I have increasingly come across the sad expression: “I no longer recognize my country.”
I not only understand that expression; I also share it. We are being buffeted by a series of events that are searing to live through. We used to be so proud to be Americans. How did things go so terribly wrong?
Then “I no longer recognize my country” evokes other thoughts. For one, I think of the incredible Ukrainians, who have been fighting an existential battle for their very existence since February and have lived with active war in parts of their country for years–and threats for most of their national life. They’ve also long fought valiantly against internal corruption.
They put their bodies on the line every day—fighting to keep their hard-won democracy and their autonomy against mammoth odds.
Structurally, they can no longer recognize their country because their country as they remember it no longer exists. But I heard an interview with a young editor for the Kyiv Independent, who speaks of Ukraine’s revitalization once they win the war. Defeat is not an option. Her views are widespread and fuel their extraordinary war effort.
“I no longer recognize my country.” I think of Ruby Freeman and her daughter, Shaye Moss, two Black women election workers in Georgia who were vilified by Trumpian thugs. Giuliani et al wove these women’s patriotic efforts to do their civic work into a Big Lie conspiracy theory that has endangered their safety and upended their lives.
And still they had the courage to come before the January 6th Committee to testify about the wrongs they suffered. They have also turned to the courts to sue their attackers for defamation—and they are winning.
I am old enough to have experienced exhilaration when the 1965 Voting Rights Act passed. Finally, we were seeing progress. I remember the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, when a youthful John Lewis was mercilessly beaten, prompting the passage of that confirmative democratic legislation.
Several years ago, I came close to meeting John Lewis, a personal hero, and heard him speak about his journey, which involved the “good trouble” he was drawn to despite his parents’ concerns. The post I wrote after his death in 2020 about being “In the Presence of John Lewis” included tributes from former President Obama. They had last spoken shortly after the massive demonstrations following the murder of George Floyd.
“I told him that all those young people — of every race, from every background and gender and sexual orientation — they were his children. They had learned from his example, even if they didn’t know it. They had understood through him what American citizenship requires, even if they had heard of his courage only through history books.
“Not many of us get to live to see our own legacy play out in such a meaningful, remarkable way. John Lewis did. And thanks to him, we now all have our marching orders — to keep believing in the possibility of remaking this country we love until it lives up to its full promise.”
Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss did their election work because they felt reverence for their right to vote. They knew all the blood that’s been shed to get them that basic American right.
And they know, more viscerally than I ever can, how awful it is that the highest court in the land, legislators in many states, and an entire political party are trying to deny them that right once again.
So when I’m tempted to think “I no longer recognize my country,” I realize that that country has really never existed for far too many Americans. “American exceptionalism” has always been built on a wonderful, thrilling ideal. It was the ideal we thought we had when Barack Obama became President: a multiracial, multiethnic democracy “with liberty and justice for all.”
The thirty percent of our population who are perpetuating the Big Lie has been a constant part of Americana. It was startling to watch participants in what became the January 6 mob, so convinced that their votes had been stolen, screaming that they were being deprived of their rights.
The radical Supreme Court majority who are, in fact, in the process of dismantling our rights have sorry precedents. Notably, there was Plessy v. Ferguson, the notorious “separate but equal” ruling in 1898. It was overturned by Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, beginning—at long last—our reckoning with the evils of segregation.
And rulings upholding eugenics, the incarceration of Japanese Americans, child labor, and the like do not show our nation at its finest. The Supreme Court has too often been a validator of fear and special interests, rather than a beacon of justice.
I have been thinking a lot about our newest Justice: Ketanji Brown Jackson. This gifted jurist, renowned for her true judicial temperament and ability to forge consensus, will be joining a court whose majority have demonstrated not only the absence of those qualities, but also intellectual dishonesty and a disregard for precedent, the law, the Constitution, and the American people.
Nevertheless, I am willing to bet that Justice Jackson has never spent a second thinking “I no longer recognize my country.” I am looking to her to write dazzling dissents in the near future.
My point is not to diminish the dreadful concatenation of backsliding that we’re seeing these days. The fact that our imperfect democracy survived them all in the past does not guarantee we’ll survive them now.
I worry a great deal that the people who say “I no longer recognize my country” have given up on democracy. The irony is that we have just seen what the voices of outraged Americans can do: we actually made Mitch McConnell and fourteen other Republicans cross the NRA and vote for modest gun safety legislation. That is a huge validation of the power of our votes.
All around us are people who have not given up on democracy. The brilliant civil rights attorney Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund has said:
“I don’t know of anything in the history of Black people in this country in which I’ve read some account in which it ended with, ‘and then they gave up.’ That’s just not what we do. I know we work for the future of our children and our grandchildren and their children.”
The January 6th Committee hearings have, in shining a light on the darkest time we’ve experienced since the Civil War, made me feel that the country I no longer recognize is there, battered and bruised, ready to reassert its civility, its commitment to the rule of law, its promise.
We owe a huge debt to this Committee, including the two courageous Republicans who put country above party, to the staffers, and to the witnesses, many of whom are being threatened.
I think about Cassidy Hutchinson: this 26-year-old ardent Republican functionary worked to make the Trump administration look good. But when the president she served acted in a way that rightly “disgusted” her—actions she felt were “unpatriotic and un-American”—she provided testimony that may materially help bring down Donald Trump.
Cassidy Hutchinson found herself in a situation in which she no longer recognized her country. And in publicly telling that story, she is sacrificing her privacy and knowingly endangering her personal safety.
Her extraordinary bravery in testifying moved the image of the former President from one of a passive bystander to the Seditious Conspirator and Riot Inciter-in-Chief.
She may well have eased the path for Attorney General Merrick Garland. I have great empathy for Garland, who finds himself in an unprecedented situation.
It is perhaps instructive to remember that Garland was the one who prosecuted Timothy McVeigh for the Oklahoma City bombing—an act of white supremacy that was shocking at the time but serves to remind us that this violent white extremist element has been a permanent fixture of our nation.
Garland showed courage then, and I expect him to do so now. He has a veritable menu of potential crimes with which to charge Trump. I think there’s no longer a question of whether the former president will be charged—but on which charges, and when.
In view of all the above, I feel the need to focus less on the America I no longer recognize—and more on the America that so many brave people continue to try to push forward: the democracy of our ideals; the democracy that Ukrainians have emulated by looking to us, and now depend upon us to help them retain their own.
The surest way I know how to do that is through the ballot box: it’s such a threat to anti-Americans that they want to make it increasingly inaccessible to as many of us as they can.
I regularly write postcards to Democratic voters encouraging them to vote. On each handwritten card, I write: “Your vote equals your voice.” I like that direct phrase, which holds so much potential power.
The reactionary forces are in the minority. If only those who no longer recognize their country join those who continue, year after year, trying to build the country that has yet to fully recognize them, we can move that poor old tattered arc of justice in the right direction once again.
Please take a few moments to watch the video below to its conclusion. It’s a gift to us from the Ukrainian people.