I first started writing this post early in June (here it is June 17th – somehow life fills up even when you’re in self-isolation and think you’re doing nothing), about a week after George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis as a result of a police knee on his neck for some 8 minutes and 46 seconds. I had the post in mind for a while and the administration’s actions finally undid my lethargy and drove me to write it. But once more or less finished, it no longer seemed relevant in the face of the continuing protests and the springing up of acknowledgements of systemic racism and promises to reform (and even a few actual actions in that direction) by a wide range of institutions. So I let the post sit. But I realize that the reason I drafted the post remains extant. So here it is. Here I’m “looking across the border” at the destruction of America’s constitutional institutions by the Trump administration and the Republican Senate, not at the demonstrations (to which I refer) and which cannot be considered absent reference to Canada’s own situation.
My family, my parents, my four year old sister and I, spent nearly eight unpleasant days crossing the Atlantic Ocean, emigrating to Canada from England in 1956. I was eight years old, forced to leave my home, even if with my family, and forced to leave behind the toys to which I had become most attached (particularly “Bear”, a bruin, who stood on his four paws who was probably smaller than he appears in my memory, but still too big to bring with us). What happened after we landed is another story, one I’m not telling here, except for the close relationship I subsequently developed with the idea of the United States of America, a conceptual impression comprised of hope and disappointment, progress and regression, commitment to civil rights and real-life echoes of times that should be past, all at the same time. Some of that idea was manifested in reality, but some of it was never really true.
And so my response to America has always been an ambivalent one, just as the relationship with my birth country, England, and my adopted country, Canada, has been. All of them have made me happy, sad and angry at different times. In Canada, my anger, my desire to make what I thought of as a good country overall, better, led me to activism. As far as the United States is concerned, a jumble of pleasurable holidays, enriching scholarly conferences and exciting political developments, on the one hand, and of shameful and unworthy actions, by individuals and groups and government actors, on the other, has complicated my response.
Even now, as the country appears to be sliding further into an autocracy, the past few weeks have leavened that perception. And yet it is hard to avoid the conclusion that these two developments are proceeding on parallel tracks, occasionally intersecting, travelling towards a showdown where only one — the testing of the fibre of democracy and the fighters against injustice — will triumph, at least in the short term. Those seeking to unravel the institutions that have made the United States a better place are in it for the long term – they have much to lose if they lose. Those energized, as have others before them, by an egregious wrong must maintain momentum over a very long period and must bring others with power with them or, having achieved some new progress, may dissipate, ready to rise again . Living through the ebb and flow of progressive change long ago planted the seed of cynicism, even while it has also lifted me.
Since 2016 and increasingly so, however, I look towards that complicated country and feel sadness. Anger, yes, but sadness that a place that carried promise, however, imperfectly, is risking reaching the end of its own democratic experiment.
Let me wax nostalgic for a while. The first vacation my family took, after coming to Canada, sometime in the first year after we arrived, as I recall, was a visit with my dad’s uncle and his family in Dearborn, Michigan. Uncle Tom had left the UK to come to the United States, although “fleeing” might have been a better term, since he had a price on his head, having served as a Black and Tan in Ireland, at least according to my dad who revelled in family storytelling. The Hughes family was lovely to us and the younger American Hugheses (their older son had a family of his own by then) and my mother kept in touch for quite some time, but eventually the connection lapsed.
That was my first introduction to the United States and from then on my life in one way or another was loosely intertwined, personally, academically, and politically. Travelling began with that trip to Michigan and later family trips took us to Boston, New York City, Washington, D.C. We went by bus or train because we didn’t have a car when I was growing up. Of course, when we visited Niagara Falls, we crossed over to the American side, including with visitors from England. It was so easy in those days.
I recall in high school (or was it grade 8) going to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, for a youngster developing a (casual) interest in art a wondrous opportunity. Our grade 12 history teacher took us to New York City, ostensibly to visit the United Nations, but she also had us accompany her to Greenwich Village to listen to jazz. As I dawdled behind everyone else, I suddenly felt a hand on my arm, which dropped when someone else chortled, “she’s not worth it”. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I spent the little money I had ($5.00 — it seemed a lot and I guess it was for me, since it would be $35 now), on a replica of a small and lively Greek horse, possibly bronze? possibly from the 6th C. BC? (I’ve lost the box with the information), which sits on a shelf in my living room today.
Much later my companion and I took the turns and curves on the Pacific Coast Highway, stayed in a little rooftop cabin in San Francisco with a view of Fisherman’s Wharf (no doubt very different 30 years ago from how I see it described now filled with “schlocky tourist shops, overpriced and underwhelming restaurants, buskers in your face”), spent Canadian Thanksgiving in Vermont at an Inn where they served us all to a Canadian Thanksgiving dinner, made short trips to New York, Boston, Chicago (enjoyed for the first time since I’d attended a political science conference many years before) and again, Washington, DC. Two week driving trips in the east, down to Savannah, Georgia and Charlotte, North Carolina, and thereabouts and to Santa Fe and back were all memorable. On the trip to Santa Fe, for example, a couple at the next table told us about the early morning trip balloon festival outside Albuquerque, where we walked around the huge baskets as the balloonists inflate the balloons and the burners light up as the sun rises.
We’ll never forget the terrifying drive across the mountains during an early blizzard as we circled home from Santa Fe through Wyoming, arriving at the Holiday Inn at about 10 pm, about 5 hours after we expected to, only to have a state trooper come up behind us and check the back of the pick-up truck we were driving because they’d received a call about a truck with a Canadian licence plate with an out of season deer in the back; we figured some hunters who had been at the same gas station and convenience store we had reached coming out of the blizzard had called in illegal hunting, helpfully reporting our licence plate: a prank? that’s the best explanation, so let’s leave it at that. One look and the trooper knew it wasn’t us (if it was anyone). One way to relieve tension!
When I was muddling through a major dilemma in my life, I spend two fall weeks at Goose Rocks Beach in Maine, in the off season, running on the beach every day and cycling to the only place nearby that was still serving dinner. And we enjoyed wonderful big New Year and Labour Day parties with our friends in Ohio who lived on a large property in a log house that made you forget they resided in a subdivision — breakfast and dinner nearly always led us to discussions about US politics (as did their trips to Toronto), although the prospect of a Trump presidency brought us to agreement, albeit perhaps for different reasons. Sadly, our male friend, Doug, died suddenly a few years ago; we keep in touch with Linda who called us recently to check in during the pandemic, which is no respecter of borders.
Back to earlier days and a different connection with the US. By 1968 I was in university and then and later as I began teaching university myself, first in political science and then in law, I took for granted that some of my scholarly work would take place or begin at conferences in the United States. And so they did. In fact, I considered moving there to teach political science. At one interview, a southern gentleman faculty member asked whether I had participated marches — and what I was marching about; I was not surprised to not get that job for several reasons, not least of which they wanted someone to teach American politics! The other interview was at a small liberal arts college in upstate New York and I might have gone there had I been offered the position (I still have the letter that in a most over complimentary way explained they had not received the funding to hire or they would have offered me the position — the road not taken or, more accurately, not offered).
I had the good fortune to exchange ideas with American (and other) academics when I crossed the border to make several presentations during the years I was Chair in Women and Law at UNB Law. The Gender Issues in Higher Education Conference in Vermont in 1995, the Making and Unmaking History Conference at the University of Southern California, the Women and Law Conference in San Francisco and the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in Washington, D.C., all in 1998, and the Feminism and Law Summer Workshop at Cornell in 1999, all of which enriched my work through collaboration with US colleagues.
The trips and conferences make it seem as if my only sense of the US was very much consistent with a pleasant life, but of course this was only part of the picture. Amidst all this have been the events that painted a darker picture and always floated as an undertone to the good times.
By the late sixties, my interest in politics had blossomed both in Canada and the US. I became a “Kennedy kid”, not so unusual, I think, for my generation. All of us worried we were at the edge of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis (I shudder to think what the outcome might have been had the crisis occurred today), a time of tension and fear that rivals any event since. I came out of my physics exam in November 1963 to learn that President Kennedy had been assassinated and spent the weekend immersed in the coverage, unusual in those days for being continuous. I was watching when Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald. And less than five years later, the shootings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968 and Robert Kennedy in June (the anniversary of whose death has just occurred as I write this and as the BlackLivesMatter demonstrations fill the news). I was just short of 20 years old and I felt as if the world had ended. And in some ways maybe it had, since Richard Nixon won the election in 1968. Marching against the VietNam and (first) Iraq wars, closely keeping track of the fight against abortion rights and reproductive choice more generally, including the bombing of abortion clinics, the constant efforts by states to water down the impact of Roe v. Wade that continue today.
And all along, both before my own interest and long after it, have been the ongoing injustices against Black Americans. I can remember sitting in my family’s living room with my grandmother watching demonstrations and riots and Gran asking me, “what do these n…..s want?” The killing of Medgar Evers, a black civil rights leader, about this time in June, 1963, by a member of the White Citizens’ Council in Jackson, Mississippi and the murders of four young girls in a church bombing in the same year; the abduction and killing of three civil rights workers in Mississippi as part of the 1964 summer voter registration drive that followed the murder of Evers (one white man was convicted in 2005); and others, including many whose killers were either never found or otherwise escaped justice. (A list of black and white men and women and children killed from 1955 to 1968 by white supremacists can be found on the Southern Poverty Law Center website.)
As for the police — and national guard — brutality against demonstrators protesting, in the immediate the death of George Floyd and in the longer term, the killings of so many Black men and women and children in the United States, it is not the first time we’ve seen it. Seared in my mind are the images of the police using dogs and water cannon against Vietnam War demonstrators during the 1968 Democratic Convention, described by a senator on the Convention floor as “Gestapo tactics”. The police attacked tv commentators, seen on television. The shootings of students by the Ohio National Guard, killing four, at Kent State in May of 1970 during anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, and eleven days later the killing of two students, one a high school student, at Jackson State University in Mississippi, during violent demonstrations. That and more have also been part of the history of America in my lifetime.
And to today. We’ve been here before. I should be clear that I’m not implying that this is only a “United States problem” because of course it is not. Canada has its own history, but that is not what I’m writing about here. In fact, it is not really the history of police and white supremacists’ treatment of Black people in the United States that I’m writing about. I refer to it because knowledge of this, too, along with vacations, scholarly conferences and political interest marks “my” relationship with the United States. And while I was disappointed that a woman with the potential to become the first female president had been unsuccessful in the primaries, so does the election of the first Black president, a thing of joy and excitement. Yet touted as evidence of a post-racial America — it was never that — Barack Obama’s election was, it seems, too much for too many Americans to bear (including Donald Trump who hounded him with the “birtherism” lie), providing in a certain way an impetus, among others, for the eventual emergence of a president who is a throwback to an America of many years before when life was, for those who support him, more clearly defined.
Disappointed though I might have been in 2008, at least initially, how much more devastating was the Electoral College win that gave Donald Trump the presidency over once again, a woman who looked as if she would be president and who did win the majority of votes. (And again, while not the subject of this post, the 2016 election was a reminder of the vexed shape of gender politics.)
Transcending all of this, mixed though it is, what breaks my heart is seeing the United States decline into autocracy. It was obvious that Donald Trump was going to be a president with no respect for institutions that stood guard over the presidency, no respect for other people, no respect for truth, no self-control, no regard for anything or anyone other than himself. But how much worse he has been than that. And more than one man, who might have been contained, who might have been removed, is the sight of American institutions peopled by men — and women — of dishonour in thrall to him and their own pursuit of power and privilege and the pursuit of the disadvantage of others.
It is not only that the president of the United States acts impulsively, on the basis of personal hurt (whether acts directed at individuals or at domestic or international governments); lacks knowledge about the institutions of government and of the norms and practices that are intended to protect democratic governance and does not care to know; surrounds himself with enablers and others who, like him, seek only personal benefit from decisions; governs only to please those Americans who believe themselves to be aggrieved and who sense in him a kindred spirit whose outlook on the world is controlled by his pathetic sense of grievance; while hugging the Stars and Stripes, carries the metaphorical banner of those who brazenly wield torches and guns in pursuit of supremacist and fascist ideologies, who have sought effectively to overturn a state government by force; lacks a moral compass, empathy or compassion; tears apart international alliances yet cozies up to autocrats; brings troops into the streets to abuse peaceful protesters; cynically uses religion in pursuit of support from those who rely on their religious beliefs to bar the equality of others; not only incompetently but also cavalierly botches the response to the coronavirus pandemic; and flaunts his disregard of the rule of law and specific laws.
He is all these things and he is a president who through ignorance, deceit, callousness, avoidance of penalties to come and with the backing of those who align with his goals and benefit from him — including the other institutions that should provide some equilibrium — seeks to destroy the fabric that contained the hope, if not always the realization, of a better nation because otherwise that fabric would destroy him.
These last few weeks, though, have provided the president with the opportunity to display his insistence on the exercise of power, a naked commitment to using militia to destroy those who oppose him and what he represents. His brazen and provocative decisions to hold his first rally in some time in Tulsa, Oklahoma, famous for a 1921 race massacre and his nominating convention in Jacksonville, Florida, where 60 years ago, Blacks participating in a lunch counter sit-in were chased through the streets with ax handles and baseball bats by white segregationists led by the Ku klux Klan are frightening evidence that he intends to continue on the same path.
(Only considerable pushback made him change the date of his rally from Juneteenth, a date commemorating the end of slavery. And Trump’s nomination acceptance speech, to be given on the 60th anniversary of the ax handle riot, has been moved to Jacksonville from Charlotte because the governor of North Carolina, where most of the convention will occur, refused to agree to waive coronavirus precautions.)
Other ways of dealing with everything that is wrong with this presidency have failed. The November election looms. Already, vote suppression has made it clear that a democratic means to returning the United States to a different path is no sure thing. And Trump’s behaviour has not unreasonably raised concerns that even if he loses, he will not easily leave the White House.
One day historians will be able to explain how America reached the state it has reached now and how this state became its way of being. We watch it happen daily, yet it is hard to credit how feeble the institutional checks and the institutions of democracy are, how easily dismantled or ignored. It is hard now to untangle the morass of ongoing conduct that has led the country here.
As I watch the demonstrations and, indeed, the efforts of some segments of American society (and Canadian) to trip over themselves to respond to the allegations of systemic racism, I feel some hope. The demonstrations are more diverse than the many that preceded them, the responses coming from many different sources, including apparently entrenched institutions, and in some cases they have provided the opportunity to register voters. Yet these responses do not come from those who have been dismantling the structures of governance, who have been acting cruelly and deceptively. On the contrary.
And so, despite some hope, my overwhelming response to all that has occurred quickly and unrelentingly, throughout the very few years since 2016, remains the sadness that comes with a broken heart.