Waking from the American Dream


THINGS LEARNED AS A CHILD: when flag passes in a parade, or when it is brought into the room/stadium/meeting in a formal manner, when singing the Star Spangled Banner, or when reciting the Pledge of Allegiance: stand up, take off your hat with your right hand, and, with the same hand, cover your heart with your hat until the flag has passed or the singing/recitation has ended. When displayed, the Flag Code of the USA is to be followed. Equally, the flag is not to be worn nor are clothes based on the flag to be designed or worn (although the thematic elements – stripes, stars, etc – can be used). This latter tradition went out of popular usage in the 70s and so, today, garish shirts, pants, ties, scarves, hats, patches, etc are all to be found and worn – especially in the high summer of our patriotism. But also, no one else pays any attention to the quaint rules of public piety in our state religion. In a way, we grew up, but though some of the trappings changed, the system has stayed the same.

Although my High School social studies classes only discussed the ways the South was racist, the first time I saw the Chicago towers and the same constructions on the fringes of NYC, I knew racism was in the North as well. Later, I learned about the racism of our first European settlers, and then the continued maltreatment of aboriginal residents of this Stolen Land. The Cultural Myths of the Tabula Rosa and Manifest Destiny gave rise to our imperialism and our racism. The original sin of the Americas is not slavery, but entitled occupation. Entitlement – I can have that because I want it – is the sin of our first parents and the credo of our American culture. Racism is only a symptom, but it seems to be our dominant one.

The Recent Electoral Unpleasantness which resulted in the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue provided us a with a choice between two persons who equally despised at least half of the electorate in a public manner. I’m not privy to their hearts, but I imagine that figure was closer to 95% in terms of private feelings unexpressed in their “baskets of deplorables” and “nasty women”. 4 years later, I cannot imagine the gaslighting, the internecine bickering, or the social dissensions would be any worse – or better – had the outcome been opposite. The last real policy change I remember was when Nixon opened China. Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush Jr, Obama, and Trump have changed nothing except the political tone of voice and their choice of shills vrs dupes. As we rev up for the conventions this Summer all I can think of is Chicago and Miami in 1968. I’ve been here before.

In the meanwhile, COVID-19 has – in a nearly miraculous way – exposed every other division in our country which is not related to partisan standing in most cases. I’ve seen nutty discussion of 5G towers on both sides, ranting about our health care on both sides, and reality denialism on both sides. Both sides have shown their concern for business rather than people, and both sides have shown that literally everything from prayer to health care is a political tool. Then the riots started. Anyone who thinks that the riots are somehow less valid today than they were in the 60s is just stupid (that’s charitable) or else simply racist. Blaming people of color for their oppression by a system that was built to oppress them is the mortal sin of lying. Full stop. I am reminded of a saying from my childhood that explained the ways non-white people experienced racism in our country: If you’re yellow, you’re mellow. If you’re brown, stick around. If you’re black, get back. Watching the assumed Catholics in charge of Guadalupe Radio call Gloria Purvis “uppity” with a whole thesaurus has proven to me nothing has changed since my late grandparents in the Deep South could use the same thesaurus to avoid the N word and yet never acknowledge the personhood of our neighbors in even polite conversation. It is miraculous that a virus which has kills so many people has also removed all the scabs on our wounds and exposed our already dead hearts. Again, I’ve been here before.

Our founders are credited with setting up a system for the betterment of the human person, unfettered by the ways of “the old country”. Yet they built a system flawed from the beginning, marked with our original entitlement – ignoring the original inhabitants of this “property” and also a huge population of people whose skin happened to be the wrong color. They, too, were treated as property. This system is the one they created in the original political victory we celebrate today. In the salad days of my political activism, there were defeats, of course, but not many. And every victory seemed to indicate we were making something new, something better. Yet every such victory came inside this same system. Every such victory left me hopeful: we have progressed closer to what the founders wanted. Only each progressive victory has helped build exactly what we have now. The very things we did not want we have done, the things we wanted did not come to pass. How is that possible? I think the answer lies in what we can see happening in light of the recent riots.

The simple request – as I understood it – was “please make your police stop killing us.” I do not – as a white man – experience any fear of the police. I cannot related to it in the same way. But I can empathize and I can see not only the oppression but get a sense of how it affects people. Yet, within a couple of days, the whole tone of the conversation was changed into “Yes, but not looting” and then, a month later, we were celebrating the victories of Texans no longer referring to “master bedrooms” while actual lynchings and police killings continued. Are the Texan realtors showing the same houses to all people? This is what I want to know. Are banks giving loans justly? If someone moves into the “wrong neighborhood” in Texas, do their neighbors make them feel welcome or do they go buy crosses decorated with Christmas lights an say “oh, they’re just Christmas lights…” Movies are coming out of circulation. Fine: but is Hollywood ready to let people of color into all levels of production and status? My political victories – as small as they were – helped build this system. When preachers worry that single-parent families cause disadvantages for the children without blaming the system of economic deprivation and political oppression that causes those families, we only perpetuate this system and our own empowerment.

This doesn’t even address the economic or class divisions in this country – also fully uncovered in the last 10-15 years. Does anyone remember the G7 (G8, etc) riots that happened literally around the world while the Neoliberal Economic System was being locked in place under previous administrations?

We built this. I built this. You built this. Somewhere my sense of warm mushiness at polite displays of secular piety died. You can’t pretend to live in Mayberry anymore. Sheriff Taylor, with his keys hanging near the cell so folks can go home for Sunday dinner with the family is not the legal system we have built. America currently has 2,193,798 in prison. Mayberry is only the mythical, mostly-empty Limbo in our hellish inferno of perpetual prison and hate. We built this.

There was something comforting about beginning every meeting of our Knights of Columbus Council with the Pledge. It reminded me of grade school when every weekday began that way. It was a continuation of those things I learned in childhood – which were lies, but we can pretend different for a few moments. Right? Yet I’ve also learned that the Knights of St Peter Claver were founded because some Columbian Councils wouldn’t let blacks in. The pledge, which was an obscure text for a long while, came to the fore in the last century as a talisman against “reds”. The Holy Name society requires of its members the same respect for the Flag as the Holy Name. That tells you something. Nothing is as it seems.

St Paul says, though, that when he became a man, he put away childish things. My nearly Late-Fifties self is wondering if it’s finally time to do so as well. Somewhere the dream died – or rather I awoke into a hellish reality, able to see the dream as only a distraction, a carrot that we never get to have while we are beaten with a switch we cut for ourselves.

Putting out the fire, putting away childish things: What would it look like if we let it burn down, turned the ashes over, added fertilizer and started something new? The integralist side of me wants a world where “State” and “Church” and “Economy” as we know these today do not exist, where the Kingdom of God runs with only as much mediation as required. The realist side of me sees that quite a lot of my fellow countrymen as well as not a few of my coreligionists cannot imagine another world and, given their druthers, would rebuild this system but “better”. Burning it all down would only result in more of the same but, we hope, less of the bad stuff. That seems impossible since the only hope at all is Jesus Christ and his Kingdom (the Catholic Church). So any human activity is doomed to fail, all the more another Enlightenment-inspired Masonic Liberal Democracy. The only hope, then, is evangelism: proclaiming the Good News that Jesus is the only King that matters. Satan, we must remember, is the first thief who stole the whole creation. God has won it back it back by the force of love on the only tru weapon of peace: stretching his arms out on the cross.

So there’s hope that is not a dream.

Author: Huw Raphael

A Dominican Tertiary living in San Francisco, CA. He is almost 59. He feeds the homeless as a parochial almoner and is studying to be a Roman Catholic Deacon. He is learning modern Israeli Hebrew and enjoys cooking, keto, cats, long urban hikes, and SF Beer Week.

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