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Thomas Adcock: Pariah Nation


by Thomas Adcock

The death of a great man or woman of near saintly stature brings forth a time of mourning for society’s loss and a related determination to shape and improve society’s future in the spirit of the deceased. So now is that time with the passing of John Robert Lewis, a personal hero of mine. 

As with many others during his eighty years of life, I had the honor of meeting Mr. Lewis and shaking his hand, knowing I shook the hand of history and destiny at once. He was a gracious bulldog of a man, proudly African American from a dirt-poor hamlet in rural Alabama; a valiant soldier in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s that ended de jure cruelty and violence of white racism, if not the continuing de facto curse; and a member of the United States Congress since 1986, representing a district in Atlanta, Georgia. 

Even as an elder statesman, John Lewis kept on getting himself into “good trouble, necessary trouble” in the cause of advancing ideals of equality and justice that appeal to decent Americans. Indeed, Mr. Lewis achieved a rap sheet of forty-five arrests, dating from February 1960 in Nashville, Tennessee when cops busted him for the crime of bringing his black skin to a soda fountain reserved for white people, a wicked tradition that he and his fellow troublemakers smashed. 

The last time Mr. Lewis was cuffed and hauled away was fifty-nine years later, in the late afternoon of October 8, 2013 as he raised hell in a massive demonstration in Washington demanding government action on immigrant rights. The elder statesman was duly detained, charged with “crowding, obstructing, and incommoding.” On his way to court, he told reporters, “I’ve been arrested a number of times, I don’t mind.”

Along the righteous way of his decades of resistance was an event in March 1965 known as “Bloody Sunday,” when John Lewis marshaled a multi-racial crowd of six-hundred on a march meant to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River, en route to the state capital of Montgomery—there to demand the right to organize voter registration for black citizens, in accordance with federal law. Club-swinging Alabama state troopers and members of the local Ku Klux Klan attacked the marchers, beating them into submission. John Lewis had his skull cracked open. 

He recounts his Bloody Sunday experience: “When I fell to the ground, on my back, I looked up and saw a state trooper with a raised club that I knew he was about to bring square down on me again. I said a little prayer: ‘Oh, please, God, let me live. I want to be here.’ Then I moved my head and shoulders just a bit, and I saw someone give the trooper a little shove. And I lived.” 

John Lewis died in Atlanta on July 17, a Friday, following a six-month battle with cancer. He took his place in Heaven alongside those who likewise contributed to the modern story of human rights struggle, told with physical daring as well as words. He joins a pantheon that includes Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela. 

Until his funeral in Atlanta on July 30, a Thursday, the congressman’s flag-draped coffin lay in state beneath the capitol dome in Washington—atop the very catafalque built in 1865 to accommodate the remains of Abraham Lincoln, assassinated that year by the racist stage actor John Wilkes Booth, enraged that President Lincoln had ended slavery. The general public, foreign dignitaries, and congressional colleagues of both the Democratic and Republican parties filtered in and out of the capitol building to pay respects to Mr. Lewis. 

Meanwhile that Thursday, Donald Trump was holed up in the White House doing what he does every day: drinking diet Coca-Cola (twelve cans per diem), tweeting, and watching television for hours on end. He was occasionally interrupted by subordinates eager to deliver the only two things of interest to the boss: the latest flattery about the wonderful job he’s doing for the American economy and combating the coronavirus plague, and the latest updates on quashing multi-racial demonstrations in the Oregon capital of Portland. Meaning that city’s demonstrations against an American epidemic of deadly police violence, led by the country’s largest mass social movement ever in America—Black Lives Matter, which Donald Trump insinuates is anti-American and terrorist by nature. 

Of the latter point of interest, Mr. Trump’s breathless minions informed the boss of just how many “leftwing anarchists who hate America” (per presidential tweet) were clubbed to the ground—just as John Lewis was back in 1965—or pepper sprayed, or flash-banged, or wounded by “non-lethal projectiles” fired by mysterious herds of federal agents. Agents dressed up in camouflage army gear, face shields, gas masks, and jackboots—armed with machine guns and semiautomatic pistols, belts laden with wrist restraints and leg shackles. 

There seemed no definable purpose for military frou frou beyond escalating tensions in Portland, stoking fear, and sparking retaliation that assuredly came: mostly by way of little firecrackers tossed at large men with machine guns. Which of course makes for excellent TV news film—dubbed “Fascist TV” in social media. Later, of course, there would be plenty of dramatic video material for the president’s campaign reëlection propagandists. 

(Cue the scary music, cue the scary voiceover.)

As with Germany in the bad old days, American agents of state intimidation constitute Donald Trump’s very own Gestapo. Uniforms, such as they are, carry neither government identification nor nametags. Gestapo officers do not speak; they appear, they disappear; they assault women, children, and old men; they display no badges. 

—I am reminded of lines from “Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” a 1927 novel by the pseudonymous German author B. Traven (1882-1969). From a passage in the book where the protagonist is confronted by self-proclaimed policemen: 

B. Traven

“If you are the police, where are your badges? Let’s see.”

“Badges? To god-damn hell with badges. We have no badges. I don’t have to show you badges, you god-damn cabrón and chinga tu madre. We don’t need no stinkin’ badges!”

 Mr. Trump’s storm troopers roam the streets mostly on foot, but also in unmarked vans useful for random “proactive arrests” (kidnapping) of “anarchists,” the bogeyman types who dare write anti-Gestapo graffiti on sidewalks and building walls. As the president crowed during a recent White House event, “We’ve done a great job in Portland! Portland was totally out of control…I guess we have many people right now in jail. We very much quelled it, and if it starts again, we’ll quell it again very easily.”

Oregon Governor Kate Brown sees the situation differently:

“This political theatre from Trump has nothing to do with public safety. The president is failing to lead this nation. Now he is deploying federal officers to patrol the streets of Portland in a blatant abuse of power…[T]he federal government should remove all federal officers from our streets…[Trump] is on a mission to provoke confrontation for political purposes. He is putting both Oregonians and local law enforcement officers in harm’s way. This, coming from the same president who used tear gas to clear out peaceful protestors in Washington to engineer a photo opportunity.” 

One evening a few weeks ago, a young Portland man was abducted by the Trump Gestapo as he walked home from a peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstration. He told a radio station, “It feels like fascism.” 

Because I am an American citizen, I may not set foot in Japan, New Zealand, Cuba, the Bahamas, most of the African continent and the Middle East, and twenty-seven nations comprising the European Union. 

Oh, yes—also Canada, at my country’s northern border. Not to forget my neighbor to the south, Mexico, which lately requires that I likewise hold off visiting just now or in the foreseeable future, por favor.

Ostensibly, I am invited to get lost out of these places for the understandable reason I am suspected of bearing microbes of dread disease: 

• The U.S. leads the world—by far—in infections and fatalities related to the coronavirus pandemic, the so-called COVID-19 plague.

• Unlike virtually everywhere else, the U.S. has failed to formulate a pragmatic response to a health crisis unseen since the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. The World Health Organization, part of the United Nations, tallies raw numbers of coronavirus disease in America at double that of the next most afflicted nation (Brazil), and triple that of third-place India. All other countries register much, much lower counts. 

As of July 31, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, there were 4,456,389 confirmed cases of Covid-19 here, with more than 156,000 related deaths. To even the dimmest of my countrymen, notwithstanding the poobahs of Mr. Trump’s Republican Party, it is obvious that the president is incapable of rising to the Covid-19 challenge—and that he will entertain no strategic plan proposed by medical science professionals to battle a crisis spreading like wildfire throughout America, even as it subsides most every place else. 

My country was quite recently an international leader in the technology, science, bio-medical innovation, and empathy required to combat pestilence anywhere on Earth. But in place of our need today for practical, nonpartisan action from Washington to meet the people’s critical requirements, we Americans are fed daily doses of presidential lies, slurs, racist distractions, incoherent fantasies, xenophobic conspiracies, and absurd Twitter pronunciamentos. 

Never mind ample warnings of a potential pathogenic disaster given Mr. Trump by his Democratic predecessor, whom he loathes—President Barack Obama. In one of his earliest fits of spite since assuming office in January 2017, Donald Trump abolished the Global Health Security and Biodefense Unit of the National Security Council, an emergency preparedness agency created by Mr. Obama to deal with viral plagues: Covid-19 as it has come to pass, or what Mr. Trump has called “the latest Democrat hoax (sic).” 

In March of this year, when it was clear to all but the current president and his acolytes that Covid-19 was anything but a hoax, Donald Trump was asked during a press conference why he had shut down Barack Obama’s preparedness agency. Bristling, he told reporters, “I just think it’s a nasty question.” Lying, Mr. Trump added, “And when you say ‘me,’ I didn’t do it. I don’t know anything about it.” 

As extra measure, Donald Trump gave reporters a startlingly honest self-assessment of his rôle as national leader in a time of crushing medical catastrophe: “I take no responsibility at all.”

Small wonder the world sees us Americans, all three hundred and thirty million of us, as a diseased and highly contagious population that must be isolated for the duration of this plague. But can this be the world’s sole motivation for protecting itself against…me, for instance? My kind?

Last September and October during travels in Europe, I was invited to dinner at the home of a new friend. As we Yanks are wont to do when abroad, naïvely but with good intent, I insisted that my host come to America so that I might return the favor of good food and good talk about the wonders of my country. The look on her face was fleeting, but painfully revealing. I could hear her thoughts: Travel to America? I would sooner eat worms.    

I have reflected on that look, and the thought behind it, many times in this awful year of 2020. What occurs to me is this: Valid though it is, the logic of giving my country the cold shoulder because it is hopelessly contagious only hints at the surface of America’s appalling sickness. 

We are nearly four years into a Washington regime of wanton crime and cruelty, sleaze and bigotry, mendacity, treason, and stupidity— 

• Witness the White House enthusiasm for the enduringly hateful stars-and-bars flag and associated racist iconography of the traitorous Confederate States of America, the breakaway group of eleven Southern states that in 1861 launched America’s civil war—treason in the cause of preserving the South’s agrarian economy, based on the chattel enslavement of kidnapped Africans.

• Witness Donald Trump’s continuing support for Vladimir Putin, murderer and president for life of Russia. Never mind unanimous findings by the U.S. Intelligence Community that Mr. Putin, as head of a country long hostile to America, waged cyber-war against the U.S. in the presidential election of 2016—for the benefit of a useful asset named Trump; never mind subsequent intelligence findings that Mr. Putin has paid Taliban operatives ready to assassinate American soldiers on guard at government installations in Afghanistan; never mind that when asked by reporters if he’d raised the assassination issue with Mr. Putin in any of his seven telephone conversations over the past three months, Mr. Trump said the two leaders only spoke of “other things.” 

• Witness Mr. Trump’s admiration for armed bigots marching through the nighttime streets of Charlottesville, Virginia three years ago. With tiki torches held high, Third Reich-style, they chanted, “Jews will not replace us!” The next day, one of them killed a young woman protesting against American-style nazis. Donald Trump, as president of the United States, pronounced “some” of the Jew-baiting torch bearers “very fine people.”

• In further emulation of the Third Reich model, tens of thousands of non-Aryan immigrants are currently held in “detention centers” (concentration camps) operated by the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau—the latter outfit known by its charming acronym, ICE. Separated from their parents, children are caged at some “centers,” where they are occasionally raped by guards. 

• The coronavirus plague has tanked the U.S. economy, the world’s largest. America’s G.D.P. (gross domestic product) is now at the lowest point on record. The unemployment rate today is set to eclipse that of the Depression-era 1930s. Business bankruptcies multiply daily. A storm of evictions is on the near horizon as Republicans in the U.S. Senate block legislation that would extend a lifeline of modest payments to idled workers with families to feed.      

Small wonder the world now says to the U.S.A.: Stay the hell home! You Americans are too much for us. You must pull yourselves together. Small wonder the ranks of Donald Trump’s Gestapo are agents reassigned from ICE and the Customs and Border Patrol duty. 

Small wonder the world regards America, with pity and disdain, as untouchably diseased.    

Cry the beloved country. We have become a pariah nation.

An elegant funeral for John Lewis was held on June 30 at the fabled Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where a young Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was once pastor. The service was broadcast live for more than three hours by American television networks and international affiliates. Three living ex-presidents—George W. Bush, a Republican, along with Democrats Bill Clinton and Barack Obama—spoke of their love and profound respect for Mr. Lewis. A fourth ex-president—Jimmy Carter, frail and age 95—sent an eloquent letter of condolence, explaining that he and his wife are “not traveling these days.”

I appreciated what Mr. Obama said of meeting the congressman for the first time. Almost word-for-word, it was an echo of my own experience. The former president recalled, “I walked up to him and said, ‘Mr. Lewis, you’re a hero of mine. And he went all ‘aw-shucks’ on me, and mumbled, ‘Thank-you, son, thank-you.’” 

I cannot imagine a sentient human wanting to approach Donald Trump in that way, or being allowed to approach. Nor can I see Donald Trump in the human warmth of an aw-shucks moment. 

Mr. Trump was nowhere to be seen on the day that the rich life of John Lewis was celebrated at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where the congressman’s own hero, Pastor King, delivered a famous sermon on the Fourth of July, 1965. In it, Dr. King laid out a path of political spirituality that his Disciple John would follow through his life:

“America has been something of a schizophrenic personality, tragically divided against herself. On the one hand, we have proudly 

professed the great principles of democracy, but on the other hand we have sadly practiced the very opposite of those principles.

“[N]ow more than ever before, America is challenged to realize its dream, for the shape of the world does not permit our nation the luxury of an anemic democracy.

 “We need not hate; we need not use violence. We can stand up before our most violent opponent and say: We will match your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws because non-coöperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is coöperation with good, and so throw us in jail. We will go to those jails and transform them from dungeons of shame to havens of freedom and human dignity. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities…drag us out on some wayside road and leave us half-dead, and as difficult as it is, we will still love you.

“Be assured, we will beat you down with our capacity to suffer.”

While his Oval Office predecessors spoke of love at the funeral of their friend, Donald Trump was busy putting nasty distractions into play. From wherever it is in the White House that he rants his rancid notions—frequently in a toilet adjoining an upstairs bedroom where he sleeps alone—he fired up his Twitter account to float a pair of noxious bluffs sure to rival the Lewis coverage on that evening’s TV news cycle: 

• The upcoming November election, which Mr. Trump fears losing, should be “postponed” because it is certain to be “rigged” against him.

• The Trump Gestapo must be sent to four more cities—Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, Baltimore—that are, like Portland, “Democrat-run” (sic), “out of control,” and chock full of lefty protestors who “hate America.” Added benefit: the four add-ons are cities with large or majority black populations.

So, who remembers a black man’s cracked skull? I can imagine this as typically faulty Trumpian reasoning. And what’s more likely to stir passion—a bloody street brawl provoked by thugs flashed across the TV screen, or mere words on paper?

For the morning of his funeral, John Lewis arranged for the New York Times to publish his final thoughts, addressed principally to young social justice activists of our present day: 

“While my time here has now come to an end, I want you to know that in the last days and hours of my life you inspired me. You filled me with hope about the next chapter of the great American story when you used your power to make a difference in our society. Millions of people simply moved by human compassion laid down the burdens of division. Around the country and the world you set aside race, class, age, language, and nationality to demand respect for human dignity.

“…I had to visit Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, though I was admitted to the hospital the following day. I just had to see and feel it for myself that, after many years of silent witness, the truth is still marching on. 

 “…Like so many young people today, I was searching for a way out, or some way in, and then I heard the voice of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on an old radio. He was talking about the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence. …He said each of us has a moral obligation to stand up, speak up, and speak out. When you see something that is not right, you must say something. You must do something. Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.  

“Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble. Voting and participating in the democratic process are key. The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it.

“When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war. …[W]alk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.”  

Donald Trump and his ilk may not understand how anyone could care about such words, much less remember them five months hence. But such words are being carefully read and fiercely remembered as I write on this first day of August. Such words will lead to actions in the finest tradition of our American revolutionist history. 

Such words will be remembered on November the third, when American voters will be asked if we want our society to “feel like fascism,” if we want four more years of shame as the pariah nation that Donald Trump has made of us—for the moment. 

—Thomas Adcock is America correspondent for CulturMag
Copyright © 2020 — Thomas Adcock

His essays with us here.