For various reasons, I have not been reading fiction for a very long time. In the past I often indulged in fiction during the Christmas Break, and over the Summer. This past November, I was giving a series of lectures in the Devon Pennsylvania area in the weeks following the election. The day after Thanksgiving, I indulged in the towns “Black Friday” offerings at a local independent bookstore. One of the specials was if you spent $10.00 , you could choose from a table of books that you could have for free with purchase. The staff recommendation card was above The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck on the “free table.” One sentence grabbed my attention; “relevant to our current political troubled times of cultural divisions…” As I was still basically hemorrhaging dismay and horror over the selection of president president #45, I thought a fictional approach to what the heck was going on in my nation would be more useful than the endless whining in the media, as well as my usual medieval fantasy in which I escape annually during the holidays.
The book chronicles the lives of three women in the years leading up to and after World War II in Germany. Another comment on the staff recommendation card also struck a chord; “for anyone wondering how it could have happened, this book offers insight into ordinary people coping with extraordinary circumstances.” Sold! I searched for a $10.00 item so I could get this book. I found a selection of Eleanore Roosevelt sayings to give my 17 year old niece for Christmas. She was a Bernie Sanders supporter, so the selection of #45 was even more devastating for her, as she is now embarking on her youth, college and formative years. I thought she could be inspired by an American Woman Icon. The Women in the Castle basically went everywhere with me, unread until now, here in Albania.
While I was contemplating the volume in the Devon bookstore, a woman of similar age to me, was also examining the free book table. We started one of those intense intimate conversations one can only have with a complete stranger. We talked about the recent election, our dismay, our sorrow over the impending challenges that our youth would face, and as the staff comment card said, “how could this have happened here?” She was also inspired to obtain the book for herself.
Years of intense reading that my professions have required, make me a fast reader. After a couple of weeks trying to orient myself in another country with complete strangers and no language, the experience has been overwhelming to say the least. Coping for me is to lose myself in literature, so I cracked open the book during my free Friday afternoon. I finished it by midnight. It was that good, and also caused great reflection on my own situation as an individual ordinary person living through extraordinary times.
The parallels presented in the story: the rise of the Nazi’s and the current political upheaval in the US were extremely uncomfortable to read. One of the characters involved in the story was part of the “lager” movement. “Lagers” were series of camps where German youth were given a combination of living skills on farms, physical exercise and basic Nazi propaganda. After the humiliating and difficult era of WW 1 and the aftermath, one could see the attraction of these orderly, fun and useful camps, sort of like the ultimate lengthy summer camp scenario. With all the chaos of the previous years, the character basically dismissed the seriousness of the propaganda she was teaching the campers. Hitler was bringing jobs back to Germany, wasn’t he? What I found the most interesting about the story in general is how people justified their survival, how they grappled with what it meant to be a “good German” and trivialized blatant racist ideology. For me as an American during our current era, I have certainly been grappling with the same issues.
Rudolf Steiner gave many lectures to help his community cope with the horrors of WW1. This war is often overlooked in terms of where it came from and how it has shaped modern history. I have also brought a book along with me on that war to help gain some perspective on Albania. Something Steiner said during one of the WW1 lectures has always stood out to me regarding Germany and how a nation gets mixed up in such conflicts. In summary he said that when a nation can not rise up to it’s spiritual destiny, it devolves into nationalism. For me, nationalism is a form of idolatry, and the best examples can be seen in Nazism, fascism and also what I am witnessing going on in a large segment of America.
What I am finding here in Albania through my Peace Corps training is an interesting view of what I feel is America’s spiritual destiny. I think it is why I get weepy when I hear the lofty ideals of the Peace Corps, read the quotes by the founding organizers and listen to the original PSA by Kennedy. I feel a stinging sadness when I watch my current president and witness the basic unkindness and selfishness of him and his family, his cabinet and the Republican members of the Senate and Congress. What I also find painful on a deep level is the contrast between these political escapades, the statements and behaviors of those who vote for these people and the ideals I am seeing unfolding through the Peace Corps.
Since I am sort of a baby boomer, the concept of American Exceptionalism has been part of my cultural orientation since childhood. This term means many things to many people, but in essence it encompasses the concept that there is something special about America. Some interpret the “exceptionalism” as America basically can do what it wants without consequence, enforcing it’s will regardless of consideration to anything other than it’s own interests. Others, including myself, see the exceptionalism as being a model for the highest form of civilization, and a responsibility towards those who aspire to this form of civilization.
This highest form of civilization is conveyed by the three core values of America: Freedom, Equality and Community. The latter term is traditionally coined as “fraternity” which means “brotherhood.” In the interests of gender inclusive language, I like to use the word “community” since in essence they mean the same thing. Our exceptionalism as America and Americans is that we are to be a community of free and equal beings. This form of culture, of civilization is the highest ideal in human history and orientation. But how does a nation and a people form “a more perfect union” of free and equal members?
While America is in many respects quite young, we have been working out these ideals in practice for 241 years. We have had uprisings, a civil war, civil unrest, assassinated a few presidents and endured severe trials of our values through such experiences as the communist scare, the Civil Rights and the Anti War movements of the 1960’s. We have had economic booms and busts, environmental catastrophes and plagues, but through it all the concept of what it means to be a free and equal human being within a community has been our guide. I would say that these values, these deeply American values of high civilization have been a direct impediment to the surge towards materialism and capitalism. Some sectors of our nation think the only value to be promoted in America is freedom, especially in the economic realm. It is here that I think America is not living up to it’s spiritual destiny, and why nationalism is seeping into our consciousness and political process in alarming ways.
When president #45 was selected, my biggest sorrow was all the suffering that would ensue. Suffering for the earth, for the vulnerable, all to enrich those who really do not need to be enriched economically. The lie was that #45 would help the economically disadvantaged, and that is why he appealed to as many people as he did. Within days of his election, his main activity was to see how he could enrich his family and circumvent laws and taxes he found tedious to his economic freedom. His cabinet for the most part seeks to enrich themselves and dismantle the basic values and practises of America’s highest form of civilization in the name of greed, which they label “freedom.” The immediate and consistent rejection of all of their efforts by the majority of Americans to me shows we have not abandoned our Spiritual destiny. The Peace Corps for me is also showing the highest ideas of America’s Spiritual destiny.
When the president’s travel and immigration ban was unleashed, the immediate spontaneous response and resistance of the people and our institutions I think was one of the finest moments in our history. Lawyers, judges, courts and basic everyday people flocked to the assistance of strangers, of those who are not Americans trying to either travel ,emigrate or become refugees in the USA. Airports were closed due to protests, and courts and attorney generals across the nation worked round the clock to stifle this very un -American executive order crafted by those who find kindness, inclusivity, freedom, equality and community a threat to their sense of safety. As I saw lawyers overtake food courts in airports with laptops, cellphones and coffee to labor through the night assisting those lost in the ban, my faith was restored in my nation, my people who do value freedom, equality and community.
How does a culture have free and equal members within a community? Through compassion, kindness and respect, through the sort of love Christ talked about and we understand as “Agape,” a form of universal love that is free of attachments and personal desire. It also struck me as I was reading The Women in the Castle, that a large segment of America actually got the deep lessons of WWII, that we learned the consequences of not challenging the onslaught of evil, of a nationalism that harms others.
As hate crimes increase against Muslims, Jews and Christians of African, Latino and Arab descent in the USA, what I am witnessing is a solidarity I have not seen before in my nation. Synagogues are offering their buildings to Muslims who have been burnt out of their Mosques. Muslims are raising money to help repair desecrated Jewish Cemeteries. Jewish organizations have pledged to register as Muslims if there is a Muslim registry created. Christians are reaching out to join Muslims at Islamic Centers for joint prayer services. During the flooding crisis in California, Sikh and Hindu places of worship opened their doors to house evacuees, mostly of the Christian faith. All of this was done in spite of the callous and often non existent response of our new president to the ongoing hate crimes done in his name.
I am also witnessing, albeit at a distance, the relentless unraveling of the cruel policy initiatives of #45 and his party. The system is working, the press and the courts are relentless in their search for the truth. That all of this has happened in 60 some odd days is actually quite breathtaking in its scope, and from my perspective is testament to the Agape at work within our civilizations ideals. For me it is showing that the American people are truly their own leader, in absence of moral example of a president to a crisis, we simply fill in the gaping hole with grace and charity.
Discussing the unsettled nature of the US government with a Peace Corps staff member who served under several presidents from each party, I remarked that it seems the current president is waking the American people up to the nature of their community. While he and his administration seek to destroy them and take away their livelihoods so billionaires can pay less taxes, we are seeing the quiet dedication of our federal and state employees to our values of freedom, equality and community. We are seeing that there are faces, families and histories of people who serve us in so many ways, from our intelligence agents to our federal park rangers. We are also awakening to all members of our culture, regardless of their religious or ethnic backgrounds, seeing the value of each human being. Are we totally there yet? Of course not. But we have history and access to it to be our guide. We can learn from books such as The Women in the Castle and see how “it” could happen to regular ordinary people, and learn as well as transform our civilization so “it” can never happen again.
This is our challenge, this is our task, this is our destiny as Americans, and through the actions of my people both at home and abroad in the Peace Corps, I am seeing that we Americans are rising to the occasion, even without moral leadership of our president and his party’s legislative bodies. My people are capable of the deep love necessary to embody our exceptionalism to carry out the values of freedom and equality within a national and global community. My people are meeting their spiritual destiny in ways they never thought they would have to, and we all will be better off for their efforts.