Friday, November 6, 2020

Dear America: A Personal History

 Dear America,

            Though I have been away for the better of eleven years, more than a quarter of my life, never could you be far from my thoughts. You are, after all, the land of my birth, the cradle of my infancy, and the hearth and home that nourished my youth and saw me grow into adulthood. For better or for worse, by virtue of your inherent contradictions, I am both the man you raised me to be and, perhaps, a prodigal son fit to be scorned for squandering the inheritance bestowed upon me by the fortunate circumstances of my birth.

            It is precisely because of these contradictions – yours as well as my own – that I am compelled to write to you now. Your own birth, at times touted as the auspicious blessing of a divine creator, was in fact fraught in a number of ways that you have never fully reconciled even as the memories of past traumas stubbornly persist and manifest themselves in your aches and pains today, like the flaring up of an old war wound or a stoically repressed PTSD.

            It’s better I start with myself then. After all, our contradictions are intimately intertwined: You are in my DNA.


            I was born into a conservative, Christian household in the year of Ronald Reagan’s ascendency to the White House. I grew up in the city know best as home to the fictional oil magnate J.R. Ewing and as where the very real assassination of President John F. Kennedy took place: Dallas, Texas. Of course, others will be more familiar with its Cowboys, its Mavericks, its Rangers and, probably less so, its Sidekicks. (Professional indoor soccer was a thing in the 80s.)

            We grew up, my four older brothers and I, in a middle-class neighborhood. We went to decent schools; three of us even attended a very well respected private school, though I only attended for two years. In any case, we were never what you would have called rich and certainly not wealthy. All the same, I never once questioned that we had it pretty good. Never in my life, even when my Dad was laid off, once when I was 4 and again at 21, did I ever have to worry about having a place to sleep, food to eat, or something to do with my time. What’s more, our parents loved us; in sometimes imperfect ways, but they loved us and took care of us. Always.

            They taught me responsibility by taking their responsibility for their own children to their own hearts.

            We grew up in a home where everyone was welcome. Hispanic and Black kids from one brother’s soccer team were regular visitors. Jewish friends from the private school came often. My oldest brother brought Black and Asian friends home on visits from university. We hosted kids from Venezuela, Mexico and Thailand for the Dallas Cup, a youth soccer tournament, as well as exchange students from Germany. The husband of my mom’s best friend had emigrated from Palestine; he’d let me help out around their house whenever I needed to earn a bit of extra money. In my first trip abroad, we accompanied another of my Mom’s friends to visit her family in Peru. It was my mom in particular who encouraged us to learn languages and about other cultures just as she encouraged me to learn the language of my German forebears.

            They taught me to respect others and myself in the way that they showed respect to others by being welcoming to anyone who happened to come to our home. 

            Don’t get me wrong. My parents weren’t social activists. They didn’t march for any causes. They didn’t always say or do the right things. They simply tried to be good and decent people. They tried not to be swayed by societal fears or grandiose sermonizing but trusted their own judgment, knowledge and experience. This doesn’t mean they didn’t get things wrong, but fortunately, when I think of my parents, I can be grateful for all the things they managed to get right.

            As I grew older, however, the contradictions between how I was raised and the wider culture around me became more apparent and eventually impossible to ignore. 


            As a child, I liked President Ronald Reagan – little as I actually knew him, of course – simply because he looked like my grandfather. His smiling, wrinkled face and dye-black hair led me to dub him, affectionately, “Ronald Raisin.” It was with a child’s naivety that I believed that things that appear alike must be alike, but I knew nothing about his politics or the choices he made as president. I knew nothing about how the world I was born into had been shaped. His was the last picture in our then up-to-date book of American presidents, a book full of white, male faces; at the time, I had no reason to believe that this was anything other than normal or that it could be considered a testament to the disproportionate value given to some people at the expense of others.

            But then, as I grew up, I learned about the slave trade. I learned about the continuing encroachment of European settlers upon native lands, the treaties and promises broken, and the resulting violence. Even after amendments were passed to enfranchise previously enslaved Black men and women, state and local laws were passed to mitigate or nullify those gains. “We” fought for the right to representation in our own war for independence and yet have continued to deny fair representation to others even today. Just consider the citizens (American citizens!) of D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam and other US territories who are even now not afforded the same rights or the same level of representation as those born or living in the 50 states.

            Japanese American internment camps. The Chinese Exclusion Act. Jim Crow. The unjustified and barbaric yet casually forgotten lynchings and massacres of natives, Blacks and LGBTQ people. Shadowy CIA operations throughout Central and South America. Even subjecting unwitting participants to scientific experimentation, infecting them with syphilis, malaria, bubonic plague, viral hepatitis, and so on. These are things “We” have done. Even our Cold War fears of communist subversion and world domination must seem naïve and irrational in hindsight. Surely we can see that the ends never justified the means. Surely we can acknowledge the hypocrisy of past – and some current – actions. Surely we can admit that because of our fears and our lack of faith in constancy to our own ideals, we gave up the very things we professed to hold dear and sacrificed our very integrity. Surely we can admit that we have done wrong. (And, to be fair, we have admitted it a time or two.) 

            It is by no means to take away from what we have done right. Nor is it to make an example of us alone as if to hold ourselves apart from all others in the course of history or to hold ourselves to such a high standard as to deny our basic and decidedly imperfect humanity. Nor were all things done, in hindsight, entirely without justification or reason, though our actions – or reactions – have so often been disproportionate to their causes. At the very least, by admitting our mistakes, our failings and our shortcomings, we may yet become “the land that has never been yet.”

            It is difficult not to look at the United States today with a critical eye, having been raised in schools that repeated precepts like scripture – “Be respectful of others”; “Take responsibility for yourself” – only to learn that my country’s political leaders, business executives, arbiters of “justice,” even its educators were so often disrespectful and irresponsible if not downright criminal. Talk of accountability, as soon became obvious to me, was only ever just that: talk. Everyone’s got their reasons not to do the right thing, whether it is from a sense of shame or having something to lose or need or greed or power or God knows what. What were all those principles for? What is the point of teaching our children such things if we only prove them to have been lies by our failing to uphold them at the highest levels of society? “Clean up after yourself.” But don’t worry! Nothing’s wrong at Love Canal. Take a vacation, downwinders. Have you considered Times Beach or Taylor, Louisiana? There’s always Lake Okeechobee. Or perhaps you’d like to buy a home in the Barnett or Marcellus shale regions? What doesn’t kill you … may only make you chronically ill. But it’s the deceit that will really get you.

            It is hard not to view America today with a cynical eye, having been raised in a church that encouraged me to have faith in Jesus and yet, somehow, not all that much in what He taught. “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.” It seemed that love and understanding only extended to certain people and that you could cheat, lie to, imprison or lynch others with almost total impunity. The disconnect between what some of us profess to believe and our actions has been, at times, absolutely head spinning. But then, we humans have always been good at lying, especially to ourselves.

            Even those principles that are fundamental to our Union seem hardly to be held very sacred if one looks through our history with any real objectivity. John Adams defended enemy soldiers – British redcoats – accused of murder on the principle that everyone deserves a fair trial. In the end, the soldiers were acquitted and, it would seem, justly. In the wake of 9/11 however, we twisted our own rules so that we could throw enemy combatants into indefinite detention without due process or the right to a fair trial. Whether these particular people were terrorists or not, guilty or not, how far “We” have fallen to have given up our own principles and our own commitments to fairness and justice. After all, for all those who like to harp on about how we are a nation founded on Christian ideals, clearly, we chose to do unto others as we pleased. 

            And this relinquishing of our ideals and principles shows in other ways. Not only does it show in the state of our very dysfunctional, if not broken, political system, but it has – dare I say – trickled down into how we Americans treat each other on a daily basis.

            Pay day loans. Multi-level marketing (pyramid) schemes. Abuse of civil forfeiture. The bail bond system. The medical/health industry. The pharmaceutical industry. The privatized prison system and the possible motivations behind the levels of incarceration in the US that have created a technically legal but still grossly unethical form of modern slavery. Banking institutions, with complete disregard for the consequences of their actions, actively created the housing crash of ’08 and then were bailed out at the taxpayers’ expense. Even now, in the midst of a global pandemic, decent hard-working Americans are struggling to pay their bills and threatened with eviction, not because they are unable or unwilling to work, but because the circumstances won’t allow it. How can we in good conscience allow ourselves to exploit each other like this, institutionally and as part of the fabric of what is becoming an increasingly dystopian society? Does making money mean more than everything else? Does it mean so much more than the well-being of our fellow citizens and our country as a whole? Have we allowed capitalism to overwhelm any sense of civic duty and responsibility to our principles and the belief in our inalienable rights? 

            Let’s be honest. The kind of exploitation that we are inflicting upon each other is wrong and will ultimately lead to self-destruction. Like a snake eating its own tail, we seem to be consuming ourselves. 

            It’s not even a matter of being against capitalism per se but one of being against a form of capitalism that is without any regard for human life and the well-being of society or the human race as a whole. Besides being unethical, it can only be self-defeating if left unchecked, unregulated and without any moral underpinning whatsoever. The fact that local, state and federal governments have not only done little to mitigate these problems but also actively exploited them has continued to erode one of the most essential qualities that hold any society or nation together: trust.


            Even as a kid, when my dad was a regular listener of right-wing talk radio, I was troubled by how easy it was for certain hosts to vilify large segments of our nation in such broad, sweeping brushstrokes. For all that I had been taught about being responsible and respectful to others, not to mention loving others as I loved myself, these gross generalizations were clearly wrong, dishonest and – as we know – dangerous. Unfortunately, this way of denigrating others was, not long after, taken up by left-wing hosts as political editorializing moved to cable TV. This destabilizing rhetoric has since exploded around the world with the ubiquity of social media to the point that our present political leaders talk easily – Easily! – about how the “other side” is “dangerous” and wants to “destroy America.” These are your neighbors, for God’s sake! You live together, whether you like it or not. So you better learn to deal with it and love yourselves enough to be secure in your OWN way of life, your OWN faith, your OWN worth and dignity as a human being. The alternative does no good for any of us.

            Though raised in a Methodist church, I have, over the years, been interested in the lives of spiritual people of various faiths, be they the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, or Hildegard von Bingen. One of my favorite books, by Julien Green, is called God’s Fool: The Life and Times of Francis of Assisi. It was to St. Francis I heard attributed the quote, “Go to the four corners of the earth and spread the gospel. Use words if necessary.” However misattributed or altered that statement may have been, I took it to heart that how I lived my life was as important as whatever I professed to believe. It is not enough to parrot scripture or mindlessly quote holy aphorisms; one has to internalize them. I continue to do the best I can to live by my own beliefs and principles, such as those that were taught to me in school, in church and by my country.

            It was in Green’s book, however, that I found a quote that seems especially relevant to our shared troubles today, that gossip is like “sticking your tongue in your own neighbor’s blood.” It is difficult to imagine a more apt visual metaphor than our various social-media-enabled devices being connected to tubes – demonic sucking tubes, perhaps – through which we are collectively sucking the blood right out of each other by engaging in discourses based upon false information, misinformation, and outright lies. What’s worse, we surely know when we are lying to others as well as ourselves. We know when we don’t know if something is true or not. We know when are choosing to simply take someone’s word at face value. We know the difference between knowledge that is earned through experience and investigation and … pablum. 

Don’t we?

            Unfortunately, the powers that be, including the media in general, have been of little help in disabusing us of our misconceptions and misunderstandings. Indeed, it’s been to their benefit for many years to exploit our fears as much as anyone else in their own quests for the almighty dollar. Whatever keeps subscribers and viewers, scare-mongering, poorly sourced journalism and tailored narratives are all fine as long as it keeps the business afloat. Yes, people’s livelihoods are at stake, but that doesn’t make the manipulation any less corrosive. That goes double for politicians who are clearly picking and choosing facts that serve their own purposes, choosing instead the paths of obfuscation, dissemblance, omission or plain dishonesty over truth, transparency and integrity. Apparently, we want money, power and fame at any cost. Well, the piper has come to collect his promised reward and if he doesn’t get it, it is our children who WILL pay the price.


On one side of my family, I am a descendent of slave owners and men who fought for the Confederacy. Though I may owe them some small debt of gratitude for the fact of my birth, I owe no allegiance to their ideologies and certainly not to their sins. I cannot reject them wholesale because I am a product of that history regardless, but I reject the beliefs that allowed them to enslave other human beings and reject any belief that I am somehow endowed with superiority based on the color of my skin or my gender. Such thinking is the worst and most debased form of entitlement and elitism, the kind of thinking which is born of ignorance, laziness and not pride but insecurity. It is to be pitied that some of us should think so little of ourselves and have so little faith in our inherent value as human beings that we can’t allow others to live their own lives as freely as we would want to for ourselves.

            I am also the grandson of a man who ran a small bed and breakfast in a small town in northern Michigan, the only B&B open to Jewish guests. My grandfather was also the first person in his town to hire a Black man, despite the protests of his neighbors, on the simple basis that the man was qualified for the job. He liked making money just as much as anyone else, but he also recognized the unfairness around him and didn’t let it stop him from doing what he thought was best. I can stake no more claim to his good deeds than I can deny my Southern ancestors’ sins. I will, and should, be judged on my own words and deeds alone.

            I am white. I am male. I was born in Texas. All are matters of fate or circumstance. I have no more reason to be proud of these facts than to be ashamed of them. I’m not ashamed of them, but I do recognize the benefits being born a white, male American has afforded me. 

            On my first day of school in first grade, as we were introduced to each other, a Black boy – upon hearing my family name was German – asked if I was a Nazi. I replied that my family had come to the US before there were Nazis. Little did I know then about my family’s past with slavery or that racism and hatred were by no means the purview of Nazis alone. But I by no means disavow my German heritage or any other heritage that I may be linked to culturally or genetically. I simply do my best to recognize what is good from what is not, separating the wheat from the chaff.

            I recognize that the most important and essential human qualities all exist beyond race, gender, sexuality, nationality and even religion, whether honesty, integrity, responsibility, respect, dignity, wisdom, bravery, valor, honor, or anything else (as do, unfortunately, their opposing qualities). These are qualities that any human can possess and any human being can cultivate. Qualities such as these formed the basis of my upbringing; I will pass them on to my son in how I raise him and to others in how I live as best I can. (I will certainly fail now and again.) It is these qualities that are the foundation of my relationship with my wife who shares an abiding faith in living by them. She has learned them in her own way, in her own family and in her own culture and nation Taiwan, which is where we live and are raising our son.


            I have chosen not to vote in the upcoming election. My reasoning, I think, is fairly simple, though some will question it or dismiss it as naïve optimism. It’s not that, I assure you. If it isn’t clear to you by now, conduct and character matter. Who we choose to lead our nation matters for a number of reasons, but the content of their character is essential. Unfortunately, it is not only the president’s character that matters, but also the characters of all of the people who serve in positions of power throughout the government, the military, and the business world. Unfortunately, all too often, people in positions of power have shown that they are more interested in maintaining their power, their wealth, and their control with little to no contrition or remorse when wrongdoing has been exposed. It’s true of celebrities, athletes, and musicians as well. It’s the exception rather than the norm to hear someone say, “Yes, I did something wrong. I recognize it, I accept the consequences of it, and I will make amends for it.” How many institutions, be they universities, hospitals, or conglomerates, have been exposed for sweeping bad behavior, such as sexual assault, fraud or ties to child labor, under the rug to protect their images, their reputations and their profits? Is this America? Is “law and order” simply a game stacked against the powerless to prop up the powerful? Is justice just a game?

            Regarding Amy Coney Barrett’s statement on her nomination to the Supreme Court, most of it is perfectly sound and reasonable on the face of it, but she wrote one line I took issue with, that the US “is a country of laws; not of men.” But men wrote those laws and, as Gloria Steinem correctly stated, “Law and justice are not always the same thing.” We know this is true and any denial of such a statement would only sound childish and petulant. Law has frequently been used in the service of injustice and, if a law is unjust, it must be changed. Similarly, if the government fails to be just, it must be changed. If policing is unjust, it must be changed. If economic policy is unjust, it must be changed. The killing of unarmed minorities, Native Americans and members of the LGBTQ community without reasonable consequences to those responsible for their deaths is unjust. The exploitation of the working class, middle class or anyone else for the sole sake of profit is unjust. Separating children from their parents, regardless of where they have come from or why, is unjust. A government that fails to protect or support all of its citizens, regardless of their political affiliation, in the midst of a global pandemic is unjust. A country that fails to take care of the men and women who serve it both at home and abroad by not providing the medical care that they require as a result of their sacrifices for that country is unjust. Yes, it was fair to say, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” but if your country does nothing for you in return? Or worse, actively oppresses you? 

            If, America, you fail to rectify not only your past wrongs but your present ones, you will no longer be America, not only for the marginalized but for anyone. America will be nothing more than empty rhetoric, a place in which lofty words really are nothing more than hot air, devoid of substance or genuine feeling: a pantomime. America will stand for less than nothing; it will stand for the subversion and betrayal of everything it promised to be, a façade no more real than any Potemkin village. No longer “a shining city on a hill” but the cold, neon glare of a rundown red light district, pimping itself out to the highest bidder.


            Lies may travel fast, but the truth is resilient. The truth is unchanging, though it can appear different from different perspectives. However, it does not matter how many lies we tell, how devotedly we attempt to obscure or ignore the past, how many passages we strike from the history books, or, in fact, how many books we may wish to burn. The bones of an unmarked grave still rattle an unspoken truth whose existence cannot be denied. Victory won through lies can only ever be hollow, unstable and fleeting. Winning at all costs can only be rewarded with the dust and ash of an empty husk of a world, a wasteland, the consequence of a pyrrhic victory in which everything worth fighting for is utterly undone. But truth, however difficult it may be to pin down, is eternal. What is the truth can never be anything but the truth. While we are incapable of knowing or appreciating a fully objective truth, the truth will remain steadfast in its immutability. So be devoted to truth and, though we may fail it, the truth will never fail us.


            My father served in the Vietnam War, my grandfather in World War II. I myself had considered serving after 9/11 but was determined to finish earning my bachelor’s degree first. By the time the US had declared war on Iraq and I was about to graduate, I was no longer certain that enlisting was the right thing to do. I remember standing outside of my apartment with a couple of friends on the day the war was officially declared. It was early evening as we stood watching the sun go down on that big Texas sky. A large, dark and ominous cloud, like an enormous battleship, was slowly crossing the path of the sinking sun, leaving the gray of a stormy night in its wake. I wondered at the moral ambiguity facing those already enlisted, already having put themselves in harm’s way for what they believed to be a noble pursuit. I decided long ago not to question the motives of the men and women who choose to serve even as I question the motives of the powers that make those decisions as to where, when and why they should fight.

            It would seem that it is not I but you, America, who has squandered your inheritance. You, who had won glory, power and prosperity, began to believe that your hard-fought rewards were simply your due, the fruit of your inherent, God-bestowed entitlement, the mark of your undeniable exceptionalism. Did you not sense the vainglorious pride creeping into your thoughts? You, who had come so far and sacrificed so much, had ascended to what you thought was the mountaintop and exclaimed, “Here is where I shall make my bed of laurel wreaths,” in complete denial of all the wrongs you had done on the way and would continue to do. You thought to yourself, “This is it. This is the pinnacle,” even as you sat in the shadow of your own unfulfilled promise.

            It’s not too late. It’s not too late to finish what was started, but you will have to reconcile with the truth. It will require honesty, a penitent heart, and the belief that redemption is still possible. But it can’t just be for one part, or one half, of you; “We” are all guilty to a greater or lesser degree. Our justifiable umbrage at bigotry, intolerance and injustice is not justified in return by hatred or by wanton destruction. And our efforts, by hook or by crook, to preserve a particular way of life cannot be at the expense of another’s way of life. These are roads the human race has long travelled, for generations if not thousands of years. We know full well by now where they lead, so why do we keep walking down them? We can choose another path. Or are we, in fact, a mindless, disconnected, shambling mass of humanity held together by what is nothing more than a shared illusion?

            One truth is this: We have always thrived on shared illusions such as those represented by the idea of a nation, of a shared belief system or ideology, of a common people. We must reassess, if not recreate, what it is that you are meant to be, America. We must decide what it is that we can value and have faith in above all other things. (No, I’m not talking about God. We each have to work that one out for ourselves.) It must be something beyond any single political ideology, something that is accessible to each of us and not bound by concepts of race, gender, sexuality, religion or ability. It must be, above all, human.

            Keep climbing, America, until you have ascended the next peak. Right the wrongs you have committed and redeem yourself by extending a hand down to those who have not yet had the opportunity to enjoy the same glorious view of the world. Until we are all standing on that peak together, your work is not yet finished.


            So, I have given up my vote, not because I don’t think one choice is better than another but because, when all is said and done and this election is finally over, we will still have to live together as neighbors and fellow citizens or else give up the pretense that we really believe in half of what we say we do. It’s in the interest of our collective future that I relinquish my vote in the spirit of unity, because I will not choose half of my family and reject the other wholesale. One half may be guilty of hypocrisy, fear mongering and deception and I will tell them so, but not out of spite and not out of hatred. The other half is no less responsible for its own behavior and should be called out just as quickly for its pride and self-righteousness. It’s not a matter of moral equivalency; some are clearly guiltier than others. But someone has to stand outside of the fray, impartial, aloof and with nothing to lose or gain. I would rather spend the rest of my life trying to be that person than pick a side in what can only be a losing battle for everyone if things continue as they have.


            It is safe to say that we are dealing with a kind of societal madness. Perhaps it is the result of living in the Age of Information, an age in which we are simultaneously confronted with uncomfortable truths about ourselves while wrestling with long-held convictions that strain under the weight of an ever-widening field of knowledge about ourselves and what it is to be human. It is also a consequence of the rapid changes of the last century; the telephone itself has been around for little more than a hundred years and here we are now walking around with devices that connect us to the entire world. The population of the Earth has more than doubled since my oldest brother was born in 1969 and, as always, human life flows from one part of the world to another according to the basic needs of survival. It has always been easy for us to be fearful and it has always been easy for us to fall back on hatred because hate and fear require no imagination, only ignorance. It is easy to be afraid of what we don’t know and it is easy to fill in the massive gaps in our knowledge with that fear. We should pity those who are so irrationally afraid; we should have compassion for their disconnection from their own humanity; and we should be ready to lay down our lives in response to the hate and violence that grows from that fear. It is a fight, so fight back, but “Fight them in every way except the way that they want.” Don’t mistake choosing non-violence for passivity. It means having the courage to face death with love.


            My dear homeland, I have left you but you have never left me. How can you still be home when you no longer seem to have faith in yourself or in all of your people? You must stop doing what you know to be wrong. Stop exploiting one another, pull the blood-sucking tubes from your mouths and, most importantly, stop lying to yourselves and one another. You are capable of being better than this. I know you are, because for all that I’ve written here, I’ve seen the same thoughts and sentiments echoed by so many others from all walks of life. Regardless of what the future may bring, remember what you profess to believe in and act on that belief. Don’t do unto others what you would not have them do unto you. Love yourselves as you would have your neighbors love you.

            And finally, ask yourselves – really ask yourselves – what will happen if you don’t.


Your humble servant,

Daniel Hagen