Reflections on the Storming of the Capitol Yesterday

Langston Hughes (1902-1967) wrote in his poem Let America Be America Again:

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

 

(America never was America to me.)

 

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

 

(It never was America to me.)

 

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

 

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

 

…  [several verses omitted] …

 

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

 

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!

 

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

 

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!

This was one of the poems and prayers that was read last night at our “Vigil for peace, justice, and democracy.”  That’s just a name I could come up with on an hour’s notice.  What we did was “open” the sanctuary (via Zoom) so that people could come in and find comfort and perspective and maybe make a little sense of the day.  As one congregant reminded us, the last time we did this was 9/11.

Langston Hughes drives home the stark contrast between not only the responses to but the preparations in advance for the gathering of Black Lives Matter demonstrators last summer, versus Trump/MAGA demonstrators yesterday.  A huge gathering of Black people and their allies was reflexively viewed as a threat.  National Guard troops were deployed and ready. But thousands of White people were not seen as a threat.  Preparation was totally inadequate, even though the planning to instigate violence had taken place in very public places on the internet.  Few rioters were arrested; instead they were “squeezed” out of the Capitol into the Rotunda and escorted out.  Escorted out!  If you don’t recognize that as White Privilege in action, then please check your biases, because that’s exactly what it was. Here, CNN shows some of the stark contrasts between the Washington DC response to BLM in June and to MAGA in January.

The fact that Washington DC policing and National Guard are both under federal control means that responses to both gatherings were under the control of people, mostly white men, allied with the President.  (It may also be relevant that he appears to have been systematically gutting the leadership of federal agencies in the past few weeks, including that of the Pentagon, which had to sign off on the deployment of the National Guard.)  I am sure that this too fed into the utterly ineffective response to the violent assault on the Capitol.  Too little, too late.

Perhaps responding to yesterday with words and music seems minimal.  But words shape our world.  The President of the United States and his allies fomented rebellion (sedition) yesterday.  Unbelievable.  But the words that have manipulated such a large proportion of the US population into being willing followers have been flowing across the airwaves and cable and internet for decades.  In a similar way, the systematic demonization of Yitzchak Rabin by some Israeli Orthodox rabbis paved the way for Yigal Amir to murder Mr. Rabin and feel he was entirely justified in doing so.

In small part, the rise of partisan rhetoric in the US is due to the demise of the “Fairness Doctrine,” well-described on Snopes.com:

In 1949, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) published a report that recommended what came to be known as the “Fairness Doctrine.” As explained by the Congressional Research Service, the doctrine “consisted of two basic requirements” for anyone given a TV or radio broadcast license:

(1) that every licensee devote a reasonable portion of broadcast time to the discussion and consideration of controversial issues of public importance; and

(2) that in doing so, [the broadcaster must be] fair – that is, [the broadcaster] must affirmatively endeavor to make … facilities available for the expression of contrasting viewpoints held by responsible elements with respect to the controversial issues presented.

It had additional provisions:

The personal attack rule stated that when personal attacks were made on individuals involved in public issues, the broadcaster had to, within one week of the broadcast, notify the person attacked, provide him with a copy of the broadcast (either script or tape), and allow him an opportunity to respond over the broadcaster’s facilities.

The political editorial rule required that when a broadcaster endorsed a particular political candidate, the broadcaster was required to provide the other qualified candidates for the same office (or their representatives) the opportunity to respond over the broadcaster’s facilities.  (Snopes.com)

Unfortunately, the Fairness Doctrine never applied to cable, only the airwaves.  It could in theory have been expanded.  Instead, an attempt to codify the existing doctrine into law was vetoed by President Reagan in early 1987, and the FCC abolished the doctrine later that year.  But the rise of cable and then the internet would have made it irrelevant anyway.

For over thirty years, there has been very little legal oversight to rein in the words which flood our minds from outside, disguised as news.  A generation or two has grown up in a media ecosystem in which lies and hate speech have been twisting and manipulating the beliefs of large chunks of the citizenry.  Until finally, we have a President who was swept to power on the basis of these false beliefs, and who is trying to avoid relinquishing power by repeating lies that stoke those false beliefs.  And his words led directly to yesterday’s seditious riot.

Of all the private prayers of early rabbis which could have been added at the end of the Amidah (the Standing Prayer which is part of each Jewish service), this is the prayer codified in our prayerbook:

Elohai, n’stor l’shoni mey-rah…

My God, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking deceit.
Toward those who slander (or curse) me, may my soul remain still
And may my soul be like dust to all.*
Open my heart to Your Teaching/Torah,
And may my soul pursue Your mitzvot.
As for all who think evil of me,
Quickly cancel their designs and frustrate their schemes.
Act for Your own sake, act for the sake of Your right hand,
Act for the sake of Your holiness, act for the sake of Your Torah.
So that Your beloved will be rescued,
May Your right hand deliver, may You answer me.  (my translation)

*This tends to be a problematic instruction for women in our society, who have been taught too much self-effacement.

A powerful prayer, mostly about words.  It asks: Help me speak the good, and do it honestly!  Don’t let the taunts of others set my personal agenda. Help me to pay attention to meaningful and life-giving words.  And may other people’s evil plans, over which I have no control, not come to fruition.

We also sang or listened to Oseh Shalom, a prayer for peace, and words of Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav:  Kol ha-olam kulo gesher tsar m’od… All the world is a very narrow bridge, and the essential thing is not to be afraid.  At all.

Though it actually is ok to be afraid.  Just not to let fear or despair rule you.  Because despair is not an option.  And fear and worry are only useful if they motivate you to action.  

I asked folks last night what actions they were taking, to comfort themselves and to make a difference.  Responses included being with community and finding concrete actions to support what’s right.  One pointed us to the blog of Heather Cox Richardson, “Letters from an American.”  (You can read it without signing up.)  One said that just seeing me in the sanctuary was what they needed.  There’s a reason “sanctuary” means a place of safety and refuge.

We can also take comfort from knowing history better.   I have heard fellow Jews numerous times over the past 4-5 years comparing the US now to Germany in the 1930s.  There are certainly parts of the manipulative rhetoric which echo that which brought the Nazis to power.  The ascendency of a demagogue is reminiscent.  But there is one difference that I believe is meaningful:

When Hitler was appointed Chancellor in 1933, the German Republic was 16 years old.

Prior to that it had been ruled by an emperor, after the 1871 consolidation of numerous formerly-independent duchies, grand duchies, principalities, kingdoms, and a few free states.  Not until 1917 did Germany become a democracy.  

Whereas we, in the United States, are living in a democracy — imperfect as it is — that has been established for nearly 250 years.  (2026, folks.  5 years away.)  Our traditions run deep and our governmental and military structures are robust.

Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin today said that the rhetoric and feeling in the US right now remind her most of the time just after the election of President Lincoln, when many Southern states declared that they had dissolved their ties with the federal government of the United States and were creating their own confederation of states.  (I can’t give you a citation because my wife told me about it after seeing her on TV.  Sorry.)  This makes so much sense to me.  White Southerners believed that their way of life was under attack (it was) and that they had a right to take any actions necessary for its preservation.  Sound familiar?

I am positive that most of the people who went to Washington yesterday truly believed that they were there to defend democracy and the United States.  By observation, only a small minority (and overwhelmingly male, I’m sorry but it’s true) perpetrated violence and broke into the Capitol, though there was also violence and vandalism outside. There is no excuse for their violent and destructive actions, none whatsoever.  But as for the people who truly believe that the election was fraudulent and stolen — well, if you truly believed that, wouldn’t you feel compelled to act?

It is people’s minds and hearts that have to be won back to reality, and that will require a lot of work to rein in the manipulators.  In the meantime we also have to shut down the violence-mongers and their brazen communications.

At Troy’s annual interfaith service for the birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (which will be held on Zoom this year with a fantastic speaker, Kathleen McLean of Albany)  (and I’m sorry, TAUM doesn’t seem to have this year’s PR on the website yet.  The service will be at 3pm on Sunday of MLK weekend) … anyway, toward the end of the service we always stand and hold hands and sing “We Shall Overcome.”  We sing “We are not afraid.”  We sing “We’ll walk hand in hand.”  And we sing “Black and White together.”  

We sang “We Shall Overcome” last night.  And I said to the folks who had gathered, “We need to sing ‘Red and Blue together.'”  

And we did.  It sounds corny, but it is a deeply heartfelt prayer on my part.  Someone said on TV in the last day, I forget who and I paraphrase, “peace is not the absence of disagreement, it’s the absence of violence used to settle disagreement.”  That’s also my interpretation of this justly famous depiction of a better future:

And it shall come to pass in the end of days, That the mountain of the Eternal’s house shall be established as the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it.  and many peoples shall go and say: ‘Come and let us go up to the mountain of the Eternal, To the house of the God of Jacob; and God will teach us God’s ways, And we will walk in God’s paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth the law, And the word of the Eternal from Jerusalem.  And God shall judge between the nations, and shall decide for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks.  Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.  (Isaiah 2:2-4)

“And God shall judge between the nations, and shall decide for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks.”  There will still be need for judgement and decision, for discernment and mediation.  But rather than solving these problems with swords and spears, nations (and, we hope, individuals) will have learned to manage their disputes in a non-violent manner. 

May that day come soon!