Christmas 2016

On this Christmas Day, thoughts of peace, hope and love naturally come to mind. But it would be wrong to idealize what occurred in the small town of Bethlehem over two thousand years ago through the gauzy mist of history. Yes, if you are Christian, a truly miraculous event occurred on that day. The Son of God was immaculately conceived and born to a young Jewish woman. Even our Muslim brethren believe – according to the Quoran — that Jesus was a truly great Jewish prophet who was immaculately conceived when God breathed life into the Virgin Mary’s womb. Of course, Muslims believe that this great prophet was later eclipsed by the Prophet Mohammad, but that’s another story for another day. After all, this is Christmas.
Over two thousand years later, it is important for us to remember that these dangerous and troubled times we live in are not dissimilar to the world into which Jesus was born. Oppressive local despots dominated much of the Roman Empire, ruling with an iron grip with the consent of the Roman Emperor Augustus, so long as they dutifully paid taxes and tribute to Rome. In Judea, Herod the Great was appointed as King of the Jews by Rome. A census was underway, which is why Joseph and Mary were traveling back to Joseph’s birthplace in Bethlehem so that they could be properly recorded in the census.
Their circumstances were exceedingly precarious. Joseph and Mary were engaged, but not married, and yet Mary was almost nine months pregnant with child. Imagine what Joseph and Mary must have thought, since they knew full well that they had never had carnal relations, and yet here she was pregnant! Very upsetting, to be sure. And this meant that the couple was about to have a child out of wedlock, which no doubt drew criticism from devout Jews all along the arduous route that they were travelling. Long distance travel was hard enough at the time in the best of circumstances, but travelling while pregnant must have made the ordeal almost intolerable. On top of all this, when they finally made it to Bethlehem, no doubt exhausted from trip, they couldn’t even get a room at the inn. The Inn was either fully occupied with other travelers, or the innkeeper didn’t feel it was appropriate to give a room to an unmarried couple, with the woman obviously pregnant.
Sleeping in a manger may sound romantic from a distance, but did you ever try sleeping in a barn filled with farm animals mucking about? Believe me, it is no picnic. Of course, a visit from the Magi and a few shepherds who followed a shining star to Bethlehem provided a welcome break, but giving birth in a barn without the benefit of an anesthetic or even a mid-wife to assist must have been close to torture for Mary. It’s a miracle that the mother and boy both survived the ordeal relatively intact.
But this was just the beginning of their troubles. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Herod ordered the execution of all young male children in the vicinity of Bethlehem, so as to avoid the loss of his throne to a newborn King of the Jews whose birth had been announced to him by the three Wise Men, also known as the Magi.
Herod himself, according to Matthew, had directed the Magi to Bethlehem, and instructed them to report back to him if in fact they found the king they were looking for. However, after they found Jesus and honored him, they were warned by an angel not to alert Herod, and they returned home by another route. When the Magi had gone, another angel appeared to Joseph in a dream, directing him to get up and take the child and his mother to Egypt, which he did.
When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old or under, in accordance with the time frame he had learned from the Magi. This has come to be known as the Slaughter of the Innocents. Jesus and his family escaped only because they were in Egypt, where they remained until Herod’s death. And when they returned to Judea, the peaceful and tranquil life of a carpenter didn’t last very long for Jesus. He started preaching the gospel of love and peace, and performed a few miracles, but his temper sometimes got the better of him, like when he threw the money changers out of the Temple. And then the inevitable happened. He was too much a threat to the Jewish and Roman authorities that he had to be silenced, in brutal fashion. Crucifixions have apparently gone out of fashion as a strategy for both punishment and torture, but President-elect Trump has promised that waterboarding “and worse” will continue under his watch, and the Guantanamo Bay facility will continue to be very much open for business, despite the dearth of actionable intelligence that our “enhanced stress” techniques have been produced. But that is not really the point, is it? For thousands of years, torture has primarily been used to humiliate and degrade other human beings to the point where they can be viewed as sub-human. It degrades both the torture victim and the torturer, and yet our so-called “civilization” has not progressed to the point where torture, beheadings and mass killings are a thing of the past. They are very much with us still in the present, and at the rate we are going, we can expect them to be with us for the foreseeable future.
As the French proverb goes, “The more things change, the more they remain the same.” Just last week, the world watched in horror and frustrated impotence as hundreds if not thousands of innocents were killed in the siege of East Aleppo in Syria. The Assad Regime, Iran and Russia seemed to have formed a winning coalition, and in an uncertain world, one certainty is that the Syrian conflict will be continue to be as ugly and brutish in 2017 as it has been in 2016. Russia will continue its efforts to rebuild its Empire by absorbing parts of Ukraine and perhaps other neighboring states, and it is doubtful that, with Western Europe in disarray and a President Trump in the White House, any of the traditional “liberal democracies” will have the inclination or political will to stop the steady spread of authoritarianism throughout the world.
The prospects for the coming year are beak, but not totally hopeless. America has seen dark days before and survived – indeed, thrived – through periods of turmoil and depression. We survived a Civil War, a Great Depression, two World Wars, and even a Great Recession, so there is no reason to believe that continuing a permanent war footing against terrorism and a Trump Presidency will do us in. After all, short of a nuclear Armageddon, there is really nothing that a President Trump can do to permanently damage and dismantle our democratic institutions. Unlike his idol, Vladimir Putin, an American President has vast powers, but not total power. We still have a system of checks and balances, and if his real intention, as signaled by his Cabinet appointments, is to dismantle or neuter the EPA, Department of Energy, the Interior and Labor Departments, and other agencies that have served the country well for decades, then he will have a serious fight on his hands, and the Democrats in Congress and even some sensible Republicans have vowed to fight to the death to preserve these essential elements of our modern democracy and social system.
But nothing is pre-ordained. Nothing is for certain, and nothing can be taken for granted. We may wish to think that America is so special that its continued existence is part of some Great Cosmic Plan, but the reality is that history teaches us that empires rise and empires fall, and none to date have lasted forever. We have collectively assumed that America is an exception to this inexorable rule, and only time will tell whether American Exceptionalism is a reality or just a myth. The truth is that America has survived and thrived for over 200 years because each generation of Americans has faced and overcome the challenges that faced this great nation. Preserving our democratic ideals and institutions is hard work, and just when we thought that we were making progress in eradicating the last vestiges of racism, bigotry and prejudice in this country, we have been shocked out of our complacency by a Presidential campaign that seemed to be driven by divisiveness and the worst impulses of our human nature. With the raw divisions exposed in our country, we are poised to move forward or backwards, but will never be the same again. America has gone backwards before, and it could do it again. It is entirely up to us. The Civil War was followed by Reconstruction, where the freed slaves in the South were given civil and voting rights, albeit under the watchful eye of occupying federal forces. When the federal troops were withdrawn in 1877, as part of the Great Compromise that propelled Rutherford B. Hayes into the White House, the Jim Crow laws largely stripped African-Americans of their civil and voting rights, reducing many of them back to virtual peonage and snatching the American Dream from their grasp.
Someone once said that each generations of Americans have gotten the President that was needed, or the one that they deserved. Perhaps a President Trump is what America deserves. It is a country as deeply divided as at any time in our country’s history since the Civil War. There are Blue States on both coasts, and mostly Red States in between, with virtually no one willing or able to talk to or listen to the other side. There is much shouting, posturing and bombast abroad in the land, but not much thoughtful reflection on what path we should take to restore and reinvigorate our democratic institutions and to heal the wounds that so deeply divide us.
Only eight short years ago, America and the world were filled with hope that President Obama would be able to unite Americans and bridge the deep gorges that seemed to divide us. Remember the talk about there not being Red States or Blue States, only the United States? It seems so long ago. The Great Recession was in full swing, with the economy and financial system in a virtual free-fall. A massive stimulus program had to be quickly put in place that gave the American people an ownership share, at least on a temporary basis, of huge chunks of the auto industry and the financial sector. The economy and financial structure survived, and have actually thrived since those dark days. The economy has been expanding at a steady pace, and unemployment is down nationwide. Nevertheless, the pace of economic recovery has varied greatly throughout the country, with the East and West Coasts generally surging and leading the recovery, while the rural and traditional manufacturing centers of the Midwest and South lagging far behind. These Forgotten Americans – largely white and generally not very well educated or skilled – who voted overwhelmingly for Trump. They can be forgotten no more. Whether Trump genuinely was concerned about the plight of these Forgotten Americans or not, only time will tell. All indications seem to be that they will be forgotten once again as the Trump Administration is rapidly filling up with billionaires and plutocrats who don’t care one whit about the average unemployed or underemployed white men and women who turned out in droves for the Trump rallies throughout Middle America and still proudly wear their Make America Great Again hats and tee-shirts. Boy, are they in for a rude shock when Trump and the Republican Establishment repeals the Affordable Care Act, privatizes Social Security and Medicare, and wages war on ordinary working people through their own Labor Department.
Only time will tell. In the meanwhile, let’s do more than just hope for the best. We must redouble our efforts in the coming year to do everything in our power to preserve and protect our democratic principles and institutions, which are proving to be far more fragile than anticipated. When asked what kind of government we have, Benjamin Franklin, emerging from the Continental Congress, said: “A Democracy, if you can keep it.”
American Exceptionalism is over. We are but one of several Western liberal democracies that are under severe stress and susceptible to the siren call of national populist leaders that promise a return to the good old days that either never were or will never be again. Trump’s call to fearful Americans that a ban on Muslim immigration or the building of a Wall will save them from the ravages of a rapidly changing future is as seductive as it is hollow. But we will survive Trump as we have survived numerous other trials over time. The Democratic Resistance Movement is alive and well, and the Democratic Party will finally be forced to renew the faith of the Forgotten Americans who once were an essential part of their coalition. Then America will truly be Greater, not Again, but Greater than it ever was.
Dated: December 25, 2016
Charleston, South Carolina

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