America, In Need of “Better Angels”

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Back in the days of live music (which was actually in January but feels like a decade ago), onetime nominee for Washington Music Association Best Roots Rock Vocalist Lauren Calve stood onstage at Pearl Street Warehouse with a message of hope. Calve sited Abraham Lincoln for inspiration and promises of “Better Angels” to get us through divisive times.

In the context of the last four years, it was just what we needed. Calve wrote the song after listening to an interview with historian Jon Meacham who cited Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural address on the eve of the Civil War as inspiration for his book, The Soul of America: The Battle For Our Better Angels. “Meacham applied Lincoln’s message of ‘the better angels of our nature’ to the courage of the American people who dealt with the unprecedented crises of their era,” writes Calve on her website where she has just released her new EP Wildfire. Calve recalls how immigrants were being contained along the Southern border and families separated with their children being held in cages.

“Talk about a defining moment in American history and the battle for our better angels.  Lincoln’s words still held a powerful resonance, and they gave me a deep hope that I hadn’t felt in years.”

Like all of us who saw Calve belt songs like an old Delta blues singer, none of us could have foreseen the devastation of COVID-19. But now we have a gift in the singer’s recognition of the everyday heroes on the front lines of the pandemic, those who are like ‘Better Angels’ that arise out of the best of America’s character and resilience.

Calve’s soaring vocal and inspiration should be blaring from the radio and catapulting us to some higher ground. But this being 2020, America is a country at war with itself. Abraham Lincoln may still be considered by many as the greatest president but his legacy is being assessed through the filter of time and today’s events. As the Washington Post reported, “fierce arguments” broke out on a Friday night at the Emancipation Memorial in Lincoln Park over the depiction of an African American man kneeling at Lincoln’s feet in a statue commemorating the freeing of slaves.

“Some demonstrators vowed to remove the statue, saying it promotes white supremacy and ignores the pivotal roles slaves played in fighting for their own freedom. But others, including prominent African American historians have pointed out that the statue was commissioned and paid for by a group of African Americans.”

While the symbols of history are analyzed and undergo real-time reinterpretation, it’s almost unfathomable the rapidity of change before us. The state of Mississippi lowered the Confederate flag and forevermore removed its symbol. In Richmond, a statue of Confederate general Stonewall Jackson was removed and the mayor announced Confederate monuments honoring Jefferson Davis, J.E.B. Stuart and Matthew Fontaine Maury will also soon be gone.

And in a concession to change, Lady Antebellum is now just Lady A. Natalie Maines, Emily Strayer and Marty Maguire came back as the Chicks having dropped the Dixie part and released their anthemic single “March March.” The ominous foreboding ode to protest is the perfect commentary on our political times with its killer line: “Lies are truth and truth is fiction…what the hell happened in Helsinki?”

Meanwhile in the nation’s capital, it was also a week in which the Trump Administration joined in a lawsuit with the state of Texas and filed a request to the Supreme Court to declare the Affordable Care act unconstitutional. This is the same administration which pulled the country out of the World Health Organization (WHO) during a pandemic. Now it is estimated that 23 million Americans risk losing their health insurance for a law that was essentially built around Republican principles fifty years ago but is still disparaged as “Obamacare.” To borrow a phrase, “Crisis? What Crisis?”

The referendum on the Trump presidency won’t be decided until November but already the polls indicate he is trailing Joe Biden in key battleground states.

A microcosm of the blue/red divide and present day American civil war can be viewed on a weekend afternoon on the winding road outside Trump National Golf Club on Lowe’s Island Boulevard in Sterling, Virginia, a suburb thirty miles outside Washington, D.C.

The president has tended to spend his weekends on the greens here, playing golf often on both Saturday and Sunday, a schedule detailed by the White House press pool which follows his traveling caravan.

On a Sunday this week, the same weekend he retweeted a video espousing “white power,” the president played golf with Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. As is custom, a line of women in protective masks with colorful homemade signs lined up and gathered, waiting for the mid-afternoon moment they could raise them upon his departure. A quick scan reveals some of the verbiage:

“Covid Rages. Trump Golfs.”

“Treason”

“Liar”

“Putin’s Puppet”

“Trumpty Dumpty Headed  For a Great Fall”

And as if there was any doubt of how the group felt, one sign at the footsteps of the property was explicit: “The World Despises You.”

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A woman dressed as the Grim Reaper has perhaps the most damning sign and it’s a number. “128k” is the running total of American deaths due to COVID-19. This was indisputable and factual.

The stinging indictments are interrupted by the taunts of angry drivers passing by who flip a bird, use the f word or as one angry male driver yelled “Dyke!” before accelerating away in a huff. But the women are buoyed by the honking horns of cars that cut through the thick summer humidity, their drivers waving with their thumbs up.

A Jeep keeps passing back and forth, waving a Trump/Pence flag while snippets of Toby Keith’s “I’m Proud To Be an American” and the ironically misappropriated Creedence Clearwater song “Have You Ever Seen The Rain” blares on a loop. The driver is said to be making illegal u-turns at the main intersections.

By mid-afternoon there’s activity. The sprinklers are turned on and start spraying the line of protesters.  The press pool vans start up. An ambulance can be seen moving inside the property. The roar of a military like procession begins. The oversized black Suburbans begin pulling out. The women hold their signs in full view and enunciate their verdicts, the sound of “Traitor” noticeably leading the chorus.

The president will no doubt be back here again and the women will be there to greet him. Sadly, one of the women will have to update the statistic on her sign. 128k is already out of date.

Better angels, if you’re listening, we need you now.

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