I am grieving for my country, for the optimism that we have lost.
When I was young, I believed a myth, a trajectory, that is in the ongoing and historic progress of America, a country that was endlessly innovative and improving, energetic, affluent, broad-based, democratic and egalitarian.
That the myth couldn’t include everyone was not then believed, as indicated by the Civil War, the struggle for civil rights and women’s rights and against the imperialism of the Vietnam War. Whatever the reality, the myth was sustained by both the actuality and the illusion of progress.
My belief was taught in the national narrative and grounded in my own advantages; the arrival of my ancestors with nothing, the steady improvements of their circumstances, our acceptance as Jews, our material security, and the opportunities to work towards the goals we considered to be important.
Because I lived in the myth, because my parents believed in it and the door was open, I worked hard in school and in my professional life, through challenges and successes, believing that improvement was possible at my own initiative, that resources and opportunities would always be there for me as long as I had the determination and made the effort. That prejudices against me or people like me were temporary or an inconvenience; that nothing fundamentally held me back except the choices and impediments inside of me.
And so I am an American—in my inner and outer life. American is the reason for whatever I have become. It is the ability to retain whatever I choose to retain from the past, and to move forward with and beyond it: to individuate, to create my own identity and to benefit from an ahistorical basis in opportunity and freedom. And whatever my limitations and my disappointments, which are many, I am distinctly aware that as a Jewish man and a gay one, now in my late 60’s, more was given or made available to me than at any previous time in history.
Now I am retired and living abroad, and I am looking at an America that has lost itself and its myth. Of course the myth was never really true, not entirely, not even for me, but it sustained me through struggles of external and internal acceptance—that I was a nerd; that my Jewish identity was important, but that it shouldn’t be too obvious, that my middle-class background wasn’t quite good enough, that I had to make money to be successful, even when other things mattered more to me, that my attraction to men was unacceptable and literally unsafe.
Yet I was sustained and propelled forward by the belief in the myth. Reality was hard for most of my contemporaries, but together the belief and the reality of progress sustained us, gave us a common language, held us together and moved us forward. There are those for whom doors always appeared to be open, but everyone struggled with something, some made compromises I was unwilling to make, and everyone gave up some part of themselves in growing up.
In America there were others, for whom opportunities were promised, but never adequately provided; others to whom the door remained closed; and still others, the most ignored, from whom this country was taken. Likely they never believed the myth, but they did not have the numbers or the influence to kill it. Now there is an ongoing, imperfect and inadequate effort to reverse the injustice that was done them.
At the same time, and in my lifetime, many who previously had modest and solid privileges have had them eroded or taken away. American society, indeed the world, is much more competitive and in an unfortunate way. Many still move here from elsewhere, to take full advantage of a freer life or higher living standards. We have plenty of room and capacity for the skilled, the ambitious and the talented. But most people have ordinary capabilities and opportunity. Those who preceded us, and their descendants, largely white, and working or middle class, who paid the taxes and provided the safety and education we needed while we were getting our footing, are no longer appreciated or secure. Their stories are no longer identified with the myth of progress. Instead, those who succeed or who suffer even greater deprivations dominate the current narrative. We later-comers have indeed replaced them, and many of them in-turn have moved to the right, identifying with increasingly terrifying resentments and story-lines.
And so we have lost the essential myth, that is the belief that life America can be better for anyone and everyone. Increasingly, individual success appears to depend on talent or brilliance, lots of money, celebrity or special access. Or, it depends on correcting injustice, breaking the power of those who impede us, or fighting off those who seek to replace us. The country is fragmented by the loss of its story line. We no longer believe in progress, unless it is purely material. For some to succeed, others must give way. Of course America was never an entirely open and fluid place; as elsewhere, it is filled with selfishness and exploitation, and yet we need our myth back.
Because everyone should live in an America that has the belief that in turn can rally the resources to solve the problems and create the dreams. Because, without a myth, we can recriminate about life in America, but we cannot come together, and if we cannot come together, we are stuck and cannot improve it. We need to go back to the old story of open opportunity and redefine it in ways that make sense for the country we are now. Once again we should redefine success and continue to open up who has access to it. There is nothing new to this; we need to get back to it.
We need to bend and rework the institutions that funnel the power, the attention and the benefits to very few, be they rich white men, undervalued women or deserving minorities. America is bigger than that. It is not more minorities or women at Princeton that we need, although that is laudable, but more Princetons, so that we can accommodate everyone qualified, including those too-often overlooked, as well as young white men and the children of the rich. Because everyone has a right to succeed and make a contribution. Of course it has never and may never really work out as it should. But we must be willing to believe that it can, in order to open our society up and improve it. We should have a myth and reach for it. Without that belief, without a vision, our society is a fixed pie, where limited benefits must be taken from those who dominate or kept from those who claim and threaten. It is a country that will be constantly at war with itself. And that is not the America that I have loved.
May 15, 2022