We stand today upon the fulcrum of history, a crossroads at midnight with a blood moon rising. Down one road lies fire, flood, famine, failure and the final triumph of greed. What awaits down the other road is unknown, terra incognita, a mystery to be solved one gentle step at a time. As a species, we tend to recoil from what we do not know, often choosing the awful alternative simply because it is familiar. Now, even that poor option is a suicidal indulgence leading inexorably to our common doom.
Everyone, from leader to laborer, is a teacher delivering a simple lesson: how to be, or how not to be. We go to school on the words and behavior of others, and it falls to us as individuals to either absorb what those others teach us by being who they are, or to cast their lessons aside in search of more worthy instruction. As bad lawsuits make bad law, however, bad people make worse people by example. We are often childlike in our emulation of what we see, and if we only see scoundrels, well … that script writes itself.
Which brings us to a most valuable teacher: a privileged, compromised, cowardly, racist, sexist, hate-swaddled, power-mad, greed-gorged, double-dealing, fathomless void where all integrity goes to die. I speak, of course, of Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. If Donald Trump is the Devil waiting at that moonlit crossroads to tune our guitar at the cost of our souls, Mitch McConnell drove him there and paid for the gas.
Mitch McConnell is valuable because he teaches us in graphic fashion how not to be. In his own words, McConnell shines a light down that road to ruin — his road, his way — and compels us for our own sake to choose the other route. He serves to make the decision binary: zero vs. one, nothing vs. something, altogether elegant in its simplicity.
McConnell was featured in a recent Wall Street Journal article about Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Green New Deal and the mainstreaming of progressive policy initiatives. “I can pretty safely say,” he declared, “this is the first time in my political career that I thought the essence of America was being debated.”
Whoomp, as the song says. There it is.“American democracy has never accorded all the people a meaningful voice,” writes Nancy Isenberg in White Trash, her scathing examination of ignored U.S. history. “The masses have been given symbols instead, and they are often empty symbols. Nation-states traditionally rely on the fiction that a head of state can represent the body of the people and stand as their proxy; in the American version, the president must appeal broadly to shared values that mask the existence of deep class divisions. Even when this strategy works, unity comes at the price of perpetuating ideological deception. Instead of a thoroughgoing democracy, Americans have settled for democratic stagecraft.”
It is all of a piece, the centuries-old notion of this country as a paycheck for the few at the expense of the many. British colonialists sought to peel the land using kidnapped Africans and impoverished Britons, slaughtering and displacing Native peoples wherever and whenever they were encountered. Wealth must be compounded with wealth, power must be held by the few to wield against the many. The fiction of democracy provides an illusion of freedom to obscure the looting that was the whole point of the endeavor to begin with.
Mitch McConnell is a highly visible champion of that ideological deception, a deft practitioner of that stagecraft. The “essence of America” he spoke of certainly exists, but cunning politicians of his ilk are too canny to mention it in public. That essence — the belief that the nation and its population are a gilded platter to be gorged upon, a fertile field to be plundered and despoiled for profit with the people serving as replaceable tools for the aristocracy — is McConnell’s poisoned birthright, and he defends it with all the powers at his disposal, just as his colonial predecessors did.
By recognizing this, we recognize Mitch, and all who rally to his banner. They want freedom for themselves, not for you. Their “freedom” is elite, expensive and jealously guarded. Yet a thousand choices on Netflix is not freedom, any more than the constant choice of corporate political candidates is freedom, but therein lies the illusion. Pick your poison. See? You’re free!
McConnell’s “essence” is a con, a sham history inflicted upon us from our first kindergarten recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance: “With liberty and justice for all.”
And yet there are six words that have caused great consternation over the years for men like Mitch. Nathaniel Philbrick, in his book Bunker Hill, compellingly describes “the unappreciated radicalism within the Declaration of Independence – ‘that all men are created equal.’” At the time, it was a lie, what Philbrick describes as “a rhetorical flourish.” Native peoples, enslaved Africans, women and the economically dispossessed did not merit equality in the eyes of the Framers. But those six words have come to be a thumb in the eye to what Mitch McConnell meant when he speaks of “the essence of America.”
Indeed, those six words are now correctly taken by many as a demand for equal rights for men, women, poor people, people f color, immigrants, people with disabilities, members of the LGBTQ+ community, the elderly, the incarcerated, children, laborers and every other human being who breathes the same air. The Framers did not mean it, but they damn well wrote it down, and public officials of every stripe swear an oath to defend it every single day.
Obtaining those rights has been an ongoing multi-century bloodbath because those who subscribe to McConnell’s “essence” choose to ignore the imperative embedded within those six words. For them, equality is bad for the bottom line and rattles the calcified infrastructure of entrenched power. Their violent devotion to that “essence” has caused unspeakable agony and degradation even to this day, but that is not their concern.
Men like Mitch McConnell flee the very notion of those six words, because at the far end of the struggle for equality lurks a bill to be paid. Nothing so final as a guillotine awaits them at the conclusion; merely a sharing of power and wealth, of rights and privileges, which is anathema to them and their rampant belief in their own superiority. To fight this rising tide, they divide and denounce, fashioning enemies out of natural allies because when we fight each other, we serve them.
Look no further than the tumult of the moment to witness how far the few will go to confuse and control the many. See their white nationalist puppets on the march and immigrants on the run; see the Black people cut down by the police officer’s gun; see women using a social media hashtag to explain how it has always been so it may someday cease to be; see the people deprived of options by the economics of enforced inequality fed into the maw of a profitable war machine; see LGBTQ+ people stripped of rights by a heteronormalized society that uses splinter Christianity to rationalize fear and hate; see the rage-flecked faces at one of Donald Trump’s rallies as they howl at enemies conveniently created to incur their distracted wrath; and see the oceans rising and the fires burning because the nature of plunder is damage. This is the place we have been, and the place we are going, if we choose poorly at this crossroads.
And therein lies the rub, because Mitch McConnell was absolutely correct. The essence of this country as he understands it is not merely being debated, it is being run to ground and throttled, finally. The anger on display from those who have been privileged to own center stage in this society comes from the fact that voices besides their own are finally being widely heard.
“Sharing” is not in their lexicon, and so we must see this as a teachable moment. Not a vengeance tour but an education, because we are all teachers, and there is a better way. Pediatricians call it “growing pains,” biologists call it “evolution,” and I call it fulfilling the promise of those six radical words. Hell, we might even get around to applying a long-required tweak to those words: “All people are created equal.” This version, at last, has the virtue of being true.
The road we have been on is littered with bones and sorrow. The road we must take is strange, and new, and dangerous, and difficult. There are no promises, other than it will be – by dint of our collective will – better than the way that is failing before our eyes. This crossroads is freedom distilled, and the time to choose is now.
Change is coming, Mitch. Not a slogan. A fact. Tell your friends.