Newt Gingrich, the speaker of the House two decades ago, recently claimed that a congressional newcomer “despise(s) American values” and is trying to “undermine and destroy America as we have known it.” It was the bellowing of an angry old man whose time is passing.
If the America he pines for is one that had no place for the uppity women and mouthy blacks who refuse the places previously assigned them and who refuse to be silent, then somebody needs to school the old history professor: That time and that place are for the history books.
As for “American values,” well, those who have been excluded have been the ones who have most assiduously taken to heart the values encapsulated in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The founding fathers gave us the notion that “all men are created equal,” and so women and the formerly enslaved and all who have since come to these shores in search of freedom have taken them at their word.
They exercise religious freedom and use some of the same sacred texts that those who say “in God we trust” claim stewardship of while carrying out most ungodly actions against fellow humans. They have sworn allegiance to this country. They have fought and died for it – at home and abroad. They have used protest as an ultimate act of loyalty.
Bullying old white men who can count on old school institutions to amplify their screechy voices have no monopoly on “American values.”
People like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat from New York, have drawn meaning and purpose from the hallowed words men like Mr. Gingrich often selectively utter to deny life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to people who are not their kind. Such men have done so since the ink was still drying on the Declaration of Independence that marked the birth of this country in 1776.
By 1852, when Frederick Douglass spoke about the meaning of the Fourth of July to the millions of African descendants still held in bondage, his critique of the country’s “gross injustice and cruelty” was searing.
Douglass, who had clawed his way from slavery to become an abolitionist and a journalist, was a patriot. He had a clarity of vision that the Newt Gingriches lack as they contort the fundamental values thought of as American to justify their denial of the inhumane treatment of migrants – 21st century versions of their own 19th and 20th century European ancestors who migrated to this country years after mine arrived in chains.
Despite findings by the inspector general of Mr. Trump’s own Homeland Security Department that conditions at the southern border are abhorrent, the president prefers lies to truth. “I have seen some of those places, and they are run beautifully,” President Trump insisted last week. “They’re clean. They’re good. They do a great job.” If there’s overcrowding, he says, it’s not his fault.
Some of us are accustomed to such self-evident untruths. Like Douglass, we can bear witness to the vast gulf between what is promised and what is practiced. Values like equality, honesty, respect and fairness are supposedly our inheritance. But what we see elevated too often are qualities like greed, dishonesty, indifference and selfishness. In church Sunday, I saw on display and heard from the pulpit deeply engrained commitment to faith, morality, family, community, the work ethic and personal responsibility. And yet because of political differences and a threat to his status as an emissary of the founding fathers, Mr. Gingrich would say that we “despise American values.”
If he means his version of those values, then Mr. Gingrich is probably right. Out of desperation, he demands silence from critics and shrieks that the sky is falling. But as Benjamin Franklin supposedly said as the Declaration of Independence was being finalized in 1776, “We must all hang together or most assuredly we will all hang separately.” We have to find a way to work together or we will have no country.
As descendants of those enslaved by founding fathers like Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe take their places along with Native Americans, women, LGBT people, darker hued immigrants, and people who are not Christians, the initial result may be cacophony. They are forming the core of a reconstituted American choir.
These newer voices are working out a harmony constructed from the very same notes that old soloists like Mr. Gingrich wrestled with but never quite mastered.
E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University’s School of Global Journalism and Communication.