“Saved at the last minute” is pretty much the story of our culture.
It’s built into our major salvationist religions, particularly Christianity and Islam. Even when killed or facing death, Jesus and Muhammed managed to ascend to heaven at the last minute and claim eternal life.
By this worldview, no matter how terrible a life you’ve lived, if you say a handful of magic words at the last minute before you die, you’re guaranteed a spot in paradise. There’s always the last minute.
It’s at the core of most all of our fiction, and a good chunk of our nonfiction. In the old Greek dramas it was deus ex machina — the god in the machine — when Our Hero was finally trapped in an impossible situation but then a platform is cranked down from the ceiling of the amphitheater with a god on it, who waves his hand and makes everything okay again.
In our modern movies and novels, it’s the last-minute discovery of the cure, a take-down of the bad guy, or the discovery of the fatal chink in the aliens’ armor. It’s the miraculous oil that keeps the menorah burning bright through the crisis or the earthquake that brought down Jericho’s walls.
Even in the field of nonfiction, nearly every book — no matter how dire its topic — wraps up with a section or chapter that essentially offers the “here’s what you can do” solutions to everything from acne to climate change to the fascist takeover of America.
This belief that something or someone will ultimately save us no matter how badly we screw things up is why we’re procrastinating with climate change and fossil fuels. It’s why we’re hooked on lotteries. It’s presumably why Merrick Garland put off doing anything about Trump for two years, apparently thinking Congress would rid him of that “meddlesome priest.” It’s why we celebrate Jack Smith, our savior.
There are fundamental issues that brought us to the verge of fascism and we’re ignoring them every day:
— Income inequality and the role of tax cuts in it.
— Worker insecurity and the role of the GOP war on unions.
— A climate-change-driven refugee crisis on our Southern Border.
— Political bribery by our Predator Class and the corrupt Citizens United decision.
— Billionaires and foreign governments buying politicians.
— Media consolidation under the control of rightwing billionaire families.
— Corporate monopolies.
— Racism, homophobia, and misogyny.
We ignore them all because we believe “somebody will eventually save us” so we don’t need to do the hard work of putting our nation, our working class, and our democracy back together.
For most of my life, religious salvationists have disparaged those of us who consider ourselves both spiritual and religious but don’t buy the salvationist aspects of our monotheistic religions. They mistakenly reverse the arrow of causation, arguing that without religion there can be no morality when in fact religion plagiarized morality from every human society that has ever existed.
Genuine morality is deeply buried in our collective psyche, and doesn’t require a savior figure or grand discovery to bring it to the surface.
As much as it pains me to say it (my personal urge toward salvationism is as strong as anybody else’s), nobody is coming to save us.
Salvationists take that as a statement of resignation, of surrender to crises bigger than we are. I take it as both a challenge and an opportunity. By abandoning reliance on others for our salvation from climate change, income inequality, political corruption, and all the other ills of our modern society, we can then shift responsibility for our future to the people most capable of doing something about these problems: ourselves and the governments we can influence.
Joe Biden is not going to save us, and neither are Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. Without entire movements of people like you and me behind them, politicians are relatively impotent: we are the ones who have to save our nation and the world.
Don’t despair. Moments of crisis are also moments when the possibility of transformation is at its greatest.
When the Founders of this nation signed their own death warrants by publicly taking on the most powerful army and navy on Earth in 1776, they were no doubt worried. But they also saw it as a chance to create something wholly new.
As the author of the Declaration of Independence wrote in a June 5, 1824 letter to Major John Cartwright:
“Our Revolution commenced on more favorable ground [than the foundation of English or Biblical law]. It presented us an album on which we were free to write what we pleased. We had no occasion to search into musty records, to hunt up royal parchments, or to investigate the laws and institutions of a semi-barbarous ancestry. We appealed to those of nature, and found them engraved on our hearts.”
Similarly, an optimistic Thomas Paine wrote:
“The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind. … We have it in our power to begin the world over again. The birth-day of a new world is at hand.”
When Abraham Lincoln faced fully half the nation in armed rebellion holding to a fascist notion of America as a permanent nation of slaveholders, he wrote to a friend:
“The probability that we may fall in the struggle ought not to deter us from the support of a cause we believe to be just; it shall not deter me.”
When Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president in 1932, the Republican Great Depression was approaching its zenith; a third of Americans were out of work and hunger stalked the land. With just as much corrupt intent as we see today in Jim Jordan or Donald Trump, nakedly fascist politicians were preparing to carve the country up and split the spoils.
Which is why President Roosevelt told America in his first Inaugural Address:
“This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself–nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. … In such a spirit on my part and on yours we face our common difficulties.”
While Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt offered leadership during troubling times, in each case it was the people themselves to whom they reached and from whom they expected delivery from the nation’s enemies and crises.
And the American people didn’t let them down. We made it through the Revolution, the Civil War, and the Republican Great Depression, just like we will make it through this Trump- and Putin-fueled crisis of democracy.
In each of those three previous crises, American oligarchs stood up against democracy. They supported the British in the 1770s, the cotton barons in the 1860s, and even tried to kidnap and assassinate FDR in the 1930s.
Every time, they were held to account by the American people.
President Obama said it best, perhaps, in February 2008 when he was running for the Democratic nomination for president:
“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.
“We are the change that we seek. We are the hope of those boys who have so little, who’ve been told that they cannot have what they dream, that they cannot be what they imagine. Yes, they can.
“We are the hope of the father who goes to work before dawn and lies awake with doubt that tells him he cannot give his children the same opportunities that someone gave him. Yes, he can.
“We are the hope of the woman who hears that her city will not be rebuilt, that she cannot somehow claim the life that was swept away in a terrible storm. Yes, she can.
“We are the hope of the future, the answer to the cynics who tell us our house must stand divided, that we cannot come together, that we cannot remake this world as it should be.”
America has faced numerous challenges and difficulties on the way to becoming a multiracial pluralistic democratic republic. We’ve overcome most of them over time and moved forward, step by step, toward what the Preamble of our Constitution calls “a more perfect union.”
A washed up reality TV star and a handful of rightwing billionaires represent a current-day threat to our republic, but it’s not one we can’t overcome.
Trump and his lickspittles aren’t even a shadow of the power that the King of England held in 1776; can’t hold a candle to a brilliant tactician like Robert E. Lee (who we still defeated); and are hardly as powerful or convincing as Hitler or Mussolini.
That’s the marvelous and magical thing about democracy: it almost always finds a way to overcome obstacles and improve itself, even in the face of impossible odds and utter tyranny.
The only way we lose this country is if we give up. Which is why it’s now up to us — and we are not without passion or resources.
So let’s rededicate ourselves to the ideal expressed by Lincoln at Gettysburg:
“[T]hat this government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Pass it on…
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