Carol A. Hand
After reading a couple of chapters in Howard Zinn’s (1997) book, A People’s History of the United States, one of my students last semester asked a crucial question.
“What does Mr. Trump mean when he says ‘Make America great again?’ When was it ever great?”
Her questions led to a fascinating class dialogue.
Although it’s tempting for me to say that it was great here before Europeans arrived, I really can’t. Surviving the past long, cold winter made me realize how foolish and untrue it would be for me to say something so simplistic and disrespectful. Yes, much was lost for Indigenous people, but there have been benefits as well. For example, I can’t imagine the challenge of living in the north country without indoor plumbing and heat during a winter like the last. I am not sure how my ancestors survived by hunting and by gathering ever more distant fire wood outside to heat themselves, cook, and unfreeze water. Even when I lived off the power grid, I still had a well for indoor plumbing, a generator to run the electric water pump, and a backup propane heater in addition to a wood stove.
Despite my students’ critical view, the phrase “Make America great again” seems to be a powerful rallying cry for many people in the U.S. these days. I suspect it’s most powerful for those who have been programmed by schools that assiduously avoid resources that expose students to critical thinkers like Zinn. Those on the poorly-educated margins have been waiting a long time for America to be great for them as they struggled to make it as farmers, miners, or people trying to find jobs that made them feel that they were contributing something worthwhile to others and earning a decent wage in exchange.
Feeling forgotten or like a failure makes it far more difficult to resist the illusion that one can gain a little more power by putting others down. Many people are willing to follow a leader who sanctions divisiveness, who makes them feel special, and who helps them set aside any misgivings about morality. After all, someone in a position of authority tells them it’s a patriotic duty and demonstrates that it’s appropriate and legal to demean, scapegoat, and brutalize others whose differences set them apart somehow.
As I think about the class I’ll be teaching in the fall, research, I realize that Mr. Trump’s America reminds me of the Stanford prison experiment on steroids.
Give people a title and a little power and some will do anything to keep it. Or, as Stanley Milgrim’s experiments show, many people put aside their own common sense and empathy if a person in authority tells them what they’re doing is right even if it means inflicting harm on others. I have seen those dynamics in my work throughout my career in all types of organizations and communities. We’re witnessing what seems like escalating, outrageous, brutality on a national and global level.
The most crucial question to ask is, of course, what can be done to stop the egregious harm that is being done by people in power who seemingly have no hearts. I believe each of us who is aware must resist in our own way. For me at the moment that means stepping outside the protective comfort zone I created to heal from the battle scars of past encounters with the status quo. The specifics of what that will mean are still a work in progress. But so far this year, it’s meant planting the flower boxes I left empty last year as a gift of life and beauty to those who walk down the alley behind my house and happen to notice. It’s a small gesture, yet each life-loving thought and action may matter in ways we will never know.
Howard Zinn (1997). A People’s History of the United States (Abridged Teaching Edition). New York, NY: The New Press.