Miss Clark’s Civics Class Revisited

Photo by Dan Dennis on Unsplash

I wanted to be a believer, and I thought Miss Clark’s eighth-grade civics class had taught me how to. The government of the US really worked despite flaws, very minor ones, but there was always a liberal way back. I come from a liberal family with an abiding faith in the electoral system here and the hope of reforming even the system’s most egregious domestic and foreign policies. Wrongs could be righted by our system of government. There was even a wisp of a collective sense of reform in the latter.

The three branches of government worked, and there were checks and balances against egregious policies. Pretty funny stuff these many tattered decades later!

During the Vietnam War, I believed Martin Luther King, Jr.’s pronouncement that the moral arc of the universe pointed toward justice. I became a war resister during the Vietnam War despite two opportunities to leave the US for Canada during that era. I believed society would become better in terms of social justice and an end to war. And the long haul from Reaganism to Trumpism and to the Biden administration’s lack of action provided opportunities to fight back, as I always did working with others in social justice and political movements.

Ron Kovic’s Born on the Fourth of July (1976) is a well-balanced view of the Vietnam War and protest against that war from the viewpoint of a marine veteran. There was hope there in resistance against daunting odds. Ron Kovic included scenes from his company’s engagement in a Vietnamese hamlet and showed the disastrous effects on its unarmed residents, something largely missing from narratives on the Vietnam War until then.

When the national anthem played before a basketball game of my alma mater in Providence, Rhode Island, over a decade ago, I stood in silence while one of my friends left the arena and the other sat in silence beside me. We were all antiwar and my friend who momentarily left the arena had experienced the ravages of the US wars in Central America firsthand during his many working visits there.

Sitting with a group of war resisters who had left the country for Canada in Montreal by 1970, I returned to the US to work and fight the good fight, although I have always felt that part of me remained behind in their righteous struggle against war.

I was flawed like all others, but I believed the path toward the better was on the left.

In 1981, as I drove near my home, a disc jockey on an FM station argued that even with the reality of the far-right administration of Ronald Reagan, we on the left still had a stake in the workings of this nation.

Now, unlike that voice over the radio from long ago, I believe hope is mostly gone for changing anything in a material way in the US. I even look at my two forays in Bernie Sanders’ campaigns for president in 2016 and 2020, as lost causes. I still had part of that liberal bent in my psyche that said the political, economic, and social systems in the US would change for the better despite the proverbial writing on the wall that the game was fixed. Sanders would not leave the Democratic corporatist and militaristic party and any chance for a vibrant left juggernaut was left in the dust. Sanders, while identifying himself as an independent, seemed to want to hold on to his power among the Democrats and did not want to suffer the political exile of Ralph Nader for Nader’s honorable hubris in challenging the Democrats in 2000.

It has all gone very bad and all the signs were there for it to get worse: Racism, police murders of unarmed people, gun massacres of innocents, insurrection, voting suppression, vanished jobs, a decayed environment, income inequality, mass incarceration, and endless wars and rumors of war. It was and is all there in plain sight. The left in the US has long been siloed against itself and the far right is highly organized. Scowling religious fundamentalists like Mike Pence, among others in the former Trump administration, are treated as the adults in the room by some. Even a 10-year-old girl in Ohio is made to suffer for their Neanderthal and religious fundamentalism toward women and women’s rights.

For change, the opposition needs to have sympathy or empathy for their opponents. The far right in the US has no sense of either!

It has even gone bad in the community where I live in Massachusetts, the so-called bluest of blue states. They, on the right, find out about a person early on and their censure is unending. As both a local rabbi and lawyer have told me, once our—those who dare to speak out—interests come into conflict with long-established local interests, we will be made to suffer. The latter is provincialism at its worst. The government here in this hilltown where I live is made up of those on the right in terms of politics, economics, and social relationships, with some neoliberals in the mix. In 2016, at a local Democratic Party caucus, one participant got up and gleefully announced that she had recently changed her party affiliation to the Republican Party. I cannot even go to the local recycling facility without feeling the ire at having spoken out on local issues.

Countless social, political, and economic movements for change later, I received an invitation for a cookout of the local Democratic Party group calling itself Left Field. No thanks, I’ve been there and I’m not going back now or ever!

Though I have benefited from the upward swing in real estate values here, somewhat fueled by the exodus of people from the greater New York metropolitan area to both second homes and primary residences, I am surrounded by wealth I cannot imagine and extreme materialism. Many local people work on those properties and I wonder if they can see themselves economically at the beck and call of wealth they could also not imagine? I am hesitant to speak out about Facebook posts and articles about an airport in a neighboring community that was discussed in an article in the Nation “Flight Same in Great Barrington,” (February 18, 2022), for fear of retribution. I tired long ago at car and truck tire marks across my lawn and garbage dumped in the same area. It’s more than the incivility of a missing debate!

In a kind of capture the flag essay in the New York Times: “The American Flag Belongs to Me, Too, and This Year I’m Taking It Back” (July 2, 2022), the writer argues that even in the US South the flag and its meaning can be taken back by those of goodwill.

I resisted the carnage of the Vietnam War. A few years earlier outside of my barracks at Fort Gordon, Georgia, at their communications school, a huge US flag waved atop a flagpole on the parade grounds between the barracks and the base library.

With the right juggernaut gathering full steam in the Supreme Court and in other places of the government, I feel again that I am untethered in a nation I hardly know anymore. I think it will get worse, and perhaps as bad as in the fictional account of a government gone over to the far right in the US in Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here (1935). It’s difficult to predict with any accuracy since we on the left are not soothsayers.

Salon published an article about an extreme right-wing group called the Joyful Warriors (July 19, 2022). The group seeks to eliminate all talk about race and gender in US schools, has had an impact in Florida and elsewhere, and carries on the far right and anti-public school policies of Betsy DeVos and Ben Carson, among others. The group’s constant banter about Maoism and Marxism in schools would be laughable had it not been for the over four decades of the right-wing putsch against public schooling and teachers’ unions in the US, along with the charter school juggernaut. I wonder how Miss Clark would have countered this dangerous drivel?

We are governed by a power elite of the few and the very wealthy, with a religious fundamentalist and violent base beside them. I wanted to believe the lessons of so long ago from Miss Clark’s civics class and my family’s and my own best liberal leanings, but it has all turned out so much differently and for the worse.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).