense of history. As a young man, I quickly discovered that not everything was so pure in those golden days of youth. There was a dark underbelly of injustice, prejudice, inequality, and violence displayed on the nightly news that frequented life in the United States. While I played hide-and-seek with neighborhood friends in East Windsor, New Jersey, 19-year old boys were dying in a far-off Asian land more than halfway around the world, fighting a war our leaders had privately acknowledged years before was unwinnable, in a place and for a cause we did not understand. While I hit groundballs to my brother in the backyard on Saturday afternoons and played touch football with a motley collection of self-satisfied teenagers on my block, we were oblivious to the ongoing struggle for racial equality and black empowerment, to the way American corporations profited at the expense of clean air and clean water, and to ever widening economic inequities that increasingly left a substantial segment of Americans behind.

Only as I started to pay attention to the world around me did I begin to understand how fortunate I was to have a stable, loving family and a comfortable, middle-class existence. Others were not so lucky. I became aware that some of my classmates contended with broken homes, domestic violence, alcoholism and drug abuse, disabilities and mental illness. It was an intolerant time for people of differing sexual orientations, most of whom remained closeted in a society that did not allow them to live life on their God-intended terms. Girls were still treated as subservient to boys despite rising feminist consciousness, and racial minorities were disproportionately housed in “the projects” and suffered the suspicion and derision of the local police and a predominantly white culture.

The Rockwellian-inspired images of small-town America remain places of illusion and possibility in part because, like our nostalgic memories of childhood, they depict America as a land of freedom and opportunity; where anything is possible; where we are a nation bound together by the rule of law, the Constitution, and a spirit of engaged citizenship. And yet, it is in the great American cities where we more frequently achieve the ideals of democracy and pursue our dreams. Although central New Jersey with its abundant farmland felt more like Indiana than the east coast, New York and Philadelphia were always in our line of sight; the excitement of Broadway, the Statue of Liberty, the Liberty Bell and other historical landmarks, big league sports stadiums and the hustle and bustle of city life only a one-hour drive away.

As a young man, my love of baseball reinforced my sense of America on a grand scale. In the two to three decades following the integration of major league baseball in 1947, big league ballparks brought to life in a practical sense the ideals of America, where true racial integration, a sense of fair play and competition, and the pastoral beauty of green fields and open landscapes in an urban setting came together as one. As the late author and baseball lover Philip Roth, who grew up in Newark, New Jersey, wrote in an essay for The New York Times, baseball allowed him “to understand and experience patriotism in its tender and humane aspects, lyrical rather than martial or righteous in spirit, and without the reek of saintly zeal, a patriotism that could not quite so easily be sloganized.” The game “was a kind of secular church,” Roth continued, “that reached into every class and region of the nation and bound us together in common concerns, loyalties, rituals, enthusiasms, and antagonisms.”

Baseball, like the small colonial towns of New England and the quaint main streets of small-town America, appeals to our yearnings to restore the symbols of America, to once again believe in our institutions, our democracy, and our leaders. I grew up with a sense of reverence for America’s great leaders. Washington, Lincoln, the Roosevelts – and, in my lifetime, John and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Barack Obama – shared my understanding of America as a great country that aspires to be even better. They appealed to the better angels of our nature, taught us to fear only fear itself, called us to public service, dreamed of a day when all would be equal, and sought to unite a divided country. They helped us see the small towns and beautiful, vibrant cities of America with a sense of history and a larger purpose in a way that we desperately need to recapture now.

In Remembering America: A Voice from the Sixties, Richard N. Goodwin, a former speechwriter and aide to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, eloquently described what I believe we have lost in today’s political climate, an idealized vision of America:
If we believed in our leaders, it was because we believed in ourselves. If we felt a sense of high possibilities, it was because the possibilities were real. If our expectations of achievement were great, it was because we understood the fullness of our own powers and the greatness of our country.
As I wrote this essay, I learned the distressing news of two more mass shootings – in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. At least one appears to be the work of yet another white nationalist terrorist. As is always the case with these tragic events, there are the predictable calls to action as we are reminded of the easy access to guns and a culture of violence that is seemingly unique to America. The president played golf all weekend, making time for a single tweet about the cowardice of the shooters, while ignoring the seeds of his anti-immigrant vitriol and inflammatory debasement of “rodent infested” cities that preceded the shootings. And nothing will get done for the reasons nothing ever gets done when it comes to guns and violence in this country.

There have been 250 mass shootings in the United States in 2019 alone. While the president, Senator Mitch McConnell, and certain members of Congress are not personally responsible for each individual act of hatred and violence that occurs, they are responsible for a failure of leadership, for refusing to enact laws and policies that will enhance public safety, create a more humane immigration policy, and make life better for the people living in our small towns and large cities. Most tragically, they are responsible for a failure of moral leadership, for the harsh tone of our politics and the lack of civility, respect, and compassion, which have been all but abandoned in our civic life. “In periods where there is no leadership, society stands still,” said President Harry Truman. “Progress occurs when courageous, skillful leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better.”

So, when I look at the Norman Rockwell images these days and think back on the limitless possibilities of youth, I long for an America I can believe in again, for a president who inspires sacrifice and service and reminds us of our common aspirations; who helps us recapture a shared sense of history and idealism symbolized by the American flags that line the streets of those small colonial towns in New England; and who helps us restore respect and compassion in our civic and public life.

Abraham Lincoln asserted that the object of government was to “elevate the condition of men – to afford all an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race for life.” Nearly a century later, then presidential candidate John F. Kennedy spoke of a “New Frontier” and challenged Americans to examine “uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered pockets of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus.” Only seven years ago, Barack Obama reminded us that “our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which only asks what’s in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or duty or charity or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense.” One need not agree with the policies and political leanings of our past presidents to appreciate that they spoke in aspirational tones, lifted us up in times of distress and challenged us always to be better and do better. They worked for all Americans, even those opposed to them, and more frequently than not appealed to our common humanity and shared ideals. Moral leadership does not alone solve society’s problems, but it helps provide the inspiration we need to solve them. Is it too much to ask?