By Gallagher & Schleicher
W hat are the odds
Would put us all in one spot?
— Hamilton, The Musical
Ah, the eternal question. Do difficult times reveal the true heroes among us, or do real heroes simply rise to the moment? In the case of Alexander Hamilton — immigrant, orphan and Founding Father — maybe a bit of both.
The tumult of late 18th-century revolutionary America illuminated a disproportionate number of heroes, some of whom, like Hamilton, rose to contribute disproportionately the effort. He was not going to miss his shot.
For most of us, however, moments for heroism are less obvious. Our opportunities are not so clearly defined as in the past, what with Continental Congresses and Declarations of Independence. Most of us alive today missed the Greatest Generation and its stand against fascism. Even the peaceful courage of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement seems like a distant memory of a more ambitious time.
And today, it’s difficult to know what’s real and what’s not, to discern the real news from the fake. The daily, grinding shouting of talking TV heads wears us down. Cynicism takes hold. Politics as usual? If so, maybe there’s not much we can do.
But make no mistake. A moment in need of heroes is again upon us. A period beyond mere politics, differences of right and left, the urban/rural divide, red versus blue. We’re at a fateful point in our still relatively short national history, with telltale signs of danger: unbridled attacks on democratic institutions like an independent judiciary, animalizing ethnic groups so we are unbothered by brutalizing them, propagating nationalism as a religious faith.
Differences of opinion in policy and on policymakers typically are a feature, not a flaw, of our messy democratic process: no cause for alarm. If some tune out of the usual debates over monetary policy, foreign aid, defense budgets and social safety nets, no surprise there.
But we left “normal” some time ago. The press vilified as the number one threat to the country? Not normal. Our closest allies denigrated as back-stabbers? Not normal. Our flag displayed next to that of the world’s most despotic, murderous regime for the sake of a photo op? Not normal. Fellow humans — immigrants — isolated, demonized and falsely blamed for a wide range of crimes and problems — literally referred to as an “infestation”? Squarely abnormal, a kind of which we have not endured since the 1930s.
Now we see kids, babies in some cases, put into cages as a kind of deterrent, to ward off future asylum-seekers and to more quickly obtain guilty pleas from parents already here. A whole new level of abnormal. Such newly abnormal times frantically cry out for a new round of heroes.
As with Mr. Hamilton, some of these heroes will come from among those “young, scrappy and hungry” for a life-changing experience. Millennials give us hope, both our own and others we watch go from victims of a mass murder by a classmate to national leaders, speaking eloquently and purposefully against entrenched political-industrial alliances.
The same for women. More females are running, and winning, in local, state and national political contests than at any time. Their voices are sorely needed, from Austin to Washington, and everywhere in between.
In normal times, leaders stick with those who share their party label. Lately even longtime GOP defenders are jumping ship or at least shouting heroically that there’s an iceberg ahead: Strategist Steve Schmidt condemning what he calls “internment camps for babies and toddlers.” Columnist George Will urging readers to vote against the GOP and its Trump-driven amoral nihilism. Former first lady Laura Bush and televangelist Franklin Graham also criticizing the separation of children from their immigrant parents. Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan condemning Trump’s governance by chaos.
It was a federal judge — Dana M. Sabraw, appointed by President George W. Bush — who on June 26 issued a nationwide order commanding the government to reunite the children with their immigrant parents. The judge predictably may become the subject of a derogatory Trump tweet for the decision, perhaps one referencing the fact the judge is of one-half Japanese descent. Sabraw nonetheless declared related events to be “a chaotic circumstance of the Government’s own making” that “belie measured and ordered governance, which is central to the concept of due process enshrined in our Constitution.”
Heroism is not only what you do; it’s also what you don’t do: resisting the urge to self-edit a column to better protect one’s career, to skip a march because it might be too hot or rainy, to forgo calling a member of Congress because they might ignore you. For all the glory of heroism, it also involves drudgery and the mundane: yet another postcard-writing party, yet another letter to the editor, yet another round of door-knocking for a candidate. Disregarding the suggestion of a progressive friend and fellow columnist that we are “a little too worked up.” A newspaper publishing columns revealing the emperor’s lack of clothes, though aware each will be followed by readers outraged that the opinion page actually includes opinions.
In an otherwise comedic movie, a character says, “everyone dies; only some of us die for a reason.” When the next generation learns U.S. history, will it be with awe at the change people like you forcibly ripped from the hands of nationalists? Or with puzzlement at how many stood by and idly watched as the lights went out on our democracy?
Back to “Hamilton,” there is the line, “Oceans rise, empires fall.” If this is “merely” the decline of the American empire, perhaps we should learn to grin and bear it. But if it is — as we suspect — something much darker, ordinary people like you, made heroes by extraordinary times, are all that can save us.
David Gallagher is a transplanted Texan, living and working in London, England, and tweeting @TBoneGallagher. David Schleicher is an attorney who tweets @ContranymTimes. This column originally appeared in the Waco Tribune-Herald on June 28, 2018.