Archbishop Desmond Tutu has defined hope as “being able to see that there is light despite all the darkness”.
It is difficult to find such light amid the darkness of the recent events in Charlottesville and their aftermath.
But such dark times are certainly not unprecedented in the history of our American neighbours.
Two hundred and fifty-five years ago, 56 rebellious colonists courageously broke their allegiance with a powerful monarch who they felt had been treating them unjustly. In what was an act of treason, they declared and justified their independence with the following words:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Fewer than ninety years later, the nation that emerged from that rebellion found itself engaged in a highly destructive civil war, caused largely by a failure to achieve those founding principles. In a brief but highly influential speech their leader at the time, Abraham Lincoln, justified the struggle and sacrifice by re-affirming those founding principles. He spoke of a nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated tothe proposition that all men are created equal”,and vowed that his nation would have “a new birth of freedom” ensuring that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
About a hundred years later, that same nation found itself again engaged in civil unrest arising from unresolved racial tensions and failed attempts to finally achieve its founding ideals. On a hot August day, standing at the base of a memorial dedicated to the very same President Lincoln, the Reverend Martin Luther King said:
“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood”
In each case, the authors of these words were not expressing the realities of their times. Far from it. Rather they were giving eloquent expression to what they believed to be the values to which their nation, and any truly just society, should strive. They were expressing an aspiration, which faithful believers would contend, should remain in the collective consciousness, guiding decisions to continually approach the goal of full equality. Put simply, they were expressing hope.
This time, there is no soaring, inspirational eloquence recalling higher ideals and keeping hope alive. In fact, the actions and words of the current leadership evoke quite the opposite. Many, both within and without the borders of the United States, must be wondering whether the great American experiment in democracy and individual freedom has finally “perished from the earth”? Was the goal expressed in the original declaration (ironically penned by the most famous former citizen of Charlottesville) and re-affirmed so many times over the years, simply too much to expect of any group of mortal, flawed people. Where’s the hope?
For me, at least, hope was re-kindled in a single image captured by an amateur photographer with her cellphone, It depicts a Charlottesville police officer, himself African-American, standing guard at a barricade maintaining order despite the actions of those “protestors” whose overtly racist attitudes would bring harm to him and those closest to him.
Photo by Jill Mumie
The officer, Darius Nash, later wrote in response to his unexpected notoriety:
“I don’t feel like I’m a hero for it…I swore to protect my city and that’s what I was there to do. I don’t think it makes me a hero, just doing what I believe in.”1
At the same time that this police officer was doing what he believed in, his president and Commander-in-Chief was reluctant to condemn the actions of the other folks in this image and was finding fault in those who challenged them.
Who, of these two, is truly representative of today’s America? One would normally presume that the words and actions of the elected leader of a free people would represent the collective values of that nation. Hope for continuation of the American dream, it would seem, rests on whether the attitudes of this great people are best and most accurately expressed by its current president, or by the words and actions of a Charlottesville police officer.
I, for one, chose to believe, or hope, it’s the policeman. Like many Canadians, I follow American history and events closely. I know and count as friends (and even family members) many Americans. I have, for a time, lived among them. I have found that the vast majority of Americans are fair, decent and tolerant people. They are candid and pragmatic in addressing their social issues. They are proud of their nation and believe in its founding principles. They have been through remarkably difficult challenges and their political structures, although imperfect, have proven resilient under both internal and external threat. Ultimately, they are not a people to stand idly by and watch their values corrupted.
And we’re already seeing signs of that resolve.
Former presidents GHW Bush, GW Bush2 and Obama3 have all issued statements condemning bigotry and re-affirming the principles of equality – astounding gestures that attempt to fill the moral vacuum left by their successor.
Prominent business leaders, such as Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier, have resigned from influential presidential advisory panels4, risking loss of influence and the ire of the standing president.
Many athletes and celebrities have refused honours and invitations to the White House in protest5.
Most recently, more enlightened forces seem to be emerging in the White House itself, resulting in the firing of Steve Bannon, Chief strategist and former election campaign chair who was a driving force in this administration’s nationalistic, anti-globalization and anti-environmental agenda6. Mr. Bannon, one might recall, was formerly executive chairman of Breitbart News, which promoted the efforts and collaboration of “alt-right” groups such as neo-Nazis7.
So perhaps the tide is beginning to turn. Governments are like huge ocean-going vessels, built for the long voyage and therefore slow to adjust course.
In the words of Mr. Bannon, related to the Weekly Standard after his firing, “The Trump presidency that we fought for and won, is over”8.
Let’s hope that he’s at least right about that.
Anthony J. Sanfilippo, MD, FRCP(C)
Undergraduate Medical Education
- Globe and Mail, Aug 19, 2017