Earlier this week, I read the news that the workers of my hometown post office, where I keep a P. O. box, received a vile, racist letter telling them and other persons of color to go back to the countries they came from. Furthermore, the perpetrator left feces in the lobby.
Our community—a mostly white, Christian, and well-off suburb of Birmingham, Alabama, but still with many Latinos, African-Americans, and Muslims—has reached out to these workers, many of whom live in the neighborhood, to make clear our unequivocal disapproval of such disgraceful words and deeds. And those workers have reciprocated with thanks and understanding. But what I can’t seem to come to terms with about the ordeal may be four sinister words from the letter: “Our king is president.”
Like so many innocent words before it, the word “support” has now been weaponized against our fellow citizens in an unprofessed effort to say, “You’re not allowed to criticize or complain.” Moreover, any criticism might be said to be “harassment,” as Mr. Trump recently claimed when the cast of Hamilton took an opportunity to gracefully express their concerns about the upcoming administration to Mr. Pence. Some people have criticized the cast for “lecturing” Mr. Pence, and further saying that the actors should simply “do their jobs” because the workplace is not the place for politics.
This anti-criticism attitude—whether from our elected officials, their surrogates, or the citizens—should be very alarming to us as Americans following such a contentious election year. In America, we are not ruled by sacrosanct emperors or kings. Thoughtful criticism and peaceful protest are natural and healthy functions of our democracy, like breathing is to the human body. They indicate that someone in our community is hurting—holding their breath, even—and has something to say. We owe them our ears.
Mr. Trump’s terrifyingly nationalistic campaign rhetoric, as well as his very public lifetime as a foul-mouthed “celebrity,” has left many Americans with legitimate concerns about his moral fitness and political acuity. And yet many others are saying,
“you have to support Trump,” “you have to pray for our leader,” “get over it,” and “snowflakes should stop crying.”
Well, words matter, and these are the hapless euphemisms used to stifle democracy and fashion all criticism as unsupportive and un-American. They are disguised as pragmatic calls for unity and piety, but instead they seek to shame protesters into capitulation.
Certainly no one should hope or pray for Mr. Trump’s failure, to the extent that it means our failure as a nation. But, as the Hamilton statement implies, Mr. Trump hasn’t given us reason to expect much good from him. He has a long history of lionizing greed, of wielding glib catchphrases, and of normalizing contempt for others, all to his advantage. No citizen should feel coerced to suppress his or her criticism of our president-elect. This is a citizenship issue because these insults are the words of those who refuse to listen, only control. For many, especially for those whose vote carried Mr. Trump to victory, it is most certainly a Christian issue since ridicule and force directly conflict with Christ’s words to love unconditionally, just as Cleopas only saw Christ in the stranger once he listened and they broke bread together.
Many in my community have reached out in support of our postal workers. In doing so, they honor what is best about America.
So support our country—its people, places, and traditions—but do not dogmatically support a figurehead, party, or ideology, because none are infallible. Criticize out of patriotic duty and discernment, not competition and pettiness. Never demand the submission of a fellow citizen. Never submit. If we ever hope to regain our understanding of one another our words require our attention and fidelity. When spoken earnestly out of love, without expectation or animus, our words are opportunities for us to restore the health of our land and people.
Do not let anyone belittle your convictions or tell you to fall in line. We criticize what we love only when we know it can be better.
John Saad is a real estate developer and poet living in Birmingham, Alabama, with his wife and their three dogs. His chapbook, Longleaf: Poems, is forthcoming in 2017 through Green Writers Press.