Yesterday, I read in a news article shared on Facebook that Disney has decided to change the opening announcement at its Magic Kingdom fireworks show. The original greeting began, “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, dreamers of all ages.” The new, more “inclusive” line has been reduced to “Good evening, dreamers of all ages.”
Hmmmm. Along with this post, I too am a work in progress, so I will confess that in the interval between these two paragraphs, I decided to admit that the article I actually read was from Newsmax. The information was the same, but in my initial effort to present it, I confess that I decided to choose a more mainstream source for the hook that I always tell my students is so important in grabbing their readers’ attention. In so doing, I violated the entire spirit of this essay and my ongoing efforts to promote the free exchange of ideas.
Wherever I got the news, the point is that I posted my spontaneous reaction to the Disney decision on Facebook: “Maybe they should simply add ‘freaks.’ Wouldn’t that just about fill the gap?”
And then I told my husband, “I posted something on Facebook this morning that could get me into serious trouble. But I just don’t give a shit.”
This morning, I awakened from a disturbing dream surely inspired specifically by that event–but more generally by the increasingly successful efforts at trampling free speech on college campuses and throughout what we once naïvely called the United States of America. In my dream, the entire faculty where I teach had been required to attend a speech delivered by one of our own. I was interested and enthusiastic about the event until the speaker intoned her third sentence–one that made clear she would be using her remarks to support the orthodoxy-du-jour, critical race theory. I wanted to storm out in protest, but I knew the dangers of such a radical decision, so I stayed put and gritted my teeth as she moved steadily towards her egregious peroration. In a session for questions and comments held afterwards, I was verbally mobbed and silenced as I attempted to express my own opposing views.
Here again, I must add an idea that just popped into my head. A corollary inspiration for the dream may have been a virtual workshop on “miocroaggressions” held earlier this year by our College of Arts and Humanities. Unlike most professional development opportunities, this one was mandatory. And several of us did indeed grit our teeth (while sending each other satiric/irate text messages) as we listened online to two self-important women telling us that we must limit what we say in the classroom to avoid the possibility that someone, somewhere might be offended. One of my fellow instructors made an obvious and thus seemingly innocuous written observation: “Woudn’t it be better if we just viewed everyone as equal?” She was the one mobbed and silenced in that setting by both written responses and warnings from the presenters that she herself had just committed a microaggression.
And so I opened Facebook this morning (do you sense a disturbing trend here–in addition to the rabbit trails, that is?).
My dear friend Marie Bugariu had tagged me in a post celebrating the Fourth of July. She included a vibrantly colored painting of the American flag surrounded by fireworks and wrote the following: “Always grateful. . . . Happy 4th of July to all my friends and friends of America! God bless you, USA and my own Romania!”
Like my own husband, whose family escaped from Czechoslovakia in 1968 shortly after the Russian tanks rolled into Prague, Marie’s husband escaped from another communist-bloc country, Romania, in the early 1980s by walking into the Sahara Desert. I suspect people a few years younger than I really don’t understand that the word escape is literal and still evokes terror. But escape these brave people did. He was able to bring his family to the United States a few years later, and they became and remain the most fervent American patriots I know. They love this country with a passion arising from their fettered lives under communism–not so much the privations, but the corruption that was de rigueur and and the enforced experience of unrelenting culpability for crimes unknown. And they have lived and celebrated the American dream.
One of Marie’s Romanian friends responded on Facebook with words that, if possible, gave me even more hope than the initial post. Since I know only a few words of Romanian and don’t entirely trust the translations provided on Facebook, I have cobbled together my own translation/paraphrase of her words with assistance from Google Translate–Romanian to English, Romanian to French, and French to English:
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, AMERICA! You are the ideal of life and of democracy that all the peoples of the world long for and strive for more than any amount of money or power or whatever else motivates people. AMERICA has shown that it can regenerate and reconfigure itself in any situation and in all times.
I wrote “happy birthday” at the beginning because that is one of the possible meanings and the most appropriate in today’s context of the ubiquitous Romanian phrase that she actually used: “La mulți ani!” The expression is used for birthdays, anniversaries, saints’ days, and the new year itself. In my intuitive understanding, it is something like a toast with raised glass of țuică (another untranslatable Romanian secret): “To many years!” It is this sense that resonates most closely in my soul this Independence Day 2021, when we wish a happy 245th birthday to the United States of America.
I confess that my celebratory mood is dampened by a lack of confidence in the sustainability of the grand experiment of what now seems to be best rebranded as the Fragmented States of America. Why? Let me count the ways (in random order): polarization, identity politics, LGBTQIA, #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, the 1619 Project, systemic racism, privilege, critical race theory, trigger warnings, microaggressions, safe spaces, taking the knee, hate speech, hate crimes, pronouns of choice, the singular “they,” diversity, inclusion, renaming buildings, destroying monuments, cancel culture, ad infinitum, ad nauseam.
Despite this endless list of reservations, the perspective of the woman I quoted above and that of my dear friends the Bugarius who live it every day give me a tentative sense of hope for the future. I also encounter every semester students from other countries–China, Yemen, Ethiopia–who celebrate the freedoms and the opportunities they have experienced in their new homeland. I hope that the ability of these new Americans to provide unique context in terms of place and time offers a more accurate assessment of the American future than my own sense that we are slowly breaking apart and that diversity is going to prevail over unity. My prayer is that we may somehow return to the values expressed in the Pledge that we as children made every morning, hands on hearts, before beginning the school day: One nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
May we, indeed, fulfill the promise of that profound Romanian greeting that wishes not just the ephemeral joy of a fireworks celebration, but takes the long view expressed in the Gettysburg Address: “That this nation shall have a new birth of freedom and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”