Exactly 50 years have passed since American troops slaughtered at least 504 women, children and elderly men in an undefended Vietnamese hamlet called My Lai. And this year marks the 20th anniversary of the sad, sudden death on a New Orleans handball court of Ron Ridenhour, the soldier — later an investigative journalist — who, on his own initiative, assembled the dossier that drew official attention to the atrocity.
To Ridenhour’s disgust only one man, Lt. William Calley, would be convicted (of 22 homicides) in connection with My Lai, a spasm of rape and massacre that laid bare the horror and inanity of a war strategy that was supported up and down the Pentagon’s chain of command. It was a strategy of “attrition” that made body counts, civilians included, the metric of “success” in a war America was already losing.
For 15 years — another anniversary — we have been honoring whistleblowers and truth-tellers in Ron Ridenhour’s name. But as I prepare for the annual presentation of Ridenhour Prizes for Courageous Truth-telling, I confess that I’m having a hard time deciding just what to say from the podium of the National Press Club.
In the course of those 15 years, a president took us to war in Iraq based on lies; another, presenting himself as “the transparency president,” invoked the draconian 1917 Espionage Act against six media whistleblowers, and his successor gleefully lies with almost every breath he takes.
It would be naïve to expect the Ridenhour Prizes to end government cover-ups and prevarication in high places. The forces of darkness and untruth are powerful. Their avatar now resides in the White House. The Ridenhour Prizes are mere mortar in the institutional wall that stands against those forces. The bricks in that wall are the First Amendment, the “fifth estate,” as independent journalism is sometimes called, and our fragile and now crumbling whistleblower protection laws.
Putting aside speculation about how the avatar’s residency can be shortened, I find myself looking beyond Trump and thinking about how we come back from the ongoing debacle of American democracy. I have more questions than answers.
But here’s an arrow from Trump’s own quiver that I’d like to repurpose: forget about making America “great again.” I’d settle for “good again.” I know. I know. Even “good” is an unattainable goal and how do you do “again” something that eluded you in the first place. But here’s what I’m driving at: In Trump’s Washington we aren’t even striving any more towards goodness as an ideal.
Peace among nations? We’d rather rattle our sabers and boast about the size of our nuclear buttons.
The betterment of mankind? We’d rather insult and fence out the huddled masses yearning to breathe free?
Justice? The incumbent president equates those of us active in that struggle with the neo-Nazis who — oops! — crash cars into our ranks at demonstrations against monuments to slavery that still stand tall over American cities.
Equal rights? There is an overt assault on voting rights underway in America today that even some courts see as calculated to disenfranchise our black and Latino minorities.
The burden of stewardship, of saving a fragile planet for generations to come? We have withdrawn from the consortium of nation’s dedicated to that goal and, going further, are systematically shredding the bulwark of environmental law and regulation pieced together in this country over the past half century.
So, no, by invoking the ideal of national “goodness” I don’t mean it in Trump’s flabby, nostalgic sense. I have no illusion that America ever was a perfection to which we can magically travel back through time. After all, each of our nearly 60 Ridenhour Prize winners to date have focused a laser beam on the “ungood” — on acts of inhumanity, greed and outright atrocity — committed in our name, sometimes even with our consent.
And when I yearn for goodness, I certainly don’t mean American “exceptionalism” as invoked by Reagan and the Right, the idea that America is uniquely the agent of virtue and progress on history’s cutting edge. Noam Chomsky is correct to dismiss that fantasy as a “religious doctrine immune to fact.” Indeed, the creed of American exceptionalism can be seen only more clearly these days for what it is: the geyser spewing forth the “fake news” that the current administration sees everywhere except in its own twisted spin on current events.
We need to wrench ownership of what’s exceptional about America from both the delusional self-congratulation on the Right and premature despair on the Left. We need a vision of America’s goodness that does not reside in the claim we are or ever were perfect. Instead, as Obama proposed in his great speech at Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, the greatness of America is the persistence of those still struggling against our more salient flaws and failings.
Somehow, for all our faults and despite so many misdeeds, what Obama called “our self-critical experiment in democracy” continues to serve as a beacon to the world. Ask the Dreamers, ask the immigrant hordes — yes, hordes — who seek nothing more than the opportunity enjoyed by the forbears of every one of us not brought here in chains or displaced from ancestral turf at gunpoint. That beacon is dimming and will dim further before Trump is done and gone — no matter that many of us spend a part of our waking hours imagining how to bring about his last day as soon as possible.
Though we are befouling the citadel of our own democracy, for millions of people around the world — the desperate and the ambitious — we remain the shining “city on the hill,” to borrow from the 17th century Puritan leader John Winthrop — even if, like Sisyphus, it is our fate forever to struggle toward the top of a hill no nation can ever truly reach.
The Trump fiasco will pass, and we’ll need all our imagination when that day comes. Because our beacon will need to be relit. Our trust and faith in American institutions will need to be renewed. As to how we might renew them, listen more closely to Winthrop:
His idea of exceptionalism, his city on the hill, his “model of Christian charity,” was not a prediction but rather a prophecy in the Biblical sense: a critique of the present moment which if unaddressed would have dire consequences.
Reflecting on the imperfect men and women around him, Winthrop was issuing not a boast but rather a threat. The Puritans must set an example of communal charity, affection, and unity to the world, Winthrop prophesied, or “we shall be made a story and a byword [for moral failure] through the world.” And, indeed, Winthrop’s jeremiad rings true today.
“Communal charity, affection, and unity” under Trump? Not hardly. “A story and a byword through the world”? Yes, that’s exactly what we face. We will become proverbial: a people who blew the great promise and opportunity destiny offered.
This president is the fate we earned by letting the Right’s hollow, picket-fence version of American exceptionalism gain traction.
Demagoguery is the evil possibility inherent in democracy. Demagoguery is the dark shadow cast by the lamp of liberty.
If we are to recover our stature in the world, we must first acknowledge that shadow. The founding fathers knew this in yielding to the idea of a free press advanced by Thomas Jefferson — a slaveholder who was simultaneously a freedom-fighter and thus the perfect embodiment of American democracy’s shadow side.
Among many things Jefferson did not anticipate were the advances in technology and communication that today so undermine honest discourse in the public square. The Age of the Internet has taught us that instant access to facts is not even approximately the same thing as access to the truth. Indeed, in the hands of an undereducated populace, the Internet and the social networks it spawns have proved powerful reinforcers of the stupidest bigotry we had reason to hope it would help overcome.
We can recover whatever stature we deserve only by acknowledging to ourselves and the world the truth not only about our democracy’s strengths but also its inherent flaws.
Ignoring or denying those flaws doesn’t make them go away. Those flaws must be exposed and denounced, and, as the great journalist David Halberstam said at Tulane’s 25th anniversary conference on My Lai, that happens only so long as truth-tellers have the courage to be democracy’s “pain in the ass.”
Another Tulane panelist brought a touch of levity to the proceedings that day: “I just remember that I kept hearing stories about what a pain in the ass you were,” quipped Seymour Hersh, the journalist who seized on what Ron Ridenhour had exposed and spread its truth around the world.
Halberstam stood his ground: “Well, you should be a pain in the ass. In a time like Vietnam, that’s when it counts.” Halberstam then turned attention back to another panelist. “Who is being celebrated here today isn’t me, however, but people like Ron Ridenhour. They are pains in the ass, and they do get listened to.”
Halberstam drove home the point by remembering Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words, an adage that Bobby Kennedy also loved to quote: “If one good man plant himself upon his conscience, the whole world will come ’round him.” Then turning to Ridenhour he said: “You are that one good man.”
Happily, Ron’s legacy has been carried forward by women and men in politics, the arts and media with the courage to speak truth to power. For all my anxiety about America ever redeeming itself from our present disgrace, I have no hesitation about adding this year’s four honorees to the lengthy list of Ridenhour Prize recipients.
- Civil rights activist Tarana Burke, founder of the MeToo movement;
- Carmen Yulín Cruz Soto, outspoken mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, whose leadership in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria exposed the ineptitude and racist inequity of the Trump administration’s response to the disaster;
- California journalist Lauren Markham, whose deeply reported book “Far Away Brothers” immerses us in the lives of two immigrants from El Salvador;
- Documentary film director Joe Piscatella, whose film “Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower,” explores a young man’s extraordinarily brave and dangerous fight against the Chinese government’s attempt to impose a pro-Communist curriculum on Hong Kong schools. Joshua Wong’s courage and extraordinarily effective oratory anticipated the student survivors of the recent Parkland High slaughter.
Each prize recipient has been a pain in the ass. Each, in far corners of the world, is holding a beacon aloft and with it the hope that truth will again outshine the darkness emanating from Washington.
New Orleans native, acclaimed memoirist and literary scholar, Randy Fertel is founder and co-sponsor of the annual Ridenhour Prizes, which will be presented at noon on April 18 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. The ceremony and luncheon are free and open to the public. Space is limited. Contributions welcome. Write: firstname.lastname@example.org Or call: 212-822-0263.
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