Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The First Step is Admitting There's a Problem: Why We Need to Build a New America

I'd like to share a scene from "The Newsroom" that feels just as relevant today as it did two years ago when it aired. This is the very first scene from the very first episode, and you can watch it at this link if  you'd prefer watching it to reading.

A student asks what makes America the world's greatest country, and Will dodges the question with glib answers. But the moderator keeps needling him until...snap.
It's not the greatest country in the world, professor, that's my answer.
[pause] You're saying—
Let's talk about—
Fine. [to the liberal panelist] Sharon, the NEA is a loser. Yeah, it accounts for a penny out of our paychecks, but he [gesturing to the conservative panelist] gets to hit you with it anytime he wants. It doesn't cost money, it costs votes. It costs airtime and column inches. You know why people don't like liberals? Because they lose. If liberals are so fuckin' smart, how come they lose so GODDAMN ALWAYS?
And [to the conservative panelist] with a straight face, you're going to tell students that America's so star-spangled awesome that we're the only ones in the world who have freedom? Canada has freedom, Japan has freedom, the UK, France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Australia, Belgium has freedom. Two hundred seven sovereign states in the world, like 180 of them have freedom.
And you—sorority girl—yeah—just in case you accidentally wander into a voting booth one day, there are some things you should know, and one of them is that there is absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we're the greatest country in the world. We're seventh in literacy, twenty-seventh in math, twenty-second in science, forty-ninth in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, third in median household income, number four in labor force, and number four in exports. We lead the world in only three categories: number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real, and defense spending, where we spend more than the next twenty-six countries combined, twenty-five of whom are allies. None of this is the fault of a 20-year-old college student, but you, nonetheless, are without a doubt, a member of the WORST-period-GENERATION-period-EVER-period, so when you ask what makes us the greatest country in the world, I don't know what the fuck you're talking about?! Yosemite?!!!
We sure used to be. We stood up for what was right! We fought for moral reasons, we passed and struck down laws for moral reasons. We waged wars on poverty, not poor people. We sacrificed, we cared about our neighbors, we put our money where our mouths were, and we never beat our chest. We built great big things, made ungodly technological advances, explored the universe, cured diseases, and cultivated the world's greatest artists and the world's greatest economy. We reached for the stars, and we acted like men. We aspired to intelligence; we didn't belittle it; it didn't make us feel inferior. We didn't identify ourselves by who we voted for in the last election, and we didn't scare so easy. And we were able to be all these things and do all these things because we were informed. By great men, men who were revered. The first step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one—America is not the greatest country in the world anymore.

Will's right - well, Aaron Sorkin is right. America is not the greatest country in the world anymore. The case could reasonably made that it never truly was. But he's also right that it can be. It has the potential. We have people who are smart, who are brave, who are compassionate, and we have them in droves. They just don't seem to align recently with the cardboard cutout of who and what our culture values. They don't seem to have the voice or the power they ought to, and in an unfortunately growing number of cases, they lack the energy to do anything but fall in line, to keep quiet and allow the status quo to persevere.

We have to be better. We have to pay attention, and we have to speak up when we see injustice being done. I'm getting really and truly sick of people who proudly say "oh, I don't care about politics" or "I don't watch the news" like these things are some passing fad. Believing that is a mistake, and a dangerous one. The only way to change things for the better is to participate, to care. These are the conversations and the elections and the stories that will determine what this country IS  for the duration of the time we'll spend here. Doesn't that merit at least a fraction of the attention we give to celebrity gossip or our local sports franchise?

Maybe I sound self-righteous, or judgmental. But that's because I've made a life of actively striving to not bury my head in the sand, and the way this country works, the votes of those who do choose ignorance carry exactly the same weight as mine. I love that about America, the idea that we might all - in theory, at least - get an equal say, but that doesn't mean I want to stand by and watch that opportunity be squandered.

There is a reality that has taken hold in the United States of America in 2014 that the majority of us are flat-out ignoring, even though it's right in front of our faces. Equality, the kind the founding fathers dreamed about and the kind people from all over their globes risked their lives to come here seeking, is crippled, on the verge of extinction. It's slipping away, and for the most part we're letting it. We as a nation are content to wander around with our eyes closed and our hands down our pants, more concerned about this week's eliminated contestant on The Voice than the fact that innocent men and women are being killed by the people who are supposed to exist to protect and serve us. The knee-jerk reaction is to assume that the victim must have had it coming, or that there has to be a justification, because we'd rather not fathom the possibility that someone in a position of authority is capable of truly monstrous behavior.

I'm not going to debate the Mike Brown or Eric Garner cases here (though for the record I am appalled at the lack of even an indictment in either case), not because I think I'd lose or because I know I'd open an entire can of ignorance-soaked worms on my social media outlets, but because it isn't my tragedy. I am a white woman, and as such will never ever be able to fully comprehend the horror of what's happening to African Americans in this country, the terror that must exist in knowing you can be targeted at any moment and that the perpetrator will, in all likelihood, walk away without punishment. I'm an ally in this fight, and I stand beside the protesters and individuals who continue to lead brave and vital discussions on these topics; but I lack the authority of personal experience. I can say there is no question in my mind that we need some serious changes in this country, both in terms of race relations and in terms of establishing once and for all who watches the watchers, and ensuring they do their job in a manner that doesn't cost innocent lives.

Will said it in the speech above, and it's one of the founding principles of any recovery program worth its salt:  the first step is admitting that you have a problem. America, we have a problem.

A lot of people might think I lack patriotism, that I hate America and that's why I'm constantly criticizing it. That actually isn't true at all. I love America, but I love it the way Will McAvoy loves it - for all that it has the potential to be, rather than what it currently is. We can create a world in which equality exists, in which we celebrate our differences but don't allow them to overrule our comprehension of the basic rules of right and wrong. It's possible to do that, it really is. But we can't do it in one day (we haven't been able to do it in multiple generations, after all), and it'll be hard work. At its core, though, America has the tools to do this. We have the power to change our laws and to influence the way this country treats its citizens, no matter who they are or what they look like.

I'm not exempting myself from this. We have to tug ourselves out of this apathetic hole we've fallen into, and it's hard to listen to bad news day in and day out without feeling discouraged. I know it would be easier to stay at home under the covers finding out which Kardashian is getting divorced or pregnant this week, but I can't do that. I can't sit still anymore knowing that these kinds of injustices are becoming the norm in the country.

I guess this is my promise to stay awake, to pay careful attention and spread as much factual and helpful information as possible, and to do whatever I can to keep fighting the good fight. My congresspeople will be hearing from me - hell, I'll send a letter a week if I have to until something budges, and I will not be silent. If we can bring ourselves to care, and we can push ourselves to stand up and speak out, someone eventually has to listen.

Let's stop pretending America is the greatest country in the world when it clearly has such a long way to go, and instead force it to become that country, in reality, once and for all.