“The Art of Seeing” by Michael Milton
As I wandered the streets of Brooklyn’s Greenwood Heights recently, I glanced up and saw a window card in a second floor room trumpeting Donald Trump’s “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” slogan. I wondered as I wandered, “When was America NOT great for someone like Donald Trump?” Mental instability aside, he’s white, male, college educated, born wealthy and still wealthy. Sincerely, what former “greatness” did he envision towards which he could lead us all back to?
My mood that day, ironically, wasn’t even remotely political. I was, in fact, engaging in one of my favorite mental pastimes–imagining what the vista from wherever I might be standing at any given moment would have looked like at various junctures back through time.
That afternoon, I was gazing down towards Red Hook from Battle Hill, the highest point in Brooklyn. And after slowly erasing in my mind’s eye buildings, warehouses, shipping cranes and distant hi-rises, I finally arrived at a possible mental construct for this view in, say, 1626.
This was a view the regional First Peoples of America might have enjoyed back in the day. Perhaps one of those early Americans would have gazed down as I was; he or she might have seen the Dutch triplemasted vessel “The New Netherland” in the harbor, felt a brisk breeze and seen the white “wings” of the ship flutter, its presence still a curious but not yet ominous sight.
I would venture a guess that the same 17th century sightseeing Native American would have said that their America looked pretty great that afternoon, an America I doubt Mr. Trump or anyone else has in mind to lead us back to.
We all have our own particular ways of re-imaging the present made more pleasant by some reinstatement of an aspect of the past: The world was better– “…when I was thirty;” “…when I still had hair;” “…when I made $50,000.00 a year;” “…when I still had health insurance;” “…when I still had a job;” “…before computers;” “…before the kids;” “…before I got sick;” “…before my wife died.”
This kind of wishful thinking is human; a waste of time, of course, but very human. And beyond these pipe dreams, there still lies the past’s bigger question; if Trump isn’t proposing to lead us back towards our First Peoples’ America (which was a great time for them!) then whose America does he propose to revive?
I arrived in Brooklyn in 1980 and remember being impressed by a collection of sepia-toned photographs of my adopted town on display at the Brooklyn Museum, all taken a century before my arrival; one of the farm which was now covered over by the building where my studio apartment was located and another of the pasture where Raymond Almirall’s grand Beaux Arts library now stood. The photographs reminded me that everywhere, someone else had existed there before me and perhaps in their own way, might have thought that their time there was the greatest.
The Dutch laid claim to Nieuw Nederland after an exchange of a few beads. They also, incidentally, brought guns, disease and an insatiable hunger for land, along with their warring religions, misogyny, alcohol and a shared intolerance for anyone whose skin wasn’t white. The early Dutch, English, Spanish and French immigrants were at the head of a cavalcade of other nationalities seeking refuge and opportunity in America, each signaling their own arrivals as “great” times.
Mr. Trump’s German immigrant relatives were a part of this diaspora; I wonder if Trump’s definition of “great” falls before or after his family’s arrival? My guess is his political rivals would resoundingly answer “BEFORE!”
So, Mr. Trump, whose America do you propose to make great again?
Some say American greatness was most completely embraced at the moments of the signing of the Declaration of Independence along with the formation of our nation’s Constitution. But our vacillating but determined Founding Fathers moved too quickly in determining the future rights for only some of our citizens and gambled that a more generous future would right the wrongs of their hastily made decisions. Unfortunately, that generous future never arrived.
At last, there was NO post 17th century American time that was great for everyone simultaneously. And for some–who didn’t have the advantage of coming to these shores of their own volition—greatness remains a stranger. Short of a nuclear conflagration or some form of “The Living Dead” style pandemic, there is no backwards looking way to slice through our many angry divisions, rashly stated opinions and loudly declaimed bigotries.
So, how do we get back to the metaphoric open and verdant fields in areas we now call Bed Stuy or Cobble Hill, Bushwick or Crown Heights?
Without an encompassing historic greatness towards which we ALL can scurry back to with equal enthusiasms, our dream of greatness, perforce, can only lie ahead, still hidden behind a veil of fear, prejudices and generational intractability.
Any candidate who easily espouses empty words like “Make America great again!” is simply not up to the challenges of these times, not capable or visionary enough to lead millions of people out of the trance of separateness and into the reality of a time when America—this much touted land of promise for all—is realized in its most complete and elegant reality.