Dear Connor | As the American democracy unravels, can there be hope for your future?
Happy Friday morning, grandbaby. Hard to believe you’re coming up on your sixth birthday, though you did remind me last night — again — not to forget. I know it makes you nuts that your Dada’s birthday comes first. I’ll have to think of some geeky wonderful present.
It’s one of those glorious Key West days that makes me believe all is right with the world. That’s in part why Gramps and Ninny live here. We’re squarely inside the One Human Family bubble that makes this tiny island outpost at the end of the road a safe place. Well, at least as safe as one can be when the American republic, that splendid 242-year-old experiment, crumbles around us.
I haven’t written to you in a while. Not since January 2017, right after the election of Donald Trump as president. I used those 2016-17 letters to try to make sense of that surreal election. Back then, I held some hope that my Republican-voting friends and family were right: Trump would put aside his horrendously divisive and nationalist campaign rhetoric and “pivot” to the so-called responsible, compassionate business leader and friend they thought he was. I hoped, but knew in my heart it was hope against hope. Cliche coming: Leopards don’t change spots.
In the two years since, there’s been no pivot. Indeed, four days before the Nov. 6 mid-term elections, the dog whistles to his base have become more shrill and the rollbacks of decades of progressive legislation have escalated. Just days ago he announced he was going to issue an executive order to eviscerate the 14th Amendment, the “birthright citizenship” provision, which says if you’re born in the United States, you’re an American citizen. Can he do it? Sure. Will it withstand a court challenge? Three months ago, I’d have bet he’d lose. Today? He could easily get away with it now that the U.S. Supreme Court is laced with pro-Trump-thinking judges.
And still I hear friends and family dismissing all this with sound bites about how he’s not really serious, things are just fine, nothing bad will really happen because he’s just saying stuff that “everybody” is thinking and anyone who worries is a snowflake, a libertard, a crazy leftist or, in the case of me and my journalist friends, “the enemy of the people.” They think by smiling at me when they say it, by figuratively patting me on the head with a “there-there, bless your heart” tone of voice, that all is OK and I ought not be suffused with a rage I can barely control.
Such rage normally has but two responses: Fight or flight.
The temptation is flight. Simply disconnect from the swirling controversies, the sick-making headlines, the killings of children in their classes, the murder of the religious faithful in their pews. Pretend there’s no worry about sea level rise or air and water pollution. No concerns to be had that one percent of the country holds the cash while the rest of us watch our retirement, our children’s education funds, our livelihoods disintegrate. That here in Key West, real people work two and three jobs and still can’t cover the rent or an emergency. Not a single peep of irritation that the Republicans proudly say they’ll dismantle Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid to pay for the jaw-dropping deficits they created with this year’s astonishing tax cut for the wealthy and corporations. There’s nothing trickling down to anyone I know.
Flight changes nothing. Disconnecting in the hopes bad things will disappear is preemo dumb. They’ll happen anyway and I’d give up some control over shaping things.
Which brings me to fight. I know folks think I love a good, old-fashioned knock-down. I don’t. I’m no stranger to conflict and chaos, and kinda pride myself on being able to take an impossible impasse and work it through to solution. I’m pretty good at that. But that’s not “fight.” Fight is an in-your-face, I’m-right-you’re-not, never-shall-we-break-bread-together and you-are-dead-to-me conflagration. That’s American discourse and politics: one gigantic litmus test lining up on one of two sides.
Fight kills my soul. Flight leaves me at the mercy of others. I am lost. I roil in frustration. The rage grows. And, I pray:
Show me my path. Teach me along the way. Direct my anger. Grant me peace. Sustain my hope. Let me laugh. Be strong today for we will reap if we do not grow weary.
Prayer is hollow, though, unless it is woven through with determined, reasoned, compassionate, albeit limited, action. So, even as I pray, these things I know. Perhaps someday you will bear witness to how well we succeeded:
We have been here before. American history is filled with “times like these.” The years leading up to and through the Revolutionary War; the years leading to and through the Civil War, the years leading to and through World War II. Three times in American history we have torn ourselves apart over power, wealth, the established way things were done versus the shifting culture, immigration, politics, race and nationalism. Three times when this experiment in republican democracy could have failed — but did not — despite the overwhelming opportunities to do so. Each ended in a cataclysmic war of resolution — and we survived, barely, but we did.
Why does now seem so terrifyingly worse? No surprise here. Because we are connected unceasingly to a tsunami of information from which we cannot escape and in which there is no measure of peace. There is no time for contemplation, for considered collaboration, for faulty-but-effective compromise. We flail in shifting headlines until the dissonance strikes us numb and renders us incapable.
What the baby boomers started five decades ago, they are compelled, as a generation, to complete. When boomers raged through 1968 with bombs, guns, picket signs and the occasional flower child in tow, they were hellbent on pulling down big government, big business, big war, big religion — any and all institutions they believed infringed on their rights as individuals. To the roaring beat of rock ‘n’ roll, boomers were, as a generational cohort, hellbent on destroying everything their collaborative World War II, Hero Generation parents and grandparents had built. Whatever makes us think that what boomers started at 18 they will not complete at 68?
Until baby boomers die or get out of the way, if you prefer a less aggressive resolution, we cannot and will not resolve our national crises. We are in the final moments of a boomer-identity-fueled conflagration that will not end well. These are the final moments of a homogeneous societal construct that puts white men at the pinnacle of the power pyramid.The final moments of a culture that believes — consciously or not — that the whiter the skin the better the person.
On the other side of that inevitable ending will be the rebuilding of a new societal construct that will reflect the Gen Xer and Millennial generational markers. Pragmatic. Inclusive. Choosing instinctively what is good for the group; unlike the boomers who choose what’s best for the individual. There’s a reason we are called the Me Generation. On the other side will be a concerted re-building of institutions, of collaborative government, of welcoming organizations determined to DO what’s right; not simply, as boomers tend to do, talk about what’s right. We will become a country in which, so long as one is not a jerk, one will be welcomed into the family with full participation in making this country its better self.
I believe we will be OK. Though my rage boils over too often, I believe in Americans-in-the-middle. I believe there are extremists on the right and the left — and I believe they do not, do not, represent who we are as a people. They get the attention and the headlines today; spoiled children clamoring for their own ice cream cone, unwilling to share and willing to fight to the death to keep what they believe is theirs and theirs alone.
Belief alone is not enough. What must I do each day to mitigate as best I can the effects of this looming cataclysm? In no particular order, here’s my top seven list for surviving the next five years:
Take care of my family and friends. Whatever it takes. Take care of those closest to me even when I disagree with them. Hold their belt loops when they want to jump. Hug them when they hurt. Send them a gift card when they’re hungry or sad or needing to pay a doctor bill. Spend my energy on those I can see and touch and make a difference in their lives. Today. Every day. (And, yes, foster more kittens. Seems goofy, huh? But doing good for the least among us includes kittens.)
Take care of the environment right here on the island. I can’t do much about coal-fired pollution or wolves in the wilderness. I can pick up trash in the parking lot behind the county courthouse. I can help others understand why accommodations for climate change and sea level rise must be part of everyone’s to-do list in the Keys.
Say yes to helping, to serving on a board, to raising funds for nonprofits, for being worship leader at church — even when I am totally done in and never want to do such time-sucking things again. And, believe me, that happens more often than I care to think about.
Be nice. It costs me absolutely nothing to say a kind word or a thank you to the strangers who cross my path every day. I wish you could have heard the surprised pleasure of the two young women who helped me today as I navigated through the Medicare drug insurance application nightmare. I could have sworn under my breath. Instead, I let them know how much I appreciated them. Made me feel better; they, too.
Keep the go-bag at the ready. We already prepare supplies and emergency equipment for hurricanes. It makes sense to prepare for the coming tough times, too. Sound fatalistic? Probably. But, there’s absolutely no reason not to have those things on hand and ready for use. I’m not talking about survivalist thinking. Just a bit of smart preparation in case we need it. Just like we do for hurricanes.
Don’t write it, say it, or do it if I can’t answer affirmatively to each of these questions: Is it true? Is it right? Is it necessary? That doesn’t mean shutting up in the face of wrongs. It does mean finding ways to say and do things that are constructive, that build collaborative purpose, that open doors instead of slamming them shut. Pretty much the cliche: Put mind in gear before mouth in motion.
Don’t post it. Well, this one may be hardest. The temptation to re-post things that outrage me or that explain my outrage is overwhelming. I love social media even when it makes me nuts. And, I most certainly am going to post this letter. But I’m going to wait until tomorrow to post it so there’s a bit of a cooling off time and I can re-think and edit and contemplate. And, I’m going to make a conscious, clear-headed choice about where I post it. It’ll go to my personal news feed, not to my Key West Island News Facebook page. Why? Because my friends might enjoy this. But the folks who follow Key West Island News? They, as they’ve told me clearly, want that to be a place they can come for a reminder that the world can be a good place.
And with that, Dear Connor, I am off to another board meeting. Thanks for listening to me as I worked my way through 2,000 words. Writing to you really does help me stay sane. Love you. See you soon for that surprise birthday party for your Dada.
“Dear Connor” is a collection of essays written for Connor Cunningham by his grandmother, Linda Grist Cunningham. I began writing these as my construct for making sense of the unraveling American community. Connor may never read them, nor might others; but they’ll help me distill solutions from the cacophony that passes for discourse in final crisis generational turning of America.