History is a funny thing. Depending on the glasses it’s viewed with, the past is either chock full of not so great things or colored with a romantically soft blur. Me? I think it’s a little of both. History is life, with all its ups and downs, no matter how we’d like to retouch it. Graphic designers like me are cool with that kind of artistic license but history needs no retouched brand marketing. It is what it is.
The words ‘great again’ in relation to America have now become part of our daily lexicon. They are heard nearly every day and are pretty much guaranteed to echo through the next few years. Pretty good words; bold yet nostalgic rallying cry. The only problem is that each time I hear the phrase I find myself scratching my head. I can’t seem to nail down the period in history when our American lives were perfect enough, great enough for an encore.
If a handy time machine could transport us to the past, where exactly would we land? What era would our GPS point to? Would we be whisked back to the time we helped our entitled selves to the land of the true Native Americans, elbowing them out of the way? Or when we bought, sold, traded slaves to build that new country? Maybe it was those scary days when we were kids and the Cold War sent us scurrying to hide beneath our desks. Those nostalgic days also included ‘colored’ drinking fountains, gays who were forced to remain in the closet – and women in the kitchen.
I’m in advertising. I know snappy taglines sell things but I’m just having a problem wrapping my head around a ‘great again’ marketing slogan. I can’t seem to pinpoint the glorious golden age when all, regardless of color or gender were peaceful and happy. Is our country truly great? You bet. But in a country of more than 318 million people of every diversity, having ups and downs, even in a single day, is part of the deal. It doesn’t make us less great; it makes great more fluid.
I’m old enough (not ancient, mind you) to have lived through several wars, from Vietnam and the Gulf War to Iran and Iraq. Living in a different time and different skin, I never experienced the Jim Crow laws that brutalized a whole portion of our fellow Americans. They were the citizens sent to the back of the bus, and denied use of the same restrooms and drinking fountains as their white neighbors. As a woman, I was lucky enough not to have lived in a time when I couldn’t vote because of my ‘weaker’ sex. I was a young mom by the time Roe vs Wade signaled the end of back-alley abortions and same sex relations were taken off the list of criminal offenses. Our land of opportunity didn’t always gift those opportunities to everyone. For many — it still doesn’t.
It can be really scary to lose your place, especially when you’ve always been assured of one. Women, people of color can’t really identify. But if your gender or race holds all the cards to economic and political power as destiny, it can really suck when you realize you might now have to share your place in line. You might even feel like — the other half of the country except they’ve always had to fight for spot. Although I totally get it, I can’t give it a hall pass.
Some things affect all of us. Little things like a dot.com bubble, the oil crisis and all around recessions made everyone wish for ‘greater’ times. But the truth is, our country, like the best of marriages, the most awesome friendships or parent child relationships, can be one event, or bad decision short of ‘great’. In relationships, there are days and moments when we would cheerfully strangle our partner. It doesn’t stop us from loving them or believing they hang the moon. But those days and moments give us the required dose of reality and a wake up call to work harder, listen more, forgive, and learn.
I’d like to think the same is true of our homeland. And no matter what, I’m still in love with it, warts and all.
In relationships, we tell the truth — or should if there’s any hope of an authentic connection. Though our country is undeniably a great, even fantastic one, it’s also had its share of shortcomings and if we can’t admit that, we’re selling it and ourselves short. George Santanaya said, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” When we yearn for ‘great again’ we have to remember to take off the rose-colored glasses first and see with clear eyes.
Wonderful things happen in this fair land every single day. As I wrote this, I watched the coverage of more than 600 historic women’s marches taking place all over the world. More than 2 million people of all generations peacefully marched for womens rights — human rights. Along with women young and old, there were men, kids in strollers and people in wheelchairs. I kicked myself for not being among the pink-hatted crowds listening to brave, eloquent women who love this country as I do, pleading to make our polarized America great in the right ways. In marches across this country from Chicago, New York, with more than 500,000 in DC alone, people stood up for themselves and each other.
Like me, like you, all who walk for rights call this country home –and want to make sure there is a place for everyone in that home. I graduated an all-girl high school in a time when the scope of women’s careers were pretty limited to secretaries, nurses, or teachers. There was no talk about glass ceilings let alone women in the boardroom. Even with today’s salary disparities, women’s career choices seem nearly limitless. And we owe those opportunities to the brave who fought for rights we take for granted now in times history might otherwise deem ‘great’. Because of them, our place is no longer only in the home but in the House — of Representatives.
We still have a long way to go and if we want to truly make our country great, we need to scooch over and make room for everyone to get there with us. Though it’s a critical and undeniable need, we need more than economic security. We also need equality, mutual respect, a more honest care of the disenfranchised, mentally ill, and all the areas and issues that our moral compass dictates. In personal relationships, you need kindness, compromise, and honesty to have a good, authentic one. They say a family is only as happy as its unhappiest child. I think it neatly applies to countries just as well.
We can never turn back the clock, no matter how much we’d like to. For people who’ve lost a loved one or their own health, they’d want nothing more than to do just that. But the happiest people are the ones who live in the present despite the joys or the pain of the past. If we are honest, one always walks hand in hand with the other. So, while life may have SEEMED simpler, easier, ‘greater’ in another time, most often the shadow side never was. Greatness is often in the mind of the beholder. For me, I want to behold our country as great as it can possibly be. But that greatness envisions everyone at the table, treated with mutual respect, inclusion, care and each having a slice of America’s enormous bounty.
The America I envision is our crazy quilt melting pot of the world’s peoples blended with equality and care. We can change the narrative to a better future, not a romanticized past. There is strength in numbers, in justice and generosity as the women’s marches illustrated so well. I think Kierkegaard had it right when he said “Life can be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards”.
The past is a wrap. But we can take America’s future to infinity — and a GREAT beyond.