On Independence Day, a look back to January 2017, and a vision for a country that never was, but still may be.


Note: as part of a general consolidation, I’ll be publishing older pieces here when it seems appropriate. This is a piece that I first published on January 16th, 2017 on my mostly-defunct blog, in the days before the White Christian President took office, a time when I, like many comfortable people, was becoming aware of some grim truths about my country. This is a snapshot of where I was six years ago, frightened and disoriented, completely void of the empty optimism that had formed the foundation of my worldview, seeking to build something new upon a more sturdy and rugged hope—a hope that better things are possible, and that we should expect them and work for them.

On July 4, a day usually reserved for a celebration of the country we are and the country we have been, I would like to suggest that we become patriots of a country that we have long claimed to be but have never yet been, patriots that are willing to do the work and pay the prices necessary to make this, for the first time, a country of freedom and justice for all.

Perhaps this will be hard to read. Laments often are.
It may bring you comfort, or it may make you angry. It may make you think more of me, or less. It may offend you. Rest assured it offends me.

So be it.

Once upon a time, there was a man who spoke of torture as a good in itself, to be pursued whether it was effective or not. Who promised to use the power of the state to enact violence upon scapegoated religious and ethnic minorities. Who praised himself for nursing petty grudges, for treating revenge as justice. Who threatened the press with retaliation for reporting certain truths about him. Who bragged about sexual assault. Who mocked people braver than himself, and called their bravery weakness. Who lied seemingly without strategy, as if lies were good to tell only for the telling, who showed a shocking indifference to the very concept of truth. Who praised brutal dictators for their brutal methods. Who seemed (and seems) to be receiving shadowy support from a brutal dictator. Who claimed dictatorial power for himself.

He appeared entirely confused about the basic facts of geopolitical reality, or of how our government works, or even of the function within our government of the office he proposed to hold. He had a clear and obvious history of fraud and hucksterism, of enriching himself at the expense of others with less leverage, and was even engaged in a lawsuit for defrauding college students, which he settled for $25 million dollars. He speculated with frightening casualness about destabilizing actions: proliferation and even use of nuclear weapons, defaulting on our debts and our treaties, backing out of our most long-standing alliances. He publicly called upon the intelligence apparatuses of foreign governments to intercede in our election on his behalf, and it seems increasingly likely they may have obliged. He whipped his crowds into frenzies, then directed their ire toward journalists reporting the event, many of whom he threatened to prosecute once in power. He offered to imprison his political adversary, to the delight of his chanting crowds, who wore t-shirts decorated with vulgar slogans of violence and rage. He promised to steer us directly into the deadly heart of oncoming climate catastrophe; having claimed the work of people more knowledgeable than he represented nothing but a Chinese hoax, he sneered at the very idea of sustainable and renewable energy sources.

That’s a short list, and incomplete. It’s a hell of a short list.

But wait, listen: Tens of millions of people went for it.

Tens of millions of people voted to make him the most powerful man in the world. He will soon have the ability to blast the planet to an irradiated cinder, if he sees fit. He will continue to run his business, which appears to involve sitting in a golden throne and putting his names on things. He's given every indication, despite some laughably thin feints toward divestment, that he will run that business from the Oval Office. Maybe he’ll even put his name on new things, like laws. Laws: a whole new product line for Trump International, and a potentially lucrative one. He owes the banks of foreign powers millions and millions of dollars.

One wonders what laws they’ll want passed.

His party is in control, too. They don't seem bothered by any of this. They're a bit more focused on enforcing checks upon ethics watchdogs who have pointed out their party leader's multifarious and historically unprecedented infractions. They'd rather ignore those, so they can immediately—immediately—get down to the serious business of divesting millions and millions of the most vulnerable people in our society from the only chance they have at affordable health coverage. They plan to replace this program with something ... someday. Their speculation so far indicates they will be replacing it with the opportunity to save up hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay for medical bills if you need them someday, or, if you don't have hundreds of thousands of spare dollars, to maybe go screw yourself. So, a lot of people are going to die in coming years, who would otherwise have lived, and they're rushing to make it happen, and their mood is exceedingly celebratory. Meanwhile, they're ignoring as peccadilloes the caricatured infractions of a man who expounds upon provable lies, and then when exposed simply doubles down on the lie, who is considering throwing the press out of the White House, and other maneuvers straight out of the dictator handbook. It's really something to see.

It’s hard to understand what people hoped for from him other than this. It’s hard not to assume they were responding to the shockingly frank bigotry, his promises to return to an earlier time, the knowing use of slogans used by racists and fascists of days past. These are certainly what seemed to generate all the most popular applause lines. But I don’t want to think that of my country or my fellow citizens. I really want it to be something else.

Let us consider other possibilities.

Many seem to think that a great thing about him was his frankness. They liked that he “tells it the way it is.” Then again, those same people seemed most likely to think that he didn’t really mean his more shocking proposals. On the other hand, a lot of the most popular examples of “telling it like it is” are the things he says that aren’t true at all. It’s a bit confusing, then, parsing what is meant by ‘telling it like it is,” as it appears to rely on selective trust in his insincerity, and a belief that “the way it is” involves many things that aren’t. Many voters, excited by promises to “drain the swamp,” but now disappointed by the recent nomination of a Goldman Sachs foreclosure kingpin to Treasury, of a Putin-connected oil executive to State, and by other signals the new president has given suggesting an eagerness to rob us all blind, have been admonished by a key advisor for taking his words so literally. For what it’s worth, the “alt-right,” the Neo Nazis, and the KKK are very excited about his more shocking proposals, and they remain confident our new leader meant every word.

Some people thought he would be less likely to make them pay more in taxes, I suppose. So perhaps at last now we know the answer to the old hypothetical about whether we’d be willing to travel through time and sacrifice our lives to prevent the rise of a self-professing tyrant. Answer: We wouldn’t even suffer a hypothetical increase in our income taxes.

I'm told folks voted for Trump because they were tired of being called racist. I imagine that was hard for them—who wants to be considered racist? If this complaint is yours, I imagine reading this (if you're still reading) is also hard. I sympathize; it's not particularly easy to write. But then again, the response seems an odd retort to the complaint. If your persistent problem is that people keep telling you there is spinach in your teeth, you might consider getting a mirror and taking a look, rather than voting for the Jolly Green Giant running on a platform of outlawing all floss. And, perhaps, if it is painful to be considered racist, consider this: it may be even more painful to live under racist oppression.

Many seem to have mainly enjoyed that he wasn’t Hillary Clinton, and it’s certainly true to say many concerns and criticisms could be levied against her. But the man they voted for as an alternative already stood actualized as the cartoon parody of any potential danger she may have hypothetically posed. Bad judgment? Corruption? Fraud? A proclivity to violent retaliation? A worry about temperament? Untrustworthiness? Lack of transparency? It’s hard to believe this all had much to do with Hillary Clinton and her faults. Hard to believe this list of concerns would yours, but your acceptable alternative would be Donald Trump.

Or maybe they believed the more lurid stories, the debunked, the ridiculous. Hillary’s murdered 80 people close to her. She invented cancer and put it in your cell phone battery. She is secretly seven tiny demons all stacked up in a pantsuit and glued together with the blood of aborted fetuses. She controls the Yosemite super-volcano, along with a cabal comprised of George Soros and 17 other Jewish industrialists. I don’t know what all. I know there are people like this, who have seceded from objective reality into a dystopian alternate dimension, where they can perhaps supplement the powerlessness they feel in their lives with the comfort of false control, of being one of the few with the secret knowledge unavailable to the masses. I don’t know what to do with them, because they live in an alternate dimension.

Anyway, here we are. In grave moral and physical danger. All of us. And for what?

I’ve heard the same line again and again since the election: “America isn’t a different country today than it was before the election.” Jon Stewart trotted it out. I think I heard it from President Obama. I fear I agree with the statement. I’m puzzled, though, because I think it is meant to be reassuring, to think we’ve always been the country capable of such a choice.

The statement doesn’t imply that we’re still great. It implies that we were never good.

It has to be admitted, people responded to Trump for what he is. Which means we are left with the statements and proposals by which he distinguished himself. And millions of us—tens of millions—preferred him specifically for those points of difference, either excited by his promises to return us to a time when our system existed only for the benefit of certain people, and the preferences and needs of all others were beneath consideration, or at least willing to overlook those promises, in favor of some material or policy advantage.

And ultimately, the reason is immaterial. A man ran for president promising to use the power of the state to bring violence to scapegoated religious and ethnic minorities, to make America torture again, to make it easier for an already-militarized police force to employ violence, who praised dictators, who bragged about sexual assault, who praised vengeance as good, who promoted debunked conspiracy as fact, who stated his determination to ignore as conspiracy what the data overwhelmingly indicates is an oncoming global catastrophe. There was some other reason to vote for him, that allowed you to overlook these facts?

Save it, please. It really doesn't matter. It was a bad reason. We’ve seen this movie before.

Historians have a word for Germans who joined the Nazi party, not because they hated Jews, but out of a hope for restored patriotism, or a sense of economic anxiety, or a hope to preserve their religious values, or dislike of their opponents, or raw political opportunism, or convenience, or ignorance, or greed. That word is "Nazi." Historians study their motives, but there is a broad understanding: their motives don’t exonerate them. They joined what they joined. They lent their support and their moral approval. And, in so doing, they bound themselves to everything that came after. Who cares any more what particular knot they used in the binding?

What am I saying here? Am I saying we are Nazis? The answer, I suppose, has to be 'no.' Nazis are Nazis. We are Americans. But what that will mean in decades to come—'American'—has been thrown into hazard. I had thought I lived in the sort of place that doesn't allow Donald Trumps to happen. That seems an impossibly naïve thing to believe now, as does any sort of trust the world once had in us. In any case, what we seem to now be trying to redefine “American” to mean seems like a rough beast, and omnivorous. Democracy reveals us by our choices and our actions, not our intentions. We are what we are.

And Donald Trump will be president.

As a result, I’m bereft. Bereft of the country I thought I was living in. Bereft of the people I thought I lived among. Bereft of what I believed was a shared direction, despite divergent opinions. Bereft of a belief in the possibility of a common dialogue or even a common reality. Bereft in confidence in basic decency and intelligence. Bereft of the spiritual heritage I was born into, because of course Trump’s most enthusiastic supporters were white Evangelical Christians. Christians voting for a new Herod to hold the power of a Caesar is a pretty good joke for the universe to tell, I suppose. He’s even promised to go after the (anchor) babies.

My translation of the Bible is full of all this toff about loving your enemy, about how love of money is the root of evil, about showing hospitality to the widow and orphan and the immigrant, and admonishments against drawing the sword lest you die on it. My reading of the Bible tells me not to worry about money; it doesn't ask "but who's going to pay for that?" it tells us the cost is paid already. My reading of the Bible suggests to me that if you wish to pretend to care about babies unborn, maybe you shouldn’t be so hostile to the idea of making sure they’re cared for once they are born and inconveniently and expensively needy, and perhaps you shouldn’t make so many of their mothers into the welfare-queen boogie-men of your whole realpolitik, and perhaps you shouldn't make weaponry a right more important than health and food. Maybe healing and wholeness and liberty is something that should be available to even the pagan. Maybe the door should be open for the undocumented immigrant.

Maybe I got a trash translation. Maybe the other Bibles are all about the joys of using political power for your own aggrandizement instead of the call to self-sacrifice for the benefit of others; maybe they’re about the dangers of anchor babies and welfare mothers, about how paying tax money toward a shared life is tyranny, about how with terrorists you have to kill the families, folks, believe me, kill the women and children, you’ve got to go after the families, and we’re gonna torture again, folks, we’re gonna torture, believe me…

You know what?

I believe him.

You wake up and the sky is gone. At times that’s how it seems. You wonder at it: how could there not be a sky? What will become of us now, in this world without a sky? Was it ever there, or did we just imagine it there, as an exercise of collective will? And then you talk to other people who insist the sky is there. They say: It’s not gone, it’s just red now. Don’t be a sore loser, just because you didn’t want it red. Accept that we did want it red. It’ll be fine if it’s red. And anyway, the banks seem to like it red. Move on with your life and suck it up, buttercup. The red sky will be just as good as the blue one.

But the sky isn’t red. It’s not anything. It’s just … not. It is a not-ness. An un-sky. A nothing.

And then you start talking to people who laugh, not without compassion, that you ever fell for the idea there was a sky. They say: That big vast emptiness? Oh, yes. That’s always been there for us. Is it there for you now? How… interesting. We can tell you a thing or two about that emptiness, if you’d listen. We’ve been watching it an awful long time.

The sky is the future. Or it was the future. That’s how it seems, at times. How odd, to speak of the future in the past tense. But the past tense presents us with further troubles.

It seems the past is gone, too.

Growing up, we were taught that we were a kind and good and just country. The story we were given was of a nation born of a righteous cause, not quite made perfect by the godlike men who forged it, but honed to apotheosis over the decades that followed. The destruction of the Native nations and their people, ah, tsk, a shame, we’d change it if we could, but unfortunately that’s all in the unrecoverable past. Slavery, a dark stain, but by now expunged entirely. Jim Crow, slavery’s shameful cousin, absorbed by a saint named King, who led a boycott (a pleasant and polite and non-disruptive one, it seems, in our memories), then stood on some stairs to give a universally admired speech about his dream of inclusion, and then, his work seemingly accomplished, having seemingly changed minds forever, ascended harmlessly into the clouds.

Somehow we are never culpable. It was always a long time ago. Mistakes were made, but we’d never make them ourselves. It was always somebody else holding the gun, the whip. We arrived here after that, you see, born blameless, without any afterbirth or shock, into the Greatest Country in the World. Our genocides we absolved ourselves of, because they served to illustrate not the evil we’d done, but how far we’d come from it. We stood on the prow of the ship, looking forward as we cut new water, not aft looking back at whatever may have been churned up in the wake. Not big on the rear-view mirror, us, not fans of the over-the-shoulder glance. We’d tell ourselves stories of what lay behind. We’d imagine ourselves into those stories of darker times, making ourselves the protagonists. We would have been the ones to build false walls in our home to hide slaves. We would have marched with King. We would have spoken out against the Japanese camps. We would have stood at Stonewall. Our moral arc bends ever toward justice; an inevitable thing. That was the story. America was already great, because it was always good. All the old hits.

Sometimes you’d hear stories about a random injustice or brutality. A policeman who had become a little too enthusiastic—a bad apple, and surely justice was served, because you’d have heard about it in the papers if it hadn’t been. A gay teen beaten to death in a cornfield. A car displaying a banner celebrating a war to preserve human slavery on its bumper sticker. The KKK marching again, how quaint. Ah, you’d think (if you were like me), we still have some minor work to do. Cleanup on aisle seven.

Technology has changed that. We see with new eyes now, unless we choose not to. We see videos, dozens and dozens of them now, new ones each week it seems, of police shooting unarmed Black people. Again and again and again and again. Can you remember all the names? I can't anymore. And I ask myself: why can't I? It seems an ignorance I have chosen, but also the choice feels like one that I was optimized to make: as if the sheer number of names created is in effort to convert the names to numbers, to turn people into a trend.

We see the speed with which so many seem willing to seek and find the nearest handy reason the victim deserved his or her fate. We see the news organizations find a Sunday School photo to represent the shooter and a mugshot to represent the victim. We see acquittal and acquittal and acquittal. We see failure to prosecute.

And, perhaps, we begin to wonder.

We see the people protesting, unarmed, asking only that their lives be thought to matter as much as another’s, and we see the stormtroopers with their massive guns and their tanks, arrayed against a civilian population almost reflexively, like defenses in an organism’s bloodstream mustering against a disease. And we wondered, perhaps: why do they look so much—so exactly, if we’re honest—like an occupying force?

We saw the white ranchers seize government land, pointing their guns directly at law enforcement officials, speaking openly of armed insurrection against the government, of revolution, of war. We saw them, later, seizing a government building. They weren’t protesting after centuries seeing their children and brothers and sisters killed without consequence by authority. Rather, they didn’t want to have to pay a grazing fee. Was it with surprise that we saw it: law enforcement seemingly less frightened of these white men and their guns than they had an unarmed black woman in a sundress, or a 12-year-old boy playing in a park? Were we surprised to see police so level-headed in this far more dangerous situation, so much less likely to escalate, so reluctant to respond with immediate lethal force? Why, those fellows with their arsenal didn’t even get convicted. They were less threatening to the system, apparently, than a man, arms up, lying on the ground next to his autistic ward begging not to be shot. (He was shot.) We might contrast all this to the treatment of the Native protesters at Standing Rock, and wonder…is the genocide against Native people relegated only to the past? Would we change it, if we could?

We might wonder: Are we seeing the system breaking down, unable to cope with new challenges? Or are we seeing a system working exactly as always intended? Do we as a collective of “white” people actually secretly want the police to control brown people by force? Are we quietly hoping that force will prove lethal, sporadically enough to soothe our consciences, but frequently enough to promote an order less immediately costly than the pain of culpability or the justice of restitution? Or is it not so secret, not so quiet, and thinking it was so is merely the product of listening selectively?

If not, why are prosecutions so rare, and convictions even less so?

If not, why aren’t we protesting these killings? Why aren’t we in the streets?

Do all lives matter? If so, why wouldn’t we act like it?

Why don’t I remember all their names?

These are things we might wonder.

White Christian America reveres Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. almost as much as it reveres Donald Trump, it should be noted. You remember him—the peaceful universally admired guy who gave the speech that ended racism. If Facebook and newspaper op-eds are any measure, we “white” Christians can’t stop bringing him up, almost as a cudgel, an admonishment to those today who would dare demand their own human dignity for not doing so as antiseptically as we remember it being done by Dr. King. And perhaps a “white” Christian like myself might begin to wonder: Why was King enshrined as “the peaceful one” only once he was peacefully dead? Is King’s being safely dead our favorite thing about him? These days, we “white” Christians can claim to have brought his dream to reality (the “white” guy is usually the hero of the story in the movie), and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. will not protest—and we “white” Christians don’t like protest. Heavens, no—it’s so divisive. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., he wouldn’t have approved of this protest, nor that one, and certainly not that one, and now that he is dead, we can establish ourselves as proxies for his disapproval. His protests were so polite! Why, nobody had any problem with them at all! Dr. King agrees with all of us in “white” Christian America so much, these days. Oh my, he never stops agreeing with us. Just ask us; we’ll tell you.

Yes, and what ever happened to Dr. King, anyway, after he gave that speech that ended all inequality forever? We “white” Christians, opposed to justice’s demands, never ask that one.

But no matter, I told myself. That’s a dying strain, it's not who we are these days. That’s just a few bad apples. We’ve made so much progress. They’ll exhaust themselves in a final futile sputter. We’re just about to turn the corner. Sure, there are racists, bigots, white supremacists, lost-causers, and they're loud, but they're dying out, and they know it. They'll eventually run somebody on an overtly racist platform, and they'll lose huge—I disagree with Republicans, but most of them won't stand for stark white supremacy, surely, and obviously Christians won't be able to align themselves with it — and we’ll show them it’s no use, and they’ll retreat, retrench to positions even more compromised, less fortified, further back, smaller, diminished. We’re a better country than that.

But then Donald Trump, a half-rate and transparently obvious bullshit artist, a greasy reality TV star most skilled at demonstrating his manifest ignorance, promising mostly the goodness of violence and the strength of vengeance, offering to return America to an earlier time, railing against the inconvenience of practicing sensitivity toward the perspectives of others (he called it “political correctness”), received 63 million geographically convenient votes to become the most powerful person in the world. Perhaps, if you’re like me, you took a moment then to ponder that statement about bad apples and what they do to the whole barrel. And, perhaps, if you come from a Christian background, you remembered another saying, about recognizing a tree by its fruit. And, it must be said, though we refuse to face it: In America, our trees have long borne a strange fruit.

Here’s what we’ve lost, or at least what I’ve lost: The assumption of goodness’s inevitability. The assumption of goodness of those around me. The assumption of good intent in their hearts. Here's what I've lost: The wool from my eyes. The one favor Donald Trump may ever do for me. An illusion, particularly a pretty and a convincing one, can be a painful thing to lose. I’ve gained a vision of tens of millions of people desperate to bend history’s arc back toward an injustice that unnaturally favored them, and willing to fight for that regression, willing even to risk species-wide extinction rather than suffer the pain of facing the consequences of their own mountainous indifference. The moral arc of the universe may bend toward justice, but the gears of history grind the weak. There are people now who are giddy, almost with the air of a teenager behind the wheel of a sweet-sixteen hot rod, to test out their perceived new warrant to deliver retributive and violent indifference to the people they deem unlovely. A headscarf yanked off here. A slur shouted in public there. A swastika scrawled on a wall here. A Nazi propagandist advising the President of the United States in the corridors of power there. A crowd of seig heils in a government building, in praise of our new leader here. A few million children stripped of health insurance with no serious attempt at a replacement there.

They think this is allowed now: the Nazis, the white supremacists, the Christian nationalists.

Sixty-three million people, complacently or enthusiastically or ignorantly aligned with white supremacy, gave them the idea it is.

It’s going to be our job to show them otherwise.
We must show them otherwise.


Even if you voted for Trump—especially if you voted for Trump—the door is wide open for you to join in that struggle. You show them otherwise, too. All you have to do to join.

Your intentions were good? Excellent. I believe you.

I've badly misunderstood you? Excellent. I believe you.

Now, show it. Show your good intention by your good actions.

You, like all of us, possess tremendous moral authority. Don't lend it any longer to those who have promised to squander it on atrocity. They seem intent on doing as they say. If you wait too long, they will leave you with none left to withdraw. Use it instead to protect those different than you. Use it against your own advantage, for the advantage of those who have none.


If you, like me, did not vote for Trump, there is the great danger of complicity. You will be offered, if you, like me, are “white” and straight and employed and well-off and cis-gendered and able-bodied and healthy and property-owning, the opportunity to be indifferent. Resist that current. If the universe bends toward justice, the engine it has chosen for this good work is the hard and sacrificial struggle of good people willing to acknowledge the basic humanity of all other people. People who don’t think profitability is the foundational metric of goodness. People who don't think life holds a value that begins at conception but ends the moment it enters poverty. People bold and willing to become pebbles in the gears of oppression. To give time and money. To link arms with a married (or unmarried) gay couple. To take sides in a cafeteria skirmish with a trans teen. To take a truncheon in the head for a Muslim.

To paraphrase Jesus (another favorite who those of us in “white” Christian America appear by our words and deeds to consider as safely dead as Dr. King): to live, first you must die.

Or, as another poet says, love’s the only engine of survival.

So, what’s next?

First, we lament. We acknowledge the un-sky, the void. We listen to those who’ve been staring at it far longer than us. We name the challenge with clear eyes. That, I suppose, is what this essay has been for me.

And then we get to work.

Let us hope our leaders will prove other than they say they promise to be.
Let us not be so naïve to think it likely.
Let us oppose in a fierce and broken love.
Let us meet with friends, we eat good meals with them.
Let us consider people before money, and notice where our society fails to do so.
Let us make art, and try to make it well.
Let us refuse to allow a comfortable silence to enfold a hateful or ignorant statement.
Let us stand up against hate, bodily if necessary.
Let us learn our system, and work within it.
Let us call our leaders, and advocate for those who suffer.
Let us practice generosity without care for the merit of the beneficiary, but only for their need.
Let us investigate before we publish.
Let us loudly proclaim the humanity others try to diminish.
Let loudly proclaim the humanity of those who do not share our values, even as we oppose.
Let us never celebrate the suffering of those who oppose us, for they suffer, too.
Let us seek to divest ourselves of unearned cultural advantage.
Let us enter spaces where our voices are not primary, and listen without thinking to speak.
Let us create space to speak, in places where our voices are primary, for those who have had no voice.
Let us reject false optimism and blind belief.
Let us embrace a reckless hope.
Let us work.
Let us work.
Let us work.

We are a people who have dreamed of the sky. I’d like to see if we can make it real.

A.R. Moxon is the author of The Revisionaries, which is available in most of the usual places, and some of the unusual places, and is co-writer of Sugar Maple, a musical fiction podcast from Osiris Media which goes in your ears. He’s actin’ funny, but he don’t know why.