Later today Hamilton, the most joyous affirmation of America and its values in decades, will win a bunch of Tonys. It will do so in the shadow cast by the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando this morning. The two sides of America come head to head - the decency, the hope, the possibility of change slams right into the hate, the fear and the inexplicable availability of guns.
I consider myself a patriot. I believe in America, and I believe in the dreams of the Founding Fathers. I believe that America is an idea, and that it’s a dynamic idea, one that is intended to grow and change over time. I believe that, despite our flaws and our atrocities - of both the distant past and of more recent days - we are a great nation built on robust values and with a system wisely designed to be adjustable. Every problem in this country can be overcome with hard work, dedication and citizen involvement. I love this country.
At the same time I am filled with despair about this country. Since the 1980s I have watched as cynical politicians have ceded our national character to racists, bigots, homophobes and reactionary religious fundamentalists. I have taken some pleasure in seeing the wingnuts consume and destroy the party that let them in, but at the same time I have been depressed to watch the progressive side of the political spectrum being dragged towards the right by the inescapable gravitational pull of Bible-based hate and gun fundamentalism. When they came to power the Moral Majority called themselves the Silent Majority, claiming that most Americans agreed with them. I don’t believe that was true then, and I don’t believe it’s true now. But that rhetoric was able to get their core mobilized, and it has made a difference in this country that we still feel today, that leaves us bleeding in Orlando this morning. Too many of us sat by and let it happen.
With every advance we make I see a hundred steps back. Eight years after we elected our first black president racism is more present and bold than ever in my lifetime. The nominee of one of the two major parties regularly spouts blatantly racist rhetoric, saying things that have led even members of his own party to distance themselves from him (too few, I must say). As the first woman to be nominated to run for president prepares her campaign misogyny and sexism becomes so rampant that it infects not just our politics but our pop culture and even our legal system (Judge Aaron Persky, I’m looking at you). And as gay marriage becomes the law of the land state after state begins enacting draconian, hate-motivated anti-trans laws.
And then Orlando.
There’s still a lot to be learned about the asshole who committed this crime, but much of it is window dressing. The vital facts: he was a crazed homophobe who had easy access to a weapon of mass murder. Are 50 lives saved if the gunman didn’t have access to a gun? Are 50 lives saved if the gunman wasn’t living in a society where people are demonized and othered because of who they love? Are 50 lives saved if the gunman’s history of violence made the system take notice and get him help? I think so.
Those are all the ways that America failed. It’s hard to look at that and feel hopeful. It’s hard to look at the insane tweets Donald Trump made in the aftermath of the massacre and feel like this country is going the right way. It’s really easy to throw up your hands and give up and strap in for the rest of the trip to hell.
But the story didn’t end when the police killed the gunman. The story didn’t end when the bodies started being tallied. The story hasn’t ended yet, and the next chapter of it has given me hope: we have seen videos of long lines of people waiting to give blood to the critically injured survivors. These people are not gay, and I can tell you that for a fact because the law does not allow gay people to give blood if they have had sex in the past year (I know, I know, it makes you want to just throw in the towel all over again). These people are good people, stepping up to help in the only way they know how. They’re making a difference in the lives not only of strangers but of strangers who are different from them. Strangers who conservative politicians have spent years pillorying, oppressing and making a target for murder.
Those people are Americans.
If America is an idea that means the way we think about that idea can make a difference. Since Ronald Reagan allowed the Trojan horse of the Moral Majority into the GOP we have seen how that idea can be poisoned by those whose values are explicitly and undeniably not only anti-American but also anti-Christ. It is time for us to take that idea back and return to its basic roots: a nation built on freedom and equality, based on the premise of people coming together for the common good, working together to build something better than themselves that can benefit all of humanity, regardless of race, color, religion, gender or sexuality.
The beauty of America is that it can get better. It has gotten better. The nation was born in compromise, with racism baked in from day one, but for generations we have struggled to transcend those origins, and we have a history of success, even if that history is littered with tragic failures. The Constitution was designed not to be set in stone, unchanging, but to flower and bloom with the country. There’s a reason why you don’t have to be a landowner to vote anymore - because we have recognized that the blueprint of America has to be altered with changing times.
America is in the middle of one of those periods when change is possible. Big change. It’s not unlike the Civil Rights Era, complete with all the chaos and heartbreak that defined the time. We have a clear choice before us this year, a choice between a candidate who is more moderate and corporate than I would ever like and a candidate who tweets this in the hours after 50 people are murdered:
Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism, I don't want congrats, I want toughness & vigilance. We must be smart!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 12, 2016
The choice is easy for me, especially today. One party is led by that guy, and their national political platform is explicitly homophobic and anti-gun control. The other party... isn't.
I know that for some of my fellow progressives this spring has been a disheartening and disillusioning one. They learned that the system is designed to protect itself and the people in it, and I hope that they take the correct lesson from that: get into the system. Make your vote count. Don’t only get involved on a national level but on a state, city and neighborhood level. Things have gotten where they are with our silent consent; we haven’t paid enough attention to what is happening locally, we haven’t supported change on a micro enough level. I have voted in every presidential election since I was eligible, but I have certainly sat out midterms and smaller races, and that makes me part of the problem. I felt that ten years spent in activism, my life before film criticism, was me paying my dues. I was wrong: just as the struggle to achieve a more perfect union is never-ending, so is the need for me to do my civic duty.
Rather than give in to the despair that Orlando brings to me, I’m going to use the positivity of Hamilton to remind me why I love this country and why it’s worth fighting for. I'm going to remember that I am part of a 240 year battle to realize the ideals of America, and that while I may not see the end of the fight I'm proud to do my part. I’m going to remind myself that despite the problems and the missteps and the tragedies and the sins we have committed against our own people, we still have the ability to rise up and rise above. We are a nation built on the idea that we can always do better, and I will spend the next few months doing what I can to convince my fellow citizens to do better. To get more involved. To be active. To give money to progressive groups who seek to increase equality and love. To stand against racist, homophobic demagogues and all those who believe the American way should filled with hatred and cruelty.
We can still save America.
Header image via Columbia University Mailman School for Public Health. Check out the study that says anti-gay laws negatively impact the health of LGBTQ people living under them.