Cleaning Up America
If you were alive and watched television at any time in the early 1970s, you know this image: the "weeping Indian" who, after trash is thrown down at his feet, grieves for a land fouled by industry and consumption. The campaign worked: Americans today are far, as a whole, extremely responsible about disposing of waste in proper receptacles, and in many parts of the country, so obsessive about recycling that, when visiting a place that doesn't practice it, they find it painful to dispose of a bottle or can they know is destined for a landfill.
You're probably also aware that the actor portraying the weeping Indian was not, in fact, native American. He was Iron Eyes Cody, an Italian-American who was cast repeatedly throughout his career as one. He's most famous for this public service announcement, made in 1971, and deservedly so: as I said above, it worked. Whether you're driving down a highway, walking through a city, or camping out in the country, America is a far cleaner place now than it was fifty years ago.
Independence Day is two days away, but as I sit on the edge of a bed in an Air BnB in London, I'm not sorry I'll be away from my homeland on one of my favorite holidays. I won't miss the patriotic music, the parades, the fireworks, the celebration of freedom. Instead, I'll be grieving, because my country has been taken over by a rich litterer who delights in dumping waste on the feet of anyone who truly loves this country.
I can't celebrate an America that slid so easily into treating immigrants like rabid animals. I can't honor a flag that has become a symbol for intolerance and abuse. I can't rejoice in the many becoming one when the ruling regime has defined "American" to only refer to white Republicans, and only the most conservative of them, at that. That thin slice of the population seems hell bent on casting the rest of us out, even those of us whose families have been citizens for generations, but whose ethnicity is not white enough.
Iron Eyes Cody (birth name Espera Oscar de Corti) was an immigrant success story. He was the child of an Italian and a Sicilian who, from the time he was first cast in a western, decided to adopt the dress and appearance of the most native of Americans, even claiming to be one by birth. It worked for him: in all, he appeared in more than 200 films, not to mention the iconic PSA that made his the face of environmentalism for an entire generation.
In living as he did, Cody exemplified what so many immigrants throughout the history of this nation have sought to do: become as American as they can. They take on the language, the clothing, the cuisine, and as much as possible, the appearance of their adopted country.
Of course, appearance can only go so far. Looking at Cody's photo, I can't help seeing an Italian face under the makeup and wig. He's a Hollywood producer's idea of a native American. That his face retains its essential European features, despite the work of the makeup artists, probably worked to his benefit: it was easier for audiences to sympathize with an "Indian warrior" if he looked more like the guy living across the street. The irony of an Italian-American actor portraying a native American in a PSA designed to make Americans feel patriotic about cleaning up their own messes was lost on the producers and their audience.
That irony, though, makes this spot a perfect parable for what's becoming of America today. When I was an undergrad, assimilationism--the "melting pot" theory of how immigrants became Americans--was going out of style. Sociologists were warning that America was losing much of the diversity that had made it so vibrant and robust. Immigrants, whether they were Asians, southern Europeans, Latin Americans, Pacific Islanders, Africans, Arabs, et cetera, ought to be able to hang onto their ethnic identities. Rather than assimilate them, the theory went, we should accommodate their differences, tolerating them until we learned to celebrate them. Rather than a melting pot, America ought to be a tossed salad.
For some, that's exactly how it worked: new Americans from Muslim and Hindu countries hung onto their religions and shopped at stores that catered to their dietary and cultural preferences. Other immigrants, though, came here for the express purpose of escaping social and political restraints in their former homelands. They fiercely wanted to be unhyphenated Americans, and they embraced the popular culture of this country with an intensity and sincerity that put to shame many of us who'd been here for centuries rather than years.
But whether they came to blend in or proudly hang onto their identities, these newer Americans are, almost without exception, at risk of being cast out by a reactionary minority who, thanks to the quirks of our electoral system and the craven power hunger of a few Congressional leaders, have far more power now than their small numbers deserve in a representative democracy. Donald Trump was elected by a confluence of fractally unlikely events that really come down to about 70,000 votes in a few swing states. Despite losing the popular ballot by three million votes, those thin majorities in those key states gave him the electoral votes he needed to claim the White House. And so now, as I'm on holiday in Europe and, next week, will be doing some professional development in Ghana, I'm having to apologize for what my country has become.
People I've talked with in Britain empathize with my plight. As a parliamentary democracy, they're well-acquainted with the phenomenon of being stuck with an embarrassing national executive they didn't vote for, and of struggling with an electoral outcome (Brexit) that came about in questionable ways. As Amy and I walked through London on our first day here, we saw a massive demonstration coming together against Brexit, demanding a new vote to stay in the European Union. As we toured Scotland, we saw frequent references to the Scottish independence movement, and the desire that goes with it to remain European, even if it means ceasing to be British. And yet, like Americans, Scots and Euro-minded Brits are mostly resigned to the disappointing reality of having a government that is, at present, answering only to its most reactionary core voters, while ignoring its responsibility to represent the nation as a whole.
Which brings me back to the weeping Indian image that started me off on this tangent. The jingle that went with it, an ear-worm of a song that has stuck with me since I first heard it in that iconic PSA in 1971, concludes with this chorus: "We've got to pitch in to clean up America...and if everybody keeps pitching in, then we can call America, America the beautiful once again. Oh yeah." (I'd apologize for the "Oh yeah," but it was the 1970s, so what do you expect?)
If I'd been in Portland two days ago, I would've joined the peaceful march for keeping families together against the concentration camp tactics of the Trump regime, as tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of Americans did throughout the nation. A year and a half ago, I was proud to join the Women's March, an event that brought out so many Portlanders that there was barely room downtown to stand, let alone march, even as the cold January rain poured on us. In the time between that march and the latest demonstration, I've seen Americans keep up the pressure. We're not lying down and taking this. Of course, that doesn't mean we can turn it back: once one has possession of the levers of power in Washington, the only check on that power is the fear of losing the next election, and apparently the deluded autocrat we didn't mean to elect has no such fear. But there are others in Washington, and as long as we never let up on the pressure, we will wear them down.
Visiting another country can be a shock. I know when I was in Ghana four years ago, the sheer quantity of litter, particularly the plastic bags that hold clean drinking water, never ceased to horrify me. It also helped me realize that I'd come to take the cleanness of America for granted. The shock of the last eighteen months is realizing just how much I'd taken American democracy for granted--and how horrifying it is to see it slipping away.
If anything good can come out of having that monster in the White House, it's in waking Americans up to just how fragile our freedoms are--and how essential it is that we, the many, come together to clean up the mess of the political littering class in order that we can again become one nation, robust and diverse, with liberty and justice for all.