What could be more happily, iconically American than a baseball practice on a summer’s morning in Virginia? But last week, when an angry, possibly deranged, mind sought to kill some Republican members of Congress preparing for an interparty charity match, a once reassuring vision of who we are as a people dissolved into an alternative fact.
Yet many of us have felt for some time now that something has gone very wrong with our country. Some spiritual darkness is abroad in our land.
It seems Americans have lost their capacity for a mindful equilibrium in our culture and politics.
We seem beset by various “derangement syndromes.” Former FBI Director James Comey testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee, under oath, that he felt uncomfortable, anxious, unsettled and untrusting after several private encounters with President Donald Trump — coming across as too subjective and emotional to give one confidence he can avoid mistaken conclusions.
Comey is not alone. Many are said to have succumbed to the “Trump Derangement Syndrome.”
Trump, for his part, seems beside himself over leaks that put his election and his presidency “under a cloud.” His supporters seem near the edge of emotional derangement over immigration and terrorism and other anti-Americanisms.
I recently had an opportunity to meet one man, however, who seems quite himself — quietly, calmly purposeful: Pope Francis.
I met him during a Vatican conference a few weeks ago, as part of my work on corporate social responsibility. I introduced myself as he took my hand in his. He leaned in close, looking me in the eyes. “Pray for me,” he said.
As a lapsed Unitarian, I spiritually hesitated. But his good will and evident compassion resonated so strongly that I said, “May God bless you and give you strength and health.” His hands squeezed mine in thanks as he smiled warmly.
The pope seeks to cure — as best he can — the ills of our world. Why can’t we, today’s Americans, be more like him?
On my way home from Rome I stopped in Cambridge, Mass., to have dinner with two former college roommates and their wives. They had come to mark the 50th reunion of the Harvard and Radcliffe Class of 1967.
We had graduated at a pivotal moment, just as America began its journey toward its current breakdown. During the ensuing 50 years, cultural, social and economic forces have pushed us inexorably deeper into our sectarian antipathies and systemic loss of trust in one another.
Reminiscing with my old friends did not cheer me up. Afterward, I could only think of the past 50 years with sorrow, for my country and for what my generation — cutting-edge baby boomers — have done, and could have done instead.
Let me suggest that America began to break apart in 1965.
Looking back I would say that it all started with a “Vietnam Derangement Syndrome.”
We fell victim to an academic construction of a counternarrative about the Vietnam War — challenging U.S. patriotism and righteousness.
And since our failure to defend South Vietnam from communist conquest, we have been subject to a second academic construction of a new national narrative about unjustified privilege enjoyed by “whites” and about victimization on the basis of race, gender, gender identity and more.
This has grown in intensity into a kind of “Cultural Oppression Derangement Syndrome” — in which many rather ordinary Americans are denounced as “deplorables” and “irredeemable.”
But let us start at the beginning, in 1965. In July that year, Democratic President Lyndon Johnson sent U.S. combat battalions to the defense of the nationalists in South Vietnam to protect them from communist aggression. Being drafted soon became quite a preoccupying worry for the men in my college class at Harvard.
Upon our graduation, the 1,200 male classmates were eager customers for a counternarrative about Vietnam. Fighting to help the South Vietnamese was no priority for them. No more than 15 in the class may have served in the war. Another 10 or so were in the military but were not assigned to Vietnam. The rest sought and got draft deferments.
As for me, before graduation I had volunteered to serve with the U.S. Agency for International Development in South Vietnam. I would end up working in counterinsurgency and village development all across the embattled country. When I walked up to get my diploma in June 1967, and the House Master read out what I would be doing that coming fall, there were audible gasps of astonishment from the audience.
Small wonder. The counternarrative as constructed in those years relentlessly asserted that the United States’ effort in South Vietnam was both immoral and unwinnable. The argument against the war denied that it was caused by aggression on the part of the communist North Vietnamese and proposed that Ho Chi Minh was a patriotic nationalist beloved by all Vietnamese.
To support such assertions, the academics and journalists turning against the war fell back on French colonial sources. At the end of World War II, French officials had cut a deal with Ho Chi Minh to recognize him as the most admired Vietnamese leader in return for permission to have French forces return to central and north Vietnam. The portrayal of Ho Chi Minh as Vietnam’s modern George Washington was expedient propaganda for the French. But the myth, once conjured, took on a life of its own.
In any case, by 1967 teach-ins on U.S. college campuses and Senate hearings convened by Arkansas Sen. William Fulbright put the “alternative facts” of this French colonial gambit center stage for Americans. Those who did not want to fight were thus given presumptively good reasons to challenge the legitimacy of the war and so their need to serve.
By using arrogant, deceitful and unfeeling anti-Vietnamese French propaganda, the U.S. antiwar movement successfully usurped the moral high ground from the Johnson administration.
But today we have available, made public by the Politburo of the Vietnamese Communist Party, once-secret documents refuting the counternarrative of the antiwar movement.
Meanwhile, young American draftees who did serve in Vietnam were decisively not part of the U.S. elite, as most of my classmates have been for 50 years now. Upon their return from the war, Vietnam vets became marginalized Americans, stigmatized and disparaged at the hands of our social, cultural and political elite in academia, journalism and politics.
Many Vietnam vets quickly learned to internalize their victimization as post-traumatic stress disorder. Some further “deranged” their souls with accusations that their government had negligently poisoned them with Agent Orange herbicide and abandoned some of them to North Vietnamese captivity.
Their bitterness at being slighted by those who had not served but who had then risen to the top of the American heap laid part of the foundation for Trump’s political success in 2016.
As a result of the “Vietnam Derangement Syndrome,” then, Americans of various persuasions were misled into questioning the veracity and good faith of their government. And once the divisions opened by antiwar advocates took hold, U.S. politics began its long decline into today’s maelstrom of recriminations and character assassinations.
The antiwar counternarrative opened a grievous wound in the American psyche. And after the Vietnam War ended, the cultural Left kept the wound bleeding in order to further delegitimize traditional American values and identity.
First, the racist tropes of Southern segregationists were not tossed into the ashcan of history, as they should have been, after the extirpation of Jim Crow laws in the great civil rights legislation of 1964 and 1965. Rather, their language and categories were more and more applied nationally to strengthen the case that America was inherently irredeemable because it had racism in its DNA. The old Southern social construct of “white” — created to make segregation possible — was asserted as a real psychosocial identity.
Once they were classified as “white,” people could be pushed into feeling guilty about themselves and their country.
The irony is that this new counternarrative began to gain traction culturally just as the country broke Southern segregation for good and forever. By mid-1965, Lyndon Johnson (with able assistance from Minnesota’s Hubert Humphrey) had moved the Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act on public accommodations and the Voting Rights Act on electoral equality.
In my college class, we had no vital concept of “white.” Such thinking, we thought, was for Southern rednecks and segregationists. We identified ourselves by religion or ethnic background — we were Irish, German, Italian, WASP, Jewish, Catholic, Presbyterian, etc. Among our roommates were Marion, an African-American, and Tarrin, a Thai. Just two more guys.
My contemporaries of a “mixed” religious or ethnic background thought of themselves first as individuals — as Steve or Ed or Ned — or as Americans living in a melting pot of peoples and families.
Such individualism was how I thought of myself when, in 1968, I started dating Pham Thi Hoa from Vietnam, whom I later married.
But as a consequence of imposing the Southern racist identity categories more nationally, new more rigid racial tribalisms were established. Individuals of “mixed” backgrounds had no standing.
Today, by the way, some 17 percent of recent U.S. marriages are biracial — with their children falling between the stools set out for us by contemporary racists.
A second front in the cultural assault focused on gender in various ways, on tying Americanism to patriarchy and maleness in order to disparage it.
The combination of this new racism and genderism was intended to establish new grounds for justified discrimination — politically correct opposition to “privilege” due mostly to “whiteness” and traditional gendered sexuality.
The apotheosis of this movement to redefine moral superiority in America came with Hillary Clinton’s campaign assertion that “you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it.” Thus did the elite’s standard-bearer name and stigmatize those who could no longer be accepted as Americans in good standing.
For a half-century now, cultural counternarratives have acted as social cancers, filling our souls with unhappiness and resentment.
Maybe the pope and others with something like his sense of compassion can help us heal our self-inflicted psychosocial wounds.
Stephen B. Young, of St. Paul, is global executive director of the Caux Round Table, an international network of business leaders working to promote a moral capitalism.