Who Are We?

A few weeks ago, a friend shared an essay from the Philadelphia Magazine that I’ve now reread more than once. It was all about bravery in times of American crisis--not, as the author explained, the personal courage that people display running into burning buildings and in similar exploits, but civic bravery, which she describes as

directly related to being a citizen, and it requires both personal courage and a bigger-picture, idealistic, long-game sort of mind-set. That strain of bravery, birthed in Philly in 1776, is what Americans both great and unknown would tap into in years to come, and what propelled most everything we think of as progress in this country: women’s suffrage, the New Deal, the Freedom Riders and so forth.

The article goes on to hone in on an aspect of American society that has been the focus of much punditry, not to mention a number of comments to this blog–the pervasiveness of an unbecoming fear that is both self-serving and disproportionate to the objects that trigger it:

The troublesome part about all of this is that so many of us seem unable or unwilling nowadays to accept fear as part of being alive in tumultuous times, or to push for the greater good despite personal risk (or perceived personal risk) the way our best countrymen have through the ages. How else to explain why our elected politicians can’t get past reelection concerns to pass even the basic gun legislation when most Americans clamor for it? Why else are so many unarmed young black men, one after the next after the next, dying at the hands of police officers? How to reconcile otherwise compassionate, charitable people scared to welcome refugees fleeing certain death (yearning to breathe free, just like your great-grandparents)?

After quoting former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski for the proposition that fear obscures reason, intensifies emotions and paves the way for demagogues, she says the obvious: “Hey Mr. Brzezinski, meet Mr. Trump.”

The essay ends on a hopeful note, citing signs that might portend a revival of civic bravery. Some–like substituting Harriet Tubman for Andrew Jackson on the twenty-dollar bill–don’t seem particularly brave to me, but at a time when the Presidential candidate of a major American political party has enabled and normalized bigotry (with, it must be noted, the enthusiastic approval of a majority of that party’s members), Black Lives Matter certainly fits the bill. As she notes,

The time I spent writing this overlapped with the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile by police officers, followed by a sniper attack that killed five officers guarding otherwise peaceful protests. It seems there is no end to the fear and the hateful fruit it bears. But then: Black Lives Matter, a movement started mostly by millennials, is gaining momentum across all generations. This movement begun by blacks is roiling across races, as more people are finding that the essential nubs — life, liberty, innocents not being shot to death, not allowing fear to ruin lives — are too important to ignore. The movement is facing down threats, counter-protesters, online vitriol, death. But it goes on. Think of that photo from the Baton Rouge protests a few months back: a young black woman, a calm protester, standing wordless and serene in the street, surrounded by faceless police in riot gear. No puppies. No bubbles. Civil Bravery circa 2016, it turns out, looks an awful lot like Civil Bravery circa 1965.

The entire essay is worth a read–and some sober consideration.